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.
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”.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
Sammy Hodes was a kid from the wrong side of the tracks, except there were no tracks, just streets with Bronx names leading down the hill from uber Bronx Riverdale to real Bronx Kingsbridge.
His face never seemed washed. His fingernails were never clean. You could imagine him stealing hubcaps from moving cars. Or swiping and selling exam answers when he wasn’t playing hookey. But you could also see him stepping in for a kid who was being picked on in the schoolyard by some outsized bully who had seen too many Schwarzenegger films and mistook his size for toughness.
Sammy was small but so, I am told, are nuclear bombs.
Sam was smart. Rumor had it his IQ tested in the 170s. I wouldn’t be surprised. The cover is no guarantee of the book.
There were two kinds of guys in the world: those who were tough and those who talked and acted like it. It didn’t need explaining to us that you could never tell just by looking.
They could be big, they could be small. They could be thin, with no meat. (Think of the skinny looking baseball players who could hit the ball a mile, who never set foot in a gym. It’s how you were put together. (Clemente, DiMaggio? The only weights they lifted were their 35-ounce bats. Mickey Mantle never lifted anything heavier than a Martini, and he hit a ball 650 feet.)
Sammy was Version One. It’s not just that he could give a punch (which, believe me, he could), he could take them. That’s one secret of tough guys. You can’t hurt them, but they can hurt you.
At our school, Sammy and guys like him came from down the hill. From Riverdale to Kingsbridge is just a few blocks but a world away
Their clothes were never new, they lived in pre-war brown brick buildings that did not have the balconies that were de-rigeur in the newer, 20+ story red brick slabs where the rest of us lived up on the hill. It’s where we kept barbecues but never used them—the barbecues or the balconies.
Their buildings felt like history: snapshots of the 40’s. All black and white. Ours felt like today, or in this case, the ‘60s. Kodachrome.
Sammy was an outsider out of preference as much as anything. He was more skeptical, cynical than anyone we knew, as if he had already seen his future, and wasn’t thrilled. It filled him with low expectations, something unknown to us. We were the expectation generation. He was short, compact, with a hint of bow-leggedness, a little Cro-Magnon maybe. He was always alert. His eyes missed nothing. His compactness gave him power. His intensity packed a punch. And he had two other advantages that surprised much bigger guys; he was fearless and, as I said, didn’t feel or didn’t mind the pain.
He was a little mad too, dangerous to be around. He would stand in a corner on the pedestrian bridge over the highway when you were going to school in the morning and, smiling, suddenly whack you in the shoulder as you passed because he didn’t like the look of you. Or because it was Tuesday.
“Why did you do that?” you said when the pain finally allowed. He had a knack for finding the bone. Your shoulder ached for a week.
Sam knew he was different, would always be, and that there was nothing to be done about it.
We got birthday presents and parties and overly loud and proud parents, he did not.
We got new bikes and baseball gloves, he did not.
We would all go to college, even Louie Wexler. It was assumed. It was a given. Sam, almost certainly, would not.
Our OK lives were to some extent presented to us on a middle-class platter, like the barbeques and the balconies. Sam never given anything. He would have to invent his life.
Now CUT to 4 decades later. I am walking across Madison Avenue at 77th and out of The Mark, that opulent but somehow not blingy hotel where the restaurant is “by” Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and is one of the best hotels if not the best hotel in the city, steps Mr Sam Hodes. He is somewhat changed but it was still him. Inside the Brioni suit and hard polished Lobb shoes, equally polished fingernails and $250 shades, it’s still him. The slightly bowed legs, the heavy-lidded, eyes that miss nothing, definitely still him.
On his arm and somewhat taller is a blond, perfectly coiffed and dressed—sheathed I should say—in black silk, and looking fully the part, curves and all. She would have been at home on the arm of George Clooney. Your eye had no choice but to turn and follow the sway. And of course she knew it.
Before I could figure out what to say and how to say it, they slipped into one of those nice long black cars with darkened windows, the door already opened, him before her. Cars that are waiting for people like them outside of New York hotels like The Mark.
Later I read Sam had discovered finance years before, hedge funds to be specific. He had his own fund and quickly surprised everyone because he knew what he was doing and had no nerves. From what I hear it’s a rough, tough, kill-or-be-killed business. And Sam was a killer.
But if anyone had bothered to ask I would have told them: Sam was a tough guy.
In the late 1970s and early 80’s my art director and I had the pleasure of working with Lester Bookbinder, a photographer and commercials director from New York. A perfectionist, he arrived in London with a large plate camera, an unerring eye for visual drama and a Buster Keaton level dead-pan delivery. A man with a mordant wit, not to say a maudlin soul.
He made women look sensational for Chanel No 5 and Pretty Polly tights, and somehow made Angel Delight, a dessert made from powders in a box, look edible.
I am staring at his portrait of Harpo Marx, in costume, a crazy old man mugging crazily to camera.
Lester cared little for product and nothing for message. He liked objects, form. The way a horse looked up and was suddenly more alive, the way an earing’s small movement created drama is what excited him. To make inanimate things stunning and surprising, that was Lester’s métier. And he never just hacked it out. Once, when he seemed to linger overlong over a pack shot when we were antsy to go to lunch, I asked him what was wrong with the beautifully-lit shot he had lined up.
“It’s a perfectly fine pack shot” I offered.
“It’s last year’s pack shot”, his eye never leaving camera.
One day he asked if I wanted hear the joke about the American Dream.
This was clearly an ambush. I bit anyway.
He said the American Dream was 14 million negroes (this was before they were blacks) swimming back to Africa.
“That’s it”? I asked.
“They each had a Jew on their back.”
“How could they swim with a Jew on their backs?”
“That’s the Dream.”
When I told this to my father, a man who had slipped out of Europe in 1939, left everything end everyone behind, and arrived in New York with hope, he was shocked.
Its cynicism offended him on multiple levels. It was in bad taste. It offended him as a Polish-born Jew. And it outraged him as a relatively newly minted American. He was full of faith in America as only those who find survival, salvation and success on the American shore can be.
He had belief in America’s promise to an immigrant and was proof of America’s once undoubted power to resurrect people.
Watching the long line of torches marching through Charlottesville in the night, and the “superior” white men with their home-made Nazified outfits, like some Chaplin film without a decent wardrobe budget, I wanted to reach through the screen grab each and shout in their faces: look in the mirror, fuckhead! Superior to what? Superior to whom?
Can you play centerfield like Wllie Mays?
Can you make music like Duke Ellington?
Can you play the piano like Nina Simone?
Can you write like Ralph Ellison or Toni Morrison?
Can you speak in complete sentences like Barak Obama?
Superior? You white guys aren’t superior, you’re pathetic.
Randy Newman, in that stupendous American album, Good Old Boys (“Good old buys from LSU; went in dumb, came out dumb too…”), described exactly what you are superior at:
“We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks: we don’t know our ass from a hole in the ground. We’re rednecks, we’re rednecks: we’re keeping the niggers down”.
I’ve been re-thinking Lester’s joke.
It wasn’t very funny then, but more Importantly, it seemed untrue.
Unhappy white men are out for satisfaction and justice, their “birthright”. And that means blacks and Jews and immigrants and anybody who doesn’t look like them beware.
And you can forget the protections of the Constitution and the rule of law when the head of state is their inspiration and cheerleader.
There’s a line from The Second Coming in which Yeats summed up much of the dark side of the 20th century.
“The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Now the ranks of the worst include the President of the United States.