Update, May 19


I was very taken with a friend’s description of herself as her own archivist. 

Of course we are all biographers, color commentators and play-by-play announcers of our own lives. We aren’t Mel Allens or Harry Carays, and don’t go to the studio or sit in a box at the top of the stands. We broadcast (or narrowcast) from unconscious to conscious, and back again. Suddenly I find myself approaching the endgame. Not the biological inevitability but the messy and increasingly medical mud slide towards it. The bitty surrender of autonomy. I am not happy approaching the bottom of my 8th or top of the 9th. I have never given a thought to my last at bat.

In Charing Cross during a pretty tough night I thought, is this going to be it? Death making an appointment? Will I wake up (if I ever get to sleep?) Suddenly I was not in charge of my own narrative. I never felt so mortal. What a little cancer can do even, I am told, when there is no more cancer. The “major” surgery rocked me and continues to bully me into the age of feeble. I’m still in its thrall. I knew the surgery was a bad idea, but so reasonable. You want to live? 9 days afterwards I left the hospital, went home) and fell into bed and the arms of a three-week virus. I would fall asleep through the day and then around 9, and wake up at 11 in the morning. No doctors (they were loathe to bring unwanted guests from the hospital, so no “diagnosis”, but I was obvious. Couldn’t taste anything, couldn’t smell, didn’t like the taste of coffee! I was far too busy being tired. Sex, which had had always been ready for my call, wouldn’t answer. By this time Coronavirus had infiltrated and overwhelmed the hospital. It was everywhere, in fact, in mind and rumor. The cancer, yesterday’s big news, faded into yesterday’s news. It retired in the face of the virus. As did the plan for follow-up radiation. And the plan for more immuno therapy. It was declared much less scary and much less intrusive than first thought.

Abruptly, the meds declared a T2 instead of a T4. No cartilage intrusion.

Much hi-fiving amongst the doctors but surgery was already a fact and had consequences; I wanted to know if I could have avoided the knife. I don’t believe they understand it’s that big a deal: being mute, the hole in your neck leading directly to lungs and daring you to have a shower. I felt trespassed, transgressed. Made vulnerable. I felt taken advantage of. But there’s no use going on about it. The only thing to do is to stop shuffling around and work back into the best shape possible, 
These late innings will not last. Must be ready for my last at bat. Meanwhile we have been in lockdown, self-isolating for 12 weeks and more to come. Luckily the house is spacious and has lots of good chairs which Penelope does her best to shame me out of. A friend sent a compilation of AJ Liebling from the New Yorker. I had read the gluttony in Paris piece (Between Meals) and thought it and he wonderful. His boxing essay (The Sweet Science) carried me back to the old Garden on 8th Avenue and Sugar Ray, Kid Gavilan and Rocky Marciano. Now making my way through Southern politics. The Earl of New Orleans is a portrait of Earl Long, an even more fascinating figure than his older brother, Huey, and why the South is the way it is. Liebling is so full of insights and stunning phrases and human observations.

He reminds me it’s why it’s good to be alive.

At St Martin’s Lane in the 70s

I interviewed at Leo Burnett London in the Spring of 1973. Prior to that I worked at 2 small agencies, one American, one Olde English. While getting my MA from the University of Sussex I wrote a freelance ad for  Blackburn Advertising (later Blackburn-Daily). They paid me £35 for the ad which appeared on the back page of Variety, the show business newspaper. I thought, this is the business for me. When I graduated they offered me a job. I wish I had saved the ad. 

Bill Blackburn wanted to be the new Bill Bernbach but he was shy and couldn’t make his mind up. He interviewed most of the major creatives in London and hired none of them. My first TV was directed by Alan Parker and Paul Windsor who had just left CDP. I could not understand why the writer looked in the camera and talked all the time. We casted a doe-eyed Harold Innocent, opera singer and actor who dead-panned the role of the dumb dad who made up the liquid breakfast drink while his kid just picked up the carton, poured and walked off. Simple, direct.  

Then I went to little known Stuart Advertising in Holborn where we tripped a woman carrying a paraffin heater down the stairs for the London Fire Brigade. Why was she carrying a lit paraffin heater? Apparently people did. 

So for me the Burnett job was entry to the big time. I asked people who did the good work there, which creative group to look out for. Ronnie Bond’s name was mentioned as was Chris Holland’s. Richard Asadurian got a nod. 

I was offered a job by Bryan Oakes. Bryan was no threat to Bill Bernbach. He approved of work he thought the client would approve. Much later, in Chicago, I met his soul brother. *

Meanwhile Carl Hixon, a transplanted creative legend from Chicago, transfixed most of the London department with his larger than life stories of Leo, words like nifty and concepts like the brick out of place. But Carl knew an idea when he saw one, or when he didn’t.

Dan Parfitt and I had gone to LA to shoot the launch of Cadbury’s Caramel. The idea was for Mr Laurel and Mr Hardy to meet for the first time in a casting office. When their names were called they bumped into each other at the door. After you. No, after you. Super theme: “Cadbury and Caramel. Some things were just meant for each other”. In LA Lee Lacey’s cast was so good we got smitten with the characters and forgot the idea was not Laurel and Hardy but Laurel and Hardy getting together. As Carl asked us after the screening in Cinema 2:  “Where’s the idea.” 

Leo press was mediocre until Mike Brant arrived, but its TV reel was one of the top five agency reels in town. It did standout work for Cadbury and McEwans and I soon found out who “it” was. The only thing Doug Buntrock liked more than beer advertising was beer. He was good at both. A workaholic/alcoholic in his faded blue denim uniform, he was not alone. 

Everyone at 48 St Martins Lane liked a pint or three. Barry Fox, an excellent writer, sharp wit and hopeless Fulham supporter, partnered on and off with Dougie. Barry was at his desk by 7:30 and did a day’s work by 11AM, turning out smart headline after smart headline. Doug turned most down because he hadn’t written them. At 11 The Green Man opened. Bob Stanners and Norman Icke joined Barry and Doug. Ken Mullen and later Bob Byrne would follow. Alec Ovens, a tall Scot who unaccountably did not drink, was the senior producer. Doug Huxtable ran the department under Gareth Bogarde with an ex-army discipline. Felicity Latimer greeted clients in 2ndfloor reception looking like Margaret Thatcher’s double. But her heart as well as her politics were Labour. The agency was headed by Gordon Barrett. Only in his early thirties he seemed a decade older. A kind man but like many account people from an earlier generation Gordon was interested in clients not ads. He was not excited by them. And this was a most exciting time in London with CDP posting one 48 sheet knockout after another, BMP started it series of bear campaigns by John Webster, while David Abbott accounted for the more literary and intelligently written end of the business with his Economist and Volvo campaigns. 

In any account of St Martins Lane in the 70s Anne Vigus and her late husband, Henry McQueen, must be mentioned. Neither was part of the creative world, but both were a core part of the of the place and time. Henry was a wonderful colleague and companion and entirely reliable. The agency driver, it was his smiling face you wanted to see at Heathrow late on a Friday after escaping a week of flights, hotel and meetings. Anne ran Travel, the best managed and most reliable department in the agency. She rescued me and many creatives from bad seats, bad rooms and fates worse than death (e.g., being stuck on a Friday night in Brussels). She moved from St Martins Lane to Chelsea to the End of the Known World behind the Tesco on the Cromwell Road. Now she resides in The Burnett/Saatchi shared building in Chancery Lane. Still the glue of the place, still rescuing travelers who need to get somewhere or out of somewhere, beside doing other jobs for the latest new management. We’re gone, they’ll be gone, but Anne remains.

For some reason Gordon asked me to a Christmas lunch with senior clients. 

In a rather stuffy Rules-like wannabe, we sat around a large table drinking gin-and-tonics and making self-congratulatory remarks fully of the Christmas spirit. When the waiter rolled in the trolley with an enormous roast beef hands went up asking for extra fat.  I knew I wasn’t in Kansas any more. Or the Bronx.

Then a human tornado hit St Martins Lane. Bob Barocci arrived, presumably to inject some energy, or perhaps to get him out of Chicago. Barocci’s strategy, conscious or otherwise, was to terrify the creatively unambitious account people until they were more afraid of him than they were of their clients. It worked. They didn’t understand that if someone pushed you, you pushed back. 

Many who probably should not have been in a rapidly changing business emigrated out. Baroccis’s aggression was easy to dislike, here and in Chicago, where traditionalists were many.

The 70s ended for me in 1984. I had refused a couple of invitations to move to Chicago. But after watching an attractive young woman with no experience hired as a creative director behind the closed door of her first interview with MD/CD/Chairman Dennis Barham, I thought better of it. Perhaps the Midwest, though frigid, was more promising.

*Peter Husting ran the Procter & Gamble business. On a group outing to the Southside to watch the White Sox just after I arrived he pulled me aside. P&G were in a funk about one of our brands. The agency had had several attempts to find a solution. His advice was simple: “Go to Cincinnati and don’t come back until they’re happy”. 

All in the Family.

There’s something about families. 

Memories of mine go back to a time when my mother died of cancer after a 2 year—the usual 2 –year punishment period God or the Great God Cancer seems to require. When Ida was ill and dying the fault lines between the two sides of the family, hers and Chaim’s, were revealed. Not to me, I was too young to understand. But over the years my father communicated his attitude to some of the others pretty clearly. He was bad at hiding things like that. I suspect that long before, when he first arrived on the scene from Poland, this close knit family of 2 brothers and 3 sisters put up defenses. There is a picture of all of them sitting together on a couch and in front of it for a photograph: father, mother, Ida, Aunt Sara, Aunt Lilly, Lilly’s husband George, Uncle Dave, Aunt Fran, Uncle Jack and Aunt Rose all together in the center looking at the camera, with my father sitting in a chair off to one side, immersed in the New York Times. So when we no longer visited Aunt Lilly and I felt uncomfortable going to stay with Uncle Jack and Aunt Rose, I got the message. What I didn’t get was the sense that a Great Crime had been committed and my father was the criminal. 

There was no doubt in my mind (now) that Chaim was initially resented by the family. The problem was he was both needed and resented. There were many reasons to resent him. He was smart, really smart. He was charismatic and successful (not in terms of money or business, but influence. People came to him for impartiality and advice, valuable commodities in the rough and tumble garment business. And they came for  who he knew, even more valuable. A natural and confident speaker with a sense of humor; even in his Yiddish accented English, he could hold a room. In Poland he had been an organizer from an early age. A militant, he roused crowds and had a certain fame. Women liked him as well as men. Because he had influence people came to him to find jobs too. As did the family. He was a fixer. So he fixed them up. With hard to get tickets to shows, basketball games too as well as jobs. He loved that. He made connections. Problems happened when the jobs did not live up to expectations. 

Then they became his fault.

The Great Crime, never stated, always implied, and him impugned, was an affair with, as far as I can piece together, one of the sisters, or the wife of one of the brothers. When did this happen? Before Ida was ill? When she was ill and dying? Over the years the whispered conspiracy was mainly kept alive by Aunt Fran with Uncle Dave an unwilling (I suspect) co-conspirator. 

Hence a poisonous silence, and with it hostility, hostility inevitably bequeathed to the next generation, my cousins. 

How could they avoid it. Chaim was the bogeyman.

Of course this is ridiculous. But families are. Whatever is supposed to have happened happened 70 years ago. One is tempted to say, to Fran especially, the keeper of the bitter flame, it’s time: get over it. Actually one can’t say that to Dave because he died last year at 91. And one can’t say it to Fran, who is 90 and in the Hebrew Home For the Aged in Riverdale, ironically two blocks from where I did most of my of my growing up. 

Ida died in November, 1980. Chaim died a month and a half after Ida, an indication of how connected and interdependent they had become. So I am left alone to defend him, but from whom? I resent it, and I resent them, the whole family, which means their memory. I no longer care if they are blood relations. But meanwhile something’s happened which may give some credence to the Great Crime. 

One of the ubiquitously marketed DNA products recently revealed a half sister. Her parents were good friends of my father’s. I remember them well. She was born in the early ‘50s, around the time or just before my father married his second Ida, the woman we considered our mother. We had dinner with my new sister and according to her they were all good friends: Ida, Chaim and her parents. They double-dated, went to restaurants and shows, exchanged dinners in each others apartments. 

So was my father someone I knew? Did he, the object of sympathy of all those women who surrounded him, seek out solace in that terrible time when he was left with 2 small children, no wife and no job? 

Whatever. It seems they’ll never tell me the Great Secret and for me it’s too late. I don’t want to know.

There is a post script. After our mother’s death Marcia and I were shunted from place to place while Chaim tried to figure out how to keep us together and go to work in a new job. We went first to his sister, Aunt Rachel which we hated. Rachel felt incredibly old, 19thCentury, and foreign (she spoke with a Scottish accent having spent decades in Glasgow on way from Poland to the Bronx). But now I realize she must have been in her 50s, perhaps 60. Later we were put in the care of Dorothy, who one day took us to Harlem to us visit her family. Everyone was black and I thought she was going to leave us there. The next year Chaim married the second Ida. Years later Ida told me she believed (and I believe) he did not marry her because of love—that or some kind of affection may have come later—but to look after us. (The opposite of the evil stepmother, Marcia summed her up perfectly: “She was a beautiful soul and we were lucky to have her.”) The rumor was that after the first Ida died some of the family had tried to adopt us. Who, I don’t know. I am sure that would have been for the best of reasons but I am also sure he would not have taken it that way.  Taking his kids away? Chaim would have hated the idea. He would have been unforgiving and unforgetting.

And Chaim, like Aunt Fran, would never let go an injury.

Revenge.

Someone got into my computer. 

Suddenly a screen appeared blocking my page and would not go away. I searched Applications and threw things out. I dragged things to the trash. They reappeared. Force Quit didn’t force anything to quit. The intruder would not die.

The screen offered to clean my computer and make it run so much more efficiently. Finally I did what I know I shouldn’t do: I made contact with them. I found a phone number and called. 

The voice at the other end was foreign but not specific, and not the least apologetic. I was angry, he was calm, reasonable even. Why was I upset. My computer showed problems and he could fix them. It was simple. I should just run the program. It would take no time. I told him to transfer me to his legal counsel but I am not sure he knew what that meant. We were at a stand-off. He had my computer and wasn’t going to give it up. He had put my life on hold. He wasn’t the least intimidated by being caught. It/I was kidnapped. So I got on a plane and flew to Singapore (where I had reason to believe he was calling from), and showed up at his door. I knocked and when it opened it revealed a wall of computers with people hunched over the keyboards. I had brought my 34 ounce Hillerich and Bradsby Louisville Slugger, made of Northern White Ash. I’ve had it since the 6th grade, when it was too heavy to really swing. It wasn’t now. So I swung. I swung with everything I had, like Mickey Mantle used to, batting right-handed, stepping into the pitch each time. Screens exploded, sparks flew, people screamed, people ran.

When I was done I said, “You want to clean computers? Start with yours.” I handed him a broom.

Damn, it was satisfying.

Shipping Out.

Seaman's Papers
Seaman's Papers 3

Just out of high school I went to sea.

The Merchant Mariner’s ID issued by the US Coast Guard arrived by mail just after my 18th birthday.

As good as a passport, it came like a driver’s license, the black-and-white subway booth picture with its unshaven, unsmiling, face framed by a dark roll-neck sweater preserved in plastic.

I stared down whatever was out there. I was Joseph Conrad, I was O’Neill’s Bound East For Cardiff. I was tough. I was ready.

I hoped I looked it anyway.

A few days later I put on my second-hand US Navy pea jacket, $15 from Army-Navy on Orchard Street on the lower east side. (This was when Orchard Street stores spilled half their wares onto the sidewalk.)

The jacket’s original owner’s name and rank was inked on the inside chest pocket. I felt with that jacket I put on a piece of his experience, borrowed some authenticity and power, like guys who lace up their Air Jordans before a basketball game.

His credentials would be my credentials.

In the privacy of my Bronx bedroom I did a final inspection. I adjusted my dark wool watch cap so it skewed slightly to one side Pulling my collar up, I adjusted my Ray-Bans. A mysterious and slightly intimidating look.

I opened the door, went down the elevator and took the #11 bus to the A Train on 207th and Dyckman Street.

50 minutes later I was walking through deepest Brooklyn.

This Brooklyn wasn’t cutesy. It was not something you named your kid or dog after. It was not where you strolled on a Saturday morning seeking the perfect macchiato.

Not yet was it the option for West Village people escaping rents and real estate prices that had become fit for the very rich or the lucky few who had clung to rent control.

This Brooklyn was beat up: undistinguished clapboard houses that seemed to sag from the weight of the hundreds of electric and telephone lines that ran overhead. Tram tracks ran down the streets. The only espresso machines were in dark Italian bars where all food came oozing tomato sauce, delivered to tables on which bottles of red pepper flakes and grated cheese stood ready.

This was working class Brooklyn, Walt Whitman’s Brooklyn. People walked slowly with shoulders that sagged like their roofs, lugging their groceries and toddlers. They stood under shop fronts waiting for the rain to stop. That Brooklyn. A Brooklyn that remembered the noise from Ebbets Field and would never forget or forgive the slight of the Dodgers’ departure.

The Seafarer’s International Union headquarters and training center was a large multi-story that suddenly appeared down a non-descript street. Inside was a classless society, as long as you were working class.

Everyone wore old leather jackets, baseball caps, overalls or beat up jeans. There were mostly men: mostly white, mostly older. Big guys, bigger guys and bigger bigger guys. Or so it seemed to me.

Woody Guthrie could have wandered through or sat strumming, at home and unnoticed. Perhaps he did. I’ve seen pictures of him playing his guitar in McSorely’s, an old bar in Manhattan.

At the front of a large auditorium a small crowd of interested parties gathered.

Every once in a while someone called out ships and crews from the stage. Nobody else paid much attention. At the union hall, it seemed, you could get hired or you could hangout. It was a job center and social club. People listened with one ear.

Clutching my union card in my pocket I sat on one of the long benches in the back and tried to look bored, like I’d done this before. Oh you bet: many, many times.

Eventually another ship’s crew was called.

“SS Bradford Island. Coastwise. Oil. East and Gulf, 4-6 weeks. Wiper, Oiler, 3rdEngineer, Cook’s Mate…”

I raised my hand.

A few days later, with a duffel bag on shoulder and a 4-day stubble, I marched up the narrow steps and stepped on board, trying to channel Marlon Brando.

Launched in 1945 in Portland, Oregon, the ship was a T-2 tanker. Rated at 10,000 tons gross tonnage. (Current super tankers weigh in at 275,000+ tons). It was one of over 2700 cargo ships made with standardized, pre-fabricated parts from all over the US in the effort to win the war.

The Nazis had their Wermacht, Lufwaffe and Wolf’s Packs, but we had the assembly line. And Detroit. Detroit won the war.

FDR said it was ‘the arsenal of democracy’. He was right.

When Detroit turned its attention to war it turned out tanks, planes and ships like nobody’s business. It produced ships exactly the way it produced cars: by the thousands: faster than the U-Boats could sink them.

3000 miles away the Allies stayed in fuel and Britain stayed afloat.

American energy and know-how produced these ships. FDR made Henry J. Kaiser production czar and he applied the same principles to building ships as he had to building his cars and jeeps.

He built them fast. Some in weeks or a few months.

One went from the drawing board to the water in under 4 days.

Now, a decade and a half later the Bradford Island sailed under the Cities Service Oil Company banner. She was looking her age. She appeared to my seaman’s eye, at least, ungainly. Too long and too narrow, with superstructures in the middle and at the back, she looked like she might snap in heavy weather.

She was high in the water. I learned later that being high in the water was a sign of an empty tanker. An empty tanker is a floating bomb. It’s filled with highly volatile fumes from past loads. Nobody smoked on an empty tanker. We were careful about open flames and making sparks.

Loaded, a tanker is low in the water and relatively safe.

The Bradford Island was held together by the know-how and constant attention of the 3 engineers—the Chief, the First and the Second Engineer: all white southern men, all tall and rangy, all pretty silent. And they all knew what they were doing. I worked along side the Second Engineer. I never knew his name. He was called “Second” by me and everyone else.

These engineers had never been to a gym, had never “worked out”. They had no bulging muscles. But they were hard, as hard as any tough guy I knew. Work was their workout. They could fix things with their hands. They seemed to be able to repair anything mechanical and anything they couldn’t repair they made. They understood machines.

Like the rest of us they worked 12-14 hours in the heat of summer. It was often 110F and above in the engine room.

The rest of the crew were Mexican and they spoke Spanish. Most were brown, short, loud and stocky. Wide. They had muscles made for t-shirts. They were a different race. Where the southerners talked quietly if at all, the Mexicans never stopped. The southerners hardly smiled. The Mexicans smiled and joked all the time. They were jolly. They too worked like demons. They never complained about the work or the heat or the hours. They enjoyed their own company and their well-paying jobs: union wages, and plenty of over-time, time-and-a-half, and double overtime to keep the old ship going.

They also liked, I thought, the freedom of being at sea: out of sight of land and out of reach of society. They had, briefly, escaped to their own world, a world they ran.

I was the odd one: the kid with a high school diploma and college on the horizon. I was amazed they didn’t give me a hard time. But after initial inspections they saw that I worked and kept my head down. So they accepted me.

In other words, they didn’t throw me overboard.

We stopped in Wilmington, North Carolina and I saw the first of many refineries from the business end. Endless lights, a jungle of superstructures and pipes belching flames. The smell became part of my clothing. After a while I didn’t notice.

When we turned west past the Dry Tortugas and into the Gulf the sea changed; it became completely docile, a lake on tranquilizers. There was no wind, no waves. There was no movement except for the path the ship cut through the water.

At night the Gulf seemed like glass: a perfect mirror for the stars. We spent airless and mostly sleepless nights in hammocks on deck, hoping for a breeze and that the horn on the smokestack didn’t suddenly blow. It did.

On the ship nothing mattered but how hard and well you worked. Get the job done, don’t let anyone down.

I had signed on a Wiper, the lowest rung on the engine room ladder. It was a misnomer. My job was not to wipe machinery but to chip away the rust and the ancient layers of paint on everything you could see with a hammer and chisel. And then re-paint the bare metal with Red Lead. Red Lead was a rust-inhibiting paint. It was also health-inhibiting, noxious, toxic. In the hot claustrophobia of the engine room the fumes had nowhere to go but up your nose.

Rust was everywhere. From 8 to 8 every day, rust was me. I banged away at it and the sound reverberated around the hull and back again, a percussive rhythm with the deep hum of the turning drive shaft in the background. It was hot, repetitive work as well as noisy and not a little dangerous. I could have refused the overtime but I would have been the odd man out. I had no intention of being the odd man out.

Day by day the crew got richer and richer, on paper. There was no place to spend their increasing wealth. No Amazon to surf. No online porn. Some waited for the first port of call, sometimes the first bar, sometimes the first woman, to become broke again. Most had arranged for some money to be held back for their families so they couldn’t blow it all.

Work, eat, sleep; there was not much else to do. At the end of the day you climbed into your bunk and collapsed.

Alcohol was taboo. Strictly not allowed on board.

In Port St Joe, Florida, I watched a crewman struggle up the ladder dragging an enormous suitcase. Near the top it popped open and dozens of bottles of beer shattered onto the dock and into the water.

The small mess where everyone ate together was open 24 hours. The meals were gut-filling. Steak and eggs, beef and potatoes. All you could eat. Appetites were big, calories needed replacing.

The refrigerator was always full of cheese and cold cuts. You helped yourself. There were large jars of hot peppers with their owner’s name taped on, prepared by mothers and wives, which they delved into, even at breakfast. I tried one, once.

One of my jobs was to haul buckets of old engine oil on deck and toss the contents off the fantail. The first time I did this a small crowd gathered to watch.

I launched it into the air and was immediately covered in engine oil to much laughter. Someone threw me a rag. After that, wet finger in air, I checked the wind direction several times before even spitting.

Even though we were coastwise the ship was sometimes out of sight of land and other ships too. Seagulls always and dolphins kept us company, the seagulls for scraps off the fantail, the dolphins for fun off the bow or in the ship’s wake.

At sea the Mexicans felt out of reach and free. A spirit of anarchy seeped in. Their constant refrain when anything or anyone annoyed them was: “over the side”.

“Throwthesonofabitchovertheside!”.

And stuff did go over, from garbage to old chairs to the rare dish they didn’t like. But no people, to my knowledge.

The sea was therapy, their outlet: both emotional and real. I’ve sometimes thought that it would be a good thing to have in life: an instant disposal for whatever bothers you. Toss away your problems and annoyances.

“Over the side!”

Throwthesonofabitchpoliticanovertheside. Throwthesonofabitchwhoroganizedthatmeeetingovertheside. Throwthesonofabitchclientovertheside.

It took me a while to figure out when and if they were serious. Because if something did go over the side, that was it. The ship couldn’t stop. The image of the ship disappearing in the distance stuck in my head. I stared at the churning water quickly disappearing behind us.

The single screw was turned by a huge shaft at the very bottom of the engine room. It revolved hypnotically. I used to wonder how long would take to stop turning if someone (like me) became caught in it down there. Calling for help was useless: nothing could be heard over that din. You didn’t need years at sea to know that keeping your hands, feet and clothing to yourself was a good idea around the shaft.

I filed this thought right behind keeping my mouth shut until you know what you’re talking about as the best advice on a ship. Another piece I received gratis while waiting to toss another bucket of oil into the receding ocean as I stood idly whistling “Do not Forsake Me Oh My Darling”.

Miguel, the older Mexican who had happily offered me one of his mother’s peppers (and sat back to enjoy my first bite) sidled up.

“Listen Tex, only two people whistle on a ship, the bosun and the cocksucker. And you’re not the bosun.”

It was a joke, but I never whistled again.

We hit all the high spots along the east and gulf coasts, discharging and charging cargo in Wilmington, North Carolina, Port St Joe, Florida, Mobile, Alabama, Port Arthur Texas (janis Joplin’s home town, and I could see why she left), New Orleans.

Of course I never really got to see any of these places. I saw refineries at midnight and, with any luck, air conditioned bars with their cold beers and local ladies. We all rushed down the gangplank given a couple of hours in port.

The refineries were mini-cities, worlds to themselves.

We’d arrive at night. On moonless ones the stars would be matched by thousands of twinkling lights from the refinery. We’d pick up the pilot and slowly make our way up the dark channel, sometimes docking hours later. The heat, humidity and chemicals smell grew stronger.

When we got back to New Orleans, I packed my duffel.

I had had enough, not of the ship and the crew but of the monotonous hard work. Red Lead can drain the romance of the sea. I wanted an egg cream.

I signed off. A pocketful of cash in hand, I spent a few days walking around looking for life. Finding what there was, I bought a Greyhound ticket for the 28 hour trip to New York.

The bus took us into a different and uglier world.

The gas stations and road stops had two water fountains, one for “Whites Only” and one for “Blacks”. The same for the toilets. Some “blacks” on the coach, unwilling to go in these stops, asked if I would bring out sandwiches or ice cream for them.

On the ship there was always the equality of hard work. Here skin color defined everything.

Finally, the bus rose up out of the Lincoln Tunnel and we were back in New York. The City.

The next summer I boarded a WWII era Liberty ship, the Andrew Jackson, from the port of Newark and crossed the Atlantic. After 12 rocky days at 11 knots we docked in Southampton. Le Havre, Rotterdam and Bremerhaven followed, in what order I forget.It was the end of my time at sea.

Pissed-off of Hammersmith.

A week to leave you dizzy.

The government lost a vote in Parliament on their major Brexit legislation.

They didn’t just lose, they got hammered, it was aa major shellacking. Walloped. Creamed. No government has ever done worse on a major piece of legislation.

But when the smoke cleared nothing seems to have changed. No one has resigned. No one has changed their tune.

The fanatics, the Brexiters are still selling the same fantasies about leaving the EU and all the wonderful possibilities that will bring us. Out at any price.

They’re major liars of course, and like all major liars find it easy to lie to us as they’ve already lied to themselves.

Meanwhile the Labour Party rank and file seems to favour a second referendum but their leader, Corbin, sits in his shell and refuses come out for a “people’s” vote.

This comes under the tabloid promoted shibboleth that the “people” have spoken, expressed their will, given their “instructions” . The fact that the people were lied to and misled and misinformed by the still lying liars doesn’t seem to shift this phony reverence for democracy.

The referendum was bogus, that’s why a new one is legitimate. In a stunning development the people will now actually know what they’re voting for.

A classic exercise in value is promised. Do you want that shiny new thing? Yes? For ten dollars? Yes? $100 dollars? Yes?

How about $80 billion?

New vote, now. Get on with it.

The Irritable Sow.

Dateline: Long Crendon, December 24.

Grey, cold and wet. Here we are in Buckinghamshire and the village has a new bakery. It’s first in a line of old stables, at the end of which is a stall with a very large and very pregnant sow called Hennie. Hennie is a Gloucester Old Spot and she’s shuffling her hay around and grunting, trying to get comfortable. She must weight 500 pounds and is irritable. If you were 500 pounds and very pregnant you’d be irritable too. I hope she’s not thinking about how many of her offspring will end up in the bakery’s superior sausage rolls. We have Rebecca’s dog with us, a city-bred cockapoo. Ziggy is not allowed in the bakery and definitely not in the stall with the sow. The baker tells me that Roger, the boar responsible for her condition, makes the sow look small.
Rebecca and crew are arriving later and that will bring our Christmas complement to 6 kids and six adults, with 2 Indian runner ducks in the garden who go by the names of Speedy and Quackers. The ducks do not observe Christmas and so do not take the day off, but will be hard at work patrolling the garden for slugs and snails. They have to be put back in their house nightly or risk evisceration by a visiting fox or badger.
We see Trump had cancelled his Christmas golf game, so things must be dire. His wall fetish seems a little obsessive. But it feels no saner here on this side of the ever smaller Pond. Brexit is a dire prospect but a boring subject. How the Brits tied themselves in knots with it is extraordinary. Brexit has its roots in the Maastricht treaty of 1991 which approved the formation of the single currency but was stridently opposed by an increasingly wacko section of the Conservative Party who have always rejected anything to do with Europe. Britain Firsters, sound familiar? In spite of the EU’s obvious and quantifiable benefits they and their tabloid co-conspirators have never been assuaged. They are increasingly irritable, pregnant with the thought of making Britain Great Again. So they are against Europe, their biggest trading partner, and they are against immigrants, especially brown ones, who dilute the national genius. The same conceit which once dismissed the French now does so again. Germans, Italians, Poles? All the same: not Us. As with the right wing creeps closer to home, facts don’t matter. But these Brexiteers have learned that a small group of loud, repetitive fanatics can dominate the rest of us. They know that bringing Reason against Emotion is like bringing a knife to a gun fight. Think Bolsheviks, whose name means majority but who in reality were the minority. But a minority convinced they should and would be the majority. Now there’s a movement for a second referendum. The People’s Vote would pose the question of not just in or out but on what terms? A stranger from Mars would see there is more advantage to staying in than with a no deal. But it’s an emotional issue, and against emotions facts matter not.
You can’t reason with an irritable sow.
Merry Christmas wherever you spend it. I hope Father Christmas or his American cousin, Santa, treats you well.

Camp Eden, 1950.

 

The Catskills are full of ghosts. These particular ones speak Yiddish.

Middle-aged men in white shorts, dark socks and spindly legs materialize in the deeply forested mountains. They walk and talk, they stroll, in pairs. Some have young children on their shoulders. The fathers bend down under low branches that reach out to stroke the backs of the children. While they walk they argue— about life, socialism, history (of which they have plenty).  From hill-top top to hill-top the ball bounces between them. Generations ago they might have been scholars in the Old World, arguing over the Talmud. Here, in the Hudson Valley, the dialectic still drives them on.

Point, Counterpoint. Statement, Rebuttal.

“Yes, you see?” “Not so fast.” “It was proven.” “It was not.”

“Walter Benjamin said…”

“Pfff, Walter Benjamin. Now Gershom Scholem maintains…”

“You are forgetting Hegel.”

“Hegel schmegel….”

They seek to illuminate points in the dark hills. Or just enjoy the pleasure of argument, keeping their brains sharp.

Occasionally the sky breaches the phalanx of trees overhead, throwing spangles of light, revealing the forest floor. Now it picks out a clump of poison ivy. There was none in the old country. They pause to discuss. Everything is up for discussion, for argument.

“If it be three, let it be” one intones knowlingly, in heavily accented English, counting the leaves.

“An old wives tale,” says his companion, bending down, reaching. Then changes his mind.

These ghosts are secular socialists. They practice words, not religion. Words are real because they don’t just carry ideas; with words these men create their world. And keep it alive.

Having survived the war they now pursue the millennium, or at least a better and more just world. How to get there?

Onward they amble, like History, like the old 20thCentury notion of Progress, which to them is the same thing. Puffing large cigars, blue smoke wafting aloft, stopping to expound, make a point, refuting the point, one enlightening the other; hands, eyes, and mouth all talk at once.

The sound of Yiddish, a 16thcentury bastardized German, rises amidst the American chatter of native Hudson Valley birds, themselves arguing in ancient trees, in hills where the Lenape hunted and the Mahicans sometimes hunted them. But in the heavy spell of the forest the ever-winding Hudson below goes uneen. These men see with their heads, not their eyes. They see ideas. They see the future. They see utopia. They see this new world as a place where they are about to discover wonderful things, like freedom and baseball, like Calamine lotion.

One day, and it will be soon, they will start to see themselves as Americans. Joe Dimaggio’s hitting streak and the state of the American League will replace Karl Marx and dialectical materialism. What they do not now see, or hear, is the storm rolling down the Hudson, announced for the last 10 minutes by muffled but steadily ominous thunder.

When the rain explodes in great waves, they are surprised.

Meanwhile, looking down on these mid-century spirits are even older ones, and they speak Dutch. This is Rip Van Winkle country.

Here is Fishkill and Peekskill and any kill you like. The bridge across the river a few miles south is The Tappan Zee (astonishingly positioned by New York politicos—there was money involved of course—at the Hudson’s widest point). Rhinebeck is up the river, as were the Van Rensselaers as are the Roosevelts of Hyde Park. Hamilton Fish IV (the first being named for Alexander Hamilton, a family friend) is actually Hamilton Stuyvesant Fish, to honor the last Dutch governor of Nieuw Amsterdam, a man who had his hand firmly slapped by Dutch East India superiors back in Old Amsterdam for deciding that a boatload of Sephardic refugees, Jews from Portuagl via Brazil, could not land. (If they are willing to work and add to the wealth (=make money) and cause no trouble they are welcome was the message, thus setting the theme and tone (live and let live) for New York City, one which happily outlasted the British.

So before this land was American it was a British and before that it belonged to Hollanders. In many names and in what’s left of the spirit of toleration in America, it still does. But the rolling beauty of the Hudson Highlands is deceptive. Eden can give birth to nightmares as well as dreams. These thunderous storms spring up and in moments and darken the brilliant sky a nightmare blue. The dim woods darken the mind. Dark spirits come alive. Just down the river, at Sleepy Hollow near Tarrytown, Washington Irving saw a headless horseman ride out into the wind.

The thunder of Catskill storms is unlike anywhere else. It shakes the ground. It rocks and rolls from river bank to river bank, as if the storm is making up its mind which way to go. This isn’t normal thunder made by clashing air masses. This is thunder made by old Dutchmen, clay pipes clenched in their teeth enjoying a game of bowls in the Hudson heavens.

Sometimes you can see the ball roll across the sky on top of the clouds, leaving a path of fire. And when a Dutchman bowls down all the pins the hills shake from West Point to Beacon. The wind comes up, trees kiss the ground in prayer. For a moment the entire sky lights up, like a pinball machine hitting the jackpot. Dutch fireworks: God has turned on the lights.

Storm King Mountain, across from West Point, did not get its name for nothing.

This is not the gefulte fish, Borscht Belt Catskills, where comedians from Alan King to Woody Allen honed their art. This the Hudson Highlands where Routes 9 and 9A snake around huge granite escarpments. High up 19thcentury railroad barons built stone castles out of Sir Walter Scott, all turrets and battlements, to both broadcast their success and ensure their privacy.

The Jewish ghosts, like the robber barons of the Gilded Age, also seek a haven along the river. Only 50 miles from New York City, it’s a world away from the broken Europe from which they had recently made their escape, and the lower east side from which they would soon make another.

In this place, which bewitched the first American landscape painters, is Cold Spring. New York Central Railroad trains, having switched diesel engines for steam at Croton, stop by the band box on the river. Here, at the deepest and coldest point in the Hudson, the town supplied the Union with munitions for the Civil War. Seven miles east, the Yiddish ghosts found their own Eden. Camp Eden.

Since the end of the war they have gathered here: for a week, two weeks; some of the children even for the 8-week summer camp. Some came alone. Some were reunited with friends and relatives as one by one and two by two, people left the old world world behind. Survivors all.

On luminescent Friday summer evenings the adults watched in wonder as the children—the kinder—marched into the dining hall dressed in whites, whites which would soon bear the red marks of roast chicken-smeared fingers. Then concerts in the big hall or lectures in the garden by the statue of Eugene Debs.

Afterwards everyone would rise and sing the Internationale, the Socialist anthem.

On long lazy afternoons full of dragon flies and buzzing yellow jackets, you could play shuffleboard or fish for sunnies in the cold mountain lake. All you needed was a pole, a hook and some string. These were not smart fish.

You could walk around the lawn without the need to cover up the purple number on your forearm.

Healing was in the air, and transformation.

When Rip Van Winkle woke from his 20-year sleep he found the world transformed. The colony of New York had become the republic of America. The image of King George on the local hostelry had changed, with a few strokes of a local sign painter, into George Washington.

So no big surprise that the people who came as refugees left as soon-to-be Americans.

If Eden is where the world began, Camp Eden is where, for these ghosts, it began again.

 

 

Footnotes.

The people of Cold Spring made these newcomers feel welcome. Lask, the Scandinavian, policeman would stop by to see that everything was all right. Dr Clark, for whom the new wing of the hospital would be named, came to treat you. If you couldn’t afford to pay, he still came.  He delivered my sister, Marcia, on July 24th1946, and a few short years later discovered our mother’s tumor.

 

 

 

Ken and Jackie.

 He was new to rural Michigan. Or rural anywhere.

He and his wife had moved into a newly designed, newly built residence up the hill from the Red House, our more traditional salt box,.

Ken and Jackie had lived a Chicago apartment life all their marriage, through three children growing up, forever.

There was always someone to change the light bulbs, replace washers in the sink and fix what needed to be fixed. So the Michigan house was a brave new experience, and rural Michigan a bigger one. But they took to both. They loved the house.

They had had a great soft-spoken architect in Tom Hickey, a protégé of Harry Weese, who listened and never fell out with Ken.

(He was the first ever not to. Ken had fired the previous two. They liked him so much they later had him design a second house in Palm Springs.)

Ken seems to have made his fortune in wholesale of kitchen cabinets. In any case, he never talked about it. Some people can’t leave their careers behind, the source of their wealth and self-esteem. Whatever success Ken had with his business it did not float his ego or hold his interest.

I say wholesale because it was clear he didn’t have a lot of experience of or patience to smile at people across a counter.

But if it was business with a capital B he could wheel and deal and schmooze and shout with the best of them.

He must have sold the business well. He and Jackie were more than comfortable.

Every year Jackie would take different grandchildren around Europe or Africa, exposing them to art, Old Things, wild animal safaris and the best hotels. She thought it her role to open their eyes, and open them she did.

Ken had worked all his life, from poor kid in Brooklyn to retired man in Baroda, with a break for the army and Syracuse University where he majored, he said proudly, in English as a foreign language. Now he could lounge happily by the pool, vodka in hand. The only thing that got wet were his lips.

Ken loved cars, big new, fast ones. He loved to drive. He loved to sit in them, arm over the steering wheel, listening to the Cubs.

He and Jackie both got to love Michigan and came most weekends.

They fitted right in: threw parties (locals invited) drank vodka, served great food and big drinks. They enjoyed themselves and so did everyone else, They were great hosts.

There was, of course, a period of adjustment. During the first winter Jackie called the local builder in a panic. She had spotted bear tracks in the snow around the house.

The builder came over. Rabbits he said.

Strange sounds were reported. Local animals needed to be moved or dissuaded from returning. Raccoons were caught in Hav-A-Hart traps and deposited in woods many miles away. A motion activated water sprayer was installed to deter the feral peacocks that wandered through the neighborhood, their screeching terrifying Jackie. The pool, though not much used, needed protection from leaves, mosquitos and horse flies..

Even our dog, a benign but large Chesapeake Bay Retriever, caused Jackie to hit the central locking mechanism in a panic when Gnora introduced herself by jumping up on their car door to say hello.

Most afternoons would find Ken and Jackie across the road in the garden of Byron and John, long-time residents and slightly more elderly neighbors. They had complimentary disabilities. John was practically blind and Byron practically deaf. Conversations were carried on not so much in words as booms. Byron would boom and everyone would of necessity boom back. It was as easy to hear them across the road inside our house as it was on the phone.

The four of them would sit under a portico designed by the same architect who designed Ken and Jackie’s house. Byron and John drank glass after glass of cheap wine from enormous bottles. Ken and Jackie drank very good vodka. Car after car would turn the corner, slow down. Drivers would honk and wave before powering up the hill.

It was leafy, bucolic: a pretty perfect way to spend late, later- in-life summer afternoons.

They’d start around 4PM when the heat of the day had given up. They’d still be going in the generous Michigan light at 7 or even 8, Byron and Jackie talking lefty politics and books, Ken and John lobbing in ironic comments.

At some point Byron would help John, by now blind frunk as well as blind, inside for “dinner”.

At the D&W, the local supermarket in Stevensville we once heard Ken’s commanding bass in the next aisle. As we turned we saw an employee pushing a cart and filling it at his direction. Ken walked ahead of his personal shopper, recently recruited at the cash registers, hands in pockets, calling out the products he wanted and looking distinctly pleased with himself.

As the years passed Ken, a big man, became bigger.

He had no interest in editing his appetites. Jackie seemed to have little influence. He enjoyed food, drink and cigarettes immensely and his body became more immense with time.

He continued drinking, eating and smoking in spite of advice not to. Or perhaps because of it.

Ken didn’t like being told what to do or how to live.

Ever generous, in the doctor’s office he would light up, offering his pack to other patients until the outraged receptionist ordered him to stop.

As he became increasingly heavy he became less mobile, a hobbler. Several times neighbors had to come over and help lift him from his bath. Arthritis and kidney disease cramped his style. He began to live life sitting down.

One Saturday morning around 8 AM when we were still in bed we heard a car pull to a noisy stop on the gravel. A loud horn sounded impatiently. It was Ken in his newest new Mercedes.

I came down in my pajamas. He didn’t open the door, much less get out. He just rolled down the window and  shoved a small library of car paraphernalia into my hands. They were the volumes of new car guff that manufacturers pack but few people ever bother to read after the first few pages and the first few days and the first few miles.

Cars, like the world, were becoming too complicated for Ken. Cars were for driving, for hitting the road, for sitting in with your elbow out the window, the wind in your hair. Cars were for and feeling good, not studying.

“Figure it out, Miller. You understand this stuff”.  Leaving me the pile, he drove off.

Ken had a blind spot while driving: stop signs. He didn’t see them or acknowledge their importance. Soon nobody in the neighborhood would ride in his big Mercedes.

Eventually doctor’s told him they were going to take his license away. He would no longer be able to drive. His eyes were too bad.

So Ken decided that if they were going to take his license away, he would take himself away.

He stopped going to dialysis which bored him, and stopped taking his meds. If he couldn’t drive why go on?

If you can’t enjoy life, why live?

He called friends to say goodbye. We heard many had come to visit him at their other place in California.

There, surrounded by his family, ever a man of his word and a son-of-a-gun, Ken died.

 

All Fall Down.

Some people believe the world is held together by a Divine Plan, drawn up in pre-history by a Divine Planner.

Who could that be? Let’s look at the candidates.

The Jews are still waiting for Yahweh to deliver the Messiah, having already waited four millennia, and been kicked from pillar to post for their trouble.

The Christians had their Messiah almost immediately (a Jew no less). But so far, so what? (Peace? Love thy Neighbour? Do unto others…?)

As for Allah, I simply point to today’s Syria or Iraq and ask: would you take a plan from whoever did this?

It’s not hard to conclude that the main candidates for the job of Divine Architect have not been doing their jobs.

Maybe there is no Plan. Maybe there’s just…mortar.

Mortar, the paste made of sand, water and cement binds stones, bricks, and concrete masonry together.

It’s mortar that holds up schools, churches, the Empire State Building the Capital, the Brooklyn Bridge and your home.

In other words, it’s mortar that holds the world together.

So maybe it’s to the Great God Mortar we should bow.

What if there is no Plan, just mortar.

Now imagine there’s a virus that dissolves mortar, and it comes on like a bad flu.

In seven days pretty much the world as we know it is flat on its back.

The Empire State Building has a cardiac infarction and collapses with an enormous puff on 34th street. Buckingham Palace disappears without fanfare.

The Eiffel Tower collapses in a Gallic heap.

The pyramid of Ghiza is no more.

1166 Grand Concourse, gone.

Goodbye, Moscow, hello Sodom and Gomorrah.  Paris? A fond memory. Chicago? Dust on the shores of Lake Michigan.

No bombs, no explosions, just scenes of urban destruction out of Berlin or Aleppo Dresden. But multiplied.

Mortar doesn’t just hold up buildings, but civilizations.

Without it buildings, cities, civilizations: all fall down.

Maybe that’s the plan.