The Covid symptom I wasn’t prepared for

Jane Siberry’s “It Can’t Rain All the Time” from The Crow

Actually, there were two of them.

The first is total loss of sense of time and place. I kinda remember when I first started feeling what might have been symptoms—to find out soon enough that they most certainly were. And I remember calling the doctor and getting tested and  going to the emergency room and then a quarantine hotel and then being sent to the hospital and not leaving my bed, even to go to the bathroom, for over a week before they finally discharged me on New Year’s Eve, thank god in time to hear Sandy Bernhard perform a brief concert solo from her living room.

But I do distinctly remember when I first wept openly—Friday the 18th. It was that day I was diagnosed at CityMD.

Trying to piece it all together now, I had gone to the gym the Sunday before (Dec. 13), then that night started experiencing chills, then fever, then aches and pains. I had a follow-up doctor’s appointment on other health issues for Wednesday, but by Tuesday I realized maybe I shouldn’t come in. I called and they said it was okay, but that maybe I should go to the emergency room as a precaution. I figured I’d be good for one night, and when I did come in the next day, they put me alone in an office to talk to the doc by computer. He sent me to pick up a couple over-the-counter things and said I should get tested.

I walked over to CityMD on 42nd Street (five blocks or so) Thursday afternoon—the day of the big snowstorm—and couldn’t get in. So I went back early Friday morning—it was in the fucking 20s—and had to stand there in line, miserable and freezing, for two hours, 14 people ahead of me. My toes and fingers were frozen, and when I finally did get in, I was shivering for half an hour while they tested me for Covid, flu and pneumonia. I figured the Covid was positive when the guy started asking me where I’d been.

A chest X-ray was clear, but the doctor was emphatic that I go straight to the emergency room—by ambulance. I told her I didn’t have that kind of money, but she was insistent, and made me feel like an asshole for not freaking out the way she was. I told her I could easily walk from 42nd to 60th—Mount Sinai West—but she couldn’t guarantee that I wouldn’t drop dead on the way.

I didn’t. They didn’t even keep me long, since my oxygen was fine. They said I should just quarantine and everything should be okay.

It wouldn’t be.

The next day I really must have started feeling it. In addition to the other symptoms, I started coughing pretty bad. I think maybe it was Monday that I got a follow-up call from the City, where they told me about the quarantine hotels. They said they’d send a car to pick me up and take me to one if I wanted, where I’d have a room and food and nursing care. Sounded perfect.

It would have been Tuesday night (the 22nd), then, when they brought me to LaGuardia Plaza across from the airport. I was admitted and got to my room probably around 11 p.m. They sent food up but I wasn’t hungry; I don’t think I’d eaten anything for a week, actually. Nauseous, and no appetite.

They came around every few hours to check on me, and in the morning a nurse started asking questions that I must not have answered very well, because she sent me to the hospital—but not before instructing me to leave my belongings—a few changes of underwear and t-shirts, toiletries, and unfortunately, my gym lock, scattered on the other bed in the room alongside the old but still usable black DAKINE gym duffle.

I did think it was an odd demand, especially since she also said I would not be returning and that they would send everything to me. But by now I was so confused I went along with it. I do thank the gods for leaving me enough sense to take my computer bag, which had my laptop and chargers and a few important papers. To this day I haven’t received the fucking gym duffle and its contents, and no one ever gets back to me when I call the hotel.

And now for an aside: As so often happens with personal articles like these, they can be written over a period of days, if not weeks, months and even years. As I write this now, it’s the midafternoon of Jan. 14. I’ve been trying—and failing–for three weeks to retrieve my gym bag and its contents, for as I’m sure you’ve guessed, they never did send them to me. In fact, two weeks ago when I called on Jan. 2, they told me that they never would have said not to take it with me! They also said they’d get back to me after they found them.

I waited a week before trying again. This time I got a very nice young woman, who assured me she’d look into it and get right back to me. And now today, a week later, I called her again: My name sounded familiar, she said, upon which I refilled her in. It all came back quickly. Of course she had dropped the ball, and I told her how very disappointed I was in her, for which she was most genuinely apologetic. She put me on hold, and when she returned, explained that she’d been on the phone with the “site manager” at the hotel and that I should call him now, that they had my belongings. I think I actually believed that, and if I did I must still be gravely ill.

For when I called, the guy didn’t seem to know who I was or why I was calling. And he wasn’t very happy when he found out. Then again, neither was I.

As I said, I had gotten to my room at the hotel around 11 p.m. I was not given a key as the door would remain unlocked, they explained, so they could come in periodically to check on me. Early the next morning the nurse sent me to the hospital in an ambulance. Up until then, I hadn’t once left the room, and without a key, had no means of knowing what my room number was, let alone what floor I was on. They’d just opened the door the night before and I went in and shut it.

The site manager found this unacceptable, that I didn’t know what room I was in or the floor. Things escalated pretty quickly to a near shouting match, as it was clear he didn’t know who I was or where my things were, and I couldn’t understand how it was possible that there was apparently no record of what room they admitted me into–let alone where my belongings, which I was told to leave, were. It peaked when he asked me if I had Covid when I was admitted—a question I thought was insane. Yes, I yelled. That’s why I was there! This quieted him down, since if I was admitted with Covid, he said, I had to be on one of floors 4 through 7. Complaining that he had a lot to do, he said he’d get to it and get back to me. I described the bag, and spent the rest of the day waiting for him to call.

I’m still waiting….

When they carried me out to the ambulance, they took me to a Mount Sinai hospital in Queens, good in that I’m under care of a Mt. Sinai cardiologist for severe heart failure—another story that I might go into here at some point as a companion to “Cancer Funnies” (“Heart Failure Follies,” maybe?). I got there and they carted me into a glass-doored room just off the nursing station, where they laid me out onto a wheeled bed and began a day full of tests including a chest X-ray, CAT scan (they wheeled me to another room for that one), blood and vitals. I had a TV with a handset that controlled the channels and had a little speaker in it, and a bathroom, which I used a number of times until late in the day when a nurse came in with an opaque plastic, angled pitcher-like object with a handle, which I thought was a fancy water bottle. It kind of was actually—except it was a handheld urinal that she not only explained to me how to use (in this case, standing up), but stood behind me, I guess to offer emotional support and encouragement while I gave it a go; I found the whole experience odd but again, didn’t ask any questions, as by now I was deep in the Twilight Zone.

But I hadn’t had any real conversation with any of the nurses and doctors the entire day until now, and now it was getting late in the evening. The nurse said they needed to find me a room, which I figured would be in the hospital I was in. Nope. A couple hours later—after midnight—another crew came in and wheeled me into another ambulance, and we were off to Manhattan’s Mount Sinai/St. Luke’s—or Morningside—at Columbia University, though I didn’t really know where I was. Lying in the ambulance and looking out the rear window I could see us turn into a major street with colorful Christmas decorations strung above. From the colors I guessed it was the 1-2-5 in Harlem, and sure enough when we turned off I could see that the first one said, “Welcome to 125th Street.”

It was around 2 AM, Christmas Eve (Dec. 24), when they wheeled me into what seemed to be a dead hospital. There were guards who let us through the entrance, but I didn’t see anyone in the empty halls as they pushed me through, finally turning me into a room and setting me up on the far side, next to another occupant who was asleep and separated by a curtain. I hadn’t spent the night in such a room in a general hospital since I spent a month in the psyche ward of Madison General back in Madison, Wis. 50 years ago.

So now it’s Christmas Eve Day—very early morning. When the night nurse got me out of my clothes and into a gown and made my bed and explained how it worked, I was on my back until New Year’s Eve. They didn’t even want me to get out of bed to go to the bathroom. Rather, they gave me another plastic urinal (which I learned how to use in bed), and brought a portable, personal “commode” to the side of the bed. Jesus, I thought. I hadn’t sat on one of those, probably, since I was two-years-old.

The nurse also showed me how to use the TV—same as at the first hospital. A doctor came in and asked me what they should do worst case scenario. I didn’t really have a good answer, because he didn’t give me a lot of options. Obviously, I didn’t want to end up a fucking vegetable and I think I conveyed at least that much, for they never brought it up again. I did tell him that I’m an organ donor, but should have mentioned that if anything was left over they should just dump it all in Potter’s Field.

I found MSNBC on the TV and since they didn’t have TCM or MeTV and I didn’t want to mess around with it, it stayed there for the next week. This indeed posed a problem: Between Christmas and New Year’s, MSNBC is a wasteland. All you get are all-night reruns of their documentaries and tabloid crime investigations, but very little fresh news programming, even during the day. Worse, is you really see how awful the commercials are—over and over and over again. I’m talking about drugs for ancients like me, of course, but also cars, insurance, both cars and insurance (CarShield), charities…and Satan dating? WTF!

Yes, I, too, marveled at that oven that uses light and heats your dinner in, what, half a second? But did I have to see it every fucking five minutes? I’ll admit, though, that even the meat dishes started to look good for this hospitalized vegan. At least I said I was vegan, but that only brought me a carton of milk with every meal, and as often as not, a chicken dish. Otherwise it was all veggie burgers–cold veggie burgers. By the end of the second day all I could think of was the chocolate cake that never came.

I should mention that they provided little cans of Shasta ginger ale. Shasta! I hadn’t had that probably since the psyche ward. Impressed they were still around.

Of course, I had my laptop, and I’d brought along a lot of work that I’d figured I’d be well enough to do at the quarantine hotel. But lying in bed for a week, I suffered from extreme malaise. Every couple hours I’d check emails and news sites, Twitter and Facebook, and that was about it, that is, until I remembered that Amazon Prime was showing the final 10 episodes of Vikings, but that wasn’t until Dec. 30—though I was able to watch the first four before discharge.

There was always Trump/election news, of course, and the one huge story: the Nashville bombing. But like with all such events, there was very little news that could be gleaned quickly other than casualty count and damage estimate. But I started my career in Nashville in the late 1970s, covering country music. I haven’t been there in years, but I know the downtown very well, and was horrified.

I have a friend who was likewise horrified. I’ll be the first to admit that I tend to exaggerate—overexaggerate—my artist friends, name-dropping them frequently in vain effort to maintain the mirage of my longlost visibility and viability in music journalism. But I won’t identify this friend other than to say that he in fact is quite noteworthy, but he was emailing me because he apparently thought he’d emailed me earlier by mistake in trying to reach a mutual Nashville friend.

I’d purposefully kept my illness and hospitalization pretty quiet. I mean, I was kind of embarrassed: How could I have gotten it? I wear a mask all the time, keep my social distance, wash my hands. God knows I haven’t gone anywhere or seen anyone in 10 months–like all of us–though I’d worked the entire early voting poll period and didn’t get it then.

But also, I didn’t know how this thing was going to end. I mean, we were already at 3,000 Covid deaths a day, and I came in at 68 with severe heart failure. Perhaps Potter’s Field, located in the northeastern Bronx on Hart Island in Long Island Sound, was really just around the corner. I sure didn’t want anyone freaking out, then freaking me out even more. My sister and brother knew, and my best friends—some of whom are also quite well known and will remain anonymous here.

I did have my cell phone, but I had a charger that only worked intermittently, so I used it sparingly, mainly to respond to texts or see if I had any calls. Besides, I had intense coughing fits: One time I actually fainted and when I came to, freaked the fuck out when I couldn’t find my laptop. I finally looked down and there it was on the fucking floor! I’d knocked it over, but thank god, it was okay! Nothing broke (so glad it has Gorilla Glass!), and I went back to doing next to nothing with it.

They were giving me cough medicine, of course, and five or six pills including Torsemide—for high blood pressure. It’s a diuretic and makes you piss like there’s no tomorrow, since I retain water in my swollen, discolored elephantine legs and feet—my initial symptoms three years ago, when an older doctor at my poor people’s clinic (she hated me), was experienced enough to detect the subtle sound of aortic regurgitation that the younger docs, probably in their short-term first jobs, had missed.

That’s what I have: severe aortic regurgitation, where the heart pumps blood into the aorta, and in my weird case, the aorta pumps it back into the heart. I believe there’s an aneurysm in there somewhere as well. Only a matter of time, I gather.

Torsemide. Where do they come up with these drug names? Someone must be making a shitload of money spending their days dreaming up the stupidest drug names, same with conceiving the dumbest commercials to promote them (starting with Ozempic’s “Magic”). I must say, though, that my legs and feet contracted to normal for the first time in years, but my guess is that it’s because I was lying in bed the whole time: It only took a couple days back home before my feet swelled up so bad I could only get into a pair of sneakers so old they’re barely held together.

They also must have had me on antibiotics. I had an IV in my arm that when a nurse changed bled all over the bed. They took blood at least once a day to where my arms and hands were black-and-blue, and they tested blood pressure and temperature at least four times a day. They also gave me a blood thinner shot each morning.

I had to sip water and Shasta very carefully since I was always supine (though I could and did mechanically raise my back more upright when I needed to eat or check the computer), so as not to spark a coughing fit by trickling down the wrong pipe. And because of the Torsemide I had to urinate every 10 minutes or so. It got to the point where a nurse would walk in and I’d be lying there with my dick in the urinal and neither of us thought anything of it, though in retrospect, I’m glad it was opaque.

And by chance, if I’d made a “Number Two,” I’d point to the potty, like I was an embarrassed toddler, and would only nod my head when the nurse asked, “Number Two?” By this point I probably had regressed to being an embarrassed toddler.

But back to the few emails and phone calls from friends, and finally, that second Covid symptom I mentioned at the top that they don’t tell you about, that I couldn’t identify at the outset.

It was Friday the 18th again, the day I was first diagnosed. I was okay that night at home, and was excited to tune in online to Betty in Concert—Stuck at Home for the Holidays.

If you don’t know who Betty is, you most certainly should: Three most wonderful female musicians (Amy Ziff, cello; sister Elizabeth Ziff, guitar; Alyson Palmer, bass) who write and sing often uproarious songs—–many topical, many satirical, all falling under the “SoConPop” (socially conscious pop) rubric.

They’re also feminist/political activists, whose organization The Betty Effect fosters self-advocacy to advance social change, with an emphasis on helping women and girls, the LGBTQ community, and arts activists, worldwide.

I’ve gone to Betty’s holiday shows for years, and they’re always a joy. They also always star special guest Gloria Steinem, who is gloriously brought out at the end to deliver a “Top 10” list relating in some way to the state of our disunion. I’ve always remembered one year, probably right before the 2016 election, when she concluded with, “Remember: Adolf Hitler came to power in a democratic election with low voter turnout.”

I’ve been a Betty fan a long time, and if I remember correctly, they were guests at a Jane Siberry show when I first saw them. At Betty’s Stuck at Home for the Holidays show, Jane was one of their special guests, appearing from home to join them in singing her best-known song, “Calling All Angels.”

Jumping ahead for a moment, now that I’m out of the hospital two weeks, I’m a lot better—though I still have a bad cough if I’m talking on the phone. And I’m still slower and weaker than I’d like, but picking up speed, at least, when I do go outside. Today, actually, was the first day I managed to climb all four flights of steps to my top-floor walk-up without stopping, though I was panting heavily when I got to the top.

When the ambulance brought me home New Year’s Eve, the driver insisted upon accompanying me to my floor. I tried to wave him off, certain it would be no prob. I hadn’t taken under consideration the fact that I hadn’t been out of bed for over a week until that afternoon. I’m glad he stayed with me, because when I got to the first floor I thought I was going to die. I had to sit down for five minutes before I caught my breath, then repeated the rest stop after each flight until I made it to my door—then took 10 minutes on the steps to the roof before having enough strength to open my door.

There was a box outside my door, from the city. It had a thermometer, package of masks, bottle of hand sanitizer, and a “pulse oximeter”—one of those finger gadgets that tell you what your oxygen is. Took me a while to figure it out, since I’m long past too old to read the tiny print on the instructions. Turns out I put the batteries in wrong! I had to download an app for my phone so I could enter in all kinds of stuff that a Mt. Sinai physical therapist monitors daily, i.e., oxygen level, temperature, ease of breathing, etc. He Zooms me every Wednesday to make sure I’m okay.

Before I went to the hospital, my cardiologist had me taking Torsemide and a couple other pills, but my discharge papers showed that they’d reduced the Torsemide dosage and cut out the other stuff. In addition to prescribing the lower Torsemide, they prescribed two days of steroids. What they didn’t do was check to make sure the pharmacy was open New Year’s Day, which it wasn’t. Oh, well….

I thought maybe I should call the cardiologist on Monday (Jan. 4) and make sure he knew about the new medication. I don’t think he did, and I don’t think he knew I’d been hospitalized. He wasn’t happy about either, and instead of waiting for me to come in at the end of the month as planned (three months after my last appointment), he rushed me in on Thursday, when, looking at my hospital records, he told me something they didn’t tell me at the hospital: I’d had double Covid pneumonia. This explained the couple instances of coughing up blood.

As you can imagine, cardio was now even less happy, and ordered me to see a pulmonary guy to make sure there wasn’t additional lung damage (before Covid, the heart condition was already putting pressure on them). But first I had to see a hematologist.

I’d seen hematologists off and on for maybe 15 years depending on whether I had insurance. It was a borderline, “Come back in three months” low platelet situation. When I went in last week, the doc explained that—as usual—mine was an unusual case: Usually when there’s a blood disorder, all three blood cells—red, white and platelet—are affected, I guess because they all come from the same place (bone marrow). With me, only the platelets were low, a cause for concern in that the platelets are involved in blood clotting: As my cardiologist has suggested–maybe not in this way—if he decides to cut me open, he doesn’t want me to bleed out on the table.

So my platelet count, which fluctuates, was actually fine last week, so it was “Come back in three months.” But the intake doctor was remarkably thorough in interviewing me, especially in light of my Covid situation. When she was done, I felt compelled to address one symptom she didn’t ask about—that I’ve never seen mentioned anywhere.

“I don’t know if this is worth noting,” I said, slowly and softly, “but I’ll say that I’m really a very cold person. I don’t give a shit about anyone or anything. But for some reason, when I came down with Covid, I became ridiculously sentimental and emotional and started crying uncontrollably, usually over nothing.” Male menopause, maybe? No, I’m way too old.

Well, maybe not over nothing. And cold as I am, I will say that I always cry at movies (if I’m with someone I try hard to hide it), and I always cry when I hear certain female vocalists, including Jane Siberry, Alison Krauss, Laura Nyro, Maria McKee, Maria Callas. And speaking of Callas, I always cry during opera curtain calls: Something about having experienced the performances of people who have devoted their entire lives to the ultimate performance art, and given us in the audience every ounce of what they have for three-plus hours.

So returning to the Betty holiday show, when they started bringing on the night’s special guests, and began introducing the first one as someone they all dearly loved, who had always been so kind and supportive in promoting them and including them in her own shows. I knew immediately that it was Jane—and I will say that not only am I a huge, huge Jane fan, but I’ve written liner notes on at least four of her albums (including her own incredible Christmas album), can be heard in a phone conversation she included on another one, and am thanked next to John Lennon on her biggest-selling album (I’m pretty sure), When I Was a Boy, on which is her most famous song “Calling All Angels.”

I must add, though, that Jane is also known to martial artists, for the heartbreaking song “It Can’t Rain All the Time,” which plays during the end-credits of The Crow—the Brandon Lee movie in which he tragically died accidentally.

“Calling All Angels,” which on When I Was a Boy is sung with Jane’s fellow Canadian great k.d. lang and somewhat famously appeared prominently in the movie Pay It Forward, opens with Jane invoking saints including Santa Maria and Santa Teresa, then calls on all angels to come help us. For this performance, however, Jane changed the opening saints to include the contemporary likes of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and frontline health workers. But even as soon as she appeared on camera I began weeping, overcome with emotion.

I emailed her immediately after: “Not sure why I’m so emotional all of a sudden but it’s probably illness related: diagnosed with COVID today. Looks like I’ll get through it ok, though the doc sent me immediately to the emergency room, and was afraid I might drop dead on the way.”

She responded, just as quickly: “How can one know if one can get through it ok? Your heart is broke open. And you remembered when you were watching us–your long-time friends–that you love life. And this has been a good one, difficult as it has been.”

Earlier, I mentioned the email from my unidentified friend. There were some others who are likely household names, depending of course on the house you live in. But he offered a similar explanation for my sudden Covid crying jags: “To be so overwhelmed by emotion is to be expected. You have truly been delivered back to your life and to your friends.”

Like I said, my cardiologist wasn’t happy. Besides ordering me to see the pulmonary doctor and hematologist, he now wanted to see me right away rather than wait a couple weeks to when I was scheduled to see him again, having done well enough on a heart stress echocardiogram test (an ultrasound examination of heart function during and following a brief treadmill workout) three months earlier.

I saw him on Jan. 7, when he scheduled a transthoracic echo test (a standard, no-stress echo, at rest) for two weeks after. Walking back from his office on W. 59th, I stopped at the High School of Environmental Studies on W. 56, one of two places where I go out to pick up free food every day—something I hadn’t done since getting sick three weeks ago.

“I’m sure I don’t have to tell you what happened,” I said to the nice, very concerned woman who knows my diet and filled my empty shopping bag, one I picked up at Toy Fair a year ago.

I didn’t.

Not that it makes any difference, but she’s Black, maybe half my age. Kindness knows no color or calendar–though it does often come where you least expect it.

I turned the corner on to 10th Ave., my dilapidated Toy Fair bag scraping the sidewalk, since she’d filled it up with enough food to last a week. I then turned into CVS to pick up some cough medicine, tears streaming down my face.

Yo-Yo Ma closes APAP virtual trade conference on multi-cultural note

Celebrated cellist Yo-Yo Ma was the attraction at yesterday’s closing plenary session of the Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) APAP|NYC+ 2021 trade conference, which like the panels, showcases and exhibition hall set-ups that preceded it, was held virtually online due to the pandemic.

Ma’s session took the form of an informal chat with APAP board member Renae Williams Niles, who heads Renae WN Consulting. She saluted Ma for his service as a UN Messenger of Peace, and being both the first artist ever appointed to the World Economic Forum’s board of trustees and a recipient of the Fred Rogers Legacy Award.

She also noted that “most impressive,” Ma has been married to the same woman for over 40 years.

“My wife is still putting me on yearly leases!” Ma responded, noting that every year she either renews it “or I’m out!” But he acknowledged that he is usually at home only one-third of the time, the other two-thirds spent “visiting APAP presenters—and it’s like I’m married to them as well!”

Niles, citing Covid and social upheaval–and the performing arts world’s tragic “loss of family, touring, and sense of community”–asked Ma how he’s been impacted.

“My life is no different than anybody else’s right now,” said Ma, who is indeed working from home like most everybody else. In fact, he “went to emergency mode” after March 10 of last year—the last time I played live in the States.”

He then thanked Niles for mentioning Mister Rogers.

“He was a role model! He used to say that his mother used to say, ‘Whenever there’s a crisis, you can always look for the helpers.’”

“Helpers,” Ma noted, “respond to need.”

 “Helpers give hope,” he said. “Helpers give succor to those in need. In whatever way, all of us can help in one way or another.”

In Ma’s case, being a musician, he tries to “Zoom into private hospital rooms or vast tents [of Covid patients],” perform for health care workers, and “go out on a flat bed truck with my buddy [classical pianist] Emanuel Ax” and play for high school or college students and “people graduating without ceremonies that they’re aching to enjoy.”

“There is a place for music,” Ma maintained.

Niles noted that last year’s APAP conference theme was “Risk and Reslience,” and said that she’s never heard the word “resilience” more frequently than during the last nine months. Another word being frequently used now, she added, is “hope.”

Here Ma realized that being in the year 2021, in 2100—79 years from now—his youngest grandchild will be 79: “I’m suddenly thinking, my goodness, I’ll be long dead, but what world am I leaving for my grandchildren?”

Reflecting on the “authenticity” sought and demanded by young people, Ma noted that funding generally comes from older ones, idealism from the young.

“There’s so much work to be done, so much to fix and repair,” he said. “Can’t we bring those two most precious resources together and accelerate the process by giving custodial responsibility to younger people way sooner, and with us just listening–and when appropriate, helping?”

Relating that he himself is 65, Ma wondered how to best spend his remaining years.

“We need to solve some near-term, midterm and very long-term problems,” he said, conceding that he likely won’t be around to see the long-term ones through.

“But someone who is young can easily go half-a-century and work for presenting organizations,” he said, directly addressing them as “scouts for society” who can find artists “who are saying something important for us.”

“You can see over the ledge and see the dangers ahead–or beautiful things ahead,” said Ma. “What can you report back to our communities?”

Asked by Niles about “the disease of perfectionism,” Ma forwarded a lesson taught him by theater director Peter Sellars: “You don’t need to deliver the whole package signed and sealed and wrapped beautifully, but have to ask someone to complete it. It’s a big, big lesson: Don’t complete the whole thing, becuase the magic we’re all looking for is people meeting you halfway–the communal moment that we want to have and remember and hold on to and come back to later.”

“So perfection, no! Communication of something aspirational, absolutely!” He added: “I love when a string breaks at the beginning of a concert. Why? The damage is done–and everybody realizes that that happens.”

As the talk had transitioned to what Niles called “true collaborations when entities really do come together in unity and shared space to do something they don’t do independently,” she asked Ma to speak of The Bach Project, his two-year journey begun in 2018 and involving his performance of Johann Sebastian Bach’s six suites for solo cello in 36 locations around the world. The suites were among the first music he ever learned when starting cello at age four, and he was motivated, too, by Bach’s ability to speak to shared humanity at a time when civic conversation is often focused on division.

Niles noted how Ma used the Bach suites as a tool to learn from others—and other cultures, including indigenous tribes in Taiwan via a virtual visit in November. Niles herself had also experienced a cultural connection with a Taiwanese indigenous group.

“What happened with you and that indigenous group is the ultimate gift,” said Ma. “They let you in, and that is the crux of any artistic experience: Not watching through the window looking at Tiny Tim and seeing what happens next year, but being invited in–and you were invited in. I hope this is what all presenters are doing–not just presenting something but allowing the community to welcome a new member and new guest as a template for what we all do.”

Ma mentioned working with celebrated indigenous Taiwanese songstress Abao, who includes indigenous words from her tribe in her pop songs. He also recalled meeting a Hawaiian who had sailed throughout the Pacific solely via celestial navigation and was training younger people.

“They have a lot to teach us,” he said of indigenous peoples. “I met so many groups during The Bach Project, in Canada, the States, Australia, New Zealand. They hold a lot of wisdom that can help us stay resilient.”

Closing with a solo cello performance blend of the Shakers song “Simple Gifts” and Dvorak’s “Goin’ Home” theme from his New World Symphony, Ma said, “The meaning of life is actually very simple: It comes from the very simple things we do, and simple gifts, and in terms of simple kindnesses—treating the next human being the way we would like to be treated.”

And rather than “compose like me,” Ma urged plenary attendees to “listen to what’s around.”

“Let’s listen to voices of younger people and what they see ahead–and let’s do it together.”

 APAP’s new CEO/president Lisa Richards Toney closed the 2021 virtual APAP conference by noting that it had been an “agenda-setting conference.”

“This is not the end,” she declared. “We are not returning to business as usual. This is the beginning: to engaging more equitably in advancing the field as the richly diverse ecosystem that we are; to building forward with anti-racism as our lens; to addressing the climate crisis as the sea level rises that affects us all; to centering the voice of Blacks, indigenous and all people of color; to better visa and immigration policies; to outdoor programming; to resilience and mental health; to recovering in an altered touring landscape; to public health and reopening; to the art of going virtual–and HEPA [High-efficiency particulate air] filters!”

“We’ve got work to do, but we have imagination to uncover and promises to uphold,” Toney concluded. “We are just getting started!”

APAP|NYC+ 2021 Conference goes virtual in looking past pandemic

Normally there would be thousands of international attendees gathered at New York’s Hilton Hotel Midtown for the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals’ (APAP) trade conference—where they’d visit hundreds of exhibition hall booths and artist showcases in between participating in professional panel sessions.

But thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, everything at this year’s APAP|NYC+ 2021 Conference is virtual, and with a dramatic sense of urgency.

“It’s different this year,” said Baylin Artists Management president Marc Baylin at the start of Friday’s opening plenary session. And while he joked that there would be no $7 cups of coffee in the hotel lobby or jockeying for position at the ground floor elevators, he also stated the obvious: All performing arts professionals have faced “unimaginable challenges” together.

National Endowment for the Arts chairman Mary Anne Carter likewise noted that of all the artistic disciplines, performing arts have been hit the hardest by the pandemic, “and even almost a year in we’re all still trying to figure out what we have to do to revive them.”

Carter hailed national service organizations—particularly APAP—for their increased importance. Amidst anxiety and uncertainty, she said, artists and arts organizations have found ways to continue sharing their art—mainly virtually, and globally, online.

“I’ve seen few things more moving than artists coming together in their living rooms,” she said, “so although venues have been empty, few have been idle–and there is new access to the arts as never before. People who have never seen performances in theaters are now seeing them online, or taking classes in their living rooms.”

Karen A. Fischer, president of Pasifika Artists and chair of the APAP board, observed how the Covid pandemic had “disrupted every performing and touring artist, agent, manager, presenter, venue and vendor”—but unfortunately, there were other factors that contributed to the disaster that was 2020.

“The murder of George Floyd mandated attention to social justice and racial reckoning,” Fischer said, then cited Wednesday’s violent insurrection and attempted takeover of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., where APAP is headquartered.

“The shock of Wednesday forces us yet again to face hatred and inequality,” said Fischer, “but we can affirm the value of each voice, and the collective voices of our humanity.” And while many have been devastated by the loss of family, friends and colleagues because of the pandemic, as well as loss of livelihood “and daily life as we knew it,” she was heartened by the arts professionals coming together and demonstrating ingenuity in moving forward.

But a year ago, as APAP’s new CEO/president Lisa Richards Toney noted, 4,000 of those arts professionals at the Hilton “never imagined that in a few months going to performance venues would be off limits–but it is.” Like Fischer, she also noted “the loss of loved ones, cherished colleagues, and beacons in our fields,” along with over $15 billion in business due to cancelations by 99 percent of the trade’s presenters and producers.

Toney further seconded Fischer in referring to the violence Wednesday at the nation’s capitol, along with the accompanying hatred and racism. Here she invoked “our revered spaces”—performing arts venues that offer refuge and comfort, which are needed “now more than ever.”

“If we were together in a physical space,” Toney added, “we could grab, hug and embrace.” But the digital platform at least offers a fortunate alternative in being “always open” with live streaming and replay options for showcases, plenary and artist pitch sessions, and even virtual exhibition hall booth meetings. Such digital access, while not replacing the live APAP conference experience, “opens us up to new possibilities.”

With a focus on three “core tenets” of equity, advocacy and innovation, this year’s APAP, then, provides a “rare opportunity to strengthen from within and emerge stronger than ever,” concluded Toney.

“Getting through this requires resilience,” she stated. “We know what it means to struggle, and we also know there is a light ahead: the vaccine coming, and audiences are looking to come back–and they will. The cultural sector is a bigger economy than sports, transportation, construction or agriculture. If cities are going to rebound, they won’t do it without the arts and cultural creatives.”

“Yes, we are in need—but also deeply needed,” said Toney. “The arts are not going to go away.”

She asked: “Why hope for ‘back to normal’ when we can aim for more? There is opportunity: The arts are essential. Arts workers are essential–and we are worth it.”

Then, expressing her eagerness for “gathering in person again,” she noted, “but if our shift to digital allows you to join us today, I say, ‘Welcome!’”

Dr. Anthony Fauci inspires APAP attendees

The Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) presented a major interdisciplinary star yesterday at its annual trade gathering when Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) at the U.S. National Institutes of Health—and newly named Chief Medical Adviser for the Biden Administration—discussed the status of the global pandemic and vaccine rollout in the U.S. in an online conversation with Maurine D. Knighton, program director for the arts for the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Fauci himself has a significant arts background, making him even that much more valuable in helping the performing arts community plan for the resumption of live performing arts programming and touring.

At the start of his Public Health and Re-Opening the Live Performing Arts virtual plenary session with Knighton—who observed that he was likely the only APAP participant with his own bobblehead figure—Fauci noted that his pre-med education included a grounding in humanities. This, he said, had a major impact on his career and the way he looked at challenges to global health.

In fact, Fauci had initially been a classics major, and studied Greek, Latin, and French. He later took various philosophy courses.

“I took enough science to get to med school, but I was grounded in the humanities, so I take a different look at global health,” he noted, being “as interested in human nature as physiology.”

Fauci also saw himself as a frustrated artist. Observing that his grandfather was an accomplished artist whose son was also one, and daughter’s child was a successful painter, he said that he “flirted with it as a hobby,” but the intensity of his main career prevented him from doing it “in earnest,” thereby leaving him the frustrated artist.

It certainly showed a different side to “the face of America’s fight against Coronavirus” (per the BBC).

Fauci further noted the virus’s “underappreciated impact on society” in “the lack of free access to the performing arts.” He said that the last performance he attended was Hamilton at the Kennedy Center, and that the succeeding loss of access to the performing arts has added to “the gloom” of the pandemic, although he did hail the many quality television offerings—none of which fully compensate.

Turning to his more intense main career and putting it in context of the APAP performing arts community, Fauci sadly saw an “extraordinary divisiveness in society” so extreme that it clouds all reasoning. The healthcare system was being overrun, he said, yet many people still deny the severity of the problem and maintain that it’s fake news, a conspiracy, or hoax.

“To me that’s total denial of reality,” Fauci said, stating that “there’s no easy answer” in getting around it other than to “continue to be very transparent” and clear in countering it, while trying to get “an overwhelming majority of the population vaccinated” amidst the craziness. Asked about the recent discoveries of coronavirus mutations, he said that people should understand that “RNA viruses continually mutate…but we have to keep an eye on it because every once in a while there’s a substantial change and effect.”

He added that the new mutations don’t appear to be more virulent or resistant to the vaccines, though the U.K. variant does seem to be more efficient in its spread.

As for spreading the virus in the APAP community, Fauci stressed that people don’t always know if they’re completely protected.

“If you’re on stage and everyone’s vaccinated, chances are very low that you’ll get it,” he said. “But when you’re in society and in a crowd you still need to wear a mask.”

“It’s no big deal walking around like this,” Fauci said as he donned a white mask. “People in Asia do it all the time. We’re getting used to it now, but maybe we should pay more attention to washing our hands more frequently.”

He spoke of the likelihood of infecting others if one unknowingly has the virus while not having symptoms—and doesn’t take the necessary steps to avoid spreading it. Recognizing that the performing arts have been particularly devastated and professionals are ready to return to work, Fauci looked to the fall of 2021 for achieving “enough herd immunity”—depending on 70-85 percent of the population having been vaccinated–for people to safely perform on stage or sit in an audience.

Assessing the relative danger between attending live performances and going to restaurants, gyms and religious gatherings, Fauci suggested that the performing arts trade take guidance from Germany in studying theater ventilation, especially the employment of industrial-sized air filters in maintaining clean air flow. But he cautioned against comparing the U.S. to other countries where infection levels are much lower: With over 4,000 coronavirus deaths a day, he said it doesn’t matter what you do since the risk is so great.

Here Fauci returned to the basics of wearing masks, washing hands, social distancing and vaccinating in order to “get the level of community spread as low as we possibly can.” He foresaw wide future availability of 10-minute Covid tests that if passed, could be used in permitting theater entrance. He also touched on the implications of tour routing, such that for a New York artist, for example, touring to Tulsa (“red-hot with infection”) would be less likely than Philadelphia, where the infection rate might be really low.

Noting that revered sports heroes like Steph Curry and Magic Johnson have been enormously helpful in heightening coronavirus awareness, Fauci felt that top performing artists could likewise influence followers.

“Lin-Manuel Miranda could get vaccinated in front of everybody and show people not to be so skeptical [of vaccinations],” he said, adding that theaters could also be used as vaccination locations. And proof of vaccination could also be required for admission to theatrical events.

Questioned whether international artists should be blocked from entering the U.S., Fauci felt that it was far more likely that they’d be wary of coming here, what with 300,000 new infections daily. He also noted that outdoor venues are far safer than indoors, thanks to natural breezes blowing away deleterious respiratory particles.

“We’re suffering Covid fatigue in this country,” Fauci concluded, citing Jan. 21 as the one-year anniversary of the first Covid case recognized in America.

“Don’t give up!” he implored, promising that help is on the way in the form of vaccines while urging all to continue implementing the “public health measures we know work. We will get back to normal. It will happen!”

And when it does, Knighton told Fauci, “we’ll be looking for you in our audiences!”

Interest in Fauci’s appearance was clearly high, as seen from steady attendee questions submitted in the online screen margin. And Fauci earned a big laugh when he admitted anxiousness over being asked to make a “pronouncement,” as it inevitably turns into a soundbite.

“Everything leaks out!” he acknowledged.

Thanksgiving Day Thoughts

Me and Miss Tee

Such a weird day of broken traditions.

For maybe the first Thanksgiving Day in almost 40 years in New York, I didn’t have brunch with my friend Karen’s big family at the Silver Star on the upper East Side, after fighting my way across 6th Ave. just ahead of the Macy’s Parade. And I didn’t go over to another friend’s house for dinner in the afternoon.

And I didn’t call Mom, who died last month. And I didn’t call Miss Tee Alston, Ashford & Simpson’s “assistant,” for lack of a better word for someone who did everything for them and everyone who knew and loved her, who died in August.

I really didn’t do much of anything, so it wasn’t a whole lot different than any other day since March and the start of the coronavirus shutdown, though I did get together for brunch at the Flame on 58th and 9th Ave. with J.B. Carmicle. My old friend Jabes was the one who hired me at Cash Box a month or so after I came to New York in 1981. I used to have Thanksgiving dinner with him for the first couple years or so, until he moved to L.A. and became a school teacher for 27 years at Hollywood High, then came back to NYC a couple years ago where he now tutors at movie/TV productions while conceiving any number of side gigs. We went over the many people we knew way back when, most of whom are long gone.

The big thing to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, of course, is that at least we–you and me–are still alive after so much death this year, and then think back at those we’ve lost. For me, there is Tee and Mom, and before them, another dear friend, the beloved producer and Saturday Night Live music director Hal Willner, one of the quarter-million Americans who died of “the Rona.” And Ol’ Ned.

Ned Engelhart, the Ferret de Monte Christo of Dr. Bop & the Headliners, a.k.a. Mister Elegance. Ferret and Mister Elegance were both handles bestowed upon Ned by Mike Riegel, a.k.a., Dr. Newt Bop, the Madison-originated nonpareil show band’s leader and co-founder, who died in 2005.

Vintage Dr. Bop & the Headliners

Both Newt and the Ferret (presumably a made-up title belonging to upper crust French nobility, here attached to either the Italian island or premium Cuban cigar or both) were geniuses, Ned particularly being one of the most astute musical minds I’ve ever known. And he was such a great friend: He’d call every few weeks or so to see how I was doing, and tell me how he was handling the downturn in his business—and how he struggled to adapt to it. Ever since I met him, he was always coming up with ideas–much like Jabes–on how to go with the flow and had always somehow managed to do it, that is, until Larry “Third Degree” Byrne, a.k.a. late-period Dr. Bop keyboardist/guitarist Cleveland St. James, found him dead one August morning at home in Northern Wisconsin.

And while researching, I only learned yesterday of the passing, also in August, of the great guitarist/bandleader Bryan Lee, a.k.a. The Blind Giant of the Blues and Your Braille Blues Daddy, who, like Cleveland, hailed from Two Rivers, Wis.

I used to see Bryan when he played Madison regularly, with my pal West Side Andy Linderman playing harmonica for him. The last time I saw him was maybe 15 years ago, when he ruled the Old Absinthe House roost in the New Orleans French Quarter, and Cleveland was his keyboardist.

Ferret playing sax, Cleveland on keys

Someday I hope to do Ned and Dr. Bop justice here. I really need to. We spoke about the band—me and my old Madison pal Chuck Toler—when he called me Wednesday night. Chuck, who now lives in Milwaukee and works with the renowned record producer/engineer/photographer Terry Manning, and like Ned, is remarkably resilient, managed Dr. Bop along with Ken Adamany, their artist roster notably also including Cheap Trick. After the conversation Chuck sent over some photos of a 1971 performance by Chuck Berry at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, with Ken playing keyboards in Berry’s traditionally local backup band—and Dr. Bop opening!

Like brunch with Jabes, Chuck and I talked about Ned and the many others we knew and are likewise long gone—and how grateful we are to have known them. Ned did so much for me (he had me write a column in Dr. Bop’s monthly newsletter, called “Bez Sez”), and as long as my heart continues to beat, he’ll have a special place in it. This puts him up there with the likes of Nick Ashford, who also did so much for me—and so many others.

I also spoke with Nick’s youngest daughter Asia Wednesday night—and it really hit home then what a loss this year has been. Not just Tee, who was a second mother to Asia, but the darkest realization that a whole year has gone by and I haven’t even seen Asia, her sister Nicole, and mother Valerie at all this year! In fact, the only time I’ve even spoken with Val was when she called me to tell me Tee died.

As you can imagine, this was an emotional call. I’ve written on this site many, many times about the immense influence on me of Ashford & Simpson, Nick and Val. But I’d never really spoken about it with Asia. I told her how I first saw her that night at Radio City, when I’d flown back from Nashville in time for an Ashford & Simpson show, and during the encore, someone—it had to be Tee—came up to the front carrying maybe a two-year-old Asia, lifted her to the stage, and then, with her mom and dad watching lovingly but intently, she looked at them, then the SRO audience, then smiled and started dancing!

Summing up the rest of the conversation, it mostly centered on our mutual love for her family, both blood and extended–and the sharing of our mutual sense of immeasurable loss.

But I left out something that Nick once said to me, sitting on the steps leading to the third floor outside Tee’s second-floor office at the Sugar Bar.

“You know,” Nick said, softly but profoundly. “I thought that when I got to be this old, things would get easier.”

And then yesterday, Thanksgiving, came a tweet from the account of one of my other dear departed heroes, Muhammad Ali: “I am grateful for all my victories, but I am especially grateful for my losses, because they only made me work harder.”

Cemetery memories

Wear a white shirt, you’re going to spill coffee on it. There’s one thing I know ahout life and that’s it.

Still, I’m grateful to the checkout guy at the EVEN Hotel in Omaha for offering me a free cup from the machine at 6 a.m., Nov. 5. Lucky it had cream or something and was very light instead of black–as I generally take it–and it was an old well-worn off-white and yellowed t-shirt commemorating Ernest Tubb Record Shops’ 50th anniversary–which had to be at least 20 years ago–and the stain was unnoticeable for the most part,  mostly on “the original ET”’s jacket and maybe a bit of his guitar. I’d met him in Nashville outside his Grand Ole Opry outlet in a previous life, after his post-Opry Midnite Jamboree radio performance just before he hopped on his bus heading out with his Texas Troubadours on some gig somewhere.

I think I got on that same bus some years later, outside the Lone Star when it was on 42nd Street, when Asleep at the Wheel was using it, after their gig. In this incarnation it was thick with marijuana smoke, with Ray Benson relating how they’d been stopped by the highway patrol somewhere out West, and they brought a dope-sniffing dog on board. There was so much pot either stowed away or smoke-infused in the fixtures or both that the dog went insane and they had to let the band go. I went so insane that I got lost walking the five blocks up Broadway to my office building, then spent an hour walking around in circles in the seventh floor elevator bay.

None of this is meant to diss ET, of course, and I’m confident he’d be okay with it. Maybe there wasn’t a nicer guy in all of country music—and beyond. Hugely influenced by country music pioneer Jimmie Rodgers, Tubb so impressed Rodgers’ widow that she lent him her husband’s signature guitar, the back of which was emblazoned with the word “THANKS” in big block caps, such that ET’s gratitude could be expressed whenever he flipped it. He really was the coolest.

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The last time I’d been to Omaha was before I’d started writing, and I think this was the first time I’d spent the night in Omaha–but I might have stayed over that last time I was there, also the last time I was in Nebraska. Like I said, it was before I started writing, which I think was in 1977 or ’78–my memory’s too limited and I’m too lazy to figure it out. I would have still been working as a clerk/typist at the State of Wisconsin in Madison, a block South of Lake Monona, where Otis Redding’s plane went down.

Otis Redding memorial plaque overlooking Lake Monona

Instead of going to hear live music every night, as I soon would, I was attending a Taekwondo school a couple blocks from where I lived, three blocks east of the State Capitol and a five-minute walk to work. In two years I’d only achieved green belt in our system–up from no belt, white and yellow. I’d been in one tournament—in Madison—and won my first fight and lost the second. I’d driven in a carload of guys from the school to participate in my second and final tournament, in Omaha, where I lost my only fight but somehow managed to place in the forms competition. We either drove back that night or stayed over at someone’s house.

Otherwise, I would have spent a little time in Omaha before visiting my mom’s cousins there on our way to or back from Lincoln, where she was born and grew up, an hour or so southwest of Omaha.

The last time I was in Lincoln had to be 1967, to bury her dad, my grandfather. Sadly, it was the day of Bobby Kennedys funeral. I loved Bobby, and was crushed by his killing. Having to drive from Madison to Lincoln–10 hours, as I recall–meant I missed all but the end of his funeral train trip from Manhattan to Washington, D.C. and Arlington National Cemetery, where he was buried just up the hill from his brother.

My grandfather was a big deal to the family—the family patriarch–but I don’t remember him very well. I would have been 15 when he died, some years after his wife, my mother’s mother. All I remember from the funeral was a cousin walking over to me, and in an angry shout-whisper admonish, “You’re standing on Grandma’s head!”

And now it was Mom’s turn. She made it to 97, but her last years marked a steady decline in faculties to the point where we finally, against her will, put her in a hospice. She’d suffered from increasing dementia for years, and when I’d gone back three months earlier in July to see her, every 10 seconds she’d ask me the same question I’d just answered. She’d also kept asking when her older sister Selma would show up–Selma having died in 2007 at 89. She also once asked where my dad was, forgetting that he was in Arlington, since 1994, when he died at 85.

His burial was quite something, right out of President Kennedy’s. I, my mother, brother and sister stayed in a hotel near the cemetery in Virginia. I’d been doing some writing for USA Today at the time, so I went over to the paper’s headquarters nearby in McLean to visit the guy I worked for, then into D.C. to hang with some dear Russian journalist friends at the TASS News Service bureau. Walking back to the train to get back to the hotel I noticed that Marie Osmond was starring in the lead role of Maria in The Sound of Music at a theater a couple blocks from the station.

I was a big Marie fan, and had met her annually in Nashville at the opening Country Radio Seminar party at the Opryland Hotel, as she was signed to Curb Records there. I always said hi to her and figured she’d remember me. But I tried the box office first, and to my surprise was able to talk myself, as a Billboard correspondent, into a pair of tickets for the night’s performance. It was great, and afterwards I hung out at the backstage door and got her to sign my poster of the show.

My father was buried the next day at 9 a.m. in Arlington. It was a beautiful spring day, ironically, the same day of Nixon’s burial in California in a similar but grander ceremony. Dad had served nobly in both World War II and the Second Nicaraguan Campaign of the early 1930s (an early forgotten Vietnam), meriting a burial with military honors. This meant he had a horse-drawn caisson, flag-draped casket, drum-and-brass corps, and rifle party firing a three-volley salute prior to a lone bugler’s taps.

The right thing to do, I figured, was to smoke a fat one just before leaving the hotel. My sister drove the rental, and when we got to the cemetary we were instructed to follow the caisson, which was moving steadily but slowly. But she hadn’t smoked a joint, and when we reached Bradley Drive she lost it, as our father had served in WW2 with Gen. Omar Bradley. Much to my shock, Mom asked me to take the wheel.

I was wasted, but I somehow managed to stay in line behind the horses, and when they stopped near the gravesite, so did I. We got out of the car as the honor guard detail carried the remains some 50 yards up the hill to the site, where enough chairs for us and the Army representatives were set up. It was a beautiful service, but I have to admit I had to bite my tongue not to laugh hysterically over an incident that happened just as we got out of the car.

Like I said, it was a beautiful spring morning, Dad’s site was within sight of the Pentagon. It was also, fitting for a cemetery, very quiet, peaceful, still. That is, until one of the horses, I will always believe deliberately and with disdain, chose this most solemn moment to let loose with the longest, loudest piss, maybe in history, resounding among the fallen and otherwise eternally sleeping, splashing an equine “Fuck you” on the pavement. The steamy urine stream continued until we reached our seats.

To this day I humbly respect that horse.

The service itself was brief, and when the uniformed pallbearers folded the flag and the Army rep brought it over to my mom, leaned over and handed it to her with the traditional, “On behalf of a grateful nation, please accept this flag as a symbol of our appreciation [for your loved one’s] honorable and faithful service,” I, too, finally lost it.

And now we were returning Mom to Lincoln and her family, on the day, November 4, after the election. She’d died a week before in Madison, from where my sister and her daughter—my niece—had driven to Omaha and were to pick me up at the airport.

The Election Day result, as we know, was still far from decided. I’d put in an exhausting 17-hour day (5 a.m.-10 p.m.) working the poll a block away, this following nine days straight of grueling early voting poll work at Madison Square Garden. I was able to get in a two-hour nap before heading out at 2:30 a.m. for LaGuardia, which isn’t so easy during the pandemic—as I would find out the hard way.

As usual, the big problem was me. I thought the trains were back to running all night again. But I went down into a neighborhood subway station on Monday—the day before Election Day and the day after Early Voting ended—and asked the booth clerk, to make sure. He either assured me that they were running, or I misunderstood him, for when I went down to the station at 8th Ave. and 42nd Street a little before 3 a.m. (my flight was at 6:30), it was closed. So I went to 7th Ave.—the heart of Times Square—and as some workmen were pushing some equipment out of a door at the station between 7th and Broadway, I slipped in, only to be told by two other MTA guys at the clerk’s window that it was closed, too, until 5 a.m.

Now I was frantic. I didn’t have the money for a cab.

“How the fuck am I supposed to get to LaGuardia?” I yelled at the Brothers.

“LaGuardia?” one answered. He had no idea. Neither did the other guy, nor the woman in the booth behind the glass. Hardly comforting. But I gotta give them credit: As I approached them, they whipped out their phones and started trying to figure if I could do it by bus.

I’d come there to take the E to Jackson Heights-Roosevelt Avenue in Queens and then board the Q70 bus to the airport—but obviously, that was out. My only hope was to get to 125th Street in Harlem and take the M60 to LaGuardia, but how would I get there. Luckily, the guys found that the M104 was leaving from 8th Ave. and 41st in 13 minutes, an easy walk—or so I thought: I was so disoriented when I got to 8th I crossed over to Port Authority thinking I’d catch the bus on that side of the street. After freaking out a couple minutes I realized I was on the wrong side and crossed back over—but I couldn’t find a bus stop at 41st and started walking down a couple blocks with no luck. So I turned back and realized there was a bus stop on 41st and 8th—but for a different bus.

I should say now that my Hell’s Kitchen nabe has become pretty scary since the pandemic, especially after dark. As I was out at 3 a.m., I’d normally be carrying a weapon, except I was going to the airport. I remember one summer I’d thrown on a pair of shorts without checking, and when I got to the airport and reached into my pockets to empty their contents into a tray in the metal detector, my hand came out with a knife….

Standing at the wrong bus stop and looking down 8th for approaching buses, a big, clearly unfriendly guy came over to me and asked for money. The one thing going for me now is that even though I was hindered by two shoulder bags—and because of health issues knew I wouldn’t be able to put up much of a fight—with long hair, scraggly beard, missing teeth and menacing glare, I looked more like a toothless, bearded hag than easy prey, plus I was jangling the keys hanging from a subtle black C-shaped fistload like a threatened snake’s rattle. He was either drunk, drugged, mentally ill or a combination, and came close but backed off when I barked that I didn’t have anything.

But I was getting desperate. I looked around, and there was a “NOT IN SERVICE” bus parked around the corner on 41st Street. I went over and waved the driver to open the door, then asked how to get to the M60. He told me to hop in. This is where I was supposed to go to catch the #104, and in fact, this was the #104, which took me up Broadway to 106th Street, where after a 15-minute wait I transferred to the M60. I got to LaGuardia in plenty of time—even having to catch a shuttle to Terminal B when I got off at D after hearing the bus driver wrong. It was smooth flying to O’Hare and then Omaha, as I slept all the way. My sister and niece were right there when I hit the street.

Weaving in and out of consciousness during the hour or so drive to Lincoln, I drifted back and forth between the election results and long-ago memories of that interminable 10 hours from Madison to Lincoln. The worst part—driving (after crossing the Mississippi) through Iowa, which seemed to last forever, from Dubuque—then the shittiest looking town imaginable, but probably a wonderful place now—to Council Bluffs, all on undivided two-lane highways. (But I must say this about Dubuque: We stopped off at some joint to get something to eat–must have been 1967–and out of a bin full of 45 r.p.m. singles I found and bought The Troggs’ 1966 hit “I Can’t Control Myself.”) From Council Bluffs we crossed the Missouri River to Omaha, and then to Lincoln.

Momentarily awake in 2020, I looked up on the right and saw a series of blue Trump-Pence signs–reminiscent of the old sequential Burma-Shave (shaving cream) proverb signs (example: “Keep well/To the right/Of the oncoming car/Get your close shaves/From the half pound jar/Burma-Shave.”) that used to dot highways back then—and I recalled the desolation of that drive and the scenery. Nebraska is the center of the Great Plains, where the Coen Brothers shot much of The Ballad of Buster Scruggs in what was a very long production in the state’s western Panhandle region. I’d emailed Ethan in the middle of it, asking if he was having any fun. “Are you insane?” he replied.

Half an hour out of Lincoln, I texted him and said that I myself was now in Nebraska, “home of Buster Scruggs.” “Canvassing?” he wondered. “Didn’t help.”

Yeah, Nebraska is a red state–though Grandpa was a socialist, and my family was always blue. I can never forget the state’s slogan “Go Big Red!” from when I was a kid, and the University of Nebraska was always one of the top college football teams, while the Wisconsin Badgers, at that time, were always one of the worst. But we did somehow manage to beat them 21-20 when they played us at home in early 1974, a slight detour on their way to a Sugar Bowl victory. I’ll never forget the disbelief and dejection of my Uncle Leo and Aunt Betty, who traveled to every Cornhuskers game as their team went down to shocking defeat. That night bonfires were lit on State Street, between the UW campus and State Capitol, as they had been in 1969 when we finally won a game after losing 23 straight.

And now I was at the cemetery where Uncle Leo and Aunt Betty were buried in the same row as Grandpa in the family plot, Mom being lowered the next row down and a few sites to the left. Leo was her brother. Her sister Ruth, who died at 34 of MS before I was born, was there, too; she played the harp in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra with the likes of Buddy Rich and behind the likes of Jo Stafford, and Frank Sinatra—who showed great kindness to her and the family when he learned that she was sick.

Also there was my cousin Joe Hill, whom I barely knew, but liked a lot. He was an actor, went by the name of Joseph GillGoff. I remember he was good friends with fellow Nebraskan Sandy Dennis, and died at 28.

It was just me, my sister, brother and niece, and our cousin Gary, Joe’s brother, who still lives in Lincoln, also a lady who was a tour guide at the State Capitol, who met my mom when she brought people there for tours, and became good friends. And two men from the funeral home. If I didn’t step on Grandma’s head this time, I certainly stood on everyone else’s, since it was all a pretty tight fit.

Unlike the rest, I didn’t wear a black facemask, rather, a colorful but toned-down one made up of postage-stamp sized portraits of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. I figured Mom would have approved.

There was no horse. There also wasn’t a lot of time. My brother had to leave immediately to move to a new city and job. I had to get back to New York early the next day in order to avoid a two-week quarantine required of anyone returning to the city without being tested within three days of the trip–by getting back within 24 hours. As it turns out, I only had to fill out a form, and there’s been no follow-up so far.

There’s not much more to say about it, really. We’re a small family, and because of COVID, there could be no funeral in Madison, and no other relatives or friends able to make the trip to Lincoln if they had so desired. Gary made some very nice remarks, and it was over by early afternoon. But before returning to Omaha, I wanted to revisit two of the four places in Lincoln we used to go to when I was a child. As it was November, there was no point in going to the outdoor municipal MUNY Pool, though when I looked it up I found that it had closed in the ’70s.

But I also learned that some African-American boys were found wading in the unfinished pool in the 1920s, after which came calls to drain the water. According to a 2013 article in the Lincoln Journal Star about a move to declare the still existing bathhouse a historic site, the boys were then denied admission when the pool opened. According to a newspaper report, one of the fathers, Trago T. McWilliams, protested to then-Mayor Frank Zehrung that “there was an element of injustice in barring negroes who were good citizens in every respect.” The mayor agreed, “but pointed out that there were comparatively few colored people in Lincoln and that a much larger number of white people would feel that it was unjust to permit negroes to use the pool.”

But McWilliams kept at it—for decades—and finally, in the late ’50s (after a “street shower” had been installed in the city for Blacks), the policy was changed.

On the contemporary bigotry front, cousin Gary had been involved in establishing the Nebraska Holocaust Memorial, located in another cemetery nearby, so that was our first stop after the funeral. As my cousin Murray, who grew up in Lincoln and is six days older than me, said by phone the next day, “What else do you do after a funeral but go to a Holocaust memorial?”

Nebraska Holocaust Memorial

From there we went to Lincoln’s Sunken Gardens, a dug-out 1.5-acre multi-level garden that’s been a mid-town attraction since 1930 and the only Nebraska garden listed in the “300 Best Gardens to Visit in the United States and Canada” by National Geographic Guide to Public Gardens. Warm as the day was, it had snowed the week before, and the season’s annual plants had already been removed. I did run up to a higher-level garden and got a picture of the Reveille statue, and then we were off to Pioneers Park Nature Center.

Sunken Gardens

Since Mom died—and I realized it would be possible to attend her funeral after the election—I was obsessed with Pioneers Park Nature Center: 668 acres of tallgrass prairie, woodlands, wetlands, wildlife and a stream–and right next to it, a golf course! I had vague memories of visiting it (without the golf course) on more than one occasion after it opened in 1963, and as it turned out, my main memory—of there being an immense statue of Buddha—was ridiculously false (and I’ve been unable to find it anywhere online). There was however, a big statue of a Native American sending out smoke signals, which took so long for us to find that my young niece, whose supreme disinterest in her aged uncle’s ungainly need to relive his childhood was, even to him, completely understandable, brought me to the brink of giving up until I stepped out of the car in a parking lot adjoining a picnic area, turned to my left, and voila, there it was!

The other thing I remembered—and this proved to be real—was that there were wildlife exhibits in the park, and we did come upon one with a few bison. They were ‘free-range,’ for lack of a better way to put it, and looked bored as shit. Reminded me of one of the great lines from Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales (which I’d just seen for at least the thousandth time), where Lone Watie (Chief Dan George) says to Josey (Clint), “I didn’t surrender, but they took my horse and made him surrender. They have him pulling a wagon up in Kansas I bet.”

Bored bison

The only other site I remember of Lincoln was, of course, the 400-ft. tall State Capitol building, a National Historic Landmark and the second-tallest state capitol next to Louisiana’s. There was no need to go there since it’s visible from almost anywhere.

We were all beat when I got back to the EVEN, which brings me, next to Mom’s death, to my one regret of the trip: I didn’t make use of the hotel. Then again, I’d never even heard of the chain—which I hereby heartily endorse. When I got to my room—and figured out how to turn on the lights—I noticed an unusually large area between the bed and the bathroom, with a wooden pole of sorts against the wall with half a dozen lugs, upon one of which hung a braided, double-handled fitness tube. Neatly stored in a box on the opposite wall was a sanitized yoga mat and yoga blocks, and in the space on the floor next to the TV were two large blocks which I took to be leg rests—but I was wrong.

The blocks were also exercise equipment, as I learned when I turned on the TV and it immediately went to one of at least a score of in-room workout videos. It turns out that the all even-numbered rooms “hotel brand concept” opened its first location in 2014 with the goal of incorporating wellness and productivity into their clientele offerings; there were videos for the equipment in my room, with other paraphernalia, including Pilates, probably available in other rooms or from the front desk–and all accompanied by instructional videos.

The only problems were that the pole for the fitness tube placements was on the same wall as the TV, such that I couldn’t watch the videos while trying to do the workouts—this and the fact that I couldn’t watch them anyway, since I was stuck on MSNBC for the first night of continued ballot counting after Election Day.

When I came down the next morning to check out and the guy at the front desk gave me the cup of coffee that I spilled on Ernest Tubb, I looked up as I was about to leave and saw that the glass-walled second-level fitness room overlooking the lobby even had a heavy bag! I hadn’t been able to hit a heavy bag since the start of the pandemic, and even the gyms that have them still won’t let you use them for the time being (though I think I’ve found one that will if you bring your own gloves).

As the return flight to O’Hare took off–and just before dozing off–I thought of Larry, the Omaha airport shuttle driver, who thanked me for the conversation on the way to the airport. It helped him start his day, he said, and I thanked him for helping me start mine.

For what it’s worth, Larry is African-American, as was the EVEN front desk clerk. Both couldn’t have been nicer, same with everyone we interacted with on the trip—the funeral guys, the Sunken Garden workers, the Pioneers Parkers who gave us directions to the statue. It didn’t matter, but I wondered who they all voted for in this still-red state where we’d just buried our mother and where the Coen Brothers filmed The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.

Maybe that has something to do with why I dreamed last night of running into Tim Blake Nelson, whom I’ve met a couple times at Coen screenings, who was so great as Delmar O’Donnell in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and in the title role in The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. I breathlessly told him that he should have won an Oscar for his performance in the latter.

As for Mom, I was glad it worked out that I could be at her “farewell party,” to use the title of an old country song, a big hit in 1979 for Gene Watson, even if it was a bitter love song not lyrically applicable to Mom, whom Cousin Gary correctly lauded for her thoughtfulness and kindness. More than anything, I’m glad she got to vote, even if she didn’t get to celebrate its outcome.

I realize that this piece is nominally about my mother’s funeral–and my father’s–and that I haven’t said a whole lot about them and have made it all about me. I want you to know that I do feel guilty about this.

In all honesty, I was a rotten kid. Called into the principal’s office on the loudspeaker every morning. Hung out with the hoods. Peddled dope in the halls. One of those.

And our parents were way older than us. Too old, even, to even like The Beatles. But I’ll say this about my mom: She ended up liking one of my best friends, Don Smock, and I name him because he’s been dead quite a while, now, gone through at least three livers by my count, maybe four. Hepatitis, if I remember, from needles. I got off lucky in that respect, just thrombophlebitis at one point, and lots of missing veins.

Lots of my high school and post-HS friends have been dead a long time. O.D.’s, suicides, at least one murder and a few naturals. Many were bigtime drug dealers and did prison time. Don got a tattoo when we were in junior high, “J.D.,” for juvenile delinquent. Mom always pointedly pronounced his name “Shmock,” but he was a loyal friend, kinda turned his life around to where he became a private investigator, and was so considerate about my mom that she eventually grew to like him: When his body gave up and he was hospitalized in a coma, she actually went to visit him, and when he died, she asked me if she should go to his funeral. I assured her it wasn’t necessary, that after 30-plus years I had no idea who–if anyone–would be there, and if anyone were, they’d likely be fellow former, if not present, dopers and dealers.

And now, a brief aside, but first, a musical interlude!

I first saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys in Madison at the Great Hall of the Student Union in 1972, I think, five or six years before I started writing about music. Pictured second from the left next to him is Keith Whitley, who was with him then, and would later become a huge country star, whom I got to know, before drinking himself to death. I knew Ralph, too, and have always been grateful that he did a radio commercial for Obama’s first presidential campaign–extraordinary, in that he came from and represented deeply conservative political and musical territory–and let me interview him about it.

But that’s not the aside I pointed to. It’s this: Unlike most of my articles, which I post links to on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, I’m giving this a “soft open”; you’ll only see it if you stumble upon it, or if one of my hundred or so subscribers sends it to you (and yes, I know it says 2,000-something, but that’s total horseshit, some kind of technical error or bots attack that I’d have to spend a lot of money to correct). It’s just way too personal, and I don’t know what my siblings would think. And last time I posted parental passings on Facebook, it brought me unimaginable grief: First came last June when I cut-and-pasted Rob Reiner’s tweet in quotes announcing his father Carl’s death and attributing it Rob, and over a hundred Facebook friends read it to mean I was somehow announcing my own father’s death and expressed their sincere but misdirected condolences. Same thing happened in September when I did the same thing with Diana Rigg’s daughter’s announcement of her mom’s death. Everyone somehow thought I was sharing my mom’s death! Total, unbearable fucking fiasco.

And besides, as Murray said to an emotional friend of his mother (Aunt Selma) when she called to console him when Selma died at 89: “Lady! She was 89!”

Anyway, I thought of all this on the plane, and I thought of the scene at the beginning of The Chinese Connection, where Bruce Lee, overcome with grief, jumps into the grave of his teacher at his funeral. And had to laugh at my brother’s offer–tongue in cheek, presumably, yet with due reverence–should I have decided to follow suit in Lincoln, that he’d do the shoveling. I had considered it for a moment, maybe, then decided against it. Maybe, if I’d been reverently wearing my Ernest Tubb t-shirt, even with a coffee stain. I’m confident he’d be okay with it.

One last photo:

Awaiting extinction at Pioneers Park

And in honor of “the original E.T.,” Ernest Tubb:

And here’s a rare glimpse of Aunt Ruth with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra!:

Oh happy days

Photo: Ethan Coen

The happiest day of my life was November 4, 2008—the day Obama was elected.

I was at Ashford & Simpson’s Sugar Bar that night, sitting with Nick and Val and Miss Tee, their do-everything assistant, who wasn’t sitting so much as scurrying around the room excitedly, waving a small American Flag in each hand.

I could only stay an hour or so after California put Obama over the top at 11 p.m. our time, since I had to fly out early the next morning for Louisiana. I took the subway from 72nd and Broadway to Times Square, then hung out for a few minutes with hundreds of other joyful celebrants behind the police barricades as cars honked past, tears streaming down my face. I got home in time to watch Obama’s wonderful acceptance speech before packing and heading out to the airport.

I was a poll worker when Obama was reelected in 2012, but was done in time to go to the Sugar Bar and watch the returns. It wasn’t as crowded this time, and more subdued. Nick had died in 2011 (Obama sent Val a condolence note), and I sat with Val and Tee at the foot of the bar, next to the huge black-and-white photo of an adorable, somewhat pensive Nick. We didn’t stay late, and when Tee went upstairs to pack up, she turned to the photo and said to it, “We did it again, Boo Boo. We did it again.” I kissed my fingers and touched his cheek.

I wrote a long piece on this site after Trump won in 2016. I won’t say it was the worst day of my life, but when I got off poll work and had walked halfway to the Sugar Bar—around 57th Street and 10th Ave.—I knew it was going bad, and suddenly felt my body going into physical shock. It was only the second time that happened: The first was 9/11.

The Sugar Bar’s been closed during the pandemic, and I’d been called out of town the day after Tuesday’s election–which followed 10 days straight of eight-hour-plus early voting poll days and 17 hours on Tuesday. I got back Thursday and I was exhausted, if not in shock again over the undecided election. From that point on, the TV was stuck on MSNBC day and night until Pennsylvania finally put Biden over.

Unlike Obama’s elections that were both decided quickly the night of the election, it was a beautiful sunny and warm autumn Saturday, with the election call late in the morning meaning everyone was up and awake and ready to party. No sooner had the announcement been made than the joyous shouts and banging on pots and pans and horn honks began, all reminiscent of the five minutes of noise that erupted every evening in the first weeks of the pandemic, a weird way then to honor first-responders, I thought, but totally understandable now. It was like this huge weight had been lifted off our backs, or to borrow a timely metaphor, deadly knee off our necks.

Then commenced hours of intermittent weeping, first at home while I watched the early celebrants begin to fill the streets of New York and everywhere else, then when I joined many of them at Columbus Circle—having been notified by email the night before that the Working Families Party was gathering there in support of the by-then obvious winner Biden.

I took a call from my sister in Wisconsin before I left, and my friend Bob Merlis in Palm Springs, where he’d just run up the flagpole an American Flag that he’d refused to fly the last four years. I put on my yellowed 23-year-old Ernest Tubb Record Shop 50th Anniversary t-shirt (its fresh coffee stain barely discernible), a Ruth Bader Ginsburg face mask, and a blue flannel long-sleeve shirt and headed north on 10th Ave., Daniel Boone’s “Beautiful Sunday” playing in my head (even thought it was Saturday) and alternating with the Rascals’ “A Beautiful Morning.”

The cars were honking constantly when I got over to 9th and 59th, and saw an out-of-practice, pandemic-rusty/weary bunch awkwardly wondering if they should hug each other, then trying to remember how exactly to do it. The tears restarted.

The weird thing is, I really don’t cry that much: when I’m moved by movies, sometimes, like To Kill a Mockingbird, or some songs, like Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” And always during opera curtain calls—and marches, when I’m overwhelmed by the goodness of people standing up against unmitigated evil.

By now Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” was playing in my head, as I hung out a bit on the pedestrian island with the subway station entrance in the middle of Broadway, in between the Time Warner Center and the Trump Hotel tower. Traffic was now slowed to a trickle, cars honking, passengers sticking their heads out of windows and sunroofs and waving or taking pictures of us waving or taking pictures of them. It was the perfect time to cross over to the Southwest corner of Central Park, where I was surprised that a guy my age asked if he could take my picture.

Columbus Circle

“Ernest Tubb and RBG! Two of my favorites!” he explained. I really was with my people.

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

I took a few more pics, including one of Sing Out, Louise!—a group of Gays Against Guns who’ve been writing Trump-related song parodies (“in the key of F-You”) since his election. I stuck around long enough to hear “Everyone Knows It’s Rudy” (to the tune of The Association’s “Windy”) and 3 Dog Night’s “Joy to the World” (“Dirty Donny was an asshole!”) before splitting with my filmmaker friend Ethan, both of us concerned about the “covidity.”

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

Columbus Circle

We walked over to 5th Ave, which was entirely shut down to cars, and Ethan posed me for a pic with the cursed Trump Tower—or, as I prefer calling it, the Devil’s Building—in the background. I then returned to the site of my final 2008 celebration—Times Square—and more revelers. Even Trump supporter Naked Cowboy got in the act, as did a Trump Baby balloon sent skyward into exile. A guy sitting on a folding chair on the sidewalk was blasting Diana Ross’s Ashford & Simpson-penned and produced “The Boss.”

Times Square

Times Square

Times Square

“Joy to the World”—the Dog version—was in my head as I walked home, where I turned on the TV to watch more celebrations from around the world. The wonderful victory speeches that night from Biden and Harris jerked more tears—proving that my supply was inexhaustible, so long as I stayed hydrated. But I was somewhat anxious through the whole thing: It didn’t look to me like they were behind a bulletproof barrier (if there really is such a thing anymore). I always remember my Kennedy-Johnson Secret Service agent friend Bill Carter telling me how easy it is to kill the president….

And then the popping sound of the confetti bombs. Biden seemed a bit startled, and I read later that Harris’s husband definitely was. The big Secret Service man who left the stage with Biden at the end didn’t look happy, but he wasn’t supposed to.

I tweeted my fears and found that I hadn’t been alone. I was always amazed that Obama survived his presidency, but it’s a different country now—more guns, and people who have been allowed, if not encouraged, to think they have the right to use them with neither care nor consequence.

I woke up Sunday pinching myself. It wasn’t a dream after all–the second-happiest day of my life. I started with “Oh Happy Day” by the Edwin Hawkins Singers, remembering how thrilled I was to meet the late Hawkins one night at the Sugar Bar. And of course I thought of Nick—and Tee, who had joined Nick upstairs in August.

“We did it again, Boo Boo,” I said to the photo of me and Tee on the shelf above my computer, clicking on Ashford & Simpson’s version of their Diana Ross hit “Reach Out and Touch (Somebody’s Hand)” on YouTube.

Ali’s ‘hype man’ Drew Bundini Brown finally gets his due

Hamilcar Publications

If you’re a big fan of Muhammad Ali, you’re likely also a fan of his entourage, the core being trainer Angelo Dundee and Ferdie Pacheco, a.k.a. the Fight Doctor, both of whom wrote two of the scores if not hundreds of books recounting the Ali experience and era.

But there was a third and far more colorful member of Ali’s in-ring trio, who never wrote a book, and about whom one was never written—until now: assistant trainer and cornerman/confidante Drew “Bundini” Brown. Thanks to Todd D. Snyder, author of BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype (Hamilcar Publications), this noticeable gap in the Ali library has been filled.

The charismatic Brown, as BUNDINI’s publisher Kyle Sarofeen has written, was “the greatest hype man in boxing history”—a “hype man” being the onstage hip-hop cohort/motivator/emcee of a rapper who cheerleads for him and eggs him on.

“I can watch the end of the [historic Ali-George Foreman] Rumble in the Jungle 20 times more and still get chills, in particular because of Bundini, wrestling his way to Ali, hailing him through tears of joy,” said Sarofeen.

As Ali has been hailed by Public Enemy’s Chuck D for his influence on hip-hop (Chuck D hosted an ESPN production, Ali Rap), Brown can be seen as the prototype for the likes of that group’s clock-sporting hype man Flavor Flav. Best known as “Bundini,” he got the moniker when he was in the Navy and stationed in India, where as his ship pulled out, some women yelled out the word, which means “lover.”

The Florida native settled in Harlem afterwards, where he worked the counter at a restaurant near Sugar Ray Robinson’s bar Sugar Ray’s and became known in the 1950s as “Fast Black.” Also a captivating street poet/philosopher, Bundini married a white woman from an Orthodox Jewish family and converted to Judaism (he always referred to God as “Shorty”); this, along with his taste for alcohol, were among the traits that put him at odds with Ali’s Nation of Islam, but except for a brief exile, not out of Ali’s orbit. He also later acted in films including Shaft.

After meeting Robinson, he worked with him for seven years, then teamed up with Ali (then Cassius Clay) before his 1963 fight with Doug Jones. Both he and Ali pronounced “Bundini” as “Bodini,” and as Bodini, he came up with Ali’s most famous war cry, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee! Rumble, young man, rumble! Aahh!” Ali was out of the country when Brown died in 1987 at 59, but sent flowers along with a card saying, “You made me the Greatest.”

“Bundini gave Ali his entire heart,” Larry Holmes has said. “He was Ali’s right-hand man [and] was the one guy who could really get him up to train and get him ready to fight.” Boxing News lauds BUNDINI for unveiling “an exceptionally complicated man and the orchestrator of exceptionally complicated relationships” and succeeding in “resurrecting what was one of the most enduring and important relationships of Ali’s entire career.”

Certainly, Dr. Todd D. Snyder brings a unique perspective to Brown. The son of a West Virginia boxing trainer, he is an associate professor of rhetoric and writing at Siena College in Albany, N.Y. His writing reflects his life experience, with a focus on working class masculinity, having previously authored The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity and 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia. He currently teaches a course at Siena in hip-hop studies, and has contributed a chapter to The Oxford Handbook of Hip-Hop Studies.

“It’s hard to think of a better background for exploring the life of a man who influenced the world’s best boxers with his words and spirit,” says Sports Book Reviews.

Snyder recently spoke with about BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype:

Bundini’s background was remarkable, and so is yours.

I grew up in a small coal mining  town—Cowen, West Virginia–in a really remote, secluded mountain part. It was originally a coal mining camp, and all the men in the family were miners and in the industry.

How did boxing fit in?

It got me out of the region! My dad had a gym that I wrote a memoir about–The Rhetoric of Appalachian Identity and 12 Rounds in Lo’s Gym: Boxing and Manhood in Appalachia. I grew up around boxing, and boxed in high school. But I never wanted to pursue it as a profession: You grow up around the sport and see a lot of good people get hurt—“Even the greatest—Muhammad Ali,” my dad said.

So what did you do?

I wanted to be like my dad, but when I turned 18, he wanted me to give college a try—and I was the first in my family to go. The ironic part was that I’ve never stopped going: Now I’m a PhD and a professor!

And you say in the book that you wrote it at Starbucks!

My sister moved to New York and her home was next to Starbucks, and they had all these nice tables and I found that it was a nice place to write. The day I got the book contract I went there and plotted the timeline of Bundini’s life, and no one bothered me. I guess I’m a bit superstitious: Things were going really well, so I kept going back and by the end all the baristas knew what I was doing from my stack of Muhammad Ali books! Angelo Dundee’s son called me, and I had to go out on the patio and thank him for his help.

You talked to a lot of people in researching it.

Yes. This book required an extensive amount of interviews. I spoke with Bundini’s son [author and motivational speaker Drew Bundini Brown III] 58 times, and went to Atlanta and read the  whole book to him word for word. I spoke with George Foreman, Larry Holmes, [Ali sparring partner and former heavyweight champion] Tim Witherspoon, [Ali’s business manager] Gene Kilroy–hundreds of interviews.

What gave you the idea to write the book?

One of the courses I teach is The History of Hip-Hop Culture, and Chuck D was on campus for a hip-hop celebration. He’s an Ali fan, and playfully places him as the original rapper. The students were all asking him Ali questions like, “Do you really think that?” And he said, “Why, sure. Why not? ‘Float like a butterfly…’” So I said, “That makes Bundini the original hype man! He built Ali up and served him in a metaphysical role as his motivator.” And Chuck D looked at me and said, “Someone should write that book [about Bundini].” It put the idea in my head: Here’s an undermined research gap in the Ali story and boxing history–since Bundini worked with Sugar Ray and [Ali sparring partner and former heavyweight champion] Jimmy Ellis, too. Usually Bundini gets only one or two paragraphs.

How did you get the book deal?

My publisher Hamilcar is boxing-based, and posted a blog about Bundini that received a lot of traffic. They were looking for a writer who knew a bit about hip-hop and boxing, because they wanted a book with hip-hop flair. I was the first one who came up because I write about both areas, and they linked me up with Bundini’s son. I went to see him in Atlanta in order to really know Bundini, and he opened up bar mitzvah books and poetry and postcards, and I got to know the man as a person–and it was really cool. Forty-five of the pictures in the book came from Drew, and they’d never been published before.

So what was Bundini like?

His story is so multi-layered: A black man who marries a white Jewish woman from Brighton Beach—which was extremely taboo! He marched to the beat of his own drummer, and was a true original thinker.

What about his marriage?

It was fun writing about that relationship. It was not a traditional marriage. But from the very start the book was, “This is Bundini Brown. I can’t give him a boring bio. If it were [1940s featherweight champion] Willie Pep, maybe. But this has to have flavor. I have to make it more action-packed and funkier than if it were for someone else.”

It’s anything but a traditional third-person bio.

I went to Atlanta and Bundini’s son picked me up in a Rolls-Royce—and it starts from there. I wanted you, the reader, to experience it all with me—to take the readers with me on my journey. You can pretend that biographies are infallible, but the reality is that they’re giving someone’s truth. So in BUNDINI, we see him through the eyes of his son: We usually only look at him as this wild, crazy sidekick of Muhammad Ali, but I give him the story from his son’s perspective.

You say at the end that part of what we loved about Muhammad Ali belonged to Drew Bundini Brown–regardless of whether we knew it or not.

I’ve never forgotten how one time in a literature course, we were watching a video of Maya Angelou, and she mentioned her friendship with Ali, and “Float like a bee….” She said, “That rhyme is just as good as any poem I’ve ever written,” and I knew it was Bundini’s line. Watching it, part of me felt a little hurt: As great as Ali was, it was Bundini’s line, and it personified him—and he should get the credit. So much of what I loved about Ali was stoked by him, because he was a natural born motivator and knew what made him tick. He brought out that side of him and accentuated it before the training camp for the first Sonny Liston fight—and it all might have been different otherwise. It’s like you can’t be a Tom Sawyer fan and not a Huck Finn fan, just as you can’t love Ali without Bundini Brown. It makes me sad when my students don’t know who Bundini is.

And you don’t shy away from his failings.

No one wants to write a biography that shows only the good side. Bundini’s son was open with me about his father’s alcoholism and how he’d blow money, and I showed that part of him, too. He was a very complex man: He could certainly frustrate you, and let you down, too.

You talk about not wanting to “redeem” Bundini’s reputation, nor “vilify him for the benefit of Ali’s legacy” as others have done.

Look at some of the films, like Ali [2001, with Will Smith], and there’s a scene where he steals a belt for heroin money—which wasn’t true. Or Don King: Only in America [1997, with Ving Rhames], where Bernie Mac plays him as sort of disloyal to Ali in teaming with Don King—which certainly was not the case. Filmmakers and documentarians refashion Ali with Bundini being a bad influence–a wild drug addict or court jester or class clown, even though he was funny. But he wasn’t a fickle turncoat, though he certainly did battle alcoholism. In filmic recreations of Ali history, he’s more of a cheerleader than motivator and more of a flunky or leach. He certainly was not a yes man: They’d argue about religion and some very serious stuff, and they had their tiffs. I didn’t want to make him into Superman or portray him unfairly, as he has been in films.

How, then, would you characterize him?

Think about it this way: Not a single person turned me down for an interview! They didn’t love just Ali, but also Bundini. I’d go to an interview and say to myself, “This will be the first one to say something negative,” but I could just hear in their voices how much they cared for him and missed him, and how much fun he was to be around. He made an indelible impact on the people he was close to, and while he wasn’t a perfect man–and I don’t make him out to be one—he was one of a kind. Tim Witherspoon said there’s never been a Bundini before, and there never will be one after—and that’s 100 percent on point.

The last chapter, which documents Bundini’s grim final years and death at 59, includes his last meeting with Ali in the hospital. It is incredibly moving and very sad. But you finish it on an upbeat note, focusing, like you did in the beginning, on Bundini’s son.

It’s one of the tricks I pull in the book. I knew it ended in a sad way: Most of us who know about Ali know that Bundini died after suffering injuries in a car accident and a fall at home, without much money–and that Ali helped take care of him. But I wanted to go “From the Root to the Fruit” [the title of the chapter] and also show how successful his son and grandchildren were—how he had such a big impact on his family, and that they went on do great things and rectify, in their way, some of the demons he couldn’t overcome.

So how would you sum Bundini up?

He was something out of a Shakespeare tragedy, or Dickens, maybe. A poor black boy who grew up in Sanford, Florida, with no expectations–and had a wild, unbelievable life, ranging from presidents and dictators to the most famous athletes, musicians and poets, spanning the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement to the Shaft era and the bubbling of hip-hop.

And BUNDINI: Don’t Believe the Hype?

It was an unbelievable journey to shed light on Bundini’s legacy, on boxing and life. It was a wonderful book to get to write.

Zip Top showcased its reusable zippered baggies at NY NOW

Zip Top Reusable Containers

The recent NY NOW Digital Market home/lifestyle/handmade/gift market trade show, as with its years of preceding physical ones at Manhattan’s Javits Center, brought together hundreds of retailers, brands, and product makers together virtually via an intuitive search-and-discovery website engine.

Standing out among the more innovative items on display, in its first NY NOW appearance, was the Zip Top container, designed to move food storage away from the single-use disposable plastic boxes and zippered baggies filling kitchen drawers and landfill sites with harmful plastic waste.

Launched in 2017 by NY NOW first-timer and company CEO Rebecca Finell, Zip Top’s alternative is made entirely from platinum silicone, with no BPA, plastic, lead, PVC, fillers or other harmful chemicals. Its one-piece construction is extremely durable, and safe in microwave, dishwasher and freezer.

“You pre-make a meal and put it in a Zip Top, freeze it, cook it, eat it, and throw it in the dishwasher—so it goes full circle,” said Finell. “Being made of pure silicon, it doesn’t leach plastic chemicals, and when you heat or freeze it, it doesn’t get brittle, crack or expand, but stays flexible.”

They also “stand up, stay open, and zip shut,” continues Finell, and, she notes, “no more lids!”

“Every house has a drawer full of lids that don’t match,” she adds. “That’s plastic waste, too.”

Further distinguishing her Zip Tops is that they’re single-piece construction, designed for easy cleaning, by hand or machine.

“They’re designed to open wide and stay open, so you can clean them upright in the dishwasher, like a cup,” says Finell. “The sides flare out, and the bottoms are flat and round, with no crack or crevice for food to stick to.”

Zip Tops come in several sizes, colors, and styles (Dishes, Bags, Cups, and Baby) for containing everything from full meal plates to drinks, sandwiches, snacks, and nonfood items. The designs have earned the Austin-based company numerous international honors, including a Good Housekeeping Editor’s Pick at the 2019 International Home + Housewares Show.

Meanwhile, Zip Top extended its product line this year, introducing a reusable silicone breast milk storage bag. Finell had previously founded the Boon baby product line, and knew there were better options for nursing mothers than single-use plastic disposable milk bags. 

Harmonicas become sculpture in Stetson U.’s ‘Harmonitrees’ virtual exhibit


As all harmonica players and fans know, the 10-hole diatonic harmonica is the simplest instrument to get music out of, while offering limitless possibilities for professional virtuosity.

And now, at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, that harmonica is at the center of the virtual Harmonitrees exhibit at the university’s Hand Art Center gallery.

The latest in composer/installation artist/oboist Sky Macklay’s “sound sculpture” art installations, Harmonitrees involves eight sonic, kinetic and inflatable sculptures that resemble pine trees and employ the artist’s “deconstructed” harmonicas in producing musical sounds. The exhibit runs tomorrow (Oct. 17) through Oct. 23 at the Hand Art Center website.

Macklay earned a Doctor of Musical Arts (DMA) in composition from Columbia University, and began creating her sound sculptures six years ago after seeing an inflatable, dancing tube person in front of a car dealership. Each of the sculptures at her Stetson set-up includes suspended harmonicas (Hohner Blues Band models) with their cover plates and draw (inhale) reeds removed, exposing the metal reed plates and blow (exhale) reeds, and plastic combs (into which a player blows or draws air in vibrating the reeds and producing sound).

The deconstructed harmonicas are then affixed to the transparent plastic “walls” of the Harmonitrees structures.

As diatonic harmonicas come in different keys, the sculpture on display in the Hand Art Center’s foyer will have harmonicas in G and D keys. The seven sculptures displayed in the gallery will have the tonic major chord of each key: F, G, A, B-flat, C, D and E.

Macklay spends at least three days constructing each sculpture, which is formed by the transparent plastic sheets and between eight and 12 harmonicas. Other materials include zip ties, wire, a high-powered fan in a wooden box, and foot-button with power chords and smart plug.

The height of each Harmonitree is between five and 10 feet, making for visual variety as well as varied “sonic envelope,” or sound as it changes over time from beginning to end.

When the fan is turned on, it fills the structure with air and creates pressure that pushes air through the harmonicas and vibrates the reeds to create a drone sound—essentially mimicking the effect of a harmonica player blowing into the instrument. Virtual viewers are then able to observe how the sound and vibrations are created, as the air blown upwards by the fan escapes through the deconstructed harmonicas, which have been intentionally affixed to the plastic at air-escape points.

Macklay selected the harmonica after considering nonhuman ways to play wind instruments. Harmonicas belong to the free reed instrument family, which means they freely vibrate with only air and don’t require a specific embouchure, or lip-shaping, in order to generate sound. Hence, a very simple robot, or fan-generated air current, can play them. 

She also loved the harmonica’s timbre after experimenting with many harmonicas that were playing together. The experiment led to her first installation, Harmonibots—a sonic and kinetic construct of inflatable harmonica-playing robots–at the Waseca Art Center in Waseca, Minnesota, in 2015. The sound sculpture won the Ruth Anderson Prize from The International Alliance for Women in Music.


“The Harmonitrees exhibit is unique and innovative because of the inclusion of motion into a three-dimensional sculpture, and the incorporation of the viewer and their role in the sculpture’s performance,” says Hand Art Center director James Pearson. Adds Macklay: “I hope my installation creates a joyful experience for everyone. It is tempting to be nihilistic during a global pandemic, so I want to counter that by making people smile, and perhaps inspire them to think more broadly about sound, music and art–along with being more creative in their own lives.”

Stetson’s assistant professor of digital arts Chaz Underriner secured funding for a one-week residency for Macklay as a visiting artist and composer.

“Sky Macklay is an excellent composer and interdisciplinary artist who creates whimsical and interesting work,” says Underriner. “Her exhibit will provide virtual viewers with a fun installation that combines bright, musical sounds with inflatable sculptures. The installation is a breath of fresh air that I think we can all use right now.”

Underriner will moderate a free livestreamed artist talk with Macklay via Zoom on Oct. 20. An improvised concert featuring the inflatable sculptures (also including seven beach ball-shaped inflatables filled with air by Stetson’s Sculpture II students), to be performed by Stetson School of Music faculty and students, will be recorded and made available at Hard Art Center’s website at a later date, with Macklay playing oboe and Underriner on electric guitar.