|The Story So Far|
Catch up on what you have missed!
The SERIAL originally appeared on jitterbuzz.com in 1997-1998
This is THE STORY SO FAR
I thought I could beat the snowstorm. The clouds were white and high when I pulled out of town. When I reached the foothills the sky was dirty gray cotton. The first flakes fell tentatively across the windshield of the truck and it was only a few moments before the wipers were overloaded. The snow stuck to the ground immediately and I began to feel the fishtailing. It starts with a little shudder and then the rear end breaks loose; I steered into it and got things under control. Then the road presented me with a series of steep downhill S-bends. I inched my way through the first three as the ice thickened. The brakes were ineffective so I shifted into first gear to let the motor's compression slow the truck. The engine roared and I saw the water temperature indicator inch up. Through the white film I saw a small car dead ahead and I swerved to miss it. I remember the wheels breaking free the flash of lights as the other car passed before me and a snowbank on the other side of the road. Then it got dark.
I woke up some time later on the ground outside the truck. Everything was blanketed with snow and the plows had just about buried the truck. The sun was out. but the truck wouldn't start. I found that the light switch was still in the "on" position; the battery was probably dead. I really wasn't cold so I decided to hitchhike for help. I looked things over one more time. Aside from a tear on the leather sleeve of my 1960 Pirates warmup jacket nothing was amiss. I climbed over the mound of snow and made my way to the roadside. The road was more-or-less black with thin white slicks left from the road salt. I wasn't cold but could see no water on the road.
On the switchback above I heard a motorcycle. I didn't have to see it because the sound was unmistakable---it was a Vincent Black Shadow bored to 1100 cc calling out to me in alternating screams and growls. As it rounded the bend I saw that my ears weren't lying. The sun was full and a black machine ridden by a large bearded man with long curly hair emerged from the blinding glare. He was wearing denims a black tee shirt and aviator's goggles. Who would go riding in a blizzard? Who would go riding in a blizzard without cold weather gear? The only colors besides black and white were the thin blue flames shooting out the exhaust ports. How did he get that thing past the emissions check? Why hadn't he been stopped for riding without a helmet?
The biker downshifted. The machine backfired and rumbled its way to a stop immediately before me. It was a thing to behold, a lean spare framework of black metal with straight barsgirder forks and cantilever rear suspension. When Philip Vincent took over the HRD company, he vowed to make the "world's safest and fastest standard motorcycle." The Series C, known as the Black Shadow was the apex of his craft. Vincent hated chrome and used dull-finished stainless steel wherever possible. The bike before me was in flawless condition. The sole exception to the black color scheme were the gold art-nouveau letters HRD, surmounted by a heraldic scroll with the legend "Vincent, " on the small elliptical tank.
The biker looked at me and slowly raised the goggles to his forehead. His big teeth flashed a smile and he said, "Well, sport---I've got to pull your chestnuts out of the fire again." It was Bob Arnold, my all-time hero and role model. His hair was marcelled just like it was---how long ago was it? Twenty years? His teeth still had the perfect caps that he got from Dr. Giuliani (the "Hippie's Dentist") in return for three kilos of fine hash that had been run in from Mexico on the Vincent. Bob Arnold could make anything, had been everywhere, and knew everybody. Now he was here to help.
I didn't know what to say, so he said it for me. He stood up on the pegs, looked at the truck and said, "Yep, that's a bad one." He reached into a knapsack, produced two rat-tailed stogies, and said, "Here---you need a good cheap seegar, " as he bit the end off his. I bit mine and thought,"Pitterman's Hand Made. I haven't seen these in years. I thought old man Pitterman closed up years ago." Bob struck a big blue Ohio kitchen match on his thigh and lit both cigars,mine first. I wondered how he could ride in this weather without gloves. He put his hand on my shoulder and said, "C'mon kid, we've got a long way to go."
He lowered the jenny pegs and I climbed on board. I locked my hands together and held on for dear life because I knew he was going to do a wheelie. He did not disappoint me. We took the curves at about seventy five and hit up to 130 on the straightaways. I was tired and mumbled, "I heard that you got it in Nam. I even rubbed your name on The Wall." He said, "How about something from La Boheme? He buckled his belt over my hands and sang a flawless "Che Gelida Manina" with orchestral background provided by the Vincent's exhaust. I fell asleep.
I woke up at dusk. We were on the outskirts of a gritty rustbelt city. You can always tell because the road runs next to the railroad and there are big old two story box houses on the hills above the tracks. Times have been tough to these little outlying burgs. Some of the houses have two kinds of aluminum siding. Most are badly in need of repair. There are junk cars on the lawn and planters made out of tires. We passed crudely lettered signs for home-based businesses. I saw that "Noopy" was advertising a "no-dip" wood-stripping service. The Delsea Beagle Club was going to have an "all you can eat" pancake breakfast. One fellow bought and sold Lionel Trains. An old Gulf station had been transformed into an adult book store with large black plywood signs in place of windows warning that "You Must be 21 to Enter" and that amateur videos had been reduced to $8. We came to the center of the small town and made our way through a darkening street of empty stores. The movie marquee only had the letter "X" on it and that was hanging askew. Just outside the town on the other side was a Wal-Mart. The parking lot was filled with pickups and rusting Detroit behemoths.
We forged ahead, and I saw the lights of the city. It could have been anywhere---Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Akron, Gary, or Toledo.
The road took us by a broad black river; the other side was lined with mills ablaze with intense pulsating fire. A slag car dumped its molten load. As the ashes cascaded down the hill, they colored the horizon bright orange. Besides sulphur, I could smell a hundred familiar industrial odors. I recognized a brewery, a coke oven, a tannery, and a stock yard. Although I was still dazed, I remember saying, "Where is the EPA?" I got an answer but I cannot remember whether it was Bob or my father who said, "Yeah, it stinks, but it means that men are working."
We turned off the road into a working class neighborhood where folks must have been doing well, because most of the row houses had been covered with formstone. The spotlessly clean street had lots of small shops. I gazed with wonder at a real barber shop with two chairs of white enamelled metal and red leather. The smell of butter cookies beckoned me from "Patsy's Bakery." I saw boxes of baccala outside a market beside pyramids of oranges lit by a bare electric bulb. A sign said, "Cukes---3 for a buck." I wanted to get off the bike and immerse myself it it. I had to touch it, feel it, and taste it. I wanted a haircut and facial topped off with bay rum. I wanted a big chocolate and vanilla cannoli. I wanted to eat a fresh tomato with just some coarse salt.
We went two more blocks and Bob pulled up to the curb. I got off and looked around at the street scene with awe. I heard Bob say, "This is it, kid. I'll be seeing you later." By the time I turned around, he was gone. There was so much that I wanted to ask him.
I was standing before "The Radium Club." It had been a store of some sort, but the owners wanted a Style Moderne image and had invested in a lot of black vitriolite sometime back in the 1930s. The doors were black glass with mother-of-pearl inlays showing jazz musicians at their craft. A red neon sign indicated that "Steaks and Chops" were served. A red carpet led to the door.
An eye appeared in a peephole and the door opened for me. I walked down a long hallway slowly measuring my tread on the black and white checkerboard marble floor. In the glow of light from several brass and ebony torchieres, I put my hand on the travertine wainscoting to make sure that it was not faux. I saw a long line of swells dressed in tuxedos and evening gowns. The maitre d', a short man with slicked back hair and a pencil moustache, stood guard at the end of the hall behind a thick red velvet cord. I took my place in line. The little headwaiter looked at me, turned away and waved his hand into the darkness beyond. A very big man in a tuxedo appeared. As he approached, I saw that he must have been about six-foot-six and had a big scar under his eye and a cauliflower ear. His suit was well-cut with satin peak lapels and a high-Hamilton starched wing collar. There was something vaguely familiar about him. With disses and dats he said something about dress-clothes being required. I stopped and made ready to beat it before I was thrown out. I stood there facing the bouncer. The frame froze and I could hear my heart beating.
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The Radium Club
A door opened and the picture fluttered back into action. A very big black man stepped out and smiled at me. He was wearing an impeccably tailored full dress suit of dazzling white, right down to the patent leather pumps. He looked like Jimmy Rushing, "Mr. Five by Five" himself. There wasn't a single hair on his head, not even eyebrows. All his jewelry was platinum, including a number of rings and a thick chain. My eyes were drawn to the little wings set with a two carat diamond that served as a watch fob. This was a man with a lot of class. He was also the boss. With but the slightest wave of his hand, he motioned the bouncer away and said, "This cat's with the band." He put his huge arm around me and said, "Come in, my man, I've been expecting you." I passed out.
I woke up on a leather couch. I felt very refreshed and sat up. As I yawned and scratched my head, I gradually noticed my surroundings. I was in an office. The walls were of some tawny wood, probably ash. There were no corners---rather, the wood had been bent into quarter round. A band of three closely spaced brass strips ran around the top of the room about a foot below the ceiling soffits which held indirect lighting. The vaulted ceiling had been painted a light blue. The furnishings were all tan leather, two couches, some chairs, a table, and a desk. The walls were hung with oil paintings of race horses. Several leather-shaded brass lamps set on end tables. My host reappeared from a side door. I noticed that all the doors were padded and covered with leather, studded with brass nails in a diamond pattern. This theme was repeated in the furniture as well. Again, I received a warm smile and a hand on my shoulder.
I said, "I'm sorry---I had an auto accident this morning. I apologize for fainting." My host said, "That's just fine. My name is Peter and you could use a drink." He walked to one wall and pressed a button. A panel slid back and revealed a full bar. All of the glass, including the mirror had a peach-colored cast. I said, "I really don't drink, thank you." He poured me a brandy and said, "I think that you'll need this." I took it, and had a sip. The liquid was fiery but had an amazingly smooth taste; the aroma filled my head and I felt pleasure, without any effects of intoxication. The stuff must have been at least sixty years old. I felt a lot better. I said, "Your bouncer is a dead ringer for Primo Carnera." Peter smiled and said, "Could be," while directing me to his desk. He offered me a chair, and I sat down. He sat behind the desk and hummed a little tune. He withdrew a folio size leather bound book from a side drawer. Turning it toward me, he said, "Would you please sign our guest register?" I looked at him and didn't know what to say. He said, "We have a lot of distinguished guests here." I looked through a few pages and agreed with him---I saw Bix Biederbecke, Jimmy Lunceford, Benny Goodman, Ziggy Elman, Mike Bloomfield, Muddy Waters and Albert King among the names on my page alone. I was tempted to look back to see who was on the hundred or so pages before me. I said, "I'm not famous---I don't even belong in the same state as these guys. How come I've never heard of this place?" Peter smiled and said, "We've heard a lot about you. And, I think that you have heard a lot about us as well. Please sign in, my man." I took an elegant gold pen out of his desk set and signed the register. Peter offered me his hand and said, "Welcome to the club."
He gave me a broad grin and said, "Look at this." He pressed a button on the desk and a part of one wall retracted to show the action in the club. He motioned me toward the window and I looked down at the stage. He pressed another button and the sound was piped into the office. Peter tells me that my jaw almost dropped off when I saw the band. Both John Lee Williamson and Willie "Rice" Miller were handling the vocals and harmonica on "Fattening Frogs for Snakes." I could not believe it---both Sonny Boys were on the stage at the same time, performing the same song---LIVE. How many hours had I spent in college debating the question of "Which Sonny Boy was best?" I looked back at Peter like a kid at his first Christmas. He smiled back and said, "Check out the band." Just then came time for the guitar solo and I snapped my head back---it was Muddy Waters. Not only that, Otis Spann was on piano, Willie Dixon played bass and Fred Bellow was on drums. Live, here, now was the immortal Chess studio band at their peak undimmed by disease, alcohol and age. They were . . . well . . . heavenly. I said to Peter, "I saw Rice Miller with the Yardbirds in 1967 at Leeds." He said, "Yes, I know---he was pretty far gone. That was just before he took this gig."
Peter and I listened for a while and then he said, "I've got to get back to work. Stick around and enjoy the show. Primo will get you settled. " He gave me another one of those two hundred watt grins and said, "He's really a big pussycat." I smiled back and gave him a high five.
The Lay of the Land
This is an interesting place. (Say, there's understatement for you.) It has nothing to do with sitting on clouds. True, we spend a lot of time praising The Boss, but he is really a great guy and it comes easy. Some stuff that you may have heard is true. You can eat as much as you want and you don't get fat. You can drink as much as you want and you don't get drunk. Marijuana is legal here. In fact, everyone who used to be a High School guidance counselor is assigned to a street corner. He (or she) is obligated to roll cigar-sized joints and offer them to passers by on a silver tray.
On the other hand, you have to work. There are a lot of jobs and everybody can find something to do that is satisfying. It's a lot like 1968 without Vietnam. There is no disease, but you feel things. If you fall off a ladder, you break bones. You can cut yourself shaving. On the other hand, there are great health care benefits, and anything can be fixed up good as new. Of course, you have to spend time convalescing, so you have to think for a while before jumping a motorcycle over 20 parked busses. The folks over at Celestial General rue the day that Evel Knievel got in, and they have been trying to tighten admission requirements ever since. The Boss enjoys the outrageous, so we will continue to have a number of daredevils. On balance, this is a lot like where I came from without all the hassles. There are no wasps and watermelons don't have seeds. There are neither speed limits nor helmet laws. Nobody lies, cheats, or steals, so there are no cops. You can have all the guns you want, but through some odd exception to physical laws, they won't work if you point them at anything that is alive.
I spent some time carefully restoring a Purdey side by side shotgun --- there is a skeet range across town where they use Lladro and Hummel figurines as targets. There is nothing quite like getting up on a clear, bright morning and going off to the range. Taking two carefully hand-loaded brass ten gauge shells from my leather belt, I delight in saying, "Put up a Hansel and Gretel." Finally, I know why The Boss created these things.
There are no taxes. The only government agencies are the Post Office and the Department of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. The former has the same function as on Earth, while the latter is somewhat different. Everyone has something constructive to do, so there is no place for politicians. There is a lot of music and, like Earth, you have a lot more fun if you're in the band.
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I spent my first night at the Radium Club. I was too excited to move. At about 3:00 a.m., lots of other musicians came in and joined the band---Albert King, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Croce, and Janis Joplin. I am somewhat reluctant to call it a jam session, or even the mother of jam sessions. How can you describe a set where Philip Augustus Bach and Professor Longhair play two-piano boogie-woogie? Jimmy Lunceford dropped by with a 27 piece band after they had done a gig at Moses' place. (He's partial to both Klezmer and Harlem Renaissance.) Harpo and Chico Marx showed up and did some stand-up and a funny bit on piano and harp. Later, I found this was a slow night. Of course, there is great music everywhere. The other day, I saw Enrico Caruso singing on a street corner, just for fun.
In the morning, Primo took me out for breakfast at a nearby diner. There are diners everywhere, scrupulously clean, and open twenty four hours per day. While we were enjoying our coffee and buckwheat cakes, a young fellow came in and sat next to us. He was dressed in baggy white pants, deck shoes and a tee shirt from the 1976 Wings World Tour. It had been signed by Paul McCartney.
Primo introduced me to the fellow as Herb, who was going to be a sort of mentor for me while I got accustomed to living here. There are a number of little things that you have to do, like find a place to live, get a job and decide what you want to look like. You can pick any period in your life for your appearance. During a probationary period, you can experiment but you have to make a choice and then you stay permanently there.
While I was thinking about all this, Herb interrupted me. He pulled out a wad of money and said, "Here---you'll need this to get started. This isn't charity, because we know that you really can't take it with you." I counted it, and it was about $10,000. Herb looked at me and said, "When that's gone, we'll get you some more." I expressed my gratitude and offered to pay for the meal. Breakfast for three came to $1.75. I left a $5 tip. This place was looking pretty good.
Herb said that the management had arranged for some temporary quarters. He took me to an apartment house about a block away. The place was the whole second floor of a solid brick corner building, above a bagel bakery. A turret room with lots of light overhung the corner; the vaulted ceiling wasn't bad either. The rooms were spacious, but the kitchen was something to behold. The centerpiece was a classic 1936 stainless steel streamlined Magic Chef range, with a special heavy aluminum adjustable broiler. The clock worked. There was also an Apex wood-burning stove, enamelled in cream and red. The countertops were inlaid linoleum and the whole kitchen was tiled from floor to ceiling in a red and white diamond pattern. Off the kitchen was an elaborate wrought iron balcony that might have been imported from the French Quarter.
There were two large bedrooms, a parlor, and a dining room. Elegantly inlaid pocket doors made it possible to close off the dining room for sit-down meals. Herb said that the landlord was leaving some furniture behind for me. This included a large brass cannonball bed, a chesterfield sofa, and a round leather-topped table for the turret. The rent was $65 per month. Herb said, "You understand, this is only temporary." It seemed like the right time, so I asked, "By the way, how long do you mean?" He replied, "Oh, about fifty years." I accepted on the spot. I decided that I would strip and refinish the woodwork since I was going to be there for a while.
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The East End Cultural Association
I spent my first day getting some things together. I walked down the street to a real Turkish bath. I was a bit seedy from my trip, so I had a first class steam and Swedish massage. Then I swam a few laps in the Moorish style "Natatorium." I met a few fellows and they invited me to stop back for a game of handball. The next stop was the barber. I blew $2.25 on the works - haircut, beard trim, manicure and a hot oil facial. Redolent of lilac oil, my next stop was the pizzeria. I had a rather large pie with olives, fresh tomatoes, artichoke hearts, and mushrooms. On the table were substantial bowls of crushed red peppers, oregano, and grated Pecorino cheese. I turned down the proprietor's offer of some homemade wine in preference for mineral water. He looked disappointed. Then I went to the bakery. I bought two fresh cannoli, intending to eat them in a little park outside and watch the old men play bocce. I asked the baker for coffee to go, but he suggested that I try the espresso at the neighborhood social club next door. I did just that.
It wasn't hard to find the club. The plate glass windows were painted dark green leaving only a foot of clear glass at the top to admit light. Crossed Italian and American flags had been painted on the windows amidst a sign-painter's cornucopia of sunbursts, medallions, scrolls, lions, and seraphim; gold-leaf lettering announced the presence of the "East End Cultural Association." As I think of it, the design on the window looked sort of like a can of Medaglia D'Oro coffee.
I rang the buzzer and the door opened. I explained that I was new in the neighborhood and that I might want to join. I was heartily welcomed into the room by a gentleman with brown curly hair over a high forehead and a Roman nose. He was wearing a white apron, the pants from a hard-finish gabardine suit, a white-on-white shirt, a black crepe tie, and high button leather shoes. The shoes were particularly interesting---ostrich uppers and hard-shell cordovan lowers. You can always tell a lot by a person's shoes, and these highly polished beauties bore every sign of meticulous care He introduced himself as Fannoli and guided me by the arm to a small wooden table which he carefully wiped with a napkin before holding the chair for me. The table held a carnation in a plain glass tumbler, a wooden box of dominoes, and a deck of cards.
Fannoli looked my little cardboard box and said, "You have been to Patsy's. "Shall I bring you espresso?" I nodded, and my cannoli went with him to a monumental brass espresso machine that sat in the center of the far wall. His measured pace made me think of a priest at Mass. As he prepared the coffee the image grew stronger. My eyes were drawn upward to the enormous brass eagle which surmounted the machine and the word "Excelsior" engraved in large ornate script below it. With the rush of steam, he extracted the strong brew into a small white china cup and decorated it with a lemon zest.
He took two large spoons from his apron and used them to place my cannoli on a plain white plate. The goodies were borne to me on a tray carried overhead on the upturned palm of his right hand. He set them before me and produced a fork, small spoon and a white linen napkin, which was spread on my lap. He smiled, bowed and backed away. Let me assure you that everything was (as Bill and Ted might say,) most excellent. Here, everything has a lot of class---people pay a lot of attention to details.
I was greatly refreshed by my dessert. As a warm mellow feeling crept over me, my eyes were drawn to two men having an animated discussion at a table across the room. One man was rather short with snow-white hair and beard; he seemed to be the perfect counterpoint to his companion, a tall, lanky black man. Periodically, the bearded man would rise from the table, walk around and point to the ceiling. The black man just leaned back in his chair, occasionally rocking back and forth. They seemed to be having quite a give and take. I watched them for half an hour. Every so often, something funny must have been said, because they would roar with laughter and point at each other. Finally, my curiosity got the better of me. I motioned to Fannoli, and he approached silently. He said, "May I get you more coffee, sir?" I nodded and he turned abruptly. I called him back, perhaps a bit too loud. He turned, and said, "Yes, sir?" I motioned him to come closer and whispered into his ear, "Who are those two gentlemen?" His reply was, "Why sir, they are Socrates and Satchel Paige." I was too astonished to ask what they were talking about.
As I got ready to leave, Fannoli informed me that my coffee had been "on the house" and that Herb had made all the arrangements for my membership. I left him a $5.00 tip, and he walked me to the door and brushed my jacket off with a whisk broom. He looked at the rip in the leather sleeve and suggested a place to have it fixed, so off I went.
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The Right Threads
At the end of the street was a small store. The large brass letters on the dark green lintel said, "JAYSON'S MENS WEAR." The shop windows had several conservative men's suits hanging on walnut stands, along with a display of fabrics. No mannequins---the sign of a better tailor. I entered the door and a small bell jangled. The walls were panelled with walnut and there were several leather chairs and a few display cabinets. On one wall, bolts of fabric were stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling. I browsed at the display of ties and accessories. Soon, a man emerged from behind a heavy green velvet curtain. To my surprise, it was Mr. Pritchard, my lifelong salesman at Brooks Brothers. This was a bit unnerving, because this was my first occasion to talk to someone whom I knew had passed on. Mr. Pritchard had sold me my first suit in Pittsburgh and had somehow appeared in Washington just as I moved there. Now he was going to be selling me suits in the hereafter.
I received a warm welcome. On the other hand this is no big deal because everyone is always glad to see you. He shook my hand and said that "Mr. Herbert" had told him that I would be dropping by. I paused and said, "You know, Brooks has moved to selling men's suits as separates." He lowered his head and nodded, almost in shame and said, "A sad indication of the influence of the Other Fellow. You know he has been trying very hard to make an inroad into menswear for such a long time, what with Nehru jackets, leisure suits, and doubleknits."
He regained his composure and asked me to slip out of my Pirates jacket; he ran his hand lovingly over it. "A 1960 team jacket," he mused as he took it behind the curtain. He saw my apprehension and said, "We'll have it fixed in no time. You can take along what you're wearing." He showed me to a stack of fabrics. I allowed that due to my circumstances, I needed a full wardrobe. He nodded wisely. I indicated that there seemed to be a number of high class clubs, and that I would need a tuxedo. He nodded and said that dress suits were also worn. I could see the bills piling up, so I confided in him, "I don't have a job yet. I don't want to look like I am taking advantage of the folks up here. Perhaps we can soft pedal the soup-and-fish rig." He smiled and assured me that Central Management had made provision for a complete gentleman's wardrobe - it was all part of the normal orientation package. Actually, he paused after the word "normal", and parenthetically added, "Everyone who comes here is a V.I.P." I said, "O.K. Let's do it."
We selected the fabrics for a number of suits and jackets He took me by the arm and led me to the green curtain, which he deftly parted with his free hand. "May I introduce you to Mr. Berman, our fitter," he said with a most deferential tone. My eyes opened wide, and I said, "Are you Sidney Berman who used to have a shop on Olliver Street?" He smiled and said, "Yes I am---My family is in business there since 1870, myself since 1926." Somewhat thoughtlessly, I blurted out, "Do you know that there is a Sharper Image store there now?" A sour look came over his face and he said, "Ptah! May they go into Chapter Eleven and never come out." I said, "I didn't mean to upset you, Mr. Berman- --I have wanted one of your suits all my life." I paused, thought about it for a second, and added, "Well, you know what I mean." The smile returned to his face.
He took out his tape measure while Mr. Pritchard stood ready with an elegant gold pen to record the results. The whole process requires about an hour and involves more than 100 separate data items. I was surprised to see that I had lost four inches from my waist since yesterday. The measurement ritual was complete when Berman discreetly whispered in my ear, "Which side, sir?" With as much nonchalance as I could muster, I replied, "The left." "Very good, sir," was the reply. He retired to a large calendar and said, "A baste fitting will be available six weeks from now." As Berman adjourned to his cutting room, Mr. Pritchard observed solemnly that this was a good time and that Roberto Clemente had to wait six weeks as well. Even here, one apparently does not rush a hand-tailored suit.
I left the fitting room, and Mr. Pritchard had a few more items for my attention including THE trench coat. Not just any raincoat, but an exact duplicate of a 1914 British aviator's flight coat in hard-finish twill, with bone buttons and leather strap closures. "Completely gas-proof when the collar yoke is fastened, with an extra-long belt for tying as well as buckling," he intoned and added, "Our very finest model." "Sold," I said. After some final pleasantries, I made ready to leave, but he stopped me and said, "One moment sir." He retired behind the green curtain and returned with my Pirates jacket. Not only had the torn sleeve been repaired, but the frayed collar and sleeve had been replaced. He said, "Mr. Berman provides fast service for some items. The last time we saw one of these was when Danny Murtaugh visited us."
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The Working Man's Store
I walked out into the afternoon sun and my eyes dazzled a bit after the dark, calm wood and velvet of the Mr. Berman's enclave. I shaded my eyes and looked across the street. It took a second to focus, but my eyes finally made out the words "THE WORKING MAN'S STORE, Al Wrobleski Prop." I did not walk. I abandoned all pretense of nonchalance and ran across the street, feeling a lot like the hick tourist who cannot help but stare upward at the skyscraper. I pressed my face to the window and saw wondrous things. I opened the door with reverence.
The main floor was set with a number of small counters. A mezzanine balcony reached by a round wrought iron staircase. The place was lit by hanging glass globes. The pressed tin ceiling was home to four fans of some archaic vintage. I crossed myself and said, "Dear Lord, don't let this be turned into a fern bar." It felt strange to make a local prayer; the connection seemed to be much better than long distance from Earth. I wandered around the various counters in total amazement.
A very large man dressed in the vest and pants of a nondescript gray-green suit came out of the back room. Everyone here is honest, so most merchants don't even bother to tend the store. The fellow had a battered fedora pushed back on his head and was eating (not smoking) a green cigar. He had a pair of thick black plastic glasses, one of whose hinges had been replaced with a small brass safety pin. He extended his big hand and said, "Hi there, I'm Al. What can I do you for?" I allowed that I was new and required some basic elements of wardrobe. Al waddled over to a wall and produced a large brass hand basket. He carefully unfolded the handles and gave it to me with the suggestion that I should pick out whatever I wanted. He would be available if needed. He turned, paused, and said, "The fittin' room is over there." He pointed to a plain door over which a hand-lettered sign said, "a Maximum of 27 garments may be taken into the fitting room." He retired to a stand-up desk at the front of the store and devoted his attention to a paper which looked suspiciously like the Baseball Digest.
I had a field day. My first choice was a dozen Golden Fleece triple weight 100% cotton tee shirts. They feel great and last forever. Next came a dozen blue cotton chambray work shirts with placket front and a slot for a carpenter's pencil on the left breast pocket. They get better as you wear them. You get extra-heavy starch put in them and you can wear it on the first day with a knit tie. Then you wear it as a sport shirt and then you wear it under a sweater.
There were other treasures yet to be found. I picked a big bundle of cotton crew socks and another bundle of wool socks. I found a pile of collarless button-up tops to a Union Suit in bright red. Four of them went into the box. On a rack, were heavy twill khaki work pants---with watch pocket---in 34x29. They wear forever, but I got threes pairs, just in case. Next were two pairs of button-fly denims and a dozen black muscle tee shirts. The amazing thing was that all the clothes were in the appropriate bin for their size. The best thing about this place is the small things; you never have to sort through a pile to find the Extra Large shirts.
I made my way to the shoe department and lovingly put my hands on a pair of Iron City oil-tanned work boots with "steel safety toe" and braided leather laces. I snapped up a pair of real elk-tanned Top-Siders. Elated with my treasures, I was about to rush off, when---I swear---a pair of alligator skin cowboy boots stepped out at me. They might have been the Holy Grail. It took several minutes just to get the courage to pick them up. Of course, they fit perfectly as does everything else here. (You would expect less?)
Al looked over at me and said, "They're something aint they? Funny thing, they've been there for as long as I can remember and you're the first one that they fit. Lots of guys tried them on." I suggested that I would wear them, and he nodded. I didn't see any athletic shoes, particularly the designer brands. Al said, "Don't get much call for them here. Maybe you can find some over the river." I let that slide, enraptured by my new find.
I brought everything to the counter and Al said, "It's cold outside, how about something for your head?" He produced a hard-finished charcoal gabardine six panel cap with a button in the center. It felt very comfortable pulled down to the left and the brim seemed to jump into the perfect crease. Hoping against hope, I said, "You wouldn't happen to have a suit made out of this material, would you?" He said, "Why sure---let me help you out." Sure enough, he had a whole rack of them. He said, "Wait a minute, you'll need some accessories for that." He rummaged in a drawer and came out with a sleeveless undershirt and a pair of red suspenders. "Just right for sitting on the stoop," he observed. When I tried to pay for my treasure trove, Al said, "Herb what's-his-name came by and set up an account for you. Let's just charge this and I'll have Billy drop it off at your house this afternoon." Here, everyone has an account and everybody delivers.
Hats and Shoes
It was about three o'clock in the afternoon. I had so much luck shopping that I decided to press forward. A brief stroll down the street put me before a rather small store. In gold letters, a sign announced, "MAX BRODT, Manufacturing Hatter." I stepped inside to a world of hats. Mr. Brodt was behind his counter and gave me a pleasant, but quizzical look. I quickly removed my gabardine cap, and nervously muttered something about it being a "temporary stopgap." Again, there was the Heavenly smile. He offered to show me some caps in tweed. I said that I needed something more dressy, perhaps a Homburg. His smile broadened. Remembering the swells at the Radium Club, I inquired about dress hats as well. He became even more expansive and came out from behind the counter and shook my hand warmly. We settled on an opera hat and I looked forward to snapping it open.
He took my measurements with a strange looking machine that had a large number of small dowels set in a grid. When the thing was pressed on your head, the various dowels were pushed upward and left an exact impression of the skull. Each dowel is graduated according to an arcane system, and the hatter can take down sufficient data that allows the cutting of perfect patterns. From that point, wool, felt, and leather would be sewn together and treated with various chemicals and live steam. A silk lining, calfskin sweatband, ribbon, and a feather would complete the job. The whole thing would be wrapped in tissue paper and packaged in its own tall oval hatbox, a delight to behold. It would be delivered.
The completion of my sartorial splendor would be achieved at the cobbler, who was conveniently located in the basement of Mr. Brodt's building. I had to go outside, into the alley. I noticed a large shoe hanging from an iron bracket and an arrow pointing down. I wasn't very surprised---shoemakers are always in the basement. I opened the door and entered a world redolent of oil and leather. The left wall had shelves filled with parcels, neatly wrapped in brown paper and twine. The right wall's shelves were filled with yellow boxes. The parcels were repair orders awaiting customer pickup or delivery. The boxes held the custom "lasts" which had been made for each patron. A display case doubled as a counter.
Inside were several curiosities of the cobbler's art, such as a giant shoe and a pair of curly-toed Moorish slippers, intended to display the considerable talent of the owner. In the back of the shop were all the machines used in the process of making shoes, surrounded by their spider web of leather drive belts. One electric motor drives everything. Regardless of which machine is needed, everything turns. The shop resonated with the peculiar whirring, clattering, and wheezing of this mechanical symphony.
Mr. Scarpini was at work with a small hammer and a mouthful of nails. As he finished the deft nailing of a replacement heel, he produced a razor-sharp curved knife and trimmed the excess to a perfect shape with one undisturbed motion. A small brush dipped into an ancient jar of black varnish gave the proper color to the heel. He lovingly set the shoe down, took a red cloth in his hand and strolled toward me. He made a note on a small slip of paper drawn from the right pocket of his gray shop coat. He approached me and said, "You have shoes for repair, Signor?" "No," I said, "Mr. Pritchard recommended you for several pairs of new shoes." His face beamed, and he said, "Un momento Signor." He withdrew into a small room and, after a few minutes, returned in a dark black jacket. He had carefully washed his hands and slicked back his hair. "Scusi," he said, "even here, is hard to get good help."
I ordered black and brown cap-toe brogans for daily wear. He said, "Mmmn." I mentioned dress pumps for formal wear and black & white spectator shoes for dancing. He smiled and said, "Mmmn Hmm - a Lindy Hopper, huh? We get a lot of them --- when they gonna send up Frankie Manning?"
"Probably never," was my response, because I had just seen him dance with 112 women last May.
I described the high topped shoes with ostrich uppers that I had seen in the Social Club and Scarpini nodded with a big smile. He touched my elbow and said, "I make you spats, eh?" That was just fine with me, to which I added, "White and dove grey---and gloves, too." He laughed and said, "Bene Bene. We have some wine while we make casts." Before I could object, he went back to his office and returned with an earthenware crock and two juice glasses. He poured some wine and we went over the small details. The wine was very good; he had made it from dandelions.
We began the process with a foot bath. He produced a large white enamel wash basin edged in red. I removed shoes and socks, and he carefully washed and dried my feet. He took a length of piano wire and ran it across the top of my foot, over the top of my big toe, down the sole and back up the heel. Both ends were secured to my ankle with tape. I sat patiently while he used an oil to grease my feet; he produced a group of slat-like boards which were assembled into boxes. These were lubricated as well, and he mixed Plaster of Paris. About an inch of plaster was added to the box, followed by my feet and more plaster, covering them to just below the ankle bone.
Sipping my wine, I sat motionless for about half an hour. Scarpini inquired about my background while he kept a trained eye on the casts. He was very pleased to hear that my grandfather had come from a village next to his just outside Naples. He sang Finniculi Finnicula in a most accomplished tenor and made the time pass a little faster with more wine. Eventually, his trained eye determined that the plaster had reached the proper consistency. The slat boxes were carefully disassembled, leaving rectangular blocks. With the piano wire, he deftly sawed through the slightly moist plaster. This yielded two halves of a negative impression which Scarpini will fill with plaster to make an exact replica of my feet. He will use a special machine--- called a pantograph---to duplicate the plaster version in wood. Next, he will shape and sew leather over this wooden foot ---or "last"---to make the uppers of the shoe. Soles, heels, and other details are added to complete the work. Every step is incredibly difficult and takes years to master. If there were no shoe-making machines, the world would be barefoot. Handmade shoes live forever provided that you keep them clean and replace the heels and soles every so often.
Scarpini washed my feet again and handed me a fresh towel. He carefully picked up my alligators, smoothed them with his hands and ran a cloth over them. With a professional but somewhat envious tone, he said, "Nice boots for factory made. Bring them around tomorrow and I reline them with calfskin. A tick here, a tick there and they be thousand times better." I did and they were.
Dinner With Some Luminaries
It was about five in the afternoon when I finally bid farewell to Mr. Scarpini. I planned to walk home, lay down for a while and have a nice dinner. I strolled around for a little while and saw a little sign by an open doorway. It said "St. Vincent De Paul" and it had an arrow pointing down to the cellar. In the past, I had bought some of my best furniture in places like this, so I took a chance. At the bottom of the stairs was a plain door. It was closed, so I turned to leave. Then I thought that there was nothing to lose---after all, everyone had been pretty friendly up to now. Besides, if they were closed, nobody would be there. I knocked. The door opened. A very pleasant older man dressed in the robes of a Franciscan friar stood in the doorway and greeted me in a very soft voice, "How may I help you, son?" It took a second for it to finally sink in---I was talking to Saint Vincent De Paul. I hemmed and hawed for some time. He broke the silence with a smile, "You're new and you have to furnish your apartment." I nodded sheepishly. He said, "It happens all the time, particularly with people who did graduate work. I am apparently more famous for my order's thrift stores than for my work among the poor in Africa. Please step in and have some tea."
The next part is important. I want to get it right but I am afraid words may fail me. Up to this point, everything I experienced had made me comfortable and minimized the shock of transition. However, eternity is not based on cannoli, alligator boots or good service. Rather, all of these good things flow because the folks here know and value themselves and share their good feelings with everyone else. It only took a few minutes in Saint Vincent's presence for me to understand that my job for the next few years would be to find something to do that sprang directly from my inner self. I had to choose a job that I would be excited about doing---something that I would do without getting paid, something that I would grow into and master. I had been admitted because there was, in fact, a task that I could do with that kind of enthusiasm. Of course, I had no idea what that might be. Ordinary folks have to discover themselves here, while Saints have done that on Earth. Saint Vincent is a regular guy; I had a lot of emotions in his presence, but guilt was not one of them. Believe me, saints are not do-gooders. They can pull you along and give you understanding, but they do not make you feel ashamed of anything.
Our conversation must have gone on for three hours, but it seemed like minutes. We talked about subjects from the sublime (cosmology) to the mundane (baseball.) I felt my mind working at five times normal speed. At a pause in the conversation, Saint Vincent said, "You know, I'm hungry. Would you like to join me for some Chinese?" Who was I to turn down a dinner invitation from a Saint? As we walked through the street, he took my arm and said, "I think that you'll like this place and my usual dinner companions." We turned into a little alley and paused at a plain red doorway lit by a bare electric bulb. "No name, but a Saint know about it---must be an amazing restaurant," I thought. I was not disappointed. The door opened to a vision of Oriental splendor. The headwaiter was dressed in a very well cut tuxedo (Berman must be working overtime) and he showed us to an ornate booth covered by a cupola. We sat down and had some more tea.
We were chatting pleasantly when the crowd seemed to come alive with a collective murmur. I looked up and the headwaiter was guiding two very well-dressed and distinguished oriental gentlemen through the room in the general direction of our table. The two were apparently out for a night on the town, since they were fully decked out in white tie and tails. They were the picture of sophistication. The taller man was quite old, but he had a lively step. He was wearing perfectly round tortoise-shell glasses which magnified his expressive eyes. The other man was short and somewhat overweight. His smooth moon face was deeply tanned and highlighted by a brilliant smile. As they walked through the room, they paused to wave, smile, shake hands with the gents, and kiss the ladies. As they approached our table, Saint Vincent rose; reflexively, I got up as well. Two waiters had appeared from nowhere and seated our visitors with great deference. Saint Vincent extended his right hand, palm up and said, "I would like to introduce you to Mr. Confucius and Mr. Gautama."
Both smiled pleasantly at me as I stood there. I was ready to shake hands, but my index finger reflexively pointed to the left and the right in rapid oscillation as my mouth fell open, first a little and then a lot. All that I could manage was something like, "You are THAT Mr. Confucius and Mr. Gautama?" I was interrupted by Confucius who broke in, "Yes, that's us, Mr. Mind and Mr. Activity, the joy-boys from the East." To which the Buddha added, "Say, how about the feel of one hand shaking? Put her there, pard." Dazed, I shook both hands. I noticed that Buddha had slipped something onto Confucius' chair behind his back. When we sat down, a peculiar sound emanated from the old sage's direction; his eyes opened to big circles, magnified ever so much the more by his glasses. There was a flutter of awareness and then he did a slow burn, turning slowly to Buddha. At this time, Gautama broke out laughing and pointed to the foil of his joke and managed to get out , "Be always alert," but then lost it as he said, "especially for whoopee cushions!" At this, both men doubled up. Confucius removed his glasses and wiped his eyes with a handkerchief. Regaining his composure, he said, "When substance exceeds refinement, one becomes rude. When refinement exceeds substance, one becomes urbane. It is only when one's substance and refinement are properly blended that he becomes a superior man." He put his left hand on the Buddha's shoulder and offered him his hand to show that there were no hard feelings, adding, "The superior man is conciliatory."
Buddha did not see the joy buzzer. At the sound of "bzzzt", it was Buddha's turn for wide-eyed amazement. Confucius said, "The superior man understands righteousness." Buddha recovered and said, Raji han o hiku. ("The leper drags his friends along with him.") They laughed and hugged each other. Then I noticed that they had placed "Kick Me" signs on each others' backs.
I don't know what happened to me, but the whole tableau made me very uneasy. I turned to Saint Vincent and asked him if I might speak for a moment. He said, "Yes, I believe that I know what you are thinking. Please, go ahead." Our guests gave me encouragement as well, and expressed genuine concern. My little monologue went something like this, "This is my first full day here and I really don't know much about what goes on. I've always had great respect for the three of you, so I don't want to offend, but . . ." I paused for a second. My companions encouraged me to go on, so I continued, "I am having a lot of trouble deciding whether any of this is real. This neighborhood is just like Bloomfield, Saint Vincent looks and sounds like a Christian Brothers commercial, and you two could pass for the heavies in a Dashiell Hammet novel. Now, what's really going on here?"
My guests smiled and I got the confidence to elaborate, "Grand Master K'ung. Is that right?" Confucius smiled and nodded. I continued, "Grand Master K'ung, you spent your whole life teaching that a man with virtue establishes his own character by establishing the character of others. Where is the jen in a whoopee cushion? And you, Lord Buddha, in what bhodisatva did you get that whoopee cushion? Is this the dharma of Don Rickles? Why should this place be just like my childhood? Why don't you guys act like leaders of major religions? Please tell me what's going on."
Saint Vincent put his hand on my shoulder and began, "Let me assure you that everything is quite "real". This is really happening and you are not imagining it. The Grand Master and the Bhagavat are the real McCoy. Since you are a mathematician, let me ask you a question: "What is the difference between Euclidean and Non-Euclidean geometry?" I answered, "The Parallel Postulate: In Euclidean geometry one and only one line may be drawn through a fixed point parallel to a given line. There are a number of variants which change this axiom. Riemann founded a school where an infinite number of parallel lines may be drawn through the point. There are others where no such lines may be drawn. Riemann's version is the basis for the Theory of Relativity." Buddha said, "Guess what --- Riemann was right." I sat back and said, "How about that." Perhaps too eagerly, I added, "Have you got an algorithm for generating prime numbers?" Confucius spoke up, " I understand your curiosity. My first question here was "Can the Tao be learned?" In time, all technical questions will be answered. Let's stick to the point of your question. Knowledge depends on objective reality to be correct, but what it depends on is uncertain and changeable. How do we know that what I call T'ien (Heaven) is not really man and what I call man is not really T'ien?"
Gautama then spoke, "Nirvana can only be attained with a pure mind arising from absolute quietude and only after erroneous thoughts are eliminated. See your own nature and become a Buddha. It is most important that the pupil discover the truth himself, so I have made a point of inspiring teachers to 'Never tell too plainly.' Time---and we have had a lot of it---has taught us that any unorthodox method of shocking a pupil out of outmoded mental habits and preconceived opinions can render his mind pure, clear, and thoroughly awakened. Examine your state of mind now and compare it with before. Is your life a pair of alligator boots?"
Saint Vincent added his perspective, "My son, your purpose here is to find yourself and thereby to find God. Your reality is comforting to you so that you may pursue your search. Build from this point to something sublime. For example, consider this perfect lotus blossom." He showed me the most beautiful white flower I had ever seen. As I gazed into it, I got a face full of water. My three companions cracked up and roared with laughter. I had been initiated into the gang. We had a great meal. Without boring you with the details, let me say that if you are going out for Chinese, go with Confucius. My consciousness was certainly expanded; I spent much of the evening looking out for plastic insects in the drinks, itching powder, and exploding cigars.
The LifeVision Channel
Yes, we have television here---4000 channels of it, enough to serve every niche market in Paradise. Among lots of others, we have channels for Wing Care, Unicyclists, Basic and Advanced Harp and collectors of Zippo Lighters. Did you know that a series of dots (".") and slashes ("/") stamped on the bottom of the case are a code for the date when each Zippo lighter was manufactured? Did you know that the Zippo company honors its lifetime guarantee even here? Yep---and Sears' warranty on Craftsman tools still holds here. Of course, everything has an ironclad lifetime warranty here and folks are downright cheerful about honoring them. Without further digression, let me say that television is very informative. About a month ago, I got a flier from the Cable Company that advertised a new interactive service. Called LifeVision, it makes it possible for you to view past events in your life on Earth. I thought about it for a while and decided to take them up on a free trial offer. I wanted to look back on my very brief career as a professional musician. After installing some new software, I sat back in my armchair and this is what I saw:
The program took me back to the spring of 1968. I had just returned to graduate school after a stint in New York. It was also the first time that I saw Leo Greenblatt. He was about eighteen and was playing twelve bar blues on an old Gibson guitar in the student union at Carnegie Tech. He had obviously been listening to the right music, mostly Robert Johnson and Muddy Waters. We got a lot of would-be troubadours at the time. Mostly they were runaways playing for change or Dylan wannabes, out to "find America." What caught my ear was Leo's singing. He was not just another white boy imitating the blues. He had amazing control of time and phrasing and his music truly came from the heart---although it was unlikely that a doctor's son from Squirrel Hill had done any heavy duty suffering. Something about Leo was definitely appealing; people would want to listen to this guy sing.
I would have dropped some change in Leo's guitar case and gone on with my life, but Don Newman and Haskell Small arrived at just the right moment. They recognized Leo's talent as well. In what seemed like another life, Don and I had endured seven long years of woodwind lessons, taught by Jerry Levine of the Civic Light Opera orchestra. Jerry stressed the syrupy sweet saxophone, a style which was guaranteed to be non-threatening to parents or high school music teachers. On a weekly basis, we enraged Jerry with our wailing version of the Memphis horn sound. Don went to Pitt and then came to Tech for graduate work. Along the way, he had become the best harmonica player in the city. Haskell had been an electrical engineer and had switched to a piano major. He has since become a concert pianist of note.
We seized the moment and invited Leo over for coffee to find out whether he would be interested in playing with a band. He was a loner and a musical iconoclast, but he realized the need for more sound than his acoustic guitar could provide. He agreed to a jam. Haskell got a rehearsal room and I called Chuck Pettis and Leif Gurjoy to round out the ensemble. Chuck was a graduate student in physics and was a fairly good bass player. Leif was finishing his doctorate in math and was our drummer. We had to do a lot of scrounging to find equipment. Fortunately, Paul Snyder an MBA candidate at GSIA was able to round up a few amplifiers and even lent Leo his own prized Telecaster. I had an alto sax, Don had all the harmonicas needed, Leif had his drums, and Chuck had a stand-up bass. After about an hour of patching, we were wired for sound. The first results were impressive. Paul helped Leo adapt his acoustic style to electric. The rest of us had been away from R&B so long that we hung around in the background providing low-ego support for Leo's pyrotechnics. The first jam lasted for six hours. At four in the morning, over eggs and coffee at Ritters, a band had been born.
We called it Tiger Rose and T-Bird, after the two cheapest wines on the State Store list. This reflected our taste for down and out blues and our desire to keep our names out of it for fear of offending parents and graduate faculty advisors alike. Plus, we thought that it would help us get bar and fraternity gigs. My dad let us use his shop on the North Side for rehearsals. Paul turned out to be a great arranger and also served as Leo's mentor, teaching him the subtle nuances of the electric guitar. Don and I visited Sonny Gelman's pawn shop in East Liberty. After a few hours of bargaining, we emerged with tenor and baritone saxes. Paul provided some great horn arrangements to show off the band's new muscle.
Sonia and Judy, two friends of mine, were our first audience. Unfortunately, our debut was less than thrilling. Sonia seemed to think that we lacked showmanship. She actually said, "You look like a bunch of white guys holding instruments." She called attention to our choreography, specifically the lack of it. We were so rusty that we just stood there trying to play the music. The baritone sax was quite heavy and I had to sit down to play it. Leo was introspective and never looked at the audience. We spent a lot of time between numbers fiddling with the equipment and deciding on keys. Leo had to re-tune his guitar to play slide numbers. All of these things added up to a band that would put people to sleep.
Sonia took it upon herself to clean up the act and provided a lot of suggestions that improved things dramatically. First, she got us dressed right. Leo wouldn't wear anything but a work shirt and khakis, but that was O.K. because it fit his image. She got Chuck and Leif to wear black turtlenecks and pants and put Don and I into silver gray sharkskin suits, white-on-white shirts, and thin ties. She even got me a fake diamond pinky ring. Eventually, Don and I acquired alligator leather shoes, French clocked socks, and sunglasses---ten years before the Blues Brothers. Paul worked out a play list that would get people dancing and Sonia provided some moves that would convince our audience that we actually did have rhythm.
For me, all of this took an incredible amount of work. As I used the interactive controls to look at the context of the activity. I can certainly see my graduate work suffering. My professors look a bit threadbare as they worry about my "commitment." All you have to do is fast-forward to the crowd to see why my commitment might be a bit on the wane. There always seems to be one cute little teeny-bopper at every gig who seems to be transfixed by our music. I wish that this software could allow me to fast forward on their lives to see what became of them. How many of these hip little flower children turned into Volvo-driving housewives who can only talk about their "perfect child?" Even Buddha cannot explain this mysterious component of the nature of Woman.
I prevailed on my old fraternity, Delta Upsilon, to set the stage for our first gig---a Friday night open mixer. With some arm-twisting, the boys got most of the social chairmen of the other houses at Pitt and Tech to attend. In addition, they used their West Virginia bootlegging connection to provide the ingredients for their celebrated grain alcohol punch. The D.U.'s made sure that the place would be full of girls from all the nursing schools in the area. If we couldn't get that group rocking, we knew that we had no future in the music business. We inhaled deeply, ran onto the stage and began with "Knock on Wood." We blew them away---helped greatly by the D.U.'s punch.
As word of mouth spread about the party, we gained a reputation as a band associated with excessive use of alcohol. We went on to play at fraternity parties at Pitt and Tech. For some reason, we had a big following at Kenyon College. We were often invited to do three gigs on a weekend, playing on Friday night, Saturday afternoon, and Saturday night. I can drive from Pittsburgh to Gambier in my sleep and I probably did just that several times.
We evolved into a classic R&B band, inspired by greats like Sam and Dave, King Curtis, Booker T and the M.G.'s, the Iseley Brothers, and Otis Redding. We had a lot of fun and made a little bit of money. At the time, the only thing that sold big was acid rock and groups with psychedelic names like the Marshmallow Steam Shovel. As I watched our one-and-only one recording session, I was amazed at the clown that we drew for an A&R man. He wanted us to do all sorts of things to "make the music appealing to kids" like sing one song through a telephone handset. The guy had stupid little chickenshit sideburns, a style worn by men who wanted to spend weekdays in the straight world and weekends on the hip scene. He even started out one conversation with, "What's your sign?" I am convinced that we got nowhere in the recording industry because he didn't think there were many twelve-year old girls who would think of us as "cute."
The band died of neglect as we got on with our lives. Apart from Haskell, the guys have gone on to more "normal" professions. Leo even cleaned up his act and eventually went to medical school. I put my sax down and rarely picked it up again as I pursued my career in engineering.
I enjoyed the glance back at the past. I wish that they had software to project what your life might have been if you had made different choices.
For obvious reasons, there are no car dealerships here. If you want a car, you have to restore one. Now, I'll bet you thought the phrase "auto graveyard" was a figure of speech. Nope. The best old cars come here. There's a big junk yard outside of town and you can pick up a wreck and fix it up. Surprised? What do you think happened to all the '32 Fords and '53 Mercurys? They are either here or in Cuba. I spent some time looking at wrecks but I couldn't make up my mind. Well, there's a lot of time and no need to make a decision until the moment is right.
Travel broadens the mind, so I spent some time touring the place. You don't need a car. It is very easy to hitch hike. In fact, all the big rigs have the same sign painted on the door of the cab:
Due to all of the delivering, there are a lot of trucks here. My first ride was in a '57 PeterBilt Special with chrome fenders; the rest had been painted gloss black with an orange center line stripe. We were hauling a reefer with a load of fresh oranges. Eddie Schwerin, the driver, had been an accountant who spent most of his time on Earth daydreaming about a life on the road. He had found a career of pure bliss. He was the cynosure of every truck stop and never had to spend any time behind a desk in a small room. Merle Haggard was on the sound system as we talked about the truck, the weather, and baseball. I rode with him for more than six hundred miles. I left him in a small town in the desert at a truck stop that was made of adobe. Indian blankets were sold there When I wanted to leave, it was only a few minutes before I got a ride in a '50 White Cab-Over Freightliner. This driver, whose name was "just Fred", had a double-size sleeper and lived in his truck. I accepted his invitation to get some shut-eye while he took the rig into the mountains for the night. When I awoke, it was snowing lightly. We wound our way through the mountain roads as the snow frosted the pine trees. At 6:30 a.m., we pulled into a roadside inn made out of field stone and logs. Beside the giant fireplace, we enjoyed a huge trucker's breakfast of eggs, buckwheat cakes, and strong coffee. My companion was on a tight schedule and did not have sufficient time to enjoy the surroundings. He looked at his watch and said, "Well, time to press on." My eye was drawn to an object in the far corner. I strolled across the room and stood there in wonder. I said, "Fred, I won't be going on with you." He shook my hand and left.
I was looking at a Wurlitzer Model 1015 jukebox, complete with color wheels in its sides, art deco die-castings, and---most important---bubble tubes. It has a mahogany case that stands about five feet tall with an arched top surrounded by two cylindrical glass tubes. The arch was surmounted by a chrome and ruby glass keystone. Twenty four red pushbuttons set in a chrome panel enabled one to play each side of any or all of twelve 78 rpm discs held in stainless steel rings, provided that one had a nickel for each song. Six plays for a quarter. There were more than 56,000 of these beauties made between 1946 and 1947. Almost all wound up in Heaven. This particular box was loaded with the pantheon---Louis Armstrong, Red Allen, Duke Ellington, Bob Wills, Riley Puckett, the Harlem Hamfats, Gene Austin, Billie Holliday, Fletcher Henderson, Jimmy Lunceford, Muggsy Spanier, and Pee Wee Russell. I blew a dollar and listened to them all while I watched the bubbles. I was doing a little Lindy Charleston in place when the waitress did a fishtail up and said, "Are you hep to the jive?" I reached out for her right hand with my left and kipped her about seven feet in the air. Did you know that everyone does aerials here? I liked it so much that I decided to stay for a little bit and enjoy the mountain scenery as well as the music.
I rented a small cabin for a few days. There always seems to be a nearby room that is charming and inexpensive. The manager found a pair of Nordic skis and boots that fit me. I left early one morning to explore the mountains. I was able to get around and see things up close because snow always packs well and it is easy to break trail. I had only brought along some crackers and cheese, so by three in the afternoon, I was pretty hungry. I paused at the top of a hill to admire a bighorn sheep and looked around. To my surprise, there was a small village nestled in the valley below. I made a quick run down the hill and found myself in the mining town of Rust.A few inquiries led me to Rosie's Cantina and a table before a blazing fire. It turned out that Rosie was a figure of legend; a guy named Jack was the owner, cook, waiter, and bartender. He perished in the Donner expedition and fell in love with the mountains. I did not find it unusual that he served exclusively vegetarian Tex-Mex fare; I had a great meal of bean burritos and rice. Jack's specialty is a pepper sauce that is only slightly cooler than a thermonuclear reaction. The fifty-odd residents of Rust were largely the unlucky among the Forty-Niners. They roam the hills in the summers and find enough gold to spend the winter at Rosie's. I spent much of the early evening listening to stories of the Gold Rush . As it got darker, I did not look forward to skiing home in pitch blackness. An old miner named Gus said that he had to drive over to the other side of the mountains. He offered me a lift which I eagerly accepted. He left to get his car while I said goodbye to my new friends. After a while, a horn honked.
1949 DeSoto Station Wagon
I walked out and was stunned to see a 1949 DeSoto station wagon, "the woodie nobody remembers." DeSoto didn't get into the wood-bodied station wagon market until 1949 and hoped this model would tap a growing market of suburbanites. The wagon was clearly inspired by its upscale competitor, the Chrysler Town and Country. Only 850 of these wagons were built. The chassis, hood and front fenders are the standard 125 inch sedan, but the rear half features white ash rails with contrasting panels and an all-steel roof.
The wagon would accommodate eight people, three each in the first two bench seats and two in the back. The spare tire enclosed in the tailgate is a feature unique to the 1949 model. The front end has the characteristic DeSoto "waterfall grille" which gives the car a toothy smile. Gus took great pride in showing me the 112 hp in-line six engine that was clean as a whistle. We lowered the rear two bench seats and loaded my skis. The wagon has a very smooth ride,. I was amazed by the absence of rattles, something rare even in the best-restored woodies.
When we got to my cabin, I thanked Gus for the ride. As I split some wood for the evening's fire, I looked back with great pleasure on the day. Exhausted, I fell asleep immediately and did not wake up until 7:00 a.m..
In the morning, I felt it was time to move on to new horizons. After another mountain breakfast, I paid my bill and only had to stand outside for ten minutes before a Bekins moving van came along. The driver had been a dentist on Earth and chose his profession to get as far away from teeth as he could. I was lucky --- he was going all the way to the coast and seemed delighted to have me along. He was an opera buff. We didn't talk much but listened to some wonderful stuff while the scenery whizzed by. He had a particularly good sound system in the truck. I was amazed at what they can do with old Caruso recordings up here. Better yet, there's a service that you can dial up that allows you to download ANY piece of music that has ever been recorded and download it onto a CD. Better yet, they have very friendly, knowledgeable operators. Of course, there is an ambitious program of making NEW recordings from artists who have arrived here. Although I don't much care for Lauritz Melchoir's new hip-hop album, Franz Haydn's tribute to Billy Strayhorn is doing very well.
I took copious notes on the audio system, because I wanted to have one just like it---or better. I heard a bell sound and I realized I had made a decision. Here, the future is made up of a lot of small decisions. It's nice to have freedom to make them without a lot of hassle.
There are a lot of truck stops here and they always seem to pop up on the horizon when you're hungry. Promptly at lunch time, a small town appeared on the horizon. Forgive me, but I'm going to digress a bit here. Saint Vincent told me that one of the most frequent signs of disorientation among newcomers is the "Film Fantasy." You have this crazy feeling there is a whole gang of artists, carpenters, and actors who are creating reality in front of you as you move along. I have found myself looking closely at the edge of things, searching for traces that things might have been left unfinished. I keep looking at faces in the crowd, thinking that the same extras may be used for different parts. Saint Vincent assures me that I am not creating this reality. He says that I am discovering and following one of an infinite number of possible variants on each moment made possible---of course---by non-Euclidean geometry.
The Andy Hardy Town
Whatever its origin, this little town had been dreamed up by the same guys who created the Andy Hardy movies. The town square had Civil War era cannons at each corner flanked by little pyramids of cannonballs. The square was enclosed by a wrought iron fence and had a small bandstand at the center. The buildings in the surrounding square were made of limestone. It seemed that all the stores were doing well. Just outside the square was a 1940s vintage gas station faced in blue and yellow terra-cotta tile; the attendant actually had on a white shirt, bow tie and a paper overseas cap. He had red hair and freckles. Next to the gas station was a streamlined diner with a stainless steel roof and white enamel sides.
The name "LINDHOLM'S" had been painted on the roof and the building was surrounded on all four sides with low, well-trimmed shrubbery. Strangest of all, there was a green marquee, trimmed with white piping which ran from the entrance to the street; at the entrance was a script "L" set in a laurel wreath. An American flag fluttered in the light breeze on a tall pole to the left of the entrance.
My companion pulled into the gas station for a fill-up and tire pressure check. I decided to look this town over just a bit more, so I thanked him for his trouble and departed. He smiled and said, "I liked this town the first time I saw it, too." As the cream and red aerodynamic shape of the van receded into the distance, I walked under the marquee and into the diner.
It was an O'Mahony car, as snappy inside as out. It had a two-tone monitor ceiling of Formica, light blue with a white center strip. One of the trademarks of dining car design in the 1930s was the generous use of reflective surfaces. The stainless steel backbar with a stylized floral design was a visual center, picking up the light bouncing and flashing through the room. Careful attention had been paid to the total look, as all parts were designed to mesh into a single image. Since this diner had been built in the thirties, the Art Deco influence was strong. Especially handsome was the tiled floor of diamond-shaped black and white that gave the optical illusion of cubical forms. The chrome stools, with octagonal bases and fluted chrome bases, were covered in blue leather. Blue marbleized Formica was used liberally, covering the counter and tabletops. The backbar hood was black Formica, inlaid with designs that looked like a circle pierced by a stylized "S". The cash register was spackle-finished black with chrome edges.
I worked there for a week as a short order cook and got high marks for my Lyonnaise potatoes. Did I tell you that everybody is a vegetarian here? Who could kill any of the good animals that get here? Eggs don't count. Cows are glad to give milk. Plants don't have an afterlife, something about photosynthesis. Relax, everything tastes great---you can cook it in as much fat as you want. Would you trade a steak for a chocolate cake? Of course you would! On the other hand, it would not be right to have a world without without cheeseburgers. Fortunately, there is a giant factory that synthesizes vegetable proteins for just this purpose. You have to come here to get a good hamburger substitute. I got to be pretty good at cooking - I even concocted Eggs Benedict for one guy---I made the Hollandaise in the blender and used bacon substitute.
When I wasn't working, the drug store was one of my favorite places. The storefront was plate glass set in dark wooden frames surmounted with a rectangular leaded glass panel that bore the owner's name ("TIMBERLAKE") in ruby red as well as the words "SODA" and "DRUGS." Above the door rested two majestic crystal jars, each shaped like a classical amphora, holding red and green liquid. Prior to its present incarnation, a small bank was housed there and its influence was felt in the beamed 20 foot vaulted ceiling, skylight, and roof-line diamond-paned glass lunettes. Double-height glass and mahogany display cases had been built into the walls. A ladder was affixed to a brass rail and could be moved to access the upper cases. Signs advertised that the store sold not only prescription drugs, but also cosmetics, notions, garden supplies and house paint. Particular attention was drawn to the fact that such paints were "hand-mixed on the premises."
For me, the principal attraction was the soda fountain and a row of small round stainless steel tables topped with white marble. The chairs were metal, but the backs were draped with starched linen covers adding an unexpected soft touch. The first time I walked back to the fountain, my eye was drawn to a large wooden rack of comic books. I was astounded to find a 1947 issue of Blackhawk, from the period when they were still flying propellor planes. I could almost hear Olaf, the big Swede saying "Yumpin' Yiminy!" (or "You ban have a rotten swingout!")
This is common here --- where did you think all of the old comic books and baseball cards went when your mom threw them out? The thirteen issues of Life with Lindy stuff in them are as common as dirt. One guy has his room wallpapered with covers from the August 23, 1943 issue. (A few weeks ago, I was in a jam with Kaye Popp, the girl on the cover)
I picked up the Blackhawk and took it to the soda fountain, to be read with a Coke and a package of toxic-orange peanut butter crackers. The girl at the fountain said, "Want to try a balloon?" She pointed to a piece of clothesline stretched the length of the counter that was festooned with balloons. The idea is that you pay a quarter, pick a balloon, pop it open, and find a little paper slip that identifies a prize. I said, "O.K." I picked a blue balloon at the end. I hit the jackpot---the Banana Split. (Well, here---they probably were all banana splits). It was prepared in the strict canonical form: From left to right, the scoops of ice cream were strawberry, vanilla, and chocolate. Pineapple topping went on the chocolate scoop, strawberry topping on the vanilla, and chocolate on the strawberry. Whipped cream covered the lot, finished with a cherry on each scoop. I had the option of ordering nuts. I did. I still have the Blackhawk.
I stayed at the Antlers Hotel and played checkers with the night manager. I also spent a considerable amount of time in the Billiards Parlor of that establishment. John La Rowe, a former prizefighter, presides over this elegant temple to unhurried study of the laws of Newtonian mechanics. The long, narrow room is the home of eight intricately carved Brunswick pocket billiard tables, each resplendent in quiet green felt with gold tassels on the pockets. The walls are wainscoted in dark chestnut and surmounted by wallpaper in an acanthus leaf pattern. The floor is polished wood, although each table rests on an island of medallion enameled tile. Windsor chairs line the perimeter of the room and brass cuspidors have been thoughtfully provided for tobacco-chewing customers. The lighting fixtures had once burned gas, but have now been converted for electricity. Incongruously, the windows are covered with lace sheers. An ornate cue rack with an elaborate beveled glass mirror stands at the center of the room, behind John's stand-up desk. In play, it is only necessary to call "Rack!" and a small man in a white linen coat, named "Shorty April", will appear and deftly form the triangle using a wooden frame. Each rack costs was five cents and in a full evening, one might spend $5.
During my time there, I met a number of characters, including "No Hat" Cohen and the Three Fingers Commissioner--- "Three Fingers" because he lacked two on his left hand and "Commissioner" because he arranged games rather than playing. Another guy is called the "Green Archer" and dresses like the cartoon character including green suede shoes. He is a pinball wizard who often works a hustle with one of the two Zombies---either White Zombie, a giant albino or Plain Zombie an ex-tailor who could answer any question about Laurel and Hardy movies.
Of all things, the principal non-billiards activity at the Antlers was world-class high-stakes charades. Although my colleagues lacked formal education, they shone in the area of mimetics. I was astounded at little Tommy Hopkins who never made it through grade school; one night he deciphered "Dusolina Giannini sang the role of Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madama Butterfly." This was no mean feat.
I went to a church social and a high school football game. I went to amateur night at the movies. It was very nice. It was strange that I didn't meet anyone famous. I had sort of expected the minister to be Norman Vincent Peale or the High School football coach to be Vince Lombardi, but it was not the case. There were no saints, religious luminaries, or former presidents. Just average folks who had been drawn to this place. I liked it very much, but the bell did not ring. I knew it was time to move on.
My Grandfathers on LifeVision
[Editor's Note: The 4000 channel cable system offers a premium service called the LifeVision Channel where one can look back at your past life.]
I was thrilled with my trip. This sure is a great place. (Yes, that's another understatement.) As soon as I got back, I bought fresh vegetables in the market and made a big salad. After that, I brewed coffee and tuned into the LifeVision Channel. I thought that it would be nice to look back at my family, just for old times sake. The first tape that I selected was about my paternal grandfather. Please join me while I look at it again:
My Dad's father was born in 1860 in Rocca D'Aspide, a small mountain town about ten miles from Salerno in the Campania region of Italy. At the time of his birth, Italy was not yet a nation. He was nominally a subject of the Kingdom of Naples which was then affiliated with France through its Bourbon king. On the other hand, the entire Campania region was in the midst of a revolt led by Garibaldi that eventually led to the unification of an independent Italy under King Victor Emmanuel. Having visited Rocca D'Aspide, I am certain that the news of independence came late and had little or no impact. Campania had changed rulers with each generation for the past six hundred years.
The turmoil proved to be very hard on the people, especially poor. The railroad was one of the few beneficial impacts of Italian unification; at the age of twelve, my grandfather got a job as a track maintenance laborer. Although this was important to his family, it had the unfortunate effect of ending his formal education. He worked hard and by age twenty two had progressed to the point that he could afford to marry. He told me how he walked ten miles through the hills to Aquara, a small town east of Rocca D'Aspide, to court my future grandmother. My Uncle John was born in 1883, my Uncle Ralph in 1887, my Uncle Sal in 1889, and my Uncle Vince in 1892. Things went fairly well until the panic of 1898 sent the world into fiscal chaos. The railroad went bankrupt and left grandfather without a job. He tried a number of different jobs but finally came to the conclusion that opportunity lay elsewhere.
The family emigrated to the United States from Naples in 1904. My Dad was born in 1905 and Uncle Tony, the baby of the family, was born in 1908. Grandfather worked on the Subways in New York as a laborer and eventually got a job with the Pennsylvania Railroad. Uncle John married and settled in Philadelphia while Uncle Sal stayed in New York. Uncle Vince joined the army and was killed in Word War I. With promotions, the family moved west from New York, helping to bring other family members from Italy. Thus, I have relatives (of varying distance) in Newark, Lancaster, Harrisburg, Altoona, and Johnstown. Grandfather settled in Pittsburgh when he got a yard manager's job but support for immigration continued and we have family all along the railroad---Chicago, Lincoln, Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Los Angeles. If you take the train west, there is always someone with our name in the phone directory. The family came to Pittsburgh in 1910. Initially they lived in a tenement, but their great dream was to own a house.
One of the yard manager's perquisites was first right of claim on packing crates. This was 1910-1920 when everything came packed in wood. Big shipments, like boilers, came in crates made of substantial timber, usually oak. Smaller things, like optical equipment, came from across the sea in mahogany or teak. Back then, wood was a throwaway item. Grandfather saved wood for five years. He carted bricks in a wheelbarrow from demolition sites and cadged things like windows and doors. Eventually, Dad, Uncle Tony, and Grandfather, built a house in Bloomfield at the end of Juniper Street on a lot in the hollow where no one else wanted to live. They also made their own furniture. My grandmother did washing and baking and managed to accumulate enough money for a piano---the only thing in the house that wasn't made out of those packing crates. The house wasn't plain, either---everything that could be carved was richly embellished. There was even a stained glass window. The place was filled with books. The house burned down a few years after he passed on to a life of bocce in the Park down the street.
Prior to my relocation, I saved few pieces of grandfather's furniture and proudly displayed them with more established "antiques." My favorite was his interpretation of the club wing chair, something that I always called it the "pompous chair." It has massive doric columns as the uprights (turned out of solid oak, about 6 in diameter) and very exaggerated wings. There is a matching Ottoman. Grandfather was very small. As I look at him on LifeVision he has the stature of a king reading to me from that chair as I sit on the footstool.
He's still a great guy---I liked that tape so much that I phoned and asked him to come over. In fact, I think I hear him at the door now. Excuse me for a minute.
I like the fact that LifeVision is all done through the computer. You can scan records and save little bits and pieces. I'm trying to assemble a home video album of my family. The next tape I ordered up was my mother's father, another interesting fellow,but very different from my other grandfather. He was an illegitimate child, born in 1879 near Palmi, a small town in the Calabria region of Italy,the "toe" of the "boot". Escaping the censure of her small town, his mother emigrated to the United States in 1880. When he entered the country, he was officially registered as Alfonso DiGiglio, his mother's maiden name. She went to live with relatives in Steubenville, Ohio and eventually married James Curcio and moved to Washington, Pennsylvania, a small town southwest of Pittsburgh. Although the child was supposed to have been adopted and baptized as Michael Curcio, the formal paperwork never seemed to catch up with him. Although he was a well-known businessman in the Pittsburgh area for over nearly fifty years, he had no official record. He, too was a big influence on my life, because Dad wasn't released from the Navy until late in 1946 and my mother lived with her parents at that time.
I was never told the story of his birth while he was alive. The story came to me as a great surprise when I was investigated for a security clearance. The process seeks to weed out possible "plants" by checking one's parentage back two generations to prevent an "enemy" from using the birth records of a child who died in infancy. My application rang alarms, because my grandfather was officially nonexistent. I had to spend a lot of time in the Washington (Pa) area ferreting out the whole affair. I finally found an old woman of the Curcio clan who was able to provide some of the details. I finally tracked down a copy of the marriage certificate and baptismal record and got my clearance.
Grandfather Curcio was in the wholesale grocery business, the most rough and tumble game outside the ring. As an illegitimate child, he was ill-treated by his stepfather, more like a houseboy than a son. The family business was fruit and produce and to this day, Curcio's in "Little Washington" is still the place where the wealthy buy perfect pears and raspberries out of season. It fell to Grandpa Mike to make the weary journey to the Strip in Pittsburgh every night, except Saturday, to bring the fruit and vegetables home. Wholesale produce auctions are a running swindle; you can only learn your way around by painful experience. The thugs who load and unload the rail cars and trucks have to be handled with a mixture of grease, humor, and a solid right hand. Bananas really did come in stalks with tarantulas; grandpa had ten of them in mayonnaise jars to prove it.
From 1900 to 1924, he slugged it out in the Strip for his adopted family, living on pennies in a shack with a family that eventually numbered nine children. My mother was born in 1917. When he saved enough to start his own stall, he got nothing from the Curcios. By 1930, he was established on the Strip and worked there until he sold out to a Korean family in 1970. I liked him very much, especially when he would tell me stories in the quiet of his grape arbor. Where, given a beneficial environment, my father's father would have been an academic or artist, grandfather Curcio would have been a captain of industry. He came here on a boat with sails; he lived until 1979, long enough to see space travel become passe.
I have a lot of respect for my two grandfathers. They were a
very strong and omnipresent influence. More than once, I didn't
get into trouble because I was working in grandpa's store rather
than cruising around with the gang. Of course, doing well in
school was the only way out of Dad's kitchen business, so I also
had a lot of "inverse" motivation to do well in school.
I have mostly good memories of growing up, particularly of the
"extended parenting" of the rich Pittsburgh
A Trip With Eleanor Schano
It's time to tell you some other things about my new home.
First, there is no sex here. (I can hear the boos and hisses already.) I can't write sex scenes for love or money, so this came as a relief to me. What kind of a story would this be if there was sex? Would I be fooling around with comic books? Now that I have gotten around to the topic of relationships between the sexes, I owe it to you to elaborate. There is no biological role for sex --- membership here is the one thing in the universe that you have to earn and not inherit. Men and women get along so well that there is no need for sex. If we strip our human relationships of biology and defensiveness, what is left? Mutual respect, communication, and understanding are the essence. Here, everyone is as secure, good looking, and happy as they choose to make themselves. Why shouldn't the sexes get along in perfect harmony?
In case you're wondering, all good animals come here --- we have been getting a lot of deer lately. One of the first things that happen to you is that all your favorite dogs come running up to you on the street. And as I said before, something about photosynthesis keeps the plants renewing themselves.)
Second (on a more mundane note), all truck stops share one thing in common. When you go into the rest room, there is always a red door and a green door. Well, that's not quite true---there are always hot water, soap, and a clean towel on the roller. Thanks to non-Euclidean geometry, the red door always opens on an alley outside your home. I'll tell you about the green door later. Thus, no matter how far you travel, home is only as far away as the next truck stop. That really helps when it snows. For some reason, it only works one way.
On my hitch hiking trip, I found that you get a lot of rides with people as well as truckers. Not being a sexist, I was rather surprised to see how many blondes in convertibles were out travelling; that and blues musicians, with a smattering of baseball players and mathematicians.
My best ride was with Eleanor Schano, who used to be the weather lady on Channel 2 back in Pittsburgh when I was a kid. For those of you who don't know or remember her, she was a tall blonde woman who could be conservatively described as "statuesque." She was very popular with the male viewers. When Dad developed a sudden interest in meteorology, it was a bone of contention in my home. I met her once when I was 14, I had a job pumping gas at Munson's Esso on Perry Highway. She came into the station driving a red T-Bird convertible. It was a hot day and she was wearing a brief halter-top outfit. I stood there with my mouth open and, totally dumbstruck, let the gas overflow the tank. She gave me a big tip and said that every older woman needs something like that every so often.
When I met her again, she had moved up to a big black 1953 Cadillac convertible with red leather upholstery. The '53 was the first and, arguably, the finest of the El Dorados. Only 533 were made and each carried the whopping price tag of $7,750. I only had to look at it for a second to pinpoint the model. It differed from the stock Model 62 convertible by a rakish dip cut into the doors. The rear end (of the car) has classy little fins and the front end had enormous chrome bullet shaped "Dagmar" bumpers. The body was almost custom made with extensive use of lead filler, making the car very susceptible to rust and very difficult to restore. The El Dorado was distinguished in its time as the first car with a wraparound windshield --- and wind wings to boot. The left tail light lifts up to fill the gas tank.
It has a 331 cubic inch V-8 engine --- in the words of the great Joe Maher, "eight kittens purring and you can really make them cry." This version had every luxury option that Cadillac offered including the Autronic Electric Eye and power brakes. Factory air was not available on convertibles, but who needs it here, anyway? Eleanor was quite nice as well. I had a strange feeling that this particular non-Euclidean path had condemned her to drive along a desert highway, wearing a flimsy black dress. I asked a series of discreetly probing questions about her reasons for being on that road at that particular time.
She is a truly nice person and had a good laugh when I finally got around to discussing my perception of events here. She assured me that she was on her way home from a visit to her mother and that she rarely drove on this road. Nevertheless, I still had a vague feeling that I was making all this happen. Or- --and worse---none of this was what it seemed, something like a cosmic multidimensional ink blot and I was actually riding on a big lizard, only interpreting it to be a Caddy. Every time that I try to talk to Buddha about this all I get are vague but charming epigrams. Sometimes I get a hotfoot. Here, it's best to accept things as they are. Eleanor and I had a great conversation on the way to the coast.
It turns out she really was interested in meteorology and was not just a pretty face. Of course, there is no need for weatherpersons here, since the weather is always just fine. She is still in the broadcasting industry and has a great show on TV where she explains new technology to folks more than 100 years old. I was surprised to hear that: From the beginning of time until 1900 about 2 billion people were born From 1900 to 2000, 4 billion people were born Thus, most of the people here are relatively young and reasonably comfortable with technology.
I am sorry to tell you that regulations prohibit me from giving even a rough estimate of the number of people here. This is sort of the same rule that the IRS employs about the number of tax returns that it audits. I can, however, say that everyone has an equal opportunity to get in and that admission depends on what you do, not who you know.
Eleanor and I drove for the whole afternoon and early evening. As the sun was setting, we spotted a small restaurant and motel. Actually, the sign advertised that it had "The Other World's Largest Lighted Dance Floor." We stopped and had a very nice dinner and, by golly, the dance floor was lighted and it was huge. Chick Webb was playing, and he had Lionel Hampton sitting in on vibes. It was apparently an off night. Eleanor has a great swingout and taught me seven new Charleston moves that I had never seen before. Some other non-Euclidean rule makes it possible to lead complex choreographed moves by just thinking about it. We had gotten through most of the Lindy scene in Hellzapoppin' when Maxie Dorf showed up and blew us away in the jam.
At about midnight, Eleanor said that she didn't want to drive further. She suggested that we stay right here. I didn't object because I was tired as well. She excused herself for a moment and returned with a key --- one key. I didn't say anything, but my mind was racing. This is some sort of secret temptation. It's a test. I smiled and said, "Great. I'll be back in a minute."
I ran to the nearest phone and called Herb. Fortunately, by some other Non-Euclidean mechanism, he always answers the phone. I told him my story and I felt distinctly like a wimp. He laughed and said, "Sure. It's OK---there's no sex Here." Just the same, I had him check his computer. I could tell that he was a bit put out. After a few minutes, he was able to confirm that Eleanor was not an agent of the Opposition.
I have thought about this possibility once or twice a week since I was 14.
All told, we spent about six weeks together surfing, going to nightclubs, and dining at a wide variety of ethnic restaurants. This was all good clean fun and I feel that I ought to repeat that there is no sex here. Although I had a great time, I heard no bells ringing. I knew that it was time to leave.
Another thing about this place is that goodbyes are easy. After all, you have all the time in the world and you can always go back. We were having lunch at a truck stop along the coast. After some thought, I simply told her my feelings. Although I enjoyed my trip, I just hadn't made any progress toward finding a purpose for the rest of my stay here. I had to get back to finding my way. She understood right away. I gave her a hug and a peck on the cheek and then headed for the red door.
My Dad on LifeVision
Of course, Dad is very important to me. I selected two LifeVision tapes of him, illustrating interesting points in his life. The first goes back well before I was born, to the time of Prohibition.
Back then, the only requirement for a nightclub was a room, preferably in a secluded location. Even though the public had an insatiable appetite for illegal liquor, the invisible hand of the free market still moved to allocate resources to those who provided the best service. Thus, the investor with an eye on the upscale dollar sought to provide his customers with some ambiance, preferably in the high style of the day. Investment in physical plant was, of necessity, tempered by the fact that the enterprise was illegal and could be subject to elimination at any time. Thus, few entrepreneurs were willing to countenance a planning horizon longer than, say, a month.
This is academic jargon for the fact that people were willing to pay more for liquor if it was served with "class." No mobster was willing to provide any more style than he could afford to lose in a raid. Thus, speakeasies opened and closed at a dizzying rate.
This created a market niche during the Great Depression for craftsmen who could provide such facilities. Thus, my Dad got his start in commercial carpentry by building cheap plywood bars and booths for speakeasies. The style of the time was Art Deco but working fast at night with cheap materials put a crimp on some of the finer touches and flourishes.
Dad did one or two of these things a week for most of 1930 and 1931. He had a crew of ten working by 1932. The secret to his success was prefabrication, offering the chthonic entrepreneur several fixed design options and adapting them to the floor plan of the room. In other words, he sold speakeasies by the yard.
During the day, his crew would cut plywood and pre-fit the components; these would be knocked down and trucked to the site for assembly at night. Only a small amount of finish carpentry was required. Of course, special touches like a kitchen or powder room were extra and required more time. Grandpa says that pizza was the food most often served at speakeasies because it only required an oven. Local Italian women supplied the dough, sauce, and other ingredients. Spicy pizza also increased the demand for beer.
The tape shows that sanitation was not that great --- he gets few calls for sinks or hot water heaters. Many patrons brought their own glass, although the rotgut whisky and beer was probably so full of toxic substances that germs were the least of the health problems. Grandpa remembered that one mobster used a lead-soldered auto radiator as a condenser for his still. He also recalls that at New Years, bootleggers used to manufacture "champagne" by injecting carbon dioxide into homemade white wine, a process known as "needling." This stuff was sold to the better elements of the city at $10 a bottle, a fortune in those times.
Both the Volstead Act and Dad's business came to an end in 1933. A lot of his stuff survived Repeal and existed for some years in Pittsburgh. Lou's in Shadyside was one of his creations. Hub's Pub on Butler Street --- the temple to the boxer Fritzie Zivic --- is another.
The full flower of Dad's era in speakeasies is now a hot dog shop in Washington, Pa calle d "Shorty's." Created for a mobster with some style, it includes dark plywood wainscoting under blond plywood panelling with chrome trim. All of the booths have a circular mirror. The chairs have three legs. The bar is rounded and there is a flying wing clock. and indirect lighting under the cornice mouldings. Raymond Loewy, eat your heart out.
Most important to me, it was during this period of enterprise that Dad met Mom. I often draw analogies between Prohibition and the current Drug Problem on Earth; I cannot, however, conceive of any family getting its start in life through the decoration of crack houses.
The next tape from LifeVision illustrates another side of Dad after his kitchen business got started, during the post-WWII housing boom. The business had finally gotten into the black. A lot of houses had been built in the North Hills of Pittsburgh and they all required "modern" kitchens. Of particula r note were two developments with the ominous names of "Plan Number 7" and "Plan Number 9." Sounding more like housing for the masses in Albania, they were constructed by the Brown and Vaughn Corporation before public relations specialists began dreaming up names like "Swanwood" or "Hunters Chase", or "Chancre Del Diablo."
Plan 7 is off McKnight Road and features streets named after characters in Morte D'Artur (Lancelot, Guinevere, Merlin, etc.) Plan 9 is on Cumberland Road between McKnight an d US 19. Apart from general kitsch, I can't place the theme of this plan because the streets have names like Lindisfarne, Longvue, Oakview, Bella Vista. Perhaps, it is a tribute to eyesight.
In both "plans", the houses are repetitions of two basic designs, the "rambler" (an insipid one story design) and the "colonial" (a similarly insipid two story design.) The only break in the monotony is that sometimes the garage is on the left and other times it is on the right.
Dad did most of the kitchens for both Plans and it was his firm opinion that one would have to be an idiot to live in those "cracker boxes." He and Mr. Bittner, his salesman, spent a lot of time working with the housewives who, in turn, took special interest in their kitchen. Actually, "special interest" is too mild a term; it was more like a Holy Quest.
Thanks to LifeVision, I have a record of a typical sales call. You will, however, have to supply the falsetto voice of the lady:
In fact, the kitchen in every Brown and Vaughn home was exactly the same. It was a 12'x14' room with three doors and four windows. There were, at maximum, three floor plans that would actually work. In the end, Dad would write down either "A", "B", or "C" on the order form.
Mr. Bittner would take measurements for psychological effect but there were probably ten kitchens on the floor of the shop at any given time that would fit any of these houses like a glove. For all the protestations of individuality, about 80% of our jobs in the "Plans" specified Primrose Skylark, a yellow Formica with little designs that looked like boomerangs. Yellow was very big in postwar kitchens.
Dad always made the sale because he included the Breakfast Nook. He had Uncle Al shoot a picture of one of our cookie-cutter kitchens using models that looked like the characters in the Dick and Jane books. "Father", "Sis", and "Brother" were sitting at the Breakfast Nook, while Mother --- wearing pearl earrings, a cocktail dress, and a little white apron ---w as shoveling eggs at them while they laughed, probably at one of Father's bon mots. They even had a Cocker Spaniel looking up intently at the whole happy family. The legend said, "Every day starts out right in an Art-Craft Kitchen."
This photo was the irresistible part of our sales pitch in the Plans. When I was studying marketing at college, I was reminded of Bruce Barton's advertising dictum "sell the sizzle, not the steak." Dad was no dummy --- he provided fantasy to an insatiable audience. It even worked on me. I wanted to have breakfast in such a kitchen some day when I had finished College and met the perfect woman.
My Uncle Tony, a jazz musician, told me that the woman who played "Mother" was a hooker, the food was rubber, the Cocker Spaniel urinated on the floor, and that there was an X-rated version of the photo showing "Father" and "Mother" finding another use for the Breakfast Nook. I have never seen this latter item and Dad always attributed its postulated existence to Uncle Tony's twisted mind. I'm not good enough with the LifeVision software to end the dispute.
My Introduction to the Larger World As Seen on LifeVision
I thoroughly enjoyed my hitch-hiking trip around my new home. The time that I spent with Eleanor led me to think that I could sort out my future by rooting around in the past. Thus, I loaded the software for LifeVision and ordered several tapes. Please join me as I go through them.
The first tape begins at the 1952 Allegheny County Fair, held at South Park. We went every year and I liked the animals, especially the prize cows, sheep, and pigs. They were always so well-groomed and obedient. They also had a daredevil show, with guys jumping their cars over ramps and driving through rings of fire. In the Main Hall, men and women demonstrated marvelous products like potato peelers, cherry pitters, and donut makers. Once, we bought a gadget that was guaranteed to open anything--- bottles, cans, jars, King Tut's tomb, you name it. It had the word "Androck" stamped on the top. I used it to open a jar of pickles on the night before I set out on my last trip before I came here.
After we bought the Androck, we passed by a display of the World Book Encyclopedia. A volume had been placed open on a table to show an attractive picture of a steam locomotive. When I picked it up, an eager salesman pounced on Mom. The sales pitch took a long, long time.
I found it necessary to use the Fast Forward button, also zipping through multiple consultations of a heated nature between Mom and Dad. I slowed the tape down to the point where we drove home with a signed contract for one set of encyclopedias, student model, with a subscription for yearly updates. I scanned ahead to the point in time when the books finally came. I enjoyed watching Dad make a bookcase for the encyclopedias. As he was applying wood-grain formica to the case, he muttered something to one of his employees about how the salesman, variously described as"huckster" or "leech", had wanted him to pay $50 for such a case.
I remember that I liked the World Books and read them like novels. They were always there to answer questions. After watching a movie with an historical or biographical theme, I would always go to the old World Books to find out more. Through this, I came to understand the phrase "cinematic license." This always pleased Mom and even got a nod of approval from Dad, who was pleased to see some use made of his massive investment.
In the next LifeVision tape, I selected a few months in 1954. During this period, the Pittsburgh Public Schools did standardized testing. In the Fall and in the Spring, the teacher would hand out thick test booklets and we would spend the day filling in little circles with the answers. The cover said something like "California Achievement Battery" and it had a whole bunch of cryptic symbols and spaces on the front, ominously marked "For Administrative Use Only." As the tape began, I saw my teacher distributing the forms and "special pencils". We were warned not to open the book.
Actually, you couldn't because there was a round piece of paper pasted over the end. She took out a stopwatch, told us to tear open the book and begin. I didn't mind these tests at all. I seemed to be able to answer all the questions in the time tha t was allowed. The only problem was that we never found out how well we did. I asked the teacher once and she said, "That's confidential." In 1954, the annual tests were very easy for me because they asked about a lot of stuff that was in the encyclopedia.
After the May tests, my parents and I were asked to visit the principal. Dad hated these visits because he had to leave work. A call to the Office always began with a presupposition of guilt, "What the hell have you done now?" For this particular visit, we also had to go see the school psychologist all the way over in Oakland. Mom was afraid of the word "psychologist". I was strictly warned to to talk about this to anybody. There were interviews and more tests that took several days.
I was introduced to Miss Fanny Boyce, who struck me as very "old-fashioned." Her graying hair was tied in a bun and she wore severe tailored clothes with high-collared blouses as well as sensible shoes. She seemed to really like me and said that she was a "statistician", the first time I had ever heard that word. She explained that I had done very well on all my tests, that I was being recommended for a "double promotion" into the seventh grade. Further, I would be able to take special Saturday classes at Carnegie Tech.
This sounded great to me, because Mrs. Marcozzi, the sixth grade teacher, was supposed to be a real sour pickle. Mom was thrilled. Dad was concerned about the cost, but it turned out that the classes were free. Thus, I began preparations for entering the Arsenal Jr./Sr. High School. I had an appointment with Dr. Boyce every month. She was interested in my progress and listened to my problems. Her academic advice was first rate, but her social advice was out of synch with the times.I remember that she wrote down rules for popularity. Aside from wearing clean clothes and smiling a lot, I remember one suggestion very clearly. She wrote it out on a 3x5 card in her faultless copperplate script: "Dip into newspapers, books, and periodicals for interesting facts about current events. People will always want to engage in conversation a person with an interesting perspective on the times." I actually tried this. I went to the library and made little cards about interesting things, consulting the Pittsburgh Press as well as Time, Life, and Look magazines. Then, I walked up to a girl at Arsenal and actually tried to make conversation with her about Sherman Adams and his vicu–a coat. I might as well have been speaking Greek.
It seemed to me the kids at school always had access to information that I didn't. Where did fashion trends come from? Where did jokes come from? Where did dance steps come from? These were all mysteries to me. As I look at the tape, I was a real geek. I had to dress like the men in Aunt Helen's office because I was going to College some day. I had to wear glasses with thick plastic frames because anything else might get broken. Dad cu t my hair because barbers were expensive.
I began my love affair with streetcars and Carnegie Tech. I treasured my trips on Saturday. After a lot of cajoling, Mom eventually let me ride the streetcar by myself. Sometimes, I walked the whole way and pocketed my carfare for forbidden treats like comic books. When we moved to the suburbs, I rode my bike to West View and took the streetcar from there. I found a lot of places to stop and eat along the way. As I write this, I am reminded of the way that some of my friends used to chauffeur their kids from "activity" to "activity" in what seems like a never ending Gypsy caravan. I had none of this service, but maybe there are more perverts out there now than there were in 1954.
Carnegie Tech was another story. Everyone there looked like me and you could talk to people. The Saturday classes were really lectures given by various faculty members on what was then called "popular science." I got to hear about physics, astronomy, architecture, mathematics, music, and everything else that was taught at Tech. Later, I found out the City provided Tech with about $500 per lecture. This series was a prized plum for professors whose remuneration was not exactly magnificent. I also got to meet kids from all sorts of places in the city, including rich schools like Taylor-Alderdice, Schenley, and Mount Lebanon.
These kids were mostly very nice, although I was very intimidated by their talk of trips to far-away places such as New York, Chicago, Florida, and Europe. Mom was proud that I was going to Carnegie Tech, but she also saw it as a fountain of troublesome ideas. Mom really got the jitters when I talked of girls that I had met.
I slewed the LifeVision tape to Christmas. One of these girls had given me a recording of Messiah. I played it for Mom and she got very troubled by the "Hallelujah Chorus." She immediately decided that the people at Carnegie Tech were trying to turn me into a "holy roller." I tried everything that I could to convince her this was classical music. She remained implacable and continued to wail about girls and "holy rollers". Dad got into the act and began to recite all my transgressions from age four, with the constant implication that I wa s "easily led." He darkly suggested that I should cease hanging around with "those spoiled rich kids."
Finally, I got Aunt Helen to come over and describe how this was indeed a legitimate work of art for which American people had an inordinate fondness. She explained that this was how the English people did Opera and pointed out advertisements in the Press for performances of Messiah at the East Liberty Presbyterian Church, where the Mellons went. "If it was Opera, it must be good, " thought Mom, "but why do the 'better'American people want to shout 'hallelujah' like the holy rollers?" Dad listened to the record once and thought that it was repetitive. He said, "Couldn't they think up more words?"
Culture clash was frequent at our house.
I spent about a year getting my apartment fixed up. A great hardware store is right across the street. It is owned by Bud Swain who ran a hardware store before he came here. His store is long and narrow with very high ceilings. Every inch of space is stocked with the necessities of life. The goods are displayed in boxes and barrels. Bud can find anything although you won't find anything in little plastic packages.
Every year, Bud distributes a calendar with all kinds of almanac information. The calendar usually has pictures of steam locomotives, but this year he went to poker-playing dogs. No home workshop should be without one of Bud's calendars. Bud always has the right tool or part for the job. He has snow shovels in winter and air conditioner parts in the summer. Not only that, he lives above the store and doesn't mind opening up on Sunday night or after midnight if something goes wrong. Bud is another one of the really good things about this place. My job on the woodwork went quickly --- here, paint stripper works the first time and you don't have to wear gloves. As I think about it, I haven't bent a nail or stripped a thread since I got here.
Another peculiar thing I have noticed is that studs are reliably on 16 inch centers. Saint Vincent knows a lot about furniture, learned from prayers that begin like, "Lord, please let that be a real Stickley Morris chair." A lot of graduate students have gone through Saint Vincent's chain of thrift stores over the years and he is very well informed about antiques and collectibles. He has great taste and sees to it that a lot of good stuff gets up here.
(Technically, here, we call these outbursts metaprayers, but I have it on good authority that all requests, even the spurious ones get a hearing. Not all requests are actionable - especially when military leaders or football coaches call for assistance. The authorities do not help any athletic team, not even Notre Dame.)
If you haven't seen any bowling shirts in the thrift stores for a while, it is because there is a fad for them here. I had Saint Vincent over for dinner and he brought me an electric blue King Louie bowling shirt that had been made for the Glen Lumber company in Beaver Falls. The back includes the company name superimposed over an embroidered beaver holding a hammer and a T-Square. The front proclaims in orange script that the shirt had belonged to one "Rummy DeCicco." I get farther at swank clubs with it than my dress suit although Berman did a great job.
Saint Vincent provided a lot of leads on furniture and I have got the place nearly complete. Yesterday, he located a blue glass Tiffany shade with grapes. One night, he brought Pablo Picasso over for pizza and got him to paint my bedroom white. He did a good job, was very neat, and signed it in one corner. Another night, Dr. Christiaan Barnard was our guest and carved the turkey. The Saint is very High Concept.
I have been busy building some shelves and I have set up my table saw in the garage. Although I like furniture, the bookstores in Heaven have attracted my interest and I need lots of shelves. The best way to decorate is with books.
I was busy with my carpentry when a messenger showed up. It was a kid in a black uniform with two rows of brass buttons. He had a leather bag around his shoulder and was riding a Schwinn Black Phantom bike. All of the parts that would have normally been chrome had been brass-plated. The messenger cut quite an imposing figure. He opened his bag and produced a single sheet of onionskin. Here is the message:
I looked at the note and then I looked at the messenger. Then I looked at the paper again. The messenger said, "He does all His own typing." I was pleased to see that we had a real hands-on CEO. I didn't say "Doesn't He have a spell- checker
Needless to say, I didn't get much sleep that night. I got up at 6:00 a.m. and the first thing that I did was call Saint Vincent and ask him what to wear. He suggested a conservative business suit. I didn't have any objection to wearing a suit to meet God. Just in case Confucius was playing another of his practical jokes, I called Herb as well. He assured me that this was a real interview and advised me to, "Relax and be yourself." Uh Huh.
I got dressed and caught a cab to the address on the message. The driver was impressed. I was expecting a grand white palace on a hill. I was surprised when the cab turned into a rather run-down warehouse neighborhood. Although cab drivers here speak English and know their way around, the neighborhood was a bit distressing. I said, "Are you sure this is the place?" He said, "Yep. Everyone asks that question."
He let me out in front of a small building. The store on the first floor sold wholesale novelty goods. There was a large stuffed rabbit in the window. A small brass plaque in the stairwell said, "Celestial Productions." An arrow directed me to a long flight of stairs; the names of various religions had been painted on the riser of each step. I'm not going to list them, because I might inadvertently leave one out and get somebody mad. Let me say that it was a long flight of stairs. The rubber treads were well-worn and in many places I could see the shiny heads of nails.
A dark green door with a frosted glass window was at the top of the stairs. A hand-lettered card in the corner of the window advised me, "Ring for Entry." A rather large old-fashioned push-button had been installed on the left stile of the door. The screws holding the button in were of differen t sizes and one was a brass Phillips head and the other slotted galvanized The wire had been affixed to the door stile with big insulated staples. A big hammer dent was next to one of the staples. I pressed the button and heard a buzzing sound as the door was electronically unlocked. I opened the door and entered into a small waiting room.
A plain wooden armchair rested on a linoleum floor of an obscure maroon color. One of Bud Swain's calendars was on the wall, hung with a nail that was a bit too large. Beyond me was a waist-high wooden railing with a gate. Behind that was a gray metal desk at which an older woman was seated. She had gray hair drawn in to a bun and was wearing half-glasses. She had on a white crocheted sweater that was decorated by a small watch on a pin. She was collating papers, slowly assembling each group and then whacking a huge stapler to fasten them together. Across the room from her was a rather large PBX station manned by another older woman who had dyed her hair raven black and had a beauty mark. She was good at her job. I gathered that the place got lots of calls, because the board was lit up like a Christmas tree.Beside these two, the room was filled with filing cabinets and lit by a glass globe that was also part of a ceiling fan. Another frosted glass door was at the rear of this area. Both women paid no attention to me. I was early, having arrived at about 10:15. I waited for a few minutes, shifting back and forth in the chair. There were no magazines to read. I spent a few minutes thinking of what to say.I looked out the window at the pigeons. I noticed that one of them was dazzling white. As I thought about this, I was greatly surprised to hear live music. Two saxophones playing a moderately difficult jazz piece. Someone was very good and someone was having problems with vibrato. After a while, the gray-haired lady rose, opened the gate in the railing and said, "You can go in now." She motioned to the other door. As I approached it, I saw that "GOD" had been painted in small letters at the lower right corner.
I took a deep breath and opened the door. To my surprise, there was not a blinding flash of light. In fact, the inner office was much like the lobby. I saw two men with tenor saxophones sitting on wooden chairs, with music stands in front of each. One was black, in his mid-thirties, and a bit overweight; he wore a blue suit, dark tie, and a diamond pinky ring. The other was white, about sixty with curly red hair, and a high forehead. He was wearing dark horn rim glasses and a well-tailored grey suit. He was in his vest and a suit coat was draped over the back of the chair. He had undone the French cuffs of his crisp white Swiss voile shirt and had rolled up the sleeves. Both men stopped playing and smiled at me when I entered.I recognized one man. They continued to smile and motioned me to come closer. I was very excited and I turned to the black man and said, "Are you Charlie Parker?" He smiled and nodded. It took just a second to sink in. I whirled around and said, "Then you must be . . ." He smiled and nodded. All I could think of was, "Hosanna in the Highest." Then I got down on both knees and asked forgiveness for turning my back on Him.The two broke out in laughter and God said, "Here, now, that's all right. Let me help you up." He took my hand and pulled. There was a tingle and I felt better than I ever had felt in my life. He pointed to a third chair and asked me to sit for a while until he finished his lesson. The Yardbird resumed his duties and asked God to improvise on a theme in Mixylodian mode. The Lord did pretty good, but he had some work to do on fingering.
Parker finished the lesson with a suggestion for some exercises, set his horn down on a stand, and put his sheet music into an attache case. The Lord looked over to me and said, "Is something on your mind, son?" I was so excited that I got a bit carried away and blurted out, "So. God takes sax lessons from Charlie Parker..." He smiled and said, "I like to do some things the hard way. It keeps me in touch with the flock." He turned to Bird and said, "I know that this fellow is one of your biggest fans. Why don't we give him a real welcome and play something together?" Bird nodded. The Lord turned to me and said, "Anything that you want to hear?" Immediately, I responded, "How about 'Ornithology'? If it pleases you as well, Lord."
He said, "I was thinking of the same thing." He went through a black door and came back with a stand-up bass. As he tuned it, he said, "I learned this a while ago." Indeed, He had. They were great. I applauded wildly and gave Charlie a high five. In my enthusiasm, I turned to the Lord and raised my hand. Then I thought about it and said, "Thank you Lord." He smiled again, put His hand on my shoulder and said, "Why don't you play anymore?" I started off with the old excuses---my hearing, my teeth. He continued to look through me and I finally said, "I lost confidence in myself. I didn't think that I could make it as a musician. Mathematics seemed to be a lot more secure."He put both hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eyes and said, "Well, you have a lot of time here. Would you give it a try?" He paused for a moment and said, "Wait a second." The Lord went to His battered walnut desk and picked up a black candlestick phone. He said something to the receptionist and paused. Looking over to me, He said, "Just a second here." His attention returned to the phone as the party answered. He talked for a moment and then hung up.
Returning, He said, "You know, I really liked Tiger Rose. You had a good sound but the big picture was the British Invasion. I really didn't have time for small groups." Just then, the black steel door opened wide. There was a dazzling white light behind it. A tall, good-looking young man entered the room. He was wearing a tailored black uniform with wings embroidered over the left breast pocket. He could have been a Lufthansa flight attendant. He carried a brown leather case. He handed it to God, who shook his hand and said, "Thanks Manny." The Lord put the case down on the arms of his desk chair and opened it. Inside was a gold Selmer Bandsman tenor saxophone, the top of the line in the 1956 catalogue.
"Take it and play again," was His advice as He closed the case. Then Charlie Parker spoke up, "Say, maybe you want to sit in with us from time to time." The Lord nodded. Bird reached into his attache case, gave me some charts, and said, "Here's some stuff to start you off. Work on it and let's get together next week. Start out slow." The Lord smiled and said, "Well, that's good. Let's have some lunch. I know a good place." It sounded good to me.
The Lord asked us to ride with Him, but He had a few things to take care of. Charlie and I sat quietly in one corner of the office. I calmed down sufficiently to observe my surroundings. Everything was businesslike. A couch, several wooden chairs, and the desk were the primary furnishings. On second glance, I noticed a roll-top desk in an alcove as well. The walls were panelled in knotty pine. Wall decorations were somewhat sparse. There was a group photo of distinguished men. I recognized Confucius and Gautama and had a hunch that two others were Moses and Mohammed. They were all smiling and making the "We're Number One" gesture. Well, Buddha had raised two fingers behind Confucius' head . . . A small painting by Leonardo DaVinci hung on the wall between the windows. The paper-strewn desk had an old Underwood typewriter, inkwell, and the black candlestick phone.
The Lord made some notes on a yellow legal pad with a mechanical pencil that was a souvenir from the 1939 New York World's Fair. Then He took a call. While He was talking, He held the mouthpiece of the phone between the ring finger and little finger of His left hand and the earpiece with the remaining fingers and thumb. This left His right hand free. It was a neat trick. He got up and walked to the small roll-top desk. He withdrew His key chain and used a little gold key to unlock the desk. He rolled back the lid, revealing a computer inside. Reflexively, I got up to see what kind of computer God uses. I saw the rainbow Apple logo and the words "Quadra 100000". It had twenty-four CD-ROM drives. I was relieved to see that this is a MacIntosh company.
The screen-saver was a slowly rotating representation of the Milky Way. The Lord spoke and the familiar Mac desk-top pattern appeared. He motioned with His free right hand and opened an application that displayed a variety of abstract shapes. (He had replaced the mouse with an infrared sensor.) He pointed with His index finger and the application responded. Disk drives lit up and a light on a strange peripheral device changed from red to green. Then, it was over. The screen saver came back up. The Lord closed the lid and locked the desk. He walked over to His working desk and pressed a buzzer. He saw that I was curious and said, "I'm testing some software for answering prayers."
Lunch with the Boss
A very, very big man came through the black door. He was dressed in a dove grey tunic and wore a black cap. He held the Lord's suit coat and brushed Him with a whisk broom. As he worked, I recognized him. I said, "You're Big Daddy Lipscomb, aren't you?" The big man smiled and nodded. The Lord pointed to me and said, "Tell him how you and your Dad used to faithfully watch the Steelers, even during the Black Years of the 1960s." I nodded and added that I remembered the famous goal line stand against Baltimore when Big Daddy (his real name is Eugene) "clotheslined" two of their biggest men.
We left through the front office. The Lord's staff stood when he walked through. We made our way down the long flight of stairs and out into the sunlight. Presently, a long black car drew up. What a car! 1941 Cadillac It was a 1941 Cadillac Series 75 division-window eight passenger limousine, one of only 28 made. It had polished mahogany bumpers, indicating that it was one of the few that had been manufactured after December 7, when chrome was strictly rationed during the war. I ran my hand over them and Big Daddy told me that they had the replacement bumpers in their original crates as they were delivered in 1947. The Lord prefers the wood bumpers.
The massive black machine was perfectly polished as it sat there on its huge whitewall tires. A flying goddess served as the hood ornament and the Cadillac Imperial Eagle with upturned wings dominated the hood. The 320 cubic inch V-8 engine purred noiselessly under the hood. Heavy cast aluminum egg crate louvers decorated the hood, leading up to the minimalist front grille. The front fenders were marked with three characteristic chrome strips. Two military spotlights with pearl handles and a siren completed the effect.
Big Daddy held open the door and we entered the passenger compartment, upholstered in Wilton cloth. The Lord sat on the right of the oversized back seat and Charlie joined him on the left, separated by an armrest/console that held a phone. I pulled down the jump seat. The Lord lowered the division window and I saw that our chauffeur was a man as big as Mr. Lipscomb, but was obviously an Hasidic Jew. He had the payess, a prayer cloth over his tunic, and a yarmulke. The Lord spoke to him in Hebrew and he nodded. Big Daddy got into the front seat. As the Lord closed the division window, He looked at me and said, "Yes, that's Samson." The Lord sure does travel in style.
As we rolled noiselessly through the streets, He took a few phone calls. I had no clue to the content of these conversations, since His end was mostly limited to "Yes" or "No." We stopped in front of a small restaurant. A small crowd had gathered and the two bodyguards gently cleared the way. There was a lot of cheering and I heard praise in several languages. The Lord waved at the crowd and said, "Thank you all for coming. It's great to see you all. Have a nice day." Then the sun came out. He motioned to an old woman who was about four feet tall. Samson carefully guided her to Him. The Lord bent down and gave her a big hug saying, "Mrs. Meir, it's always a pleasure to see you. I trust that everything is going well." She smiled.
With a final wave to the crowd, the Lord turned to Charlie and me and said, "I'm hungry. Let's eat." We entered the building but Mr. Lipscomb and Samson stayed with the car. I go t a good look at the sign over the door. Here is what it looked like: OTTO MOSHER'S VAUDEVILLE DELICATESSEN. As we entered, I noticed that the room had a deli case running the length of one wall. There were small wooden tables and chairs and, in the back, a number of booths, the largest of which had a round table. The tables were set with blue and white checked table cloths, upon which sat a blue bowl filled with pickles, and green tomatoes. The waiters were older men in white coats and aprons who seemed to be constantly scurrying across the polished wood floor.
The white walls were were hung with lobby cards for minstre l and variety shows. In the pressed tin ceiling, six brass fans slowly rotated. In the center of the room was an upright piano; behind it was a rack of local, out-of-state, and trade newspapers conveniently bound on wooden rollers Chalk boards advertised the day's specials. Our party was greeted by Mr. Mosher, who deferentially guided us to the large table in the back. Mosher unfolded the Lord's napkin , placed it in His lap and steeped back a pace. Cupping his hands, he said, "May I get you something to drink, Lord?"
God said, "Some seltzer with lime." In unison, Charlie and I said, "Great idea!" Immediately, a waiter brought a wire-bound seltzer bottle on a tray with glasses and sliced limes. The Lord picked up the seltzer bottle and I braced myself for more Zen consciousness-raising. He poured a glass of seltzer for each of us and offered the limes.
I don't mean to imply that God is without humor. Once, I was part of a foursome with Saint Andrew, Saint Vincent, and the Lord. God teed up and hit a slice that was headed pretty far into the rough. An eagle caught the ball, carried it over the green and dropped it. The ball swiftly toward the pin, ran around the rim and headed toward the bunker. Then, a mole popped through the surface and deflected the ball back into the cup. God smiled. Saint Andrew did a slow burn and said, "Are you going to play golf or screw around?" That's about the limit for God's involvement in celestial horseplay.
During our lunch, we chatted about the historical role of Jazz, which He viewed as a pure expression of individuality within cooperative effort. As He was talking, He looked up, smiled, and summoned a waiter to whom He whispered a few sentences. Turning to us, He said, "I want you both to meet someone special." A man in his thirties slowly approached the table. The Lord rose and beckoned to him. A waiter hurried to the table with a chair. "My friends, please meet Eddie Skolnik," said the Lord, "He organized a jazz band in the Gulag and managed to record an hour of material." Eddie looked down at his feet for a moment. Then he grinned and said, "I have audience of two---first KGB then God. Was best unknown demo in history." We laughed and the Lord said, "You'll join us for lunch?" "Yeah, sure," replied the Russian.
The Lord selected a half-cured pickle and took a healthy crunching bite. He removed his glasses from a needlepoint case in his breast pocket, snapped them open and perused the menu. He lifted his right hand ever so slightly and Mr. Mosher, flanked by two waiters, sprang to his side. The Lord ordered borscht, an omelette with onions and green peppers, blintzes, and a poppy seed bagel. Mosher smiled at me and I said, "Sounds fine to me. The same." Charlie and Eddie said something similar. Take my advice, always order what God is having. I have never seen so many poppy seeds on a bagel.
After we finished this course, Mosher brought a china platter covered with Haemontaschen---prune and poppy---and Rugelach. "From my mother's recipe," he proudly announced. A waiter set out a large tray of fresh figs and dates. A second waiter brought a chocolate cream pie, fancifully decorated in whipped cream that must have been two feet in diameter. A third waiter brought a tray with a large silver pot of coffee and cups.
As we enjoyed our dessert, the Lord said, "This place is a hangout for show business folk. I don't think that it will take much encouragement for them to provide some entertainment for us. Eh, Mosher." "Immediately, My Lord," replied the proprietor. We were first treated to some dialect humor by Joe Weber and Lew Fields, the original vaudeville comedy team of Weber and Fields. They performed without benefit of their trademark chinwhiskers and outrageous floral print waistcoats, but kept us in stitches with gems like:
Next, we were treated to "The Sweetheart of Sigma Chi", rendered by the legendary Conrad Ryan, the definitive burlesque tenor. This account really requires an enclosed CD because I would like to share with you his voice in full falsetto as he reached for an impossible high note and then fell back halfway like an exhausted mountain climber.
For years, Connie Ryan had dodged tomatoes up and down the burlesque circuit. He sang with such good will and such confidence in himself that your eyes told you what your ears would not believe.
We were treated to a performance by Dexter Maitland who plied his trade as the Candy Butcher at the Irving Palace Theater. Of all the people who have passed into vaudeville fame, perhaps the most beloved is the candy butcher. I have no understanding of why---this rogue gulled the customers regularly. In a twenty-five cent candy box he offered them fabulous prizes that turned out to be worthless. At intermission he came out waving books guaranteed to have the spiciest pictures ever seen---and they wouldn't have shocked your grandmother. Maybe it was his attitude. It certainly wasn't his English. No one has mangled the language more in a desperate effort to sell his woebegone products.
Dexter's refrain went sort of like this: Good evening ladies and gentlemen. Today we have some fabulous prizes for each and every one of you. A gen-u-wine gold watch, a string of poils, binoculars, and opera glasses for those of you with weak eyes . . . These aren't prizes you're going to throw beneath your seat. Nosiree, these are the real thing . . . You'll leave the theater tonight counting your lucky stars because in addition to the best show in the world, you're going home a winner with a fabulous prize in your pocket nominating you as the smartest guy in the woild . . . All for the ree-dic-you-luss price of twenty five cents, two bits, one fourth of a dollar. There's a winner there in Row "C"---a solid twenty-four carat gold watch."
We were treated to two hours more of snappy patter, buck and wings, and songs of all kinds. We applauded heartily. The Lord put his hand on my shoulder and whispered, "Does this suggest something to you?" A bell rang.
My Mom on LifeVision
This is my favorite memory of my mother. Thanks to LifeVision, I can share it with you in detail. Before I turn on the tape, I ought to tell you something about Mom. She had rheumatic fever when she was twelve and it left her very weak. She was not permitted to go to high school because my grandparents thought that she would miss so much school that it wouldn't be worth the money involved. (On the other hand, she was well enough to work in their store . . .) In a nutshell, Mom's primary mission in life was to see that I finished college.
Her strategy for reaching this goal was a combination of encouragement and stimulus deprivation. That is, pump him full of information and move him to the suburbs. Mom read lots of books on child rearing and they all seemed to suggest that it was a good thing to read to the child. I must have been the most "read to" child in the city of Pittsburgh. I'll admit that I enjoyed this, especially our Saturday trips to the big library in Oakland where we selected books for the week. I can remember a book about an old couple who wanted a little kitten and wound up taking hundreds of cats. Also, there was a great story about a kid who carved a canoe and let it float down a river to the ocean. Mom would read things to me and when a word stopped her, we went to the dictionary. She always said, "Look it up! That's the only way to learn."
Mom was great on reading, but lousy on the voices. I learned to read just so that I could do the voices the way I wanted them. I entered school at age six reading fluently, a minor miracle in our neighborhood. Later, I read to my mother and we made our way through Treasure Island, Kidnapped and all o f Albert Peyson Terhune's books on dogs; much of the subtlety of British prose was lost in these renditions and we spent a lot of time in the dictionary.
Mom lobbied heavily for the move to the suburbs where I would grow up free of bad influences and unclean air. She was probably right, although I did not enjoy the experience. To give you an idea of my feelings on the matter, I would like to provide an analogy. Suppose that you are in a small town in France. The baker has just taken a load of crusty boules from the oven. You take a bite and experience what heaven must taste like. Then the Devil changes it into Wonder Bread and you take a second bite. That is what it felt like to move to the suburbs.On balance, Mom had my best interests at heart. Looking at this LfeVision tape, I am reminded that children will never again know the horror of polio. I remember the folklore about its causes --- bad water, overheating, mosquitoes, unwashed fruit and a hundred other things to be avoided. Every family knew someone in an iron lung. The summer was polio season and parents were generally frantic during this time. My family was no exception. My maternal grandmother made me wear a garlic ball, at least when I was around her. Polio was a very scary thing.
One morning, I was playing on the ball field at St. John's church. Suddenly, there arose a great cry and it seemed like every mother in our building was out on the landing yelling for their kid. It wasn't the normal "get home for dinner" or "take out the trash" call, either. I thought that the Russians were going to drop the bomb. We broke up our ball game and went running, to be met by the assembled mothers in the courtyard. We were first dragged upstairs to wash up and change into good clothes. I wondered about whether clean underwear and a tie made you immune to fallout.
Suitably clean, we were marched en masse to Lawrenceville and Dr. Shore's office. Parents did not discuss medical treatment with their children and didn't want to show unkempt children to the eminent Doctor. Amidst rejoicing, we were inoculated with the Salk Vaccine. After the injection, Mom bought me two Mallomars and cried all night. A great load had been lifted from her heart.
She cried like that when I got my Bachelor's degree as well. As I look at the tapes, I can't help but be very thankful for LifeVision. I can't explain it, but it makes memories much more poignant. I hear that the folks in Research are working on a virtual reality option.
Installment Twenty One
Maricopa and Mr. Vogel
I have been spending a lot of time in front of the television. I am fascinated with the new LifeVision Channel that allows me to view events from my life on Earth. I got started last night when a word came into my head. It was Maricopa.
Doesn't that word have a melodious ring?
It just popped into my mind while I was washing up after dinner. Out of nowhere, vivid images flashed through my mind, just as if I was surfing the cable channels on a remote. The first image to light up was Maricopa, the Cuban band leader with a pencil thin moustache who carried a Chihuahua.
Click! I thought of dancing class, a hot Saturday afternoon and struggling to learn a complicated Latin dance. I heard the scratchy old 78, the beat of the conga and the chorus singing, "La Maricopa, La Maricopa, Je te plumerei", while Mrs. Weivel kept repeating "three steps forward, five steps backward and clap on the upbeat."
Zap! I was in a nightclub in the New York of the early 1960s with zebra skins on the walls and a big aquarium over the bar. I had tipped the headwaiter $50 and my date was agonizing over a long list of complex cocktails.
Flash! I was back in graduate school, flirting with left wing politics. I saw a seedy apartment with guys trying to grow beards and girls who ironed their hair. As the stereo played Stewball or some other dreary folk song, we discussed the liberation of El Bannano and celebrated Maricopa, fearless leader of the insurgents, who marched out of Oriente province to attack the American puppet government.
Pop! In business school, I was discussing the Maricopa Agreement which set short term interest rates within the Big Three of the Group of Seven.
Click! My girlfriend and I were planning a drive through Mexico and a friend was saying, "Don't forget to buy silver in Maricopa."
Zap! My partner's daughter was introducing me to her friends from boarding school, "This is Meredith, Brinkley, Corbin, and Maricopa."
Zip! I was in Atlantic City playing Baccarat at the Trump Maricopa.
Flash! I was at a Toyota dealership, trying to choose between an Invicta, Bifida or Maricopa.
Click! I was teaching my statistics class about the Maricopa test.
Zap! I was looking at a brochure for Club Med at Maricopa.
The images came faster and faster:
Like fence pickets at 150 mph, the visions became a blur until I realized that Maricopa was a flavor of ice cream at Isaly's. I can't say that I remember what it tasted like. I think that it was butterscotch and vanilla, since I only ordered White House (vanilla with maraschino cherries). Isaly's was a chain of dairy stores in Pittsburgh, that is long since gone. They were most famous for chipped ham and Skyscraper cones. They were clean and neat places that were the precursor of today's convenience stores, although they were clean. They also originated the Klondike bar (vanilla ice cream covered with chocolate in a silver foil wrapper) Some were made with a pink center and these could be redeemed for a free Klondike. I remember getting one and forcing my father to drive for several miles to get my freebie. Well, that was it.
Time for a visit to LifeVisionª. I loaded the software and dialed back to 1949 and our building at 3625 Liberty Avenue which housed not only Mom, Dad, and me but also an odd collection of tenants. Thanks to LifeVision, I could once again see clearly the Morrises, the Mannings, the Dubinskys, and, of course, Mrs. O'Shea and her Dumont TV. I can't tell whether the relative absence of Italians was a step up or a step down for my folks. Given the housing shortage of the post-WWII period, I suppose it was simply that which was available.
Although we lived within the shadow of the Pittsburgh Brewing Company, the area was certainly pleasant enough. A short streetcar ride was all that separated us from either Downtown or East Liberty. In my memory and according to the video record, there were always lots of exciting things to do and see. By contrast, our move to the highly desirable suburbs left me bored to tears.
In the city, the kids were next door, the ball field was next door, the movies were next door, and the candy store was next door. In the suburbs, everything was a mile or two away. All the adult men were gone during the day. It wouldn't have mattered if the men were there because they worked in offices and didn't do anything exciting; at least they didn't do anything that used big loud machinery. On the weekends, things were hell. Suburban fathers interfered with baseball games and always wanted to do things where kids had to march around. ("That's it, line up boys!")
We had none of this in the city. There were lots of men who transmuted raw materials into finished products before your very eyes. Some of them would even tolerate kids; a wondrous few were willing to reveal the secrets of their art and to let a kid have a try at it.
Our most famous---and notorious---neighbor was Mr. William Vogel, artist. He was a muralist of some repute, but by 1951 had fallen on some hard times. It was reputed that he had an inordinate fondness for the nectar of the grape. (I zoomed in on my mother saying, "You will stay away from that drunken bum!") On the other hand, Mr. Vogel painted works of wonder, generally combat scenes with lots of gore. I remember watching him working on a huge portrait of Douglas MacArthur.
At this time, there was no greater hero to seven year old boys than General Mac Arthur. His stock was especially high after the Inchon invasion. The General seemed to embody every great American virtue and we were sure that he would keep the nasty Communists from coming over here and bombing us.
Mr. Vogel was painting a heroic portrait of the General, including his corn-cob pipe. I noticed that he did not seem to be enthusiastic about this particular work. One day, he asked me whether he should put a halo over the "sonofabitch's head." I said, "No, that's only for saints and angels at church." He said something like "haven't you heard?"
Dad had served in the South Pacific with the Seabees. That night at dinner, with wide innocent eyes, I asked him whether General Mac Arthur was a saint or a "sonofabitch." I think that was the only time that I ever saw my father double up with uncontrollable laughter.
On a clear day, Mr. Vogel would set up his easel on the roof and I would climb up there and watch him work. At other times, he would work in the basement. Most of the time, he was almost glad to see me. We used to play a game, where I would make a squiggle on a piece of paper and he would turn it into a drawing of something. I was really amazed at this, but now that I look at it on LifeVision, lots of them turned into drawings of men with funny noses.
On the other hand, I learned that with enough imagination, you can turn anything into anything else.
Mom still hated Mr. Vogel and said that all the turpentine fumes would stunt my growth. Come to think of it, I can remember lots of things that were alleged to result in small stature. I always thought that my Grandfather, who stood barely five feet tall, had spent a seriously misspent youth, full of unwashed fruit, bread without crusts, cigarettes, and industrial strength turpentine fumes.
Later, I was to discover that the Brass Rail on Smithfield Street was a veritable treasure trove of Mr. Vogel's oeuvre. My favorite is The Coast To Coast Wow (or - a Bus Driver's Dream of 1960). I have since discovered that this grand work was painted for the June, 1930 issue of Modern Mechanics:
A Busman's Dream of 1960
From the June 1930 Issue of Modern Mechanics
Click on Either Photo to Enlarge It
In this canvas, at least 8'x12', a man is seen sleeping in the lower left hand corner in a hammock. A dream balloon sweeps upward to reveal a mammoth bus, as big as an ocean liner---or bigger. It has a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a runway upon which airplanes are seen taking off and landing. The driver commands the magnificent vehicle with a ship's wheel while diners in formal attire eat an elegant meal. No thought was apparently given to corporate average fuel efficiency or exhaust emissions.
Installment Twenty Two
I am spending too much time in this nostalgia. It's time to go forward into the Future --- like Starting a Business.
It was a nice Sunday morning. I went downstairs for some bagels. As I was about to enter the store, my eyes and ears were drawn to the street. It was a familiar, but unnerving scene. Saint Michael, the avenging angel was on his way to do some of the Lord's work on the Other Side of the River. I should tell you that Our Turf ends at the River. The mills that we can see and smell are on the Other Side, which can only be reached by the High Level bridge. We are not allowed to go there, although we can walk along the banks of the River and look at it.
Scotty's Diner sits at the "On" ramp to the High Level bridge and it is possible to get a fairly good view of the Other Side from the windows. You can see people walking around and they don't look like they are being tormented in any obvious way. I haven't seen any guys with tails and pitchforks. Saint Vincent tells me that their eternal torment is to be caught up in a web of constraints which condemns them to live out eternity without choice and without self-fulfillment. From what I can understand, it is like being caught in a chess end-game forever.
But, I digress. Saint Michael and his band were passing by. They are impossible to miss. Michael is a tall angular man with long stringy hair tied back in a pony tail. He always wears a full suit of leathers and mirror sunglasses. I have never seen his eyes, although they are said to be ice-cold. Above his left breast pocket is a pair of gold plastic wings from the TWA Junior Stewardess program. He rides a Harley Davidson 1951 Panhead Hydra Glide that has been chopped and stripped to the bare essentials.
The entire machine is black except for orange flames on the small teardrop tank. The front forks have been extended and the machine has high "ape-hanger" handlebars. The engine is bored out to 1550 cc giving it a top sustainable speed of about 140 mph. Elaborate braided leather tassels hang from the levers on the bars. Lashed to the bars is a very large Samurai sword.
Saint Michael always travels with the Enforcers, led by Torquemada. They follow discreetly behind him in the classiest low-rider that I have ever seen. It started out as a 1956 Chevy Bel-Air but had been drastically lowered to about one inch of ground clearance. Hydraulic lifters enable each wheel to be raised independently, so the car can be made to "hop." It is finished in blinding red lacquer with orange flames. The interior is upholstered floor-to-ceiling with red shag carpet and there is a small chandelier in the center of the headliner.
Torquemada and four or five others can be seen in the thing night and day. They all have slicked back hair, thin pencil moustaches, and wear sleeveless black tee shirts with heavy silver jewelry. They present a figure of thoroughgoing menace to sinners. And, as I said, they were slightly disturbing to me on this pleasant Sunday morning.
As I watched them roar off in the direction of the High Level bridge, I went into the bagel bakery. Pinsker, the owner greeted me and drew out a dozen fresh bagels, a mix of poppy, sesame, salt, and half-and-half twists. He put them in a bag and said, "A minute, please." I turned and faced him. He held up his index finger, smiled and went into the bakery. He returned to the restaurant with a tray of biallys, hot from the oven. He went to the deli case and placed a large blob of his famous cream cheese and chives on a butter plate. He brought it over to the counter and spread a bially for me.
"Enjoy!" he said as he brought out two mugs and fresh coffee. It was indeed wonderful. Pinsker took a bite and said, "You know that my son is here?" I said, "I'm sorry to hear that---Well, I'm glad he's here." I can never handle that tactfully. Pinsker continued, "He's over on the Coast. He likes it there. Fifty five years on Earth I wanted to be in business with him and now he wants to do it. To make a long story short, I'm moving to the Coast and going into the catering business. Pinsker and Son. I'm thrilled. Besides, Liebovitz opened a bagel bakery down the street---three years ago is it?---and my volume is down."
I congratulated him on his new venture. I inquired whether he had sold the bakery to anyone else. He said, "No. I just decided to do this last night." I looked around at the place. It has a high ceiling and the restaurant was about fifty feet long and thirty feet wide. There is a big kitchen in the back. A mezzanine level had been added over the kitchen and served as office space. There was a small balcony which permitted Pinsker to oversee the operations.
Then the bell rang. Tentatively, I said, "Pinsker, would you think of selling this place to me?" He smiled. I know that he was thinking, "I thought you would never ask." He smiled again, pushed the plate of biallys toward me and said, "Have another."
By the end of the day, we had agreed on a price. He threw in my dozen bagels. Bright and early the next day, I put on my most conservative suit and went to the bank. I was going to need a rather hefty loan to bring my ideas to fruition. Mortgages are more complicated here than they are on Earth. Bankers there seem to go into banking here. To them, this place is intricate mechanism for processing loans that requires a lot of vice presidencies. They wanted a detailed business plan, so I spent a lot of time at the computer. After several tries, I finally submitted a plan that got my application accepted by the loan officer.
Both Herb and Saint Vincent served as references. This was only the beginning as things got stalled in one committee after another. A rhythm developed. Wait two weeks. Get a request for information at 2:00 which must be satisfied before 4:00 p.m.. Then, wait until a vital paper gets lost. My friends got to hear a lot about the progress of my application. One afternoon, my file got lost. Saint Vincent was sitting on the back porch with me and listened to the conversation on the speaker phone. I think that the fellow at the bank came close to trying his patience.
About two weeks later, I was having coffee at the social club when Fannoli brought me a package that had been delivered by a messenger. It was more forms and they were so complicated that I put my head in my hands. Fannoli put his hand on my shoulder and said, "Perhaps the two gentlemen at the other table can help out, sir." I looked up at him and said, "Who are they?" He said, "David Ricardo and Alexander Hamilton." I was impressed. They were very nice but in twenty minutes, the three of us were sitting with our heads in our respective hands.
Saint Michael sat at a window table sharpening his sword. He looked at us. For a minute I thought I saw him smile. Scarpini dropped by with more dandelion wine and commiserated, "Wasa ten year for' my loan approve." During the whole time, I kept up with my sax lessons. In addition to playing, I got into arranging as well. I worked up some charts for a "dream" horn section with a trumpet and two trombones, supporting alto, tenor and baritone saxes. Charlie "Yardbird" took a lot of interest in my scores and made a lot of helpful suggestions, but he just wouldn't listen to any of my troubles with the bank.
"Man, those guys are most prodigious bores," he said and added, "They are eating your lunch and I can hear it in your sound. Get back on the beam." We continued to meet with God for our regular Tuesday morning music session. The Lord was getting much better and had decided to play baritone sax. "I always liked Jerry Mulligan," He confided.
Charlie thought that He had made excellent progress and had arranged for us to record some horn tracks. This involved the three of us sitting in a studio, playing our parts which would be added to previously recorded music. The horns add "spice" to small bands who can't afford to split their take with added personnel. We were working for standard scale. One number took a lot of of takes.
Now that I think of it, a record producer has to be very confident to say "cut" when the Lord is playing. I'll confess that most of the problems came from me. We took a five minute break and I got a phone call from the bank. It was another technicality. I was sitting in the lounge riffling through papers when the Lord came in to get me. He saw my obvious distress and asked me if I had made any plans for the future.
I said that I had decided to open an R&B club. I gave Him the basic details of the plan. He helped me sort out the papers that were on the table and riffled through my business plan. He smiled and said, "Your plan is too conservative. Open the definitive R&B club." He picked up the phone, said a few words and went back to His sax.
I felt a lot better. I found that ideas, both musical and business, were leaping into my head. We finished the gig on the next take. I declined an offer of a ride because I wanted to think some more. When I got home, I saw the Low-Rider parked in front of my house. Torquemada slowly rolled down the black glass window. He looked at me and passed a toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. Then he pushed up his sunglasses and smiled at me. I noticed that he had one gold tooth. He jerked back his thumb and indicated that I was to go around to the back. As I walked through the alley, I saw the big Harley chopper parked there. Then I saw Saint Michael standing in my yard, holding his big sword.
I looked around and saw the president of the bank sitting on the stoop and mopping his forehead with a handkerchief. He seemed to be in a great hurry to tell me that my loan had been approved. He handed me a check for ten times the amount that I had requested.
Here, as on Earth, you get the best results if you deal with top management directly. I was in business.
Installment Twenty Three
The day I got my mortgage, I was very pleasantly surprised by a knock on the door. It was my long-lost Uncle Tony. He sort of dropped out of sight on Earth and I had no idea whether he was living or dead. It turns out that he's dead. We had a nice chat and decided to renew our acquaintance with the help of the LifeVision Channel. I selected a pleasant episode for viewing.
Dad has a total of five brothers, but three of them were born in Italy and are much older. His brother Tony, three years younger, is his only real sibling. If the family was like an organic being, Dad would be the Superego, constantly focused on goals and success; Uncle Tony would be more like the Id. Dad got all the brains and manual skills while Tony got artistic sensitivity.
He can play most instruments and has a wonderful tenor voice. At the same time that Dad was building speakeasies, Uncle Tony was performing in them. At local dives in Bloomfield, he played the accordion and sang Neapolitan folk songs. At classier joints, he played the piano. Down in the Hill District, he played trumpet and sax. Unfortunately, Uncle Tony could not hang onto money. He liked to gamble, wore sharp clothes, and was frequently in the company of beautiful women. Eventually, Dad lent him enough money to get into the Musician's Union and he (kind of) settled down.
He married a Polish woman named Blanche and they had a son, Tony Jr., also known as "TJ." During the summer of 1958, Uncle Tony was living in Philadelphia and working with a dance band. At the same time, my father was quite busy with revamping his shop to accommodate more modern technology. Mom was taking care of her sister Libby who was having a very difficult pregnancy. I was sort of in the way.
There was a question of whether, at the tender age of fourteen, I was "old enough" to spend the summer away from home. I argued that maybe Uncle Tony could help me with my saxophone so that Jerry Levine wouldn't rant and rave so much about my performance. Maybe also, Mr. Testa would let me into the school band which would look good on my application to College. Maybe also, I could see lots of cultural attractions like the Liberty Bell.
As I look at this on tape, I am amazed to see how I had mastered the art of persuasion at least as far as Mom and Dad were concerned. They must have been very seriously distracted, because they bought it. My eyes were really on two things: American Bandstand and Fran Giordano. After a tearful farewell from Mom, Dad drove me to the Pennsylvania Station, where I boarded the Duquesne Limited for Philadelphia. He warned me not to pay much attention to anything that Uncle Tony said.
Six hours later, I arrived at 30th Street Station where I was met by Uncle Tony. Well, sort of---Tony had gone to the North Philadelphia station and it was only after several expensive long distance calls that we got together. I could see Dad turning purple as he sang his familiar chorus, "Do you think that I'm made of money?" When I had finally been picked up, we made one more collect call. I hid while Uncle Tony talked to Dad. Apparently, there were some sharp words exchanged, because Uncle Tony's last words were "Don't be an asshole!" My mouth dropped open. I could almost feel a knuckle on the forehead even though I was 400 miles away. This was the first time that I had ever heard anyone ever treat Dad as less than God.
I was very worried. Tony looked at me and said, "He'll be all right. Let's split." My unvoiced reaction was, "Wow, someone in the family talks jive!" So, we split.
Uncle Tony lived on South Street, right in the middle of an Italian neighborhood that was ten times as big as Bloomfield. I had never seen so many Italians. I was like the sole hippie in Duckburg who goes to Woodstock and gets intoxicated by the fact that he doesn't have to look over his shoulder. After two years in the suburbs, everything once again looked right and smelled right.
Nobody was asking, "Does that have garlic?" or , "Is it hot?" Plus, Uncle Tony knew everybody. As we walked down the street, men would come up to him and talk; he would exchange some pleasantries, often salacious, and say, "This is my big brother's son from Pittsburgh"
I needed a transfusion of "cool" right away. Cousin TJ looked at my clothes and indicated that an emergency trip to the clothing store was needed. He looked at my hair and gave the barber first priority. Thus, not thirteen hours after arriving in the City of Brotherly Love, I had a Detroit haircut, a two-tone pink and maroon coat and a pair of charcoal gray pleated trousers with twelve inch cuffs. I completed the ensemble with a tie that must have been half an inch wide, pink socks, and pointed black shoes (with cleats.) I was ready to move.
Uncle Tony was glad to foot the bill. I actually did practice the saxophone and we did visit the Liberty Bell. Uncle Tony had the right teaching technique. I had to play all of my straight pieces well, mind my vibrato, and keep on the down beat for one whole hour. After that, we could jam. Uncle Tony could play the dance band syrup with the best of them but he also could get down and boogie. TJ was an up and coming drummer, so we had a lot of fun. I learned how to improvise in any key, to make the "octave squeak", to bend notes, and---most important--- to make the "yackety yack" sound. This was the first time that I had seen a tenor sax and it was a revelation.
However, during the summer, I also learned the soprano and baritone saxes. Each one is different and requires different transposition to play in jazz and blues keys. At night, we would go out to hear Uncle Tony's band and sometimes he would sneak us into after hours jazz clubs.
In August, he thought that I was good enough to sit in on a session. I was very, very scared. These were real live professional musicians and some of them were wearing sunglasses. I chorded along for a while and then the guitarist said, "take it kid." My solo started out with a wail and I got some frowns---it was too much like Rock and Roll. I knew that I had to get cerebral to make it with these guys. From a Stan Getz solo, I got the idea of inverting chords in a Legato phrase with lots of breath control. Very, very cool. The guys in the band shook their heads up and down. When I sat down, the drummer hit two quick beats on the ride cymbal. The bass player took off his shades and gave me some skin.
But, my performance came from my head and not from my heart. I had put acceptance ahead of expression. I played what they wanted to hear, not what I wanted to say. This was the slippery slope of conformity.
I still had my sights set on Bandstand. Tony Jr. and I spent time religiously practicing the Philly Bop, the sine qua non for entrance into those hallowed precincts. I did steps with a rope tied to a doorknob, all the time thinking about being seen on national TV in the company of the lovely Ms. Giordano.
Every day at 2:00 p.m., we went down to the studio and waited in line. We faced our daily rejection constructively. Who got in? How could we match their "cool"? One day, I said, "What the heck - I'm going to try my Joe College clothes. Maybe they will go for something different." Thus, in a blue blazer, grey slacks and Bass Weejuns, I tried again. I got in. TJ didn't.
Mostly, I sat on the bleachers. With about ten minutes to go, I swallowed my fear and boldly walked up to the elusive Ms. Giordano, popping a breath mint and taking great care to avoid sweaty palms. I said something really dippy like, "May I have the honor of this dance?" I think that she was so shocked, that she said, "Yeah. But no twirls."
The song was "Rockin' Robin" by Bobby Day. I didn't do too badly. She had very rough hands, way too much makeup, badly bleached hair, and an oppressive perfume. She chewed a large wad of gum and cracked it. When the music stopped, she said something that sounded like, "Tank yuse, seeya roun." She trotted off.
I realized that the fish was not so big, but rather that the pond was very small. At that moment I realized that I was just a tourist in the Rock and Roll fairyland of Philadelphia in the 1950s. I am very grateful to have been on the scene, but I could never be a part of it. When it was time to go home, Uncle Tony dropped me at the station. I had my moment in the sun in that hot summer of 1958 and I realized that something else was in store for me. With an hour to kill, I went to the barber shop and got a crewcut because I was going to College someday.
Uncle Tony had only joined us recently, the victim of a shooting by a disgruntled employee in a post office. He was a completely innocent bystander. Everyone in my family seems to live for a long, long time unless something untoward happens. He did mention that Dad was still going strong and that the folks at home missed me a lot. That was nice to hear. We only hear about Earth from newcomers. I have no idea what is happening in the business world. None of my partners or clients seem to get in. We don't get many politicians, either.
Installment Twenty Four
This place can be very strange. Everything is perfect, but things may appear to be very chaotic. Quite candidly, the senior management is very old. A common gripe is that if you weren't in the Old Testament, you can't get anywhere in the line organization.
These fellows have the best intentions, but they aren't oriented to technology. About three weeks ago, Saint Vincent took me over to Methuselah's house for coffee. I noticed that the clock on his VCR kept flashing at 12:00. A lot of musicians get in, but nobody has really organized and synthesized their efforts. There are a lot of little clubs and jam sessions, but very little serious musicology.
A few of the best musicians have chosen some other profession and don't play at all. You'd be surprised at the number of cornet players who want to be shoe salesmen. I found Robert Johnson working as an account executive for an advertising agency. Washington Tutts was a CPA.
It took a lot of work to do this, because none of the personnel records are automated. I had to spend days looking through folio-sized books to find anything. Even then, there were little scraps of parchment with odd scribblings that turned out to be exceptions to the filing system. Usually, I had to find a guy named Ezekiel or Mordecai to straighten things out. This place sure needs a first class management information system.
On the other hand, in the process of searching out the legends of Jazz, Swing and R&B, I learned a lot. The Old Guys always have a good story to tell and they can put a lot of the factual information into context. The problem is that nobody was getting this information to the people. My business plan was to do just this---to bring the history of music to the man on the street (or, rather, the angel on the wing...) by opening a club that would showcase the legends and encourage development of the art form.
This took a lot of work. Most of the Greats did not perform with a regular group, but rather relied on studio musicians for sessions and pickup bands for club dates. Thus, it was essential to create a house band that could provide excellent backup. This required a special kind of musician, a person who is devoted to the genre but very flexible, able to work joyfully in any idiom without ego.
I spent a lot of time looking for people who met this description. Clearly, you just can't put someone like Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix into the band---they have unique talents and ideas that wouldn't fit in with other artists. In my opinion, big "celebrity jams" are usually quite boring because they degenerate into signature riffs. I was looking for the serious scholars who had the soul and skills to selflessly serve the cause.
Thus, I was always on the lookout for talent during The Praise.
Well, first, I had better tell you about The Praise
"Make a joyful noise unto the Lord" is not an idle slogan. From time to time, it pleases Him to hear ensemble music. Thus, all residents wear a sort of "pager" which summons us to The Praise. If you will recall, I mentioned that there are two doors in every rest room. Thanks to non-Euclidean geometry, the red door always brings you home and the Green door always brings you to The Praise.
Thus, when the pager sounds, everybody drops what they are doing and heads for the nearest green door. Heaven has the greatest roadies in the world. When I walk through the door, I emerge in the cloakroom and an attendant is ready with a dress shirt and my white dinner jacket. It is only a short walk out to the amphitheater and my horns are set up with the correct charts on the music stand. The sound system is in perfect balance. All I have to do is sit down and pick up my horn.
There must be two or three thousand rows in the amphitheater and seating is by longevity and talent. Charlie Parker, Stan Getz, Louis Jordan, and Rudy Williams were among the luminaries in row 1 of the sax section. I started in row 1304; after I started taking lessons, I was moved to row 765.
The "Upper Stratosphere" seems to be filled with High School band leaders. The Lord has a high podium at the center, along with a smaller podium for Gabriel. Two harpsichords are set up on the stage, generally played by Johann Sebastian Bach and Mozart. Gabriel welcomes everybody and warms up the audience with a few well chosen words. When the crowd is loosened up, there is a drum roll, and Tito Puente leads the band in "Oye Como Va". I am amazed at how many variations can be done on that tune.
Every day there is a featured soloist and there are lots of horn parts. After two choruses, Gabriel hits a very high C and says, "Ladies and Gentlemen, put your hands together for the Lord God Almighty!" The Lord appears on the podium in a blinding flash of light to thunderous applause. He bows and motions to the band. Then we stand and bow. The Lord taps his baton and the show begins.
The Lord does not do a monologue.
We play the arrangements as they are written. Often, however, the Lord leaves a Phrygian cadence and lets one of the senior men improvise.
There is nothing commonplace about The Praise. The Lord does everything in style. At the Baths of Carcalla, they do Aida with elephants. Here, the Lord does Aida with Egypt.
We play a wide variety of music, although the Lord is partial to compositions from the Common Practice period and the Harlem Renaissance. During the former, there is not a lot of call for saxophones and my charts are usually page after page of rests. During this time, I get to look over my colleagues, and thus I have been able to identify several candidates for the band.
Installment Twenty Five
In addition to searching for a band, I have been immersed in the details of construction. Non-Euclidean geometry requires a lot more permits and inspections than on Earth. There isn't a whole lot of hassle here, but all of us recognize how important the Red and Green doors are. The Lord also concerned about sanitation; the kitchen gets a thorough review. The good part is that the inspectors are scrupulously fair; the bad part is that they are slow. On balance, nobody is in much of a hurry, so it all works out.
I had decided on a rather simple decoration scheme, mixing the traditional with high tech. The seating area would be wood-panelled with heavy green velvet curtains. Banquettes would line the walls and tables in the central area would be oriented to face the band. I made sure to leave a fair-sized dancing area. My architect did a thorough computer simulation and assured me there wasn't a bad table in the house.
I liked the idea of placing the band on the balcony. Unfortunately, the existing balcony just wouldn't pass structural muster. The architect worked at it for a while and came up with a very high-tech solution using steel girders. It was at this time that we hit upon the idea of a two-level club. The balcony was extended to create a mezzanine level which ran completely around the room. The sound mixer and lights were located over the door; the remainder of the second level was equipped with a bar on each side and lined with small two-person tables.
"Downstairs" was to be formal---white tie required, while the "Upstairs" was to be decidedly informal. We had to build a separate entrance for the second level. Anything involving doors here is a big undertaking.
I went overboard on the sound system and acoustics; fortunately, Hermann Klipsch was available to help out. We spent a lot of time in this work, trying out all sorts of bands and music. The ceiling came to sprout odd-shaped computer-adjustable fiberglass forms that folded and unfolded to give the room perfect sound. It was a labor of love.
The next thing was a completely built-in, computer tuned amplification system. The artist just had to walk up to his chair and plug in. The computer did the rest; it could simulate every known brand of amplifier. The audience will never have to sit through check tests.
Confident in the structural engineering, the permanent setup on the bandstand included a Bosendorfer grand piano and a Hammond organ. We were loaded for bear. I finally managed to assemble a house band and we spent a year in rehearsals. It is a great group. Even while we were working out the act, we attracted a crowd. Folks would just drop by the club on Saturday afternoons when the workmen were gone. It was mostly neighborhood people, so it was hard to send them away. I began to explain what we were doing and several times I used one of the chalk boards to make a point. Some regulars started to talk to their friends about my Saturday afternoon classes in Swing.
I was amazed to see that people were taking notes. Up to then, I still hadn't thought of a name for the club. Informally, the locals began calling the place "the School." It was only a matter of time until we came up with the final name, "The Cooking Academy." I awaited opening night with some trepidation.
Installment Twenty Six
The Band So, who do you put into a band if you have access to the greatest musicians who have ever lived? My theory was that if I could find guys who could play jazz, they could easily handle any kind of music. More than anything else, a top-flight jazz performer is a good musician, well-versed in theory, and a master of the instrument. I started with the horn players---each had to be able to stretch out on jazz tunes, play complicated figures if needed and also have that basic bluesy down-home sound. Sometimes the band would be burning, sometimes it would be moaning. My horn section was to have two trumpets, each capable of doubling in trombone. Next were three saxes, capable of handling alto, baritone, tenor with specialties in clarinet and flute. The band would be completed with drums, bass, guitar, piano and organ.
I was also looking for a first rate arranger who shared my outlook on things but who had really deep understanding of music. I looked around for about eleven months before I wandered into the Peacock Club. When I walked in, the house band was playing "I Got a Woman". The sax players were totally outstanding, but the rest of the band was somewhat mediocre. The more that I listened, the more that I realized that the sax section was to be part of my band. At the break, I got to know them a bit more. Donald Wilkerson was the tenor man and David "Fathead" Newman was handling the alto, although he knew his way around the tenor as well. Both of them had a long history of playing together and had been a part of Ray Charles' early bands in the mid 1950s. They seemed to be interested in my ideas, and we signed a deal that night.
For about a month, the three of us spent our time prowling the bars and recording studios, without much luck. Then out of the blue, we found a new arrival playing baritone on a street corner. It was Leroy "Hog" Cooper, late of Dallas, who had to have been one of the most underrated musicians of the modern era. I remember hearing him once and nobody could play dragline horn riffs like his classic performance on "Poppa's Got a Brand New Bag". We snatched him up without a moment's notice, and completed the sax section.
Our search took a brief detour one night at the Onyx Club. One of the warmup acts was a girl trio called "The Cookies", led by Margie Hendricks who once had a hit with Chuck Willis called "In Paradise." My three saxmen and I put our heads together and recognized that female harmonies would be a big asset to the band. It took a while, but we signed them. We didn't even have to change their name. We got a bonus in that Margie put us in contact with Marcus Belgrave and Phil Guilbeau who were more than capable of handling our trumpet/trombone needs. Both of these guys had paid dues for more than twenty years as studio musicians for Atlantic Records.
My band grew from the horns down and, as "Fathead" says, "It ain't no bull." I figured that the best way to get the rest of the musicians was to hire out my horn section for studio gigs. This way, we would get to play with a lot of rhythm sections and to select the best. This trick worked and yielded us guitarist Charley Macey who had been a long-time session player in New York and had a hit on his own covering "I'm Moving On". He had a fine style and was great at either picking or slide. We got a bonus in that he could also play the pedal steel guitar.
Charley was able to turn up two of his buddies from Milt Jackson's Soul Meeting album. They are Oscar Pettiford (bass) and Art Taylor (drums). At this point, we had enough of a band to go into rehearsals. As more and more people dropped by the club for rehearsals, keyboard players started to come around. Without going into those we didn't select, I went wild for Lennie Tristano, whose soft, brilliant, and cerebral approach to progressive jazz had so eloquently led the reaction to bebop. Besides, I had to have at least one Italian in the band.
I let Lennie pick the organ player. He chose Booker Ervin, who had an undeservedly obscure album called Pithecanthropus Erectus. If a jazz album sells 20,000 copies, it's big news.
If you have heard Booker's record you (a) are a true connoisseur of musical arcana or (b) just happened to be in the right place at the right time. If you haven't heard it, your life is deficient. Booker has the lightest touch in the world and he can make that big Hammond organ, like Muhammad Ali, float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. He also plays a great tenor sax.
The band, superb as they were, was in sore need of an arranger. We had some truly amazing jam sessions, but I could see that getting the most out of the group was going to take a musical genius. I had been losing a lot of sleep sitting at my Mac trying to lay down some tracks that would be worthy of them.
Installment Twenty Seven
My concept for our first show was a retrospective look at Robert Johnson. Maybe I ought to tell you something about him. He made a total of 41 recordings that begin the pedigree of every style of Rock and Roll now being performed. He influenced an entire generation of Chicago bluesmen that translated his work from the primitive acoustic style of the Louisiana Delta to the amplified sounds of today. Johnson's style is reflected in the classic electric blues of the 1940s and early 1950s in the work of Sonny Boy Williamson, Robert Nighthawk, Howling Wolf, Elmore James, Johnny Shines, and Robert Jr. Lockwood. These artists are, in turn, the source of material for the "Golden Age" of Rock in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
As you listen to the blues you will continue to hear themes from Robert Johnson over and over again. I can remember the first time that I heard Robert Johnson. Don Newman had found an old 78 of "Sweet Home Chicago" and we played it on an old Victrola. We were familiar with Muddy Waters' version of the song, but we were overwhelmed with the sound that one man could get out of an acoustic guitar. Listening to the original, we could see how Muddy arranged his song. I can remember Don saying, "If we can find more of this guy's stuff, we can do the same thing and have a fantastic blues band."
This was not an original idea. In fact, Johnson's records had a the very same effect on the British Invasion of the mid 1960s. Look at these quotes: Keith Richards: "Robert Johnson was like a comet or meteor that came along and BOOM, suddenly he raised the ante, suddenly you had to aim that much higher. You can put the record on now and it's as fresh and interesting as the first day you heard it. You want to know how good the blues can get, well this is it." Eric Clapton: "To me, Robert Johnson is the most important blues musician who ever lived. He was absolutely true to his own vision and as deep as I have ever gotten into the music over the last 30 years. His music remains the most powerful cry that I think you can find in the human voice." Everybody learned from Robert Johnson. I suppose that there are fourteen year old kids out listening to him and getting ideas for songs today.
I don't want to demean Johnson's genius, but the impact was so sudden and dramatic that it is almost as if aliens from space dropped down to Arkansas and left the secrets of the universe with one poor illiterate child and then used him to communicate with the rest of us.
The sum total of his recorded output was made in a hotel room in San Antonio on November 23, 1936. He died three months later at the age of 29, poisoned in a quarrel over a woman.
The R&B music that grew from his work helped liberate America from conformity, put a big crack in the Iron Curtain, and is now helping to wipe apartheid from South Africa. There are only a handful of musicians whose work continues to grow and to inspire others.
On the basis of statistics alone, Johnson ranks up there with Mozart, Bach and Beethoven. Actually, all three together regularly here, although Johnson has been somewhat reticent to perform in public. I wanted to have Johnson do his stuff solo and then bring on the band to interpret each number in a variety of styles of R&B music that evolved from it.
The problem was to keep the essence of the tune and Johnson's style while demonstrating the contribution to other forms as diverse as doo wop, skiffle, rockabilly, big band, bebop, frat rock, psychedelic, disco, funk, and hip-hop. It had to be done without resorting to cliches. I needed to arrange all 41 of Johnson's songs. I made a heroic effort and the band helped out, but in a month's time, we only had complete charts for "Crossroads" and the arrangement was mediocre.
I needed to make ten pieces sound like twenty. One morning in the Social Club, we had pushed four small tables together and were hashing over the scores. Seemingly insurmountable technical problems had us sitting silently with head in hands. Fannoli approached me. It was so quiet that I could hear his measured pace. He bent low and whispered to me, "A telephone call for you." I said, "Not now, we're up to our eyes in this mess. Take a message." He bent low and whispered, "I really can't do that, sir. It is, shall we say, someone Most Important."I caught his drift and ran to the phone, picked it up and said, "Yes, Lord. What can I do for you?" He said that Herb was coming over with a new arrival and that He would appreciate it if I could put him up for a few days. "Of course," was my response, followed by, "Can I do anything else for you today, Lord?" He asked for nothing more, thanked me, and rang off. I was a bit puzzled, because God usually leaves newcomers to his staff. I began to worry---had I inadvertently made a remark that could have been construed as a prayer like, "Lord, I wish Warren Zevon were here."I shuddered at the thought that I might have caused some arranger to meet an early end. Here I was with a deadline closing in and now I would have to shepherd a new guy around. I returned to the table and the commotion. The guys were on edge about my arrangement for "Love in Vain". Marcus wanted to add a trumpet riff to the score. The guys in the band were earnestly debating the point. As Yogi Berra might have said, it was Deja Vu all over again. We had been doing this or something similar to it for days. The score had lots of small flaws and each one of the boys had an idea of how he could fix it. Marcus said, "Look here - I'll hit a high A right here..."
A voice behind me said, "It would be better if you hit your high G and put the tonic on top. It'll be a lot tighter that way." Marcus turned to me and said, "Hey! Is that all right?" I was still a bit preoccupied and I hesitated, trying to sound out the change. The voice said, "Would I tell you wrong?" Then I turned.
It was Paul Snyder, my old friend who had done all the Tiger Rose arrangements. Herb was standing with him. I jumped up and gave him a big hug. Bells went off all over the place. All I could think of was, "It's great to see you! We've got some arrangements here that could really use your touch." He sat down at the table and pored over the charts for a minute. He picked up a blue pencil and went to work. One by one, the boys gathered around him and murmured their approval. In ten minutes, he had finished with "Love in Vain". The guys picked up the music and hummed their parts. It sounded great.
The rest of the patrons stood up and cheered. Paul looked up and said, "Wow! This really is Heaven."
Installment Twenty Eight
I found out very quickly that operating a club is not the same as having a fraternity party every night. In fact, it is darned hard work---more difficult than anything that I ever did on Earth. While I am thinking about work, it would be a good time give you a bit more background on this place. In the past few pages, I have been very enthusiastic and I may have given the mistaken impression that things are "easy" here.
That's not the case. It is true that there is very little hassle---for example, parts are always in stock and deliveries always arrive on schedule. This is not due to "magic" or a fundamental altering of physical laws---it is because everyone pays attention to the work. Every day is like the World Series, the Olympics, the Indianapolis 500, or whatever other ultimate championship exists for one's profession.
Who do you think is making all these fine things and delivering them? When Pinsker bakes a bagel or Fannoli serves espresso or Scarpini repairs a heel or Charlie Parker blows a note, he is at the edge of his craft. "Good enough" is never heard here.
The dedication of others sets the stage by giving you the best raw materials; it also challenges you to do your best with them. You might think that the odds are stacked in favor of chaos--- food is cheap, dope is plentiful, and nobody nags. In an environment like this, it might be easy to do nothing and slide along the comfortable path of least resistance. That doesn't happen. People here work much harder than on Earth and, moreover, they have a lot of fun doing it.
In all my travels, I have yet to find found a single person who wasn't thrilled with his or her particular work. My first thought was that the selection criteria are responsible---if you begin with six billion humans, you ought to be able to find a reasonable number of self-starters who would be reasonably well-spread across the range of occupations needed to sustain civilized life.
On Earth, I was continually amazed to find isolated pockets of enthusiasm for all kinds of things. In years of hanging out at flea markets and antique fairs, I came to view almost anything as collectible---barbed wire, bus transfers, toilet fixtures, you name it. Well, that's not quite true---I never met anyone on Earth who collected airline barf bags. (Yes, there is a small store here which appeals to these collectors. It is open only by appointment. I do not think the market is large.)
Daily, at the social club, Reverend Tom Hobbes holds forth on the fallibility of human nature. I really don't understand what he does here, because he is the only person that I have met that doesn't seem to have a regular job. For a while, Buddha and Confucius sat on the admissions committee and we got some very strange members. The idea of bringing into paradise someone who has a dim view of human nature sounds just like one of their schemes. The old gasbag hasn't had a new idea since The Leviathan but he rails on and on about the dangers of too much freedom. Some days, I swear, he sounds like Donald Duck as if the Joy Boys from the Mysterious East were feeding him helium through a non-Euclidean source.
Saint Sebastian takes time from his archery range and very eloquently presents the opposite view. He argues that people are basically good and that environment can be poisonous. Take away threat, fear and deprivation and people will bloom. You can have the "Summer of Love" forever if God culls out the Jim Joneses from time to time. I like to listen to Saint Sebastian, but it takes a bit of time to get used to looking at him. He has all of these things stuck in his body---safety pins, rings, and a pair of R.A.F wings.
All this stuff brings back the worst excesses of the mid-seventies. We don't get a lot of punkers here---even Confucius wouldn't vote to let in Sid Vicious---so St. Sebastian stands out. He really is a nice guy and you couldn't ask for a gentler soul. In my own experience, the freedom has enabled me to do a whole lot more than I thought I could. Although it's hard to explain, the best analogy that I can think of is the software that I am using to make the illustrations for this story. You should know that I have no talent in the graphic arts. I can see things in my mind that I want to share with other people but can't because I am the quintessential klutz who can't draw a straight line.
The software is very patient and allows me to draw and redraw a picture over and over again. It remembers what is good and forgets what is bad---and it's always there when I need it. I might have gotten married if I could have found a wife like that. I am still not Leonardo, but I have made progress at getting the ideas out of my head and into the world where people with real talent, like my friend LeRoy, might be able to interpret them in an aesthetically pleasing fashion. I'm still learning the software, so my expression (but not vision) is limited to mechanical things like cars and diners.
I haven't heard any bells ringing, so I don't think that the visual arts are in my future.
Getting back to the point, running a night club is hard enough work without the agony of becoming a graphic artist. On Earth, if I had any inclination of the number of things that would get between me and the music, I would have avoided the club business at all cost. Here, I have begun to thrive on the organizational details because I can see the ultimate product ---the satisfied customer---a lot clearer. There is a heightened feeling of awareness of people here. It is mentally impossible to reduce anyone to labels like "staff", "vendor", "customer", and the like. If you constantly see people with names, you have to do a good job. Think about doing something for your best friend ---you feel obligated to do things just right but you get pleasure out of it as well.
I like the Band, I like the staff, and I like all of the people who visit us.
Installment Twenty Nine
Last week, I said, "I like the Band, I like the staff, and I like all of the people who visit us."
As I think of it, that isn't exactly true. One night I had a group of customers that I never want to see again. Perhaps I could take a minute of your time to tell you about them. It began on an otherwise uneventful afternoon in late January. Mardi Gras was fast approaching and we were busy putting together a New Orleans extravaganza featuring Professor Longhair.
Since drums carry the melody in this musical style, we would back the Professor with an enormous rhythm section---something like thirty drums and sousaphones. As we kicked the idea around, it became irresistible. Paul worked night and day to round up available alumni of the Grambling marching band.Word about this gig had gotten around and the reservations phone rattled off the hook. We had to keep the place shuttered during the day so that some work could get done. I remember one such afternoon. Paul was working with the boys on "Iko Iko". I was juggling the seating plan to allow the huge ensemble to play while keeping some room for paying customers. Reservations had been heavy and I had to make certain that a lot of greybeards from the Old Testament got good seats. Non-Euclidean geometry does not (unfortunately) give the club owner an infinite number of ringside tables.
The solitude of my pencil-chewing analysis was disturbed ever so gently by Saint Vincent's light touch upon my shoulder. His smile is always very reassuring to me and for some reason it always makes me think of my nightlight when I was six years old.
However, today there was something different. He was accompanied not only by Herb, my guardian angel, but also by Mr. Emanuel, the Lord's chief spokesperson. Although I have heard the Lord call him "Manny" on a number of occasions, he is one of the most formal of the angels. He always wears a dark blue quasi-military uniform that (to me at least) makes him look like a Lufthansa flight steward. Mr. Emanuel is the closest thing that we have to a politician; everything about him is very controlled. He is always impeccably groomed and on several occasions I could swear that he was wearing makeup. When a camera is in the room, he reflexively assumes the most photogenic posture and smiles.
He always chooses his words quite carefully. I have never understood why God needs someone like this. Then again, I'm only a humble saloonkeeper.
Since Mr. Emanuel was there, I concluded that something official was in the offing. I had just seen the Lord at our weekly music lesson and he hadn't said anything. Thus, I didn't think that Mr. Emanuel was here to tell me that Moses wanted to bring another 20 guests or that the Lord wanted to hear "Beggar For Your Love". I was right. After five minutes of fairly unctuous platitudes, it was announced that the Other Fellow wanted to visit the club. On Earth, we called him Satan, Beelzebub, Mephistopheles, Old Harry, Lucifer, and the Devil. Here, he is just the Other Fellow.
Mr. Emanuel hemmed and hawed a bit and said, "He is a full-fledged angel with all the privileges. He can come and go as he pleases. He has what you might call "diplomatic immunity." I pressed for details and he became very evasive, about as close to a spin doctor as I have seen in Heaven. Angel or not, I was so ticked off that I was tempted to say, "Manny, let's cut the crap. Why do I have to entertain this bum in my club?"
I held my tongue. Since Mr. Emanuel was here, the Lord had obviously approved the visit. Here, it is best to reason this way: If God ordains something, it must be good. If you don't like it, think a little bit harder and you will learn something valuable. It works like a charm.
The only time on Earth that I was encouraged to reason like this was in a class on Constitutional Law; between 1850 and 1930 all Supreme Court decisions have the same result---the Railroad wins. It was easy to get an "A" simply by keeping that in mind during all tests and class discussion.
God creates the angels including Satan. Satan turns his back on God. God tolerates Satan. I am still mystified by the chain of events. On the positive side, the rules here are consistent-- -they apply to all members regardless of who you are or what you do. On the negative side, could others fall from Grace? Could I fall from Grace? Is God sending the Devil to test me. Is this a celestial pop quiz?
Mardi Gras was on February 15 that year, so I only had two weeks to get ready for the show. Word got out that the Other Fellow was going to be there, so the pressure on reservations went up to the boiling point. I wanted to apply for good weather so that I could have the whole thing outside to accommodate everybody. On balance, I thought that would do too much honor to Satan. So, we rented lots of small tables and hoped that everyone would be so excited about the show that they would forget about being crowded.
Just in case, we threw caution to the wind on the food budget. We planned to serve huge portions of gumbo, red beans and rice, spiced shrimp, and oyster po'boys. The band and staff worked overtime getting everything ready. I talked over the problem of Satan at length with anyone who would listen. It took a while, but I even got an appointment with John Milton. He said that he had actually met the Other Fellow once and he was nothing like the character in Paradise Lost.
As I was searching out noted authors, I happened to run into Oliver Wendell Holmes. He is an umpire in major league baseball (we have no lawyers in Heaven.) He offered no useful information on Satan, but by giving me a few new wrinkles on why the railroad always won, he proved that everything eventually gets connected up here.
Charlie Parker was the only one of my close associates who was on intimate terms with the Devil. He advised, "Steer clear of that smooth talking son of a bitch."
I asked Saint Michael and the Enforcers to provide security for the affair. This did little to calm my stomach, because I started having recurring nightmares about Altamont. As the day grew nearer, I spent a lot of time checking and double-checking the little details. I interviewed everyone concerned with the club to make sure that there wasn't even the slightest lapse of faith. Just to be sure, I had Herb working overtime checking out all our temporary employees on his computer.
We spent a lot of time praying and we were extra loud at The Praise. Rather than hide the Devil, I decided to put him right down front where everyone could see him. I asked Berman to personally press my dress suit and to make sure there was extra starch in the shirt. I even had Saint Vincent check my suspenders because I had a sneaking suspicion that Satan would try to make my pants fall down at a critical moment. I even put Confucius and Buddha on their best behavior. There were to be no dribble glasses at this soiree.
I swallowed hard and looked into the club. The house was packed and we had finished serving dinner. The waiters were pouring coffee but the Other Fellow was conspicuously absent. I called Torquemada on his car phone and he indicated that there was a holdup in customs on the High Level Bridge. Although the Devil can come here, God doesn't make it easy for him. Apparently Mr. Gabriel had ordered a DNA check for Satan and his party.
I can almost see Manny the diplomat trying smooth things over while Moses, Abraham, and Ezekiel led an choir of thousands in hymns of Praise for the Lord. Torquemada also told me that Satan was traveling in a mediocre 1974 white Cadillac stretch limo that had come here after an accident at a prom in Sioux City.
Everyone had turned out and the route was lined with people making a joyful noise. We had set up a big projection screen outside for the benefit of those behind the velvet rope. We even dished out free gumbo to the crowd. The event was carried live on cable. I didn't want Satan to steal the show so I had to stall for some time.
I had Art Taylor give me a drum roll and welcomed the crowd. I introduced the celebrities in the audience. Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey always get a big hand. I was getting desperate by the time that I got around to Bertrand Russell.
Then I heard a murmur in the crowd. The Other fellow was here. Saint Michael escorted him through the house and pointed out the correct table. The Saint had his sword slung over his back but I noticed that he never stopped looking straight into the Devil's eyes. I didn't know what to expect.
I was surprised to see that the Other Fellow was about six feet tall, had rather long blonde hair and was wearing a dark blue double-breasted Armani suit. He had a broad striped shirt of electric blue and a small pattern red tie. He had heavy gold cufflinks and an expensive thin watch. His eyes were bright blue and almost cheery. He showed only a slight wisp of a smile. I looked at his feet and saw only polished calfskin loafers---no hooves.
His entourage included several bright looking young men and women who were also stylishly dressed. They sat at their table and I noticed that Satan's aides all produced day-notebooks. They ordered mineral water with limes. They sat quitely through the show and applauded politely. There was no untoward behavior at all with the possible exception that the Devil took a call on his cellular phone during "Take Me to the Mardi Gras". His aides dutifully wrote things down in their notebooks.
When the Professor had finished his set, the house band came on with a tribute to Clifton Chenier. I had retired to the office to keep an eye on things, but nothing seemed to be amiss. Saint Michael kept a watchful eye on the floor while Herb and Saint Vincent sat with me. There was no evidence of any kind of sin, although I noted that the Devil couldn't keep time to the music. By using the surveillance camera, I could watch the subtleties of his manner. I observed precise and controlled movements, even in something as trivial as lighting a cigarette. I zoomed in on his hands to see a mixture of delicacy and raw power. Although his fingers moved with a grace that was almost feminine, I also sensed that behind each motion were immense countervailing forces.
His simplest actions had the artistry of a Japanese tea ceremony but the apparent flawless ballet of his hands had been choreographed out of thousands of small movements, each mechanistic in its own right but combined one upon another yielded an approximation of savior faire sans souci. Can a circle be approximated by a square? Of course not---but a polygon of a thousand sides is virtually indistinguishable from a circle. Can evil have grace? Of course not---but a thousand well-controlled mechanical gestures can leave that impression.
I asked Saint Vincent to look at the monitor. He saw through Satan's disguise right away and added some depth, remarking, "He handles a cigarette like Charles Boyer and the little gesture with an open hand is from Cary Grant." Herb came over and saw stuff from Mick Jagger, John Kennedy, Aly Khan, Porfiro Rubirosa, Lee Iacocca, and Shaun Cassidy.
We watched the Devil talk to one of his minions and observed the way that he locked his eyes into contact with the other person. Simultaneously, the three of us said, "Has this guy done EST?"
Installment Thirty One
Herb and Saint Vincent were of the opinion that Satan looked like Werner Ehrhard, while I thought that he looked like a cross between David Bowie and Fabian. This was all very interesting, but I still had no idea of why God had sent Lucifer to my club.
My companions had no idea either, since God's will is ever so much more inscrutable than Confucius. Herb said, "He's trying to lull us into a false sense of security, trying to convince us that he's nothing more than a yuppie fop. Let's forces his hand---call Paul on the house phone and have the band play "Sympathy for the Devil'."
It took some time to find a conga drum and more time was spent in retuning. The noise level rose as people started conversations, ordered drinks, and shuffled in their seats. With the opening riff, the house went dead silent. I zeroed the monitor on Satan's face and I thought I saw a brief flicker of surprise followed by a tightening of the face, all of which took only a fraction of a second before he got control and shifted to a boyish grin. He looked directly into the camera and saluted.
Then he waved to the crowd. He reached across the table, took the hand of one of his female companions, and led her to the dance floor. They did a very convincing Latin Hustle filled with intricate maneuvers and technical wizardry. Herb focused the camera tight on Satan's face and said, "Look here! He's counting the beat---and those steps were lifted directly from Saturday Night Fever."
Saint Vincent said, "Put the spotlight on him---let him make a fool of himself in front of everyone." I had thoughts of sending out our bartenders Enrique and Yolanda to show him up, but then I thought that he would do something like make them trip.
Herb smiled at me and said, "You're thinking like an angel."
When the song was over, the crowd gave him polite applause to show that we were cordial, but not enough to show that he was welcome or that they were impressed. Satan and his friend returned to the table. He did not escort the lady to her seat. Rather, he smoothed his hair, adjusted his tie and called for a waiter.
I could see that none of this escaped the vigilant gaze of Saint Michael who raised a finger and sent Francis Xavier (one of the Enforcers) to attend to the Devil. Satan whispered a few words into his ear, not getting too close because Francis was wearing a crucifix earring.
In a minute, the house phone rang. It was Paul, who said, "Old Harry wants to meet you." I looked around at my friends but they shrugged.
Herb said, "Use your good judgement."
Saint Vincent said, "Don't over-extend yourself. Keep your mind on God."
I focused the surveillance camera on Saint Michael and he, too, slowly nodded.
Almost imperceptibly, Torquemada turned back the lapel of his black zoot suit, showing both the scarlet lining and his chrome plated forty five.
So, I straightened my tie, checked my suspenders, said a very heartfelt prayer, and headed for the floor.
Installment Thirty Two
I made my way down to the main floor and walked slowly to the Devil's table. He stood, smiled, and said, "You apparently know my name." He did not offer his hand nor would I have taken it.
He introduced his staff.
It was Mark this, Jonathan that and Samantha the other thing. They were Harvard MBA's looking into franchise opportunities in the entertainment business. Each seemed to be awfully earnest and very willing to write down anything---no matter how nonsensical---in his or her soft leather FiloFax.
Business cards from firms with alphabet soup ("ACX") or techno-zap ("Zybex") names were eagerly proffered. One young man with a firm handshake wanted to know if I wanted to take the club public and envisioned a world-wide chain.
This was a temptation that I could resist easily.
The Devil said, "You know, we have musicians on the Other Side. I have Wagner."
I said, "Yes, and you also have Lawrence Welk."
He smiled. One of his minions made a favorable comment about the sound system, hoping to get me to brag about it.
I said, "Well, it keeps up with traffic." I took the offensive and said, "You came a bit late---can we get you something to eat."
The group begged off, as all of them were on some kind of health food diet or another. I think that one only ate ungerminated arrowroot and another wanted to know if we cooked in aluminum pans.
I wondered why anyone would want to live forever on the Other Side. Perhaps this was part of their punishment. I imagined Saint Peter turning Jonathan away and saying, "For your sins, you will be sensitive to electromagnetic fields forever."
But, I certainly didn't press the point.
Satan asked me, "Why aren't you playing tonight?" I'll admit that hurt just a bit and he knew it. I spoke as honestly as I could, "It pleases the Lord to hear good music and the band does a much better job than I can."
He leaned toward me and whispered, "I will move this club across the river and you could be the featured headliner. Every night will be sold out and I can guarantee an endless supply of adoring teenage girls."
I said, "I am quite satisfied here in the Bosom of the Lord." I must have hesitated for a while because he leaned even closer and said, "I would like you to meet Sharon."
Charlie Parker was right. Satan was smooth.
Installment Thirty Three
Sharon is something else. She has long dark hair that fell across her face, highlighting smoky grey eyes, perfect teeth, and inviting lips. She had legs from here to there and wore an exquisite dress of red velvet that was short enough to be interesting and just long enough to be within the bounds of good taste. Her hands were expressive as she curled her long fingers around my hand ever so gently. I felt a mixture of electricity and heat. Every thing about her was complex and subtle. She wasn't Perfect -- for one thing, she was wearing a pair of rhinestone sandals
I felt some distinctly un-Heaven-like stirring in my body.
Satan looked at me, smiled and said, "Sharon has a doctorate in physics from Cal Tech. She was on the Olympic ski team in 1972."
Just then, Paul called Benny Goodman, Charlie Christian, Mel Powell, Lionel Hampton and Gene Krupa to the stage and the quintet struck up "Roll 'Em".
Sharon took my hand and said, "Let's dance."
I was not quite prepared for what happened after that. She was the best follower that I have ever danced with. We started out with a few swingouts and kicked into Flying Lindy without missing a beat. I led all kinds of complex Charleston routines and she was right there with me. I called for an A-kick and she must have gone six feet into the air --- looking at the tape now, I swear that I had to actually pull her down! Then from tandem, I led a rhythm flip forward, and tossing caution to the wind, led a rhythm flip backward --- all without missing a beat.
We hit the first break on a windowshade and kicked it back with about twelve bars of St. Louis Shag. We hit the next break with a pull-through to a straddle and handstand on my shoulder. She did a double reverse off my shoulders and hit the ground in Charleston.
Everything I knew was working absolutely perfectly. The band just kept playing extra choruses, and I dragged out stuff from old movies and instructional videos. Everything worked.
Finally, Krupa kicked on the cowbell, and I whispered to Sharon, "Donut Drop". She stiffened and I lifted her above my head; she bent around backwards and grabbed her ankles, forming a "Donut": while I held her above my head. As the music was about to end, I let her go, and she fell down over my body and braked to a stop about a foot from the floor on my outspread legs.
The crowd went nuts. I went nuts. The only thing in the back
of my mind was: "How can she do that in rhinestone
Installment Thirty Four
Sharon, Satan's "Principal Assistant" was not only good at Lindy, but also excelled at slow dancing. She had evidently seen the film Dirty Dancing several times.After thunderous applause to the Goodman Quartette, Albert King took the stage and did "The Very Thought of You". Sharon whispered in my ear, "I could do this for a long time. Why don't you come over and see me sometime?" Then she dropped the bomb, "Do you know that we have sex across the River?" She held my hand tightly as we walked back to the table. Satan locked his eyes on me and gave me a knowing smile.
At that exact moment, the house broke out into thunderous applause as Charlie Parker walked onto the stage and began an improvisation on "Amazing Grace" in E flat. It freed my mind. I motioned to Saint Michael and he was instantly at my side. Satan moved toward us but Michael raised the index finger on his left hand and the Devil stopped dead in his tracks.
Knowing that no denizen of the underworld can lie in the presence of an angel, I looked at Sharon and said, "Tell me what life with you would be like." She gave me a pouting frown. "Speak!" I said. She looked at Satan, then looked into Saint Michael's mirror glasses.
Then she looked at me and her demeanor changed. Her sultry eyes flashed red and she said, "You stupid son of a bitch. I'll make your life hell. I'll hitch you to a harness and make you work in an office for the rest of eternity to pay off a mortgage so big that you'll get a hernia lifting the monthly statement."
I noticed a thin stream of green bile running down the corner of her mouth as she continued, "You'll drive a Volvo for the rest of your life and the closest that you'll get to Italian food will be macaroni covered with ketchup. If you get near a sound system it will never have more than ten watts and I'll always be around to turn down the volume and make sure that you're listening to New Age Doo Doo.If you ever finish your chores, you might get out to warmed-over Broadway plays, provided that I get to spend half your income on a new outfit---and believe me, I only buy retail. You will never talk to anyone but paper shufflers, insurance agents, and glad-handers and we're never going to do anything that isn't in the Style section of the paper.
I'm going to have dinner parties for boring couples and serve fish stewed in fruit and you're going to get Tofu until it comes out your ears. You're going to listen to me talk about myself and my family and like it. You can kiss baseball goodbye and you'll never touch another MacIntosh computer. I might let you have a screwdriver, but you'll never make anything again---the house is going to be crawling with expensive loutish workmen because I plan to remodel every three months."
She screamed so loud that one of her caps shook loose and I noticed that there was a fang underneath.
She pointed to Charlie Parker and said, "Finally, it will be a cold day in Hell if you ever hear any of his caterwauling again."
"And as for Lindy Hop..." Her head began to spin and the rest was indecipherable sputtering and babble. She clicked her rhinestone sandals together and vanished in a puff of green smoke.
Satan looked at his watch and said, "Oops! It's time to go - I have another engagement"
We didn't do anything to delay him.
Installment Thirty Five
After my narrow escape from Satan's clutches as well as the huge amount of effort needed to prepare for the Mardi Gras celebration, I was exhausted. I gave everybody at the club two days off and spent a day just vegetating.
Saint Vincent dropped around in the evening with a big pizza. He congratulated me on both the show and my resistance to temptation. I was a bit sad, because I really needed that jolt of inspiration from Charlie Parker to break the spell. "That's what art is for," replied the Saint. "We are weak and gain our strength from each other," he said, "You should know that you made the Bird very happy." I hadn't thought of that. "The rescuer benefits as well as the rescued," he continued, "and God is served by both. Now, how about some pizza." My spirits were lifted.
I said, "You know, music really helped me adjust to one of the biggest problems in my life." Saint Vincent said, "How so?" I suggested that we watch it on the LifeVision Channel. You are welcome to join us. I wish that I could share some of this Heavenly pizza with you as well.
By 1956, Dad's business had improved to the point where he could fulfil Mom's dream of House-In-The-Country. He told me that he stuck a pin into a map at the site of his shop and used a string to represent ten miles. He then made a circle which represented his maximum tolerance for commuting. That was as far into the country as my Mom would get. Since the shop was located on Spring Garden Avenue, those ten miles went farthest into the North Hills. After a period of scouting, Dad took us for a trip to look at the New House.
Actually, "look" isn't the right word, because it has the connotation of "view with the option of viewing something else". It is appropriate only in the sense of kindly old Uncle Joe Stalin saying, "All right, Mr. Soltzhenitzen, let's go for a drive in the country and have a look at Siberia."
As I looked at the tape, I was amused by the gradual evolution of the word "look" as a euphemism. By the time I left for this place, the standard fourth grade civics textbook had a title like Hands Across the Sea on the Big Blue Marble and provided a view of history which included both "Benevolent President-for-Life Amin let his political opponents look at the crocodiles in the M'Bonga River." and "General Custer had a good look at the noble, Earth-conscious Lakota Sioux."
Back then, the parents could achieve major change by presenting their children with a fait accompli. This is your new house, look at it. There wasn't any involvement or consultation. This is it. By authority vested in Dad from on high, you can live anywhere you want as long as it is at 214 Perrymont Road.
All the talk about participatory democracy in the Sixties probably came directly from the trauma of parental rule by fiat. I think that all the SDS leaders managed to get converts by purposely blurring the distinction between American Imperialism and Dad's autocracy. Why was I in the suburbs? Why were we in Viet Nam? It all seemed the same to me---somebody else had decided that I should do something unpleasant so they could get on with their life.
In one case, Dad wanted me to change into Andy Hardy or Dink Stover to end Mom's nagging; in the other, Lyndon Johnson wanted me to change into Sergeant Slaughter to get the Republicans off his back.
I got so mad that I stopped the tape just to catch my breath. I could see that I felt very strongly at the time, but far too many others had greater stress in their lives. I looked like a real whiner.
Saint Vincent offered a few words of encouragement.
Only a few.
Yep, I was a whiner. My whole generation is a bunch of whiners.
I turned the tape back on to watch my family move. While the tape is on fast forward, let me give you some background. Prior to the move, we lived in a four room apartment on Liberty Avenue in the city. We were on the second floor and we only had a few windows. The rooms were laid out in a straight line, connected by a long, dark hall. My "room" was really a large closet that Dad had cobbled out of the bedroom. The kitchen was in the back and overlooked a courtyard that served as an informal meeting place for all the residents. There was a network of iron-railing porches on the back that provided a wonderful place for kids to play. There were lots of kids in the neighborhood but we had no playground; for some strange reason (related most likely to "someone's nephew was in tennis courts"), the city had installed a tennis court next to the apartment building.
The new house was on Perrymont Road which connects McKnight Road to US 19. At the southern end is the Vincentian Home and Passavant Hospital. On the way north, the road makes a right angle bend to skirt a giant hill. Our new house was on top of this hill and overlooked this "dead man's curve." There was nothing else for two miles on each side.
For a while, our only entertainment was the regularly-scheduled Saturday night car crash when one or more drunks ran off the road. I started putting stakes into the ground to mark the distance traveled as each car failed to make the turn and flew off into the void and down the steep embankment. The record was held by an insurance salesman in a 1948 Kaiser who went all the way down the hill and rolled for almost a mile before all four tires blew out. He walked away from it.
At the time, the general area was known as Keown Station, named for a stop on the Harmony line about one mile east. The only grocery store was in West View, about five miles away. All of McKnight road was tree-lined. Dad said that he would always be able to get to work in fifteen minutes because it was "limited access." Dad often believed the word of politicians. McKnight Road remained "limited access" much in the same way that my generation will eventually collect on Social Security.
In contrast to the apartment, the house was huge---three floors and five bedrooms. Consistent with the amount of money that Dad spent, the house was the Platonic handyman's special. This was not a disaster, since Dad had the knowledge, skills and tools to do most of the work. He also had a cheap assistant. The arduous process of restoration took several years, during which Dad and I found every construction horror in the book.
It had been a farmhouse, but had grown incrementally at the whim of a variety of owners, all of whom cut corners. The plumbing was a disaster, the wiring was in shambles, and the furnace was obsolete in 1890. It seemed that there was a nightmare waiting for us under every floorboard. We kept at it from day-to-day and on weekends. Both my grandfathers were in their seventies at the time, but they came around and helped as well. I can remember Dad's father shaking his head at the things that American people would build and saying, "They're all cheap."
We finally succeeded in getting it finished by the time that I started in High School. Thus, I came to know the joys of roofing, painting, plastering, and the like. I also got the beneficial exercise that resulted from mowing an acre of high grass every week without a power mower.
Many people in my age bracket had to wait until they had a professional career in order to learn these skills. The only real sacrilege that we committed on the house was painting the walnut woodwork. Mom thought that it was "too dark." Women of the 1950s were apparently quite keen on brightening things up. Dad wisely left the dark wood in his study and kept the heavy green velvet drapes, even though Mom called them "dustcatchers."
The kitchen included all the gimcracks in the Art-Craft catalogue because Mr. Litvack, the accountant, told Dad that he could get an income tax deduction if we used the kitchen as a sort of showroom. Thus, we had formica inlays, every sort of built-in device in the world, and a wide variety of gadgets including a meat slicer and a knife-sharpener. Of course, this wonder had to be kept spotlessly clean, because customers were likely to show up at any time of night or day. I can leave it to you to guess who was elected chief steward. "Look after the kitchen", said Dad.
Dad was really proud of walk-in freezer in the basement. I should qualify that. In the 1920s there was no such thing as a kitchen refrigerator. Companies such as Briggs & Stratton sold a refrigeration unit. You had to supply an insulated box. The unit, which used ammonia as a coolant, simply pumped heat from one place to another. In our case, the previous owners had insulated one whole room in the basement. This proved to be a godsend, because there was no such thing as "running to the store for a few things." Dad had ideas of saving lots of money by purchasing whole sides of beef. This worked well until there was a power failure. Then we had to run out for a couple of hundred pounds of ice. But, we did have a walk-in freezer.
I got the whole third floor, which was an improvement over the closet that I had in the apartment. This had three big rooms with odd shapes due to the dormers. There was also a trap door to the attic, which although unheated, had a floor. My walls were covered with tongue-and-groove panelling because this had been the servant's quarters. Mom kept wanting to paint this, but I resisted. I didn't need any "brightening" either.
Over the years that I lived there, I managed to fill all available space with model trains, model airplanes, model ships, and ham radio equipment. For the latter, our location on the hill proved to be nothing short of perfection. I strung a half wave antenna from the house to a giant tree and enjoyed fantastic reception. I used to sit up in the attic with my Morse key and pretend that I was a spy contacting agents in all parts of the Earth.
Dad viewed all of these hobbies with mixed emotions. On one hand, he saw them as a cost with no offsetting revenue. On the other hand, he enjoyed bragging about his "mad scientist" son to his buddies. As long as the income from my paper route covered a reasonable amount of the cost, the grass got mowed, the chores got done, and my grades were high, he was willing to tolerate a hobby or two.
Let's put emphasis on the word "tolerate". In Dad's eyes, there was always something vague and sinister about anything that didn't make the business get bigger so that some day we could afford to pay for College. Mom had reservations about hobbies, because she thought that I should be using the time to study for College. I liked these things because they were a relief from the interminable boredom of the Suburbs until I could get away from home to go to College.
One day in 1956, Dad brought home a brand new Magnavox "entertainment console." This was a combination radio, TV and phonograph, all housed in an attractive "solid mahogany" case. He allowed that he got it cheap from someone named Eddie or Vinnie or Joey because it had "fallen off a truck". Right. I don't think that even Mom believed that. I suggested that maybe Eddie had helped it fall off at gunpoint.
My suggestion was rewarded with a knuckle on the forehead and an admonition not to contradict my elders. All reservations evaporated when we heard the marvelous sound. Dad had even bought a record of "Amapola", his and Mom's "song". They danced for a while and the subject of the origins of the entertainment console was never heard again.
The "old fashioned" Philco radio was declared obsolete and consigned to my floor for the bargain price of washing all fifty four windows in the house. This was possibly the biggest mistake of Dad's life, because I soon discovered WAMO and Negro Music. Dad, of course, quickly learned the Parent's Rock and Roll Cheer, "Shut that damned noise off!" I wired the Philco for headphones and worked on my hobbies as I listened to the flowering of the R&B era.
Corrupted by Porky Chedwick, another suburban child was lost to the siren sound of Clyde McPhatter, Ray Charles, and James Brown. As I clicked the TV off, I could see Saint Vincent rolling his eyes. I said, "O.K So I didn't have a truly deprived childhood. Moving into a giant house---even a fixer-upper--- isn't the end of the world. But---I sincerely felt that I had been torn out of my culture and placed in an alien land." The Saint continued to smile at me. I said, "Really. I was really upset. I was upset about it all my life." He said, "Well, let's finish up this pizza." I am just another whiner from the baby boom.
Installment Thirty Six
The lucky old sun may have nothing to do but roll around Heaven all day, but the saloonkeeper's work is never done. I love special shows but each one presents its own complexities. This month, we're focusing on Louis Jordan, those who influenced him, and those he influenced. His material is based on the blues format but has a lot more flair and polish. The ensemble brass adds a lot of style and makes the material very "danceable."
Jordan's group recorded during World War II as the "Tympany Five". His humorous, jazz-oriented music led him to several million-sellers (a real rarity for a black group) and numerous movie appearances. His work includes the famous "Choo Choo Ch'Boogie" and "Saturday Night Fish Fry". I'm also very fond of "Knock me a Kiss", "Five Guys Named Moe", "Beans and Cornbread", and "Early in the Mornin".
A lot of effort is required to arrange the vast musical legacy left by Louis Jordan.
Because Jordan is so popular I know that I will have a big problem with the guest list. All of this work left me spiritually and physically hungry. I took a break, got a cheese sandwich, and headed for the park.
I hoped to reduce the stress by watching my grandfather hustle at bocce. When I got there, a noisy crowd was milling around. I clapped my hand to my forehead and said to myself, "Oh no! It's the third Thursday of the month ---Speakers Day."
For reasons unknown to me, the Lord has given an unusual penance to those sinners who stirred up class conflict on Earth. Once a month, they are bussed across the River, under suitable guard, and are given the opportunity to make speeches in the Park. Today, a pudgy little guy with milk-bottle glasses was ranting on about lack of opportunity in Heaven. We were all supposedly the victims of oppression by a small elite and the speaker urged that new arrivals organize to take power away from the old-timers.
Just down the street, a woman with a hairnet and huarache sandals was trying to warn the old guys that the newcomers were taking over. "Seniority is your most important right," she droned. Another tall fellow with a beard was trying to convince us that the food was all poisoned. I walked on and heard a bald guy with a bow tie say that there was a giant hole in the Firmament. On another corner, an older woman in a floral print dress argued that we would soon be inundated by excess Firmament. It went on and on.
There were a lot of these sinners.
I ignored them until I heard a fellow with a bad case of acne giving a speech about the evil of Rock and Roll. I stopped to listen to him.
I've only told you half the story. Nobody takes these sinners very seriously. Gabriel supervises their penance. He lets them rant on for a while and then has some of his Sweet Little Angels pass among the crowd with big trays of soft rotten vegetables.
They wear cute little outfits that are modeled on those worn by the car-hops at the old Parkette Restaurant in Lexington, Kentucky, right down to the roller skates. I took pleasure in selecting a large beefsteak tomato mottled with yellow. I pelted the acne-covered sinner with a direct hit right between the eyes. I shouted, "Take that for Alan Freed!"
A man next to me chose a brown-green head of lettuce and said, "I AM Alan Freed!" He, too, was very accurate. Accepting a hot towel from another angel, I shook his hand and expressed my admiration for his contribution. He smiled and walked away. When he had gone fifteen feet, he jumped up and clicked his heels together.
After this pleasant interlude, I realized that I had a virtually infinite number of choices, all of them enjoyable. So, what would I do with my afternoon off in paradise? Let me try to explain this in words that might communicate this a little better on Earth. Imagine your life unbound.
I'll bet that a moment doesn't go by when you see something that you want to examine just a little bit closer. Ride a bus, sit in a doctor's waiting room, get your drivers license renewed- --any time you are in a space with more than ten people, it is a dead certainty that you will find at least one person sufficiently distinctive enough to warrant getting to know a lot better.
The gentlemen in the audience will understand this right away. The way to meet an incredibly beautiful woman is to have a date with somebody else; the way to meet the perfect woman is to marry someone else. I cannot presume to speak for the ladies who may be reading this story. If there is a "grass-is-greener" phenomenon for women, I would not be surprised.
For the sake of argument let us assume that there really is one person that is truly interesting in every group with more than ten people. (If this is only true for men, then divide all of the resulting calculations by two.) This means that about ten percent of the Earth's six billion current and past inhabitants are truly interesting---about six hundred million people. That's a lot of interesting people. If it turns out to be three hundred million it's still a lot.
has a lot of people worth getting to know. On Earth, one just doesn't walk up to an interesting person and start a conversation. As I think back to 1968, we came close to that during the "Summer of Love." There was an absurd belief that you could "trust" anyone who had long hair. Silly as it may sound, it really worked for about a year---in fact, it worked long enough for some people to believe that you could create an entire Earthly society based on love and trust. The Charley Mansons of the world put an end to the idea that one human can talk to another. At the time that I left Earth, folks were living alone in armed bunkers. The politics of sex had made living as a couple virtually impossible without extended negotiations (as represented by counsel) to both reach agreement on the smallest point and then to enforce the agreement.
Times were so tough that you didn't dare talk to strangers because it was six-to-one that they would use guilt, guile, or a gun to get in your pocket. Most people believed that they were a victim of someone else.
When I left Earth, I had no idea of who the victimizers were; everyone was a victim. I don't really miss that part of my time on Earth and I'm not alone- -- the LifeVision channel says that they get very few requests for tapes from 1984 on --- mostly just birthdays and Bar Mitzvahs with a smattering of interest in the Persian Gulf War. On Earth, all these interesting people are bottled up in individual cells afraid to talk to one another because of the creepies.
Here, God simply culls out the con artists and psychopaths. It is sometimes a jarring transition for the newcomer to find out that people here are free. You can talk to anyone and anyone can talk to you. People react to it in the strangest way---all I can think of is a guy in a bunker when he finds out that the siege is over. He can see some trees and birds outside the lid, but it takes a while to sneak it open a bit. When he is finally are sure that the war is over he feels tempted to take off his clothes and run around in the sun. Here, one often sees naked people running around in the park. Although this phase lasts for only a day or two, we continue to cherish our freedom to strike up a conversation with anybody, anywhere.
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