Monday, December 19, 2011

The Christmas Snail

There’s an old joke that seems appropriate about now. It goes like this.

A man is in his living room one night when there’s a knock at the door. He opens it and there, at his feet, stands a small snail.  The man grabs the snail and flings it as far as he can, across the street into a neighbor’s yard. He closes the door. One year later, the man is again in his living room when he hears a knock at the door. He opens it and the same snail is standing there. The snail looks up at the man and says, “So... what was that all about?”
I thought of that snail the other day when I went to The Mall. Doesn’t matter which mall, does it? It’s like asking, “Which Denny’s did you eat at?”
Long lines of traffic lined the highway and roads leading into the parking lots and garages,an annual pilgrimage. Like a Ridley Scott movie where an endless column of Roman soldiers, stretching to the horizon, march resolutely to lay siege to the castle. 
As I walked from the garage through some sliding doors into The Mall, I saw signs on the doors with two words. “Shop More.” It meant stores are open later, I think until midnight or 2 a.m. or dawn. The deeper meaning was obvious.
The mood inside The Mall was energetic, to say the least. People moved in all directions, Christmas music seeped through the very walls and ceiling. People on cell phones or hands-free mobile devices seemed to talk to themselves or passing strangers or to the air. People carried logo-decorated bags large and small. Their attitudes covered the range from fun and relaxed to frantic and stressed. 
I saw Macy’s at the end of The Mall. Its logo took on a new meaning. The Red Star. I used to equate the Red Star with the Red Army back in the good old days of World War 2. But now it became a religious beacon, calling out to shoppers, guiding the Three Wise Shoppers looking for 20% off, plus another 10% for using their Macy’s charge.
The swirling shoppers, the patient traffic, the determination and enthusiasm, the sales. Always the sales. It’s the same scene as last year, the year before, and every year before that, stretching back to the horizon.
On Christmas night, after the nation has unwrapped presents, admired choices and colors and considerations, hugged and kissed each other, thrown another log on the fire or poured another cup of coffee or glass of wine ... on that night I will drive by The Mall. I will scan the vacant lot and empty garage, the empty roads, the dark and silent buildings. And I will think about that snail.
And I will wonder, “What was that all about?”
I wish you a happy and peaceful holiday season, that you enjoy and appreciate your family and friends, that the season brings you all closer together and pushes problems further away. That your hugs last more than three seconds. The realization that some presents are transitory and can be returned on Monday. Just keep in mind, the time we have together is precious. Use it wisely.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Captain, The Witch and The Writer

The first time I saw her, she had a green face, a long, sharp nose that looked more like a weapon, and she told Dorothy, “I’ll get you, my pretty. And your little dog, too.” She was a witch and she scared me. I almost dropped my box of Jujubees. Fortunately she eventually melted into a puddle with only her pointed hat resting on top.

The next time I saw her she was sitting in a chair, sans green face and  hat, talking to Captain 11. That was in the studio of Channel 11, next door to the Chase Hotel. I worked there at some lowly  writing and producing job for $40 a week. Minimum wage. Twenty years had passed and I was meeting Margaret Hamilton, the Wicked Witch of the West. This was probably 1961.

I had forgotten all about this event until I came across a couple of old photos in an envelope recently, while attempting to “organize” my stuff. Hercules had an easier time with the stables. (My lone, pathetic reference to Greek mythology). Margaret was a charming, graciouis guest and still making movies, though I don't know what she was doing in St. Louis.

The Captain was Harry Fender, a former St. Louis detective and host of a late night radio show from the Steeplechase Lounge of the Chase Hotel. His claim to fame was that he had turned down an offer from Florenz Ziegfield to appear in the opening of a new musical on Broadway when he was just a boy. The show was “Showboat.” 

Now Harry wore a white wig, an ill-fitting sea-captain’s uniform, and did his best to entertain little kids on the daily TV show, which was “live” and showed old Dick and Larry cartoons, and Three Stooges shorts.

The program was “Captain 11 and JoJo,” and his partner was Joe Cuscanelli, a young man with a beautiful operatic voice who had taken the part of Captain 11’s foil just to pay his bills. He disliked children almost as much as Harry did.

Margaret, of course, held the children spellbound. As she did me and everyone else in the studio, including Harry and Joe. After all, this was one of the great villains of the day, maybe even of the century. I didn’t get her autograph; I didn’t have my picture taken with her. I just shook hands, said "hi," and stared at her, surprised at how young she was. 

Maybe I was still afraid of her awesome power, that she would turn the flying monkeys loose or strike me with a bolt of lightning. I think I would have preferred meeting the Cowardly Lion. Now he was a funny guy.

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Case for Dooley Downs

We all know the economy is in grim shape. Revenues are down, expenses are up. What’s a fella to do? Well, in the case of Chuck Dooley, the answer is simple: cut your expenses. I learned that in Accounting 101. Which I got a D in, by the way. The other method is to increase income. I’ll get to that part. 

Dooley, in case you don’t live in The City by the Arch, is the County Executive for St. Louis County. 
Doctor Dooley intends to remedy the situation by closing several St. Louis County parks. We’ve heard lots of news coverage on that one. Angry letters to publishers and media and websites. Vocal opposition en masse. “Don’t close our parks,” they say. “We need our parks.” Well, maybe “yes,” maybe “no.”
It would be helpful to look at it from the other side. You know, walk a mile in my shoes, or something like that. So here I am walking in Dooley’s Cole Haan slip-ons, and I’m thinking, “Hmmm, close the parks. Maybe close a whole lot of parks. We’ve got too many anyway. Empty land just sitting there. Think of all the money that’ll save. And I seldom have time for a picnic.”
So I’ve come around to Professor Dooley’s point of view. He’s right. Close ‘em up. Lock the gates. But he doesn’t take the idea far enough. He needs a bold vision, a significant and non-retractable stroke to shape the future. Well, here it is -  my bold vision to address the lack of monetary balance in the County budget right now. First, we close ALL the parks. Lay off all those people who keep the parks clean, cleared, trimmed, patched, accessible and whatever else they do. But don’t fire the folks at the top. The ones who tend to the parks from their desks. Keep them on your administrative staff. Maybe even add some staff (More about that in a minute).
Let’s face it, who needs parks? They just use up a lot of space. Who needs to walk or sit or run or bike, have a picnic when the weather’s nice? Crazy stuff like meditate and write poems and feel closer to whatever is out there or up there. That’s lazy stuff, isn’t it? No productivity in that.  And what we need now, more than ever, is productivity. I’m sorry, but walking your dog on a beautiful spring day, looking at new leaves emerging from winter, hearing the twitter of little birds and the rustle of a slight breeze.... what kind of income do you think that actually produces? “Not a feeble farthing,” as Dickens said.
So, Mr. Dooley, here’s my vision, and you can have it. Free. Close all the parks. Cut down all the trees. Sell the lumber. (estimated income: $3.76 million). Rescind any charter or agreement that holds the parks sacred and protected, and sell the land to real estate developers. But with a codicil in the public interest: Only “green” construction. (estimated income: $568 million). Levy a tax on the construction there: condos, retirement centers, malls, sports arenas, casinos. (estimated annual income: TBD but huge).
There you have it, Mr. Dooley. More money than you ever knew what to do with. And what do you do with it? Why, that grand plan to build Dooley Towers in the heart of Clayton. A 45-story building to house your administrative staff. Even add a few people just to maintain a sense of self-respect and to reward some political allies. A building worthy of Dubai, with your name in neon at the very top. With plenty of money left over.
That leaves all those people... and, really, just how many are there? .... who want a place to walk or wander or sit around. Just like the song in West Side Story says, “there’s a place for them.” Use all that empty space that was once parking lots for abandoned Wal-Marts and Targets and Shop ‘n Save and Builder’s Square and Circuit City. Paint paths on them, add an occasional PortaPotty, stick a few folding chairs around for those that insist on sitting, and maybe hang some stuffed robins and blue jays from the parking lot lamp posts. 
Call them Dooley Downs. 
See how simple that was? Dooley Downs. Followed by Dooley Towers. It proves if you just apply that old American ingenuity, no problem is too big to overcome. 

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Pasta Thanksgiving

Some traditions are meant to keep, others to be - if not broken - slightly revised. So it was with our Thanksgiving. We kept the tradition of "family" alive by meeting our daughter and son in New York City over the weekend. Holly lives there, Gregg flew in from Chicago. As one cab driver told us, in his melodious mix of Chinese and English, "Thanksgiving is for families, Christmas is for staying home." Not once did he mention "shopping."

Thanks to a friend of Holly's, we watched the Thanksgiving Day Parade, aka Macy's Parade (speaking of shopping), from the 25th-floor rooftop of a condo building on Central Park West. The Tradition continued. Here's what it looked like.

After all, what's Turkey Day without Kermit, Ronald MacDonald and Spiderman? Talk about tradition: there was no Shrek or Buzz Lightyear or even a Twilight-style Vampire. Some lines you just don't cross. This was the first time I'd seen this event in person. Years past, I watch about 10 minutes on TV until the football game starts or I go back to sleep, usually the latter. I much prefer it in person, with my family, from the top of a building, away from the riff-raff, on a mild, sunny day with a Central Park in color transition across the way, the towers of Manhattan stacked to the south, and 3 days ahead of me in The Big Apple or, today, The Big Drumstick.

Well, not really a drumstick. This is where the tradition ends. We gathered for Thanksgiving dinner at a marvelous little Italian restaurant near The Village, picked out by Holly. Pepolino is one of those small, cozy, family-run restaurants that have no ambition to enlarge, add-on, modify, improve. It's perfect as-is. Our waiter did the Italian thing beautifully, heavy accent but clear enough to make out the important words, like "specialty," "delicious," "vino," and "here's your bill."

We all had pasta. Home-made. I remember my veal lasagna; never had anything like it and want it again. You know what? I did not miss my usual turkey leg, dressing, yams, and pumpkin pie. I can always get that at Denny's.

A final note on Thanksgiving: Small's. A small, downstairs jazz club in The Village, which featured a progressive quartet, led by a young bald guy on bass and a balding, older guy on tenor in an unattractive long-sleeve shirt decorated with bass (fish, not instrument), with a mother of a piano player and hard-swinging, tasty drummer. Small's, as in "small world." The owner went to the same high school I did, U. City. Only he graduated three decades later. Some things just happen, right? How did we end up talking about high school in a jazz bar in the Village? That's a story for a different time.

Yes, it was a Thanksgiving for the books, traditions and all. 

Monday, November 21, 2011

A Pause Before the Turkey

It's been a tough year, right? And it's not over yet. But looking back over the past 11 months, there are a few things I will not give even a small "thanks" for. 

Let's start with the weather. In a word, it sucked. Except for a stretch of 3 or 4 weeks in late summer/early fall. But how about those tornadoes? I used to think it'd be cool to see one, for real, not on the weather channel or a high-budget sci-fi flick. No more. Anytime the skies begin turning green, the wind picks up, and distant sirens wail, I'm going to head for the basement and watch a stack of old movies on my hand-powered DVD player. 

Autumn was colorless, thanks to lack of rain. Winter hurt. Especially at 10 at night when my dog expects a walk. This winter I'm training her to use the flush toilet. And think of the plastic poop bags I'll save. 

The weather has become as unpredictable as the stock market. 

Onward to the Economy: Jobs. Demonstrations. Greed. Madoff Fall-out. China. The new four-letter dirty words: Bank. Debt. Rams. And a St. Louis County Executive who thinks the answer to balancing the budget is to close up County Parks, at the same time he's hiring administrative staff. An advanced case of muddled priorities. 'Nuff said.

Politics. The End of Bipartisanship. Ugly undercurrents. Nasty sound bytes and angry faces. Don't get me started. 

So here is what I give thanks for. My wife, my kids, my dog, my health. Good friends. My brother. The Cardinals. The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. An occasional good movie and even some good TV, as in Dexter, Homeland, and the new Woody Allen doc. Good jazz available on a limited basis, the St. Louis Symphony, the blues (hear 'em, not have 'em), a right shoulder that still lets me serve and hit an occasional forehand winner. Sumatriptin (if you get migraines, you know what I'm talking about). And the joy of writing, which I don't do nearly enough of but enjoy when I do. Like this one.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Friday, November 11, 2011

The Talk We Need - A Veterans Day Thought

There's a lot of talk these days everywhere you turn. Sometime taking a position, giving an opinion, analyzing a situation, criticizing someone. On TV and radio, on cell phones. Even cartoons, if you believe that. An article in the NY Times says cartoons these days are loaded with dialogue while lacking movement. They're right. Road Runner doesn't talk, neither did Tom and Jerry. They moved, we laughed. Then of course there's Charlie Chaplin who made the world laugh and cry without saying a word.

So what's the point of this diatribe? Veterans Day. Today. Look back more than six decades ago, to World War 2. A lot of our troops never came home. Sadly, tens of thousands died in Europe and the Pacific. Most of our men came home though. But there's a sadness in that as well.  Because so many of them never talked about what happened there, what they saw, how it affected them.  And what they carry with them now, more than 60 years later.  It’s not easy for them to talk about their experiences, especially to their families.  But isn’t it a shame that these men who earned the right to talk have chosen to keep it all in?  Tim Russert of “Meet the Press” said they possess a “quiet eloquence.”  I like that.  Quiet eloquence.

I used to play senior softball with a guy named Charlie. He’s 85 years old now. I told him about a book I had read, called “Flags of Our Fathers.”  It’s the story of a young man who learns that his dad was one of the six guys who raised the flag on Iwo Jima in 1945.  He found out about it after his dad had passed away.  Charlie said, “Gerry, I was on Iwo  too.”  He surprised me.  I knew he was a Marine, but not much else.  I asked him if he’d ever told his wife or his kids about what he went through.  He said, “They never asked, they didn’t seem interested.  Anyway we were just doing a job.”  Quiet eloquence.  Still, I could feel there were undercurrents in his life he didn’t want to acknowledge.

I wonder how many stories and memories are locked up.  How many sons and daughters, and grand children, will never know what Pop or Grandpa went through.  Time keeps on moving.  The older we get, the faster it moves.  I hope there’s time for these men to bring their families into their past.  I hope they talk about it.  It’s the kind of talk we need.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Whole Lotta Chewin' Goin' On

Watching the Cardinals beat the Brewers last night, I was struck by three things. First, how far the Birds have come since August, when they had been counted out. (I was among the counters). Second, how exciting it was to have a World Series again in St. Louis. Forget the fact that Standing Room tickets on StubHub are going for $400, so if you want an actual seat, you'll need to check on your home equity line of credit. And third - and the reason for this post - is how many guys were chewing bubble gum. Did you see them? Grown men, getting millions of dollars a year, dressed in spiffy uniforms, blowing the big pink orbs, popping them on camera. I can't say bubble gum was in the majority. An awful lot of guys were spitting sunflower seeds on cue. (An aside: Who's the guy that comes in after the game and sweeps up all those shells. And does he sell them on eBay?)

Here's my big wonderment: Why are there no bubble gum commercials in the games? Talk about product placement, you couldn't ask for better. It's almost as prevalent as bottles of Bud in a bar scene. So I spent a little Google time on bubble gum. I thought, there should be an official bubble gum of Major League Baseball. Well, surprise. There is. No, not Dubble Bubble or Topps. It's Big League Chew. Made by Wrigley. Invented, in 1980 by two teammates on the Portland Mavericks. Rob Nelson and Jim Bouton. According to Bouton, he saw Rob chewing bubble gum, and Rob said to Jim, "Too bad they don't sell this kinda stuff." And Jim, a go-for-it kinda guy, said "Great idea, Rob. I'll put up the money if you make it." The rest is chewing gum history. They made their bubble gum, took it to Wrigley, and now, 30 years later, one-half BILLION bags have been sold. 

I just wonder how many more bags they'd sell if they advertise. Unusual business move here: Wrigley sold the distribution rights to Ford Gum and Machine Company, of Akron, NY, in 2010. And now for the change-of-pace. It's made in Mexico.

Here's what it looks like, just in case you want to try a "chaw." Big League even has a theme line. "You're in the big leagues when you're into Big League Chew."

In case you're wondering if only baseball players chew Big League, take a look at this. I'm going to run over to Walgreen's and big me a bag.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


Several years ago I found myself in a second-hand bookstore in Independence, Missouri. A small, storefront kind of place on the town square, within shouting distance of Harry Truman's home. I wasn't looking for anything in particular. A used bookstore just seemed the right place to be in a town with as much history as this. 

In between the shelves and stacks of books, shoved against a faded brown wall, I saw a couple of bins of old photographs. I'm fascinated by those old black and white shots. They carry an innate power that transcends the decades, as though the people and places still exist in some other realm. I flipped through one bin, stopping occasionally to examine a face or a building. Then I noticed that the other bin held some panoramic photos. The long kind, taken with a special camera. I took more time to look at these.

That's when the line of doughboys stopped me, held my attention. Here was a picture of a company of American soldiers about to embark for Europe and the bloodletting of World War One. The date on the photo was August 18, 1917. America was entering the war, about a year before it ended. I bought it.

When I got home, I framed the picture. It hangs on the wall in my office, where it's been for the past 15 or 20 years. I remember the date. It's today. A special day for me. Today the picture carries more meaning than ever, because I have just finished reading a new history of WWI. "To End All Wars" by Adam Hochschild. Powerful stuff, beautifully written, important. 

One of the poets to write of the War was Siegfried Sassoon, who served valiantly in the British army. Here is the final stanza of his poem "The Troops": 

"...And through some mooned Valhalla there will pass
Battalions and battalions, scarred from hell;
The unreturning army that was youth;
The legions who have suffered and are dust."

And I wonder how many of those beautiful young men from Company A, 1st NY Infantry, at Utica, NY, all smartly uniformed and fit and ready to fight, I wonder just how many came home, sound of body and mind. That company of men all in a row on that special day. August 18. My birthday.


Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Day She Came Back

Two weeks ago, on a hot Saturday morning, Shawn called from KC. "I'm on my way," he said. True to his word, he was bringing the Olds to St. Louis. I wasn't sure what to do for the next 4 or 5 hours. Usually it's like straighten up the living room, vacuum, stuff like that. But this was the first time I'd ever prepared to welcome a car. And an old one, at that. Given the hot day - climbing into the mid-90's - I was worried about the car making it the 250 miles. So I straightened up the driveway, picked up some dead branches. I probably would've vacuumed it if the cord would've reached.

At 2:30 he called. "I'm at the Loew's parking lot in Kirkwood," he said. "I'll be there in a few minutes." Loews? What did he do, come to St. Louis to go shopping? Turns out, he trailered the car in. Smart move. He wanted to drive up to my house in the car.

A half hour later I was standing at the top of my driveway, waiting, listening, remembering. How would she look? How would she sound? How would I feel about someone else driving her? I waited and sweated, held the camera at the ready. Before long I heard the deep purr of a not-new car. A deep rumble. And there, around the bend in our street, came the '65 Olds Jetstar. 

If you've ever gone back to the house where you grew up, the grade school you attended, met an old girl friend you'd lost contact with, even pulled out a high school year book or an old baseball glove.... if you've ever done any of those, then you know how I felt. Joy. Sadness. Excitement. Longing. A feeling that all is right with the world, that some of the good things of life will always be there for you. And one other compelling feeling that I come to experience more often these days. The feeling of time gone by, all too quickly. 

A poem came to mind, days later.

            "Across the fields of yesterday, 
             he sometimes comes to me. 
             A little lad just back from play, 
             the boy I used to be."

Not to belabor this nostalgic event, I'll just say the car was all I had hoped it to be. And Shawn was the right person to own it. For he deeply cared about it, wanted it to be perfect, had worked hard to recreate its beauty, knew more about cars than I did. I had forgotten how well designed the car was, a low, streamlined, powerful presence. How magnificent the dark and light blues were. I drove it around the neighborhood, feeling strangely comfortable in it. Shawn and Mary Lee and I visited for a long time. He told of his endless search for parts, his efforts to restore it as close to the day that I bought it, the same year Mary Lee and I were married. 

That evening we drove to Blueberry Hill for dinner. Top down. Shawn was behind the wheel; I didn't want to risk hitting something. The 3 of us sat in front. You could do that in those old convertibles. Drove up and down Delmar afterwards, ala "American Graffiti." Then hamburgers for dinner. 

The evening ended too quickly, and Shawn decided he was going back to KC that same night. After taking Mary Lee home, I followed him to Loew's and helped him put the Olds back on the trailer. We shook hands, promised to stay in touch, and he said he'd bring her back when he had finished all he wanted to do. Then, for the second time in my life, I watched her roll away, into the night at the edge of the parking lot.

One reassuring thought stays with me. After 46 years, both my marriage and my Olds are still running. It doesn't get much better than that.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Is You Is or Is You Ain't?

I admit, I like non-alcohol beers occasionally. I like the taste, and I like not falling asleep shortly thereafter while watching TV. However, I noticed something rather unusual recently on an O'Doul's label. Not only unusual but contradictory. I think. O'Doul's label says "non-alcoholic." (see photo above) 

It also says, in smaller type, "contains less than 0.5% alcohol by volume." (see second photo above) Now that says to me it contains alcohol, it's just less than .5%. Does that mean if I drink 10 O'Doul's (or any of the other "non-alcohol" brews), I'll have drunk the equivalent of a "real" beer? There is probably a legal description or escape clause somewhere that helps legitimize this. Granted,  I don't fall asleep after having one or two. Another non-alcohol beer is high on my list of favorite brews: Buckler. It's made by Heineken. Talk about full, rich beer taste. I think it's what Joe Biden drank in that strange presidential beer blast last year.  Buckler, too, "contains less than 0.5 etc". Not a big deal, really. Just wondering if anyone has any insight into that category. 

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Immortality on the Can

The bright blue can sits in front of me, next to my plate of BBQ ribs, slaw and 3-bean salad. The occasion is a group of friends who have gathered at our house for a last-minute pre-July 4th celebration. Which means eat and drink, with only verbal fireworks. 
I’m a black belt master of BBQ, which is evidenced by my rub, my sauce, and my backhanded basting technique. All I will tell you about the rub is that I use garlic powder, paprika, ground black pepper, chili powder, and a couple of secret ingredients from the lower shelves at Schnucks. My sauce is classified, right next to the government file on time-travel experiments.
But I digress.
I pick up the blue can with the red and blue letters and a picture of a glass of beer. Large beads of sweat trickle down the can. St. Louis humidity makes for an appetizing product shot. I read the label while someone at the table tells a story about being questioned by the FBI in some sort of real estate scam. The financial concepts are beyond me. So I stare at the can and four words capture my attention. Four simple words. Two separate thoughts. One immortal marketing campaign.
And my imagination takes off. 
Return with me now to those thrilling days of yesteryear. But don’t cue the thundering hoofbeats of the great horse Silver. This is a different yesteryear.
Once upon a time, in an office far away, a young copywriter - at least I picture him as young - and as a “him” - sat at his desk and pondered his assignment. Ideas were due the following day. Lines, themes, concepts. Anything that might sell the product.
In front of him, next to his note book and index cards and layout pad and felt tip pen, sat a can and a bottle of Miller Lite Beer.
The year was 1972. The agency was McCann-Erickson. And the category of “light beer” was an invisible blip on brewery radars. Guys drank real beer, like Bud and Schlitz and Pabst and Miller High Life. Light beer was for wusses and women.
The copywriter stared out the window at the fading day. The question nagged at him: How do you get real guys to drink light beer? Specifically, Lite Beer from Miller? Well, he thought, what if you had real guys with the beer? Like athletes. But pro athletes couldn’t appear in beer ads. So... maybe retired athletes. Famous guys connected with sports or some facet of masculinity. 
Add some conflict. The guys argue. About the product. About two differing points of view of what’s so good about Lite beer. Put ‘em in a bar. Maybe some chicks hanging around.
Yeah, that’s it. He feels the surge of breakthrough. He stands on the precipice of beer history. The view is glorious. He writes down four words on the layout pad. Four words in bold, black felt tip.
“Great taste. Less Filling.”
And a category is born.
At least that’s how I picture the birth of this great campaign.
I have but one wish for that copywriter. That he’s alive today, in good health, and surrounds himself with the comforts and joys the world has to offer, including a winter home on St. Bart’s, a summer home in Boulder, and a vintage 1972 Corvette in cherry condition. I hope he was paid well, had a sizable stake in profit sharing, and made a killing when the agency merged. And that he got out with his nerves and digestive system intact. 
Before I return to the ribs and slaw and get ready for the watermelon and peach cobbler, I have one more really deep thought. It’s this: Copywriters are the Shakespeares of our culture. They create the words that can live forever. Maybe not as lofty as the Bard’s, but certainly more pervasive. “Just do it.” “This Bud’s for you.” “Think small.” “Finger lickin’ good.” 
And “Great Taste. Less Filling.” Maybe those words will still be on the can a hundred years from now. And someone else will ponder the state of our culture. 

Monday, June 27, 2011

Travel Down This Road With Me

The lives of men can be measured by the cars they once owned. Every guy I know can tell you what kind of car they had in what year and where they lived and who they were dating. They even know the horsepower, the mileage, the cost of gasoline then, and what songs they listened to while cruising down the road. Cars don’t only take you somewhere in space. They travel in time.

A phone call I received a couple of days ago turned out to be a bridge to the past. Here's a bit of back-story to set the scene.

My first car was a brand-new 1956 Chevy Bel-Aire convertible. My dad bought it for me at Barford Chevrolet two years before I graduated college. This beauty was white with a black top, white sidewalls, automatic transmission, and an AM radio with buttons. It was - and still is - one of the sharpest looking cars to ever grace the road. At least in my eyes.

Since that first car, I had never been without a convertible. Until now. The Chevy was followed by a ‘60 Corvette, then a ‘65 Olds Jetstar, an ‘84 Dodge Dart - an embarrassment - and finally an ‘88 Mazda RX-7. All convertibles. I sold the RX-7 two years ago, which ended my mobile time in the sun.

Those old cars have the same power over me as old girlfriends and beloved dogs. A fleeting image, a scent, a setting, a song - wham, I am back in the past. Which is where I ended up when I got that call. A young man’s voice inquired, “Gerald Mandel?”

“Gerald?”, I thought. He must be making cold calls, reading my name from some purchased list of potential suckers. He’s going to try to sell me a weekend on Arkansas lakefront property, or season tickets to the Rep. “Yes,” I said, just seconds away from adding, “I don’t buy anything over the phone” and hanging up.

The voice continued. “Did you used to own a 1965 Olds Jetstar convertible?”

Whatever he was selling, I was ready to buy. “Yes, I did.” He couldn’t see the smile of wonder on my face. “Why?”

“I own it now, Gerald.”

“Gerry. Please.”

“Gerry. And I just wanted to talk about it.”

Which we did. For the next half hour. His name is Shawn. He lives outside Kansas City. He found the car through Craigslist, covered in dust in some guy’s barn. It didn’t run. Shawn bought it, towed it to his house, replaced the engine with a Delta-88 425 hp rebuilt job. The car now runs. Pretty well. He’s still working on it.

I, in turn, told him some of my Olds’ stories. How my daughter drove it in high school, called it her Bat Car. (It was dark blue). How I put our two Golden Retrievers, Chelsea and Abbey, in the back seat and went to Ted Drews almost weekly (“cholesterol” wasn’t in my vocabulary yet). How I had to add a can of some STP chemical to the gas tank when they stopped making leaded gas. How I got married in 1965, so the car and my marriage are both 46 years old. And still running. How I still feel the pain of separation when I think about the day I sold it to some guy from Illinois and watched him drive away. It was the last time I ever saw my Olds.

Until the day Shawn called. He emailed me some photos of the way it looks now. It’s gorgeous. I wish I still owned it. Great body, smooth lines, exquisite detail, no dents, bruises, rips or rust. Here’s the clincher. Shawn gets into St. Louis occasionally.

“I’d love to see it,” I said quickly.

“I’d love for you to see it,” he said, “and have you drive it. And get a picture. You and me. The first owner and the last. And the Olds.”

I’m ready to roll. I’ll even buy Shawn a large concrete at Ted Drews.
Now if only someone would call about that white '56 Chevy.

My son Gregg with the '65 Olds, circa 1983.
Same Olds, today, from new owner. 

Monday, April 4, 2011

A Sign From Above

High marks for a beautiful sunset on Sunday evening. Or maybe it's the latter day Scarlet Letter.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Better Than Good. And Even Best.

Mark Twain urged caution about choosing the right adjective. He said "A man's character may be learned from the adjectives which he habitually uses in conversation." If you listen to how people talk, you know what he means. The same can be said of how a writer writes: check out his adjectives. For me, that's one of the most difficult parts of writing (hardest? stressful? laborious?) And too many times I find myself drifting back toward the old stand-by's "good" and "great" and "fast" and "tall." All those vague and tired words. (Are "vague" and "tired" vague and tired? I don't know.)

So it was with relief that I came across, while enjoying a bowl of Shredded Wheat, some marvelous adjectives in a recent New Yorker magazine. "They sure have a way with adjectives," I thought. "I should share these." So, here they are. They were used in the magazine's capsule reviews of "Recitals." I don't know why I was looking in Recitals. I'm not interested in going to one. Most of them are painfully long. And I don't even have plans to go to New York. Shows you how Shredded Wheat can dull the mind.

First there was an "admired violinist" from Japan at Zankel Hall. I wonder who admired him.
Then there was "The superb Baroque ensemble" at Columbia University. I firmly believe that a Baroque ensemble must be "superb" at the minimum to hold an audience for more than six minutes.
Next was the "magisterial pianist"who has thrilled audiences for more than four decades. He's at Carnegie. Is he "magisterial" in the way he plays? Or maybe how he walks or how he dresses. In a cape, perhaps.
Their imagination began to wane here, because the next act was a "superb young British foursome" doing their thing at Alice Tully Hall. I assume "superb" is the minimum price of entry into these pages.
After that came "the renowned group"that performed music by 3 composers I've never heard of, also at Alice Tully Hall. Again, renowned where? New York? London? Zaire?
And finally we have "three distinguished keyboard colleagues" appearing with "the musical major-domo" of something or other. I'm not sure what a "major-domo" is, but it's got to be worth seeing.

You've got to admit, those are better choices of descriptors than "interesting" or "fine" or "really good," even surpassing "popular" and "cool." All you need is the right word to fire the public's interest. Again, to quote Twain: "The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between  lightning and a lightning bug." Ladies and gentlemen, choose your words.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Spring Snow: A Long Winter's Tale

I've been sitting here for several minutes, feeling the urge to post something, wanting to say something poetic and uplifting about what I see out my window right now. But I'm not up to the task. I've seen the scene too many times in the past 3 months. Feels more like 6. And there is still white stuff coming down. If I truly had the soul of a poet, I could find comfort and beauty in the scene. Like, say something about delicate dusting of pine trees with nature's frosting. Or the silent drift of countless snowflakes blanketing the lawn, covering up little yellow flowers that no longer stand a chance at making it to summer. Even confusing the robins, making them think they returned to the wrong latitude. I wonder if robins like frozen worms. We'll find out.  To show you what an optimist I am, I dashed outside mid-week, when the sun was out and the temperature hovered in the high 60's, uncovered our deck furniture and arranged it to welcome Spring in all its glory. It's like throwing a big party and nobody comes. I should know by now: you don't do a thing for spring in St. Louis until mid-April. Still, with global warming in full swing, I thought, sure, we'll have an early spring. Notice I can't bring myself around to capitalizing S(s)pring every time. It's unworthy.
News flash: These photos are outdated. The snow is even deeper now. I think I'll listen to some music, pull out some old standards, like "Spring will be a little late this year," and "Spring can really hang you up the most." Yep, I'm hung up. That's what I'll do now.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The Final Frontier: e-books

MAJOR LITERARY ANNOUNCEMENT: With the help of an excellent book designer, Cathy Wood, I am happy to say my novel is available as an e-book. Which means my words can now be carried in a Kindle or iPad or Droid or wherever the hell these things end up. And think of all the trees that will be saved. The title, as you probably know by now, is "Shadow and Substance: My Time with Charlie Chaplin."

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Good-bye, Jay...and thanks for the good times.

Jay Landesman was an integral part of the cultural scene in St. Louis for many years, and a big part of my directionless youth. Not that I was a pal of his. I knew who he was, shook hands with him whenever I had the opportunity, but I doubt if he knew my name. That's okay. He was cool. I spent a lot of time in Gaslight Square. Cool jazz at the Dark Side, the Other Side (Spider Burke's place), and Georgie's; dixieland jazz at Smokey Joe's and the Tiger's Den (the swinging two-beat temple of Sammy Gardner and the Mound City Six); hip and hilarious comedy, distinctive bars, and a vibrant street scene. Like a small rendition of The Village. 

Mary Lee (my wife of several years) and I used to celebrate TGIF there after we got off work at KMOX-TV (before it was KMOV). Olive and Boyle was a great gathering area, and Jay was largely responsible for inspiring it...thanks to his Crystal Palace. I have clear memories - at least they're clear in my head - of that place, where I saw the Smothers Brothers, Lenny  Bruce (it was the first time I ever heard the "f" word on a stage), Jack E. Leonard, a nerdy and nervous Woody Allen, Nichols & May, and others...including a very young and shy Barbra Streisand. When I saw her, as the opening act for the Smothers Brothers, I predicted, "She's not very pretty. She'll never make it." That might have been the same year I bought an Edsel. Thanks to the wonderful comics and satirists and improv geniuses, I developed a love and appreciation for slightly off-center humor. Okay, more than "slightly." 
Jay had a full-time piano player in the bar named Tommy Wolf, who wrote songs with Jay's wife, Fran. Strange: the more I'm writing about Gaslight, the more I remember. Some other time, maybe.

Yes, St. Louis had a Golden Age once, and its name was Jay Landesman.
Thanks, Jay. Whenever I think of "cool," "hip," and an inspiration, I think of you.

Saturday, February 5, 2011


I woke up this morning and looked out the window. IT'S BACK!!!!!! Words fail me.


Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Call

I’m waiting for the phone to ring. It will be the vet.
He will tell me that he has good news.
I will ask him what it is.
He will say, “That neuromuscular problem with Hannah? I think we can treat it.”
“But,” I will say, “You’ve already euthanized her. On Monday.” I can barely get those words out.
“No problem,” he says. “We have reversed the effects of the injection. She’s back. You can pick her up tomorrow morning. Good as new.”
And that’s where the fantasy fades.
The neuromuscular problem was myaesthemia gravis, two words forever seared onto my soul. The prognosis was grim. 
How do you know when to say, The time has come? Hannah was 12 years old. That seems to be the magic number for Golden Retrievers, the genetic time bomb. I always thought she’d go the way most Goldens go - from cancer. Okay. No more medical talk. I don’t like writing about it or even thinking about it any more than you do reading about it.
I’ve been trying to figure out what hurts the most. Possibly the loss of one of the best friends I ever had. Maybe the sadness at seeing a beautiful creature come to the end of the trail much too soon. Then there’s the sheer habit of having her around, developed over twelve years and thousands of miles of travel, including New England, Florida, Chicago, Colorado. Finding motels that took dogs, and sneaking her into those that didn’t. If we drove, she was a passenger. Even scoring the front seat on several occasions. She would watch the road as carefully as I. And she knew the landmarks in town. Where we turned off I-44 for West Tyson County Park and our hike through the hills. Where we pulled in at Weldon Spring State Park and walked to the river. What part of Forest Park we were headed for, where the cops couldn’t see her off- leash. Where she could expect a treat to come sliding down the chute in the capsule. Answer: Walgreen’s Drive-thru Pharmacy, U. S. Bank, and MacDonald’s. But not White Castle. So I’d order an extra burger for her. No pickles, please.
The loss hurts for so many reasons. But the one that hits closest to home is most beautifully conveyed in a quote that a good friend sent to me after she heard of Hannah’s passing. It’s by John Galsworthy, a British writer best known for “The Forsyte Saga” and winner of the Nobel Prize in 1932. But you knew that. Here’s the quote. 
“Not the least hard thing to bear when they go from us, these quiet friends, is that they carry away with them so many years of our own lives...”
I like that. It is true. He understands. “ many years of our own lives...”
We have not only lost a loved one. We have lost part of ourselves.
My beautiful Golden girl is gone. But somewhere, lodged deep inside me, mingled with memories of a youth immersed in fantasy and science-fiction, of knowing the impossible is sometimes possible, I still wait for that phone to ring.