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Monthly Archives: April 2012

MBTA: Arlington St. - Signs of the Past
Image Source: rnolan187

It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It’s a Sunday in late August, 1999, in a North Shore suburb of Boston: the first Sunday that screams football rather than dog days. Aside from grocery shopping, I am looking forward to a day of leisure close to home.

The major grocery store is less than a mile away and on a bus route. But I’m suddenly craving a latte from Curious Liquids, across from the State House on Beacon Hill. There is another major grocery store in the lobby of the Prudential Building, which is only a few subway stops beyond the coffee shop. I can get my latte and take a Sunday stroll through the Public Garden. Well, hell, why not.

I take the bus to the train. Because grocery shopping is limited to my at-the-time non-existent cooking skills, I don’t need to worry about perishables, so my plan is to go shopping, then walk back across the Garden and Boston Common to get my latte.

The train is fairly crowded, so I’m standing and holding the bar. In front of me is a pair of giggling girls in full-on Tokyo street style gear. Behind me is a Korean couple seated with their baby in a stroller in the aisle.

We pull into Arlington, quickly. We pull out of Arlington, quickly: a little too quickly for the crazy-sharp corner beyond the station. Suddenly gravity is in play!

The jerk of the train sends me flying backwards, and I land with a thud. Upon landing, I turn on my knees to pick myself up, and it occurs to me that my fall has been broken.

Then it occurs to me that my fall has been broken by the baby in the stroller.

Baby looks up at me. He looks a little sad, but nothing major. But the realization that I have just CRUSHED A BABY hits, and I start screaming “OHMYGODIKILLEDHIM!!!” So now baby starts screaming along with me.

Dad picks baby up out of the stroller, holds him up to the light for inspection and shakes him a few times. Upon passing inspection, dad smiles at me, holds baby up for my inspection and says, “No no, baby fine! Baby fine!”

Meanwhile the Tokyo street girls are in a panic, and the eyes of the rest of the train are staring at anything but me. An air of “glad I’m not HIM” permeates the train.

And what do I say here? “Sorry I almost killed your baby, here’s a quarter?”

No, there’s nothing I can say. All I can do is get off the train and cross over to the other side and back home. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but no latte or box of mac & cheese could compete with a crushed baby.

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Image Source: NCRTV

It actually was a lot like The Oneders.

And like all life-altering moments, it’s now a blur. We were in the car heading for…the practice space? Or a live interview on WBCN? Or maybe it was WFNX…no, it was a gig at the Linwood and Juanita played it on WBCN. That’s it, yeah. I’m pretty sure.

I became obsessed with rock ‘n roll and music in general early, and from the moment I picked up my first acoustic guitar ($35 new, tobacco sunburst with lousy intonation) I was dedicated to making it. Played it ‘till my fingers bled, if you will. I dreamed of touring with Van Halen (Diamond Dave forever!), selling out Madison Square Garden and, of course, enjoying all the spoils of decadence in the bus after the show. And I dreamed of hearing myself on the radio.

I dreamed of Berklee College of Music in Boston. At the recommendation of my band teacher in high school, I started with a year in the jazz program at the University of Maine at Augusta first. That turned into four years in a brilliant, enriching program, and by the time I got to Berklee I was young and disillusioned. I stayed in Boston and schlepped through my 20s, working data entry, call center jobs and feeling very much like a Langston Hughes Dream Deferred.

And then I started playing again. My band, The High Ceilings, went into the studio with Sir David Minehan, figurehead of the legendary Boston band The Neighborhoods, and we emerged with a sparkling EP, “Wavelength.” Sparkling enough to get airplay and a spot in the 2001 WBCN Rock ‘n Roll Rumble. Past winners included Till Tuesday and …The Neighborhoods. Nice!

And it was in the lead-up to the Rumble that we heard our single, “Look My Way,” on the radio. We were in the car heading to our space/interview/gig (or maybe it was our ritual de-briefing beers), and there we were, beaming out to Boston and beyond at 104.1 MHz. The moment of a lifetime had arrived.

We all played it fairly cool, keeping the moment close to the vest. No “I AM SPARTICUS!!!” and kissing cutouts in the appliance store for us (this would’ve been difficult to pull off while driving), but ultimately we couldn’t help it, and a four-way shit-eating grin spread across the car. We had goddamn made it! There was some back-slapping, but mostly we kept calm and carried on, since this would, of course, be only the first of many such times.

It happened a few more times after that, but that was the beginning of the end. We lost the Rumble in the first round, artistic and personal differences, day jobs, wives and kids…typical story. But I have that moment: the moment when dreams solidified and the grand payoff was mine.

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All Images: Lewis Wick Hine via George Eastman House

I feel the rush.

I am securely on the ground, looking at the photography of Lewis W. Hine, but I feel it all: the rush of gravity at 1,000’, the rush of the wind at that inhuman height, the rush of America, reeling from depression but rising to unimaginable heights out of unprecedented lows. I feel the rush of greatness that comes from watching mere mortals doing extraordinary things, and I feel the rush of pride that says my people did this.

I see ordinary men, discounting their feats and fears. They mock gravity, traipsing untethered across 6” wide beams a quarter of a mile above the safety of the grounded Earth. They toss and catch glowing hot rivets in a dance for which they alone know the choreography. They pound, tighten, seal, hoist, pull, push and will the King of All Buildings into existence. And they think nothing of the heart-stopping danger, nor the exhilarating posterity of their work. It’s just a job. Just tryin’ to feed my family during hard times. The long-term impact of their work rushes past their short-term humility.

I see the building rise and I feel the shock of the times. 1930: The Great Depression, bread and soup lines, Hoovervilles in Central Park, no jobs, no hope. Hard times and hard, lean men desperate for work.

The building is financed by a shadowy, speculating CEO and chaired by the beloved former governor: John Jacob Raskob and Alfred E. Smith are the stuff of American biography themselves. 3,400 men find work at the nadir of American employment and spirit. The building rises to 102 floors, 1,250 feet, in 14 months. 4 ½ floors per week. It is ahead of schedule and under budget, with only five men lost during construction. This is our greatness. This is what my people – my fellow humans – can accomplish. This is the rush of Americanism.

And as the building rises it becomes an inextricable symbol of the zeitgeist. I hear Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” and see Scott Fitzgerald lamenting his Lost City and the Babe still hitting 40+ homers in pinstripes, still larger than life. I hear Ellington and Langston Hughes and Woody Guthrie and see Alfred Stieglitz and Ansel Adams. I see Chaplin the tramp and Errol Flynn and Astaire and Busby Berkeley. I see the greatness of American art in 1930 and 1931, and it all becomes a pastiche around the rush to the sky in the middle of Manhattan in the middle of the depression. I feel the rush, not just to recover, but to conquer.

I feel this rush of American Exceptionalism, now nearly a century old, and realize that there is nothing greater in the world.

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Image Source: Ramonesworld

It feels like a math equation where one of the figures is off somewhere. I run the numbers in my head, and it doesn’t add up. Does not compute. Joey Ramone has been dead for eleven years? Impossible!

Singer Joey Ramone, real name Jeff Hyman, died of lymphoma eleven years ago on Sunday. Bassist Dee Dee Ramone (Doug Colvin) OD’d in 2002 and guitarist Johnnny Ramone (John Cummings) died of prostate cancer in 2004. 75% of one of the most influential bands in my life and lifetime is deceased. Not possible, not for a band that was such a life force for so many outsiders such as myself. Does. Not. Compute.

Memory lies, but mine tells me that I first saw The Ramones play “Rock & Roll High School” on Sha Na Na in 1978, when I was five or six. I have seen film of this show since, so I know it’s plausible. I definitely remember knowing that they played “Blitzkrieg Bop” on the National Lampoon’s Vacation soundtrack. And by the early to mid ‘80s I was obsessed, soaking up whatever I could about this band of punk rock Beatles from Forest Hills, Queens.

I was first attracted to the look. Four mean-looking New Yorkers, all named Ramone (even though they weren’t related and actually hated each other’s guts), with Joey’s Anglo-Queens bleat in the middle. This wasn’t Glen Campbell or David Cassidy! The Ramones weren’t nice. They weren’t clean and polished and safe for mama. They were rebellious antimatter, and I was immediately hooked.

Next I started laughing. Hysterically. The lyrics! Sure, at eight or nine I couldn’t quite grasp a line like “now I guess I’ll have to tell ‘em, that I got no cerebellum.” But I sure as hell got “Beat on the brat with a base – ball bat,” and the image of Joey – 6’ 6” and maybe 120 lbs, most of that hair and rose colored granny glasses – beating the crap out of a crying kid with a Louisville Slugger appealed to my nascent sense of gallows humor. Later on I could plug my own life into song titles like “Outsider,” “I Wanna Be Well” and, of course, “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

But really, it’s the music. Raw, fast, aggressive punk, yes, but few bands wore their influences so obviously on their collective sleeves. Take a listen to “I Remember You” and tell me that it couldn’t have been The Who or Herman’s Hermits. “Oh Oh, I Love Her So” is straight-up Jan and Dean/Beach Boys homage, as is “Rockaway Beach.” And was there ever a greater lyrical ode to teenage puppy love than “I met her at the Burger King, we fell in love by the soda machine?” Swoon.

The Ramones were there for me during my pre-teen years. They were there all through high school. They were there all through my college years. They were one of the great constants my life has ever known, even though the quality of their records was maddeningly inconsistent. And a little piece of me still expects a new album and tour every two years.

I don’t normally get all meepy choked up over celebrity death. Not that I don’t care, but in most cases the celeb in question is just too remote from my own world. Too foreign for me to connect with. The Ramones were different. They weren’t beautiful, they were fucked up! They were a bunch of glue-sniffing, mentally shaky outcasts, and they taught me that it was okay to be a less-than-beautiful, fucked up outcast myself, and to write about it.

The Ramones were ME. How can the figurehead of that life force be dead? For eleven years now? Does not compute.

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Image Source: Paul Masck

The other side
of the bridge
(The wrong side
some would say)
Our first place
cramped and grimy
Two flights up
above the bodega
Humid and hot
kebob and curry
diesel and Marlboro
(And we thought
we had made it)

*This is my first real stab at poetry, and I owe it all to the analysis, encouragement and belief of Courtenay Bluebird. Thank you, mon amie.

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Subway

8:29 PM
April 11

Gee, you get so damn lonesome in this town sometimes. New York is no place to be if you’re alone. It’s no picnic if you’ve got somebody either, but if you’re alone, and kind of shy and awkward, and maybe a little homely, being here makes it that much worse. Your loneliness is on full display every day. The streets laugh at you. The guy with the beautiful girl, he looks down on you. And that feeling of being all alone, it follows you everywhere. Late at night on a subway car, early in the morning on a bus crossing Central Park, walking through the tunnels of skyscraper shadows, in a corner booth in a bar…you’re alone everywhere, and New York never lets you forget it. It’s hard. Boy is it hard. Sometimes I walk down these stairs to the station and I feel like I’ll never stop climbing down. I’ll just keep going, by myself, and I’ll never have a friend or anyone that cares about me. And everybody else in the city will pass me by, and they’ll all have somebody and they’ll all look back and laugh at little old lonely me and I’ll just keep climbing down, all alone, never reaching the station, never finding anyone that cares about little old lonely me. No one will ever notice, and no one will ever know how much it hurts sometimes. How hard it is to be alone in this town. Little old lonely me.

Nobody cares.
Nobody notices.
Nobody would notice,
if I weren’t around…

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On Thanksgiving Day 1988, unbeknownst to all of us, one of the cats pissed on the stove. Sometimes a smell indelibly sears itself onto your memory bank, and that incident, fairly and unfairly, confirmed the fact that my grandmother was a disaster in the kitchen. It’s not like she put the cat on the burner herself. But her cooking was atrocious, and the cat burner fiasco definitively created a Pavlovian connection between grandmother and food.

Her specialty, as it were, was pork chops and biscuits. Specifically, Shake ‘n Bake pork chops. She always managed to find these tough little chops that were mostly bone, and the Shake ‘n Bake coating would slide off in a greasy sheet. The biscuits were made from scratch, possibly out of rocks. Nary a hint of flake in these things.

Many nights my brother and friends and I would make a show of eating, and then bring dinner outside for games of Pork Chop Toss and Biscuit Shooting. The house down the hill was maybe 300 yards away, and with a good flick of the wrist and a good crust on the snow, a pork chop could make it a long way toward the property line. And a biscuit could take two BBs at close range and barely even flinch.

All was almost lost, but not all: gram made the most amazing donuts from scratch.

On frigid winter mornings, we would come downstairs and find her covered in flour and stirring a fresh batch in boiling Crisco. They were spectacular! Unless, and until, you bit into a “prize” donut and found yourself choking on a nice big clump of gray hair. Those mornings we quickly turned to heaping bowls of Boo-Berries or Fruity Pebbles, saving the remaining donuts for bird feed and target practice.

She tried, and I loved her for the effort. And we certainly didn’t go without. But the woman was an absolute nightmare around the stove, with or without the noxious fumes of burning cat urine.

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