Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Pearls Before Wine

Say You Want a Resolution?
Several years ago, after decades of New Year’s resolution trial and error, I finally discovered one five-word commitment that I could keep. It worked so well I continue to use the same one every year: Don’t make New Year’s resolutions.

Now that I’ve shared this particular gem with you, I must admit that it does not mean that I no longer make resolutions about the regular stuff like weight, exercise, diet, or money. I do. In fact, just yesterday alone I made a dozen or so resolutions, knowing full well that I would probably only keep them for a short time, if at all; however, I did not feel even a twinge of guilt or remorse about it. Besides, I can make some more today.

Maybe this is why the renowned life coach Martha Beck, quoted in a New York Times profile, said, “The way you do anything is the way you do everything.”

So true, at least, one presumes, until one is coached by Beck. Anyone have her number?

A Pearl and a Moral
That said, loyal readers expect some pearls of wisdom at this time of year, and who am I to disappoint. Herewith, a story.

My beloved, affectionately known here as the DG*, ordered some new kitchen stools to accommodate visiting family for Christmas. One of the boxes failed to contain the requisite number of screws for assemblage, so off to the hardware store she, I,  and our designated assembler son Ted walked.

While we were in the screw aisle comparing the size of the required screw to the thousands available, the DG discovered that she lost a pearl from an earring; a search in the aisle and outside the store ensued without success.

Having purchased a box of a hundred screws of approximately the right size in order to have the required two, we headed home, continuing our search for the wayward pearl. Along the way, I surmised that a pearl falling from ear-height could very well bounce quite far off our beaten path, so I focused attention beyond the sidewalk into the grass and street. White pebbles and street salt from a recent snowfall made the search even more challenging.

Despite the impediments, near a driveway exit from a bank I spotted the pearl lying on the gray pavement: joy and amazement as I proudly handed it to the DG – who looked at it for two seconds, then quickly tossed it away!

Wrong pearl. It was a bead from an unknown’s necklace.

Moral: sometimes life gives you the wrong pearl.

Angels on High – Ways
While I do not believe in year-end resolutions, I do believe in prayer and miracles, and so I also believe in guardian angels, who form a kind of heavenly UPS (fast) or USPS (real slow) for miracles. Watching Clarence do his thing in “It’s a Wonderful Life” again reminded me of that. Yes, I cried.

I’m one of the lucky ones to have actually seen my guardian angel, or one of them at least. It was in 1976 in California on the 101, and I was headed north near Santa Maria on my way to San Francisco. He was driving a beat-up Chevy Malibu, fittingly identical to the one I was driving. He pulled right up next to me in the right hand lane and gave me a little nod and a wave.

The next day, Saturday, I got a job offer, started Monday, then found a place to live on Tuesday.

Talk about wings; that was one fast angel!

While We Wait for Miracles
Occasionally, a despairing parent of a student nearing college graduation will ask me for advice about how to find a job, usually a roundabout way of asking if the newspaper is hiring. My advice always gets the same initial parental reaction – bewilderment. I simply advise them to tell their daughter/son,  “Make something.”

There’s much more to this, of course, but I try not to elaborate. That is what angels are for. But, for those who need a little coaxing, here are a few recently discovered words that might help:

On the whole I think poems don’t crawl out of dreams. They are knocked out of rocks.” – from “A Long Way from Verona” by Jane Gardam

“Art is doing. Art deals directly with life.” – Ruth Asawa, sculpter

We are not all artists per se, but we can all make things and learn to make them better.

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad resolution after all.

Happy New Year.

* Darling Girl

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Thanksgiving – There for the Giving

I suppose there will come a day when some 20-something guy (face it, it’ll be a guy) in skinny jeans and a hoodie, armed with a 3-D printer, will succeed in creating a kind of turkey with all the trimmings from a machine. Judging by the pace of change in our dizzy world, it won’t be long. If you doubt that, think about this: Google went public less than 10 years ago, and BlackBerry is already close to being BlackBuried.

After the turkey, the virtual Christmas tree can’t be far behind. As for Santa and his reindeer? Don’t ask.

Aren’t we tired of this yet?

There are signs that the answer might be yes; sales of typewriters and ribbons are brisk on eBay, more people are exchanging and valuing handwritten notes, and turntables and vinyl recordings are the rage in certain places. The so-called Black Friday, which I have previously fricasseed in this space, is now more widely recognized more curse than  blessing.

In short, there is hope. The milkman may not be knocking on your door, most newspapers have gone, and the postal carriers’ week may be shortened (and they always seem to be on their phones), but farm-to-table is alive with a vengeance, our firewood hasn’t yet been confiscated, and printed books are holding on nicely.

As we contemplate entering the Age of the Bitcoin  – so new that Word cannot even spell it yet – there are plenty of us analog pilgrims around and we’re not all boomers or geezers either; the young are getting fed up with the 24/7 digital feedbag too.

Recently, the people of San Francisco, Ground Zero for the digerati and e-money* billions, hit their limit when a hapless young millionaire with the tabloid headline writer's dream name, Shih, expressed his outrage at the city’s homeless** and other inconveniences. It seems that these were  getting in the way of his desire to complete the purification of any remaining “edginess” in the city and its many neighborhoods. His claim to fame and fortune is a payment system called Celery. How cute.

I have just returned from a trip to that city, and, while there,  wondered just the opposite of what Mr. Shih was thinking. It appeared to me that the city was losing too much of its edge, with some neighborhoods beginning to too closely resemble, shudder to say it, Brooklyn.

That is not a compliment.

Fortuitously, I spent some time with a dozen or so young people there, all of whom exhibited value systems well beyond what Mr. Shih and his ilk could imagine. Some of them work in the e-industries, but have little pretension, and know how lucky they are to have good jobs, and to be able to pay the rent and bills living in San Francisco, Seattle, and elsewhere.

What are we looking for when we gaze zombie-like into our sell-phones, tablets and computer screens? To paraphrase St. John of Liverpool, “Life is what’s happening, while you're busy watching your Inbox.” Do we seriously think that future civilizations will take us seriously because we figured out myriad ways to share photos, restaurant reviews, and the too intimate details of our previously private intimacies?

And we can’t erase it; the NSA’s got it all on file. Forever!

Thanksgiving is real. It is not owned by any particular religion. There are no presents to buy/exchange. We celebrate a feast made possible for pilgrims by the natives and their local harvests, and it does not
get much more heirloom and artisanal than that. Even turkey tastes good on this day, which is saying something. Oh, and the celery is real. Crunch.

We get together and partake, placing our normal taking mode on hold, at least for a day.

That’s a good thing. If our culture saves one thing only, let it be Thanksgiving. Please. It’s there for the giving.

* a phrase “coined” by the excellent Aussie writer Peter Temple

** He has since "volunteered" at a homeless shelter

Friday, November 22, 2013

Thirty-Five Years Ago


San Francisco Clothing, Lexington Avenue

In November 1978,  the day before Thanksgiving, I was on mid-day duty, behind the counter of a small, thriving clothing store at 975 Lexington Avenue called San Francisco Clothing (it is still there). A lot of customers must have gone away for the long holiday weekend, because I distinctly remember that the morning had been slow, which was why I was alone at the counter, the owner, manager and a saleswoman being in the back of the shop, probably seeing to inventory.

A woman in a long, hooded, loden-style coat came to the door and I reached under the counter to buzz her into the shop. I recall that she kept her hood on at first and I could not see her face well, since she also wore sunglasses. She told me that she was looking for a Christmas present for her daughter, wondered if our sizes ran small in women’s clothing, and thought that a tweed riding type jacket might be a good idea.

As it happens, our ladies’ tweed “riding” jackets, made in England, and tucked considerably at the waist, were a huge hit, and so we proceeded to the rack where they hung. At this point, in order to be more able to inspect the tweed while she held it out in front of her, she pushed back the hood, briefly removed the glasses, and I suddenly realized who she was. Right about the same time, someone else came from the back of the store, saw what was happening, and abruptly disappeared again in back.

Meanwhile, my customer continued to ask questions about the jacket. She wondered if a young woman might be available try it on; so I went in back to get someone and was confronted by the owner, who wondered nervously if everything was OK. I said it was and asked the young saleswoman, who was studying ballet, to model the jacket.

By now, you may have realized they were in a tizzy over the fact that Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis was buying a jacket for her almost equally famous daughter.

Looking back over the years, I’ve realized that she must have had these kinds of everyday (for her) encounters dozens of times a day, and I am still amazed by how matter-of-fact and gracious she was, knowing full well that I’d remember the encounter forever, and she would forget it in minutes.

She decided to purchase a brown-gray tweed jacket for her daughter, who was a student at the time. But, while doing so, an extraordinary thing happened. Well, two things actually.

First, she handed me her credit card, embossed with the famous name, and said in her soft, polite voice, “ I’m having lunch next door at La Petite Ferme. Would you wrap it up for me please and I’ll come back later to pick up the coat and the card.”

With that, the hood went back up and she strode out the door, turning left, since the restaurant, which had opened to serve the chicest of the chic at 973 Lexington in 1977 was literally next door.

And there I stood holding one of the wealthiest women in the world’s credit card in my still-shaky struggling writer’s hand.

But, before I had a chance to explore the possibilities surrounding this opportunity, another thing struck me as I filled in the date on the sales slip: It was November 22. I had just spent a few minutes with the woman whom millions of people were thinking about on that day, the 15th anniversary of that horrible day in Dallas.

You can’t make these things up, or at least shouldn’t, and I’m not.

Fifteen years before, in 1963, I had been 54 blocks south at Xavier High School’s ancient gym, where we had just finished JV basketball practice. I was watching the varsity taking their layups, when I first heard about what had occurred in Dallas. Early reports were vague, but the impact was immediate. On the subway, headed home to Queens, I saw the headlines in the evening papers held by riders boarding at the 34th Street IND station. It was eerily quiet, except for the steel wheels grinding away below our car.

We had no way of knowing what we would all share in the days ahead and that the memories of those days would last throughout our lives.

I’ve often wondered who was at lunch with her. Absolutely none of our business, of course. I do not mean this report marking the 50th anniversary as an intrusion, merely a personal recollection on a solemn occasion.

A couple of hours later, Mrs. Onassis, for that is whom she was at the time, returned for her package and her card, said a courteous “Thank you,” and was gone as quietly and quickly as she had appeared.

Last week, her daughter became our Ambassador to Japan.

Postscript: A couple of months later,in early 1979,  a BMW pulled up in front of the shop and the young driver got out and buzzed the door. She wasn't happy, wanted to return the rumpled jacket she tossed on the counter, and asked to see the manager. The owner came out; he refused to take what he called a well-worn item back. Words were exchanged. She left with the jacket, clearly miffed. Guess they really did run small.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Voyage of My Pequod


My Pequod
Don’t call me Ishmael. On the other hand “whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul” – or, when long, contentious political campaigns come to an end – I jump on the train and head for the Isle of Mannahatta. Or, as it is becoming known in some parts, Berkeley by the Hudson.

What was my precise destination? It is not my habit to always have one; the train and its movement southward is enough; I know that I am going somewhere away from the smallish place from where I came, a good thing to do periodically. No apparent practical reason is required.

Alighting in Grand Central Terminal, I let my feet lead the way to the #4/5 Downtown Lexington Avenue Express to Brooklyn Bridge Station, hard by City Hall, itself the subject of a recent campaign for occupancy, resulting in a landslide that caused many to exclaim, “Yippies!” And, no, that is not a typo. Voters of a certain age will recognize the reference.

Visitors Logue

The Mysterious Bookshop http://www.mysteriousbookshop.com/ at 58 Warren Street, between Church and West Broadway is a short walk from NYPD HQ, which makes it a perfect place to put a shrine to crime, mostly murderous crime.

I began frequenting the shop at its old location on 56th Street, during many a lunch hour hiding form the acts of the criminally deranged executives trying to run my former company into an early grave.

Midtown rents and a growing desire for prosperous people actually occupying Wall Street jobs to live closer to their work downtown, led MB owner Otto Penzler to emigrate some years ago.

The new shop is far more roomy, with higher shelves filled with new crime paperbacks, pre-owned hardcovers, and a large selection of Sherlock Holmes-related books. It’s a great place to browse and make new discoveries, but on this occasion, I was looking for two specific things: books by Alan Hunter in the George Gently series which I enjoy watching on Netflix, and a title by Leonardo Padura, the master of Cuban crime novels.
Armor Lux

No Hunter was available, surprising since I usually find exactly what I’m looking for at MB. Otto’s trusted colleague, Ian, pointed me to the Cuban books.

Next, I walked north to West Broadway and White Street to visit LiquorStorehttp://www.jcrew.com/AST/Navigation/tribeca/ls1.jsp  a J.Crew men’s shop designed by Andy Spade, of Jack Spade (and Kate, his wife, and David, his brother) fame.

Having just purchased a perfect pair of cords and a black merino crewneck online, I was only there for a look-see, which I must report was disappointing.

While the J.Crew women’s line manages to keep updating classic looks in a way that seems contemporary and new, these men’s things, while being similarly derivative, lacked the contemporary,
except the “pant” sizes, of which there are three: thin, thinner, thinnest. 

Boomers, I refer you to the “straight fit”  online at http://www.jcrew.com/mens-clothing.jsp

I have been purchasing notebooks and picture frames at Muji http://www.muji.us/ , Broadway near Grand in Soho, for a number of years. On this trip, I did replenish my own notebook stock, and then bought an extra one and a few inexpensive household items as presents.

On my way to McNally Jackson, probably New York’s best independent bookstore, at Prince, near Mulberry Street, I was overtaken by hunger and had a slice at the excellent pizza emporium at the corner of Mulberry and Spring streets. Then I retraced my steps to a little hole-in-the-wall store I’d spied called
Westerlind/Armor Lux http://westerlind.us at 232 Mulberry.
Armor Lux, as the delightful Swedish manager, Waldemar Aspman, explained has been making
The MJ Store
clothing for the French military and police for some time. It is very similar to the Saint James line.

While I was there, I had a chance to speak with Waldemar’s parents who were here for a visit from Sweden. Did I mention that the shop also sells terrific Swedish rain jackets, fleece-lined slippers, and wool scarves and caps? They do.

BTW, Waldemar’s parents run a sheep farm back home in Sweden, so this young man knows his wool.

Waldemar mentioned that McNally Jackson owner, Sarah McNally, has opened a little gem of a shop at 234 Mulberry, Goods from the Study, where you can find specialty notebooks, pens/pencils, all things for the desk and  writing, including furniture. http://mcnallyjacksonstore.com

Finally, I did make to McNally Jackson itself, bought a paperback novel by Jane Gardam, “A Long Way From Verona” (her novels highly recommended) and a few cards from M-J’s excellent stock of mostly locally grown greeting/note cards .


After all of this, I had a thirst, which meant a visit to The Crosby Street Hotel for an afternoon pot of tea in the bar, which happens to be situated just about exactly where we used to park while dining at nearby Balthazar. I can gaze out the high window in back and see the old ivy-colored wall we saw while parking.

Tea at Crosby Street is a great value, $7 including tip and three cookies, and reminds this reporter of the days when he stayed at its sister properties in London, Charlotte Street and Covent Garden hotels http://www.firmdalehotels.com/

A nearby alternative tea-stop is Harney's at 433 Broome, near Crosby: https://www.harney.com/

A quick text to 266-266 told me I could make the 4:14 p.m., and home I went, sated, if only temporarily. 

Friday, November 1, 2013

The Boo!-ty of It All


Halloween has been good to me. I grew up in a place where we could walk home from school with the aroma of burning leaves in the air, and be able to drop off one full bag of treats at home – mid Trick-or-Treat – and fill another with ease, just by walking a few blocks.

In 1980, as Halloween and Election Day approached, I was running the cider mill at old Fairty’s Farm on Route 106 in New Canaan, CT and painting houses. I needed some cash, while submitting short articles and essays to penurious and elusive local newspapers and literary journals.

The mill was a one-man operation: I stuck my arms into the bins of mixed apples (careful to unravel my sleeves to protect against the pervasive yellow jackets); loaded them on the conveyor; turned on the press that separated the juice and left plenty of pomace; filled every gallon and half-gallon jug; then delivered them by tractor to the stand by the road. all of this was done under Mrs. Fairty’s watchful, critical eye. A dozen homes now stand where that mill use to be.

That year, I was invited to a Halloween party given by two friends on Park Avenue, and I knew that one of them and his wife had arranged to introduce me to someone. I figured that I should make an extra effort at a costume; so, I drove up to a place on Route 123, where I could get a large pumpkin – about 30 pounds as it turned out – I was going to be the fourth* presidential candidate, Mr. Pumpkin.

I hallowed-out the pumpkin and lined it with saran wrap; carved the traditional eyes, nose, and mouth; and painted on glasses for good measure. Then, I painted pumpkins on faded jeans, donned a black turtleneck and headed for the city.

Did I have the best costume that night? No. That honor would go to a young woman who came as a bunch of grapes in the form of many green balloons attached to her dress.

But, I came out a winner anyway, since that’s the night I met my wife-to-be, known in these pages as the DG (Darling Girl).

She had just gotten off a plane from Milan, or, was it Paris? I can’t recall for sure, but there were fashion shows involved. I do recall that her understated nod to Halloween was a broad brimmed black hat. Did I mention she brought a date? No matter.

As it happens, I spent the night talking to just about everyone but her, including a long conversation with one of her best friends. In our brief exchange, she wondered what I did, “Painting,” I replied, figuring cider-making was too complicated to explain. “Houses or paintings?”

Since she was a painter of canvases, my dull answer might not have been the best approach. Things may have ended right there, except that she did give me her phone number…which turned out to be her old one, but her old roommate gave me her new one, and we set our first date in December.

Six years later, armed with a not insubstantial down payment provided by her generous father, we bought a house in Rye’s Indian Village, closing on, of course,  Halloween. Considering the state of the house, it was a most appropriate day. It was decidedly trick and it took about three months labor to make it into a habitable treat. And so it was for eleven more years, through thin and a little less thin.

On Halloween 2001, we leapt to out feet together at old Yankee Stadium, when Tino Martinez tied the Diamondbacks with two out in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run homer, in the first-ever Halloween World Series game. We leapt again as St. Derek won it in the 12th inning,  in the wee hours of All Saints Day.

Over thirty years after that Halloween party on Park and 87th, we’ve outrun a few tricks, made friends with some of life’s goblins together and devoured more than our fair share of treats. Life looped around; now, I am the editor reading submissions and covering the local elections. I’ll help put an issue to bed on Halloween eve (Note: actually, it took us well into Halloween itself), then joined the DG at a party back in Indian Village, a small pumpkin toss from that first house.

This time, I went as myself.

* The other three: Anderson, Carter, Reagan

Ed Note: Halloween window paintings courtesy of the children of Rye, NY