Thursday, December 27, 2012

There was this auto repair place on I-55...

For two weekends in January, 2013,  First Run Theatre will stage my play. It's a one-act called "Open Sundays, All Makes Repaired." The dates are Friday thru Sunday, Jan. 11, 12, 13 and 18, 19, 20. The story involves two strangers with conflicting agendas who meet in a seedy garage on I-55.

The real story, however, began back in the summer of 1991. My son, Gregg, and I had driven to Memphis, where he took SAT tests to be admitted to the U. of Memphis. It was a hot weekend in Memphis, laced with thunderstorms and high humidity. He took the exams, I walked around the campus in the city, then we went to a movie. Big mistake. Kevin Costner as "Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves." Actually Kevin Costner as Kevin Costner, dressed in his cute outfit. The movie was saved by Alan Rickman who, I later learned, had some of his best scenes edited out because Kevin was afraid Alan was going to steal the movie. It should have been stolen and dumped into the Mississippi.

But I digress. That was a Saturday. We headed back to St. Louis on Sunday. We were in my 1988 Mazda RX-7 convertible. One of the reasons I bought it was that it reminded me of the 1960 Corvette I once owned. Anyway,  Gregg was driving. We hadn't been out of Memphis more than an hour, tooling north on I-55, when the engine let loose with an awful noise and the temperature gauge shot up a few seconds later. We pulled over. I'm not very capable when it comes to automobiles. I know how to open the hood. Which I did and saw smoke. At least I thought it was smoke, realized it was steam, then saw that one of the hoses had broken loose.

We hitch-hiked to a garage not far up the highway. Looking around the garage, while waiting for someone to take us to the car, I wondered: "What if...." From there it was, "What if two guys meet... one headed south, one headed north, both of them on an urgent mission, and they both need their cars repaired 'right now.'"

That became "Open Sundays, All Makes Repaired." It's been through a couple of severe rewrites since I first wrote it a few years ago. First Run Theatre chose it as one of the plays for their new season. My play appears on the same bill with another one-act, "The Predicament" by Patrick Conley, a very funny comedy about the Irish, the IRA, and a group of men who take matters into their own hands.

I am fortunate to have a strong cast, and an excellent director in Donna Nelson. Her list of credentials is very impressive and she has effectively brought my play to life. The productions take place in the theater at DeSmet High School on North Ballas Road. I hope you make the time to see both of these plays, and support local theatre. You can click on this link for more information.      About performances and tickets

Friday, December 21, 2012

That Night, Again

Jesse shoved his dead beagle out of the way with his bare foot and set another log on the fire, watched the smoke curl around it for a second, then leaned back in his cracked red leather easy chair.  “Okey-dokey,” he said.  His favorite word.  He reached for the cup of hot cocoa on the tv tray, let the sweet steam waft up into his nostrils, and smiled.  He took a small sip.  A bit of melted marshmallow clung to his upper lip.  He felt it sitting there, wiped it off with the back of his hand.
“Bet you would’ve liked some hot cocoa, Samson,” he said to the immobile dog.  Samson had been dead four days now, but he was the only company Jesse had.  Better a dead dog than no one.  Even if Samson had still been breathing, Jesse wouldn’t have given him any cocoa.  He knew that chocolate was bad for a dog, something about their digestive system not being able to handle it.  And he sure wouldn’t have done it with just one more day til Christmas.  Ain’t no way to find a decent vet on Christmas day, he knew.  All the good ones are at home with family or on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, he figured. 
Outside, a soft snow began spreading its stark winter blanket across the neighborhood.  The first snow of the year, and what better time than on the night before Christmas.  He looked out the window.  “Okey-dokey.”
Jesse thought about the dogs of his life.  His best friends.  Dogs that died before they left puppyhood, dogs that trembled and slept into old-age.  Samson was one of his favorite dogs, probably the last one he’d ever have.  “Got you the year after Emma passed,” said Jesse.  He remembered other Christmas eves, when Emma would hang the stockings on the mantle, wrap last minute presents, slide chocolate chip cookies out of the oven.  Forty-six years of chocolate chip cookies must be some kind of record, both for baking and eating, he thought.  He wondered how many chips of chocolate had melted down on their behalf.
Emma had gone off her meds before she passed, twelve years ago.  Except she didn’t know she had.  She had become impossible to live with, drove Jesse up one wall and down another with her incessant complaining and whining, her mind melting down like those chocolate chips.  So he dumped her meds, all seven bottles of them, down the toilet, replaced them with placeboes.  He liked that word “placebo.”   It took a couple of weeks, but eventually Emma passed in her sleep.  “A peaceful placebo departure,” said Jesse at his most poetic.
He lifted Samson by his tail, half off the floor, to reveal the tattered book under his rump.  He picked it up and turned to the first page.  He always felt a thrill when he read aloud the very first line.  “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house...”  What magic, what power, what craftsmanship.  Not “It was the night before,” but “Twas.”  Not “Christmas Eve,” but “the night before Christmas.”  Jesse stretched his legs out to let the fire warm his bare toes.  Samson slid across the hearth to the edge of the fire.  Outside the snow thickened, swirled, piled along the curbs and bushes.  The street lay silent, no headlights, no crunch of tires.
Jesse continued his annual ritual aloud, to deaf, floppy ears.  “Not a creature was stirring...” He stopped on that line and laughed.  “You can say that again” and looked at Samson.  “...not even a mouse,  The stockings were hung by the chimney with care.”  Jesse looked at the mantle.  Yep, the stockings were still there.  He had never gotten around to taking them down from last  year, although Emma had complained about that until midsummer.
Jesse got as far as “... had just settled down for a long winter’s nap” when he smelled the burning, an acrid smell that was neither oak nor hickory.  He looked down at the fireplace.  Samson was smoking.  Or at least the fur on his backside was, turning the dull brown fur into stringy black ash.   “Move away, dog,” he said, and reached over and scooted Samson to the side.  Luckily the dog had not burst into flame yet, and as the smoke subsided, Jesse approached the conclusion of the poem.  He stopped before the last page.  “Not so fast, not so fast,” he thought.  “Gotta let the magic last a little longer.”  He drained the cup, scooped the remaining marshmallow with his finger and licked it clean.  “Okey......”  He felt his eyes getting heavy.  The fire, the cocoa, the snow, his dog.  “How lucky I am,” he said aloud.  His eyes started to close.  But he had to get to the part about “But he heard him exclaim as he rose out of sight ...” and the rest of it.  His head nodded and his chin dropped to his chest.
The peace was shattered by a loud rap-rapping at his door.  Jesse lifted his head.  “Who could that be, Samson?”  He struggled out of his chair, shuffled to the door.  Another series of rap-rap-rapping, this time louder.  “Keep your shirt on, I’m coming, fast as I can,” said Jesse.  He opened the door.  And what to his wondering eyes should appear, but Santa Claus standing there, with no shirt on.
“Sorry  couldn’t keep my shirt on,” said Santa.  “Are you named Jesse?”
Jesse nodded.  This was wonderful beyond belief.
“Then let’s go for a ride,” said Santa with a hearty laugh, making his stomach shake like a bowl full of jelly.  He slipped on his red coat.
“I’ll get my coat,” said Jesse.
“No need to.  I’ve got a propane heater in my sleigh.  I just wear this because it’s expected.”  He laughed again.   “Here we go.”
Jesse and Santa walked out to the sleigh and climbed in behind the eight reindeer.  “Good looking reindeer,” said Jesse.
“I take good care of ‘em.  Thanks for noticing.”
“Bet you never give ‘em any chocolate.”
Santa smiled.  “You sure know your reindeer.”  He grabbed the reins and gave them a shake.  “Hold on, Jesse.”
As they rose above the house, the neighborhood, the town, Jesse heard Santa shout, “Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night.”
“Okey-dokey,” shouted Jesse.


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Archie's BBQ Pit - "We're smokin' for you."

According to the latest issue of The National Barbecue Journal, a new BBQ joint is scheduled to open in St. Louis on Delmar Boulevard, just a few blocks east of the famous Loop district. The name is Archie’s BBQ Pit, and the head pitmaster is Bob Archibald, aka Smokin’ Archie. “Wait until you get a taste of our special sauce,” said Archibald. “It’s a secret recipe that’s been in my family since the War Between the States.” This could be the beginning of the War Between the Sauces.

Until recently, Mr. Archibald was president of the Missouri History Museum, a respected institution on the edge of Forest Park in St. Louis. His new restaurant is located in a building formerly owned by the ex-mayor of St. Louis, Freeman Bosley, Jr. Better known as “Juice Junior,” he helped steer Archibald to this distinctive location. Bosley will be featured with his blues band on weekends to provide entertainment. His recent album, “Bone Suckin’ Blues,” has enjoyed enthusiastic reception and he promises to play several tunes from it, including the hit “Don’t Dig Too Deep.”

Smokin’ Archie is proud of the unique taste he brings to the St. Louis barbecue scene. “We found some interesting ingredients in the ground around and underneath the building,” he said in an interview with this correspondent. “There are things in the soil you just don’t find anywhere else in this area. Once we put them through our exclusive filtering process to remove the glow, we add some chili powder, fresh garlic, and... but if I told you any more, it wouldn’t be a secret now, would it?” He laughed his jolly laugh. No more secrets coming from Archie.

The oversized menu at Archie’s BBQ Pit was designed by David Hoffmann, who also helped design the real estate transaction. What’s unique about the menu is that there are actually two menus. One has a price, the other one doesn’t. Which puts the burden on the customer. According to Mr. Hoffmann, “You can’t let price come between you and enjoyment. If you have to ask what the price is, maybe you shouldn’t be eating here.” Hoffmann was paid $10,000 for the design.

Customers will be greeted at the front door by John “Jackie D” Danforth, former attorney and senator, now turning his talents to a new line of work. Jackie was not available for comment, but a spokesperson said, “You can come here with no reservations. Also, we are not accountable for indigestion, inflated bowels or blood disorders caused by our sauce.” The spokesperson intimated that all customers will be asked to sign a release before ordering. “It’s the way of the world,” she said. Prior to joining the Archibald venture, Danforth had plans to open a restaurant in the Loop, to be called Bryan’s Cave. In a statement released last month, Danforth said, “It was to be a Thai BBQ establishment, but when I heard about Smoking Archie’s plans, I backed off to avoid a conflict of interest.” Rumors have circulated, however, that Jackie D. is still linked to the Thai Q spot.

The one-acre lot upon which Archie’s BBQ sits cost around a million dollars, which included a hefty back-tax that Juice Junior had neglected to pay. The land is currently valued at $232,000, a drop of more than 70%. The article didn’t state how much Smokin’ Archie paid for it, but word on the street has it that he could have paid for it with accumulated vacation pay. “I don’t discuss money,” Archie said, “but I’ll talk ribs with you anytime.” 

For more information on the restaurant, visit their website, The restaurant is scheduled to open between Thanksgiving and Christmas, depending on whether Mr. Archibald is out of town researching and writing new, secret recipes.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Roles for the Mature Male. Like me.

More than a month has passed since my last post. My apologies. Other projects, such as doing a couple of biographies, creating a 200-photo album (via MyPublisher), planning a trip to NYC, and watching my grass turn brown, have taken up much of my time. Plus evenings spent watching Season 4 of "Breaking Bad" with Mary Lee - it's addictive. Like meth. Or so I hear.

On to the subject at hand: Roles for Mature Actors. Such as Michael Caine, Debbie Reynolds, Peter O'Toole (although I hear he recently retired), Sean Connery, Donald Sutherland, Judi Dench. They keep working. 
Sure, there are many who have professionally disappeared, either victims of botched face-lifts or no longer interested in "cameos." But there are parts for actors once they pass the 70-year wrinkle in time.

Which is why I signed up with Talent-Plus about 5 years ago. Originally I anticipated some light-comedy parts in sales films or commercials. You know, the kind where an older guy with a sprightly step and a gleam in his eye delivers a meaningful glance or a well-timed retort. I'd be perfect for that. Turns out the only role I landed was in a low-budget movie about advertising. I played the part of an old Italian baker on The Hill who is approached by The Mob. Like somebody said, "There are no small parts; only small actors." (It was either Stanislavisky or Ginger Rogers. Maybe Mickey Rooney) My reviews were excellent. Three people who saw it said, "You weren't bad."

Why talk about this now? Because I got a phone call last week from Talent Plus. A client was going to shoot a commercial or instructional video and thought I'd be perfect. At last. Someone saw the potential in my style, my smile, my incredible timing with a punch line. "What's the part?" I asked, not really caring what it was, only a chance to work, to loosen up my chops, as somebody said. Maybe it was a musician. Still, relevant. "They like your chest," said the young woman on the phone. She continued. "They like you because you're old and thin." 

I'm not kidding about this. That's why they liked me. "Old" and "thin."
"What's this for?" I asked, though my hopes were fading like my hearing. "It's a robotic device that operates on the heart. A less invasive procedure that produces only a small scar. They thought, given your age and weight, you'd be perfect to put a scar on your chest and show how the machine works." 

Long pause, while I considered the "challenge." It was a non-speaking role. I imagined a scene where adoring relatives and friends would stand around my hospital bed, admiring my small scar with smiles and nods and even a comforting pat on my shoulder. "Way to go, champ." Stuff like that.

Fortunately, I was saved by the schedule. The video is to be shot the week I'm out of town. I told her I couldn't be there. "But they really like you," she said. I asked her, in a joking manner laced with a touch of bitterness, "Do you need a picture of my chest?" She laughed lightly, said no, but I repeated I would be out of town, "perhaps you can find someone else just as old and thin with minimal hair on his chest." She understood.

After I hung up, it hit me. I have reached the point in my on-camera career when I am "right" for such roles as a consumptive senior citizen, a terminally-ill patient, a subject for a medical procedure, or - logically - a cadaver. That doesn't really upset me. What bothers me is that there is not much room for a funny line or a wink or a double-take. Makes me wonder how Michael Caine would handle this situation. Of course, having a British accent has its advantages. 

I'm actually sorry I'm unavailable. I've got a great closing line for the video. A friend at bedside says to me, "That scar is so small, it's actually beautiful." And I say, after a short pause, "If you think THAT'S beautiful, you should see my prostate." Too bad we'll never know how funny that would have been.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

Writing is hard, poetry is harder.

I've written a lot of stuff in my life, from 30-second TV commercials to a 317-page novel, with stops along the way including a biography, short stories and plays. But I had never taken a serious shot at poetry. Couldn't be too tough, right? A few lines or stanzas, whatever you call them, some vague thoughts, words that don't rhyme at the end of the line, and an esoteric title having no relationship to the real world. The New Yorker publishes stuff like that every week. 

With that in mind, I submitted two poems to a poetry contest recently. One, a very long poem which I called "Echoes in B-Flat." Very cool, I thought: jazz oriented, musical, visual; a sure winner. First line: "The cool blue neon beckons through the window." Hard to stop reading, right?

 The other poem, much shorter...3 stanzas or paragraphs or whatever...I called "Transplant." Intriguing, you must admit. Opening line: "The first time I met her I knew she was not right for him." That's a grabber, for sure, like the start of a Stephen King or John Grisham novel. I could hear the comments now. "I couldn't put it down." "The fastest three stanzas I've ever read." Things like that.

I mailed the poems in, with my check for $15. I was sure I could add "Poetry Winner" to my list of accomplishments. The results were announced two weeks ago. Nothing. Not a prize, not an Honorable Mention. Not even an addendum to the tally, like "The judges were impressed by a new poet... etc etc." 

Maybe I didn't know enough about the art of poetry. So I got a book from the library. "next word, better word: the craft of writing poetry." Yes, the title was all in lower case, an example of how weird the subject is. Author is stephen dobyns. I picked this book because he wrote a poem once which I actually liked a lot, about a guy and his dog going for a late night ride. And the dog talks to him. Hey, it's poetry.

The book is a revelation. It's like opening a tool box and seeing a bunch of tools you've never seen before and, worse, have no idea how to use. These were the tools of poetry. Let me tell what's in there. First, there's this over-arching premise which sounds exquisite, though I haven't yet conquered its meaning.
"What makes human beings different from any other creature is their sense of possibility. We can speculate about things that don't exist..... This, as well as art and metaphor, dream and humor, is a product of the right brain. The left brain can analyze, but it cannot imagine....It cannot hypothesize. A metaphor - and all art is metaphor - presents us all at once with a complete  totality of meaning that we dwell upon and continue to learn from as we consider its implications."

And I was still on page 6 of the introduction. Skipping nimbly ahead to page 90, I encountered this:
"The two main reasons to have line breaks are rhythm and meaning....A poem's rhythm is by and large influenced by the fact that English is a stressed language...But if the line is broken where no punctuation or syntactic pause exists - if the line is enjambed - then we have an artificial pause, a brief hiccup in the flow of the sentence."

The only person I can imagine understanding that is a proctologist.
Next, a thought I can empathize with.
"In a poem, unlike an anecdote, the reader's question - 'what does this mean?' - is not fully answered by its syntactic closure. We have a sense of more, and so we move past the syntactic closure to reread the poem in search of the scope of that 'more.'"

Now I was really on dobyn's side. He knew I didn't have a clue about writing or reading a poem, and I constantly asked myself - or my dog, if she were nearby - "Just what the hell does THAT mean???" Finally I got near the end of the book, scanning much of it, I admit. Then I came across this section, which turns an analysis of a poem into an accurate description of how those scientists in Geneva recently found the Higgs boson, aka The God Particle.
"The first line begins with a trochee and ends with a pyrrhic and spondee; the second ends with a pyrrhic and spondee, the third beings with a trochee... Affecting our sense of what exists and what should exist is our psychology, our belief system, our history and even comparatively superficial factors such as whether we got a good night's sleep."

I understood the "good night's sleep" concept.

So this is a long-winded way of my telling you, Don't expect any more poetry from this writer. I find it much easier to write a novel, a play, the biography of a failedcaterer, than to attempt another conflict between the two sides of my brain. I can't leave you without naming 3 of my favorite poets. They write poems I can understand. I think. They are Stephen Dobyns, Billy Collins, and George Bilgere. I've attached links to Dobyns and Bilgere. A few poems by Dobyns  A few poems by George Bilgere

So you don't have to wonder about my "Transplant" poem, here's how it begins:

"The first time I met her I knew she was not right for him.
Don't get me wrong, I didn't dislike her.
She smiled and laughed and said the proper things.
I just knew she would wear him down, 
a perpetual grindstone on weathered wood.
She was the oddly shape piece of a puzzle that couldn't
possibly fit into the portrait of a complicated man."

I still think it's pretty good. Just not enough metaphors probably.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The Smell of Cigars, the Sound of Shuffling

An intersection that is locked into my memory made the news today. The item - on - mentioned a new apartment building to be constructed next to an existing building from 1925. They are to be called The Gotham and The Gotham Annex. "Holy Renovation, Batman, let's check 'em out."

What got my attention was the location of the new Gothams. It's the intersection of Hamilton and Delmar Boulevards, in St. Louis where the city meets the eastern edge of University City. Not a nice neighborhood these days. Definitely on the low end of a long losing streak. 

But back when I was a little kid, Hamilton and Delmar was alive with retail stores, apartments, shoppers, and restaurants. It was also the site of Chester's Pipe Shop. Keep reading, because this is not about pipes and tobacco and old men puffing on their Meerschaums. Chester's is where Dad would head on many a Sunday afternoon. He would tell Mom "I'm going down to the store, check the receipts." (He owned a shoe store on Cherokee Street, with a big Red Goose over the doorway.) Or he'd say "I'm going to visit Minnie and Goldie." Those were two of his five sisters, all of whom had come over on the boat from Russia 30 or more years prior. And, frequently, he would do just that: the shoe store or his sisters.

Frequently he would do neither, and head to Chester's Pipe Shop for an afternoon of gin rummy with several friends. He took me with him once. I walked into the store, looked around, and was surprised that it was dark and empty. Just lots of pipes and cans and pouches and things I didn't recognize. Dad didn't smoke a pipe. He didn't smoke anything. We headed to the back of the store, through a doorway, into a lighted room filled with smoke. Cigar smoke. I remember the smell. It filled every corner. I was afraid to take a deep breath. The center of the room was dominated by a large round table. 

Around the table sat a lot of men, maybe 5 or 6 or 7. It seemed they all were puffing on  stogies of one length or another. I recognized three of the men. Sid Ginsberg and Jack Golberg and Nat Kornblum. I called them Uncle Sid, Uncle Jack, Uncle Nat, though none of them were related. But that's how I was told to address them. I also noticed lots of black telephones in the room. Very unusual, I thought, until I found out a few years later it was a big bookie operation. Mom didn't like these men. Worse than that: she hated them, thought Dad was too good for them. They not only smoked but drank whiskey and used bad language. Mom was better than that and thought Dad was too. 

But gin rummy with his buddies was important to Dad. That one time he took me, he stayed for only a short time. He told me to go look around at the pipes while he "took care of some business." I sat in the front room, listened to the chatter, heard lots of dirty words, the shuffling of cards. They told jokes with words I didn't understand, came to the punch line, and the room would explode with their laughs. To this day, the pungent odor of a cigar takes me back to Chester's. I wish I knew some of those jokes.

When we got home, Mom said, "You've been to Chester's." Dad claimed he just stopped by to drop off a pair of shoes. She said, "I can smell it all over you. That doesn't happen in two minutes." Dad mumbled some response, offered no argument. It was part of their ritual. That was my only visit to Chester's. But every time I passed it, over the years, the neighborhood in decline, Dad long since given up gin with his pals, I recall - fondly - how he had found this haven of friendship and recreation, and a place to display his awesome gin rummy talents. I don't even know if the building is still there, but I somehow suspect the Sunday afternoon games still go on in another dimension, cigars and all.

I was never able to beat Dad at gin. To this day, when my wife and I play gin rummy, she invariably mentions how good a player he was, how quickly he played his cards, and how impossible it was to beat him. I would have liked one more visit to Chester's with him, and some insight into how to win at gin.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Those Gutsy Boys in Blue

I finally figured out this thing about the U.N., and why they are so ineffective when it comes to stopping violence. It’s not bravery or motivation or physical skills. They’ve got that, and I admire them for it. The reason is their blue hats.

Did you ever notice those cute little toppers? All U. N. “Observers” wear these little blue hats when they wade into a conflict or danger zone or places that most of us wouldn’t go within a hundred miles of. Sometimes they wear helmets. Even their jeeps and trucks are emblazoned with that same blue.
It’s a powder blue, a robin’s egg blue, a blue as cheerful as the sky on a beautiful day in May. The U. N. Blue makes you want to hug and kiss and skip through fields of flowers. It makes you want to say, “I’ll have a popsicle, please.” It does NOT make you want to sheath your machete, lower your AK-47, disconnect the bomb or the booby trap. It certainly doesn’t make you want to give up your cause and go home to sit around the fire.

You need a better color if your intention is to intimidate. You need Black. Or Olive Drab. Or Brown. Or Gray. If you want Blue, you’ve gotta go with DARK Blue or NAVY Blue or STEEL Blue or MIDNIGHT Blue. 

The U. N. Blue is about as intimidating as the uniforms of the Redcoats of 1776, the French pantaloons of a couple centuries ago, and a long parade of military styles, including these two characters at the left. Maybe bright colors did a lot to heighten the morale, like when they marched in parades or advanced twenty abreast into battle. But they also made for tempting targets. The British Redcoats discovered that when they came up against the Rebels, who tended to dress down. 

Of course war was different back then. "To the Colors" actually meant more than the flag, I assume. Just take a look at this guy in a blue hat - with a feather, no less. I'm betting he didn’t make it out of his tent. But he looked great the night before at The Ball.

Berets, actually, are okay. It's the color, not the style. You know about the Green Berets. But did you know that the style and color originated with the British Commandos in WW2? Then it was picked up by Australian, French and Dutch Commandos. The U.S. Army Special Forces took a liking to that style and used it in Nam, with veterans made up from WWII and Korea. Even John Wayne got into the act. He said the beret was more comfortable than a cowboy hat and he could fold it up and stick it in his back pocket when he went bar hopping.

If the U. N. wants combatants to listen up to their Observers, they could take a lesson from this guy. This is intimidation at its finest. Doesn’t even matter if his gun is loaded. You know he means business, and you sure as hell better back away. 
So that's my advice for the U.N. Oh, one more thing.That word "Observer." It doesn't do a lot for me. It certainly doesn't compare with "Commando" or "Special Forces." It's not even as strong as "Referee," who at least can blow a whistle and stop play.

The Observers have a difficult and frustrating job. Striving for World Peace is not easy. But at least they could take a first step and dress for the part. I urge you to write Ban Ki-moon, the Secretary General of the UN, and tell him to pick a better color. He lives on Sutton Place in New York City. You can also tell him I have a brother-in-law in the hat business who will give him 30% off all orders over $100,000 if he orders before the end of July.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Sad Passing of Friends

It's the middle of June and, as summer heads towards us with a vengeance, I say goodbye to familiar faces and dear friends. This has happened in previous Junes, but for some reason this year it's more difficult for me.

The gloom set in last Sunday night. I had to bid adieu to Don Draper, Peggy Olsen, Joan "Our Lady of the Large Ta-Ta's" Harris, and of course that final goodbye of Lane "Always Leave 'em Hangin'" Pryce. I know these people well, I love them all, I even worked with some of them back in the '60's, and now my Sunday nights feel cold and empty. Like I was just taken off a big account. I was left with only a quick turn of Don's head when a babe at the bar asked him, "Are you alone?" Now that is a deep, metaphysical question, one that went to the core of Don's being. And my being, as well. I won't know his answer until October or November or whenever the hell Matt Weiner decides to bring back his "Mad Men."

Other friends left last Sunday, as well. That surly, swaggering, ragged, foul-mouthed, over-sexed, violent, duplicitous, power hungry, never-take-a-bath, valiant band of men and women who populate the worlds of "Game of Thrones." No, don't ask me what's going on. I am not sure who's doing what to who. Only that I can't take my eyes off the screen. If I had a tee shirt that said "Winterfell" I would proudly wear it to the finest restaurant. I never thought I'd admit to this, but one of my favorite characters is a dwarf. Yep, like Sneezy and Doc and Happy. This one's name is Tyrion Lannister (I had to Google for that) and the actor's name is Peter Dinklage. 

Here's a touching footnote to Peter's Golden Globe Award last January. He dedicated it to a victim of a dwarf tossing incident. No, I'm not kidding. Could I make this up? A very short man, aka dwarf, was standing outside a bar in England, smoking a cigarette, when some drunken stranger came up to him, picked him up, and tossed him. Far. The dwarf - an aspiring actor, just to add depth to the story - fell on his back, and now he is partially paralyzed. This is the blackest sort of humor. And I feel desperately sorry for the little fellow. I guess Peter D. must be on some kind of internet group for dwarves. 

Anyway, "Game of Thrones" departed last Sunday with the introduction of some walking dead people in a winter storm led by a frost monster of sorts with Paul Newman blue eyes, on horseback. I know there's some bad stuff coming. When? I don't know. HBO will tell me.

And finally, not to drag this out: I'm dreading tomorrow night. It's the season ender for "The Killing." I hope to hell we find out who killed Rosie Larsen. This case has been going on for two years now. I really know these people. I care about them all, even the ones I hate. Sarah and Holder and Stan and Richmond (the guy in the wheelchair) and Jamie, who I didn't trust from day one and still don't. What I will not miss is the endless rain. Every day, every night, it rains. The show is shot in Vancouver, as a stand-in for Seattle. My impression of the entire Northwest is that of one sodden mass covered in mold. 
I just hope the murder case is solved tomorrow night, and that all or most of those unforgettable people will return to me soon.

No, I don't watch a lot of TV. But the shows I watch receive my undivided attention. I connect with those people, thanks to strong writing and excellent casting. I know them. I will miss them. To admit something to you that I don't tell everyone: I still miss Tony Soprano and the Fishers - Nate, David, Ruth and Claire - from "Six Feet Under" and even Al Swearengen, the most foul-mouthed character ever to walk the dirt streets of "Deadwood." He didn't even get to say goodbye. But I miss them all.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Hey, Watermelon Man

I've got watermelon on my mind. Thanks to my friend Linda O'Connell, a superb writer who's been published in just about everything except the Book of Mormon. She wrote about watermelon on her blog a week ago. Here's part of what she said.

" ...Sam the Watermelon Man. He had a watermelon stand on Natural Bridge in North St. Louis when I was a kid. He hung a string of bare light bulbs that auto dealers used to have on their lots. He sliced those oversized oval shaped melons into eighths and sold them 50 cents a slice to families who sat at old wooden picnic tables. That was the sweetest, ice cold  watermelon."

So Linda made me think about Sam and those great, ice cold watermelons he sold. They were Black Diamonds. You don't see them very often now. As a guy at Kirkwood Market told me, "They don't travel well." One of the best parts was the seeds. Big, black seeds that you could spit on the dirt floor in his stand. (Sidenote: I used to have a parrot that sat on my shoulder when I ate watermelon. She waited for the seeds.) Those watermelons were real watermelons. Not like that seedless variety today that is an abomination of nature. Jerry Seinfeld once asked, "What do you think they plant to get seedless watermelons?"

Back to Sam. Dad would take my brother and me to Sam's during the summer, and watch them cut into the thick, dark green skin, reveal that beautiful red flesh, while pieces of ice and cold water ran down the sides. Then slapped onto a paper plate, which we carried to a table and dug in. It was just as special as sitting in the family car parked around Pevely's fountain in Clayton, eating a gold brick sundae. But Sam was unique. His was the only watermelon stand I was aware of, at least in my world. Sam's last name was Zvibleman. I know that because I went to high school with his son, Irv. He was a year ahead of me, graduated U. City in 1952. As I remember him.... and this was a long time ago ...Irv was not a big guy physically, had kind of a "tough guy" attitude, stocky, a somewhat cocky look on his face, hair over his eyes. If he had been an actor, he would've been cast as one of Tony Soprano's hit men with a ten-word vocabulary. I'm sure I've characterized him all wrong. But he was the son of Sam the Watermelon Man. And that elevated him. Nobody else had a dad who could slice a watermelon like Sam. Maybe Irv could too. I don't know. I never saw him do it. I don't even know if he's still alive, or if he's walking through that Great Watermelon Patch in the Sky.

I still love watermelon. I thank Linda for reminding I we need to get one, as soon as we finish our cantaloupe and honeydew. Maybe sooner. See you at the stand. 

By the way, if you want to read some excellent writing, check out Linda's blog, Write From the Heart

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Me and Ray

He took me by the hand and led me to strange and wonderful worlds. He taught me that time does not necessarily move forward, that the past surrounds us, that living on Mars might be preferable to living on Earth. He introduced me to the Golden Apples of the Sun and The Illustrated Man and The Fog Horn and even a middle-of-the-night return of Laurel and Hardy as they moved the piano up that long flight of steps.
His name was Ray Bradbury and he wrote his final sentence last Tuesday.
I knew he was old (91), in poor health; still, he found the words and ideas to write an essay for last week’s New Yorker magazine, a special issue on Science-Fiction. The title of his essay? "Take Me Home." I guess not even this magnificent writer could find an alternate ending, a way to slip past the encroachment of time. 
Really, though, is any writer ever dead? His stories and books rest on my bookshelves and speak in my imagination. I see myself at the age of 14 or 15, lying in bed at night by the lamp, totally lost in one of Ray’s worlds. His choice of words, his phrases, his ideas were like music and poetry to me. I still can see the large spread in a 1952 Collier’s Magazine, featuring his story “A Sound of Thunder.” It boggled (love that word) my mind. There’s a line in that story that showed how changing the past, even minutely, can have shattering effect in the present. A traveler to the past comes back to the present, to a world that has changed drastically. He discovers one of his boots is covered with mud. He looks at his boot.
“Embedded in the mud, glistening green and gold and black, was a butterfly, very beautiful and very dead.” 
I still have “The Big Book of Science Fiction,” edited by Groff Conklin, published in 1950, signed by Ray on Nov. 14, 1996. I bought that book when it was new, read the stories by Theodore Sturgeon, Murray Leinster, Lester del Rey, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein. But the master, for me, was Ray Bradbury. I saw him on two occasions, when he was in St. Louis for book signings. 1990 and 1996. I stood there with my books, making dumb conversation, trying to prolong the moment as long as possible before the line behind me got impatient.
In our digital age of Kindle and Nook, Twitter and Facebook, emails and blogs, a time when publishers are fearful and anybody can publish a manuscript quite easily....In this age, it’s comforting to know that some things remain. I can walk by my book shelves, stop and look at Ray’s books, touch the cover as I would touch a friend on the shoulder. 

I can say, “Good to see you, Ray. Glad you’re here.”

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The Past Is Not Past

I’ve been to France but didn't get to Normandy. I’ve never stood on Omaha Beach, stared up at the intimidating cliffs and wondered how men accomplished this impossible mission.
“D-Day” is one of those links to the past that trigger images of an old war with black and white photos of the Normandy invasion in 1944. It is remembered by aged men, most of them frail and fading. You see them interviewed on TV occasionally, their memories of those awful days 68 years ago as fresh and painful as though it happened just last week. Men whose number dwindles sadly with each passing day. You see their names in the obits with little American flags next to them.
I have nothing to add to their story, to this day of tribute. I’ve seen the movies, read the books, attended lectures. I was 9 years old when “our boys” landed. To me, it was adventure of the highest order. The stuff of comic books and movies and newspaper headlines and stories in Life magazine. I don’t recall seeing many pictures of dead, dying, wounded, maimed, suffering. 
About 4 years ago I interviewed a man, then in his mid-80’s, who was there. At Omaha Beach. His name was Charles and he had lived a productive, happy life since the end of the war, raised a family, was still married and owned his own modest home. He and I were doing a video for his kids and grandkids. About his life. He talked about the war, the landing, the hard road across France.
We got near the end of our conversation. He returned to one memory of D-Day, nothing deep or revealing, just a thought about being so thirsty. He paused. I asked him, “Are you a hero, Charles?” He looked at me, then looked away for a long time. I thought maybe he hadn’t heard the question. Then I saw tears in his eyes. It was the first time in the 2 hours we had been talking I had seen such depth of pain and feeling. Charles turned back to me and struggled to say, “The heroes are buried over there. Or they’re at the bottom of the ocean. I’m not a hero.”
Maybe that’s what D-Day means to me. Sure, part of it is the amazing bravery shown on all the beaches during those days. But the other part is the pain that continues decades later, the memories that remain buried. Or almost buried, only to resurface at the most unexpected moments. 
To me, they were all heroes. And I pause to think of them them today.

Photo by Susan Manlin Katzman, taken at
Normany in May, 2012.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

47 years ago today

The year was 1965. Mary Lee and I had just been pronounced "man and wife" by her uncle, Monsignor Don Hartnett, at Ste. Genevieve DuBois church in Ladue. My parents were there, her parents were there, and my dad's sisters from the Old Country were there, somewhat uncomfortable in a house of worship that had a large statue of Jesus hanging up front. They made it through the ceremony without fainting. So did I.

After a strictly first-class reception at Old Warson Country Club, Mary Lee and I climbed into my 1965 Olds Jetstar Convertible. Top up. Didn't want to mess up her hair. Or mine. We waited with friends at a hotel near the airport, then caught a plane for Las Vegas. Our honeymoon was storybook: 3 nights in Vegas at The Riviera, 2 nights at Disneyland (my choice), and a week and a half in Mexico (Mexico City and Taxco). What a grand beginning for our life adventure.

And now, here we are, still having fun, still in love, still seeking adventure, though maybe a little more cautiously. This includes trips to Chicago where Gregg lives, or New York to see Holly. 

I was lucky to find Mary Lee, even luckier when she said she'd marry me - even though she later confessed it was just to get out of her house. Our road has had some interesting twists and turns, which has just gone to make our lives more interesting and our marriage more solid. And she's still beautiful.

Happy anniversary to the woman I love, Mary Lee. 

Sidenote: Last year a young man called from Kansas City. He had bought a '65 Olds and found the owner's manual in the glove compartment with my name on it. He tracked me down, and brought the car to St. Louis. The same car Mary Lee and I had left in so many years before. Some things are meant to run for a long time.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

D'Arcy, Masius, Benton and Brigadoon

Once every one hundred years, so the legend goes, the Scottish village of Brigadoon emerges from the mist of the past and lives once again for only one day. Maybe D'Arcy isn't a fitting subject for a musical or movie, but it sure is capable of maintaining the magic. So it was yesterday, when - thanks to the efforts of Jerry Sexton - many of us gathered at a local pub in Kirkwood to rub elbows and share hugs and stories and laughs and a glass of brew or wine. Some new faces were there since the last appearance, and some faces were missing. Still, the village of DMB&B continues to live, if only in our hearts.

I never seem to find the time to talk to all the people I want to. Conversations are too short, memories too prevalent, questions and interests arise and disappear too quickly. I see a face across the room, someone I want to reconnect with, but don't quite get around to. It's as though, like Brigadoon, the mist will swirl in much too early, leaving dangling conversations and stories without punch lines, an intended handshake or hug unfulfilled. 

Fortunately we don't have to wait one hundred years for the next opportunity. As long as Jerry Sexton has an extra supply of name tags and the time to pull it together, the village will return much sooner. 


Monday, April 16, 2012

Charlie at 123

123 years ago today, Charlie Chaplin was born. To save you the math,
that makes it 1889. That was the same year the Eiffel Tower opened,
the dam in Johnstown, Pennsylvania broke, and Thomas Edison showed
his first motion picture. 
That’s about as much as I’m going to write about today. The rest of this post is written by Charlie. Actually, his words extracted from various interviews. 

The only thing I’ll add is a couple of photos: one of him at the London Poor Law School at Hanwell, where he stayed in 1896 and ’97; 

and one  of him with the Fred Karno Troupe from England in 1913. Charlie is standing, second from right. Stanley Jefferson is standing, second from left. Stanley later changed his name to Stan Laurel. And that’s Fred Karno seated.

So now I’ll turn this over to Charlie.
(1915) I was born in a suburb of London 25 years ago. I went on the stage because there seemed nothing else to do. In fact, I don’t know anything else. Both my father and mother are on the stage, and so were all my ancestors as far back as I can trace the family tree. The first time I looked at myself on the screen, I was ready to resign. That can’t be I, I thought. Then when I realized it was, I said, “Good-night.” I had always been ambitious to work in drama, and it certainly was the surprise of my life when I got away with the comedy stuff.”
(1918) I want to be myself, that’s all. Why can’t people dissociate an actor from his work, and take the work as it is, and the man for what he is, as they do a business man? I like people. But I like them only when they’re perfectly natural and when they let me be perfectly natural. When in a great bunch of human beings I see on every face only one emotion, curiosity, I want to get away as fast as I can.
(1940) I doubt that at any picture of mine people have said, “This is it. This is the great moment.” Because I don’t spill over. It is better to suggest, to reach almost the  great moment, the final pathos, and then go on. I hate spilling over, and fear it. I am protected by being a charlatan. To be honest, I don’t search for truth. I search for effectiveness. Do you know why most writers fail in the theatre? Because they try to write what is worthwhile rather than what is effective.
(1967) I’ve never been obsessed with friendship. In the first place I’m shy. In the next place I’m busy. People usually think I’m very sad, but I’m not sad. Perhaps I’ve been sad in my youth for want of other companionship, but it was never suitable to me. So I’ve been alone. I’ve lived alone all my life I’d say, with the exception of this family and this last twenty-odd years which have been wonderful. What has always sustained me has been my work.
(1972, Tribute at Lincoln Center upon his return to the U.S.) 
This is my renaissance. I’m being born again. It’s easy for you, but it’s very difficult for me to speak tonight, because I feel very emotional. However, I’m glad to be among so many friends. Thank you.
Thank you, Charlie. 
And Happy Birthday.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Bones in the River

This little story was inspired by Linda O'Connell in a recent post on her blog, Write from the Heart. It's a beautiful reminder of the Arch and Riverfront. Her story took me back. Here's a link to the post:

Bones in the River

1964 was a  year filled with excitement and change. LBJ was elected to continue the vision set by JFK. Khrushev has been tossed out by the Russkies. China showed the world it now had the atomic bomb. The Cardinals, led by a voracious Bob Gibson, won the World Series over the Yankees, led by a struggling Mickey Mantle. And I landed a job at KMOX-TV, the CBS station in St. Louis, at 12th and Cole Streets. 

I was one of the few single men there, which gave me a sense of freedom not enjoyed by most of the other guys. Then, to my good luck, three months after I started, the National Sales Manager hired a very attractive secretary. Her name was Mary Lee. She, too, was single.  So we began to hang out together. She was vivacious, in the mode of one of my favorite actresses, Betty Hutton. She was beautiful with a dynamite figure. And she had a great sense of humor, evidenced by how easily she laughed at all my jokes. 

Mary Lee and I would get together occasionally for lunch, or drinks after work. She went for Chablis, I preferred scotch and water, tastes now both thankfully put to rest. But our favorite lunch date was known by the code words, “Bones in the River.” As in, “Would you like to throw some bones in the river today?”

Here’s how it worked. We’d get into my 1960 Corvette convertible, top down, and head across Eads Bridge to East St. Louis. We’d wind our way through some side streets until we came to a small wooden shack with a take-out window and a hand-painted sign that said “Nichols BBQ.” We’d get two slabs of ribs, laid over slices of Wonder white bread, soaked in sauce, wrapped in wax paper, and head back across Eads to the St. Louis waterfront. We’d park on the levee, sit on the wall, and dig into the ribs. Oh, I forgot to mention. She had a root beer, I had an RC. In glass bottles. 

Behind us, on the hill overlooking the river, the St. Louis Arch was inching its way into the sky. Cranes crawled up the stainless steel legs, adding sections  slowly and carefully, approaching the day when the two legs would be joined by a final span. 

The grounds around the base were pretty much of a mess, looking like most other construction sites. But I’ve got to admit, it was exciting to think our city would soon have this distinctive structure. And there we were, Mary Lee and I, in its shadow, talking and laughing and getting sauce all over our mouths and hands. 

As we finished our ribs, we’d walk down to the edge of the Mississippi and ceremoniously toss the ribs into the brown, swiftly moving water. Sometimes we’d make a wish, but usually it was just a simple flip of the bare bones into the river. I don’t know if any of our bones ever made it to New Orleans, but I hope so.

Then we’d head back to the station and go our separate ways. 
That was in 1964. In 1965 we were married.
This May we will celebrate our 47th anniversary.

You may wonder if we ever went back for Bones in the River. We did. For our 25th anniversary. That was in 1990. A lot had happened in 25 years, including a completed Arch surrounded by beautiful grounds and an imposing staircase from the levee to the Arch. Nichols BBQ was now an empty lot, but we picked up some ribs that day at a BBQ joint in Soulard and sat on the levee once again. Mary Lee was still beautiful, still had a great body, and still laughed at my jokes.

Fortunately, some things never change.