What I share won't come from after dark but rather the quiet before the light, warm morning kisses, and the cold grip of the day.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Hells Bells

Flash: they still make payphones.  A good thing as I needed one the other day.  (More on that later.)  I moved to New York City in 1970 to begin a career.  I used an answering service with real people to take messages for me.  It was before answering machines.  (A 1956 Comden/Green/Styne musical, Bells Are Ringing, ran for nearly four years on Broadway.  It starred Judy Holliday and was directed by Jerome Robbins, with choreography by Bob Fosse and was set in an answering service.  There’s a movie version with her and Dean Martin, directed by Vincente Minnelli.)  There were two tiers of service.  The most economical (about $15 a month and a remembrance at Christmas) provided you an independent number.  You would give that number out or put it on your resume.  People could call that number leave a message for you.  Then, throughout the day, you would call in and ask for your messages.  Or, the fancier tier, where the service would be tied into your home number ($25 to $30), and after a set amount of rings, the service operator would pick up the line and take a message.  That was cool; like having a maid.  It’s a bit sad, particularly in today’s economy, to think of all those businesses that closed and the lost jobs when answering machines were developed…like the innovation of self-serve gas pumps.

Going even further back, if I may, when I lived on the farm in Kansas in the 50’s, we had a “party” line.  A group of 8 families were tied to one common line, like extensions.  Sometimes, you would be having a phone conversation and you would hear a neighbor pick up their phone.  There would be a little click sound.  Mostly, people would say, “Sorry” and hang back up and just wait a bit.  You could tell if they stayed on the line to listen, and then you would have to admonish them.  “Would you please get off the line?”  You couldn’t tell who it was, but you had your suspicions.  If you needed the phone for an emergency and a chatty neighbor was on, you had to break into their call and ask if you could use the line.  There was never a problem; emergencies in a farm community were sacrosanct.  Our town had its own operator, Pearl, and all calls went through the switchboard which was in her house.  I was in her house once.  It was on a desk.  It was the size of a large flat screen TV and had all those retractable cords to plug in and she wore a headset.  This represented quite a commitment on her part.  Not that much happened after supper, but there were those emergencies.  While it wasn’t part of her job, she would pass on information.  If my aunt called from California, Pearl would let her know we were at the ballgame.  At our house we had a desktop phone like you see in old movies.  It stood up right and the top was a cone shaped piece you would speak into; the ear piece, about the size of a pestle, attached by a cord, hung from a u-shaped hook off the side.  You held the stand in one hand and the ear piece in the other…like Elliot Ness in The Untouchables.  To make a call you picked up the ear piece to open the line and then cranked this handle on a wooden box…that got Pearl’s attention at the switchboard.  Then you would ask her, kindly, to connect you with the Hoys or the Rooneys.  If you were making an out of area call you had to give her the number.  Madison 8-4594.  Well, I get a head of myself.  When we first moved to the farm, our phone numbers had 4 digits.  9113, I think was ours.  Folks in the cities had the exchanges.  In the early 60’s we got the upgrade in our area.  The squat black rotary dial phone and a new number with an exchange.  I don’t recall our new number, but I believe it was Madison, or MA.  MA 8-4594.  Like the movie, Butterfield 8.  (Elizabeth Taylor, Lawrence Harvey and Eddie Fisher.  1960.)  Not sure what happened to Pearl.  Expect she may have been relieved not to have that buzzing, ringing octopus, 24-7, in her living room anymore.
I left New York City in 1991 and met my Darling shortly after.  We were living in Portland in 1998, the year I turned 50.  She threw me the most remarkable celebration which included, on the morning of my birthday, our 5 year-old Kid coming out at breakfast dressed as the Statue of Liberty and presenting me with three airline tickets to New York City.  We had a grand time on that visit.  Within ten minutes of being on the street the first morning in Soho near where I used to live and work, I bumped into 2 dear pals, one right after the other.  The city was pretty much as I had left it, except every fifth person on the side walk had a cell phone to their ear.  Now, of course, they’re as common as shoes.  Gradually, over the years, payphones (10 cents a go in 1970 and 35 when I left), which were on every corner, in every restaurant, hotel or office building lobby, vanished.  Recently, I was told the famous red phone booths of London are being taken out.

The other evening, I stopped for gas on my way home.  I have seen warnings on pumps not to use cell phones as the static electricity from a ring can spark the fumes.  I don’t believe it, but I usually leave the phone in the car when I gas up.  Just as I am pumping, I look at my driver’s-side door and see the lock is down…somehow, I managed to lock myself out of the car with keys and the phone inside.

Yikes.  Lo.

Just beyond a parking area where odd people skulk are two freestanding payphones.  (50 cents, these days.)  One ate my money, the other worked normally, but was really sticky and icky.

As I stood around the gas station, waiting for my Darling to drive in with the extra set of keys, I washed the windows of my Jeep…twice…and called back to my early days in NYC where I could walk in the park or along a busy street, or see a movie, and be alone, out of reach, untouchable, for as long as I wished.

Anon, James

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Birth of the Cool

Here it comes.  No, it’s here.  The morning darknesses.  The tardy risings of the sun, the sweaters, the stews, the moods, the torpid rhythms of the latter two seasons suit some of us more than others.  I feel better in long pants than short; more at home in a felt fedora, less so in a baseball cap.  (Oddly, this is the season when baseball heats up.)  In a Würzburg hotel, in a far and new November, a white room, with gray skies beyond the windows, a feather bed and a comforter of down, thick as a batt of insulation, made supine - divine.  I have never traveled to the Southern Hemisphere, but it sticks as odd that folks in Sydney are about to bask in more direct rays of the sun, while we will take hard ‘nox.  I’ve spent a white-hot Christmas in Southern California, as well in Florida, made winter trips to the Caribbean, but to live an ordinary life where you’re sweaty in December?  Topsy-turvy.

Is anything, even politics in an election year, as universally talked about as weather?  How the world would grind if a moratorium was enforced and no one anywhere during any conversation was allowed to mention weather?  Try it.  An “I-will-not-talk-about-the-weather-today-day.”  A Mesopotamians, many Mayans, and a lot of Longshans, would have earnestly chatted to decide what should be a priority concerning their crops and preparations to deal with seasons.  I’m sure they would have had a sensual awareness of, say, when weather felt pleasant, but did each conversation around the water hole start off, “Il fait beau, ma chère amie!”  Indubitably, the first course served up in every diner, café, trattoria, rathskeller, noodle house, or pub is cold snaps and heat waves.  It’s became part of our humanist litany to talk about crappy weather.  “Hot enough for ya?”  Well, it is summer.  “Cold enough for ya?”  For chrissake.  “Ain’t No Sunshine” to “Singin in the Rain”, are among some two hundred songs about weather, at least, metaphorically.

People move because of the weather.  We did.  Portland, OR to Santa Fe, NM.  It wasn’t the only factor, but it was big.  (I maintain, if weather in Portland was like it is from July through mid-September - when it’s Shangri La -  for 10 months of the year rather than 10 weeks, they would have a population of 6 million not 600,000.)  It isn’t that the rain is all that frequent, but the grayness is.  People talk about “sun breaks”, like smoke breaks.  Portlanders will stop whatever they’re doing and walk outside when the sun occasionally cracks through.  But, they're tough…you don’t see as many umbrellas as you might think, or see them run to get out of the rain.  (I read once, that you will get wetter if you run in rain, because you speed through more of the drops.)  It stays light late in the Northwest near the summer solstice, but early in the winter from 4PM to 8AM you need lights.  Now, I’m doing it.  Honestly, the weather there, anywhere, has never bothered me, never been a major entity in my life.  I kvetch about a lot of other things, believe-you-me, just not the weather.  Weather is to seasons as commercials are to television.  We talk about them a lot, they interrupt, are annoying or fun, and frequently, in your face.  There are some places that don’t have seasons.  It’s peculiar, like people without eyelashes.

The weather can’t be stopped any more than the talk about it.  It’s easy palaver.  Is it too idle?  Do we use the subject to audibly fill the interstices of quiet, when we might be better off listening?  What about taking in the sounds of weather - the wind, the rain - or the hum of civil society, privately absorbing what stirs around us, as if it nourishes.  Then, if we are bursting to make a pronouncement, could it come, enriched, from such digestion?

“Hot enough for ya?”

“My Mother loved the heat, the way the sun made the sheets smell hanging on the line.”

Anon, James

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Hold the Phony

Like when you go to the museum and there is a blank spot where a painting is usually on exhibit and, in its place is a little sign saying: "Temporarily on loan" to such and such...well, I am on loan for a bit...be back soon.

Anon, james.

Monday, October 4, 2010


Somewhere in a box, there is a snapshot of me in my last year of college.  I am standing by the trunk of a deciduous tree in the height of Midwestern fall color.  I am looking sullen, though I was going for intensity.  I had recently returned from the Berkshires where I had spent a summer as an acting apprentice at a renowned summer theater.  During a rehearsal we watched the one small step for man on the moon in our Tartuffe costumes.  I was home in Kansas for my senior year, facing the prospects of either going to New York City after graduation or, possibly, being drafted into the Army.  My mother, a prominent Democrat and civic official said, “I’ll send you to Canada before I let you go to Vietnam.”  This from a woman whose late husband, my father, had served as a Navy pilot in World War II.  If he hadn’t been “late” he may well have had a different opinion.  Oh, well. You die, you lose.  My mother had no intention of my…losing.

Earlier, in the spring of my junior year, I wasn’t thinking about Vietnam or New York.  I had been selected to work at the amazing theater in Massachusetts.  I would soon drive to the East Coast, I would see the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, go to a Broadway play, and then off to be a real actor in a professional theater, at least for the summer.

A couple of days before I left, my bags standing packed, I got a call from my friend Steve’s father.  Steve had been one of my best friends in high school, but we didn’t stay as close in college.  I knew from the local news, he had been killed in Vietnam.  He was smart as a whip.  We had been on the debating team together in high school and he always got the top scores.  All you needed to postpone the threat of the draft was to maintain passing grades in college.  By graduation, we had all hoped the war in Vietnam would be finished.  Inexplicably, Steve dropped out of school and enlisted in the Army.  During the holiday season of ‘68, I saw him at a local pub sitting at a booth wearing his Army uniform.  I joined him and we had a beer or two.  I don’t remember whether or not I asked him why he joined up.  If I did I don’t recall his answer.  Conversation was taciturn.

The body had been flown home to Topeka.  That was in the news, too.  On the phone, his dad’s voice was tenuous.  “I am trying to get some of his friends together to be pall bearers,” he said.  I had met Steve’s dad a few times over the years, he was a slight, unassuming fellow.  Steve was of the same build, though lithe and agile.  The only contest where I can recall besting him was when we were freshman in high school.  There was an assembly and we had to do silly things at the request of the seniors.  On our knees, hands behind our back, Steve and I had to push a pencil with our noses across the common room floor, about twenty yards.  It was hard.  I won.  There was a picture of us doing this in the annual that year.  He and I had peroxided a streak of our hair blond…in the black and white photo we looked a bit like skunks.

I lied to his father, saying I had to leave the next day because I had a contract.  There was no contract and I didn’t have to leave until a couple of days after the funeral.  After we hung up, I thought of him having to look through the yearbook again, turn past the page with the pencil race to find more photos of his son in “Oklahoma”, say, or with the rest of the debate squad, pick out a name from a caption, check the Topeka phone book, and make another call.

Steve was dead and would have no idea I was holding a handle of his coffin.  In high school, I had gone to my father’s funeral.  I went to a lot of funerals.  Six had died in different  car accidents.  I went to four funerals in one day.  Another guy fell asleep driving home from his graveyard shift at a factory a year after we left high school.  A girl, 15, was hit by a train when her car stalled on the tracks.  Her casket being the only one that wasn’t open.

Years later, while acting a play in Washington, DC. I went to the Vietnam Memorial and found Steve’s name etched into the black marble.  The font is small and you have to get up close to read them.  I recalled his father on the phone.  In the silence after I told him no and he hung up, I wondered, what kind of man I would live to be.  That spring day in DC I was still figuring that out.

Anon, James

Friday, October 1, 2010

Why a Blahg?

Chico:  “Why a duck?  Why a no chicken?”

Groucho:  “Well, I don’t know why a no chicken.  I’m a stranger here myself…”

That exchange, from the 1929 movie The Cocoanuts with the Marx Brothers, begins when Groucho mentions a viaduct.  I totally relate to Groucho and his humble defeat in the face of unwitting, practical, rational foils in the wide world.  Nevertheless, there is a payoff for all involved…it’s funny and silly and superb.  It makes you laugh.  In that way, it is a kind of salvation.

What is this screen we are viewing, this link to the cyber world, if not a kind of viaduct, a series of arches and spans that take us, quickly and easily, across spaces where access would ordinarily be stymied and hampered.  Perhaps, citizens felt the same way about the creation of the postal service:  the stamp being another little square that opened up communication to anywhere in the world.  I used to hear people grouse they didn’t like email, too impersonal, too gimmicky, mechanical.  For me it was like sending an instant postcard.  (I do love postcards and pick them up wherever I can and keep them in a box to send.  Much nicer to magnet onto a refrigerator than a printout.)

Regardless of the anthropology, people today find it formidable to take up a pen and paper and write a letter.  (I still like those, too.  Can you recall the last long letter you received?)  “Snail mail” (tell that to the tortoise),or letters can be intimidating to people.  I have put off a lot of pen pals.  They feel that can’t keep up the back and forth.  It’s not a game of tennis and it really isn’t necessary.  A letter is sent as a gift, to open, hold, and enjoy (“Dear John’s” excluded), and if you are moved to return one, fine; if not, so be it.  Suddenly, there is this daunting obligation to write back and the longer you wait the guiltier you feel.  How often do you see, “I am so sorry it took so long to get back to you…I apologize for not returning your letter…”  Then, come a litany of disclaimers: busy, sick, house guests, flood, moving.  Forgive yourselves!  When I delay writing a letter it’s because I am not in the mood.  I feel like shit, and I don’t want my pal to know how lousy things are.  And, you need an hour to craft a fine letter.  Let’s face it, it is hard to carve the time these crazy days.  We sit at our desk nowadays and there is a computer, not sheaves of luxe Italian stationary, a letter opener, pen and inkwell, sealing wax, blotters, stamps, and all the fun accessories.  It’s too bad.  (In some it’s not.  I have lousy handwriting and I feel for anyone who has to decipher my script.)

Sitting at a computer, or thumbing on a phone, seems more like repartee, especially on the social networks.  They can be a lot of fun for folks.  (And, yes, abusive; seen that.  So, can letter bombs.)  Especially fun for those wags that are truly witty.  Me?  I’m not, and am not always comfortable in that milieu.  Like a wallflower.  I’m at the dance, but sitting quietly on the side, observing, fearful of being approached, but longing to be a part.

Viaduct?  On her large, interactive sculpture “Precious Liquids”, Louise Bourgeois engraved “Art is a guarantee of sanity.”  Belying the stereotypical crazy artist, creativity, at any level, is a shout out, a karate yelp to help you break through, a cheer, not so much to the world as out of us.  I’m in the dark and I want to get out, to call “Marco!” in the hopes of a “Polo!” in return.  Like Groucho, I am a stranger here myself.

You bet your life.

Anon, jas.