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, Amazon and other online book sellers.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Letter from Taipei


No one says, “See Taipei and die.” Naples, yes. The capital of Taiwan, not really. Dying while on vacation is not a good slogan, but it’s a distinct possibility.              

In May 2006, six years since I had previously visited Taiwan, the pace of traffic and people in Taipei increased exponentially. Scores of dusty scooters swarmed in packs of mechanical insects like a Ridley Scott movie. Crowds of shoppers were thicker and more erratic as they darted around stalls. Sounds were louder and more intrusive. (The irritating, repeating melody in the street made me demand, “Can’t anyone shut up that ice cream truck?” I was told that was the trash pickup alerting people to bring their garbage down to the street.) Live rock bands were amplified over the heads of hip students ambling through Peddlers Alley in Hsimenting.               

“Be careful,” my host Ming-tse Chen warned, grabbing my arm and pulling me away from harm again.              

I’m cautious about crossing streets in London and Paris, but in Taipei the pedestrian needs another set of eyes to spot scooters driving against traffic, zooming onto the sidewalk to park or dodging to the head of the cars at a stop light. The Taipei Times reported a 74-year-old man was run over and killed by a scooter during my visit; an 80-year-old woman was run down the day before.               

There’s an edge to being outdoors that I’ve never experienced in Europe or New York. The cab driver who picked us up coming back from dinner near the Taipei 101 tower had a DVD player on his dashboard and was watching soft core porn. We told him to turn it off. He answered defensively, “I’m not watching it,” but complied. Weaving in and out of traffic, he clipped a scooter a block further on and continued driving.              

I pointed at cars driving at night without headlights, and asked Ming’s daughter if there wasn’t a law about headlights. Nancy had just received her Master’s degree from Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Probably they can see okay,” she said. “They don’t think they need headlights.” But what about me when I crash into a darkened car? The last time I drove in Taipei I only had to watch out for ox carts and pedicabs.              

Today, this is truly the city of the quick and the dead.              

Sidewalks, except on the main thoroughfares, are about eight feet wide, with half of that space filled with scooters parked handlebar to handlebar. The walkways are often a foot or more above the street, and between shops the sidewalk can make a sudden drop of a step or two. Looking down from the rooftop of Ming’s house across the Hsin Tien River from Taipei I notice the sidewalk has a two-foot-high drop-off at the corner.              

I’m not a nervous person, but I began noticing things. The balusters on Ming’s staircase are wide enough apart that a curious child could crawl through. And, at six feet tall, I had to duck my head going down staircases.               

There’s no smothering life preserver over every aspect of living in Taipei. Quite the opposite. I’m expected to be twice shy when I’m once burned. This is why the people of Taipei are very, very alert.              

It's not that no one recognizes dangerous situations. For example, friends refuse those single-use chopsticks from China now because there’s a bleaching agent in them that poses a hazard. An issue of the China Post reported legislative action to prohibit shoddy and dangerous PRC imports that are “dumped” in night markets like Shihlin Yesheh. And, the law requires seat belts when sitting in the front seat of a car — even in a taxi with the driver watching DVDs.              

I don't want to break my neck on a sidewalk in Taipei, and nothing could be more ignominious than being run over by a cabbie watching a skin movie. But daily life here has impact, noise, and elements of confusion, conflict and chaos.              

I can almost see the dice roll when I step out the front door. Taipei is a pinball machine with the pedestrian in play.               

Over the chaos stands Taipei 101, currently the world’s second tallest building, looking like a serene scepter from a Buddhist temple and just as other-worldly.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Take Me Back to the Ball Game

Early baseball game played at Elysian Fields,
Hoboken (Currier & Ives lithograph)
Ready for an argument?  Tell your buddies that Abner Doubleday did not invent the game of baseball in Cooperstown in 1839.  The first official game, you say, was played by the Knickerbocker Base Ball Club at the Elysian Fields in Hoboken, N.J., on June 19, 1846.  The New York Base Ball Club defeated the Knickerbockers 23-1.  That’s how the City of Hoboken reports the first officially recorded match played under Alexander Joy Cartright’s rules, and he was an umpire. 

Well, no.  A story in the New York Morning News reported on a game on Oct. 21, 1845, between the New York Ball Club and a Brooklyn team.  New York won 24-4.  So there!  

But, wait a minute, the same news story refers to earlier games played there.  It stated, “A friendly match of the time-honored game of Base was played yesterday at the Elysian Fields, Hoboken.”  There was a rematch on Oct. 24 at the Star Club on Myrtle Avenue in Brooklyn.  (New York won that game too, 37-19.)  If you go looking for the Elysian Fields, the area is now occupied by a Maxwell House Coffee plant. 

What the heck?  The game probably evolved from a number of enthusiastic players and fans in the mid-1840s.  According to Dr. David Q. Voight in a three-volume history of baseball, the game probably came from the 18th century English game of rounders.  Rounders was also played by soldiers at Valley Forge when they weren’t fighting the Redcoats.   

So let’s establish our history by the rules of the game.  A New York Times story in 1990 reported, “Box scores for the two October 1845 games, played with eight men a team, follow the categories of cricket, reporting only the number of runs and ‘hands out,’ or number of times a hitter made an out.”  Cricket lost its popularity only after the Civil War. 

There’s been little serious historical research until recent decades.  So there’s still room enough for lots of argument. 

As for General Abner Doubleday in 1839, well, he was a cadet at West Point  when he was supposed to have laid out the first baseball diamond.  And he never took credit for anything having to do with baseball.  This poses a problem for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY.  Historian and author John Bowman said, “They want to play it both ways.  They want to be known as serious historians of the game, but they can’t undermine their tourist business.”   

And Cooperstown has copyrighted the phrase, “Birthplace of Baseball.”  So there!

Saturday, March 12, 2016

That Moving Experience

Judy and I had gone through the ritual of seeing our daughter and son-in-law begin their life together.  There had been the wedding shower followed by the ceremony on Cape Cod, some financial help in their buying a condo, and the baby shower — all proceeding in natural order.  We eagerly awaited the birth of the baby and were at the parents’ bedside when Zeke Addison Kramer was born in Cambridge in early January of 2007.   

Judy asked suddenly on an unnaturally warm winter day, “What do you think of our spending a year in Cambridge, helping them care for the baby so Lisa can go back to work?”  Zeke was then a week old. 

“Out of the question,” I said.  “No way will I babysit for a year.  We’re 67 years old.”  Massachusetts was a two-and-a-half hour drive from our center hall four-bedroom colonial in Connecticut.  “We’ll visit Cambridge.  Regularly.”   

When I told a friend I might leave Connecticut to babysit a grandson, she shouted, “You’re out of your effing mind!” 

Judy rolled out the arguments in the coming days as my heart sank: “This 2,500-square-foot house is too big for empty-nesters,” and Bethel taxes are outrageously high, child-care is unaffordable, one doesn’t put a new-born in the care of a commercial institution, and Lisa’s career will otherwise be jeopardized.  

I’m sensitive to the plight of American Career Moms.  I’ve written sympathetically about women in their mid to late thirties, filled with wisdom and maturity and character to make intelligent choices, who have to halt their career to raise a child.  I knew that when these women are in their forties they can try to regain the momentum of their careers, but will they still be interested in what they were trained for two decades earlier, and will their career fields have left them behind?  So they find a job, work for fifteen more years or so, then spend the final twenty years in retirement before dying.  This may be overly dramatic (hey, I’m a writer!), but it was a solid (to my wife) reason to help out at this stage of the game. 

I made a mental list of the pros and cons of moving.  On the credit side was the altruistic rationale, plus a large amount of money from selling a priced-up house.  In the debit column were the loss of friends, a writing group that was like a second family, a bucolic yard surrounded by woods where I’d stroll with a beer at sunset, a cat that would have to be re-adopted by her original mistress, a home that was also two and a half hours from our son’s family in New Jersey.  All of my reasons were daunting — and irrelevant. 

Three months later, we moved into a 20th floor apartment across from the town reservoir and park, trading space and environment for a two-bedroom rental.  It was a step back forty years to our first apartments in New York City, except we were substituting a concierge for cockroaches. 

Cambridge’s reverse 911 calls began reminding us to move any cars for the street cleaners or be towed.  The cracked pavement in front of century-old “triple-decker” houses required Judy, me and Zeke to traipse single file in our little convoy of baby carriage and market basket.  We faced the bureaucracy of getting new licenses and plates and auto inspections from angry clerks.  Voting privileges were granted, but did I care? 

And then, wondrously, we began feeling like new parents.  Zeke was the charming baby who came to us every morning.  I was enchanted that he liked my grapefruit (and, with his perfect eyesight, the olives in my martini at night).  It was a joy putting him in his first swing at the park, buying baby clothes on Arsenal St., strolling with him to the Bryn Mawr used book store, story time at the library, and lunching at Whole Foods.   

What I discovered was everything I'd missed when our own children were growing up and I was commuting two hours in and out of Manhattan for 25 years.  Would I have traded it for being a stay-at-home dad?  Perhaps not, but in Cambridge I didn’t feel like a visitor to my own home town.  And being a new parent was an adventure.

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.