A writer and a potter, happy together.


The Little Engine That Couldn’t Quite

There once was a little engine which was told to haul a long train filled with circus animals and spare parts to be used in a brewery on the other side of the hill. The engine looked at the hill and sighed. It would be a very long, exhausting climb indeed. But it was a brave little engine, and after building up a good head of steam it shifted into gear and made its try.

It huffed and puffed while the animals roared and the spare parts shifted because the boxes had not been properly restrained. After a great struggle, the little engine reached the half-way point, where the slope became even steeper. With all its strength it kept going despite the terrible strain on it’s pistons, which had not received their annual inspection in over a decade. It chugged almost to the top and paused for the final push over the crest of the hill.

But alas, just then a tie-rod snapped and the train rolled back down the slope, gathering speed as it went. It derailed on the bottom curve. All the circus animals that were not killed on contact ran through the town, tearing the arms and legs off innocent citizens. Flying brewery parts broke windows and severed electric lines, and the mayor was hit by a boxcar wheel while leaving city hall and decapitated.

Moral: Station masters should spend more time reading the rules of the road and less time composing fairy tales.

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Sump Pump

Linda and I got talking about pattern-recognition the other night. The conversation started because of a major plot element in the book I’m working on, then it veered into illuminating something that’s been flitting through my head off and on for ages.
It started with Bush the Younger. The general consensus among leftists (at least) was that he was just plain dumb. I’m not saying he wasn’t or isn’t, but watching his responses, what struck me as more likely was a learning disability. Maybe that response came from Linda having been a reading specialist who dealt with first-graders who had a rough time untangling written words.
There was one time Bush was pictured supposedly reading to a kindergarten class in Florida but looking like he was being held hostage on another planet. I thought then (and still think) that it was not only a really bad photo op, but that it fit fit well with that look of scrambled confusion that so often would cross his face when he was trying to make sense of something – less stupidity than, “Geez, what the hell?” Having difficulty comprehending the written word is not the kind of thing a major country’s leader is going to announce, but it would have created a hell of problem for those briefing him on anything complex.
More recently, massive amounts of time were spent on Beloved Seditionist Leader’s bumbling, nonsensical pontifications, analyzing how they reflect stupidity, ignorance, a racist mental rash, and/or narcissistic self-glorification. I’ll go with all of them, but I also think there’s some important underlying neurological problem. I mean, what’s really going on back there in Rump’s head? And what does it say about the man himself – who’s a unique entity, as is each of us?
When he mischaracterizes a fairly simple statement made to him, is it lying, deliberate misdirection, political gamesmanship, or simply failure to understand because he can’t form the words into a coherent pattern? When he rants against anything that doesn’t mesh with his pre-conceived ideas, is it (only) bilious arrogance, or that he can’t assimilate new information and so has to deny its existence?
He comes across as bad enough in interviews and briefings, but his staff have made it clear that he never “liked” to read anything put in front of him. What if he just couldn’t? I’m sure he can recognize individual words, but what if sentences disentangle from their meaning, run off the page and fornicate in the undergrowth? What if he can’t assemble a coherent pattern in a paragraph?
[Hell, I get that way with certain essayists. I was trying to read Francis Bacon last month and it was like somebody forcing my head under muddy water and yelling “Drink!” There are still a few scholars who want to credit him with writing Shakespeare’s plays; let me tell you, simply and flat out – “NO!”]
I’m making no apology for Dump’s behavior as President or as a more-or-less-human being. I’m just trying to find ways to explain some parts of it: because if you don’t know the cause of a given problem, you’re not going to find a viable solution. As for the larger issue of personal responsibility… many a soul with learning problems is fully decent. For any limiting physical or mental condition – no matter what the details – like the rest of us, some will be upstanding, most will be of average moral character, a few will be, by nature, rotten.
Morally, spiritually, Sump is a vile being.

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Tripping on $5 a Day

In the summer of 1963 (or ’64?) I took my only trip to Europe. Following my first full-time job with an engineering firm downtown – where as an “economist” I ran an adding machine for several months – I borrowed $750 from my father to finance the trip. That wasn’t a nice thing to do: My father had little money; on the other hand, he had nothing whatsoever he wanted to do with it.

With my first real girlfriend, Marcia, we made plans to go by slow boat to meet my friend Steve Foster in England. Those were the days of the Europe on $5 a Day guides. You could actually do that – even stay in (lesser) hotels or B&B’s for pocket change.

A couple months before sailing time, Marcia flipped me off (supposedly on her mother’s insistence – it took me years to realize her mother likely had nothing to do with it) and latched on to my best friend Dave. Dave and I remained best friends; it was hardly his fault that she was pneumatic, scrumptious and willing. But was I devastated? Boy was I devastated. I always am when a woman gives me the heave, which has happened more times than someone with self-respect should admit.

My ship ticket transferred to Dave, and I flapped over to England by plane. (I packed everything needed in a Rucksack, the damned uncomfortable backpack of the day.) Steve and I picked a London B&B at random from the $5 book, and who should we meet on the gracious front steps but Steve’s brother – one of those coincidences that frizzle the edges of reality.

Back home, the soap opera expanded. Dave had ingested a packet of heavenly blue morning glory seeds, said to produce psychedelic effects. What they produced in Dave (or more likely what his expectations triggered in a brilliant but troubled mind) was full-blown paranoia. Dave was mid-size but built like a monument. It took five cops to subdue him before he was carted off to the nuthouse for quieting down. So Marcia sailed alone.

Steve and I saw some of London, then went up to the Lake Country, Wordsworth’s stomping grounds. More than anything else in England, I recall wandering through sheep fields, finding scattered bones and bits of fleece in the rain. We stopped for fish and chips; they were so good we ordered more fish and chips for dessert.

How did we get to Paris? That totally escapes me. In Paris, as usual, the Metro was on strike. Parisians with the slightest taste of authority used their position to make all outsiders feel unwelcome. Even news-vendors sneered because they, on whim, had the power to withhold the news.

I found the people and countryside of southern France-northern Spain delightful. They make a cakish, puddingish dessert called gateau Basque, a major delight. From Spain I brought back lots of single-shot bottles of liquor and a wooden tourist statuette of a monk that still sits on our kitchen windowsill here in the mountains.

Marcia met up with Steve and me in Greece, where we all stayed in the roof-shed extension of a dirt-cheap rattletrap hotel. We were attacked by bedbugs, which leave massive welts. The only local remedy was ammonia. Marie slapped it on to stop the itching, though it did nothing to alleviate the mounded bite.

That’s the only memory I have of Marcia being with us, though she may have stuck on through the tour of Greece (in a compact Mercedes bus) and the Dalmatian Coast of then-Yugoslavia. 

I loved Greece – the atmosphere, the history, the bits of goat-on-a-stick served by locals (though I also ate some surprisingly lousy baklava). The temples, any and all of them, are beautiful enough to make you weep. And the heave and dip of the mountains made me wonder how they ever came to invent geometry.

A highpoint for me was the ferry run up the Dalmatian coast. (Did you know that Dalmatians, the dog, excrete uric acid, like birds? No wonder they don’t do well in apartments.) The ferry was an overcrowded mid-size ship with most people just standing around. There, Steve and I met the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. She was Australian and her name was… Dawn. Really. Had she the face of a goddess it would have lessened her.

One drawback was the sanitation equipment. Southern European public crappers were porcelain slabs set into the floor with a four-inch hole straddled by two incised footprints to show where to place your feet when letting loose. My problem then was that back then I was physically unable to take a dump without pissing at the same time. So… I held it in. For a looooog time.

But for me the grandest treat of all Europe was Dubrovnik, a city dating to the seventh century, half way up the coast of Yugoslavia when I visited, now in southern Croatia. (At one time or another, it was ruled by just about any European power you could name.)

Its ancient center is constructed entirely of stone – houses, streets, walkways of stone, encircled by crenelated stone walls 30′ high and 30′ thick. “Magnificent” barely touches it. The walls serpentine up the hillside like a childhood dream of the ultimate city, where eternity took a bellyflop and refused to rise again. The streets feed you ancient truths. Then, suddenly, a Baroque cathedral, wholly out of place, with a dual-curved flight of steps that laugh splendidly at their incongruity.

(In the ’90s, when whichever damn-fool side in the Croatian war was shelling the place, I wondered how the human race can be so dimwitted, so dead to beauty. But I often wonder that.)

Steve and I read that there was to be a performance of “Hamlet” out on a castellated island that was Dubrovnik in miniature – same 30′ stone walls, same stone everything. We settled in our seats for a rare treat, not stopping to think that, yeah, you can expound Shakespeare in Serbo-Croatian. After the initial “Hark!” everything else sounding like further ”Harks!” to our unattuned ears. We left early.

Steve and I knew that if we traveled inland to Zagreb (how did we get there? no recollection), we could catch the fabled Orient Express – a long train-ride to Paris.

Back in England, Steve left on an earlier flight. I had nowhere to stay during my final night. It had gotten chilly (as it does in England, without rhyme or reason), so in a small clothing shop that afternoon I asked for a “turtle-neck sweater.” With an almost audible sniff, the proprietor suggested perhaps I might mean a “roll-neck pullover.” Perhaps I might. I bought one. It was thin and crappy.

Next, of all things, I bought a teapot. I’m flying back to the U.S. with a backpack and little else – what muddled reason to buy a teapot? Walking through nighttime London parks in a soft drizzle, I carried it, wrapped in an odd-shaped package that dangled from a string. A quiet bobby stopped me and asked, in the gentlest of tones, what I was doing and what I was carrying. 

Maybe it looked like an anarchist bomb. (I would make a good bomber, because I always appear totally inoffensive.) After I explained that I had planned to wander while waiting to catch my plane, he touched his hat and left.

I spent most of the night cold and half awake on various benches.

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Old bookstores and little museums

When I was growing up, Leary’s Bookstore in Philadelphia was close to its end. For many decades housed in a three-story building by the city’s consumer center of 8th and Market Sts., it was rumored to be the largest used book store in the world, its wares spilling out the door and across tables that lined an alley beside Gimbels department store.

By the 1960s, it was strangled with French grammars from 1911 and long-dead engineering texts. According to Wikipedia, it died in 1968. 

What you won’t find on Wikipedia is Chafey’s Books, on Market St. near 17th in Philly, my weekly haunt in the early 1960s.

Mr. Chafey, who sat at the cash register to the left of the door as you exited, held a slow, neverending smile that said, “Here I am, and I can think of no reason to be elsewhere.” He spoke in a high, reedy, near-piccolo voice and would buy anything. He would give you two bits for a ten-year-old World Almanac that he had not the least possibility of selling. Later, he would add it, randomly, to his collection. 

Random was the secret. There was no order whatsoever to the mounds and tumbles of books at Chafey’s. They reclined, spine-up, three deep on tables edged with four-inch boards to prevent their escape.

They also skyscrapered in stacks in front of those tables.

They crawled and heaped and grew and meandered in their accidental associations. History lay by engineering, science by religion, fact by fiction, medieval by modern, sewing by spelunking. You could burrow into these books like a groundhog, root through them like a boar, and never know exactly where you were in the last 400 years of the printed word.

There for a few pennies I bought, along with some occult oddments, a fat medical reminiscence with an extraordinary introduction. There I found – and to this day flagellate myself that I did not buy – The History of Meat, published in 1915 with color plates by either Armour or Swift. There I think I recovered brother Rod’s lost copies of Famous Fantastic Mysteries, given for safekeeping to a tangential acquaintance. My only other remnant of Chafey’s today is a 1924 edition of Popular Fallacies Explained and Corrected (With copious references to authorities).

Yet the main lure for me was not the books. Opposite Mr Chafey’s cash register stood a small table stacked with art prints, priced at $1 each. They were a revelation. I bought Chagall, blue-period Picasso, El Greco, Magritte, Dali, shimmering beauty that dead-broke me could afford to push-pin to my wall. 

Many years later, at the Welcomat, I wrote about Chafey’s and received a note from his daughter living in Arizona: No one before had acknowledged her father, who kept an entire barn filled with books somewhere in the city’s western suburb. I was and am delighted with her delight.

Chafey’s forms a logical connection to small museums. You don’t believe so? Please repress your ignorance, be quiet, and listen.

Linda and I tripped over some marvelous little museums when we traveled. Each started with a single, intense focus and beat it to death with glee, compiling hundreds of items that added up to a concise reflection of the mind of the originator, often unnamed.

Take Mr. Ed’s Elephant Museum, along Rt. 30 in eastern Pennsylvania. Mr. Ed has a fixation like few others. Elephants large and small, in 2, 3 and possibly 4-D. No image of another pachyderm – not a rhino, not a hippo, 10,000 elephants, from bead miniatures to a colorful full-size talking statue out front. 

He also sells homemade fudge – pounds and hills and mountains of fudge. A fire hit Mr. Ed’s some years back, but he successfully rebuilt. 

Not far from Mr. Ed lie the pastures of the Land of Little Horses, perhaps less a museum than a cross between mini-circus and barn show. The various performing breeds spent generations being downsized to near eohippus under an Argentine wacko before ending up on the rolling sward of PA.

We were especially taken with a tiny, black, wild-eyed stallion with Sylvester Stallone ambitions. For contrast, the Land also promenaded a massive Clydesdale, shaved and groomed in a checkerboard pattern (how are such things done?). The non-Italian stallion would run circles under the Clydesdale without the least sense of embarrassment.

Sedan, Kansas, 30 miles down the road from Linda’s home town of Cedar Vale, was the birthplace of famed Ringling clown Emmett Kelly, who gloomed around the ring as Weary Willie, his painted mouth turned down like he’d watched his teddy bear being steamrollered. He’d end his act sweeping the spotlight out of the ring.

The last time I visited the website for the Emmett Kelly Museum, it indicated that it has either moved from its former dusty quarters – every bit as sad as Weary Willie – or morphed into something awninged and bistroish. In 1985, when we stopped by, the Kelly memorabilia was unmemorable, but people had dropped off all sorts of other stuff – old typewriters, notebooks and attic effluvia.

What is not formally recognized on the website (but which exists between the lines) is the museum’s sterling feature – the world’s largest collection of commemorative Jim Beam whiskey bottles. Don’t you dare laugh – these things were hoarders’ gold, formerly showcased around the country by a couple in their trailer, who then retired and… donated them to the Emmett Kelly Museum.

Bless them. You will not elsewhere in your lifetime see such and so many individualized ceramic booze containers.

[Should I choose to continue with little museums on the next go-round, we’ll likely end up in western Nebraska.]


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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The yard, the block, the world

For all my attention to 130 Hastings Ave., the house itself wasn’t the Place; the Place embraced the yard, the street and the creek. The three-block stretch of Hastings Ave. and the (at most) quarter-mile trail through the woods set the tone for what existence should be – because existence, then, should exclude the intrusion of people.

During the war, we had two vegetable gardens out back, and though I was as much a carnivore then as now – rhubarb is like snot but less pleasant – fresh peas and string beans were a treat, even when served up by my mother, the maternal epitome of wretched cooking. (Her Boston baked beans would have defeated the British singlehandedly, and her perloo – a Spanish-rice muck that lurked in the bottom of a simmering pot for four hours – wept at its own fate when served). 

Along with the gardens, Mom spent much time weeding the lawn and tormenting our many bushes and shrubs.

A barberry hedge ran across the entire front, which spanned two lots. Most neighbors had privet hedges, which don’t say or do much. A barberry, though, grows wicked thorns and small red berries. Mom hacked and tooled the hedge into a boxy shape but developed a wicked allergy to it. At night she kept her hands wrapped in gingham cloth mittens, soaking in bowls of liquid. Looking back, I wonder if it was an actual “condition” or a weird affectation.

After the war, she grassed over the main garden area, leaving a four-inch-deep depression in back, the width and half the depth of the house, and we switched to canned vegetables. In case you’ve heard rumors that there may exist something less palatable than 1940s canned vegetables, don’t believe it for a second.

But the fruit trees…. wonderful. 

The cherry grew on the left side of the house, and brother Vic, intrepid hero, would harvest the fruit from the porch roof outside his bedroom. (I, by contrast, had such an absurd fear of heights that I got vertigo looking down from a first-floor window.)

The apple, squat and imposing, grew at the very back of the yard and produced scrumptious fruit. Between it and a steel pole hung Rod’s rope Navy hammock, fun to lie in, though the least wiggle dumped you unceremoniously on the ground.

(Rod later told me we had a pear, tree though I can’t recall it.)

Mom, oddly, was good at desserts. She made excellent pies – cherry and apple – plus a luscious custard that I can still taste, over 70 years later. The kitchen seemed a magical place of process, with its odd assortment of small hand-machines: a simple two-inch pincer for grasping and wrenching loose the green attachment of a strawberry; a manual egg beater with a circular collar between the rotary handle and the beaters, that fit snugly onto a flat-bottomed translucent blue-glass bowl with inclined sides; and, especially, a small table-clamped metal contraption with interchangeable rollers. 

When outfitted with two rubber rollers, it grasped the stringy terminus of a pea-pod, forcing open the opposite end and shooting pea artillery into a bowl. Exchange one roller for a cylinder of parallel knife-blades and it julienned the hell out of green beans (I first heard the term “julienne” thirty years later; I still hate its French snootiness).

In the summer, I loved to mow the yard, as much as my six-year-old self could, with our clunky hand mower. I must have been a peculiar sight – short, lugubriously skinny, almost albino and wearing glasses with squared-off black tape on the lenses to channel my vision – huffing and puffing a machine twice as big and weighty as myself. 

A special note on our willow tree: There’s nothing more beautiful in all creation than a weeping willow, and I doubt I’ll see a more magnificent one than ours, dominating the expansive side yard. Today, if you look up “130 Hastings Ave. Havertown PA” on Google street view (please don’t), you will be presented with a house that replaced that willow, while my 130, in its shrunken domain, has been demoted to 128.

Willows slurp up huge quantities of water – we had the driest basement on our block – and I sincerely wish the cellar of today’s 130 awash in lethal sewage. 

But beyond anything else, growing or otherwise, rested the ineffable joy of summer – a succulent, unquestioning enfoldingness that, were the universe properly ordered, would obliterate all other seasons. The sun, the heat, the sense of endless nothing-to-do, of no-one-to-tell-you-want-is-expected: Catching lightning bugs (“fireflies”? feh!) and incarcerating them in a jar with a perforated lid, their stale, musky odor wafting from my fingers. The rash rasping shudder of a cicada – all the music the spheres could invoke. I’ve felt intensely lonely much of my life. But those summers were a time of serene, accepting aloneness.

My few acquaintances ranged from goofy-uninteresting to just-plain-mean. Charley, a year younger than me, rode his trike along the sidewalk. It was his most interesting activity. Donald, from the next block over, called shit “grunty,” which about sums him up. 

The boy I spent the most time with (name? lost) probably evolved into a small-time hood, but at least he was brighter than Charley or Donald. Our “friendship” was broken off by Mom after he accepted my dare to piss on my leg in the woods.

Previous to that, he had cut a hole in the side of a refrigerator box in his back yard to create a neat hideaway. One day, a slightly older, preternaturally nasty girl named Barbara, seconded by her bespectacled female lieutenant, held Charley and me prisoner in the box, a humiliating experience. When I broke free and ran home, my mother handed me a broom and ordered me to go back and threaten retaliation. I did, in a frightened, half-hearted way, resulting in a pointless standoff.

(I view the 1940s as a low point in American music. Even as a kid, I actively disliked big bands, with special animus directed at Tommy Dorsey. We had no phonograph in those days of 78s, but the radio pumped out insipid crooners (Vic Damone – good god!), patriotic ditties, light novelty songs and Broadway show tunes (another grey area for me). Though my passion for summer was built at Hastings Ave., not so my passion for music.)

There was nothing wrong with the Oakmont public school on Eagle Road, but it was the seat of the unholy terror of school constantly nipping at my drawers. I remember almost nothing of my classes there, but I can see the maypole we actually danced around, and I loved watching the sky-writers who enlivened almost every celebration in the days before jet contrails made them obsolete.

A teacher at Oakmont, Skipper Dawes, ran a daily dinner-time radio show, “The Magic Lady,” that featured bits of a continuing story and young singer/actors. One was Eddie Fisher, who grew up to sing “Oh Mein Papa”, marry Debbie Reynolds and Liz Taylor, and become an all-time celebrity jerk.

I enjoyed remarkably few foods as a kid. I hated all nuts, ketchup, mayonnaise and marshmallows. I hated scrapple with such passion that I would slather it with ketchup because anything was better than scrapple. I disliked onions, most fish, dry cereals except Kix and (oddly) Grape Nuts, and would have created a special circle of hell for shredded wheat. Oatmeal, as Dr. Johnson suggested in his dictionary, should be fed to horses. Wheatena was invented by the Turks in an early attempt to exterminate Armenians. 

Milk held a special horror. In those pre-homogenized days, little mucus-like blobs of cream would float around the top of the glass and slime my tongue. Left too long in in the sun, it formed a stinking funereal scum. Was I forced to drink this cow excrescence, or did I simply never complain because any complaint about food was improper in our family?

Dad, as the morning cook, firmly believed in big breakfasts. When I was spared cereal, he made wonderful soft boiled eggs, toast with butter and strawberry jam, but under the dread of  school, my stomach was in no mood to accept or even recognize morning nourishment. I often threw up in the sink before leaving for educational oblivion.

On Sundays, Dad made Bisquick waffles or corn fritters for late breakfast (“brunch” was an unknown term). He cooked the waffles in a wonderful old round waffle iron (I greeted the advent of square irons with shouts of “Heresy!”). Using the same simple ingredients, I’ve never been able to match them. The fritters were heavy pancake batter chock full of corn, fried in deep bacon fat until they fluffed and oozed. (Fuck my arteries – I wouldn’t mind lopping a few years off my life for a return of those babes.) 

A bakery somewhere along Eagle Rd. (the corridor to everywhere) made luxurious sticky buns, and a shop in Manoa (which sounds like a cow plop) produced “submarine sandwiches” that could face down most any hoagie today.

I’m  not looking for understanding with this nostalgia binge, because at some level there’s nothing to be understood. It is just a slow unfolding, an examination, the me-that-is intrigued by the me-that-was.


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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