Cruising the Green of Second Avenue

Wild Child Publishing has issued the second volume of short stories in Cruising the Green of Second Avenue. The tales take up where Vol. I left off—bringing back Klein the Biker, Straight Charlie and Sammy the Madman while introducing new characters stumbling over life’s difficulties in the late 60s. Vol. II is an e-book published by Wild Child Publishing that you can download, save as a pdf (Adobe) file and print. Read both volumes and see that life isn't all that serious. Find it at Barnes & Noble and other online book sellers.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Warnings I Never Heeded

Nowadays, adults call old lies “folklore” or “advice worth remembering,” as though a superstition perpetuated for two or more generations becomes a truth.  It’s the age-old argument about folklore beating up on scientific truth.

I remember as a teenager asking my mother why she never served pork at suppertime.  “Because it’s hard to digest when you’re sleeping at night.”  Of course!  (Figurative slap on the forehead.)  Pork is different than other meat because, well, there’s a religious angle and because someone called it the “other” white meat.

Fish, on the other hand, is “brain food” that makes you smarter, and carrots will improve your eyesight.  Calves liver is needed once a month for “iron,” and here Mom insisted, “I don’t like liver either, but it’s good for you.” 

Dinner was a favorite place for teaching.  “Grapes are nourishing,” my mother would say, “but spit out the seeds or they’ll get stuck in your appendix.”  We heard the same warnings about hidden bones in fish that would choke us to death if we weren’t careful.  It’s no wonder that carbohydrates were once my cuisine of choice. 

How many years does it take it take to erase the baseless fears that have been taught?  Every day, I’d hear my mother warn my older brother not to take basketball playing too seriously because it could lead to a dangerously enlarged heart.  Or, a sore throat?  “Not a problem, son.  We’ll rub Flammacine (a defunct salve like Vicks Vaporub) on your neck and wrap it in flannel.” 

Everyone has at some time been ordered to stop sucking his thumb.  “You’ll get buck teeth.”  And never, ever cross your eyes, even in fun.  “They may get stuck that way forever.” 

And while shopping for clothes I heard, “No sneakers except for play.  They’ll make your arches fall and you’ll get flat feet.  That’s why Buster Browns are the best.” 

In the playground, the catechism was, “Step on a crack and you’ll break your mother’s back.”  But there were also revisionists:  “Step on a crack and you’ll break Hitler’s back!” 

My grandmother provided more mystical visions, if not warnings.  Dropping a fork on the floor meant company — a female — was coming to visit.  (A dropped knife was a male, and a spoon…well, it goes on.)  And there were the usual prohibitions against walking under a ladder (common sense) and warnings against breaking a mirror (that’s gotta go back centuries!). 

Even as I headed out to college, I was warned, “Always separate your whites from colors when you do a wash.  (Oh, my God!  Mom was right.)

I finally gained enough momentum to spin away from home and into the Army.  While I was soldiering in Korea, a girlfriend there insisted my headache would go away if I tied a string around my finger.  (Didn’t work for hangovers.)  And it was terribly bad luck to whistle at night.  (She was right.  The slicky boys whistled to each other and broke into our thatch-roofed hut, stealing my wallet and uniform.

Chopsticks had all the Asian symbolism of Western knives and forks.  Girls in Taiwan snickered when they saw me holding chopsticks waaay up at the end.  “You’re going to marry a girl from far, far away,” they chirped.  But they were right.  My wife was Taiwanese. 

I was reminded by my friend Jamie Ford, author of The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, “It’s bad luck to play with your chopsticks.”  Yes!  My wife always reprimanded our kids for playing with them, saying with horror, “Never stick them upright in your rice bowl.  That’s how you make an offering for the dead.”  (A marginal thought, on a trip to Hong Kong we watched a young English couple waving their chopsticks like children.  The fellow nearly put out his new wife’s eye.)

So, I’m confused.  Where’s the truth?  CNN News reported breathlessly this week that drinking three cups of coffee a day may prevent Alzheimer’s Disease.  And, salt doesn’t lead to hypertension; salt is a necessity.

I might suggest, however, that New York City’s traffic department check those kids jaywalking across six lanes of traffic.  The kids tell each other, “Cars won’t hit you if you don’t look at them.”

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Tenting Tonight on the Chautauqua Circuit

Marion Ballou Fisk entertained thousands with her lectures under Chautauqua tents. 
Her drawing of the campground illustrated one of America’s most famous songs.  
I eagerly anticipated tales of Indian lovers and horrifying winters and camping with a horse-drawn wagon when my grandmother came to stay each summer in the early 1950s.  The reward came when Moms let me sleep in her rope-strung, four-poster bed with the canopy that formed a tent. 

I rushed to get in my PJs and pull the comforter up to my chin while she unbraided her long gray hair and placed her false teeth in a glass of water.

Then the stories began.  My favorite was about a boy, born in New Hampshire years ago, “who would rather die than hoe beans, but his father and mother taught him that it was ‘work first and play afterwards.’”

Moms said that with the boy’s talent for music, “He took a hollow reed and fashioned a flute.  His father felt that such genius should be encouraged. 

“So, the boy and his sister learned to play on a pump organ.  They played everything they knew, then they made up their own songs.

 “When the man was twenty-one years old, he went down to Boston, purchased a horse and wagon, and a little melodeon organ and drove through the countryside giving concerts in schools and churches.

“Then the time came,” she said, “when Uncle Sam ordered, ‘Come, follow me.’  It never occurred to him to seek an excuse why he shouldn’t enter his country’s service.”

I knew who Uncle Sam was, and the air raid sirens told me we were fighting the Germans and Japanese.  But she was talking about some long-ago war and I was quiet.

“He was away the night the summons came, and all the way home the words and music to a little song kept running through his mind.  When he had reached home he took an old violin and wrote a simple little piece.

“A few days later, he went down to Concord, New Hampshire, to report for service.  He was found physically unfit and was dismissed.  But there was a demand for a song by which the soldiers might march and sing in camp.  The Oliver Ditson Company advertised for such a song, and the young man sent down the simple song he had written the night of his draft, offering to sell it to them for fifteen dollars.

“They were disgusted because of its simplicity and refused to have it at any price.  Instead, they hired a musician of considerable note to write a song for them.  But, the soldiers simply wouldn’t sing it.  Then, they remembered the little song they had refused, purchased and published it, and in less than six weeks it was being sung by every Southern campfire and in every Northern home.”

Moms would make sure I was still tucked in — and still awake — before she continued.

“I remember when I was a little girl, seeing an eccentric looking man come into our yard.  He was driving a brown horse hitched to a pink express wagon, and in the back was strapped a melodeon.  My father and mother — your great grandpa and great-grandma— received him with joy in the kitchen. 

“I was allowed to sit up late while I listened to them talk, often about things I couldn’t understand.  But I liked to listen to his kindly voice.

“At last they sang songs, and sometimes my father and mother joined him, and he told us this story of his boyhood and sang the song he had written the night of his draft, the song that made Walter Kittredge known and loved all over our country.”  And she began to sing softly, sadly.

“We are tenting tonight on the old camp ground,
          Give us a song to cheer,
Our weary hearts, a song of home,
          And the friends we love so dear.

“Many are the hearts that are weary tonight,
          Wishing for the war to cease,
Many are the hearts, looking for the right,
          To see the dawn of Peace.

                      Tenting tonight, tenting tonight,
                      Tenting on the old camp ground.

Moms passed away in that bed in 1961 at the age of 86.  The bed is now in the guest bedroom of my house. 

Marion Ballou Fisk — my Moms — had traveled the Chautauqua Circuit across the United States week after week between 1906 and 1926 to support her family.  She was billed as America’s Foremost Lady Cartoonist when musical entertainment and uplifting lectures were delivered under the large tents.  In small towns across America, this was the only source of culture and respite from weary, rural chores.

I finally dug through cartons of her papers and found her hand-written stories — including this one — and a photo of her as she told crowds about Walter Kittredge who wrote one of the Civil War’s most famous ballads.

I’m sure that one of the most rapt audiences Moms ever had wasn’t a real audience at all.  Just a small boy sleeping under the “tent” in her four-poster bed.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

St. Marks Place, I Knew You Well

The neighborhood store that invented the “egg cream” opened in the 1920s
became Gems Spa in 1957. To the right, is the Electric Circus.

Nothing in the late ‘60s was ever as invigorating as drinking an egg cream at Gems Spa on New York’s Second Ave while the city in July baked like a tray of lasagna.  Or, if it were Saturday, you could hang out at the St. Marks Bookstore, an inviting place where clerks might invite a homeless guy to sit for awhile before hitting the streets again.  Or, you could catch a re-run of Citizen Kane at the St. Marks Cinema built in 1914, where no one minded if you smoked in the balcony or discreetly sipped from a bottle of wine.  Evenings, there was often a free concert at Tomkins Square.  (If we were too tired to walk over, we could hear the music on our rooftop we called Tar Beach.)

 That was the Lower East Side, and it was paradise.  No one called it the East Village until the place gentrified decades later.  It was a city and a time when everything was possible as the Summer of Love rolled in.  Now, people say the dreams are gone, like my $65 a month shotgun flat on Bowery and Fifth St. with the bathtub in the kitchen, the 15-cent subway fare, the free rides on the Staten Island Ferry.  But, in a minute I’m going to tell you a secret about the “good old days.”

I had returned to the city after serving two years with the Army in Korea and Taiwan.  Life settled into a five-day rhythm of work at Western Electric’s Kearny Works where I edited employee publications.  I’d come home at night, take off my coat and tie and search out old friends — most of them artists who’d graduated Cooper Union and the Art Students League.  Our go-to place was the Dom, the hippest watering hole in the city.  The Dom had a quiet bar that must've been 80 feet long and, briefly, had a Scopitone, a video jukebox that showed 16 mm film clips to music.  Later, the building was home to The Balloon Farm where Frank Zappa played, and then The Electric Circus.

On The Night the Lights Went Out — Nov. 9, 1965 — I was stumbling crosstown in a newly purchased pair of shoes.  New York was really, really dark.  Boy Scouts materialized to voluntarily direct traffic.  I tripped over a grating and a stranger grabbed my arm, saying “Careful!”  After dinner in my apartment lit only by plumber candles, I found myself with a few pals at the Dom.  It too was bathed in darkness except for candles lining the bar.  Half a dozen Sony Walkmans were all tuned to WMGM’s Peter Tripp, “The Curly-headed Kid in the Third Row.”

 It wasn’t easy being an un-domesticated bachelor.  Meals were often taken at a corner deli with a bialy smothered in cream cheese, onions and pickled herring.  On Sunday mornings, I treated myself to a knish, hot dog and bottle of Rheingold at Yonah Shimmel’s on East Houston. 

With luck, there’d be a demonstration filling a street, the cause being peace, women’s lib or equal rights.  And, if you looked closely, you’d spot the poet Allen Ginsberg in his cardboard Uncle Sam hat.

All around, there was harmony, a community of kindred spirits that stretched from Fifth Avenue to the East River. 

Those days are gone, but maybe they’re better in memory than actuality.  The nice part is that happy people still hang out on St. Marks Place.  For many, the 1980s or ‘90s or Millennium are “the good old days.”  Those times of bright memories are whenever you remember that kiss you stole in the theater balcony or the jokes that were unbearably funny or just seeing the moon rise over the Manhattan Bridge.  Those days don’t mark a place or time; they’ve etched a place in your heart.  But there are still egg creams at Gems Spa.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Who Took the Man Out of the Mannequin?

Some four decades ago, my six-year-old son Billy howled that his pants scratched.  It was 8:24 a.m. and we had to be out of our apartment and on New York’s Avenue B bus in ten minutes.  No point in arguing.  Had to change the pants and get to school on time.  His Montessori school was crazier about punctuality than scholarship.           

The only thing left in his bureau was bluejeans, cuffs falling into a tangle of loose threads, patches on both knees – one red and the other pink – from mill ends my wife Judy used to make a quilt.  Finished off with yellow work boots, it was a utilitarian outfit for a six-year-old to go conquer the world.  His school wasn’t like my school was. 

Back in rural Oregon, my mother forbade me to wear bluejeans to school.  No, they weren’t “denims” or “dungarees.”  They were bluejeans.  One word, unhyphenated.  And the middle class ethic dictated against wearing “play clothes” to school.  Mom insisted, “If we don’t set an example for the rest of the town, who will?  The newspaper publisher’s son?  Dr. Kauffman’s son?  Certainly not the farm children.”
At 8:24 that morning I was wearing a button down Oxford-cloth shirt, a rep tie and a blue wool suit.  My pants scratched too.   

“Wear the jeans,” I told Billy.  That made him happy.  And I envied him. 

And I envied the people who passed by my office on Third Avenue.  Back then, their Levi jackets were an artist’s canvas of embroidery, probably sewn lovingly by barefoot hipsters on Bleecker Street.  Their clothes didn’t scratch. 

Some years earlier I worked for Western Electric in Kearny, NJ.  This vast factory boasted more than 10,000 employees.  My job, among other tasks, was to interview retiring employees and sum up their expectations in 50 words of copy for the employee newspaper I edited.  After talking with one – any one – I might pass him in the hall two hours later and be totally unable to recognize him.  They wore gray (scratchy?) suits for their exit interview.  White socks.  Brown shoes.  Had short hair.  All seemed uniformly gray-skinned.  All said they were going to watch sports on TV and then putter around their gardens in Toms River.  So unless I associated each person with a mnemonic clue – a scar here, a missing finger there, a VFW pin in the lapel – I couldn’t recognize him in passing two hours later.  (The women were different.  Their curves and hairstyles made them individuals.) 

Another realization soon hit me.  In six months, I was also writing their obituaries.  My job was to chronicle both departures.  These people not only looked alike, they subscribed to the same short destinies. 

The U.S. Army had taught me, painfully, that one salutes the uniform, not the officer in it.  The nagging, unanswered question that stayed with me during those years was: Were they defensive about producing better uniforms than officers?  At the Bell System, people wore a company uniform, just as I’d worn a uniform at school.  One respected the uniform, not the student.  Not the employee.  Not the officer.  Not the person concealed in those clothes. 

I went home that night of the scratchy pants incident, and I hung up my suit from Macy’s on a varnished wooden hanger.  Then I pulled on my bluejeans and a blue T-shirt.  I stuck my feet into a pair of engineer boots that had cost me a buck in the summer of 1970 – hand-me-downs from a fellow landscaper.  I was eminently comfortable. 

Somewhere in Westchester County at that very moment there was a man – an acquaintance – who’d also changed.  He was the treasurer of a large, century-old corporation.  When he came home, he changed out of his five hundred dollar suit and into cowboy clothes.  A real costume, not just bluejeans.  Then, I suppose he sat down to read his mail. 

Perhaps his pants also scratched at work.
I mentioned this to my wife, and she said we were both looking for lost innocence.  Maybe, but I’d maintain the cowboy executive had psychological issues I don’t share.  At least people can’t say they don’t recognize him when he’s in the front yard looking like Roy Rogers.  They don’t say, “There goes old what’s-his name.”

When I’m in jeans the jeans are me. a blueprint of my character, a silhouette portrait of all my faults and perfections.  No pretense.  I wear them and the psyche doesn’t itch.

Monday, September 28, 2015

A Short School Shopping List

Getting ready to go away to college used to be a rite of passage.  When I was a high school senior in the spring of ‘57, our mailbox at the house in Montclair began filling up with letters, circulars and catalogs advising me of absolute necessities to buy.  This would be a momentous departure from home.  There were requirements for stepping out into the real world. 

The personalized mailings from Wanamaker’s, Macy’s, Bamberger’s and Gimbel’s advised the class of 1961 that every boy needed at least one dark suit and one sport jacket, so my parents and I picked a day and dutifully drove into New York to shop. 

My dad first steered us to 23rd Street (23rd Street of all places!) to a clothier with a cardboard sign advertising “Horehair Petticoats.”  Remember the Archie Andrews fashion when girls needed to fill out their voluminous skirts?  I hope their petticoats were better than their sign making.  They found me a hounds tooth jacket from that discounter and it was hideous — but sale-priced!  Then up to 34th Street to Macy’s for a blue serge suit.  Macy’s was always the go-to store, knowing Bam’s would have whatever Macy’s didn’t offer.  My embarrassment was immense as the gray-haired sales lady tugged and pulled at my body to make sure the suit fit.  Cuffs would then be altered and the suit mailed home to avoid the sales tax. 

Also needed was a sturdy cardboard mailing box with a reversible mailing label so I could mail my dirty laundry back from Iowa to New Jersey for Mom to wash.  That exchange lasted six weeks before I went to the Laundromat and discovered “whites” and “colors” really should be separated or you’d end up with pink underwear.   

Grinnell College, the small school in Iowa where I was headed, advised freshmen to talk with prospective roommates so everyone in a threesome at our dormitory didn’t arrive with a 32-watt stereo set.  And, I was reminded, males were required to wear coats and ties for evening meals. 

Into the new footlocker (which I still have) went my Olympic portable typewriter, desk lamp, radio, blankets and a leather notebook with my initials.  My folks’ Samsonite suitcase was filled with T-shirts (white, no advertising or logos), dress shirts (button-down), and khakis (with belts in the back).   

I was on the top of the world as the 20th Century Limited pulled out of New York, taking me to a new life.  My education began with sartorial splendor, lasted one semester, and then the bluejeans took over.  I was in Iowa, for God’s sake!

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

The Best State in America

I was probably in the fourth grade when our wacky teacher (the one who regaled us with stories of his epic drinking in the Navy) asked the class to write a short piece about “The Best State in America.”  Everybody but one chose Oregon; one student wrote about California.  I was ostracized for a week. 

Thing was, our family traveled every summer in the 1940s, driving throughout the Northwest or cross country in our ’39 Buick.  None of the my classmates had ever been farther than Idaho or Washington.   

We eagerly anticipated summer vacation as the family plotted a route to Glacier National Park (where we had a snowball fight on the Fourth of July), or the Grand Canyon (where my kid brother and I skipped along the wall a mile above the canyon floor), and because Dad was in love with the American Way of Life we hit every state capitol on the way. 

We didn’t have money for motels, but camping in parks was virtually free.  My folks had invested in Army surplus wooden cots (cost: one dollar), down-filled mummy sleeping bags (at 75 cents each) and a tarpaulin that once covered a deuce-and-a-half truck.  We’d tie a clothesline between two trees, my big brother would throw the tarp over the top and peg it down with more rope.  There was no privacy, but we’d look the other way when Mom and our grandma would change into pajamas. 

This was life at its best.  In Yellowstone, we scrambled into the Buick when a mama bear and two cubs tore into a neighboring campsite and emptied a carelessly-left ice chest of its meat and fruit.  In another park, we heard a scream at midnight when Mom and Grandma found a porcupine occupying the outhouse they wanted to use.  At an empty ranger’s cabin in Colorado, someone had left a magnificent collection of soda bottle caps that I desperately wanted to have but dared not steal.  The downside to that overnight occupation was the porcupine chewing at the cabin logs, keeping us awake all night long. 

These real-life adventures meshed perfectly with the Holling Clancy Holling books we read.  Paddle-to-the-Sea, Tree in the Trail and Minn of the Mississippi.  Holling was a Michigan boy who, in the ‘20s, became a writer, artist and naturalist.  He canoed and camped, found edible foods in the wild and devised a breathing tube so he could lie under the Mississippi to record turtle activities.    

Sadly, today the glaciers are melting, there are traffic jams at the Grand Canyon, and no one seems to camp without microwave ovens and portable TVs.  The bears in Yellowstone have even been herded off for fear the tourists will get mauled. 

Memories of this earlier time prompted me to create a Web site ( to memorialize Holling and his wife.  I love sharing the anecdotes about the couple paying for their vacations in Texas by painting murals in a resort, about showing a Chamber of Commerce group how to make a fire using two dry sticks, and even teaching some Native Americans skills they’d forgotten.  I’m especially gratified when strangers e-mail me saying they believe they found a small picture Holling painted or the Army jacket he once wore or hand-forged knives given to Holling.  My mentor is a woman in her 70s in Leslie, Michigan, who curates a museum devoted to Holling, his writing and his art.  And the Holling artifacts that the Web site uncovers often end up in that museum.   

Thinking back to my fourth grade assignment now, I’d have to say there are 50 best states.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Signs of the Times

The child is the father of the man, or at least his own best teacher.  My own days in a small Oregon town were ominous at the end of a full decade of living.  That is, they were filled with omens, portents and symbols.  They were tokens as powerful as having a Lone Ranger pistol ring.  They were as mysterious as the flouroscope X-ray machine at the shoe store where we watched our toes wiggle while the salesman sought out our Buster Browns.
 We believed in 1946 that the dead cat we found in the bushes had died violently. Why else would its mouth have turned into that horrible rictus?  It was poisoned – and this was our nexus of fear:  To touch it would be death for us too.  Our mothers had told us not to touch strange things, hadn’t they? 

We were in awe of tramps, like the one who reputedly lived in the willow grove by the Northern Pacific tracks who carried a shotgun loaded with bacon rind.  Yes, bacon rind, my older brother explained, so he wouldn’t actually kill you when you were shot for intruding on his hideout.  We knew tramps left secret messages on our houses, messages hidden so carefully that only other gypsy tramp initiates could tell whether this house or that one would offer a welcome.

Every event, every glance, every crack in the sidewalk was filled with meaning.  Dogma was established by my friends in second grade.  “If you step on a crack, you’ll break your mother’s back.”  And, there was World War II revisionism, “No, no, if you step on a crack you’ll break Tojo’s back!”  And each of us guaranteed a little good luck by stamping on a Lucky Strike pack.
Shredded Wheat’s Straight Arrow cards taught us woodland lore and code.  Gene Autry engrained white-hat symbology in our psyches.  The house filled with yellowing newspapers where the old lady died taught us fear of the unknown.
But there was room for a cautious faith in the face of fear.  For one week in August, we watched smoke from a forest fire billow over the Coast Range to the west.  The Tillamook Burn brought ashes to our drinking water.  For days, we watched silently as pickup trucks filled with grimy fire suppression crews roared down Pacific Avenue.  Our world was threatened by something larger than our parents and teachers, but still there was an enduring faith:  Giant blimps, we believed, were going to carry us away if the fire blocked our escape route from town.
There were symbols as real as secret handclasps.  There was faith as unshakeable as knowing we would pass into the third grade.  And there was fear as indisputable as being dared to climb to the top of the sequoia tree in our yard.  The catechism was complete.
I discovered this world again in the I Ching when I was in my late twenties.  Casting the coins and consulting this Chinese oracle, I found that I was bound to wise children who lived thousands of years ago.  On New Year’s Day, the I Ching told me Po – the Splitting Apart.  “There are indications it will not be advantageous to make a movement in any direction whatsoever.”  The moon had been full the night before.  My wife caught the flu for the first time in years.  A dear friend had left New York City for the West Coast.
The signs came together.  The signs all showed a need to wait, to collect my psyche.  I planned for the time of waiting the I Ching said should come.  And, I survived that bleak month because I could read the signs.  The child had come of age.
Before I retired. I was sitting in my office looking at a penned note taped to the water fountain outside my door.  “Please do not throw coffee grinds in the water fountain because they clog the drain.”  Grinds?  It should be grounds.  The words are an uneven mixture of upper and lower case letters, as though he or she had labored at communicating, had struggled to reach an audience but was forced to use a strange, literate code.
Why hadn’t the writer simply drawn a picture of a coffee pot and then put an X through the picture?  Straight Arrow would have understood that at a glance.  Any tramp, any child would have comprehended the meaning.  But symbols are ignored as we roar through life in the high speed lane.
Hordes of beautiful children are ignoring the signs and being kept prisoner in the grownups I see.