Monday, April 19, 2021

Mugged by a Gang of Coffee Cups

    The other morning I realized my situation was out of control. As usual, I shuffled from my bedroom to the kitchen. Objective: Coffee. I didn’t even notice if the usual enclave of birds was feasting at my bird feeders, or if they needed seed. First things first.
   So, into the coffee maker - filter, Community Coffee New Orleans Blend, and cold water. Push the “on” button and wait. This part was easy. Predictable. The next step proved more complicated, even stressful. I opened the cabinet door to grab a cup.


   I stopped and stared helplessly at the shelf. At the cups. That’s when it hit me - I have a  whole lot of coffee cups. Thirteen of them at last count. Now, who needs thirteen cups? All I need is one. Maybe two or three, just to add some excitement to my mornings. But thirteen??
This is when I realized how insecure I am. I needed to pick the “right” cup. I narrowed it down, slowly, to the Los Angeles Farmer’s Market, Larry David “Pretty Good,” and Ernest Hemingway in Key West. I smelled the coffee brewing, needed to wake up, begin my day, escape from this dilemma. I decided on the Hemingway, a gift from my son from his trip to Florida six years ago.

   As I sat there over my coffee, staring out the window, I wondered how many other people are similarly obsessed. I’m sure I wasn’t the only one in this situation. I mentioned my cups predicament to a friend a couple of days later.
   “Those aren’t cups,” she said. “They’re mugs.”
   “Same thing,” I said, suddenly defensive.
   A bit of advice here: Don’t argue with a knowledgeable woman about anything in the kitchen. Especially dishware. “Those are two different things,” she said. “Different sizes, different functions.”
   I knew I was getting in deeper than I wanted to. She told me, in gentle terms, that a cup is used for tea and is smaller. Six ounces, to be exact. That’s why the British say “a cuppa.” A mug is used for coffee, also for hot chocolate. So when you say, “Let’s get a cup of coffee,” you’re showing your lack of awareness. Just to finish this lesson, understand that a mug is sturdier and comes without a saucer. A cup and saucer go together like ham and eggs, just to keep the breakfast analogy going.
   About a year ago, I cleared out some of my cups. Maybe seven or eight of them. The shelf was too full. A couple even had dead flies in them. I still found it difficult to take a few to the Salvation Army, which is a kind of purgatory for cups.  “I Love You” was one, either from my wife, my daughter or my son. A morning reminder I was loved. Another was “Happy Father’s Day.” Every father in America must have one of those. At least I hope so. I also gave away a $20 cup I had bought at the Truman Library in Independence. It looked like it was made of marble and had the Presidential seal on it. The cup looked great on the shelf or the table, but drinking coffee from it made me feel imperious. As though I had to sign some bills, call the Speaker of the House, or ponder the wisdom of dropping the atomic bomb. Not a good way to start the day, right?
   However, parting ways is not easy. Coffee cups, I believe, have something in common with our t-shirts, caps, and greeting cards. We are emotionally attached to them, for they represent part of our past: occasions, connections, celebrations, and expressions of love.  
About the cups thing: I, for one, will continue to call them cups, regardless of proper nomenclature. Some things I can not part with. Tomorrow morning, when you make your coffee, think about which cup you reach for. And why. You may learn something about yourself.

This column appears in the current issue of County Living Magazine (April 2021)

Monday, February 8, 2021

My Table Will Be Waiting Again

I’ve been streaming a lot the past few months. I know that sounds like a medical condition. “I’m going in for surgery next week. Been streaming a lot.” You know what I mean. I’ve been watching some of the new series and movies, many of them quite good. I almost bought a chess set after “The Queen’s Gambit,” but came to my senses. Scrabble and gin rummy are enough of a challenge for me. Old movies, however, exert a relentless pull on me. Many I remember fondly, some I don’t remember much about, a few I’ve never seen. The combination of nostalgia, engrossing stories, and performances have stayed with me. There is, however, a side effect to these movies. They make me long for the good old days, “those days” being the last months of 2019. Before the virus. The

scenes that grab me take place in a restaurant. Any restaurant.  

As I sit in front of my TV now and dine on my take out/carry out/curbside egg foo young, I am transported by the sight of people enjoying dinner in a restaurant. They can play an important role in movies and series. “My Dinner with Andre,” 1981, a full-length movie that takes place at one table in a restaurant. “Dinner Rush”, 2000, and “Big Night,” 1996, in New York and New Jersey respectively. Both Italian, of course. Along with “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather.” Waiters, activity, lovable characters, and plates of pasta, veal, scampi, olive oil and crusty bread and red wine and tiramisu. Ah, the romance of eating out, even if someone gets whacked. This may be the most personal reminder of how much we’ve changed. Restaurants have been devastated by the pandemic, many of them never to return. Some of the best ones, I’m afraid.  

On a personal level, here’s what I miss: The ceremony of Going Out to Eat. A crowded restaurant, lots of chatter and laughter, clinks of forks and plates, maybe some cool jazz in the background. Talking with Z and friends. The maitre’d smiles warmly, genuinely happy to see us. He even remembers my name. Right on time, he shows us to our waiting table, slides my chair out for me. Maybe even unfolds the cloth napkin to lay in my lap. The white linen tablecloth, the place settings, the freshly poured glasses of water with ice - a fantasy realized. How can you exist this long without the satisfaction of a waiter handing out menus, asking, “Would you care for a drink?” Of course I would. “A vodka Gibson, please,” I say, “Straight up.” I even have my choice of vodka. “Ketel One,” I say confidently. And so it begins. The Ceremony of the Meal. A cast of impeccable characters: the waiter, the busboy (or bus person?), the wine expert with the opener around his neck. Maybe a friend stops by the table with a “How’ve you been?” And a handshake. (Remember those?) And the sounds. Oh
, those beautiful sounds. A symphony of conversation and laughs, and knives and forks on dishes, an energy carried by sound waves and delicious aromas that say you are in the right place, and heaven is here right now. 

Okay, I’m getting carried away. But I do miss the experience of “going out to eat.” It doesn’t have to be fancy. No wine steward, no “live” music. Just the staff, the food, and the waiter who asks what you want, confides in you that the snapper is to die for, asks how would you like your steak cooked, “I suggest medium rare,” and then asks the inevitable question after the main course: “Did we save room for dessert?” Who’s the “we” in this? Is the waiter going to join us? Finally the check, the credit cards, the chairs pushed away from the table, and a cheerful departure, stopping by a table on the way out to say hello to someone you haven’t seen in awhile. I heard that Giovanni’s Little Place, in Ladue, has shuttered. I am saddened, as though I have lost a dear friend. Fond memories, shared with Z. Many other places also gone. I wonder about those beautiful men and women who made going out to eat so special. Made me feel special. Where are they? How are they? They, too, are lost. 

Someday this classic ritual will return. But the faces and places, the names and ambience will be different. We’ll adjust to this new world. Our tables will be waiting. And it will be time to build new memories.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to This Blog

A priest, a minister and a rabbi walk into a bar. The bartender looks at them and says, “What is this? Some kind of joke?” 

Rim shot.

What’s so funny? These days, not a lot. The virus, the shootings, the protests, the politicians all have arrived to create the perfect storm of anxiety. Yet the laughs keep coming. Take your choice of sources: sit-coms (old and new) movies on TV, stand-ups, streaming, websites, podcasts, apps. I find a lot on YouTube, some of the all time great routines and shows. Laughter persists for one reason: we need it. We need that balance in our lives, the bright release from the dark. It’s a special human gift. Researchers claim that some animals laugh - chimps, dogs, rats, dolphins. But they only react to physical stimulation, like playing and tickling. They’re unaware of punch lines, and haven’t evolved as far as “knock knock” jokes. 

Which brings me to Carl Reiner, who died this past July at the age of 98. That’s a lot of years and a lot of laughs for a whole lot of people. Carl became a comedy legend in many media, as writer, actor, performer and director. My favorite Reiner creations were The Dick Van Dyke Show and The 2000 Year-Old-Man albums with Mel Brooks. They are as funny now as when I first discovered them many years ago. Make that decades ago. Carl was the ultimate straight man who brought out the best in others. He and Mel remained friends until the very end.

The driving force behind that laughter was the writers. Today there are some incredibly talented comedy writers, with more outlets for their efforts than ever. But the seeds were planted, the formats and rhythms developed seventy years ago. I spent thirty years as a writer for ad agencies and was pretty good at it. But my soul wanted something else. To write comedy. Funny plays, movies, TV shows.

What I really wanted was to have been one of a special group of writers who wrote for Sid Caesar from 1950 to 1954. It was called “Your Show of Shows,” and starred Sid, Imogene Coca, Howie Morris and Carl. 

His stable of writers included men and women who tickled America’s funny bone. You’ve heard of some of them: Neil Simon. Larry Gelbart (Mash). Mel Tolkin (All in the Family). Danny Simon (Neil’s brother…what a funny family). Woody Allen. Selma Diamond, Joe Stein, Lucille Kallen. Among them they created some of America’s most memorable moments and shows, as well as a style of humor barely recognized at the time.

Sid, Carl, Imogene                                                                   



                                        Photo by Mark Seliger for Vanity Fair

In my more fanciful moments over the years, I’ve fantasized about sitting in Sid’s writers’ room, cup of coffee - black - in my hand; a half-finished poppy-seed bagel with a glob of cream cheese on a paper plate next to me; Bic pen poised over my notebook. Next to me sits Woody in wrinkled shirt and slacks. Across the table from me, Mel smokes a cigar, throws out hilarious lines. Neil just shakes his head. I don’t smoke but I might as well. The meeting begins, Carl at the head of the table. 

The dialogue: 

Carl Reiner: Listen up, guys. We need a closer here. 

Neil Simon: Where’s here? 

Carl: The restaurant, Neil. Sid and Imogene. Sid asks for frog legs. 

Larry Gelbart: That’s funny right there. 

Carl: Last line. Selma? 

Selma Diamond: “We’re out of legs. How about a couple of shoulders?” 

Carl: Not funny. Frogs don’t have shoulders. Anybody? 

Mel Brooks: “You want a pair of argyles with those legs?” 

Carl: C’mon, guys. Gerry. Whaddya got? 

Gerry: How about this? Sid asks the waiter, “Do you have frog legs?” The waiter says, “No, I walk this way because I’m chafed.” 


Carl: Bingo. Thanks. Well done. 

My fantasy continues ad infinitum. I love the process, the people, the life of a comedy writer in New York in the early ’50’s. I go to the Carnegie with Mel and Carl. I go to the Village to hear jazz with Woody, Selma and Danny. Carl calls me and asks me to work on a TV sit-com he’s developing. Character’s name is Rob Petrie. I say “sure” and feel validated. I watch “Your Show of Shows” on TV and wait for my lines, my ideas, mingled with those giants of comedy, who are making America laugh. And I feel complete. 

Charlie Chaplin said, “A day without laughter is a day wasted.” 

Charlie was right.

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Scooping the NY Times: Creativity Unbound and Damon Davis

The story you're about to read (I hope) first appeared in the recent issue of County Living Magazine. I had wanted to do an article about an African-American artist but had no connections to that culture. I contacted Dr. Gerald Early, who I know from the Jazz STL book club, and asked him for an idea. He immediately shot back a name: Damon Davis. I talked to Damon and knew this was my guy. Thankfully I have a publisher at CLM, Todd Abrams, who saw the promise in the article, as well as its timeliness and importance. Little did we know just how timely. This was weeks before the events in Minneapolis.

Here's the kicker: A story on filmmakers appeared today (Wednesday 7/1/20) on the front page of the New York Times Arts section. "Filmmakers With a Focus On Justice: Ava DuVernay, Stanley Nelson, Sabaah Folayan and Damon Davis discuss race and the documentary tradition." That's a heavy load to carry, but these folks are making it happen. 

The article. I don't have the layout available, and I can't download the photos, so I've included the copy I wrote, and then added photos of the magazine layout. Michael Kilfoy is the designer.

A thank you here to Damon, Sophie, Todd and Michael for this important addition to the St. Louis cultural scene.

St. Louis is home to a highly original and multi-faceted artist who, as he says, has “a lot of tools in my tool box. I use the one that best tells the story I want to tell.” His name is Damon Davis and to try to put a label on him is an exercise in frustration. I’m used to classifying an artist by the medium he or she uses. Painter, sculptor, quilter, photographer. But for Damon, I am stymied. He is impossible to categorize, except to say “He is an artist.”

Classification, however, is not important. It’s his talent, his drive and imagination behind his media that makes the difference. Davis is an award-winning artist who works and lives in St. Louis, not far from the newly-emergent art district on Cherokee Street. His website refers to him as a “post-disciplinary artist.” I had no idea what that meant so I asked him. He said, “My practice is part therapy, part social commentary. I work across a spectrum of creative mediums to tell stories that range in topic and scope.” The purpose of his creative output is to give voice to the powerless and oppose systems of oppression. He is quick to remind me that he focuses on the joy as well as the pain of the Black experience. It’s that yin and yang that makes his website so appropriately named:

Damon’s roots determined his journey through life. His mother was a sharecropper in Louisiana and moved to St. Louis during the 1960’s. His father, who was born in St. Louis, served in the Army during the Viet Nam war, but found returning to the U.S. difficult. Damon grew up in East St. Louis, and attended a Catholic high school in Belleville, Illinois. He received a full scholarship to St. Louis University, where he majored in Fine Arts but eventually graduated with a degree in Communications. 

“I was pushed in-between two separate worlds,” he says, referring to the the traditional world of commerce and the world of art. “My whole life has been art, it’s always been what I’ve done. I tell stories.” He talks about how many of his friends went into civil service. He was different. “For me, regular work was soul crushing. I wouldn’t be alive today if I had to do that.” He admits he doesn’t take orders well. The mark of a true artist.

Writing isn’t one of his strong suits. “I find writing difficult, but I’m working hard to improve it. People have approached me to write a book. I can talk, but my brain moves faster than my hand.” In the meantime, his visual art breaks new boundaries. 

Our conversation takes us to the subject of race. This stands at the center of his work. I asked Damon what he wants his art to accomplish. “I hope people will think, ask questions they didn’t ask themselves before, take a look at someone else’s experience. And arrive at an understanding.” He is quick to point out what it is not. “It’s not about getting past the legacy of slavery, not about getting past anything. It’s acknowledgment of America’s past.” That acknowledgment, he believes, can create a positive effect: “To bring people closer together; to make people realize they are not alone.” 

It seems no medium is unexplored for Damon. What is his favorite?
“Music,” he says after careful consideration. “What I love most of all is I can sit in a room with my equipment and create the songs and sounds and feelings I’m after.” He works on a keyboard and other electronic gear. “Music has put me in places with people who have completely different backgrounds. It’s as though we have a private conversation among us. I never would have known about them, except through music.”
His tastes include Miles, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, and many of today’s artists. His biggest influence is Outkast, one of the most respected hip-hop groups in history. His conceptual album, “Darker Gods,” delves into the power of myth, and provides the soundtrack to an exhibit of his. “It welcomes us to a new world of Black Gods and Goddesses.”  

Black Bagwas founded by Damon with Basil Kincaid, a nationally-recognized visual artist who lives in St. Louis. This award provides unrestricted funding, networking opportunities, and support for young black artists in St. Louis and East St. Louis. The cash funding ranges from $250 to $500, with guidance and supervision on a continuing basis.

Arising from the death of Damon’s mother, and his conflict with family and friends, “Cracks is a series of three-dimensional works that explore vulnerability, masculinity, grieving, and trauma. They were created as part of his residency at Grinnell College last year, and were featured in his solo exhibition at Grinnell’s Museum of Art. This was the kind of exhibit that stops you in your tracks and says, “Pay attention. This artist has something to say.” It was a combination of sculptures and digitally enhanced photographs.

An important and highly-praised documentary from 2017 was co-produced and co-directed by Damon, with Sabaah Folayan. A harsh and unrelenting look at the killing of Michael Brown, “Whose Streets” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival. The critics praised it, and The Guardian gave it a five-star review, calling it a “tremendous end run around mainstream news outlets.” Magnolia Pictures picked it up for national distribution in theaters. In 2016, he was named one of Filmmaker Magazine’s Twenty Five New Faces of Independent Film, and Independent Magazine's 10 Filmmakers to Watch.

Davis created a public art project on boarded-up storefronts in Ferguson in anticipation of unrest. Working with store owners, he wheat pasted the plywood-covered windows of participating stores with a series of posters developed from his photographs of “Hands Up.” Davis wanted to create "something visually appealing, to give people hope, and let them know we stand with them.” An original window board from the installation is part of the permanent collection at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture.

Ted Talk. August, 2017. The subject was fear. Damon shared his fear with a national audience on this highly-acclaimed program, an on-line service that streams talks on variety of subjects. “Fear is like a disease,” he said. “When it moves, it moves like wildfire. But when you do what you’ve got to do, it’s called courage. And courage, like fear, is contagious.” His talk was impressive and effective, showcasing his skill as a speaker and verbal communicator. One reviewer said, “Davis exhibits two impactful speaking skills here: showing emotion and using repetition.”

And finally, two more projects. The first, a graphic novel for children called “The Bull, The Boar, The Wasp, and the Ant.” Davis wrote and illustrated it in the tradition of countless West African proverbs. The other is “All Hands on Deck,” an exhibit of photographs by Damon of individuals in Ferguson. Organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, the “hands up” images became a national symbol .

At 35, Damon Davis has made an impact on the art world and America’s conscience. There is no telling what the years ahead hold for him. But we’ll find out. For more about him and his work, visit Also watch the documentary “Whose Streets,” on line from various streaming sources.

Here is the NY Times today. Keep an eye on Damon. He brings a much needed vision to our American landscape.

Tuesday, June 30, 2020

And Now a Few Words. About Words.

I’m a writer. Words are my currency, my mode of expression. The well-chosen word is a necessity, both for the writer and the reader. Mark Twain understood. He said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter—it's the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” I’ve come to realize over the past few months that we are living in a significantly altered time, and many words have taken on new meanings. 

This transformation began with an invasion by an almost invisible enemy. It has done what terrorists, anarchists, crusaders and politicians have never been able to do: close up the bars, shutter the restaurants, eliminate crowding in factories, offices and stores; darken theaters and concert venues, empty the streets on Saturday nights, and shortened the lines at Ted Drewes. When I wrote this column for County Living Magazine a month ago, I had no idea what our city, our nation, our world would be like in summer. Well, summer is here. I still don't know. But I’m in good company. Neither does anyone else.

Which brings me back to my favorite subject: Words. They are incredibly helpful when explaining or describing a new idea. Some of these words have recently slipped into our daily vocabulary.

For instance - “Social Distancing.” Six months ago, no one would have put those two words together. They seem contradictory in terms. “Social” means getting together with others. “Distancing” means moving apart. But today, we know exactly what that means. Six feet. Roughly the same measurement the gravediggers employ for their clientele. Maybe that would be a terrific slogan for today: “Six feet apart or six feet under: Your choice.” 

“Sequestered” is a word I don’t believe I’ve ever used, either in a talk or an article. I wrote a short story years ago called “The Hermit of 48th Street,” about a daffy old guy who lived alone, in the heart of Manhattan, and never ventured out. Not once did I use the word “sequestered.” But here we are today and most  of St. Louis, and the U.S., is sequestered. Again, in some places. Those that rushed back into "business as usual" are paying the price. Sure, we all want to get back to work and socializing and grabbing a coffee with friends, maybe even a movie or a concert. But the concept of "Putting Profits Before People" seems out of step with the world today. The word "sequestered" has become as common as streaming.

That’s another word. “Streaming.” Our new form of entertainment. We don’t go to Powell Hall or The Sheldon or the movie theater. We “stream.” I frequently find myself still awake at 2:00 am because I can’t stop streaming. Kind of a mental meth addiction for the lonely. (I recommend Bosch, Mrs. Maisel, and The Kaminsky Method. Jack Ryan is pretty good too.)

That brings me to the latest fashion item, greatly in demand. The face mask. For Halloween, okay. For surgeons, baseball catchers, hockey goalies, okay. Whenever those sports resume. Face mask for me? Not so sure initially. I finally got used to putting on my mask before going into a store, but felt uncomfortable, like I was playing a game and dressed wrong for the occasion. The whole mask scene looks like a science-fiction movie, where we’re identified only by our eyes and earlobes. The bad guys, of course, are those who wander through Target or Dierberg’s without a mask. “Hey, look at me. I’m not afraid. I’m gonna live forever.” Sure you are.

A couple of other words worth mentioning. “Pandemic.” We got hit with that word sometime in March. I wondered, “How will that affect me?” Now I know. If you're looking for a movie to watch that stars some kind of pandemic, follow this link to see what's out there. Fictional Movies about Pandemics
I've seen only a couple of them, and Contagion scored high with me. 

Another example. “Healthcare workers.” They used to be doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, specialists, surgeons. Now it means a large and vital part of our population, even deserving of yard signs. I don't know if we will fully appreciate what they did for us, the dedication that drove them. They are the heroes of today. Finally, “COVID-19.” Scary, right? To me it sounds like an automobile. “Drive the new Hyundai Covid-19 today.” It could belong in the same class as the Ford F-150. Only cooler.

And finally: “Corona.” Not the Mexican beer or that hot mass around the sun. The virus. And, for me, a chance to play piano for the sequestered masses.

I started Club Corona in March, an on-line effort on Facebook where I play boogie-woogie and blues on an 85-year-old Baldwin here at home. Lexi, my golden, makes an occasional appearance, but no vocals. It’s not Powell Hall or Jazz STL, but it’s music from the heart. It says what music and lyrics have always said, that you’re not alone, that we’ll get through this. Please join me at Club Corona. Here's a link.Blues and Boogie at Club Corona I think you'll enjoy it. And there's never a cover charge.

One final word. Be safe. Okay, two words.

Friday, April 3, 2020

A Poem About My Dad, Cherokee Street, the Great Fire

I took a poetry class at LLI a couple months ago (winter/2020) with Polly Willard. I didn't know much about poetry and wanted to try it. Some excellent writers were in the class...all of them men, if you can believe that. One of our assignments was to write a "sequential poem," which - as I learned - is a long poem made up of several shorter lyrical poems. Here is my poem, which I want to share with you. 

by Gerry Mandel

#1 - Under the Sign

I stand on the cracked and littered sidewalk, 
stare through the grimy plate glass window into a grim and vacant space.  
This was my father’s shoe store for more than forty years, 
as essential to him as food and air.  
The store and street once resonated 
with shoppers and a transcendent energy, 
accompanied by a soundtrack of voices and traffic.  
This was Cherokee Street, a portrait of coexistence.

Now the store holds only ghosts and memories.  
Over the entrance hangs a proud Red Goose Shoes sign.  
Suspended in immutable splendor, 
a happy reminder of the line of children’s shoes 
he sold and the golden eggs he gave to kids. 
My father evolved from a four-year-old immigrant from Russia 
into a respected and well-liked businessman who made friends 
with aldermen and mayors, prize fighters and comedians, 
rabbis and priests, maitre-d’s and cops.
He loved me.  But it was unspoken. He frequently brought home shoes for me,  
his way of saying “I love you.”  Shoes were his language. 

I often wonder why we have such difficulty getting in touch with our fathers. 
How and where the distance began.  
He was born on the other side of the world, entered a strange land, 
made his way to St. Louis, learned the language, the hustle, the do’s and don’t’s of making it in America, ran his own business, survived The Depression, watched his store burn to the ground in 1940, 
along with the Casa Loma Ballroom.
At one of our lunches, instead of telling him I got a raise or was thinking about buying a new Monte Carlo, I wish I had told him 
What an incredibly beautiful job he had done with his life and mine.

I touch the cold window.  
My Dad slides a shoe box from a shelf, flips open the lid, takes out a size five beige pump and presents it to a plump, seated woman who has one shoe off.  He looks up at the window, sees me, smiles.  
Then he slips the shoe onto the woman’s foot.

#2 - The Fireman

The firehouse, usually comfortable in winter,
couldn’t keep out this January night.
“Colder than a well-digger’s ass”, said one of the guys.
Never one to mince words. We all grumbled.
“Hope we don’t get no alarms tonight,” I said. “It’d be a hard ride.”
Thinking if we got a call, not much good we could do.
Even hose streams turn into ice towers in this. Lousy way to start off
the new decade. The 40’s. Another term with Roosevelt. Gimme a break.

About nine, the alarm went off.
We looked at each other, all with the same thought:
Shit, we gotta go.
A dark, freezing ride down Jefferson, right turn on Cherokee.
And there it was, lighting up the night sky like a sunrise.
Huge fire at Iowa Street. Casa Loma Ballroom. Walgreen’s. JC Penney.
And the shoe store, owned by that Jew. Hell, the street was lined with ‘em.
Gonna be a lot of burnt leather tonight, I thought. 
Unless I save me some size 12 D.
Musta been another half dozen engines there, guys chopping ice and hauling hoses, and yelling “over there” and “look out” and “that’s a fire wall. Let it be.”
I jumped from the wagon before it even stopped
and that’s when I saw him.
The little Jew. Hands deep in his overcoat. Stooped against the cold.
No hat on his bald head. A terrified face lit by the inferno.
His store, his life, consumed by the unyielding appetite of yellow and 
orange flames.
Black smoke fading into the night sky. Long strands of ice 
useless in this weather.

He caught my eye as I ran past and I saw a helpless middle-aged man who probably got off the boat as a kid. Welcome to America. 
I never did care for that kind.
Frightened, helpless souls believing 
the Statue of Liberty was welcoming them. 

I raised my ax, ran through the front of the rapidly disintegrating building, 
broke though the firewall and there, untouched, were boxes of men’s shoes.
“This is my lucky day,” I thought and grabbed an armful of boxes, most of ‘em size 12, hurried outside, dropped them on the sidewalk, back in for another armload.
The Jew saw me and flashed anger, shock, disbelief.
Nothing he could do but stand there.

Two weeks later I still had not worn the shoes.
Still in boxes, smelling of smoke.
Reminding me of a frightened and angry man.
Hurting but defiant. Undefeated.
These people.

#3 - Unasked. Unanswered.

He’s been gone thirty years now.
“Gone.” A nice way of saying “dead.”
At 76. Heart. At Jewish Hospital early on a Sunday morning in Spring.
I was there when he “passed” - love that expression.
“Passed.” Sounds like an old black gentleman entering the Promised Land,
wearing golden slippers, his face aglow with newfound glory.

The rest of the morning I wandered through Forest Park, visited the
zoo, searched for some meaning to all this
in furry and feathered eyes. And the big questions for myself.
“Where do I find the answers now?”
Where, Dad?
What do you remember about leaving the village in Russia?
What was the boat journey like? Who were you with?
Who met you here? How did you learn the language?
Who were your friends, your teachers, your enemies?
And the question that would intrude into that hidden and sensitive area:
Did we lose any family in the holocaust? A closed chapter, never read.

Thirty years and the questions still dart through my mind,
quick shadows, faint echoes, like swift birds at sunset that you
sense more than see.
Never asked.
Never answered. 

Monday, March 9, 2020

Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow...

Beginnings and endings tempt us to look forward and, to balance things out, look back. Trouble is, backward is a lot easier than forward. The territory between reflecting and predicting is vast and treacherous. I bring this up because, with another New Year’s Day behind us, we are at the dawn of a new decade. That’s a fascinating expression. “Dawn of a New Decade.” It sounds as though we are somewhere between “The Fall of the Roman Empire” and “The Rise of Skywalker.” 

Of course I wonder, as you surely do, what’s waiting for us during the next ten years. Probably the most accurate assessment about the road ahead comes from that fount of philosophy, Yogi Berra, who said, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Yogi pretty much nailed it right there.

Even tomorrow is a guess. Take weather predictions. Nothing is ever a sure thing. Only “probable” and “educated guesswork.” You’ve heard this before: “There’s an 80% chance of thundershowers tomorrow morning, so take your umbrella.” That means, in my interpretation, there’s a 20% chance of no thundershowers. That’s from folks who have the latest in weather predicting technology at their fingertips. 

It’s really all a guessing game, isn’t it? Not to get into politics here - a volatile and divisive game - but pollsters often predict a certain candidate will be elected and then - whammo - surprise! The long shot or the dark horse finishes first. Someone who was counted as down and out is back on top. Sports abounds with predictions, from sportswriters and commentators to the guys at any sports bar. The World Series, the Stanley Cup, the Super Bowl - pick any athletic event. Except wrestling. Those winners are pre-ordained.

Barack Obama was elected in 2008, beginning an eight year run through much of the 2010 decade. “The end of racism in America” became the headline. We all know how that turned out, right? Donald Trump was in the middle of a 15-season run of “The Apprentice” on NBC. Who could have predicted where that would take us. Closer to home, consider the Redbirds. They won the World Series against the Texas Rangers in 2011. Off to a great start, but then struck out the rest of the decade with no championships. The less said about the Rams, the better. 

Here’s the point: Very little in the past decade gives shape to the next. Challenges and opportunities will exist; outcomes are uncertain. Something additional about the year we’ve begun seems like a challenge: to maintain a 20/20 vision of events to come. Which, of course, is impossible. Like the weather and the upcoming baseball season, it’s anybody’s guess. Unless you find the answers in Tarot cards, tea leaves or George Lucas.

Cape San Blas, Florida. Photo by Gerry Mandel

A few years I was on the Gulf Coast of Florida. As I walked the beach one afternoon, I saw a little girl playing in the surf. She frolicked in the water while the waves continued to roll onto shore. Occasionally she’d stop and watch them, and I wondered if she saw the waves as identical, an endless succession. Or was she looking for the next “big one.” Her mother called her in and I continued to wave-watch, fascinated by their rhythm and endless repetition. All the waves are different, and yet we find satisfaction in their similarities. But part of us wants to see that next "big one."

As the days flow from future through the present to the past, we can get lulled into the idea that they’re all the same. That we know what’s next because we’ve seen what just happened. Hollywood has a firm hand on the future. It’s call The Sequel. You liked “Star Wars”? Here are eight more episodes. Spiderman? No end to Spidey in sight. Same for Batman and Harry Potter. 

Which brings us back to today. It’s a rather unsettling place in time, I believe. The next decade will be nothing like the past decade. We have the power to influence if not totally change some of the events awaiting on the horizon, some of them close to home. The only thing for sure is we know nothing for sure about what’s ahead. Yogi was right. And so was Abraham Lincoln. He said, “The best thing about the future is that it comes one day at a time.” Maybe that’s all we can handle.

This column originally appeared in
County Living Magazine, Early Spring 2020.
I wrote it in February. 
The idea of a worldwide pandemic and
all of its manifestations never entered my 
mind. I leave things like that to Stephen King.