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, November 12, 2011

Super Chief

Growing up we didn’t take many trips.  Two in seventeen years.  Money was a factor.  The oppression of my father’s illness was another.  They defeated any urge to pack up and take a holiday.  I don’t feel deprived from not having vacationed, not many in our farm community did, other than a camping trip at a lake.  Remove the illness factor and I would have been a happy camper to stay home and do whatever.  That was our lot.  The first trip we did take was fairly momentous.  If it wasn’t for my father’s problems we wouldn’t have.  For that matter, we might still have been living in the hills above Berkeley, and not in Kansas.  We moved to Topeka be near the Menninger Clinic, a psychiatric hospital established in the 1920’s by a man and his two sons offering an alternative from asylums as a treatment for mental illness.  My dad started analysis, where a lot of money we may have used for vacations must have gone.  At one point, things were so bad, and my mother so desperate, he was committed there for six months.  After a few years of the renowned regimen, he didn’t feel any better, and he was committed a second time.  He came home with a beautiful round wooden tray he made as part of his therapy.  For some time, he had been in communication with a psychiatrist in L.A., and it was decided he should go out for some consultations.  To his credit, for a man who had been a WWII Navy pilot, a captain for TWA, a onetime district attorney, a rancher, it took guts to reach out for help at a time when my mother’s family thought it all so ridiculous.  Just snap out of it.

Tickets were purchased on the Santa Fe Railway’s celebrated Super Chief, which traveled a route between Chicago and Los Angeles.  It was touted as the “train of the stars”, because it was the deluxe ride of choice for Hollywood celebrities.  Early one spring day my mother and father, my older brother and I, drove from our farmhouse to the depot in Topeka.  As an eight year old, I couldn’t resist walking on the rails as we waited.  The morning dew had left them slippery and one of my stiff-soled cowboy boots wedged between twin rails in a switch area as the engine, with its famous red and yellow war bonnet paint scheme, thundered into view.  I could not get my foot out.  My mother couldn’t get me out either and I would soon to be famous for being under the Super Chief rather than on it.  Finally, she pulled my foot loose, but the boot remained stuck.  Waiting passengers watched the drama, and cheered as mother, determining I needed both boots, wrestled it free as the engine screeched to its stop.

The train was magnificent.  Maybe it wasn’t the Orient Express but it was a shiny, streamlined, American beauty.  For a kid who thrilled at riding in the back of a pick-up, to climb the steep steps was like boarding a spaceship.  Our berths in the Pullman sleeping car, a twinette for my brother and me, had bunks which disappeared into the walls, and a bathroom masterfully engineered for efficiency, with a fold away washbasin.  Confined to the speeding locomotive, I was free to explore the observation car and the lounge car.  The dining car had white linen tables set with silverware and sparkling glasses, infinite food served on china with Navajo designs, handsome black waiters in smart uniforms.

At one stop along the route, my mother bought me a silver ring I had spotted in the gift shop.  It had the face of an Indian chief in a headdress, like the one who walked the aisles of the train greeting passengers, with his long braid of black hair, beaded buckskins, and a feathered war bonnet that trailed the floor.  His nose took up a lot of territory on his etched face.  It wasn’t funny like Jimmy Durante’s, but like a bird of prey.  He looked dignified, strutting in the way of men with strong chests, nodding slightly as he passed as if inspecting us before going into battle.  Even then, I suspected he wasn’t an authentic Indian chief.  I hoped he wasn’t.  I hoped he was an actor from Hollywood parading for a living.

I had no idea who the elegant gentleman in the cream-colored suit and the cigarette was, but my parents did.  My mother whispered to me after he passed us in the aisle one morning.  She did not have a poker face; she had a stone face, like the chief, when she got excited and tried to hide the fact.  I thought it was Edward R. Murrow, but she explained it was Oscar Levant and he had been in the movies.  I remembered seeing him on Jack Parr, with a voice like the creak of a castle door.  (Years later I would see him on reruns of An American in Paris.)  My mother said he had problems with alcohol.  It could have been the moving train that made him unsteady.  Come to find out he had been committed several times in mental institutions, like my dad.  Maybe he was headed home to Hollywood after a stint at Menningers.

The morning we arrived in Los Angeles, I realized I didn’t have my ring.  I recalled taking it off the night before and putting it on the sink as I washed my hands in the observation car washroom.  I thought the soap would be bad for it.  With anything brand new, I was overly protective, like not bending my feet when I walked in new shoes.  I ran back to find the ring but it was gone.  My mother called me a dope for taking it off.  She was mad about wasting the money.

Anon, James.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Good Night, Mrs. Calabash

Darling mentioned we had been invited to a party, with a Day of the Dead theme, and we could bring pictures or items to honor our family and friends who have died and place them on a shrine the host will have set up.  Maybe we could take a martini glass for my mother, pictures of art works by Darling’s dad, etc.  “But, we won’t put up any pictures of them that contain people still living.  We could crop those off,” she said.  I liked the idea.  I love our Dearly Departed but never pray or think of them in Heaven.  Maybe their energy or essence is floating about the universe.  I see my mother’s face sometimes, as if drawn in a bubble above my head or my daughter’s head, with her wise, approving smile, or making that “tsk, tsk” sound if I’ve done something naughty.  I thought why not write out a list I could tack onto the shrine.

My very first death was in grade school.  Marty was in my class and once in a while I would go to her house after school to wait for mother to pick me up after work.  My father was in a state mental institution at the time.  Marty’s mom would make us snacks.  She was younger than mine, I don’t know how old, it’s hard to tell age when you’re young.  Early thirties, or younger, she looked more like a teenager than someone’s mom.  She had black wavy hair, a generous, red-lipped smile, and wore jeans.  Marty and I got dropped at her house one day but no one was there.  Her dad came home a few minutes later and said he had taken her mother to the hospital.  He was a virile young farmer, but you could tell he was shaken.  Someone came to pick me up and get me out of their hair.  Marty’s mom died a few days later.

Pals in high school.  Danny, David, and who was the other?  Their car was hit by a train as they were going to a basketball game.  Three funerals in one day.  Catherine, a scrappy, funny woman who I worked with at the Palace clothing store, where I had a part time job in the boys department, was a mother of two teenage girls.  Her youngest, 15, was killed when the car her boyfriend was driving stalled on the tracks, and they, too, were hit by a locomotive.  I didn’t know her daughter that well, but Catherine was like a spunky aunt, always joking.  Not after that.

I had a first adolescent crush on Charlotte.  She was only so-so about me, but I could drive, so we had been dating.  When I rang the door bell, she opened the door, and said, “Come in. We think my dad may have been in an airplane crash.”  Her mother and her younger brother were inside.  Her dad had a small plane and had gone somewhere on business or hunting with a few other guys.  The phone rang and they received the news that he had been killed.  I didn’t know what to do, everyone was crying.  After a few minutes a neighbor lady came in and told me I should leave.  Charlotte never went out with me after that night.  I grieved more about that than her dad, who I only met once.  He was handsome and nice to me.

Then my dad died of a heart attack in my mother’s arms.  I guess that part was good.  I heard about it on the radio while I was driving. He was 57, mother was 50.  I was 17.

Mike Brooks was always one step ahead of incarceration in high school, and probably had ADHD.  I remember driving Mike around in my dad’s new GMC pickup and showing off for him, “burning rubber,” racing around, which made him howl with excitement.  He wasn’t mean but he was ornery.  When we graduated he got a job at a factory and driving home after a graveyard shift, he fell asleep at the wheel of his pretty ’56 Chevy.

Steve Paxson was on the debate team with me.  I found his name years later on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington.  No one could figure out why he enlisted.  (If you want some details about his death, you can read “Engraved” on this site.)

My grandmother Beatrice, “Red Cross,” died while I was in college.  We called her that because she was one of the earliest Red Cross volunteers during the Spanish-American War and, because she was a caring woman, the perfect grandmother, in my eyes.  There was always something in her suit case for me.  She lived in Oakland, CA, where I was born, and would visit us in Kansas when I was a kid.  My dad couldn’t abide her.  Not sure why.  Anyway, my mother went out to close her apartment and settle the estate.  I didn’t go with her, nor was I invited.  It seemed to be something my mother needed to be alone to do.  I did visit a whore house with a Marine buddy.  The one and only time.  Not that is was a bad experience, though it wasn’t all that pleasurable, for her either, I suspect.  Just business.  It was the 60’s, who needed to pay for sex?

When I first moved to NYC I spent a few weeks at the townhouse of my mother’s cousin, a successful businessman, and his family.  His daughters had moved out, two girls my age or near.  Not long after, while on a vacation with her fiancé in the Bahamas, the youngest was paralyzed after a scooter accident.  I visited her in the hospital when she was brought back to NYC.  Later, she had a special chair and an apartment.  I didn’t see her during that time.  The fiancé, who had been driving the scooter, broke it off.  After a few years, in her late 20’s, she’d had enough, and killed herself.  I didn’t learn how.

 A young, sparkling actress I knew socially was a regular cast member on Captain Kangaroo.  Debbie Weems was one of the few in our circle who was famous, really, and lived in a nice high rise apartment.  One February, just after her 27th birthday, she jumped.  She was depressed because she felt she’d always be type-cast as the cute girl on Captain Kangaroo.  She always will be.

 I guess an actor dying makes you pay attention.  Trey, 30, was just another actor when he was killed by a falling board from a construction site on 7th Avenue.  Raul Julia, Ron Silver, fellows I knew and honor.  Court Miller: Aids.  Julia Murray, a lithe, sassy actress who was lovely in the Arthur Penn movie, “Four Friends” was in my acting group, got cancer of the jaw, which they removed but didn’t save her, and like Hamlet, I have kissed those lips.

Darling’s father, an affable man, an artist, teacher, generous with his time as a grandfather, loved his early retirement in southern Oregon.  He could build a house.  In his sixties, he contracted brain cancer.  His daughter and granddaughter were there for him.

Rochelle was a chain smoking analyst and the wife of a director friend.  You could not bullshit this lady.  She looked like a European intellectual, with silvery hair and brown tinted horn-rimmed glasses, but she was from Brooklyn. She told me a joke that was so goofy coming from a woman who was so accomplished.  “What do Brooklyn and pantyhose have in common?”  Flatbush.  (Cancer.)  Joyce Lasko, also the wife of a director, and a therapist [ah, New York.]  An Irish beauty and onetime actress, with an acerbic wit.  (Emphysema.)

Audrey.  Break my heart.  A mom and a friend in Portland.  Some people get to you more than others, I guess.  She was so loyal it made you give it back in kind.

My mother, like hers, died at 90.  I saw her in hospice, tiny, unconscious, or so it seemed, yet fighting.  We buried some of her ashes at dad’s grave in Kansas, along with some vodka and an olive, and scattered the rest in a pasture we once owned.  Kid and I crawled under a barbed wire fence.  Some of the ashes blew back into our hair.  That gave us a good laugh.

Anon, James

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Bleak Heart

Except for shaving, I try not to look into mirrors, now.  I lived a fairly narcissistic life, without a lot of justification, mind you.  Growing up lonely on a large farm in an empty area, I required my own attention.  I wandered all over hell talking to imaginary friends; they didn’t brush me off like my older brother, or get angry, like my father.  When I could, I sought the refuge of a ravine, or the bank of a pond, and got accustomed to quiet thoughts.  Dad and I shared some very, very long summer days until I was old enough to drive.  I certainly made friends over the years, but I’ve come to realize, for a long while, I was psychologically isolated.  During my young-man years in New York, where I worked as an actor, a career choice which meshed with my narcissism, I spent very little time alone.  I utterly gave myself over to professional and physical connections, or both, rather than personal.  Understand, in those twenty years, I certainly felt love and those former lovers have remained lifelong relationships, miraculously, like sound artifacts pulled from the ashes.  I am grateful for them.

I found comfort within this bleak grip.  My screw remained loose through therapies and kindnesses, and became a predilection – to reserve the kinds of feelings and spoken thoughts which lead to closeness.  This reservation is an important distinction.  It wasn’t that I didn’t feel or have genuinely tender thoughts.  I wouldn’t, or couldn’t, pronounce them.  Unless, I needed something.

This led me to disappoint.  I occupied disciplines, alternatively, healthy or destructive (exercise or drugs; relationships or betrayals).  I could be a passionate friend, colleague, lover, pen pal, mate.  I was told once by a woman who had had some knocks, “Well, at least, you aren’t a flake.”  That was the best that could be said.  Eventually, I would run down, like a cell phone battery.  I re-charged in some form of solitude.  If lucky, an acting job would take me out of town.  Then, alone, I would have too much of my own company.  A definition of crazy tedium.

As with smoking, I got weary of bronchitis.  On free days, I began to take myself away to a house I found in the woods with no phone or television, no distractions, and I nearly healed.  I could leave the woods, the self-imposed quiet.  Eventually, I left New York, which I loved, because new habits required fresh scenery.  At first, it was a bad reaction from withdrawing from all I knew.  After months of living in a few cities, a true vagabond, I breathed easy.

The spell was remedied when I met Darling and we made a decision to have a child.  Kid was born.  It isn’t so sappy.  I was a kind of Strangelove who managed to keep my hand off my throat.  In our fluky, mad-for, bull ride of a nurtured romance, we’ve hung on.  Sometimes I daydream about the house in the woods, or crave, with phantom appetite, an unctuous proclivity.  Inescapable love is revealed when you embrace the bona fide humanity and beauty, the vulnerability or strength in someone, even yourself, stop rummaging in your own lousy psyche, and move past the reflection.

Anon, James

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Get the Picture?

Somewhere off Sunset Boulevard in the Beverly foot Hills, I had my first meeting with my new theatrical agent at Flick, an offshoot of a successful modeling agency in New York called Click.  I was under contract with their New York office, and since I had just completed a small part in a large movie, the agents thought I could parlay this nugget into a TV pilot if I were in Los Angeles.  As it happened, an actor I knew had an apartment in Santa Monica with an empty bedroom to rent.  I decided to go out for a few months, on “spec.”  The L.A. office was in a single story, white cabana-like building set back in a pretty courtyard.  The receptionist was on the phone, chewing gum and flipping through the pages of a thick Day Timer.  (This pre-dated iPhones by 20 years.)  She wore a white jump suit (see?) with matching boots, one of which was propped on an open desk drawer.  I was halted by her upraised index finger, totemically stacked with silver rings.  It then pointed to a fan-backed rattan chair.  I took it to mean that I was to sit.  Clipped short, her black hair was gelled into a series of spikes that vibrated as her head made little jerky movements when she spoke or gestured.  She wore fire engine red lip stick and heavy eyeliner.  The overall affect was that of a rooster, or a Liza Minnelli impersonator.  Replacing the phone on its cradle she said, in exhale, “Can I help you?”

“I have an appointment with Maggie.”  Before I could give my name, a beautiful boy, maybe sixteen, burst into the office and walked past the receptionist’s desk and headed to a small kitchen.  “What’s up, Maggie?” he said to her.

“How did it go?!”  She swiveled her chair to follow him.

“They loved me,” he said, flatly, cleared his long mink-colored hair from his eyes, and opened the door of a refrigerator.

“Well, yuh!” she said.  The boy took out a carton of orange juice and drank from it.  My throat was suddenly dry.  Maggie, my agent-to-be, got up to chat with the lad.  Two desks at the back of the office were occupied by young women whose press-on nails filleted the air as they spoke into their phones.  I picked up a worn copy of People magazine.   Meg Ryan was on the cover.

Maggie came back to her desk, smiling.  I moved to the chair opposite.  During our conversation, the smile dropped and there was a dawning annoyance from her that, not only had I interrupted what might have been a few extra minutes with her beautiful boy, but that the branch of her New York office had obligated her to a thirty-something actor with “B” teeth she neither knew, nor was interested in representing.  It was as if some hated relative of hers had incurred another rehab sentence, and it fell to her to take care of his aging, paraplegic, diuretic dog left behind.  There would be no submissions, no entrées into casting offices, no pilot season.  It would come and go without me.  I would not read for a movie, not through my agency, at any rate.  My baffled call to the New York Flick office yielded no help.  As far as I could surmise, sending me out to the coast was more of an impotent whim, a dart thrown blindly at the board by a newly formed, disorganized agency, rather than a considered plan to foster my talent and career.  What’s more, New York seemed to hold no sway, whatsoever, with their colleagues in Los Angeles.  I had made the choice to come.  Gene Lasko, a producer of the film, had advised, “Sure, go out and get some mileage out of this before the film comes out and they see how bad you are.”  “I’m joking,” he added.

That night I went to my first Hollywood party.  There I was in a glass house in the hills above L.A., wishing I was stoned, sipping white wine, talking to a fine actor I had known in New York.  He had just gotten the role of the sheriff in Halloween Four or Seven.  He was elated and gushing.  I wanted to scream.  Not because of envy.  I could swallow back those feelings.  I was glad for him; it was a great job and he could earn enough to live for several months.  The real horror show was this Renfield’s sycophantic gratitude, his drooling, slavish, thankfulness.  It should have been the other way around.  This actor was doing Hollywood a favor by offering his talent to the project.  Instead, he was taking it in the neck.  I felt hopeless.  I wouldn’t get a bite.

A few days later, I went to a brunch at a seaside restaurant above Santa Monica with some ex-pat actors I knew, casually, from New York.  There was some shop talk but mostly we reminisced about our favorite restaurants and hangouts in New York.  All of us were in California on a fishing expedition and seemed a little sea sick.  I knew I’d see these men and women, paler and feeling more at ease, back in New York in the fall, unless, one of them landed a part on a series.  They might attain the ultimate status and become “bi-coastal,” with the rent controlled apartment in New York and a bungalow in the Valley.  These were accomplished, working actors sitting around the table sipping their Mimosa’s.  I liked them, almost loved them, and am gladdened when I see them in a guest slot now and then.

When I wasn’t watching the sunset from the beach in Santa Monica, sipping orange juice out of its plastic container that I spiked with rum (about the only entertainment I could afford), I found solace in the kitchen of our apartment.  I needed something to keep me occupied besides mailing out pictures and resumes or going on a long drive in a borrowed, yellow Karmann Ghia convertible to the occasional benign interview with a casting director.  My roommates were, generally, gone during the day, leaving me the place to myself.  They were all too happy to be my guinea pigs, coming home in the evening to soups, breads, pies, and casseroles, all manner of things comforting.  I learned, playing in that kitchen, my first lessons in cooking.  (# 5: Don’t put spinach stems in a garbage disposal.)  Though very satisfying, I missed acting.

Anon, James

Friday, July 15, 2011

Melon Folly

As a young man, I suffered when my inner life was in variance with my surface existence.  In point of fact, from when I was young until I was not so young.  About 18 years.  When not tormented (it cycled in and out) with this shit, I was having a pretty good time.  I fell in love with a beautiful actress named Erika in the latter half of the 70’s, and to all appearances we were very compatible, created a stimulating environment, and lived with élan.  On free days we’d often strike out on simple adventures of window shopping, museums and concerts, restaurants, cook in our door-manned apartment, drive in the country, or explore New York City.  We’d dress-up and go into fancy places, like Harry Winston’s to browse, test drive a Mercedes (which she purchased and used on those country drives), or make an appointment to see a penthouse apartment advertised for sale we had no intention of buying.  After one such day of make believe, we sat down at the counter of Rumplemeyer’s, a café in the St. Moritz Hotel on Central Park South, which served delicious confections.  Looking over the menu of Viennese delights I noticed a man one stool down to the left of me enjoying a large, gleaming, succulent slice honey dew melon.  He was one the handsomest men I had ever seen.  In his early thirties, dark and Mediterranean, solid stature, he was absorbed in easy conversation with a woman at his side and offered genuine warmth as he listened and commented and, gracefully as a surgeon, filleted the melon away from its rind.  It wasn’t envy I felt as I observed him, so much as inspiration: could such peace and unselfconsciousness in a human being be possible, manifest in the eating of fruit?  I wanted to forgo my inner-conflicts and be able to enjoy melon and Erika’s company.  I put down the menu, forgot about chocolate, the famous Napoleons, their ice creams and éclairs, and ordered the honeydew.  Life was altered by my witness.

While I waited for my honeydew, I surreptitiously observed how my neighbor ate his melon.  Not with a spoon as I had always eaten them before, but with a knife and fork.  First, he removed the fruit whole from the rind in one long, under cut.  Next, he made an incision, lengthwise all along the middle, then bisected the two narrow halves into smaller, bite-sized sections.  It waited in place upon the rind looking untouched, just as the butcher’s at William’s Poultry on Broadway at 86th pre-sliced their roasted turkey’s, reassembling them to look whole.  I wanted my life to feel whole, from all its separate little pieces.  My melon arrived on its pristine white plate.  I picked up my silvery knife and fork and addressed it with enthusiastic dash.  The last thing I wanted was to appear unsure.  I began by cutting.

I put down my utensils and sat back with folded arms to admire my first maneuver.  The newly freed wedge began to move, so imperceptibly I thought it was an illusion.  I had sliced it at such an angle that gravity, aided by the natural lubrication from its juice, sent it on a determined slide from its rind.  I was hypnotized.  Even if I could have reacted in time and lanced it with my fork or made any attempt to arrest its progress, there would be a catastrophe.  The plate would rear up and clatter back on the marble surface, perhaps breaking, the melon would fly off and slap onto the polished floor, or worse, crash amid the stacks of crystal glassware behind the counter.  In the agonizing slow motion in which our minds see such moments, my fruit-boat launched off the plate and accelerated on a voyage across the counter top, lagged like a curling stone, and kissed the gentleman’s elbow.

I retrieved my melon with fork and bare hand, apologizing for the damp spot on the sleeve of his crisp, French blue shirt.  Awkwardly, I put it back on the plate, as if landing a fish, careful to avoid the rind, lest the wedge take flight again.  This was a challenge.  There was little room left on the plate, and I had to keep it pinned while I used the knife to render it into lifeless, mangled pieces.  Erika and I were unable to restrain our hysterics.  The gentleman and his friend paid and left.  We finished quickly and did the same.

Anon, James

Sunday, May 22, 2011

You Snooze, You Lose

I dread sleep; always have.  This was never evoked by If I die before I wake…a child’s anxious prayer.  It was more If I sleep I might as well be dead.  As a child I was wholesomely afraid of the dark for a reasonable time, but once I invented my imaginary friends to watch over me while I slept I felt protected, eventually, growing beyond the need of their company and surveillance.  (See Paper Man with Jeff Daniels and Ryan Reynolds.)   I did not seek, or believe, assurances from any of the common variety of deities.  I grew up in the last notch of the Bible Belt never having a religious notion.  My mother would, on rare occasions, say she believed in God, but He did not require her to sit in a pew.  My father admired Catholicism, but like the law (he graduated with honors from law school) he liked the study, but not the practice.  Was my warrior friend any less real than, say, Jesus?  Not to me.  That isn’t the point.  To me, my back was covered.
I feared I would miss stuff while I slept.  I did, too.  One of the great dramas in our family history occurred on an early summer morning.  We lived at the top of a perpendicular intersection formed by two dirt roads in a sparse farm community.  A drunken driver coming up the mast of the T failed to make the turn, either left or right, or didn’t realize it was a dead end.  Luckily, it wasn’t for him, though he managed to smash himself into a rock wall bordering our yard.  The sound of the crash woke everyone in our house, mom, dad, my older brother, but not me.  Sherriff cars and ambulance, sirens wailing, the groaning winch truck, came and went over the next several hours while I slept in my back bedroom.  When I got up nothing was left from the scene of the wreck except the scar in the ditch and the displaced stones of our wall.  Why did no one come and get me up?  During the hullabaloo my family decided to let me sleep since I seemed to need it.  Today, I live in New Mexico, where drunks crack up their cars routinely.  (And, tragically, lives of the faultless.)  In the late 50’s, in rural Kansas I only knew of two such calamities, my father being the other one a few years later.  I decided sleep was time forfeited, experience squandered.  I know this view is flawed.

I’ve always wanted to stay up late, and until my mid-50’s I was able to do so.  I was cursed earlier in life being a night owl and a morning person.  As a kid, I was forced to go to bed at an ungodly early hour.  We had a second living room we called the “TV” room on the same floor as my bedroom.  My parents would be enjoying Sid Caesar or Jack Parr, but I could only hear hubbub followed by laughter.  After my bed time, if my folks left to go to the bathroom or kitchen for a minute, I would sneak out of bed, dive behind the closed drapes of the window behind the couch and stand in the sill like a Beefeater, still and mum, one eye at the slit in the curtains.  It is amazing, with all the allergies I suffered, I never sneezed, was never caught.  One of the few things I’ve ever gotten away with.  I’d have to stay put until they turned off the TV and went to bed.  I’d watch the tiny white electric dot in the center of the black and white screen slowly fade, as if the set was resisting being extinguished.
I welcome sleep when I’m tired, feel refreshed if I actually get some, which is rare for me.  I wish I slept as much as I eat or drink, or, at least, as satisfactorily.   As soon as I’ve reached the bare minimum to sustain life, I snap awake, three, four a.m.  I can’t explain why.  It may be, deep down, it’s to escape from sojourns I am subconsciously afraid to face.  Though my recollection of dreams is usually vague to nil, I’m able to intuit they’re often as comic as they are renting nightmares.  Dreams are very important and useful to us, either creatively or as some kind of psychic spill way.  Like my mother and her view of God, if true, you don’t have to be present to win.  I don’t lose any sleep over it.
Anon, James

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Exit, Stage Left

No, I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous---
Almost, at times, the Fool.

I grow old…I grow old…
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Excerpt - The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
T. S. Eliot

So much I like about this poem, though Eliot was an anti-Semite. Born in Missouri of all places.  Anyway, fairly astonishing poet.  It begins:

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table…

…among my favorite lines in literature.  Etherized…rather puts you in a time.  The passage above has manifold meaning for me.  Actually, I did play Hamlet at the Folger in D.C., so, it was meant to be.  The girl who played Ophelia was gorgeous, but paid no attention to me whatsoever.  She was fucking Kevin Kline.  We all three were working at the Arena Stage but in different shows.  He was an uber-hot rising actor, and an awfully good one.  I’ve always maintained talent is a sexy force.  I was an attendant lord.

I am an instigator more than a finisher, saying things to get a reaction, or needle; have started a scene or two in my day.  Agitation is a kind of swelling, as a way to deal with feeling helpless or inadequate. Then, I slink away to another part of the party.  Not too comfortable advising, anymore.  Here I have learned, emphatically, to keep my mouth shut.  I get asked once in awhile, and, if asked, I will put in my oar.  As a differential, I made a living outside of the theater as a dependable middle-manager.  Once, in college, I helped my fraternity brother get chosen to take a trip to a conference.  We were in Kansas, and I think the thing was in Miami.  After he was selected to go, I thought: hey, wait a minute…why didn’t I try to get myself sent to Miami!  Regardless, I felt a secret, politic power behind the scenes, like Iago, or some Chancellor.

I believe I am fairly cautious now.  I used to bull-nose my way in and out of a lot of trouble, explode my existence to bits. I’d quit, burn bridges; have an affair to wreck a relationship; drink before an audition, the usual, self-destructive crapola.

At times, indeed, almost a schmuck---

Now?  No.  I may sense the tendency coming on to muck things up, like an alcoholic may crave a drink, but, firmly recovered, would never dream of taking one.  I am not meticulous in all things, but I am in my work, compulsive, out of a sense of incompetence.  If there is a mess on my desk?  Who cares.

Though, I certainly am not full of high sentences - I take my toast and tea from observation and instinct – I do presume to put up a blahg.  I am, on occasion, ridiculous, obtuse, just ask my teenage daughter or her mother.  In truth, I do play to it, aggressively, like “I, Claudius”, as a survival technique.  It’s almost a neurotic response from me, like a veteran who has to sit with his back against a wall.  My war was with a distant, depressive father.  I could deflect wrath, or make a ripple in the still surface of his dark, cold lake of moods.  In school, to win friends, I would clown, even restrain a bit of brilliance which may have put off people I wanted to win over.  Later, this penchant morphed into a stage career.  The Fool, commonly, in Shakespeare, the cleverest of fellows, gets his own.  Make ‘em laugh.

The other day, I caught myself with my jeans rolled …not for style, but because they kept slipping down, and without shoes on, I was stepping on the cuffs…so I rolled them up.  It is one thing to come to terms with the inevitability of to be or not to be, or its foreplay, aging.  I get that.  What snaps my braces is knowing how to drop the role.

Would it have been worth while
If one, settling a pillow or throwing off a shawl,
And turning toward the window, should say:
  “That is not it at all,
  That is not what I meant, at all.”

Anon, James

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hail on Wheels

Everybody has their war stories, go-to cocktail palaver, one-up material to out in conversation to pull focus, spark a flagging dialogue, test the waters with a new acquaintance, or, if necessary, shut down some gasbag.  I have some good ammo: an extreme rural upbringing, a one-room school with outhouses, no less (not exactly Butcher Holler, but still), professional actor (though this can cause people to glass over when it turns out to mean Shakespeare or Moliere in Pittsburgh and Cleveland), lived in NYC (from Mars), wine consultant (ditto), bartended in NYC (ehh, used to have more cachet before everyone became a bartender), owned a café in Portland (loser), lifeguard at a pool in a mafia club (that’s a story I need to be careful about), drove a taxi in New York…people are all ears!

As most of my odd jobs (some very odd, indeed), I got turned on to them by an acting pal.  Dawber, a bright, well read, astonishing actor, one of my best friends for years, drove for a garage in mid-town and encouraged me to get a hack license.  Work as much as you like or part-time.  I did.  You go to the TLC, Taxi and Limousine Commission, take an exam.  Pay a bunch of fees.  Our garage was on West 55th.  (The exterior of the one you see in Taxi was in Greenwich Village, and our main competitor in Manhattan.)  There were two shifts: 4 A.M. or 4 P.M.  You showed up a few minutes before the beginning of a shift, handed your hack license to a dispatcher, he assigned you a yellow cab, gave back your license to display on the dash, and a hard stock trip card, on which you entered the details of every fare: where and when you picked them up and dropped them off.  These days, I think it is computerized.  Drivers had to gas up before turning a car back in, so you were ready to roll.  They wanted you out on the streets.  Part-timers got the crappy, beat up buckets that rattled and shimmied, with an indentation in the driver’s seat as deep as a winter pothole; wonderful for your lower back.  They were mechanically sound, because the company needed them to run.  In those days there was no air-conditioning in the low end of the industry.  New drivers got 56% of the fare, plus tips.  With seniority the percentage got higher, as did the quality of the car.  I never saw that.  I had a cigar box, the chosen chalice of cash, and a few pens.  That was pretty much it.  You could wear whatever.  I would stop at the outdoor public swimming pool in the Village on 7th Avenue on sweltering summer days, and for 25 cents take a quick dip in my cutoffs, cooled off, and dripped dried in the cab.  In the winter, I might go by another actor chums place.  He was a recluse, so he never got work.  I think he sold weed as he always had a joint going, which is why I stopped.  That and the hot, strong coffee he constantly brewed.

I don’t recall how long I stuck at it, maybe six months?  Enough to sour me on the profession and respect the people who do it, though it can be hard as a passenger when some ass takes you through midtown at rush hour instead of going a bit East or West to avoid traffic or chooses a longer route to the airports.  Anyway, as a rider, you are the boss, and when you get in tell them how you wish to go.  It’s like getting onto a horse.  They’ll know if there’s a fool on their back and will take advantage.  One thing I got out of the job was learning New York, the boroughs, boulevards, and parkways, the bridges, short cuts, theaters, taverns, hospitals, and other things, too.

I about died stopping for a fare in front of Lincoln Center, figuratively, I mean.  As it happened, I was hailed by my new agent, my first important agent.  There was nothing to be ashamed of, clearly, I was not the only out of work actor driving a hack in NYC.  I wanted her to see me as an up and coming, not a down and out.  She didn’t get into the cab, but put a girl friend, or client, in the back seat, closed the door, and leaned to my open front passenger window.  “Be sure you get her home safely, Driver!” she ordered.  I kept my face turned away and hoped she didn’t read my name or see my picture on the license, which, she would have done if she were sincerely concerned.  (Punk’d!)   After receiving her stern instructions, I decided not to rape her friend in Riverside Park.  That incident bothered me on so many levels.

In the dark of the morning I picked up a couple coming out of a club in lower Manhattan.  They gave me an address in Brooklyn.  Pretty fresh on the job, I was a little nervous to leave Manhattan, though I knew Brooklyn a bit, having operated a gas station there.  (Talk about your odd jobs.)  About half way over the Brooklyn Bridge, my eyes began to sting and I was overwhelmed with a strong and pungent odor.  I began to panic they were trying to drug me into a stupor with some kind of emanation, and I’d slowly succumb, but not before safely pulling over, where they’d take my cigar box.  I got them home with no incident.  A few days later I smelled the same scent in the Village and learned it was patchouli oil.  I was embarrassed at my paranoia.  I felt like the batty aunt in the James Thurber story who would always put her jewelry outside her bedroom door at night, accompanied by a note: “This is all I have.  Take it and please don’t chloroform me.”

One spring evening, I was racing up 3rd Avenue, on a slip stream of greening lights, and a young blond woman’s arm went up on the left side of the avenue.  I easily threaded through the bit of traffic at that hour and pulled up sharp, put my head out of the window, and kissed the fare on the mouth.  Her friends looked startled until they realized, out of the 15,000 cabs in NYC, the woman, coincidently, happened to have hailed her husband.  Her sister was standing there.  I should have been kissing her.

In midtown during a midday shift, I picked up a hippy executive, long hair in a business suit with an attaché in hand, and drove him a few dozen blocks to an address on Broadway.  He got out as if to get to his billfold, but turned and ran, his limp hair a little flapping cape, and disappeared into the crowd flowing in and from an office building.   Obviously, he had practiced this maneuver.  I wanted to give chase and strangle, but I knew by the time I turned off the car, rolled up the windows, and locked up (because you don’t leave anything unlocked in NY) he would be on the 9th floor, or around the corner.  Nice guy.  Rip off a kid driver for four bucks.  I didn’t profile, for the most, even after the black whore stiffed me when I took her from 9th Avenue in Manhattan to the South Bronx, a thirty minute drive.  At least, the bitch covered most of the fare with the fistful of money she shoved at me, unlike dirty hairy.  Angry, scared, and impotent in the Bronx, out the time and tip, I slammed my hand into the roof of my car.  A screw holding on the taxi top light punctured the skin.  The next morning, when my wife saw it, I told her I’d been shot.  She started to cry.  I apologized, and told her the truth, but she was shaken.  Pathetically, I was trying to make her feel guilty for the situation of, what, my life?

On a night ride to Kennedy my directive was to get to the airport as fast as I could.  I had picked up the well dressed young man in front of the St Regis Hotel.  I was still new at it but you learn the routes to the airports pretty quickly, and at 10 o’clock the traffic was minimal.  New York does sleep.  Maybe it had more to do with the bone numbing vibrations of my jalopy than Knieveling, but when I pulled up to the Pan Am terminal, he paid the fare and handed me the biggest tip I’d ever seen.   “Thanks for the ride,” he said.  “I’ve never gotten here so fast!”

New York, whether it’s the greatest city, I can’t say, but it is an amazing collection of humanity, and if you live there long enough, you’ll witness as much as you care to see.  More, if you look in the rearview.

Anon, James

Saturday, April 23, 2011

I'll Be a Monkey's Debunkle

The proverbial theorem of putting an infinite number of monkeys at an infinite number of typewriters (it’s an old postulation), ad infinitum, where they would reproduce all the great works of literature - never intrigued me.  Phui, who can wait around?   Always wondered why not suppose they would create some of their own?  No doubt they could best me.  I feel like a monkey (no offense to my wonderful nieces and nephews) when I look at all the stuff on the word processor’s…whatever you call it...tool bar options.  If I sat for a long time and played on my computer, I’d figure a bit of it out.  Our teenage daughter has over the years.  I don’t have a lot of time to goof around on this thing.  I’d be in big trouble if I screwed something up because Darling uses the home computer for work.  She is somewhat of a professional processor, in that she prepares official-type documents.  As it happens, things do go funny once in a while with a PC, and if, coincidently, I happen to be on it at the time, I am immediately suspect and all hell breaks loose.  Spell check, bullets, fonts, B, I, and U, symbols, etc., I can handle, but don’t ask me to do a table, or columns, or even margins/tabs.  I’ve intended to take a course at the community college but, if I need fancy things, I call Kid or Darling into the office.  They act incredulous that I don’t know how to do - whatever it is, are annoyed (I have interrupted what they were doing), call me lame, and, impatiently, boot me from the desk chair long enough to do the action.  Shades of my dad, I guess.  People would ask him why he didn’t wear a watch.  “I can always ask some son-of-a-bitch,” he would say.  (No offense to my wonderful family.)  There are all these buttons on the keyboard.  What is Pause Break?  What does F Lock do for you?  It’s a great tool, our PC.  Indubitably, would be of even greater use if I knew a few more manipulations.   Help?

When I was growing up, our family had a Royal typewriter with a rugose, matte-black finish.  For years it sat on our family’s large wooden desk, then, was moved to my older brother’s room in high school.  The name was on the front, like Steinway on a piano.  The imperious letters grew taller in the middle, the right leg of the “R” underscoring the rest.  The crown piece had an opening that looked like a parted curtain.  Beneath, thin steel arms with letters lay in curved formation, saluting with a snap as you struck a key, tangling in midair if you went carelessly fast.  Round keys with white letters on black back ground, a clear piece of plastic shielding each, held in place by a chrome pinky ring, the return arm and other shiny pieces, begging to be touched with purpose.  It was rarely used.  After my brother went off to college, and my father died, we sold the farm to an attorney who wanted to get back to the land, as we had some fifteen years earlier.  Long enough for a man to become ill, healthy, and die, a woman to weary, or boys to grow up.  The typewriter, along with the tractors, pickups, tools, and my father’s clothes, were dispersed among neighbors.

I’d like to have a Royal, even if just to admire.  I could use it for a poem once in a while, or a thank you note.  Crinkling onion skin, bluish, oily carbon papers, spools of black/red ribbon, even White Out for a modern touch, sitting near.  I realize now why writers of yore had separate studios out back, or down the street.  It isn’t that they needed quiet.  If they were banging on the keys of a typewriter, slamming the carriage return, tearing out paper from the roller platen, who else could think?  It would wake up Darling in the morning.

Kid is exactly the age I was when my father died.  Seventeen.  She held the hand of her other grandfather as he slowly died.  Put a cat down.  Moved twice.  Slipped between barbed wires of a fence her grandmother helped build to scatter her ashes in a pasture.  She has gripped her life with two hands and hoisted it like a sail.

Anon, James

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Blast From the Past

Our house is on a flat piece of earth on a mountain plateau and the sky is the view from where we sit.  The southern tail of the Rockies tapers off into the plains, and two other modest ranges embrace the area, offering no end of beauty.  At first, I thought our property itself, flat, scrubby, prickly, essentially, treeless, was dull.  But, taking my eyes up from my feet, over the peaks to the horizon, I realized half my visual world is sky.  When I tell people I grew up in Kansas, you hear one of two things: a crack about Dorothy and Toto, or a remark as to how flat it was when they drove through.  Everyone drives through, no one stays.  Even my Dad, who choose to return there with his family from San Francisco in the 1950’s, dissed Kansas.  The original settlers, he liked say, either didn’t have the gumption it took to continue west, or were too lazy to go back, so they plopped down in Kansas.  As a kid, I looked at the sky a lot.  Clouds, especially.  Dad had been a pilot starting with the barnstorming days of aviation.  I like to imagine the name comes from getting your ass into a barn when a storm is coming.  He had to pay attention to clouds.  When I was very young, he taught me some things about predicting weather from them.  Cirrus, wispy things, aren’t serious but can point to things to come, nimbostratus, gray and flat, means it’s probably raining already, cumulus cotton balls are OK, but if they puff up taller like the Michelin man, a storm is likely.  Stuff like that.

Growing up I became, Jimmy, Boy Barometer, reading the high and low emotional pressures building in our father, watching cirrus moods moil into cumulonimbus, his big, round face, cheeks puffed like Dizzy Gillespie, angry and fiercely blowing.  Our mother, a stalk of bamboo, was the only bulwark as tempests broke.  My older brother and I had bedrooms at the top of the stairs.  At night, I would sneak out of bed, crawl like a scout to the doorway and listen to my mother and father fight below.  She hushed, seeking some purchase of reason, restraining her own anger; his basso voice cracked in wounded flailing, as if her words came at him like panicked bats.  The morning rose on bruised and cautious silences.  Slowly, the worn fabric of our daily existence mended, but I kept my eyes on the firmament.

An aviator can sight on stars, and has an advantage over a sailor, being above clouds.  On summer evenings, home from watching a softball game, or after dinner when dad went out to be sure the coals in the hibachi were extinguished, he’d point out constellations and tell me their names.  I enjoyed these private lessons, but I didn’t seem to retain what he was explaining or see what he saw in the night sky.  After a few attempts, he stopped trying.

One of those summers, I joined a Little League team, and dad would give me batting practice using a tennis ball, our barn as a back stop so I didn’t have to chase the ones I fanned, which I mostly did.  He could be patient.  Again, I didn’t seem to pick it up.  One night, at a game, as I sat on the bench next to Cecil, our pitcher, I asked if I could try on his glasses.  It was a shock.  I could see the numbers, sharply, on player’s uniforms in the field.  I could see small branches on the trees that before had appeared as fuzzy clusters.  Not just birds were clear, but the wires they sat on.  I could see things that didn’t exist to me before.  That night I told my mother.  The next day she took me to have my eyes checked and I got some Buddy Holly glasses.

If I had been a different person, I might have been able to say to my dad, “Now that my sight has been corrected, I would very much like to go back outside to resume our study of the stars.”  Honestly, it didn’t occur to me; I really didn’t have an affinity, or a reason, to differentiate between Scorpius and Ursa Minor.  At an age when adolescents are pulling away from their fathers, I got closer.  I don’t mean we spent a lot of time together.  By my senior year of high school I was, typically, active in school plays (which suited me better than team sports), working part-time evenings and weekends at a clothing store, and I had a girlfriend.  Dad, for the first time in my life, had taken on a job.  He worked as a probation officer.  Before WWII he had been a district attorney and was good at reading character.  He liked being able to guide these men as they came out of jail, often giving them money for work shoes or a shirt.  By then, my brother was off at college and life settled around us pleasantly.  I would come home from work about the time my dad was turning in, sit on the side of his bed and chat for a few minutes about the day.  These talks were the salvation of my relationship with my father.  When he died a few months later, it is what I grieved for, what I would miss for the couple of more decades he might have lived.

What had damaged him is not clear.  I may seek information one day, if Menninger or the State Hospital in Topeka still have such records, as all who could bear witness are dead.  It doesn’t matter.  Mercifully, what was done can be undone, if not erased.  I was visiting my mother some twenty years after my father’s death.  Very seldom would she vary from the family cant about my father’s life and “illness”, but this night, over martinis, she made a frightening confession about the years when I climbed out of my bed to eavesdrop.  This woman, who went to Berkeley, the CEO of a family business, later a government official, was at such a loss, with no idea what she could do to salvage our lives, considered taking one of the shotguns from the rack on our living room wall, killing my brother and me, and then herself.  I have no doubt this was fleeting fantasy born of her desperation.  She wouldn’t have done it.  (I wonder, though, how far down the imaginary path she went.  Would she have shot us as we slept?  We had separate rooms.  The one remaining would have woken up at the sound of the blast, sat up, waiting?)  After this admission, I was stunned to the point of quiet acceptance, of validation.  I couldn’t bring myself to ask her - why not kill him?

Anon, James

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Bewtiched, Bothered, Bewildered

How is it I can be so eloquent in my head, say, making a toast, or giving an acceptance speech for an award for which I will never be nominated and, all the while, knowing if I were to ever get up in front of an assembly I’d stammer, wander, and blabber.  [“Stammer, Wander, and Blabber.  How may I direct your call?”]  I make these speeches in the middle of the night, in bed, waiting to fall back to sleep.  I am conscious, not dreaming, extemporaneously speaking the speech in my mind’s voice.  I marvel at them.   These are kind of speeches people would remember forever, and replay in clips, like ones that Meryl Streep or George Clooney come up with at the Oscars, or Barack Obama makes without the teleprompter.  What happens to those speeches when I get out of bed?  Where do they go?  How can I resurrect these random, impromptu monologues and show the world, at least, the people I know at a dinner party, how eloquent I am?  Why can’t I do out loud what I do in my head?  I have had my chances and blew them every time.


I am not a collector of things, but I do gather post cards, paper, stationery, notes, not bunches and not regularly, only as I happen upon them.  If a friend is off to some far place I will ask, if they think of it, to snag some hotel letterhead from the desk in their room.  I have sheets of paper with Arabic (I think) lettering, some with elephants, a coat of arms, or fleur-de-lis.  When I travel, I am on the lookout in a pharmacy, a whatnot shop, or stationery store, even supermarkets, where they may sell school supplies and notebooks, like ones from Japan with anime covers and vertical lines.  Before I began using a PC, I would write in longhand on sundry found pads.  I was partial to graph paper, or paper the color of Necco Wafers, easy on the eyes; careful not to buy so much that I would become bored.  Since I don’t use a camera, I rely on post cards to document trips.  Back home, I get a pinch of nostalgia as go through and select one to send as a thank you or a birthday greeting.  They all wait in an old wooden tool box found at a flea market.  I save up my best papers for years and years until the perfect occasion comes along.  Sending a letter on a piece of paper earmarked for someone you love is like cooking for them with a recipe you don’t break out every day.


I met this young woman during the hay days of Soho.  Restaurants and galleries and shops were attracting hordes.  Bridge and Tunnel crowds had yet to figure out where it was, though the Holland Tunnel dumped them off on Canal.  I will call her Inga.  She was from Copenhagen, yah, about 5’11” and looked like Ingrid Bergman stretched on a rack.  (Now, there’s an image.)  Yah, she was a model making mad money as a hostess where I was bartending and we hit it off.  Not as lovers.  We liked one another.  I think she found it a relief I didn’t hit on her, and I had heard enough about her vexing love life.  We saw each other for lunch, movies, museums, the way friends do in New York.  Inga had wit and brilliance and sensitivity that made her pleasurable company.   And, since we weren’t fucking, it was relaxing to be with her.  I got to look at her a lot.  Everybody looked at her.  This is where she was a bit cuckoo.  I could see it in her eyes when we were at a crowded bar, looking to see who was looking, as if she needed someone to lock on her.  It was the call of the wild.  She never introduced me to any of her lovers.  I escorted her to a clinic and waited while she had her second abortion, then brought her to my apartment to recover.  A few weeks later, Inga offered me money if I would marry her for citizenship, do the ruse of photos of “our” wedding and life together, show Immigration her underwear in my bureau.  Instead of money, I thought about asking for sex once a month.  (Every week would be too hard to schedule, especially, if I found a lover.)  It was an unvoiced impulse.  I felt used and wanted to use her.  She may have agreed, but then she’d hate me.  I’d hate me, too, for such an ugly hold.  I told her no.