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Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Past: Carols, Cookies and Cash

I used to "do" Christmas--I cooked traditional dishes, gave parties, bought presents and generally partook in the chaos and stress of Christmas 30 years ago. This morning I was remembering the time I took the astronomical amount of $200 cash in my purse to shop at Macy's, and how nervous I was that I might not make it to the store without being mugged. I tried my best not to look as if I had $200 cash on me and forged ahead, two blocks from where I lived on West 34th to the giant retailer.

The year must have been 1973. I had gotten my first American Express card in 1972, and I had a Macy's charge card before that, but for some reason it made more sense to me to budget Christmas separately and pay in cash. Not a bad plan, but probably unusual even for those ancient days. I had two daughters and a husband to shop for, and the girls were 11 and 12 in 1973.

Christmas from my childhood included old English and French carols, which we sang at that odd school I went to. Solemn, medieval stuff, like "Lullaby of the Christ Child," in a minor key, with lines like "Thousand seraphim/Thousand cherubim/Soaring high above the little Lord of Love." My favorite was the joyous French one, "Bring a Torch, Jeanette, Isabella," but I also loved "O Little Town of Bethlehem," "Away in a Manger," oh, all of them, I guess, even "Jingle Bells" with the part about "we--we got upsot!" I still love the Christmas music that has to do with the religious side of Christmas, I don't know why, it's imbedded in the spirit of Christmas to me, just like the smell of a fresh fir in the living room.

I noted in the early 70's the phenomenon of the secular music piped into the stores. The most popular seemed to be "The Twelve Days of Christmas," which I supposed was played so relentlessly because it was actually about shopping.

Cookies were my personal contribution to the Christmas mood. I love baking, and there is nothing more rewarding than baking crispy rich cookies and decorating them with two little girls who want to use purple icing and combining the red and green to come up with an unappetizing brown. You try to show them, but you honor their personal taste, such as it is--and the cookies are going to be wonderful anyway. The smells of cinnamon, apple pies baking, the racks of cookies in all shapes and descriptions, always add to the spirit of the season. I even made my own egg nog to wash them down. I've always abhorred the packaged version.

As to cash, that's a thing of the past, I suppose. Nobody moans that too few people bake cookies that they mixed from scratch, with fresh butter, eggs, sugar, flour and spices. The bought cookie dough works as well. Everybody loves "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." probably as much as "Silent Night." Okay. And paying for presents with money ($200 at that) has gone the way of the dinosaur. But some little vestige of the Christmas the old-fashioned way sticks with me.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Happy New Year

Today I begin my fourth year of living in Hoboken. I searched old blogs for one to reprint from that first day here, but of course there were none. I was too newly set up to be online, although I did use the Internet at a café nearby on Washington Street, and my early blogposts described a much colder winter that year, a virus that hit me a day or so after I arrived, problems getting access to my bank account, waiting a few days for my furniture to arrive, and at least as many if not more challenges than most people have on a cross-country relocation.

I had almost forgotten that until I went back to the first "Finding Myself in Hoboken" blog posts. I thought I'd find a blog full of optimism and excitement about my new home. That indomitable joy in life, no matter where I am or what I'm enduring, is there, to be sure, a sort of underlying awareness that things are going to be better once I know my way around and make new friends. But reading my day to day experiences even I wonder what kept me going.

I liked Hoboken as soon as I saw it for the first time. I had all but decided to relocate to the New York City area, although I had discovered the reality that New York is too expensive for me now. I had a look at Brooklyn, Queens, Jersey City, and even Newark, where I had friends living in the Ironbound district. Nothing embraced me as Hoboken did at first sight. I liked the reality of hearing foreign languages on the street, from Polish to French, Spanish and Italian. I loved the little grocery stores that looked as if they'd been there for a century and looked like something you'd find in Italy. I loved the bread you could buy anywhere, the Italian delis that competing for the title of "Best Mozzarella in Hoboken," the cross-section of cultures--yuppies, middle class parent types, b-n-r's talking with heavy "Joisey" accents in the parks, and little elderly people conversing on the benches. I loved the hurly-burly of Washington Street, with restaurants and food shops of all kinds, the bars bursting with noisy young people and the outdoor tables at Washington Street restaurants, full of couples with strollers (so many of them twin strollers at that). I loved the occasional Sinatra song piped onto the street from local eateries, and the pictures of Frank in so many shops and restaurants.

That was when I was looking at Hoboken from the outside. I can say that after three full years I still enjoy the busy streets, the friendly and motley assortment of residents. The blog itself introduced me to some wonderful people. My friend Cristina, a transplant from Colombia and, with her husband Ron and their grown children, a citizen of the world, made a lunch date with me after reading some of those helpless early blog posts, and has been a best friend for about three years now. I learned stories of old Hoboken from a blog reader named Bob Slezak, who filled me in with wonderful tales of what the city was like in the 1950's. Early blog posts, with photos provided by Slezak, prompted comments from his friends and from others who had other memories of what Hoboken used to be like.

I know more people now. I've bought a condo. I am a resident with a New Jersey driver's license and I can give directions when asked. I wouldn't say I've quite put down roots, but I live here, and I like it.

There is a vibrant pulse to the town yet. It is many things at once, and most people who live here, although they may spend much of their time across the river in Manhattan, profess to love that certain something that exists here and nowhere else. It was a good move. I'm happy to be embarking on my fourth year.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Socializing on Facebook

The movie The Social Network made me feel a little funny about ever using Facebook again.

In it, a genius student at Harvard, shafted by his beautiful girlfriend, goes back to his lonely room and writes nasty things about her on his blog and starts a website demeaning college women in general. From that he becomes a minor college celebrity, co-opts an idea from a group of privileged rich boys and starts Facebook. Law suits follow him for the rest of his days in the brilliant script by Aaron Sorkin (the movie flashes back and forth between the history of Facebook and the various depositions), which winds up at a time vaguely "the present," but before the real genius of the story, the real Mark Zuckerberg, came up with his plan to donate $100 million to the public school system of Newark.

The movie is in line for a lot of Oscars, and will win most of them. The writing, as I said, is edge-of-the-seat compelling, the characters quirky and contemporary, and, even though we know how the story will come out, and we assume much of it is truth, we find ourselves wondering how much of this really happened in this way. And we emerge from the movie not quite knowing, but thinking we do. Zuckerberg is portrayed as a serious version of some of the boys we might see on "The Big Bang Theory," but I wondered if he had mild autism or perhaps Asperger's Syndrome. Actor Jesse Eisenberg had me totally convinced he was Zuckerberg, likewise Justin Timberlake as Sean Parker and Andrew Garfield as Eduardo Savarin, Zuckerberg' friend who gets passed by on the way up. The character of Erica, who starts the Facebook ball rolling in the film, was made up out of the whole cloth--but Rooney Mara, the actress who played her, is beautiful and winning--she clearly has a big future in the movies.

Leaving the movie, my date asked me how many of the people I related to on Facebook had become real friends. I had to think about that because I could only think of one that I had met in person having only conversed on the social network. I have 182 "friends" which is a small number in Facebook terms. Many people have friends in the thousands. I try to keep the number at around 180 by editing out those whose posts I'd rather not see or those who simply never post. Of my 182, about 30 constantly respond to my posts and write posts themselves that I am compelled to comment upon, but I've never laid eyes on. Many of those have invited me to visit if I'm ever in their area. Another 50 or so are people I know slightly who comment occasionally. The others simply refuse to play Facebook; I don't know why they're on it at all.

I enjoy Facebook, but suspect that like any addictive activity, my interest will fade of its own accord as the comments get stale and I tire or outgrow it. It has a way of replacing real life with a virtual one. That, I would think, makes it very seductive to the retirees and people who live alone, but there is something unsatisfying about the experience when you have actually had a life. I have a friend who has written a hilarious blog post about his resistance to the whole idea; his post can be found here. The movie, however, is for the ages--it is a time capsule of a moment in history, this very moment.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Acting and the Professional Woman

Sally Hawkins and Cherry Jones in Mrs. Warren's Profession

When you go to see a play written by George Bernard Shaw, you can expect a little whiplash of the brain before it's over. You think you're going to a glittering comedy with lovely sets and costumes of a bygone era--and you are--but before it's over you have been challenged right and left as you try to decide whom to root for, if anybody.
Mrs. Warren's Profession, a smart-looking antique with a stellar cast, will give you food for thought on the topic of working women, Victorian hypocrisy, and how the world has and hasn't changed in the last hundred years.

Written in the late 1800's, the play was first produced in 1902, causing great scandal in London. The "profession" of the title is one of the world's oldest--that of madam. And the play went on to make fun and scalding commentary on the manners and mores of the day. Shaw said, according to Wikipedia, that he wrote the play "to draw attention to the truth that prostitution is caused, not by female depravity and male licentiousness, but simply by underpaying, undervaluing, and overworking women so shamefully that the poorest of them are forced to resort to prostitution to keep body and soul together."

Fast forward to the new production at the American Airlines Theater in New York. Playing the role of Mrs. Warren is the dazzling Cherry Jones, who originated the Meryl Street role in Doubt, among other Broadway triumphs, and has the critics at her feet every time she steps onto a stage. I was delighted to see her and am pleased to report that she was a marvel to watch. I also enjoyed the work of Sally Hawkins, a young English actress who plays Mrs. Warren's daughter.

I went back to the NY Times review after having seen the play and was disappointed that the critic had all but dismissed Miss Hawkins, in spite of the sterling performance I saw. It seems he had seen this play in the 2005 London production in which Brenda Blethyn essayed the role of Mrs. Warren and he thought the play belonged to the daughter, played by Rebecca Hall in her stage debut. I'll just have to differ, not having seen the London production. In the Roundabout Theater's version there is a constant battle for the sympathy of the audience, and some are bound to choose one side or the other. I rather liked the old dragon (played by a not-old Miss Jones) but I could see why the daughter was distraught at the old way of doing things and ready to change the world for women of the future, one of which I am.

It's not a easy play, aside from the lovely sets and costumes, and I heard ever so many comments from my fellow theatergoers to the general effect that they couldn't understand the accents, much less the points being made. To see a play by George Bernard Shaw, surely these sophisticated New Yorkers, most of whom were greyhairs like me, one has to expect to strain the brain and ears a little. I wanted to make an announcement: "Come on, people. You can get this. You are my tribe--you've been attending plays for fifty years or more, and this is Shaw! It's not Shrek the Musical or The Addams Family. It's the kind of play we were raised seeing, with nuance, character and plot and elegant dialogue. You must remember plays like this!" In short, Mrs. Warren's Profession is an old-fashioned play in the best sense. It's a workout, but leaves you with much to ponder, decide, smile about, and remember.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Me in the Machine Again

For some reason the buzz of the alarm clock didn't bother me this morning. I almost never have to set it, but today I had an appointment at Hoboken MRI at 7:30 and to be on the safe side I set the clock for six. Often I'm awake by 5:30 but truly, I never know.

The orthopedist wanted a better look at the knee joint, from all angles, to decide what therapy to apply next. A program of lubricant shots, physical therapy, more exercise, less, or some new drug or other. I endured his first injection, which he said was a combination of novacaine and cortizone, but it made little difference in the pain in my left knee. An x-ray had revealed arthritis, but nothing more.

I expected to feel draggy and glum as I walked, with my left leg in a knee brace, to the offices, which are across from the PATH terminal and a 20 minute walk from my apartment even on a fast track. However, the cool weather was invigorating, and it was a joy to experience a damp fall morning just as shops were opening, lights were being turned on, and well-dressed young business people were filing out of their buildings and heading toward the PATH station alongside and ahead of me. There was a puddle here and there from a shower last night, and the leaves were just beginning to appear on the sidewalks. The trees are just beginning to turn here; fall weather is still welcome and makes the thoughts turn toward eating apples.

When I got to the office, however, I was in for another kind of experience. I had a full body MRI in July of last year, which I wrote about in detail here; this spring I had an MRI of my jaw before having oral surgery. The former was a nightmare for me, with my tinge of claustrophobia. The latter was brief and quite easy. I expected the knee MRI to be more like the jaw MRI, but instead it was more like the nightmare. I didn't have to be rolled into a cylinder--my head was exposed--but I had to lie completely still and listen to clattering sounds, for almost an hour. When I first felt the machine go over me I felt my blood pressure rise, and I immediately began to employ every meditation technique I could muster. They played tacky music, which the technician said would keep me calm; it made me want to jump out of the machine and bolt from the room. At one point, however, I could hear over the ambient noise of the MRI machine an old tune from Elton John: "...how beautiful life is, when you're in the world..." and I tried to climb inside that tune--where had I heard it, who was I in love with then, what year would it have been, was it Sir Elton or someone else, how old was I, where was I living? I wouldn't have minded hearing it again. But no, they were on to something really abominable.

An announcement came into the room: "You're doing very well, ma'am, just a little more," and I figured I was at the halfway mark. I croaked, "Okay," and went on waiting. Another fifteen minutes or so and another announcement, "Just eight or nine more minutes" and I figured it would be another half hour at least. I also got an announcement at the "four more minutes" mark, and I tried to keep count this time just to prove they were lying. It must have been ten minutes at least--I was counting the songs and trying to count the seconds.

But I did emerge at last, and I got the films. It was too early to take them to the doctor, but he'll get them before the end of the day. Then I'll know the future of my left knee.

I wonder when I'll have to go into one of those damn machines again. I hope by the time I do they don't make so much noise and somebody in charge learns the meaning of soothing music.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Some Day You'll Find Me

I haven't been posting here lately, but had reason to add a few posts to my Fairhope blog, which you might find interesting. My mind is in Fairhope these days, and that's a good place for it, as I'm working on a novel in that setting. Over the weekend of October 1 I was at a symposium at U Penn about Wharton Esherick, the sculptor and artist in wood, who lived a little over a year in Fairhope. It was very inspiring, and my Fairhope blog will reflect some of my inspiration for the immediate future. You can find it here.

See you around the Internet!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sleeping Well Is the Best Revenge

I love to sleep. Here's a post I wrote originally in November of 2008.

Sleep is good for you, America. I don’t know where we seem to have gotten the idea that it was a sign of weakness.

Over the years I've gone from being the sleepiest child in the neighborhood (the lady next door once found me asleep under a bed in her house in the middle of the day) to having occasional bouts with insomnia, to a regular pattern of waking up at about 3 A.M. and not being able to fall asleep again. Probably the pattern was made worse by having a remote control in my bed and via television enjoying the switchable presence of Jay Leno, ABC World News Now, the choice of a couple of movies all the time, and cooking and decoration shows at all hours.

That all changed when I moved to Hoboken. I only bought one tv. I was removed from the residue of problems of my own and my friends and relatives. I began sleeping heavier and longer than I had in years. I don’t know how to account for it, but from the first it felt good to get all this sleep. I’m beginning to wonder if narcolepsy is a sign of aging. Maybe it’s because I’m still kind of on vacation from my life. Until the move I was fraught with responsibilities and a certain amount of low-grade, under-the-radar stress all day, and at night I had that tv in the bedroom. Almost as soon as I moved here last December, I found myself sleeping through the night again, experiencing heavy dreams, and waking up refreshed.

I’m sure being removed from my daily stress did it, but I have new stuff: I totally fired my old life, live alone in a strange city, have the daily job of learning the ropes and coping with all the new situations of a total upheaval. That’s not stress?

Apparently not so much. I’ve reverted to my old childhood sleep patterns, and occasionally even grab an hour’s nap during the day. I haven’t been found dozing under the neighbors’ furniture yet, but I’m getting a lot of sleep. On the other hand, sometimes I wake up abnormally early, say 4 A.M., but if that happens I make myself comfortable—go to the bathroom, eat a little yogurt, curl up under a cozy throw in the living room and watch a little neutral tv (NO politics!), and when I start to yawn—it might be as long as two hours—I go back to bed. Then I can sleep another couple of hours.

Here’s the thing of it: Nobody thinks they can do that. “When I’m up, I’m up!” they say, and they make it true by leaping out of bed at the first glimmer of consciousness, turning on all the lights, making coffee, shoving papers around and generally acting as if the day had started. This is followed by a day of feeling sleep deprived and cross. Now, I know it's going to be difficult to do this if you're reading this at your desk just before a big meeting, but it will be worth it tomorrow if you start this sleeping-more project tonight.

Falling asleep seems to be a major accomplishment. We get performance anxiety about being able to do it.

My technique on my early-morning wakeup is to give myself the gift of going back to bed happily. Look, it’s still early, still dark, that bed has all those soft covers, and I’ve got a few more hours before the rest of the world wakes up. I’ll just lie down here and close my eyes—and not open them for two hours no matter what. Maybe I won’t sleep, but I’ll take deep breaths, think how lucky I am, and rest my eyes.

It almost always works. Even helps with the Daylight Saving Time nonsense somebody imposed at the wrong time of year (Why make the days shorter in the winter when they are naturally shorter?).

And when it doesn't work--on those nights when it feels as if I'm not going to fall asleep at all, one Benadryl will do the trick. I have a rule not to take more than one a week, and I seldom resort to that. I also remember that in my case it will take almost an hour to kick in so I don't let performance anxiety get in the way. Alternatively, if I detect a few unidentified aches and pains, I allow myself one or two ibuprofen tablets or an aspirin. But mostly I just lie down, review the good stuff of the day and ignore the bad, take deep breaths for five minutes, all the while thinking about how lucky I am to be alive and ordering a good dream by imagining something pleasant like a field of daisies or the breeze on my skin as waves lap on the beach.

Getting more sleep would be better for everybody. Put it on your list of New Year's Resolutions. In fact, it should be on the national agenda. I hope that early in his administration, the next president makes a beautiful speech about its importance. It would put me right to sleep.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Matinee in the City

I had no doubt I would be crazy about the new production of A Little Night Music playing at the Walter Kerr in New York. A bus from Hoboken should get me there in plenty of time, and there was no one in that audience who could possibly be a bigger fan of Bernadette Peters or Elaine Stritch. Many of my blog posts go into detail about buses being late, me having to walk farther than I expect, me being under stress to get where I'm going--I admit there were a few such glitches this time, but I shall spare you those details because I want to tell you about one of the best experiences I've ever had in a theater.I've never seen a production of this particular show before. I saw the original Ingmar Bergman film (Smiles of a Summer Night) which inspired it, and Woody Allen's Midsummer Night's Sex Comedy, which surely was influenced by that film. I'll never forget the first time I heard its principal hit song, "Send in the Clowns," sung by Glynis Johns on my little black and white television. But I was saving this one until the right production came along.

Being a fan of Elaine Stritch, I loved her show At Liberty, which I saw on DVD; and her work in Company, of which I have the original cast album. I saw the documentary film of the making of that cast album, in which Stritch is clearly an artist determined to do her best work, and is a wonder when she pulls it off. In A Little Night Music she rises to a level of classiness we know she has, and delivers a comedy line or sings a poignant comedy song ("Liaisons") with, stealing a phrase Sondheim gives us in a later number, "her usual flair." In the audience, we are delighted to see that wheelchair (for the character, of course; Ms. Stritch is hale and hearty at 84) roll her onstage to sing or talk to us.

Bernadette Peters is a national treasure. I saw her in Sunday in the Park with George, and, like at least half of the world, have seen and been won over by her in dozens of movies and television appearances. Her stage presence, charm and knockout voice are always delicious and would enhance any show. This one has been waiting for her until the time was right, which is now.

I had heard some of the music, but was not completely prepared for the lyrics, the integration of song-to-show, and the wonderful Stephen Sondheim surprises of the comedy, romance, melody and dance of this piece. It was a delight to be seeing it all come together and work so elegantly from start to finish. Not only were Peters and Stritch poised and flawless, they were joined by a cast of perfectly matched foils and partners. The program informed me that Alexander Hanson has played not only this role (Frederik) but Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music and numerous other straight and musical plays. He was simply perfect in this show, and the mind can picture him easily in many others--and one hopes to see him in them all. Ramona Mallory was a beauteous and pitch-perfect Anne, but I wasn't entirely prepared for the breathtaking "The Miller's Son" as performed by the beautiful Leigh Ann Larkin in the last act. She made the most of the number, and how.
By this time we were all waiting for Peters to sing "Send in the Clowns" and the whole audience seemed to hold its breath as one from the opening notes and to exhale and roar with applause at its end. The song never stood alone for me as just a love song, but it fits superbly into its place here, with its theatrical and circus references, and befits its singer, who is facing the prospect of life not quite in her grasp as she moves in age and for once is unsure.

There is much in this play. Misguided love, reflections on life, life itself passing before us under the midsummer night's trees, a young man about to misspend his life, an old lady looking forward to her funeral with "the best champagne," and love, love, love--in almost all its forms. And the beautiful music and joie de vivre of Stephen Sondheim. I know why I never saw this show before. I was waiting for this particular production.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Time, The Women, and Facebook

I just noticed it's been almost a month since I've posted here. As usual, waiting for the lightning bolt of inspiration to strike, and I've been quenching that thirst in other ways for some time.

A friend on Facebook wrote last night that she was watching The Women and noticed after some time that there were zero men in the cast. Wasn't there a movie in the 60's about a group of women, maybe one of them a lesbian, maybe some murder or some such thing? What was this movie?

What she was watching the recent chick flick inspired by (not a remake) the old theater chestnut by Clare Booth Luce, The Women. The original is an outlandish comedy about the shallowness of New York society women of the 1930's, with some costumes to die for if they don't kill you first. Feminists today might find the star-laden farce offensive; there is no doubt it insults women with a very superficial and unflattering angle on their lives, but in the context of its day attention must be paid. It's something of a forerunner to "The Real Housewives of New York City" and other incarnations of that franchise. The top actresses of their day, Norma Shearer, Rosalind Russell, Joan Crawford and others almost literally sank their teeth into this one.Did I mention the costumes are worth the price of the rental? The original movie version was remade as The Opposite Sex in the 1950's in a forgettable version with June Allyson in the Norma Shearer role, and the addition of at least one male character, the straying husband, played by Leslie Nielson in his leading-man days.

The movie about women from 1966, with its shocking lesbian subplot, (and Candice Bergen doing the honors) was The Group, from the Mary McCarthy novel.

Which leads me clumsily to my other reason for not blogging. When I'm not on Facebook (pretty correctly nailed by Betty White on Saturday Night Live as "a huge waste of time"), I've been pecking at an old idea I've had for a novel. There. My secret is out. I don't want to jinx the effort by talking about it, so that's all I'll say except that I'll post much less often in the near future.

If I can wean myself from Facebook I may actually begin to do some real writing.

Friday, July 2, 2010

A Glorious Day and a Wonderful Play

I was getting cabin fever big time, enduring the heat by staying inside near the air conditioner, watching movies and tv shows that didn’t engage me. I needed to get out.

The forecast for Wednesday was for clear skies, dropping humidity, and temperatures peaking at 81 degrees. I could go to the gym Monday and Tuesday and skip the workout Wednesday, which would be matinee day at the theater. And the weather forecast promised the perfect day to do it.

There is always a feast of options in New York. I wanted to see Red, the play about Mark Rothko with Alfred Molina in the lead and Eddie Redmayne as his foil, a performance which had just won the Tony award. For some reason I hadn’t been able to make the right connection online even though I was willing to pay top dollar for this one. Maybe it was solidly sold out for months because of the Tony award. It would be my first choice, but in the back of my mind was the information that the much-heralded production of South Pacific at Lincoln Center would close in a matter of weeks, and I had been hoping I’d catch that. Maybe this would be the time. There was a new play by A.R. Gurney at Lincoln Center too; it dealt with Katherine Cornell and looked to be something I’d like.

What I knew I’d like was a day to roam around in perfect weather in New York. It’s a short bus ride, and there are so many things I haven’t even done since I moved to Hoboken in December 2007 that I wanted and needed a day to do whatever struck me. There is an exhibition of King Tut’s treasures somewhere in the theater district, and it’s time I spent a few hours either at MOMA or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

First, I would secure tickets to a matinee. The weather made standing in the half-price ticket line in Times Square bearable. It can actually be downright pleasant to hear people discussing the different shows up on the board if it’s not bitter cold or swelteringly hot. I had bought some cute clothes so I knew I could hack the city. What to wear? Well, not the white pants I’d bought—in New York you can only wear black or something likewise drably chic and sophisticated. White pants would brand me as an out-of-towner, and even though I am one I don’t want to look it. Black pants, a bright blue camisole almost revealing cleavage, chandelier earrings, a white blazer and new black sandals rather than my ubiquitous flip-flops.

On my way to the tkts. booth in Times Square I passed the King Tut exhibit, the theater with signs for Red, and the theater with a play called Next Fall, which had its excellent New York Times review posted in front. I went onward to the line at 47th and Broadway, the fabled intersection that is the NY shot in every movie since movies began. There I jostled with some 900 other people, some in white slacks, waiting to get to the front and buy a ticket to something and at a discount. I decided to ask for Red even though it wasn’t listed as available, and ask for Next Fall if they couldn’t dig me up a stray lone seat at Red.

I asked the ticket clerk if there was anything for Red, just one seat, and he informed me that Red had closed the past weekend. This floored me. No wonder I couldn’t bring it up online! I felt very out of it, not knowing about this closing--but did get a seat in the middle of the 10th row for Next Fall.

Now it was 11 A.M. I had three hours before the play started. Lunch in a fun neighborhood--which one? I wanted to go to the Museum of Modern Art, but forgot how to get to its train. The little toe on my left foot was beginning to feel as if it might get a blister from the new sandals. I found a train going uptown, but unfortunately it wasn’t going where I wanted to go so I got off at 72nd Street. This was my first exposure in my new life (in Hoboken) to a neighborhood where I had lived some 40 years ago. I hadn’t been in this particular spot in NYC for over 20 years, not even to visit. That subway station, formerly grungy and a little dangerous, was now spruce and clean—and the park above it, once a “needle park,” was renamed Verdi park and was full of leafy trees and nice, clean, relaxed people people of all ethnic groups and ages. I knew there’d be a pharmacy nearby and I could pick up some band-aids and sit on a bench to apply one, taking care of that wee pain in my toe.

Got the band-aids and began walking toward Lincoln Center. Nice walk, but my little toe on the other foot was beginning to hurt too. I found a bench and sat down and bandaged both toes. Blessed relief! Now I was at the corner of Amsterdam and 66th, with the steps to the back of the fountain ahead of me. I always associate that fountain with my best friend Jerry, who met me there one Saturday morning in 1964, when I had first moved to New York. The fountain for some reason was going through its entire dance of highs and lows—as would be seen a few years later in the first movie The Producers when Gene Wilder danced around it. Today the fountain was undulating between very low sprays to the medium height—soothing and elegant in effect.

A stroll around the fountain, memories of that morning when Jerry and I delighted in its scope and playfulness, lunch at a nice place that was once called “O’Neal’s Balloon” (because owner-actor Patrick O’Neal couldn’t legally name it a saloon), and is now a branch of P.J. Clarke’s, and I was ready to go see what this play called Next Fall was all about.

In the little theater now called the Helen Hayes, I had what is to me a perfect seat, right in the middle. I sat amid the matinee ladies I now think of as my personal tribe—women who love plays and see every one they can. A single guy looking to be about 60 came in a bit late (I was a bit early) and sat on my left.

Next Fall starts in a hospital waiting room, with characters we get to know gradually, awaiting the news of a loved one who lies in grave condition after an accident. There are uneasy laughs that grow into big ones as we recognize the genuine concern and love they all have for the young man, Luke, in the nearby room. Flashbacks introduce us to him, an extremely lovable and handsome chap who, we find, is a committed Christian and a somewhat closeted homosexual.

An excellent script and performances that are are spot-on from beginning to end. I am enjoying the performance of the man playing Luke’s father, uptight and serious, Conservative, not conflicted, a good guy we don’t want to hurt, but can't help knowing that may be coming in this story. The program reveals the actor to be Cotter Smith, who I recognize as a ubiquitous performer in Lifetime Movies for television.I have always enjoyed Cotter Smith, although he often plays unsympathetic character. After this I shall have undying admiration for him as an actor.

Next Fall is a perfectly wonderful play. By its end I felt I had gotten to know every one of these people, some intimately. Watch the clip from the Tony Award show; it captures the gay couple and the engaging actors, Patrick Breen and Patrick Heusinger, who play them. Connie Ray portrays the mother as a perky-dynamite Southern type I know very well. There are simply no missteps in the production. I wished for Kleenex throughout the show and by the end the man next to me and I led the audience in a standing O that would still be going on if the actors had not walked off the stage. As we shambled with the group leaving the theater, I said, “Weren’t you surprised?” and he said he went because he had seen the bit on the Tony show, and he was so glad I liked it. We both felt we owned a bit of the show and were so glad there was a theater full of people who had joined us in watching. Walking to the bus terminal I followed a group of three matinee ladies who were discussing the finer points in New Jersey high volume. I was happy just hearing them. I've since learned that the show will close July 4, so my recommendation will do very little for it.

On the other hand, it did a great deal for me. It capped one of those almost-perfect days with a bouquet of insights and surprises, which to my mind is the very best thing a couple of hours in a theater can do.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Another Time, Another World

We who have ever lived near the Gulf of Mexico are in real grief right now. Although a world away, I think of it constantly and know that we are just a couple of hurricanes away from a disaster of far greater magnitude than we now envision. And, as one who lived there for many years, I am well aware that those hurricanes will come before the end of August and suspect it unlikely that the oil spill will be contained before then.

The beaches meant a lot to us in south Alabama. This is what I wrote in my book The Fair Hope of Heaven about the little beach in my home town:

You can see the old pictures all over Fairhope today – ladies in their modest bathing suits, gentlemen wearing neckties and straw boaters, gleeful children leaping into the warm unpolluted waters of Mobile Bay. Before 1928 the only way to arrive in Fairhope was by bay boat from Mobile…surely those were the days Fairhope was a paradise of summer joy, centered on the bay with its public pier, its sandy beach, its casino (not, as some would have it today, a gambling house, but a barn of a building with a big dance floor and showers and changing rooms for bathers), its little wharf restaurant, and its inns on the bluff overlooking the water -- with wide porches to catch the breeze.

There were once dance pavilions scattered along the beach front. Local bands played music you could dance to – the baker who moonlighted as a bandleader was dubbed “Buns Lombardo” by his buddies who wanted to capture all his talents with one moniker. The first ice cream factory in the state was at the north end of the beach, where the duck park now is. There were sliding boards off the pier; there was a track that took the “People’s Railway” up the hill – uptown to the center of business. Fairhope was a town of talk in the winter – of ideas, meetings, forums, plans, and visions – but summers belonged to the beach.

By the 1950’s, when I was a teenager, there was as yet little air conditioning in our world. Our bodies adjusted to climate changes. We played outdoors all year long and found no displeasure in being hot in the summer, because, after all, summertime was when you got to go outside, climb trees, explore gullies, and swim in the bay every single day. Most everybody went to the Yacht Club to learn to sail and to win races. The public tennis courts were near the gully’s edge across from the University of South Alabama theater (at that time St. James Episcopal Church). Now there is a parking lot where the courts were. One of those early dance pavilions, Burkel’s, had become a roller rink by the 1940’s and was a popular place until it was destroyed by fire in the early 1950’s. Burkel’s was located on the beach at the foot of Pier Street
Even with excessive heat and humidity, we went to the beach. We didn’t perceive the heavy air as a sweltering damp blanket, but as a comforting mist-forest that reminded us that it was summer in the most wonderful life we could imagine.


The town today is working to mitigate the coming disaster. Above is a demonstration called "Hands Across the Sand" extending on Fairhope's beaches and beaches all across the Gulf Coast. So far Mobile Bay has not gotten much of the damage, but Fairhope and outlying communities, aware of the coming hurricane season, know that it is coming sooner or later. Work is being done, but nobody knows if anything will succeed. Diehard haters of the government, not expecting the president to come through, implore him to send out the military. Lovers of big companies are loath to see them as villains, even in this catastrophe. We would all love to know whom to blame and see them suffer, but the Republican South is challenged to accept that it might have been their own short-sightedness in seeking profit at the price of regulation.

The well will be stopped in time; some of the suffering will be alleviated; but it will never be the same in the beach communities that were seen as pristine, perfect little towns. How the ecology will work its way out cannot be known. We have hurricanes and more failures to cap the well to live through. It is difficult to be optimistic, but I am, at least at some level. Mankind is resilient, and nature is too. The best that can come of this tragedy is a new way of looking at our natural resources. Our children and grandchildren will deal with everything in a new way. I continue to have hope that they'll come closer to getting it right than we did.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

The Unreality of It All

I really don't know why I'm so hooked on television. It's an escape. It’s hypnotic. It reveals a reality that no one could possibly believe.

Some shows pit people against each other in odd situations. There are cooking contests; there are home decorating contests; there are shows about people whose houses are filled with clutter including unopened boxes of stuff they bought themselves years ago and don’t remember yet refuse to part with because they say they might need whatever it is someday.

People on daytime TV reveal their innermost thoughts with hysterical alacrity. Dr. Phil will tease out of his guests secrets that no previous generation would ever have admitted, and the subjects of these confrontations weep and take it in front of a studio audience and cameras. There was this family who came to him years ago--a battling couple with two girls, both dabbling in sex and drugs, all four defensive and hostile. After a few sessions with Dr. Phil the younger daughter revealed she was pregnant by her jailbird boy friend and Dr. Phil acted like a great solution would be for her to have the baby, grow up somehow, and everybody would be happy. She did have the baby, and for years now the family keeps coming back to the Dr. Phil show while she bounces from one reprobate felon to another, still doing drugs of some kind and still popping out babies that her parents—never paragons of maturity and wisdom themselves—are stuck raising. Dr. Phil consoled the mother by getting her some plastic surgery and a personal trainer.

Ordinary people aren’t allowed to be so any more; they willingly subject themselves to beauty makeovers, home makeovers, and life makeovers. Interior designers throw out people’s furniture, tear down walls, paint the places in garish colors and their victims squeal with delight and weep openly, proclaiming ecstatically that their lives have been changed forever. People are not only passionate about the inconsequential, they clamor to expose that passion to the world. There is a life coach who talks with couples about their marital problems in order to repair a dysfunctional marriage and rebuild an uncomfortable house. When the couple take prescribed steps to resolve their foundering relationship, the coach rewards the family with a home renovation that would cost $50-$100,000 in real life.

Some shows are about so-called “housewives”—women in their 30’s and 40’s who live in ritzy areas and have time for what men think of as the age-old female pursuits—backbiting, bitching, and spending money. The term “housewives” was taken from the ironic title of a comedy series called Desperate Housewives about a the soap-opera lives in a suburban neighborhood, and with it came a new definition. A housewife, rather than a wife and mother devoted to keeping hearth and home, now means a beautiful and overindulged woman with time and money on her hands and happens to have a husband and children. An exhaustive article in today's New York Times revealed the market research that goes into the planning of these shows which are advertised as "reality." The Real Housewives of New York City shows us a capsule slice of the lives of some well-chosen women who live on the Upper East Side and spend most of their waking hours at restaurants, fund raisers and fashion shows, gossiping and defending themselves against gossip by digging themselves even deeper in questionable behavior. The Real Housewives of New Jersey involves a gaggle of sisters and sisters-in-law who live in the same community and have an inordinate amount of time to visit each other and interfere in business that in another lifetime would have been private, if not in the community, at least to the the larger world that happens to own a television set. What the research apparently indicates is that when an interloper encroaches, enough drama will ensue that the viewers keep tuning in to be a part of the fireworks.

Dirty laundry is willingly aired. There are judges who officiate at small-claims settlements. There is a show that trades the mother and wife in one family for the mother and wife in another, diametrically opposed family--both on the borderline of what is accepted as normal—to see what happens. There is a show that pits young beauties against each other for the hand in marriage of a man none of them really knows. There is even one that turn those tables and makes young men compete for a nubile beauty, just as it once was in real life, when everyone wasn’t made up for the camera and most people knew each other pretty well before making that leap.

And of course there are the commercials. Some chipper woman with an irritating voice and in a white uniform bleats to an innocent man nearby that he should buy something called “Progressive.” Whether it is insurance or breakfast food I know not because I can’t make head or tail of her sales pitch and I mute it whenever I hear the sound of her. And if you like your vacuum cleaner, you apparently can tell because it talks to you and dresses like you. Then there is one commercial in which the woman throws away her mop and it falls in love with a nearby bowling ball.

All this jabbering cannot be good for the brain. I suspect it has altered our way of using that organ, giving us all shorter attention spans and addling us for serious thought in the hope of manipulating us to buy more products. I also suspect that it works. It’s hard to live in a quiet house with all television removed.

Try as I might to tell myself I’m wasting time with this white-noise surrounding my life, I still don’t seem able to turn away. Television is a great train wreck with all the victims exposed, bruise for bruise, much as on a hospital dramatic show (like House, which I watch religiously, or Grey's Anatomy, which I've never seen. (You can't watch everything.)

I said before it's a form of escapism, but what would I want to escape from? I am independent, I go where I want to (which, often as not, is New York City) and I seldom see anyone I don’t choose to see. Television brings people I don’t want to know about right into my apartment and shows me perversions I would never have known about. It keeps me from reading, from writing, it does little to entertain and nothing to enlighten. But I'm fascinated by the manufactured reality of it all.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Is 70 Really Not Old Any More?

I was born on this day in 1940, the same year as Tom Brokaw, Nancy Sinatra, Al Pacino, Raquel Welch and Don Imus.

Shortly after my birth, this country became embroiled in a world war, which had been raging for several years in Europe since the Germans decided to conquer the world and annihilate several segments of the population in the process. The U.S. of my early childhood was obsessed with that war, as our men had been drafted to fight, and everything from the entertainment industry to small businesses were involved in the propaganda machine. This thinking was to pervade my generation for over 20 years; for, after World War II ended in a victory for our side, our leaders told us that Russia was now our enemy, and that the Russians were planning another, more horrible war, directly against us, and would involve weaponry far more devastating than that which had been used in the past.

This period of national paranoia was called a “Cold War.” Little children in big city schools were drilled to hide under their desks in mock air raids, as if this would be helpful for them to do if and when the Russians dropped big bombs in the neighborhood. Of course, because they were little kids all it did was imbue them with a fear of early and painful death--and the sneaking suspicion that there were no grownups around who could do anything about it. It was not a good time to grow up.

The generation that came of age just after I did is known as the “Baby Boom” generation, referring to the tremendous swell in the number of babies conceived when the men came home from the war. They, and we who came just before them, were taught a number of traumatic things by well-meaning but uninformed adults. One thing we knew for a fact as children was that the world contained weapons of mass destruction which might be used against us at any moment.

World War II had brought us prosperity, as wars do, and uneasiness, as well they might. As teenagers, we felt safe with our great General–Dwight David Eisenhower–as president of our country, but to me he seemed a distant, dull old man, and I was glad to see the vigorous young John F. Kennedy with his beautiful wife and family as the next residents of the White House. I was too young to vote in the 1960 presidential election, but I will never forget the feeling of exhilaration at the youthful president. His empowering initiatives such as the Peace Corps brought fresh thinking into politics and therefore into the whole country. I later came to feel we had been a bit too gullible, because I became disenchanted with John Kennedy after his death, after more was known about him. Later presidents in my lifetime have brought outright disgrace to the White House and Kennedy is looking good again. However, with all his good intentions and many brilliant programs and ideas, he did not have long enough in his presidency to see if he really was up to the whole job or not, but he was good at selecting lieutenants and he was smart enough to get a few valuable programs started.

The brevity of human life is in itself a time capsule. I remember all the way back to blackouts, rationing, and everybody’s daddy being away while the women were left to tend the children and fend for themselves. We listened to the radio for shows with stories and humor and running characters, such as The Great Gildersleeve (an actor named Harold Peary with a distinctive, long, low laugh) tearjerker soap operas like Stella Dallas and One Man’s Family and adventures like The Green Hornet, Gangbusters, and Sgt. Preston of the Yukon. In the afternoon there were shows for kids. I remember ordering a signet ring from Sky King, which promised a compartment for secret messages. Weeks later I was thrilled to receive the object in the mail, although I had no one to send secret messages to or no idea why there would messages in my ring.

People my age remember the 50’s vividly. When we think of Audrey Hepburn we think of the gamin in Roman Holiday and Sabrina more than the city sophisticate of a later film, Breakfast at Tiffany’s. As teenagers we wore dungarees or circle skirts (but wouldn’t have been caught dead in one with a poodle on it); we danced the jitterbug at soda shops, we went to movies after school and dances at the Elks Club every Friday night. Our parents didn’t make play dates for us; we lived at each others' houses almost as much as our own, and we explored the streets and neighboring woods without supervision.

I remember when Elvis wasn’t “the King” of anything. He was a hillbilly singer and your mama wouldn’t have let you go out the door with him or anyone remotely like him if he showed up for a date. Okay, he was a few years older than I, and was indeed making tours of my home area in those days, but his brand of rock and roll had not yet caught on with the middle class. He caused quite a buzz, and I swear this is the truth: The father of one of my high school girlfriends played in an amateur dance band and told us with vehement authority, “Elvis Presley is just a flash in the pan. Mark my words, a year from now none of you will even remember who Elvis Presley was!”

Before moving from Atlanta to New York City in 1964 I had to pick up some things at a little corner "gas and go" type grocery in the part of the city known as Decatur. I was struck by a boy in the store, a nice, middle-class-looking kid about 12 years old with brown hair cut below his ears. The reason I took note of him was that his hair was long compared to all the other boys his age. I remember being somewhat amused that there was actually a kid in this neighborhood in Atlanta with the guts to wear a haircut inspired by the Beatles, that happy group of English guys whose picture was on every magazine cover that month. They had not yet landed in America, but here was someone who was already making a statement in this outpost in the South, by copying them. I never would have believed the impact that haircut was to have on the world, even Atlanta. Elvis was pretty well known by then, but even yet he was not a fashion role model.

Most children of the late 60’s were raised by affluent parents, indulged with all their families could give them–perhaps as overcompensation for their own deprivation in the Great Depression. People my age had education and ideas, but our demographic lacked the numbers to be particularly effective in carrying these ideas out. Sheer critical mass of those Boomers would overwhelm whatever (or whoever) got in their way.

Popular music of my day was a pale imitation of that of our parents–where they had Sinatra, we had Eddie Fisher, Tommy Sands and Bobby Darin–the Boomers were bored to death with the music that came before them. They were convinced there was no music as good as theirs. Our look had been much the same as those who came just before us too, but all that would change in the 1960’s when the generation just behind me reached full visibility with long hair on both males and female, beards on men as soon as they could grow them, and jeans, love beads and tie-dyed tee-shirts for all. Jerry Rubin said, “Never trust anybody over 30." I had already rounded that corner, so I was just on the other side of trustworthiness. Life was now referred to as “life style,” and mine was decidedly over the hill already. But I have waited it out. I have given up trying to understand and instead have taken to pontificating.

There is this thing about time, once you get well into your sixties. It fucking flies by you. You’ll start to remember an event or incident or person you haven’t seen in awhile and realize it was 30 years ago! Little babies that were born that day are doctors and lawyers now.

Your doctors look like kindergarteners. Your own children are adults. Years disappear with amazing alacrity, and projects just fall into your hands, whether you are looking for them or not. The next thing you know they are done and you are halfway into something else. Even if you’ve never written anything, you start to write, something to validate your time on this earth–a family history, an autobiography, a blog, or all three. You become obsessed with defining what it was all about. You think if you can just get a handle on it, what you are writing will matter to someone else, living now or scheduled to be born in the future.

And, if you’re me especially, you keep doing weird things that you think will provide a portion of the answer. You read self-help books. You join an Internet Dating Service. You go to a lot of movies. You go on a lot of diets. You travel long distances to reconnect with friends you haven’t seen since high school. You invest time, money and emotion to re-kindle a romance that never was.

And wherever you go, if you pass a mirror, you glance into it and see a stranger.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

More of the Best of Slezak

Information from Hoboken's past has been funneled to me by Bob Slezak over the years. Here are a few more of his great memories:

"My wife’s dad – what a nice guy he was...played with the big bands during the war. (His dad was an opera singer from Dublin who toured Europe with the Carl Rosa opera company. He came to America in 1900...and started his own opera company, Joseph Sheehan Opera Company...you can look him up on the computer. In them days he was the greatest tenor English opera singer in the world. After he retired from that he worked for RKO Radio studios in NYC...and later it became NBC studios...he lived on Garden Street just across the street from me) My wife’s both grandmothers lived across the street from me when I was a kid. I have a picture of me and my wife in the same picture – she was 5. I was 9, not knowing I would marry her some day and spend the rest of my life with her. I got lucky and always had good luck...with every thing I did in life. On the Waterfront with Marlon Brando...well that’s another story – filmed in Hoboken. You must see it...some of my friends were in it, I was not. (I could have been a contender.)

"I’ve been looking for a picture or pictures of ABLE’S ice cream parlor that was across the street from the Acadamy of Sacred Heart on 7th and Washington Street, my wife’s old all girl school…plaid skirts, white blouses, and vest and beanies they had to wear. Only the rich girls went there. My old hangout in the 50s, the early rock and roll days...BUT with no luck in looking for the pictures...to add to my large photo album collection that I have. I call them albums The Adventures of Maureen and Bob. We all can’t live forever, BUT the photos will.

"I think in the early days of television, Dumont was the king of the tv airwaves. In the late 40s we had only three stations and an Emerson 7-inch tv. My mom said if you watch it too close YOU WILL GO BLIND.

"On Washington Street a store had a tv in their window...people would bring their folding chairs...and sit watching tv...a sight to behold...I must say.

"MONDAY MORNING WASH DAY, and the daredevils who had the job of putting up the clotheslines, when one broke. Every block had one brave soul...and I was the chosen one for my block. My mom got me the job...THANKS MOM.

"You carried a hammer and the line around your neck...and began your climb...hitting each spike to insure that it was safe to step on. It always seemed to be the one at the top that was broken. Most of the time and on a cold and windy day, freezing your hands till they were numb, as all the wives braving the cold on their fire escapes watched me as I made my climb...praying for me. I FELT LIKE A CIRCUS ACT WITH NO NET.

"WASH DAY was when every one knew if you had a hole in your undies. IT WAS PUT OUT FOR ALL TO SEE. And you only got a dollar a climb. I SUPPOSE THEY DON'T DO THAT ANYMORE IN HOBOKEN, thanks to washers and dryers."

Now that you mention it, Slezak, I haven't seen any clotheslines in Hoboken since I moved here in December (2007). Call it progress. Call it 21st Century technology. Call it the avoidance of child abuse. But you must have been a nimble lad in your day, putting up those clotheslines for the local housewives, and surviving to tell the tale some sixty years later. As usual, you paint a vivid picture of days gone by. At least after all your death-defying work you could drop by Abel's for an ice cream with your dollar. Now that wouldn't get you much.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Slezak's Hoboken II

Over the last couple of years my buddy Slezak has conveyed a lot of information about the Hoboken he remembers. He lived in the town when it was different:

Hoboken is still beautiful...yes, the buildings are still there but people and places have vanished with time ....the happy days of the 1950s should be remembered ...a book maybe with pictures .an era never to return ....the smells of coffee from the maxwell house plant and fresh baked bread of the wonder bread factory, and fog horns on a foggy day ..in the Hudson river ..the many large parades down Washington Street ...the Kramer’s clock on Washington Street that always told the right time twice a day: 12 o’clock....THE CRIME none to speak of...you never locked your doors or car if you had one...Church doors were never locked either...you could pray any time of the day or night. COPS walked the street...you knew them by the first name...jobs if you needed one...the mayor’s office door was always open...he would always get you a job just with a phone call. SCHOOLS – the teacher you had your mother had had also...lastly, the people...depending on what part of the city you lived. Downtown was the Italians, uptown was the Irish, Germans, Poles. The blacks lived on 1st Street...that's the way it was.

Manhattan was just short a bus ride away.


About this time I was living in a third-floor walk-up on Hudson St. and had published some pictures of the lions that stood out in front of some of the brownstones in that area. Slezak remembered the lions well, and explained that the were all over Hoboken, although mostly "uptown." And as far as uptown-downtown, I, like all newcomers, assumed that the street numbers indicated which section was "up" and which was "down" in Hoboken, but Slezak and his old friend Dennis ("The Rabbi") Maloney set me straight on that.

From Dennis (“The Rabbi”) Maloney:

“A note to new Hobokenites. Uptown was and is Washington St. to Clinton St. 1st. to 14th.

“Downtown is Grand to Harrison 1st. to 14th. For some reason, newbies have changed uptown to 7th to 14th and downtown from the Path to 6th.”

Slezak said...

“He is right on the money. UP TOWN, AND THERE WAS DOWN TOWN, it has nothing to do with numbers...from Clinton Street to Washington Street was uptown. We called it the upper crust.

"HUDSON STREET and Castle Point Terrace was the Beverly Hills of Hoboken. Feel honored that you live there. It meant you had money...and lions on your stoop to protect you".

I still smile when I see a lion in front of a Hoboken house, and I salute Bobby Slezak for correcting me. I guess the "newbies" have taken over now, however, as nobody seems to think of uptown as meaning Washington to Clinton. Times change, and the new people have a way of changing things everywhere.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Bobby Slezak's Hoboken


I knew very little about Hoboken when I first moved here in December of 2007, but I started writing the blog as a way to introduce myself. One of the nicest results was an email from a former resident, Bobby Slezak, who was growing up here about the time I was finding myself in Fairhope, Alabama, where I moved here from.

In May of 2008 I got this in my email:

I came from Hoboken. I'm 69 now and I came across your site by mistake. I'm glad. YES, Hoboken has changed...it's not the quiet town it used to be back in the 1950s. As a young boy there was some great hangouts to have fun in, BUT they are all gone now. I'm not talking about the bars. There was always plenty of them. I'm talking about the ice cream parlor hangouts, such as ABELS across from Sacred Heart Academy on Washington Street; JACK-O -DINES on the corner by Demarest H.S.; JANETTES on First and Washington Street; Biggies I think is still there but it's not the same. They were the fun centers of our youth. Famed D.J. ALLEN FREED rock and roll shows at the Fabian Theater, now destroyed. The mood and values all vanished it seems...the girls were just lovely. I'm sure time has changed that, just a little. I still have my girl friend I met in ABELS in 1958...she was a Sacred Heart Academy grad. Me, I was the black-jacket, grease-haired hot rodder that you did not want your daughter to go out with. BUT YOU CANT JUDGE A BOOK BY ITS COVER. I was sweet and charming back then...and still am. THEN CAME THE VIET NAM WAR. Well, my girl friend married me in St. Ann's Church and off we went to war together. Looking back to Hoboken with fond memories...4 kids,12 grandchildren later...we still love Hoboken...its memories that is.

As time has gone by, I've gotten hundreds of emails from Slezak, who likes to be known as "Hoboken Kid" when he comments on the blog. His descriptions and old photos of Hoboken have amused and informed me as I learn what the town has always been about--nice people and wonderful memories. The streets resonate and vibrate with them. Slezak and his wife Maureen are both going into the hospital next week, for very serious work, and I want to wish them well and let the people of Hoboken know more about them. I'll publish more Slezak on the blog for the next few days and reminisce about our extraordinary Internet friendship, looking forward to the day we'll meet in person and have a few hearty, heartfelt laughs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

The End of Yet Another Era

A television entry that was peculiarly New York in tone, almost like the old live black and white dramas of my teenage years, will be relocated to Los Angeles and lose its mojo as well as most of its audience. Tonight will be the finale, populated by a whole universe of actors that look to me like newcomers.

Like most Americans, I have devoted quite a bit of time to watching the "original" Law and Order over the past 15 years or so. It captures the city in a unique way, its actors becoming as familiar as the cop on the beat. I watched the stage actress S. Epatha Merkeson play a police supervisor all this time; I watched when Michael Moriarty had the Sam Waterston role; when Jerry Ohrbach so convincingly played the troubled recovering alcoholic police detective Lenny Briscoe that he was often stopped on the street by guys calling him Lenny; when a trail of beauties from Angie Harmon to Carey Lowell worked in the D.A.'s office.

I still lament the exit of the best District Attorney New York ever had, the complex yet avuncular Steven Hill. Hill was one of those solid New York actors seldom seen on the screen, a founder of the Actors' Studio and an early proponent of Method Acting. His own personality melted into the characters he played, and his mental acuity and intensity permeated his every performance. In Law and Order, the character he played was based on real life New York District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, whom he is said to have captured perfectly in his nuanced and elegant style. His Adam Schiff was a man you respected without question, a man of integrity and wisdom, and, although a bit jaded by his job, a man with a big heart. He was detached without being bloodless.

The actor was one of the most interesting men ever to work in television. Born Solomon Krakovski, he was appearing as Sigmund Freud in A Far Country on Broadway when he confronted his own heritage. A character screamed the line "You are a Jew!" to him in the play and the experience sent him right back to his roots. Hill realized the impact of his Jewishness and embraced it by becoming strict Orthodox -- he began observing a kosher diet, wearing specially lined clothing,and strictly observing the Sabbath. This made Hill unavailable for Friday night or Saturday matinee performances and effectively ended his stage career and closed many roles to him in the movies most notably The Sand Pebbles.

Nevertheless, Steven Hill has had a good career without ever becoming a household word. He felt that artists needed to take breaks from their work for years at a time to refresh and he practiced what he preached.

He had undergone one of those long breaks before taking on the role in Law and Order, and it served him well. His work on that show was a seamless as a bolt of fine fabric. He was as real as an actor can be. If you missed the show under his reign, try to find a re-run that old. He was just wonderful.

Law and Order replaced him with Dianne Weist, an excellent actress who never seemed at home in the role. It was a rare misstep for both the show and Weist, who just didn't have much gravitas and was somehow unconvincing as the boss of the heavy, knowledgeable Jack McCoy as played by Waterston. Of course, her biggest problem was that she was being set up as a replacement for a man who had owned the show for some ten years.

In comes stolid Fred Thompson to replace Weist. Here is an actor with so little range, so little charisma, so little energy that he seems to have gotten the role just based on the fact that he looks likes everybody else. That is, there is nothing about him that looks actorish (like, say, Ronald Reagan), or nothing about him that seems wise (like Steven Hill) or even anything that looks complicated, like Dianne Weist.

He later went back into politics and announced, with consummate poor timing, a run for the presidency that went nowhere. Even his credentials as an actor came into question. The charm that usually goes with that territory is decidedly missing.

Eventually Waterston took on the role, but the new cast, though competent, just didn't seem to fit the roles we had come to think of as friends. The show has run its course, even though its spinoff will probably continue until television itself is just a memory. I hope they'll reach all the way back into the files and show the early shows with the original cast. I'm sure I'm not the only one who'll derive comfort from the persona of Steven Hill back in my living room.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Autobiographical Urge

In 2006, long before I was finding myself in Hoboken, I had a small reputation as a writer in Fairhope, Alabama. Almost everybody in Fairhope had a reputation as a writer, but I had published a memoir about the town and wrote an almost-daily blog called "Finding Fair Hope," which you can still find on the Internet.

I was approached by a man in his late 80's about ghostwriting his autobiography. He had lived a rich and varied life and loved to tell stories of his accomplishments and crises. He had coped with great success and tragedy, and about all he had not done was chronicle the events.

He had known lots of interesting people and been in very high places in his day; he sent me a packet of snapshots and newspaper articles about his life. Pictures revealed that he was a good-looking man, movie star good-looking in his youth, and the articles told of the fortune he had made in dealing with big corporations, selling the rights to his inventions and occasionally suing for large sums when his invention ideas were stolen. I was interested in his story, and felt that I would be good as a ghostwriter. I was up for the job. I encouraged him, admonishing only that he would have to be very open with me about some of the life situations in the newspaper items, situations that still might cause him some pain.

He would have had to relocate to be interviewed, or pay for my expenses if I had to travel. He would have to be candid. I would agree to work for him at a fixed rate for about six months, including writing time, and then submit what I had written for his approval. I would not be the salesman for the work, but I felt certain that with his lively personality and his truly unusual life story we could come up with a book that would sell.

I laid out the proposal and waited. Time passed, and he passed off my radar screen, by not acting. He probably thought better of the project and did not want to be under this kind of stress at this point in his life, no matter how strong his urge to be immortalized in print. I never received a refusal, but I had lobbed the ball to his court and it was never returned.

I didn't blame him. For years he had probably regaled friends and acquaintances with tales of his childhood inventions, his successes and near-successes, and the odd and unexpected turns his life had taken. He was probably told by many an acquaintance, "You really should write a book about all this," but the reality of such a venture was not one he could handle.

An urge to write hits us as we grow closer to what we perceive as the end of life. There is a need to get it down in black and white, this little life, before it's gone. I can understand this myself, hacking away at a daily blog and thinking of books I must get done. This being Mother's Day, I am thinking a lot about my late mother, and the book she produced. Always an admirer of writers (and married to a first-rate one), she spent years researching a family history that including anecdotal tales going all the way back to family members who gave Robert the Bruce of Scotland a ride across the river in the middle of a war--being awarded in later years with a coat of arms that read "I Saved the King." She completed her family history in the and self-published it in 1994 after almost 20 years of exhaustive research, and the result is a family history that reflects all the charm of its writer and is constantly used as research by her three grown children. She printed copies for all living members of the family and distributed this work to as many of them as she knew. I gave a copy to my 12-year-old grandson Andy for Christmas, and he glowed. "Now I can answer any questions I have about the family," he said.

Her little book is a treasure trove of information about our ancestors. It was a project that consumed her as she edged into old age, and a copy of it was in her bureau at the nursing home when she died. She would sometimes mention it ("the book I wrote") and we having it handy when we visited her made it possible to pick it up to confirm a birth date or year, or cause of death, or any little piece of family information we could get nowhere else.

It is good that much of mankind is equipped with this autobiographical urge. The stories, even those that might be apocryphal, are the stuff of life and the best we can do toward carving a place in the mythology of generations to come. Blogs, diaries, family histories, and just newsy letters and emails serve a greater purpose than the writer may realize.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Discovered Near Hoboken: Union City

Cristina has long told me that if you take the Light Rail almost to the end of the line you'll hit a section full of Colombians, with wonderful bakeries and and some memorable restaurants. She waxes nostalgic about the wonderful breakfasts as she grew up in Colombia--hot coffee, guava buns and Spanish cheese; and rainy childhood afternoons when she was given hot chocolate and cheese toast to compensate for having to stay inside. I remember seeing some Hispanic neighborhoods from the window of the bus I took to get my driver's license when I was new to New Jersey, but I never explored the area until yesterday.

It was so beautiful I decided to check out the nabe early Saturday. I took the Light Rail, which I was surprised to find so crowded at 2 P.M. on a weekend, and got off at Bergenline, the stop before last on the line, seeking a restaurant whose name and address I'd found online. I was in Union City, as it turns out. Sidewalks not wide and walkable like Hoboken, but a lively, crowded Hispanic atmosphere with little shops for trinkets, religious icons, clothes, and souvenirs. As I walked I began to see bakeries. I went as far as the restaurant, some five or six blocks in, but it didn't look like much. I did note that it was still pretty busy for an off hour and that all the patrons looked like they knew what good Latin American food should taste like. Coming back to the train I stopped in a little bakery and bought just three items, not having any idea what they were. One was an empanada-looking thing, the other looked like a bun that might have guava jam inside, and, seeing a local buy what looked like a huge coconut cookie, I bought one of those too. As I began to make my decisions I wondered if I could make my choices clear, not knowing Spanish, and then I caught myself. I was in America--the girl behind the counter speaking Spanish to her customer was as American as I and could certainly speak English too! I had been so impressed with the authenticity of this little pocket of Union City that I forgot what country I was in!

All the way home I was getting more excited to try what I'd bought. Still thinking I was beginning a program of weight control I promised myself I could have ONE bite of the cookie and half of the empanada, and that I would stop there. However, I know myself pretty well and know that once I've had a bite of something, if it's pretty good it's highly unlikely that I'll stop.

When I got home I tore into my bag. I couldn't resist starting with the cookie, still thinking that I would stop after one bite. I had my reading glasses on by now so I could tell it was not a cookie at all. It might even be something savory. Tasting it, I knew it was definitely not coconut. It was slightly sweet, very chewy as opposed to crisp, and tasted clearly of corn. Of course I couldn't stop eating until I'd finished the whole thing, even though I was thinking about how good it would be for breakfast, maybe with ham or bacon or an egg--and lots of strong coffee. No matter, it was gone. Now I had permission to have one bite of one more item, which was to be the empanada. It turned out to be a nice pastry that was rather hollow, but inside, instead of a spicy meat mixture, was guava jam and a dollop of some kind of cream cheese. I had half of it. I stopped myself, because I had to try the bun. I cut the end off, and saw it was stuffed with just a little ham and cheese. The second slice went into the microwave because it clearly needed to be heated.

I looked up Colombian Corn Cake on the Internet and sure enough found out the thing has a name: An arepa. I have a recipe which I must try even though you have to buy a special kind of Colombian corn meal--I can find that for sure, if not in Hoboken, then certainly on my next trip to Union City. But as long as I'm up there, I think I'll just buy a dozen or two arepas at that bakery.

Friday, April 30, 2010

A Television-Free Zone

My daughter came for a visit last week and imposed her ban on television for most of the time she was here. That was okay, as exploring Hoboken (as long as you're not hanging out in sports bars) does not require a look at the tube at all.

Interesting that as an adult Alison has not owned a TV set. Growing up, she was surrounded by it, and as an agitated adolescent it was her bedtime companion. When I learned that she would not buy a television when she was earning her own money, I was impressed at such a brave and unexpected sign of maturity. She now has two teenage sons and when they come to visit me, liberated from the TV-free zone of their home, they enjoy the indulgence of spending much of their time glued to G-ma's tube. (With their superior knack for electronic gizmos, they know much better than I how to navigate the channels and find what they want to watch.)

Alison and I were going to watch a rented movie, but had spent so much time talking and visiting that it was after 9:30 P.M. when we got around to it, and we both were too exhausted to have much interest. Having had a stint as a realtor, she might have been interested in "Selling New York," HGTV's show about selling high-priced condos in New York City. Immediately she gave me her reaction, "How can they continue showing real estate porn in this economy?" so I realized watching that one would not be fun. I turned on a few minutes of "The Mentalist," which I often watch on Thursdays when winding down, but it was dreary seeing it through her eyes. I tried to explain, "See, this guy reads minds..." followed by some leaden dialogue and closeups of significant looks on the faces of over-madeup actors, followed by yammering commercials--she hates commercials most of all--and after about ten minutes she unsurprisingly said, "Mom, I just can't take this."

And so we went to bed instead. I have respect for her choice to eliminate crass television from her life. She keeps NPR running on the radio most of her waking hours. She is not affected by the false affability on shows like "Morning Joe" or the confrontational posturing of "Hardball." She and I agree that what passes for news on the cable channels is little more than contrived polarization, rendering viewers hardly more informed than before they tuned in. She acts on this knowledge, but for some reason I do not. I suppose I'm addicted to the blather and wall-to-wall noise television provides even though I get little out of it, and I know it keeps me from more productive pursuits. Whatever happened to that next book I was going to read? Or worse, whatever happened to the ones I was going to write?

With television, I have given my mind and maybe even my soul a vacation. I don't sit down and watch until after dark--but that's kind of like the old it's-five-o'clock-somewhere rule of the confirmed alcoholic. I'm not kidding anybody, even myself, by drifting into a pattern of plopping in front of the television set no matter how mindless the choice of program. To be honest, my worries about weight gain are also related to the way I eat snacks as I gaze at the screen.

Not that I'm 100 per cent convinced it is time to black out television in my life for good. I'll take a cue from the 12-Step programs and ease myself out one day at a time. The first step is admitting you have a problem, and that you want to quit. I'm not even there yet.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Hoboken Niceness II

This morning I decided to give my handbag the onceover. From time to time I take everything out, examine it, and throw away the accumulated trash bits. This time when I did so I discovered my money-purse was missing.

Alarm bells. At least it wasn't the credit card wallet, which is where the really big payoff resides, but instead the little European purse my husband used to use for change for the tolls on the big Autobans. I have since relegated it to carry my cash, with a little zipper compartment for change.

I thought back. I probably had about nine one-dollar bills and maybe a $20 in the folding money section. There is no ID card in it.

I looked about the apartment but could think of nowhere it might have been mislaid. It lives in whatever big handbag I am carrying at the moment. Sometimes I shove it into a pocket; it wasn't in the pocket of the jacket I wore yesterday. There were only two possibilities: I had left it at the A & P while I stuffed my grocery bag, or had put it somewhere, like the too-small pocket of my jacket, that might have allowed it to fall out onto the sidewalk on my way home. I hoped for the former. If it had dropped onto the sidewalk or the street, I would be out 30 bucks at least.

It's the kind of day I had hoped to avoid by staying in, but this was an emergency that required a trip to the A & P. (Better not to stay in anyway, even though it's drizzly and chilly.) I would drop off my two Netflix choices at the mailbox.

All the way to the store I had high hopes. I recalled vividly the time I had left my wallet and some mail at the post office on Washington Street when I still lived on Hudson. The angel who worked at that P.O. actually got a mailman to deliver it all--which she had packaged up in an envelope--to my door. I wrote a blog post about that experience.

But there was always the possibility that I hadn't left it at the A & P at all, but had lost it on the street.

When I got to the store I went directly to the lane where I had bought the groceries yesterday and was directed to Customer Service. I described the scruffy, well-worn little purse and even told them there was about $30 in it.

There it was. My heart sang with the joy of Hoboken Niceness once again as I walked home in the cold, misty drizzle. And actually there was over $40 in the purse. Next time I take it out it will have an ID card in it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Sojourner Tooth

I have had this little tooth ever since I was five or six. When those baby teeth came out I remember it was my first exposure to the reality of growing pains. Teeth would get loose, sure, but sometimes they needed a little adult help to be removed as their replacements grew in. At one point Grandaddy tied one end of a string to a tooth and the other to a doorknob and slammed the door. It was not painless, but it was quick.

The tooth that needed to be removed at this advanced age was in the center of the bottom row. It may have been the one that came in after Grandaddy slammed that door, I don't know for sure, but I know the tooth has seen a lot of history. In the 1960's, soon after I discovered I was pregnant, I had an abscess that I found required a root canal. This was my first experience in the world of adult dentistry, and I'm here to tell you dentistry has come a long way in the intervening years. The young dentist performed the root canal by applying a silver post. It was certainly the most painful experience I had had in a dentist's chair up to that time, and probably since. Within the past five years I had to have a root canal done, and, with all the space-age type equipment, it was a breeze compared to that work on that little tooth all those years ago.

The dentist in the old days told me that the tooth was officially dead and led me to believe that when I got old--maybe 50 or 60--the dead tooth would be discolored and different from my other teeth. (It didn't, thank goodness.) He also said he didn't believe in the old saw "A tooth for every child," which I had never heard before anyway. When I told it to my young husband, he said, "Maybe not, but you just lost one for this one."

Over the years, the saved tooth has sojourned everywhere I have--to Switzerland, where my dentist's office had a view of the gorgeous Lake Leman with its water spout known locally as the "jet d'eau," back to the States where I discovered dentist chairs that reclined to the point of being chaise longues. Rubber gloves went on after the advent of AIDS, and drills became high-speed as novacaine shots became hardly noticeable. I always sympathize with my dentists, and have learned to be patient when they try to talk to me with my mouth full of hardware and cotton rods. The little lavatories for spitting into and paper cups for rinsing from disappeared as suction tubes did a better job.

Over the years I began to notice a boil-like eruption near the little tooth from time to time. When I asked my dentist about it she explained that it was probably caused by the old silver post, saying that they were no longer used because they deteriorated over time and it might have to be removed in time. I asked a dentist friend about this when I was home in Fairhope in February and he suggested I have it done sooner rather than later as I was going to have to have it done eventually. I asked my Hoboken dentist and we arranged for me to talk to an oral surgeon.

I shall make this long story a little shorter. I had the tooth extracted on Friday and had some bone grafted to the place where it was so that a new tooth can be implanted later. Because it is that little tooth, closely surrounded by a lot of other teeth, this was a delicate operation. The procedure was not easy for the surgeon, his hygienist, or me. But we got the job done and I have spent the weekend pampering myself and eating ice cream, mashed potatoes, and other comfort foods. I discovered something in the A & P called Kozy Shack Cinnamon Raisin Rice Pudding. If there was ever baby food for grownups, that is it. Yummy.

And the little tooth will be replaced in August. In the meantime I have a nice little appliance with a false tooth in it to save the place. I have made quite a lot of my tooth's adventure, and now the grieving process is over. Back to real life--but I think I'll wait until tomorrow for that. I've still got some chocolate gelato in the freezer. And there are some mashed potatoes left over; they'll be good fried for breakfast with some eggs. Like so much in my life, it's mostly about food.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: Now Playing

Everything I said about the Hudson Theater Ensemble's production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which opened last week at the performance space in the Hudson School, still goes. You've got two more chances to catch the show--tonight and tomorrow night. I promise you'll be on the edge of your seat, even if you think you know how it comes out.