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Monthly Archives: November 2011

Originally Published 10/24/2011

Photo Source: William Gottlieb

It was eight blocks and a gorgeous night, so what the hell? Tommy and Frankie left the car at their apartment on 44th and started walking north up to 52nd. They were looking sharp and looking to have some kicks on The Street. It was summer in the city, and anything could happen.

What a great day. They had already seen Don Newcomb toss a four-hit shutout for Brooklyn at Ebbets Field, and now they were off to The Street. 52nd between 5th and 6th: jazz alley. There was The Onyx and The Famous Door and The 3 Deuces and Leon & Eddie’s and Club Samoa and The Yacht Club and The Downbeat and Jimmy Ryan’s. There was Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie and Billie Holiday and Count Basie and Errol Garner and Billy Eckstein and Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach and Kenny Clark Mary Lou Williams and Coleman Hawkins. There was hot jazz and hot girls and small rickety tables full of drinks and cigarettes and matchbooks and cocktail napkins with telephone numbers and the basement clubs were hot and the air full of smoke and nobody could move and nobody wanted to go home. And it was all there on one block, there for the taking.

“Man, I can’t WAIT to see Bird & Diz!” Tommy yelped, lighting a Camel and taking a pull from his flask as they crossed over 47th. “They’re playin’ at the Deuce. An’ Hawk is at the Onyx. I say we catch some of his set after seein’ Parker.”

“That’s a plan, Stan!” Frankie replied. “I heard that Prez might be sitting in with Hawk. Imagine that jam session?!?”

They stopped in a drug store on 49th for more cigarettes. Three blocks away! It was going to be one boss night on The Street. Frankie continued, momentarily distracted from thoughts of seeing Lester Young jamming with Coleman Hawkins. “I have further heard, according to good authority, that the apple of your eye Wanda may be among those hopping from club to club tonight. Not that you have a chance, or anything…”

Tommy gave Frankie a sock on the arm. “Ya fuckin’ ball buster! What you talkin’ about? You couldn’t get laid in a morgue!”

Frankie grinned over at his pal and said, “anyone who doesn’t get laid tonight is a feeb!”

Tommy and Frankie howled their approval, tousled each other’s perfectly combed pompadours and picked up their pace north. The night was just beginning. No time to waste…

Originally Published 10/16/2011

Photo Source: William Gedney

…damn…damn, Damn, DAMN! GodDAMNit, why didn’t I do it sooner?

Harold paced up and down the block, through the shadows of the el, smoking like a fiend, replaying the evening and lamenting the fact that it took so long to play out. It was so easy! It was just like any night with Doris at her place.

Just like any night with Doris when she wasn’t out whoring around, making a fool out of me…

Easiest thing in the world, 1-2-3, like falling off a log. What was all that worry about? Harold kept thinking about how silly all his fretting seemed in retrospect. In comparison to the worry, it was like…like taking candy from a baby.

Or a kid in a candy store…

A train screamed overhead: express. Where the hell was a local when you needed one? Anyway, yeah…it was so easy. Just like any night with that cheap whore…up to her apartment, play some records, smoke a little reefer…only Doris wasn’t entertaining Harold. No, not this night.

Harold thought of all those evenings he waited, lurking behind the stanchions of the el, watching, observing, waiting. He would call Doris on the telephone to make a date, but she had a headache or was going out with her girl friends. Yeah, that’s how it was.

It’s so easy for a girl like her to lie. Easiest thing in the world, 1-2-3, like falling off a log, RIGHT?

So finally his night had arrived. Just like any night with Doris at her place, only she’s got company she ain’t supposed to have. So Harold walks in, and for the last time he walks out. Just…BAM!…walks out.

No more Doris, no more third wheel…sorry, what was your name again? Oh never mind, it don’t matter, HAH!…no MORE! Harold felt great. Better than he had in weeks. It was all over, and the relief washed over him like the shadows of the tracks above. What a great feeling! And all that worry over nothing!

Easiest thing in the world…

An IND train pulled in, pushing the sound of approaching sirens into the background. Harold stood for a second, feeling the piece in his pocket. Cold steel never felt so warm. It felt like…happiness. He ran up the stairs, jumped the turnstile and got on the train just as the doors were closing.

The train pulled out and Harold headed away, replaying the evening and looking forward to doing it all over again…

Originally Published 10/13/2011

October: grey sky, silver and black clouds, the smell of the lawn, freshly mowed for the last time of the year and brilliant green against the red and gold of the foliage, wood smoke hanging low over the scrub. I walk through the chill, along the rock wall, to the wooden cross that marks your grave. On the other side of the wall is the old hay mower you used to chase when you were young and your life was never going to end. And the apple tree you used to scratch, now the place where you rest. I miss you so much. You left too soon! Left me alone, gasping against the pain and lost, without bearing. And I think of you hourly, desperately wishing I could pet you again, feel your fur, warm from the summer sun, again and play with you in the fresh grass of summer.

And now I’m alone as the killing frost spreads, and the long bitter winter approaches without you. You left too soon…

Originally Published: 10/10/2011

Photo Source: Library of Congress

The day was warm for fair season, but the breeze carried a heady mix of fried dough, cotton candy and the last swirls of the morning wood smoke. The speakers played “The Anniversary Waltz” and “(I’ll Be With You) In Apple Blossom Time”, mixing with the sounds of bells clanging, cows snorting and auctioneers calling. Roland Heath and his grandson Jack were taking it all in from the top of the Ferris wheel.

“See all them trees turning all them pretty colors out there, boy?” Roland said to Jack, spreading his hands in an arc. “A lot of them was just saplings when Ethan Allen and his boys was protecting this area from New York and the British. But they was there in the ground, a hundred and fifty years ago, just like they are now. What do you think about that?”

Jack, awed at being so high off the ground with such a view of the world, and as always awed by the strong presence of his grandfather, just smiled and stared out at the faraway hills. He had learned about Ethan Allen and his battles for the Vermont Republic in school. Jack imagined battles between the Green Mountain Boys and the British with their red coats on the hills, with big guns and cannons going off. And to think that they may have fought on those same hills by the same trees! Gee!

“Tell me more about Ethan Allen, Grandpa!” Jack yelped, unable to contain his excitement.

“Well, ain’t you a curious fella!” Roland exclaimed, patting his grandson on the knee and lighting a cigar as the Ferris wheel spun. “It all started when New York thought they owned some Vermont land and Ethan Allan thought they didn’t. He and his boys showed them New Yorkers a little what for! They also captured Fort Ticonderoga, so he want just a Vermont hero, he was an American hero.”

“What’s Fort…Ticonoga?” Jack asked.

Roland chuckled. “Ticonderoga! It’s in New York, just over the lake over there. The British ran it, and it was an important fort for them. But they lost it to Ethan Allan!”

The Ferris wheel was at the top again. Jack just kept staring out at the far hills and the rolling farmland, imagining long ago wars and the Green Mountain Boys fighting for Vermont, and wishing his grandfather would keep telling tales all day. He thought about being a soldier when he grew up, and he thought about being someone who knew about trees and how they turned color and all. Mostly he thought about growing up to be like his grandfather; strong and smart and gentle.

They got off the wheel, got bottles of Coca-Cola and cones of vanilla Fro-Joy and wandered over to the grandstand where the cows were being auctioned off. They sat on a bench, feet in the sawdust, and made the most of their day at the fair, in their own time.

Originally Published 10/06/2011

Photo Source: Brian Westbye

Twilight falls, ending the day. Lights come on, supper is served. Stories about the day just over, taillights, car wheels on a gravel road. Coffee and woodsmoke, the blue light of TV hitting the snow outside. Talk of dreams, plans, good books, drinks and pajamas and an extra blanket. Hot cocoa, hot cider. A story in every lit window, a story at every table. The day ends, the twilight wins. Time to come in, relax, say goodbye to the day just over…

Originally Published 10/03/2011

Photo Source: Stanley Forman

I.

Catherine Cummings sat at the little table looking out the back window at the fire escape. The flowers on the rail needed to be watered, but she couldn’t find the energy to get up and do it. She felt weighed down lately with all the craziness and worry. What was going to happen to Charlestown High? What was going to happen to Charlestown? What was going to happen to those poor Negro kids being bussed in from Roxbury?

She felt bad for them. Some smart guy federal judge ordered bussing for 1975 in order to achieve racial balance in the Boston school system. Some federal judge probably never stepped foot in Charlestown, OR Roxbury, for that matter, thinks he knows what it’s like here. None of the Negro kids had a choice, and none of the Charlestown kids had a choice. Judge Garrity said, and that’s that.

And it’s not like the kids in Charlestown had it so much better than the kids in the ghetto! Charlestown was poor Irish Catholic. Catherine was raising four kids by working as a maid, assembling ice cream cartons at the Schrafft’s factory and collecting her pension, having lost her dear Danny to NVA crossfire on the Ho Chi Minh Trail in Laos, March 19th, 1971. If Judge Garrity thought that Charlestown was some kind of promised land, he had another thing coming!

Catherine didn’t want any of the kids to be violent or anything, she didn’t want to see anybody get hurt, but in a way, The Town was being invaded. Sure, the kids didn’t want to come here. But they were, and nobody had a say in it. What the hell did that crazy judge think was going to happen? Of course it was going to be ugly. Of course our kids were going to feel like they had to defend our turf! What if Judge Garrity’s court was taken over by a bunch of Negros without his say? How would he feel? He’d probably come down a peg or two, that’s how he’d feel! So why was it going on here? Why now, when her kids were about to graduate and find themselves?

Catherine didn’t hate Negros at all, but she didn’t understand why they should be forced to go to school in Charlestown just because some damn ignorant judge said that her town was racially imbalanced. It was too much to think about. She didn’t want to have to face all this. It was so much easier before.

II.

Dinah Jelks felt sick with worry. Her kids were about to be bussed all the way across town into a hostile white school, and there was nothing she could do about it. She knew that they would be okay: Jack and Rosa were great kids, with great heads on their shoulders. But she was worried for EVERYBODY that was involved in this foolishness. It was terrifying. She had seen enough on the TV to know that Charlestown would not be welcoming to her kids. It was going to be a war zone as soon as they stepped off that bus.

Her babies were going to be ripped out of the only world, the only schools, the only friends they had ever known. They were going to be riding a bus for a good forty-five minutes each way, when their longest bus ride before had been twenty minutes. At the end of that forty-five minute bus ride, they would be stepping into a foreign white neighborhood, and going to a foreign white school with a bunch of white folks that didn’t want them there.

And what kind of education were they going to get at that Charlestown school? How was it any better than the Evers school? Just because it was white? And this was supposed to fix the conditions at Boston’s black schools? Were black fifth graders in Roxbury going to be getting new desks and books and windows in their schools just because the school system would now be racially equal? No. Would her babies be getting a better education in that old mean school in Charlestown that didn’t even have a cafeteria? How did this help? This was madness, plain and simple.

And how were her kids going to get along with white kids? She had heard some of them on the radio, and it sounded like a bad atmosphere. All she could hope was that Jack and Rosa would remember who they were, and how they were raised. She prayed for them often, and she always invoked the messages that Martin Luther taught. Dinah really believed that they would overcome: she really believed that they would make that Promised Land. Just go about your business, don’t make a scene, and try your best, and it would be all right. She believed it. She knew that her babies believed it. She just worried that the message hadn’t quite made it to Charlestown. Lord, what a worrisome thing.

She poured a cup from the percolator and stared out the window at the corner of Mass Ave and Tremont. Looking right, she could see the Park Street Church way off in the distance. She knew that the Declaration of Independence was read there, and that William Lloyd Garrison had spoken there and that it had been a garrison during olden times. Right next to the church, right off Boston Common, was the Granary Burial Grounds. John Hancock was there, along with Paul Revere, James Otis and Crispus Attucks. Cradle of Liberty. And just beyond all of that, just out of her view across the Mystic River was Charlestown. Dinah knew that the Bunker Hill monument stood there, and that the U.S.S. Constitution, Old Ironsides, was docked there.

This was where freedom was born, right? We should all be free by now, right? So why were her kids about to lose all their freedom? It was hard to understand. This country was almost two hundred years old, and it felt like we were still riding in the back of the bus and eating at separate counters. And now it was getting worse, and nobody was going to come out ahead. It was just foolishness. Dinah sat in her window, gazed off at the church in the distance, and fretted how it was all going to turn out.

Originally Published 09/29/2011

Photo Source: Form Follows Function

The days went on and on…the never ended. Up for a quick bowl of Froot Loops, then off to “school”. Yeah, right. If the waves were there it was off to El Capitan with our hollows or Rincon for longboarding. Rincon was just mint. Greatest barrels ever. We could shred clean lines all morning, then back to carve the afternoon away in the empty pool at Chip’s house. Throw some records on the hi-fi, smoke a little grass, skate until we had to go home for dinner, then hoops or a movie after…man, just dynamite.

I love it here now, and wouldn’t trade my family or house or life for anything. Still, a day like today, staring out at two feet of Vermont snow and counting, I can’t help but dream…and miss being a kid in Santa Barbara in the ’70s…

Originally Published 09/26/2011

Photo Source: Stephen Shore

The western flank of the Verdugo and San Gabriel ranges loomed above the northern arrow point of La Brea, shimmering in the clear white light of morning and coming down. Morgan and Dawn, having driven all night, had stopped at the filling station to rest as the blotter they shared on leaving Taos wore off. Morgan went inside to buy some beers for the rest of the drive, while Dawn slipped into the telephone booth to confirm their arrangements.

They only got a buck from Morgan’s grandmother. There was three plus in the cigar box under the bed yesterday morning, but by the time he went back last night, only $1,000 was left. She probably ordered something from the TV or the Fingerhut catalog, or gave it to Jesus. Goddamn woman was losing her marbles quick. This was unexpected, and they would now have to alter their plans a bit. Still, a grand would hold them over for a good stretch, at least until after the cops were on to them.

Dawn dropped a dime in the slot and dialed Robby’s number. Robby was a friend from high school with access to a cabin in the San Gabriels where they could lay low for a few days. After about fifteen rings Robby answered and said they could come on out. He had left the key under a rock off the right side of the house, and some beer and blankets inside. She thanked her friend, lit up an Old Gold and slid out of the booth and back into the car, finally back to zero and glad that this piece had fallen into place.

And, Morgan told himself as he waited in line with a six-pack of Stroh’s, there was a good chance that his grandmother wouldn’t notice a damn cent missing. The cops would notice that they were missing. But no missing $1,000 meant no larceny charges. All they had to do was be cool for a bit and then explain why they left home. And that was easy enough: because that’s what you do when you’re young and in love. That always works, right?

Morgan got back behind the wheel, popped the top on two cans and lit a Winston, slouching down and into the leather bench seat. He exhaled; smoke billowing out along the roof and windshield and dissipating into the warm Los Angeles morning. He grabbed the directions to the cabin and the Texaco map in the glove compartment and started tracing the route. The cabin was between Rancho Cucamonga and Mt. Baldy, off 210 after taking the 101 and the San Bernardino Freeway. He turned to Dawn and said, “Well, last stretch. You ready?”

Dawn took a deep pull on her Stroh’s. She lit up another smoke, leaning all the way back on the head rest. “Yeah, but I need some breakfast first. Can we stop somewhere?”

“Yeah, that’s a good idea” Morgan agreed. “Let’s go.” He started the car, popped his lock down, rolled the window down and pulled out onto La Brea, and right on Melrose. They stopped at a diner on Melrose by the Paramount lot, and had pancakes, French toast, fruit and coffee. When they got out the air was fragrant with eucalyptus, lemon and orange trees, and they both breathed it in deeply before getting in the car and heading northeast toward the mountains.

Originally Published 09/22/2011

Photo Source: Nick DeWolf

Neil and I always enjoyed our nights on the town ever so much. We would start at the Hays-Bickford’s on Causeway St., under the el and across from the Boston Garden, arriving with the pre-hockey crowd for hamburgers or even just coffee. Neil always had his black: I always teased him about how he would be awake all night, and he always laughed and gave me a look with all the twinkle of the night sky in his eyes. It may sound square, but I swear, that look made my knees go weak every time.

From Bickford’s we would stroll across Causeway to the Garden for a Bruins game or boxing. Even with my wraps and his overcoat we always ended up shivering, and it was never that much warmer inside! But we loved going to the games anyway. Our seats were in the second balcony. You’d call them the cheap seats today, and they were nothing but wooden slats. But it was always a grand time, even with those terrible Bruins teams back then.

If we didn’t have tickets for hockey or the fights, we would go to the Latin Quarter or the Savoy for drinks and dancing. Oh, could Neil ever cut a rug! He was a marvelous dancer! He had the eyes of all the girls on the floor. And I was so thrilled to know that I was the apple of his eyes. I always felt so special, holding his hand and moving to the orchestra. Those were nights of magic.

Neil had a convertible Mercury Comet, and on warm nights we would go for a drive, mostly along the North Shore, to Marblehead or Ipswich. Sometimes we’d turn on the radio and dance under the stars. Or we’d just sit close together and watch the moonbeams dance on the waves. His eyes would twinkle and he’d hold me close, and I felt like I was as safe as I would ever be in my life. I felt like I was home.

The Bickford’s is gone now, of course, and so is the old Garden and the el. And now my Neil is gone, too. So lonesome without him. I walk by the old Bickford’s sometimes, or I should say I walk by the glass and steel condominium building that stands there now, and think of my sweet Neil and wonder what he would think of all this change. And I dream of the nights of dancing and music and romance and youth and all the promise of our years together, and how they always started over coffee at that little cafeteria.

Originally Published 09/19/2011

Photo Source: Library of Congress

“Well, it cain’t possibly be worse than the last few years,” Eth Slocum proclaimed to his wife Madge. They were burning the oil at the kitchen table, going over the numbers from the potato harvest of 1938 and 1939 and looking ahead to the start of the 1940 season the next day. The threat of rain and rot was constant, but the recent dry spell gave them some hope.

All the children of Aroostook County Maine worked the fields five days a week, 6:30 AM – 5:00 PM, and an army of French Canadian migrants came across the border from Quebec in order to work the harvest every year. Low overhead and good weather gave the Slocums hope even as a raw wind beat against the windows.

Eth poured another cup from the percolator for Madge and himself. “Only got 250 acres, so we’ll only need about ten boys this year, and we won’t need no Canucks,” Eth said, scratching the numbers out on a copy of the Bangor Daily News. “Ten boys at 30 cents an hour times 150 hours each is $450. I think we can clear between $700 and $1,000 for the crop. That’ll hold us over real nice.”

Madge knew how Eth had been fretting about the harvest this year. The last two years they had barely made a profit. He had worked like crazy this summer, making sure the tractor and harvester were working smoothly and picking as many rocks as he could out of the fields so the machines wouldn’t break down. It was the busiest and most worrisome time of the year. Madge wished she could take away the worry, but even still she offered all the support she could, taking odd jobs to help make ends meet and never letting her own worry cloud her mood.

“I know we’ll be just fine, Eth,” she said, rubbing his shoulders. “Why don’t you turn in? There’s nothing more we can do now.”

Eth smiled, gave Madge a peck on the lips and headed for bed. “Heard on the Top of the Farm News on the radio this morning that tomorrow looks good: sunny, warm, no rain. Good money making weather, I hope.”

Madge smiled back, turned and put the dishes in the sink. She sat back at the table and looked at the paper absentmindedly. Tomorrow was the start of next year. Make or break. She read the weather predictions. The forecast looked good. Good money making weather ahead…

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