Saturday, August 11, 2018

Rites of Passage

Part of me is still a street urchin and will never leave the candy store. My place of first permission. Hearing street talk, unfiltered. To mingle with grown-ups. To watch them cry the day Roosevelt died. It was raw. Buying and selling, haggling and yelling. Fast nickels and slow dimes. Nasty and sweet together. This was the stuff of poems. If the candy store was a baptismal the drug store was my Bar Mitzvah.

I went from the smells of Gishkins to the aromatic vapors of the drug store. A few years after my father’s store closed I worked after school in four different ones through high school and college. I’ll merge the first three. I was the stock clerk / soda jerk / delivery boy. One store had no typewriter; labels were hand-written. We made our glue from macerating acacia.

I lasted just half a day behind the fountain; the toughest job I’ve ever had. Trying to remember who got the black & white shake, who ordered the vanilla malt, the strawberry frosted and who the root beer float. There were sundaes and frappes, Charlotte Ruses and banana splits. I put a bottle of Pepsi in the freezer when I started that day and forgot about it until it exploded by day’s end. Never again. I take my hat off to the memory of those who stuck it out….and still somehow found time to smooch with the girls.    

Thanks for coming in today, is how Buddy, the regular fountain 
man greeted everyone who walked in, even the pharmacist, cosmetician, salesclerk and me, and again as he left for the day. He must have been high on cough syrup. His chatter never stopped. After my first and last day, by mutual consent, I stayed away except to make myself an extra thick malt (which almost broke the mixer) as a reward to myself before going home. 

I was the guy who wrapped the Kotex and Modess in green paper. God forbid its name would show. Such were the times. All the merchandise was behind the counter, on shelves or in drawers. Windows were dressed by artists down on their luck, Bromo Seltzer, Ex-Lax and Epsom Salt stacked architecturally in empty boxes with pins. At fifty cents an hour plus tips I walked around with coins jingling in my pocket. I was almost rich enough to catch a few sets at Birdland listening to Dizzy, Ella, Billie and The Prez.

Pharmacy as practiced as late as 1950 was part sorcery and I was the sorcerer’s apprentice. The dispensing area was like a garden of herbs or at least their crushed leaves, elixirs, resins, and fluidextracts. Botanical names had to be learned, Prunus Virginiara (Wild Cherry syrup), Glycyrrhiza root (licorice), aqua mentha piperita (peppermint water) are a few that still cling to my bones.

My final drug store experience happened one summer in midtown Manhattan. This turned out to be my initiation into gangster capitalism. I was a clerk in the Roosevelt Hotel pharmacy. The owner had stores in five other high end hotels as well. I was startled, one evening when I heard the pharmacist invite the boss up to his apartment and see the new art he bought with money he had stolen during the month. Hundreds of dollars had gone into his pocket instead of the cash register…and that was perfectly O.K. with the owner because he was satisfied getting half of the $200 paid for a $5.00 bottle of Testosterone tablets. For reasons unknown to me very wealthy playboys and businessmen from South America and the Caribbean stayed at that hotel. On another occasion I was told to bring a box of Kotex (wrapped, of course) to the hotel cashier. I was to collect $39 instead of 39 cents. The money flowed and was regarded as nothing more than a redistribution of wealth.

All that old pharmacy air had vanished between my entrance into college and my graduation. By 1954 the store became deodorized and deracinated. Gone was the romance, the rhizomes and roots.  A deep inhalation yielded only plastic and glass. To reach the vapors escaping from apothecary jars I had to close my eyes and imagine. The old organic remedies had fallen into disrepute. They could not pass the F.D.A. test for safety and efficacy. In some cases the active ingredient in the crude drug had been synthesized to yield a more exact therapeutic measure. I was now a counter and pourer and would remain so for the next fifty-three years with all this arcana withering in my head.

Two months in that hotel pharmacy gave me a glimpse into a world I would never encounter again. I had traveled from sorcery to larceny. This was the territory of Donald Trump. There must be stops in between to be discovered. It was time to get out of town. 

Wednesday, August 8, 2018


The candy store was the hub that defined the neighborhood. A block away with six apartment buildings between was a different neighborhood. They had their own.  Ours, around the corner by the subway steps, we called Pops. Old man Pop was out there day and night with a change belt sagging around his waist taking in nickels, giving back pennies with a double click. Like the man in the Automat he knew the weight of twenty nickels if you gave him a buck. In the early hours he sold the Daily News, Mirror, Times, Herald, Compass and Trib. In the evening was the Journal-American, P.M., Post, Sun and World-Telegram. At night around nine a truck pulled up with the Racing Final. He was always there to cut the rope.

Deposit bottles got us two cents; he could tell if it was his or the A & Ps. He stored them in a shed in the back covered with chicken wire. I could see them from my window on the third floor. In my criminal mind I dreamed of scaling the tree that hung over the stacked bottles and slashing my way into the empties. Too many serials watching the Dead-End Kids. I could have ended up like George Raft or Cagney doing a stretch up the river, even gotten the Chair with Pat O’Brien walking me down that last crooked mile.

I had a second candy store around the school yard where I hung, called Gishkins. I could smell it from dead backboards a block away…. and still do. It was his cigar mingled with bubblegum cards, throw in some airplane glue and a two-cent plain. There I am with my hand in the red cold-box outside the store fishing for a Mission orange soda or chocolate Nehi. Now I was Mickey Rooney as Andy Hardy playing the kazoo. Gishkin sold them and harmonicas too.

Inside, in a miracle of concision, were comic books and school supplies (notebooks, reinforcements, stencils, book covers, fountain pens, pencils) and colored chalk. He had water pistols and Waterman ink, ink eradicator, jump rope, marbles and kites. Stuff and more stuff!

Both Pops and Gishkins kept our teeth in constant decay with their jaw breakers, juju beads, milk duds Milky Ways and dozens of bars, gums and suckers. Then there were baseball mitts, football needles, Spauldeens, toys, film and, of course, a dozen brands of cigarettes, Prince Albert pipe tobacco and White Owl and Dutch Master Cigars. It was Woolworths fit into a space shorter than a subway car.

There was a third candy store five neighborhoods away where I became famous. Famous, that is, in my family. I went there furtively in the shadows of an October Tuesday. Ask for Murray, they said. Luckily, I caught his shift. He passed along the issue of The Daily Worker where I was the headline on the back page having picked seventeen winners out of twenty in the college football pool. As the Communist Party newspaper it conferred no bragging rights. I knew then I would never be Gable or Astaire, neither a leading man, nor a song and dance guy. Just a, gulp, Jimmy Stewart, humble and Aw Shucks. I’d be the heroic G.I. who ditches the train one stop before his town to avoid the brass band and hoopla.

Pops, Gishkin and Murray along with Saturday matinees taught me everything I needed to know. As Tarzan said, It’s a jungle out there, but now I could handle it with enough street-smarts and movie-smarts to get by. Seventeen out of twenty ain’t bad in a world of upsets.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

What Grows in America

Crowds gather waiting for Amorphophallus titanum to raise a stink at Huntington Gardens. A matter of life and death together blooming with a stench of rotten fish and sweaty feet calling pollinators to spread the seed. The mortuary meets the maternity ward inside the greenhouse.

They call it a corpse flower. Is it the sight of the open petal with its five or six foot phallus that draws the vigil or the inhalation of death? Thousands have been coming to the greenhouse in Pasadena for the past week as Shakespeare put it to watch as each hour it (we) ripe and ripe and each hour it (we) rot and rot.

Beauty reeking to high heaven like truth. There is, of course, no death; only the smell of it to summon the bugs which roll around in the pollen, then fly away and propagate. At least that is what happens in the Sumatra rainforest.

In a few months the forests of New England will become a destination for tourists marveling at the dying of sycamore, birch and maple leaves. In late summer they lose their chlorophyll and by autumn their carotenoid blazes in ruddy to amber dress. Tis a glorious demise as if the diva has held back her most majestic aria as she goes down in full regalia. And yet again the bare branches are already pregnant with next season’s singing foliage.

The ecosystem is self-renewing. Some trees depend on fires for renewal. Whose woods these are, I think I know, said Robert Frost. Yet with heedless predators like us one wonders if they stand a chance. We are scorching our grassland and forests. Every year the fire season is expanded with record temperatures and high winds. We are witness not just to the smell of death or the cyclic grandeur of dying leaves but the bitter sorrow of lost Nature and slow burn of our Democracy.

As if the electorate has committed suicide we’ve entrusted our precepts, our heritage, our dignity, the very air we breathe to a man beneath contempt. The shell of a human being without soul or conscience. The stinkweed of America has been fertilized and watered so that now it creeps out from under rocks. It reeks of tyranny and brutality. It can only be eradicated as it is seen, an infestation not indigenous to this land or any.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Arrested Development

It’s based on greed. Deception is a virtue. There is violence and braggadocio. Collusion and obstruction are part of it. But enough about Trump.

I’m talking sports here. Playing professional baseball, football, basketball etc… belongs to the physically endowed. Watching it is something else. Spending my lifetime as a spectator must surely be a form of retardation. Not merely a spectator but a fan as in fanatic. There must be dozen of reasons to turn away from this fixation. The obscene profits by owners, outrageous salaries, commodification and endorsements such as by shoe companies, public money to build stadiums and conflation with the military along with phony patriotism to name a few.   

Like any addiction I can’t help myself. It defies the rational. The reptilian brain overthrowing the frontal cortex. It’s hormonal. My child is still alive. Grow up, I hear you say. But why would I want to do that? Maybe I was concussed playing touch football as a kid and never recovered. Sports is my alternative reality. That section of the newspaper I can count on to whisk me away from the even more duplicitous avarice of institutional malevolence issuing from the White House.

Indefensible as the case may be immersion in sports stats and personnel offers a ticket into an on-going human drama in which a curtain goes down at the end of each season only to open at the start of next with new hopes and dreams. As if we, as avid fans, can move a few chess pieces and declare victory. Don’t you love spending other people’s money? Of course you do.

Fans live vicariously with the joy of championships and die bitterly with defeats. We curse our team and players on Monday and embrace them by Thursday. They become us. And while they become old we never do. We are puer aeternus. There is always some young phenom with great promise waiting in the wings into whose skin we can crawl. Each new season we are reborn.

The Dodgers, once the Boys of Summer, haven’t won a World Series in thirty years though we have come close. I suppose some fans see it as death by a thousand cuts. Not me. All I ask is six or seven months of diversion. Go ahead, make me care. Provide me with transport like a good poem or any work of art.

And to plagiarize myself..........Real fans are descendants of pagans, idolaters who converse with the gods who know the power of a sacrificial act. If it takes closing my eyes I’m willing to miss the play. We are zealots who move our bodies into others to do battle, once removed, against the forces of darkness. We are beyond spectators. We suit up for the game in a different skin. For the next three hours we are possessed.

Maybe it’s not just distraction but some form of extension of the real world mysteriously connected to the larger canvas of human progress. Athletes do not regress. They are bigger, faster, and stronger than their grandfathers. Virtual Adonis-like with exceptions here and there. Yes, yes, I know about the greats of those good old days but as an aggregate, pitchers now throw faster, and more hitters hit farther. What is retrogressive is Trump.

If, as Marx proclaimed, religion is the opiate of the masses then watching sports on T.V. may be the myopia of the asses. But in these days of derangement we need our opiates. In fact it may even be healthier than wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth watching 3-4 hours of MSNBC. Better yet...I could go to the library, listen to Billie sing Gershwin, cherish Peggy, commune with my favorite tree or improvise on that recipe for bread pudding.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Yellow Days

Love that tune. It has colonized my head for a few days, especially the rendition by Tony Bennett...

I remember when the sunlight had a special kind of brightness
And laughter held a lover's kind of lightness
Yellow days, yellow days

She would hold me and the smile would spread around us so completely
And the softness of a kiss would linger sweetly
Yellow days, yellow days

I think it was triggered by all the Gold Medallions, aka butter daisies or melampodium in full bloom in my neighborhood. They are those small to medium-sized trees that pop up from an unremarkable green-leaf into yellow lollipops along the verge or grassway between walkers and drivers in West L.A. and the San Fernando Valley. They are noted for tolerating a high level of neglect. And yet they bring the sun to the sidewalks with thousands of yellow bulbs from June to August.

Residents of Yorkville Guzzle Beer in Vats. That is how my 
physics teacher in high school had us memorize the spectrum. And there is (Yorkville) yellow flanked by two of my other favorites, orange and green. What’s not to like? Autumnal orange with its offspring, sienna, rust, pumpkin etc... and all those increments of greeny things. Yellow is, of course, the sun, brightness, optimism and daffodils, banana peel, lemons, scrambled eggs as well as one of the Lakers uniforms. What says summer better than mustard on a hot dog? And let us not forget, the color of Marvin Gardens.

I’m remembering back to my days in suburbia. Regardless of attention paid there were always devil grass and yellow dandelions in patches of dichondra lawn. It was a mix of weed and trim that had the ring of truth to it.

Along with yellow for Yes there is the suggestion of caution, slow down, look out for pedestrians and runaway trains. It is the color of school buses transporting our future. It also signifies cowardice owing to racist rant against the Chinese. Needless to say Chinese are no more yellow than indigenous people are red or Caucasians, white. And then there was Yellow Journalism, which today describes the National Enquirer and Foxy News.

Tied as it is to the seasons yellow is cyclic. Not seen much in winter except in Christmas tree lights and gift wrap as compensation. Even the song ends in a chilled heart.

But then came thunder
And I heard her say "goodbye"
Through tears of wonder
Now I'm alone and my heart wants to know 
Yellow days, where'd you go?

But then came thunder
And I heard her say "goodbye"
Through tears of wonder
Now I'm alone and my heart wants to know
Yellow days, where'd you go?

Life is empty and the sunlight seems so harsh instead of tender
And the laughter's just an echo I'll remember
Yellow days, yellow days.

In these dark days of Trumpadump we need all the Yellow we can find. The lights are out on the Yellow Brick Road.

"Yellow Days was written by Alan Bernstein and Alvarro Carrillo

Wednesday, July 18, 2018


Awesome he said when I gave him my name and awesome 
again when I verified my address. One more awesome and I’m canceling my order and hanging up, said I. Your hyperbole offends me, I told him. It does violence to my ear. There’s nothing awesome about anything I said. Save the word. Stick it in your wall safe. Try to go through your day without using it. That would be awesome. Cool, he promised.

Strange how some words travel across the entire spectrum. Terror long ago became terrific which you would never use to suggest fear. But there may still be time to salvage awe.

Awe was cousin to reverence. It was evoked by the sacred. Awe accompanied an epiphany. It describes the sublime. It is the language of our discourse with the unknown. Awe is the last word before the inarticulate.

Awesome is an exclamation reserved for my first sight of Van Gogh’s Iris vibrating off the wall in Amsterdam or Paul Robeson’s bass-baritone voice shattering my glass anatomy. Awesome is Peggy, robust at 97. It is the Grand Canyon, the redwood forest, the pictographs at Chauvet, the amaze of the Gehry-Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as we turned the corner to our astonished eyes or the words on the page of a certain Wallace Stevens poem which knock my unmatched socks off.

Awe morphed into awful as if it contained some nasty seed for mischief. Now we have Shock and Awe describing what happens when a village is bombed to smithereens in a manner designed to break the opposition's will. I suppose Hiroshima was that instance of terrible beauty that Rilke and Yeats  referenced and awesome was the mushroom cloud as we witnessed the instrument for planetary suicide. With Beauty now discarded we have accepted the demotic into the notion of grandeur.

I can accept this negative awe for its proximity to something both numinous and destructive surpassing all else but not the debasement of the word to describe my name and address. Certain words deserve special handling as they travel across millennia. Yes, I know language is organic, growing wild outside the garden wall. It is what everyone says it is. And yet…

The problem is that to dispense awesome in a casual way is to debase it, to assign it to the garbage pail of exhausted words. It needs to be earned. We need to conserve certain language for our vocabulary of wonderment. Without it we are bereft. In these times of bereavement as Trump has raided our glossary with his third grade grasp of superlatives we have to at least protest against the theft of awe. The damage he has done to our democracy is the equivalent of a nuclear bomb but I wouldn't waste the word awesome on him.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Tech, High and Low

The future has already arrived, I’m told. The past is not even past, so says Faulkner. I’ll take his word for it. Give me a break. It’s getting too crowded to live in the moment. As a mid-octogenarian I’m still reviewing my life and figuring out how I got to this page in my saga. Or more currently still asking, what just happened after the defeat of Hilary 591 days ago.

There is something about sci-fi or whatever names apply to that genre of cautionary tales about runaway technology which numb my brain. It’s the great what if and to be sure much of artificial intelligence is already with us. When Orwell wrote 1984 he was really addressing what he saw in 1948. Momentous change arrives on cat’s feet through the back door while I’m in a rocking chair on the front porch.

I bought shoes last month and can’t figure out what to do with those 54 inch laces. I trip over the excess aglets going into the eyelet or else buy a toggle. It probably took me eleven years to learn how to tie my shoes and I refuse to yield to the new technology. I’m getting nostalgic for those good old days when our mothers took us to the shoe store and we were treated to a dose of cancer-causing fluorescence to see our toes wiggle.

I don’t particularly like quinoa or kelp. Whatever happened to lettuce and romaine? Not good enough for you? When I call any large corporation I always hit zero in order to speak to a human being. It’s no fun arguing with a recording. But I understand that Google has now simulated the human voice with all our stammers and pauses to make us think we are talking to one of our fellow species.

I’m the guy who still gets the newspaper delivered. Here it comes now. I also watch T.V. by candlelight. Love those eternal verities.

I know it’s a losing battle. Even indefensible. I suppose there were folks like me resisting the innovation of lawn mowers. That led to the removal of grazing goats and assorted quadrupeds to trim the front grass…which in turn led to more social calls and then to tea servers and even costume jewelry worn by the hostess and who knows what else. I was born too late.

It’s hard enough getting through the day with all those apps plotting an uprising any minute provoked by a restless algorithm. Must I also read books and watch movies about soulless robots and clones? I find it too strenuous transporting my aged brain to dystopian precincts. Trump has already driven us to the edge of the apocalypse in a driverless chariot. If Donald is the future I want out of this comic book. Can I click and delete him? Where did I park my space ship? If that doesn’t work I’ll settle for a time-travel machine set in reverse, destination unknown.