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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.”
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:
And in honor of “the original E.T.,” Ernest Tubb:
And here’s a rare glimpse of Aunt Ruth with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra!:
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.
“Ernest Tubb and RBG! Two of my favorites!” he explained. I really was with my people.
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.”
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.”
“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.
Now that some of the dust—if not nuclear fallout—has settled from last night’s so-called presidential debate, I first want to express relief that the response I’m seeing today (admittedly on MSNBC and The New York Times for the most part) are solidly in Biden’s favor.
Relieved, because for the first hour or so that I stayed with it, I thought “Sleepy Joe” was taking a beating, such a savage and merciless beating, in fact, that I had to turn away.
I also had to turn away periodically from the savage and merciless beating I took on Facebook for saying this. One Facebook “friend” responded with “FU” to my first post (also tweeted), right at the outset of Trump’s initial onslaught, “Bad start for #Biden. #debates.” I hate to use the overused word “proverbial,” but to me, Biden looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights.
But as so often happens in Facebook threads—especially, I’m sorry to say, my threads–I wasn’t sure if she was directing her “FU” at me or another respondent. So dusting off my best Travis Bickle, I came back with, “You saying FU to me? If so you can say goodbye.” Then I stewed for the next 40 minutes, checking back every five seconds for a response, then when none came, finally pulled the plug.
“Only lost one friend tonight, and for once I did the unfriending!” I posted before finally shutting down around 3 a.m. This got the most laughs I’ve gotten on Facebook probably since that Thanksgiving post where I said I was thankful for everyone who hadn’t unfriended me.
Then another FB “friend” picked up on it this morning and spelled it out: “FUCK YOU,” all caps. “Goodbye,” I returned, and this time UF’d him in 10 seconds. I followed it with a general post, “To whom it may concern: I can take a lot of shit, but you only get the chance to say ‘Fuck you’ to me once.”
All this because I thought Biden was getting his butt kicked and decided to say so.
But few understood that I was speaking of debate style over substance, and a style—Trump’s—that was anything but pretty. And it’s something that I saw coming, as I tweeted earlier in the day: “Expecting #DebateTuesday to be stacked in #Trump’s favor, due to the set-up and eternal network goal of providing #WWERaw entertainment value. Hope #Biden sticks to being the adult in the room, sternly showing maturity opposite Trump’s bratty incompetence and incoherence.”
Now, I do think Biden did that, but he still failed—at least for that first hour—because the debate format, as expected, was stacked in Trump’s favor. Chris Wallace couldn’t have been worse, but I don’t know that any moderator would have done better—nor would they have wanted to: Bottom line is, everyone is talking about it—no matter that most of it is brutally negative toward Wallace, and Trump–and so rightly so.
But back to Biden, and why I thought he was battered—no matter that he’s a veritable saint sitting opposite Satan. Another post, which shortly followed “Bad start for Biden,” only encouraged the pile-up on me: “#Trump in control of the #debate.”
Many found this, like its predecessor, wrong, even disgusting, to the point of white-hot anger. But they either missed the context, or took it out of context, that is, what I meant by saying Trump was in control—which was not to be taken as praise or approval, but statement of fact.
One friend, whom I’m in 100 percent agreement with on substance, was especially livid, but calmed down enough by morning to understand where I was coming from and deleted his earlier tweets—then used a good chess analogy: “If we were sitting down to play chess, and you kept knocking over my pieces rather than playing the game properly, you’re not in control. You’re just being an asshole.”
But I would say that I would be in control and an asshole, meaning, because I was an asshole and not “playing the game properly,” I controlled not so much how you played the game, but if you could play the game at all.
In the case of the debate, then, I offered a couple sports analogies of my own.
Football is relatively simple: They talk about ball control and “time of possession.” Usually, who ever controls the ball the best, and has the most time of possession (of the ball), is the winner—though not always.
I would say that Trump clearly controlled the movement (ball) of the portion of the debate that I watched, and had the most time of possession of the microphone via constant interruption and talking over Biden. I’m happy to see that so many Facebook friends and Wednesday morning media quarterbacks didn’t award him the game ball.
But comparing the debate to a boxing prize fight offers subtler analytic possibilities. Now I’ve actually judged professional Muay Thai fights, so here I know a little of what I’m speaking.
Among the things you consider when judging a fight are number of punches thrown, number of punches landed and damage of punches landed, also quality of defense, and perhaps most important, aggression—effective aggression. Of course, all of this is subjective, as is judging last night’s debate.
So what I saw at the start, and what I scored in his favor, was Trump’s effective aggression. True, it was dirty, dirty, dirty, filthy, but Wallace allowed it, maybe secretly encouraged it, and it was effective: I felt that Biden was overwhelmed, couldn’t counter, and could only flail.
I’ve seen since, of course, that Biden connected with at least two hard punches—clobbering Trump on his racism and disdain for democracy–and they get scored higher than Trump’s jabs. And that Biden withstood the barrage and that Trump ended up not winning any converts. And that the unanimous realization of Trump’s vile nature and just plain ugliness–and Biden’s uncompromising decency–was the real winner.
As Elizabeth Bruenig wrote in The New York Times, “When Biden explained in simple terms why it’s important to be kind–not just from the standpoint of individual relationships, but for the survival of liberal democracy–he hit upon something crucial. This form of government requires certain virtues and a willingness to understand things from different points of view is one of them. I would argue that willingness to understand is a form of love, and one that isn’t easily inculcated into hardened hearts. Biden didn’t say all of that, of course, and I’m not sure he would endorse it. But he did set his sights on something much more critical, in that short speech, than specific policies or elections.”
And that’s what I didn’t see in that first hour, before turning away from a lopsided performance, Biden’s goodness notwithstanding.
Twitter is fast, and sometimes (not often percentagewise since I tweet so much) I’m too fast for Twitter—meaning I’m too fast for my own good.
Usually it’s a matter of tweeting or retweeting before all the facts are in, like if suddenly someone is trending because of reports of his or her death and it turns out to be prior to confirmation or worse, a prank. Or the time a few weeks back when I fell for a fake report that Colin Kaepernick was getting signed to Buffalo or somewhere—because I wanted so much to believe it.
I had an itchy Twitter finger Monday, and after a retweet, unknowingly proceeded to make an unusual series of mistakes culminating in an amazing revelation that didn’t fully sink in until I’d already begun writing this piece.
It all started with my retweet of Chely Wright.
I retweet Chely all the time. I’ve known her and loved her since meeting her in Nashville in 1994, the year her debut album Woman in the Moon was released. The Academy of Country Music named her Top New Female Vocalist the following year, and she had a No. 1 hit two years later with “Single White Female.”
Then, in 2010, Chely became one of the first major country music artists to come out as lesbian, and published a moving memoir, Like Me : Confessions of a Heartland Country Singer, released simultaneously with a terrific Rodney Crowell-produced album, Lifted Off the Ground.
On Twitter, she’s gay, liberal, Christian, kind, and fearless. I’m always looking at Twitter trends to see what’s going on, and when I clicked on “Monkey,” Chely’s tweet was one of the first I found:
“Let’s be clear here—@realDonaldTrump heard clearly that someone in his audience yelled out ‘MONKEY’ when he mentioned @BarackObama. Trump says, ‘Let’s be nice’ and then makes a joke about it. This is where we are. Racists are emboldened by this president. VOTE.”
Chely’s tweet was also a “quote tweet” in that it accompanied and built upon a retweet, in this case one from Ken Olin, another prolific and influential liberal tweeter.
This was Olin’s quote tweet: “After @realDonaldTrump mentions @BarackObama’s name someone yells, ‘monkey.’ A few seconds later Trump laughs and makes a joke. It’s inconceivable in 2020 that a despicable comment like this would be treated lightly. The President is sickening.”
I saw the Chely/Ken Olin combo tweet, assumed it was accurate—why wouldn’t I?–and didn’t think twice before retweeting it and copying it on Facebook.
Returning to Twitter maybe an hour or so later, I saw I’d received a notification, meaning someone had liked, retweeted, or commented on one of my tweets. Sure enough, it was a comment on the Chely/Olin tweet, from someone identified only as Byron, and with a profile picture showing a young man in camo uniform next to another guy who was casually dressed and wearing a ball cap.
Byron was replying to my retweet of Chely’s tweet/quote tweet, which may sound confusing if you’re not on Twitter, but will seem pretty clearcut compared with what’s to come.
“Yes. Let’s be clear,” Byron tweeted. “I heard him yell spygate.”
Taking Byron at face value, it did seem clear to me that his “Let’s be clear” was a sarcastic response to what Chely wrote—which wasn’t a big enough deal for me to get worked up over.
But I did get worked up enough over the next sentence—“I heard him yell spygate”—because I wrongly–no, very wrongly–didn’t realize that he was honestly commenting, that he really did hear someone yell “spygate.”
I figured, entirely mistakenly, that this was just another right-wing nutjob (RWNJ) who was mocking Chely and me by taking the opportunity to hurl the totally fake-news construct “spygate” as a means of promoting common anti-Obama RWNJ racism, much in the same manner as yelling out “Benghazi.”
So I did something I rarely do. I responded.
“As would any racist,” I tweeted back at Byron.
Like I said, I rarely respond. It only opens the floodgates for RWNJs.
I remember one time in particular, years ago. I don’t remember my tweet that started it, but I got scores of insulting RWNJ responses, the worst one being, “You look like Bozo the Clown!”
I didn’t hold back.
“What a vile, disgusting thing to say!” I tweeted back, then apologized to Bozo the Clown.
Like most RWNJs, this Bozo not only hadn’t use his real name, but put up a phony profile pic as well. I could only presume now that Byron was my new guy’s real name, and that one of the two guys in his pic was him.
Then I did something I almost never do. I blocked Byron—after clicking on his Twitter page and looking at his tweets and deciding that while I couldn’t be 100 percent sure that he was in fact a right-wing nutjob (they did seem to lean conservative enough), he still seemed to have attacked me with the bullshit “Spygate” epithet.
And that probably might have been the end of it, though I did notice for the next hour or so an increasingly bad taste in my mouth. So when I returned to Twitter and saw that “Monkey” was still trending (now joined by “Spygate”) I reopened my own personal investigation and soon realized that there was in fact a faction that was certain that it wasn’t “Monkey” that had been yelled out, but “Spygate.”
If this were true, of course, it changed everything, and put me in a hot spot should I have cared–and I did care.
I scrolled down a ways until I found video evidence, i.e., tweeted tape of the moment in question. I gave it repeated listenings, and sure enough, I could hear it both ways. But I surely would have ruled in favor of “Spygate.”
If it was “Spygate,” obviously, Trump was no less racist. But just as obviously, Byron could not be called racist at all, and I was absolutely wrong in my response to him. I immediately dug into my Twitter settings and unblocked him. What I should have done was apologized outright then and there, and that probably might have been the end of it.
So I just let it go, though I felt bad enough that I decided that I was going to write this piece. Just a few graphs. I didn’t know then how far and long it would take me.
Now I haven’t mentioned that when I went to Byron’s Twitter page the first time I found that he was following me. I get unfollowed and unfriended all the time—always a likelihood when you’re honest and outspoken. But I really hate pressing that button myself, especially when it’s a Twitter follower—though I had no idea why, based on my meager understanding/misunderstanding of his politics, Byron would want to follow me.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I woke up yesterday, checked Facebook, and found a direct message from one Byron Lee Bess…, a profile pic beneath his cut-off surname in the small lower right-hand corner message box showing a handsome young man holding up an adorable baby.
“Call me a racist?” the message from Byron Lee Bess… read. “You know nothing about me. I hope you figure out one day how judgmental you are.”
This had to be before coffee. It took me a moment to realize it was Twitter Byron. And I’m not sure I clicked on his name to go to his page to learn anything further about Byron Lee Bess…—though I would later.
“My bad,” I quickly messaged back.
“No grudges held,” Byron Lee Bess… came back just as quickly. “Debates lead to results sometimes.”
Pretty decent, I thought, especially since I’d clearly struck a nerve.
Technically, of course, I didn’t call him a racist, not directly. But he certainly could have interpreted it that way, and I certainly suggested it.
Again, that probably might have been the end of it. But a few hours later I got another Twitter notification.
This time it was from someone who liked a tweet I was mentioned in–a tweet from Byron that I somehow hadn’t seen.
“Its all good,” he had tweeted, presumably as part of a response and thread.
“We have to stand up to it. @JimBessman blocked me and called me racist. Happens all the time. They just can’t see past their own hate, to be able to see what’s real and what isn’t.”
I was just about to start writing this roundabout mea culpa, and now I had this new notification to consider. I was going to take off the gloves and defend myself thusly: “Since I’ve been called out publicly now, I admit to being hateful—as it relates to bigotry, injustice, white supremacy, nationalism, religionism, militarism, inequality, desecration of the planet and its human and nonhuman inhabitants…and I do not love any who support and promote such behavior.”
But I caught hold of myself this time, knowing that if I had posted, there probably might have been no end to it.
I did, however, post this: “As I told you elsewhere [meaning Facebook], I was wrong–though it was an honest mistake. As you told me elsewhere, you don’t hold grudges. I made an incorrect assumption based on your tweet. Now you’re doing the same. I also unblocked you. I’m not the only one with a problem.”
I did have another problem, though, in that I without any doubt owed Byron an apology.
But now came the shocker.
I went back to Byron’s Twitter profile pic—the thumbnail of the young man in camo next to the guy with the ball cap. This time I clicked on it, bringing me to his Twitter page—and a slightly enlarged pic. I clicked on it once more, and voila!, the guy with the cap was now recognizable as Gary Sinise, a fine actor, big veterans supporter, and a Reagan/McCain/Romney conservative Republican who refused to support Trump in 2016—by today’s standards, a RINO, and one I can respect.
But it was the guy standing next to him in uniform—U.S. Army combat uniform, urban camo, its nameplate all caps, now enlarged enough to read: BESSMAN.
Stunned, I clicked over to Facebook, and Byron Lee Bess…’s message from early morning. This time I clicked on his profile pic in the little box, which took me to his page…and there he was, Byron Lee Bessman, Jr. Dallas, Georgia. Born September, 1984. Lovely wife and kid.
I guess seeing “Byron Lee Bess…” in the little box that morning before the coffee kicked in had gone right past me. Or maybe I thought it was some Facebook trick to get through to me, though I have seen the “Bessman” name pop up on Facebook now and then, that was neither mine nor my sister’s. I even saw another Jim Bessman on Facebook some years ago, though this was an impersonator using my name and profile picture.
Coincidentally, I discovered all this last night while watching New York’s Metropolitan Opera stream of Verdi’s Il Trovatore, the historic 2015 production featuring the late Siberian legend Dmitri Hvorostovsky in his triumphant return to the Met, in the role of the villainous Count di Luna, following treatment for the brain cancer that would shortly take his life. The plot revolves around the abduction of the Count’s brother by a gypsy when both were babies, and I switched between it and a modern tragedy, the Republican Convention.
I didn’t mistakenly kill my brother as in Il Trovatore, though I symbolically offed my Facebook impersonator by informing Facebook authorities. Recalling this, I suddenly remembered I did also once find a James Bessman–who wasn’t me–from somewhere down South, maybe a relative of Byron’s, who was deceased.
Bessman isn’t a common name, but I doubt I’m any relation to Byron, for I think I would have known. He’s a religious person, which I’m not, but he might like my Facebook page photo with my Southern gospel luminary friend Bill Gaither, also the one with Kris Kristofferson, a Christian and true living saint.
I’m not a militarist, but that doesn’t mean I don’t respect and support the military. Byron might also appreciate that my father was a retired Army officer who earned the Distinguished Service Cross in World War II and also served as a Marine in the Second Nicaraguan Campaign of the early 1930s, when the U.S. occupied the country while fighting the revolutionary guerilla leader Augusto C. Sandino. (Sandino was assassinated in 1934, thereby paving the way for decades of ruthless dictatorship—his name living on in the Sandinista movement that eventually ousted the dictatorship in the late ’70s.)
I was well into writing this piece last night when I had one final Twitter exchange with Byron Lee Bessman, Jr.
“No grudge held,” he wrote, replying to my preceding post, which in all honesty, now seems rather petty. But this is all about being honest.
“That was right after you blocked me,” Byron continued. “So more of a reaction, than a grudge. I’ll delete it if you’d like.”
“No, man, you’re good. I figured that,” I replied. “You may not know that I’m a writer and I’m writing this whole thing up, part explanation, part apology–which I definitely owe you. The weirdest thing is, I got started on it, but had to go back and look everything up…and only then discovered your last name! Hope you’ll enjoy it, but it definitely is apologetic. An honest mistake, but definitely my mistake.”
“Much appreciated,” Byron responded. “I’ll definitely read it. You’re as much entitled to your opinion on everything as the next person, and I respect that. Keep doing what you do. Thank you for following back up.”
I thought he was being too good about it.
“As are you, of course,” I said. “It really stems from my innocent misunderstanding. All best!”
Yes, it was my innocent misunderstanding, and not one of my better Twitter moments. I wish I could promise it won’t happen again, but I know myself better.
I’m glad Byron is so gracious. There are a lot of people on social media who wouldn’t be.
Having begun this with my friend Chely Wright, I’ll end with another friend and a classic song he wrote and performed during a contentious time much like this one.
Here’s the great Jim Post, and the song he wrote and performed in Friend & Lover.
The Friday before Christmas is pretty much it, at least as far as I remember of the music business. Record companies probably start shutting down a week earlier, maybe Billboard, too, which ends the year a week early with a double issue and likewise takes the last week of the year off. Or it used to, at least.
Then again, the music business seems so long ago to me, yet here I was, the Friday before Christmas (Dec. 20), being let into the PlayStation Theater and given as good a seat as they have, almost like I was still a genuine (pronounced jen-yew-WINE) music bizzer, which really, I haven’t been in some 15 years.
Three nights earlier I’d walked past the PlayStation (near the corner of Broadway on 45th Street–1515 Broadway, the tower housing MTV, and years ago, Billboard) on my way to the Impeachment Eve March, which started at 6:30 in Times Square. My pal Tony was outside doing security, as always, and I hadn’t seen him in a while, so I stopped and said hi.
I used to see Tony all the time when we were both members of the West Side YMCA, where I’d been a member since I moved to New York in 1981 or ‘82 (I can never remember which year exactly, and I’m too lazy to do the math, but it was the day after Christmas, and I was able to get a great ticket to Elvis Costello–with NRBQ opening–on New Year’s Eve at The Palladium.
(Now begins a typically pointless four-paragraph digression. You can keep reading, or scroll down to get back on track.)
I’d been a member of the Y since I was in high school in Madison, Wisconsin, one of the few habits I’d picked up from my father–and likely the only good one. I belonged to Madison’s West Side Y in high school, which was new then, and near James Madison Memorial High School, which I attended, at the city’s edge when it opened in 1968, I think. Later, when I lived downtown and worked at the State, I joined the Downtown Y that my father went to, a block up from the State Capitol building on West Washington Ave.
My father was a federal bankruptcy judge, and a lot of the
Downtown Y membership was likewise lawyers and state, city and county civil
servants. I lived a couple blocks on the other side of the Capitol and worked
at the old State Office Building on 1 West Wilson St. a couple blocks South
overlooking Lake Monona, where Otis Redding’s plane went down while I was still
in high school.
But it was three or four years later now, maybe five, and I had very few high school friends left. One day I happened on one of them, Tory, now working at the Downtown Y, at the membership desk, handing out towels. I didn’t really have a lot of friends in high school, and while I always liked Tory–who was a bit of a character, as I recall–I didn’t know her that well, but I was soon going over to her and her husband’s place for dinner and dope. Then a year or two after moving here, I heard that she was a whole lot smarter than her job might have suggested: She somehow rose to a more powerful position of influence at the Y and got them to commit to building a new modern facility, as the current one was probably as old as the capitol itself. So they tore it down, then found out that Tory was either the ultimate scammer or totally insane and had made everything up—and understandably disappeared, leaving nothing but a deep hole in the ground where a venerable Y used to stand, not to mention that West Side Y, where I used to play paddle ball with my friend Greg, before he moved on to the newer sport of racquet ball.
Greg was quite good, by the way. Me? I went for a shot deep against the right sidewall, missed it, but in a most remarkable feat of uncoordination–and/or a very lame early suicide attempt–sliced open my left eyebrow in the follow-through and needed stitches. Greg eventually went on to hang himself (see preceding post, Three nights in L.A.).
Returning to the present, it was a great march. I took a lot of fab Instagram/Facebook/Twitter pics, and then the next day for some reason—maybe an email or Facebook notice—I saw that Samantha Fish was playing Friday night at the PlayStation, a 10-minute walk from my apartment.
I’d never seen Samantha, but I knew of her through my Madison pal Rockin’ John McDonald, who plays her now and then on his venerable I Like It Like That oldies show on listener-sponsored station WORTFM.org, since she’s one of the few contemporary artists who fits his 1950s/’60s rock ‘n’ roll format. But at this late state of my so-called career, there was no one I could call for a ticket or a pass. I mean, shit, I didn’t even know what label she was on.
Then I thought of Tony and figured he’d be happy to slide me in, and sure enough, he was. When I got to the venue we talked a bit about how bad everything is, namely the music and concert business, since there was nothing to bring me to the PlayStation in years, and Tony himself didn’t care about the music there–also the fact that the theater had been bought out and was shutting down at the end of the month, to be overhauled before reopening under new name and management and leaving him without a job.
And, of course, Trump. Tony was extremely depressed over the prospects of impeachment and the election. But he was happy to walk me in, handing me a ticket and wristband, and it was a great seat–in the best section in the house (first row, center aisle in the elevated section overlooking the floor). It was 7:10, so I had 50 minutes to kill before the opening act.
Now at my age and condition, I don’t want to waste any time, which I was about to do. But I’d come prepared, as always: two pens—one fountain, one ballpoint—and a fresh Portage Pocket Notebook (“for journalists, radio/TV reporters and law enforcement officers). The only thing I didn’t bring was any idea to write about, and my usually wandering mind was stuck on start.
But I was unusually filled with Christmas cheer. I’d had lunch earlier with two friends from the Russian News Agency TASS—Igor Borisenko, the current bureau chief, and Elya Polyakova, office manager.
Elya! Say it loud and there’s music playing….
Actually, it’s kind of a nickname for Elvira, which would be closer to “Maria” in West Side Story–the “i” pronounced “ee” as in “deer” I believe, but I’ve never heard her called that. Russian names generally have different forms according to relationships, as I’d learned after many years of friendship with New York and Moscow TASS staffers (Vladimir, for another example, can become Volodya, or Vova).
Back in the Soviet era I was actually under FBI surveillance (probably still am) but I’ve already digressed too much here to digress even further in recounting it now. I will say, though, that it had been a long time since I’d had lunch with TASS friends, let alone seen them at the end of the year, when years ago they’d have great office Christmas parties attended by the Consul General and head of New York’s Russian Orthodox Church, other Russian dignitaries and foreign press friends, not to mention Nina Khruscheva, Nikita’s great-granddaughter (!), noted author and professor of international affairs here at The New School. At the party, my dearest friend Volodiya Kikilo would always ceremoniously present me with a big, gift-wrapped bottle of premium vodka (I’d bring a big box of Bisco Latte biscotti, made by my neighborhood friend and baker supreme Holly DeSantis).
I’d return to the bureau on New Year’s Eve Day afternoon to listen to the Kremlin Countdown. So it was great to reinstitute my TASS holiday tradition, and Igor came through with a big bottle of Russian Standard.
So as I sat there at PlayStation, still a bit lit from lunch, I began to write down what I remembered from it, then jumping to other meandering thoughts, switching between pens depending on the need for speed (the fountain pen flows faster, but if I slow down I’ll switch to a rollerball or ballpoint, since I can’t retract the fountain pen nib and don’t want to keep capping it to keep it from drying, and clip it to my shirt pocket).
One thought that entered my mind, though, was, When was the last time I was at PlayStation? I wasn’t even sure I was at a show when it was called the PlayStation! I bet I hadn’t been at the 2,100-seat theater since it was called the Best Buy Theater before changing ownership and name in 2015.
I did remember seeing Elvis Costello there once long ago–which was unforgettable—or maybe it was the maybe more recent big Grateful Dead tribute act Dark Star–but all I remember of that show was smoking a joint backstage with star Deadhead Bill Walton, which was great, for sure.
And suddenly it was 8 o’clock. Tony said he’d seen the opening act, Nicholas David, during soundcheck, and that he was excellent. Tony was right. Nicholas David, from St. Paul, looked like a young Dr. John, played and sang like one (though I was later told he’d never heard of Dr. John when he started approximating him) while leading a crack bassist and drummer—who was from Omaha, where we used to pass through on our way from Madison to Lincoln to visit my mom’s family when I was a kid. Of course he was way too young to know the most important cultural reference to Omaha…no! Not Peyton Manning’s famous “indicator word” for calling an audible at the line of scrimmage, but Moby Grape’s classic flop single “Omaha.”
Unbeknownst to me, David had been a finalist on the third season of The Voice, and was now the second artist I’d seen in two weeks that I hadn’t heard of that blew me the fuck away, the first being Shinyribs, the ultra-hot Austin show band that opened for Robert Earl Keen’s Christmas show at Town Hall. Switching between fountain pen (a trusty Lamy black Safari with black fine nib) and ballpoint (Retro 51 Elephant & Rhino Rescue, Series I) as David did a very soulful “Joy to the World,” I thought of St. Paul’s twin sister city Minneapolis, and the three great bands I knew from there: Sussman Lawrence, which turned into the Peter Himmelman Band; The Suburbs (the band, I always say, that died so that The Replacements could live) and The Wallets. David slid from ballads (great job on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”) to funky originals, and when he was done, I headed out to his merch table to meet him and maybe impress him by dropping these names.
More likely, he’d look at me like the old geezer I am, since he had to be way too young to have even heard of these bands. But the Suburbs’ keyboardist/songwriter/vocalist Chan Poling is still quite active doing all kinds of things—including the occasional ‘Burbs reunion gig and album release, while Jeff Victor, Sussman Lawrence/Himmelman Band’s genius keyboardist, is famous locally as the NBA house organist for the Minnesota Timberwolves, and guest organist for the Minnesota Twins, also among other things. As for The Wallets, they only had two albums, and their most brilliant founder Steve Kramer, a wonderful painter and accordionist who composed experimental polka music, died in 2013. Their fabulous 1986 album Take It was produced by Allen Toussaint, and whenever I saw Allen I’d stop him dead in his tracks by reminding him it was my favorite album of his, and was pleased I even knew it existed.
But before I could get to David’s merch set-up I got waylaid
at Samantha’s by Rounder Records’ Regina Joskow, a longtime publicist friend,
though I’m so out of it now I didn’t know that Samantha was on Rounder, let
alone had a new record out.
Regina was with Sam’s manager Reuben Williams, who brought
us both back to say hi to her before going on. When I told him I’d got hip to
her through Rockin’ John in Madison, he revealed that he was friends with my
junior high school buddy and future blues harmonica ace Westside Andy
“Let me take your name down,” I said to Reuben, wanting to have it handy next time I saw Andy during a Madison visit. Reuben laughed heartily and turned to the guy in the dressing room next to him and said, ‘Look, Howie! He’s taking my name down!” I only knew what came next would be embarrassing at the very least.
Sure enough, the guy, who looked a bit like a very young Al Wolovitch of Sussman Lawrence (bassist), started laughing, then introduced himself.
“I’m Howie Schnee! We’ve met many times—and you never
I was mightily embarrassed, indeed, and profusely
“Then you know me!” I said. “I always forget even who I am—and I get this all the time.”
Howie kept laughing.
“It’s okay!” he said, explaining that I’d told him all this before, and had subitted the surefire “I smoke a lot of pot!” as an excuse. He even remembered meeting me at a songwriters “In Their Own Words” show at The Bottom Line, starring Kris Kristofferson, Lou Reed, Suzanne Vega and Victoria Williams, which I vaguely remembered myself—the show, that is, in 1994.
We said hi to Samantha, who’s from Kansas City but based in New Orleans—where she’d brought Nicholas David down to produce his own fab new album Yesterday’s Gone (on her Wild Heart Records label), then Reuben and I talked about Louisiana Cajun artists we both knew before he slipped me an “All Access” pass and I headed back to my seat by way of David’s merch table. This time he was there, and actually knew who Chan Poling was: One for three is not bad anymore, for an old man.
Speaking of old men, the only criticism I have of Samantha’s set, which was otherwise so much more than all I had hoped for, was that it was way too loud for a guy who has to have the TV on all night to drown out his tinnitus—maybe even as loud as John Fogerty, who I can never understand why he pushes it up so high. I used to always bring earplugs but I go to rock shows so rarely now, and those I go to are by artists pretty much as old and hearing-impaired as I am, so I no longer know where they are. Luckily I had an old Dunkin’ Donuts napkin decomposing in my jacket pocket—actually in better condition than the jacket—and managed to find just enough of it that was still solid enough to stuff into my ears.
“How are we doing, PlayStation Theater?” Samantha asked after “Bulletproof,” the down-and-dirty fuzz-toned lead track from her new, wonderfully titled album Kill or Be Kind. We were doing fine, I said to myself. Near-dead PlayStation Theater, not so much. But I did feel a little bad for her, since my seat was elevated just enough to look down on the floor, where I could see all the bald male heads except, fortunately, my own. I remembered the last time I saw Maria McKee in New York, at Joe’s Pub, many years ago, and she complained that her audience was always mostly middle-aged men—except it had to be worse for Samantha, because she’s only 30 and us then-middle agers were pretty much Maria’s contemporaries. And now that we’re all at least twice Sam’s age, we were all pretty sedate for such a high-energy show.
“We’re in some tough times,” said Samantha, as my balled-up
Dunkin’ Donuts napkin plugs decomposed some more, though at a slower rate than
me and my fellow baldies. “But live music makes it a bit better–at least for
me.” As Rockin’ John always says after announcing the local club gigs in the
middle of his two-hour show, “Go out and support your favorite bands. They’ll
appreciate it—and you’ll feel good about it.”
Samantha was leading into an older, ironically titled song, “American Dream”:
Blood on a street, it’s another new day Lost count of how many died, at least I’m doing it my way You’re the liberated, you are the free Free to cry and die disenfranchised, blessed as a country.”
After the encore I peeled off the backing of my All Access pass and went back to Samantha’s dressing room where Howie (See, Howie? I remember your name!) wondered about her name, i.e., its nationality, its ethnicity, since, he said, “a lot of Jews are named Fish,” or some variant with “Fish” in it.
“There are a lot of Fishes,” she said. But only one big one, I thought to myself–and kept it there.
I slobbered a bit and said goodbye, went home, broke open that big new bottle of Russian Standard and poured a stiff shot into my metal Robert Earl Keen “The Road Goes on Forever” shot glass and drank myself into a stupor so deep I didn’t need the TV on.
They say there’s nothing like hitting a good golf shot, and I suppose they’re right–though having never hit one, I wouldn’t really know.
Come to think of it, I have hit one good one I can remember, a birdie putt on a Par 3, and I think it’s because we smoked a joint on the way to the green. It was like I could see a path in bluish green curling 10 feet from the ball to the hole and I just stroked it along the guiding line.
I guess it’s the intense satisfaction we get, maybe instinctive, when achieving something requiring a refined skill, like sinking a putt, swishing a basketball into the net, kicking a soccer ball or driving a puck into a goal, pitching a ball into a catcher’s glove, hitting a target with a dart, bow-and-arrow or firearm.
Or even fitting that final piece into a jigsaw puzzle. I’m reflecting on this now after seeing Puzzle, the wonderful relationship/self-discovery movie about a repressed Connecticut housewife who finds herself after getting a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle gifted to her for her birthday. Played beautifully by Scottish actress Kelly Macdonald of Boardwalk Empire fame, Agnes then visits the puzzle shop in New York City where it was bought and answers a plea posted at the counter for a playing partner for a champion competitive puzzler (the great Indian actor Irrfan Khan).
The remainder of Puzzle—which opened last week in New York and Los Angeles–deals with Agnes’s relationships with Robert (the Khan character), her family, and the puzzles that take her out of her safe but stultifying life via the self-awareness, expression, exploration, fulfillment and empowerment she gains from them, much as one gains from any artistic or enriching diversion. Of course in her case, it also leads to a lot of painful confusion, such that at a pivotal point of self-realization, Agnes demeans it—and by extension, herself and Robert–by calling puzzling “a childish hobby for bored people.”
No, says Robert, “It’s a way to control the chaos. Life is messy, it doesn’t make any goddamn sense. Sorry to break the news to you: Life is random—there’s nothing you can do to control anything…but when you finish a puzzle you know you have made all the right choices.” Even after making many mistakes along the way, “at the very end, everything makes one perfect picture.”
I used to love jigsaw puzzles as a kid. We had a big dining room table that was perfect for assembling them. Now, when I go to the annual Toy Fair trade show at the Javits Center in February, I always make a point of dropping by the puzzle suppliers.
Of course, there have been big changes in jigsaw puzzles in the last 40-some years since I’d worked on one, though basic ones are still the same—lots of little cardboard pieces in a box. But 4D Cityscape, for instance, makes these great three-dimensional puzzle maps of famous cities, where you locate and place key buildings on the maps. Nervous System, whose booth I visited in May at the ICFF furniture fair at Javits, showed its new Geode Puzzle: a jigsaw puzzle inspired by the formation of colorfully banded stone agates created by a generative computer design process that mimics nature in each unique puzzle’s variations in shape, pieces and image.
Ravensburger is one of the biggest puzzle players at Toy Fair, and a few years ago they showed an immense 32,256-piece (!!!) puzzle entitled New York City and featuring a panoramic view of Manhattan, from the top of Rockefeller Center, if I remember correctly. The pieces were packaged in eight separate bags altogether weighing 42 pounds and measuring 17 x 6-feet when completed, which at Toy Fair it was–and displayed in its own specially built room within the big Ravensburger exhibition area. Last time I checked, Amazon had one for $369.99 (and free shipping).
But at this year’s Toy Fair I became fascinated by White Mountain Puzzles, a company known among other things for its 1,000- and 500-piece “collage” jigsaw puzzles, new releases shown at Toy Fair including Things We Collect (everything from baseball cards to model trains and vinyl records), Betty Crocker Cookbooks and World War I Posters. They even have a “puzzle panel” of puzzle enthusiasts on Facebook and an email list, who submit ideas and participate in regular surveys to gauge the appeal of potential puzzle images.
A new series of White Mountain puzzles shown at Toy Fair was tagged “Seek & Find,” and using the example of the thousand-piece Retro Kitchen entry in the “Seek & Find” series, contained 22 “hidden” images in the puzzle that were not pictured on the box, that image depicting a well-stocked mid-20th century-themed kitchen in full party preparation mode (a list of the hidden elements–including a spatula and thermometer–was provided inside the box).
As these collage and “Seek & Find” puzzle examples suggest, many of White Mountain’s designs are nostalgia-related. They also have an “American Pop Culture” collage series, titles including Television Families (including the Flintstones, Beverly Hillbillies, Munsters, Simpsons and Bundys), Candy Wrappers (Cracker Jack, Mike & Ike, Sugar Babies, Jujubes), Fill Her Up—Old Service Stations (Texaco, Sinclair, Shell, Mobilgas) and Route 66 (vintage artwork of picturesque scenery along the historic highway).
But the American Pop Culture puzzle that caught my eye was The Sixties—my decade. Illustrated by artist James Mellett, the 1,000-piece, 24×30-inch collage had so many of my heroes, key events and cultural representations growing up: baseball card replicas of Hank Aaron and Sandy Koufax, Jack Nicklaus, a Green Bay Packers helmet, JFK, MLK, RFK, LBJ, Khruschev, Castro, The Beatles, Joplin, Jagger, Hendrix, Woodstock, drugs, Walter Cronkite, Johnny Carson, Rolling Stone, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., Flower Power, Black Power, a VW bug and hippie van, the moon landing. Oddly, I had a hard time with two of the bigger likenesses, of two of my bigger heroes: Muhammad Ali and Clint Eastwood.
So I wrote a little piece about White Mountain and sent it to Sean Minton, one of the company’s partners, whom I interviewed, asking him at the same time if he might send me the Sixties puzzle—along with a bottle of puzzle glue and a frame. The puzzle and glue arrived a few days later, but not the frame, so I figured maybe I’d asked for too much.
Now I live in a tiny studio apartment, filled to the brim with the detritus accumulated after 40 years of freelance journalism. In other words, I don’t have any space for a dining room table—let alone a dining room. The best I’d be able to do would be to clear some space on the floor for the puzzle assembly, but that would have to wait until the day came when I’d buy a frame, and that day was far away.
But to get a head start I did go on Amazon to see what price they had on frames, only to find a whole lot of other puzzle-related accessories I hadn’t even imagined.
Besides various frames and glues there were sorting trays, roll mats and other devices for carrying or storing finished or unfinished puzzles, large Portapuzzle carrying cases that likewise keep pieces in place while providing a work station, spinning Lazy Susan puzzle bases, puzzle “work surfaces” with sliding storage drawers, even dedicated folding puzzle tables and tabletop easels. If only I had the room!
So all I could do was hold the Sixties puzzle box, unopened, and stare at the picture, until one day, some weeks later, I got a big, 24 x 30-inch box in the mail, maybe another four inches deep. I had no idea what it could be until I saw White Mountain’s return label. Sean had sent me a frame after all! Now what would I do?
I waited another couple weeks or so, getting more and more anxious over the prospect of actually putting it together—and how I could do it without realizing my greatest fear: losing pieces. Eventually I had to give in, and managed to create enough floor space to lay out the box that the frame came in, opening it up vertically to twice the frame size, then taping the four-inch flaps at the corners to contain the pieces. I opened the box, tore open the clear plastic bag holding the pieces, and dumped them into the center of the box.
It was like the beginning of an acid trip. Suddenly everything was blown apart and disjointed. Nothing made sense.
In the movie, Agnes can put a puzzle together easily in an afternoon. When she meets Robert, he shows her how to assemble a puzzle efficiently as a partnership: Sorting the pieces by color, he says, is “the Number 1 rule of competitive puzzling”–among other tried-and-true team strategies.
In my case, I probably didn’t do anything different from what I did the last time I did a puzzle some 50 years ago. While turning over the upside-down pieces I separated the border pieces, then did the same with the right-side-up ones. I then went ahead and constructed the border. All this took most of a Sunday afternoon, at least; Agnes would have had the whole thing put together by then.
But I really didn’t have enough space in the box to work with—though that wasn’t the worst problem, which was the tremendous pain in my knees from kneeling on the floor, not to mention my back and neck from hunching over the puzzle for many hours.
Once most of the border was done I could start dealing with the obvious and major images—Robert Indiana’s famous LOVE pop art image, for example, or the big “Top Songs of the 60’s” LP record or the many representative ‘60s buttons and badges (“Make Love Not War,” “Support Our Boys in Vietnam”)—working on several areas at once, forming floating “islands” within the borders that grew as more pieces were found and added, impinging upon others until that magic moment when the one piece was found that “anchored” the island to the border.
But “island” and “anchor” are my terms, same with “feet”—the varied appendages of pieces that I kept telling myself I was searching for during the endless endeavor to focus on specific shapes, with and without colors matching the holes they would fit in. After a day or so of said talking to myself it dawned on me that there must be a time-honored jigsaw puzzle nomenclature, and sure enough, I found online that what I called “feet” were also known as wings or ears, though there was no universally accepted comprehensive classification of puzzle piece shapes. Other terms for piece-parts employed by both manufacturers and puzzlers include, when paired, loops and sockets, knobs and holes, tabs and slots, keys and locks, and my favorite, denoting the knob that fits into the hole of the adjoining piece, “bobble.”
Besides the pain–which required regular breaks for stretching and repositioning–I was hindered by the lack of adequate space to spread out the many small “puzzles within the puzzle” with their presumed loose pieces, and since I didn’t have any of the sorting tray systems, I made one of my own out of the puzzle box and a couple plastic food containers. But there was no solving the other major problem: hopelessly lost track of time.
I was in the middle of auditing two college courses at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and I was able to pull myself away from the puzzle to go to the Monday and Wednesday classes. But that was it. I stopped going to the gym, stopped eating, stopped taking medication, answering the phones, returning emails, tweeting and facebooking. Forgot about the news online and TV and recording my usual shows and movies. Aching and exhausted, I’d finally lie down around 2 a.m. for a few hours, then bleary-eyed, resume my obsession.
The good part was that with every piece properly placed, there was one less one to find. And after so many hours—and days—of trial-and-error, I eventually started remembering where some of the unplaced pieces were, once their mates were in position—kind of like the old Concentration game show and card game.
But by now, totally addicted, I was having a hard time seeing straight. Luckily, pieces were starting to miraculously appear, and some that I picked that I though I knew where they went I suddenly found fit somewhere else. Everything was starting to speed up: As the acid trip started wearing off, the dust of the initial explosion settling, the slow rebuilding of consciousness and control gave way to clarity.
Still, there was one final, nagging fear, going all the way back to the last time I did a jigsaw puzzle at home on the family’s dining room table: Did I lose any pieces? This time there would be no cat or dog to blame if I had—only my nasty habit of setting a piece down out of the way amidst the surrounding clutter and forgetting where I set it. And the faster I was finishing it up, the bigger the empty spaces yet to be filled seemed to be.
I was sure I was missing anywhere from five to 20 pieces, yet lo and behold, when I put in what I thought was the final piece, I had one left over! By now I was both so exhilarated and delirious that I actually freaked out–to use another acid trip metaphor—then had to pore over the completed puzzle and finally run my hand on it slowly and methodically until I sensed the one missing hole.
I don’t know if it was joy or exhaustion, but I was drained emotionally upon completing the puzzle, incredibly, in only three days. I was just so driven to get it done and out of the way—and not lose any of the pieces in the process. Of course, it wasn’t over, even then: I still had to glue it—which wasn’t a problem after watching a few YouTube videos—and then get it into the frame, which was a problem in that even with all the glue, some sections popped out while transferring it to the frame and had to be reset.
As for the “problem” of the jigsaw puzzle pursuit as a whole, I found a pretty good quote while researching competitive puzzling, which I didn’t know even existed until seeing Puzzle.
“It’s a problem where you know there’s a solution. If you just work at it you know you can solve it and when you’re done you know you’ve solved it completely and correctly,” said Mike Helland of the championship four-person team The Collectors, to CBS Minnesota, on the eve of the St. Paul Winter Carnival, home of the country’s biggest jigsaw puzzle contest, in January of last year.
Or as Robert says in Puzzle, “What other pursuits can give you that kind of perfection? Faith? Ambition? Wealth? Love? No. Not even love can do that. Not completely.”
By this time in the film Agnes, by way of puzzling, has stepped out of her marriage and family, and has become so bold in her newly achieved sense of self that she even casts away Robert’s puzzle rules, and wins—with him—on her own terms.
As I always stay until the end of the credits, I was able to catch Sean Minton’s name in the closing thank-yous, along with another puzzle trade contact, Paula Jo Lentz of Ravensburger. And now I must note that while White Mountain doesn’t offer a golf puzzle as such, its Things to Do in Naples FL features a colorful road map with the location of things to do and places to see, bordered by 40 or so squares singling out posh resorts and popular attractions like The Caribbean Gardens Zoo, Everglades Excursions, and Naples Grande Golf Club–one of the top 100 resort courses in North America.
I met Ken Burns in Central Park at a kickoff event for his 2009 The National Parks: America’s Best Idea documentary series, which included performances from Jose Feliciano, whom I was so excited to meet, and my friends Alison Krauss & Union Station. Peter Coyote, the series narrator, was there, too, and it was great to meet him: I was a huge fan of A Grande Arte (US title: Exposure), a 1991 Brazilian film directed by Walter Salles Jr. in which he learned knife-fighting; I was training in Filipino martial arts, and knew that its knife fight-training and fighting scenes were unusually realistic.
Peter was impressed that I knew the film, which to my knowledge never came out on DVD—despite my efforts to convince Criterion and other companies to do so. He said it was one of his favorites, too.
But Peter is also the voice of Ken’s 18-hour The Vietnam War series, which concluded it’s two-week premiere run two weeks ago on PBS. I watched it with a dread shared probably by everyone of my generation, knowing that if I hadn’t lost it by the time it got to Kent State, I surely would then. Sure enough, my eyes moistened and dripped during the eighth of the 10 episodes when the indelible scenes of the May 4, 1970 Kent State killings were replayed. It brought back the never-forgotten memories of my moist and dripping eyes after being smothered by clouds of tear gas on the University of Wisconsin campus during the Vietnam War protest years.
I’ll never forget running up the parking ramp next to the McDonald’s at State and Lake Streets just a couple blocks from State and Park at the foot of Bascom Hill after a canister of gas was tossed or fired in my direction by the National Guard. I ran all the way up to the top of the ramp, only to realize, to my breathless horror, that there was no stairway*, and that I had to run back down, now into the clouds of gas that were billowing upwards and out into the ramp.
But I had it worse one night when a can of pepper gas exploded right in front of me and into my eyes. I was a bit lower on State Street, and I knew that the Hillel Foundation a block north on Langdon was a treatment center. I got there somehow and they flushed it out of my eyes and I was back out on the street. Like every other night of the many nights of Vietnam War protests on campus, I’d get home after and shower the gas out of my long hair and back into my eyes before rinsing it all out.
Once the gas came, the massive demonstrations, which would start in twilight and center at State and Park, would break up in all directions.
One time I was in a big group walking up Bascom Hill into the heart of the university. It got dark and there were police everywhere, and a National Guard helicopter overhead with a searchlight beaming down on small groups of demonstrators and lighting the way for arrests and/or police brutality. I hid in the bushes on the shores of Lake Mendota hoping to not get spotted. We called it “bringing the War back home.”
The Vietnam War brought it all back home, all right, including, of course, the music. Much of the soundtrack was ‘60s anthems, many of them war-related, like famous Dylan, Baez and Beatles songs. The Stones’ “Street Fighting Man” was used, and it was one of the songs that blared out of dormitory windows as we marched by—even though the words are really about the lack of street-fighting men in “sleepy London town.”
The other song I remember blasting out of the dorms made perfect sense, and should have been in The Vietnam War: Jefferson Airplane’s “Volunteers of America”:
Look what’s happening out in the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Hey, I’m dancing down the streets
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
Oh, ain’t it amazing all the people I meet?
Got a revolution (got to revolution)
One generation got old
One generation got soul.
Talkin’ ‘bout my g-g-generation.
Many years later, downstairs at Radio City at a reception after a Jefferson Starship show, I told this to Grace Slick. She laughed and said she’d heard that from a lot of people.
Over the years I got to meet and sometimes know a lot of the artists whose songs were part of the Vietnam War soundtrack, most notably including Dylan, Baez, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Keith Richards and Charlie Watts, John Fogerty, Eric Burdon and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young. CSN&Y, of course, consecrated Kent State with their hit “Ohio.”
Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We’re finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.
Add songs from the aforementioned artists and talk about “the soundtrack of our lives.”
I got suspended from James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, Wisconsin, for protesting the Kent State killings, along with 100 others. An underground paper called us “The Memorial 101.” I celebrated by getting tear gassed again downtown on campus that night.
There are four images indelible in my mind from Vietnam and I knew I’d see all of them in The Vietnam War.
First was the South Vietnames officer holding the pistol to the head of the Vietcong guy in Saigon and blowing his brains out.
Second was the little naked girl with her back burned off running down the road.
Third was the bodies lined up roadside in My Lai.
Fourth was the teenage girl, 14-year-old Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the body of the student shot dead by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State, crying out in shock and anguish.
The dead boy was Jeffrey Miller. Killed, too, were Sandra Scheuer, William Schroeder and Allison Krause. Like I always say, “the other Alison Krauss.”
Four dead in Ohio.
I remember their names like I remember James Chaney, Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman—the three civl rights activists murdered by the Klan in Mississippi in 1964, and Viola Liuzzo, whose son I met in July in Milwauke at an Elvis Costello concert, she being the civil rights activist who was murdered by the Klan in Alabama in 1965. And now Heather Heyer.
A year earlier—the second Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam, Nov. 15, 1969—I was at St. Paul’s University Catholic Church, on State near Park and Bascom Hill, for a performance by Peter, Paul and Mary, all of whom I would later get to know. In fact, it was at Mary Travers’ memorial in 2009 where I met George McGovern, as great a man who ever served his country.
I had gone to the 1972 Democratic Convention in Miami Beach, where McGovern was nominated, disastrously. Can’t remember the name of the park where all us demonstrators gathered and crashed, though one night I wound up in some cool place in Coconut Grove. At the park I hung out with Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, Abbie Hoffman and Germaine Greer. And I went to a screening of the documentary F.T.A. starring Jane Fonda and Donald Sutherland (who were there) and the musicians and performers who accompanied them on their touring satirical revue staged at coffeehouse and parks near U.S. Army bases where soldiers against the war congregated–F.T.A. generally understood to mean “Fuck the Army,” or as was also stated in the film, “Free the Army.”
It was a wonderful film that was apparently yanked out of distribution immediately because Jane infamously went to Hanoi the same week it opened. I saw it again a few years ago when it came out on DVD and it really was great. It also starred folksinger Holly Near—whom I later got to know—and Len Chandler, the historic African-American folk/protest singer-songwriter from the Greenwich Village scene who influenced Dylan–and who I wish I’d gotten to know. He did an antiwar song in the film that I’ve searched all over for and can’t find, called “My Ass is Mine.” It went, as musicians often say, something like this:
First they draft your ass
Then they train your ass
Then they kick your ass
And then they kill your ass
Well they can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass
They can kiss my ass.
I got drafted in 1971. They were using a lottery system and my birthday drew a low number, 100, I think, or maybe it was 90. I’d originally been given a 1-Y classification, meaning I was qualified for service only in time of war or national emergency. But I still had to get on a bus one morning with other draftees and ride to Milwaukee and take a physical exam. About all I remember is the shit box lunch they gave us and stooping down around in our underwear and doing the “duck walk.”
I was pretty confident of being disqualified for good, due to very real mental illness–not to mention bad asthma and feet flatter than a Vietnamese rice paddy. Sure enough, I was given the coveted 4-F classification–not acceptable for military service. Years later I was burning a big one with Ray Benson, the great frontman of the great western swing band Asleep at the Wheel. He suggested someone write a book about how famous people got out of going to Vietnam. I don’t remember how Ray got out, but I did have a high school friend who put a bullet in his foot claiming it was a hunting accident—which was epidemic at the time among draftees—and another who passed his physical, then told the draft board that he was gay, which he wasn’t. They punched him hard in the jaw and told him to get the fuck out of there.
Had I not got my 4-F I would have applied for conscientious objector status, though if I told the truth that I was atheist I might have been denied. So I would have gone to Canada, or jail, or Australia: I’d actually researched Australia at one time as they advertised for migrants in the classified ad section of The New Republic, then a genuinely liberal magazine, and I had a fondness for kangaroos and The Easybeats.
But I can’t remember if it was after all this or before, when I either saw Jane Fonda again or for the first time. But either way, it was pretty pathetic.
She was speaking on campus at some big, packed lecture hall just off State Street. At the end she took questions, and I desperately wanted to ask her something, just to have a personal exchange. I meekly raised my hand, stood up and started asking, and halfway forgot who I was and where I was and what I was doing, let alone whatever it was I was trying to ask. She was so beautiful, still in the Klute gamin haircut, and I was so starstruck. But she was so good: She knew what I was trying to ask, finished my question and answered it.
But it only got worse. I couldn’t control myself, and trailed her and a handful of other activists all the way down State Street to the State Capitol, where they met with a representative or two who were also antiwar. I don’t think I said a word the whole time.
So I had to laugh out loud when John Musgrave, a Marine and maybe the most eloquent and thoughtful Vietnam veteran appearing in The Vietnam War, acknowledged how Jane Fonda was everyone’s fantasy, so much so that he hated her when she went to Hanoi and became “Hanoi Jane.” But after stating this, Musgrave, who eventually turned against the war himself after returning to the States, paused and smiled, in spite of himself: “She was our fantasy,” he said, and even now, 50 years later, she still is.
A number of other Vietnam War vets, family members and other functionaries participated in The Vietnam War, and while most of them likewise looked back with some degree of regret if not shame, a few also stood out. These included Carol Crocker, who also turned against the war after losing her older brother Denton W. Crocker, Jr., known now forever to me and probably everyone who watched as “Mogie.”
While Mogie and John Musgrave were fighting the War in Vietnam, I and so many others in Madison and the rest of the country were fighting against it. But it was marred in Madison by the Aug. 24, 1970 Sterling Hall Bombing, which was intended to destroy the Army Mathematics Research Center that was housed in the UW building, but unintentionally took the life of university physics researcher Robert Fassnacht—whose name I still remember.
I still remember the names of the four bombers, too—Karleton Armstrong and younger brother Dwight Armstrong, David Fine and Leo Burt. I met the Armstrongs after they were caught and released from prison, and met David Fine after he was caught and sentenced, and trained briefly at the taekwondo school I attended before beginning his prison term. Leo Burt was never apprehended.
I was surprised, many years later, that Ethan Coen knew the names of all the bombers, who called themselves “the New Year’s Gang,” having failed in an attempt to destroy the huge Badger Army Ammunition Plant in nearby Sauk County by means of dropping homemade explosives from a stolen small plane on New Year’s Eve, 1969. But the Coens were from Minneapolis and no doubt went through the same shit as I did growing up, and had also lived briefly in Madison when their dad taught a semester at the UW. Their lesser-known 2009 movie masterpiece A Serious Man, while not concerning Vietnam specifically, delivers much of the flavor of being a kid growing up in the ’60s in the Midwest, using Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow album, which I knew by heart, for much of the soundtrack.
As for growing up with the War, this was documented in The War at Home, a documentary film of the Vietnam War years in Madison. And it all came back home to me while watching The Vietnam War. Then again, it never really left.
As Phil Gioia, U.S. Army, put it so well in The Vietnam War: “The Vietnam War drove a stake right into the heart of America. It polarized the country in a way that it had probably never been polarized since before The Civil War and unfortunately we’ve never really moved far away from that and we never recovered.”
I’m reminded of one of my favorite lines, the last line, in fact, of one of my favorite Clint Eastwood movies, The Outlaw Josey Wales, in reference to The Civil War, which had destroyed his family and turned him into an understandably vengeful but not unjust outlaw: “I guess we all died a little in that damn war.”
I always come out to L.A. around third week of August, so it’s no big coincidence that I’m on the plane now, 9:10 a.m. ET, Aug. 22, six years to the day that I was flying back from L.A., during which time Nick Ashford died.
I knew it was coming, since Liz Rosenberg had called me before I left with the news that it was imminent. I’ve written about my thoughts on the flight elsewhere in this series, I’m sure–meaning, I’m pretty sure–and how when I called my voicemail upon landing was instructed to come straight to the house, which I did, in shorts and t-shirt, luggage in tow.
Every night of Aug. 22 now I tweet “Nick Ashford lives,” only this night, nine hours ago as I write this, just after midnight, I was immediately echoed poetically by Nicole Ashford, for whom her father was “always there in some form, always there pushing me on, never forgotten never gone.”
Accompanying her post was a photo of a joyful Nick practically dancing ecstatically behind toddler Nicole, gleefully riding away on her tricycle–so Nick: never happier than when beholding the happiness of others.
My eyes are welling up now, having gone back to copy those lines of Nicole’s and contemplate the picture some more. It only stands to reason that I love being around Nicole, and her mom and sister, of course. And other Friends of Nick. Such a wonderful thing to have in common, to cherish. To share.
Adam West’s death hit me harder than most, and I’m glad to see I was hardly alone. Indeed, even Nick Lowe raised a glass to West halfway through his Saturday night show at City Winery, and after the show gave me a few thoughts for the appreciation piece I put up yesterday at Centerline.news.
I’m not sure why—maybe because there’s always something to do with Batman going on—but I think of West not infrequently. His Batman portrayal truly was brilliant, what with his sober, deadpanned phrasing and seriousness in the most hysterically ridiculous comic book plots imaginable. But as Conan O’Brien stated, “Adam West gave probably the most inspired and ingenious performances in the history of television. He is revered by my generation of comic minds. He was also a sweet and lovely man, and it was a rare honor to know him.”
What West accomplished with Batman could only work, though, because it was so pure: West’s Batman really did believe in the basic goodness of people—and fickle as they always were, they never let him down, even in a two-part episode from Batman‘s second season–“Hizzoner the Penguin” and “Dizonner the Penguin”—when he ran for mayor of Gotham City against The Penguin. As Philip Bump wrote in The Washington Post just after the election last year, it had obvious parallels with the presidential campaign in that a dastardly villain used his celebrity and devious wiles to nearly steal an election from a qualified candidate, though in real life, sadly, he actually did.
But at least in the TV world of Batman, the good people of Gotham City came through in the end, justifying Batman’s faith in them. Going through old videos of Batman after West died, I came across a wonderful YouTube compilation, “The Complete Batman Guest Star Window Cameos,” in which Batman invariable addresses such celebs as Dick Clark and Sammy Davis, Jr., with utmost respect, as “Citizen.”
The citizen title was equally significant for President Barack Obama, and like West’s Batman, and in the face of unrelenting criticism if not outright hostility, he never lost his cool, and in his case, sense of humor. But Obama, also like West’s Batman, also never lost his unfailing positivism–for lack of a better word to denote his total lack of cynicism and unyielding trust in the goodness—and vital importance to society—of the average citizen.
“It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy, to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours,” Obama said in his farewell address as president. It was a return to a theme I heard him evoke several times in promising that he wasn’t going away, but proudly taking on a new office, i.e., the office of citizen.
“Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen. Ultimately, that’s what our democracy demands. It needs you. Not just when there’s an election, not just when your own narrow interest is at stake, but over the full span of a lifetime.”