Thursday, November 30, 2017

Mistaken Identity

All these years and I’m still not accustomed to my face. If I met myself in a crowded elevator I’d probably think the guy looks slightly familiar but then again….

There is a face in the mirror but it hasn’t registered with me. When I shave I see a chin, a neck, a nose (still in the middle of it all)… the sections but not the aggregate.

I’m often confusing faces. When we watch a movie at home I’ll say to Peggy how this guy looks like Cary Grant and she’ll tell me he looks more like Ulysses Grant.. Of course I could tell Danny de Vito from George Clooney or Woody Allen from Kobe Bryant. But young Pacino looks to me like young De Niro and ten other people. I just recently found out that John Hurt, William Hurt and William Hurd are not the same person.

I am your classic unreliable witness. Thirty years ago I was held up at gun point in my pharmacy by a crazed drug addict. I gave him what he came for; even offered to gift wrap it for him to get him out of the store. He was so pleased by my service he returned a few months later. Even called me by name as if we were old friends. He was a white guy with an afro hair style. All I saw was the gun and the hair.

When he was caught I was asked, along with about ten others, to pick him out of a police line-up. Of course I nailed the wrong person…as did 2 other victims. Fortunately they arrested him anyway and he was convicted no thanks to me.

When I met Peggy in 1980 she was sitting alone during my poetry reading at the old Venice jail. During intermission I went over to her and greeted her a loud HELLO…as if I’d just recognized an old friend. I have no idea what prompted that. Maybe I confused her with Ava Gardner. Or maybe I had read my life story and knew this was the woman I would marry in a few years.

In Pharmacy College I was one of 150 students. The highpoint of my time spent in that drab institution was in my sophomore year. By then I realized that just about everyone cheated on exams. The fraternities had the test before-hand. In fact the same questions had been passed down from the previous decade. A few of us chose not to join any frat. One day a classmate came up to me after a midterm test.

You are Wolitsky, aren’t you?
No, I’m Levine.
Damn, I just copied the whole exam from you.
Not to worry, I copied from Wolitsky.

That proved to me I had a common face, easily mistaken for Wolitsky and probably a dozen others. In fact maybe that impostor in the elevator really is Wolitsky. Where are you now Wolitsky? I want to see what I look like.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Ours Alone

Two mugs, these gifts. In the green
freedom of Sunday morning. You,
with late coffee watching the hot architecture
of tyrannosaurus blooming while I sip
my good earth hearing a piano recital.
The English muffin is not burnt.
Your maple syrup has 50% less…
My fiberized cereal has 30% more…
One cup says Carnegie Hall,
the other from the Natural History Museum;
with hot brew the flesh of Rex reveals its bones,
is then restored as it cools. Even
those things extinct can be recovered. I’m thinking
of that breakfast in Connemara.
Now you are walking in the Bois d’Amour.
What passes between us is hushed
across this table of boisterous still-life beyond
even Vincent’s lovingly crazed impasto.
Everything is for sale in the Sunday paper
but we have (common)wealth and need nothing.
You shape a new poem 
with super califragilistic fecundation
deciphering the off-shore fog.
Buzzy-the Hummer is a no-show, nearly 
bare branches, empty bowl.
The silent “n” at the end of autumn.
What I blurted yesterday was 
bourgeois, you say. 
I laugh because it’s true.
Like Rene Descartes almost said,
Sometimes I think therefore
Sometimes I am.
Oh, this extravagant life, this quiet jubilation.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Thursday Thanks Day

Of all the holidays on the calendar,
all those three-day weekends,
Mondays with mattress sales,
dead presidents,  dead soldiers
dead words     stump speeches
myth of manger and arcane mumbles

And in spite of…….
240 million dead turkeys (is that possible?),
how we killed our hosts and never left,
breaking bread with a Trump guy, 
(no food fight, please),
Black Friday tomorrow madness,
All the lonely people, 
Where do they all …….

is the one
where we test our threshold
for two of my favorite sins -
gluttony and sloth,
free of piety     secular, 
Can't we all just get along?
inter-tribal   sit down together
second-helping-Day pass the Chardonnay
have a piece of pie      plenitude
abundanza, y’all come-Day,
white and dark     meat
not, I got mine, up yours-Day
but Gratitude Day
our happy accident, 
cosmic crap-shoot Day.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Speaking of All-Night Laundromats

Never been in one but I’m glad they’re there. I imagine these are great places for co-conspirators to meet during the spin cycle with plans to rig an election. If you came to launder money your limo made a wrong turn. This may be where John Le Carre does his best writing. Insomniacs can congregate and bore each to sleep or watch single socks slither out the door…and then show up in a yard sale next month. Those round windows remind me of early television screens by Philco or Zenith. Who does their laundry in the wee hours? Maybe folks on their way to early Mass or nurses coming home on the graveyard shift or some guy who spilled ketchup on himself while eating at an all-night diner.

Which brings me to one of those, We Never Close, eateries. I won’t mention the name but it rhymes with Hell. They call themselves a Drive-In. After having lunch there last week I’d like to drive my car right through the place. Peggy and I thought to give it a try around 3 o’clock. P.M. that is. I can think of five reasons why we’ll never return. The soup was cold. The service, non-existent. Prices were immodest. The air conditioner made us feel we were in Costco’s meat locker. And most egregious was the hundred decibels blaring from the juke- box with a continuous loop of rock music enough to percuss our ears, jangle our nerves and numb our brains. When Sinatra came on for one number with, Strangers in the Night, I thought the torture was over but it then resumed. I was yearning for John Cage’s, 4’, 33” of silence.

The place must be a truck-stop for big rigs headed to San Francisco. Maybe the cacophony along with the frigid air is intended to re-charge their adrenalin for the next 500 miles.

CVS pharmacies are another one with their lights on in this city that never sleeps. Are these for shoppers who hate crowds? Or suddenly woke up in a panic because they ran out of Q-tips or One-A-Day vitamins? My guess is the pharmacist during the day leaves all the routine paper work for the poor sucker on the night shift.

I was a stranger in the night once or twice. The occasion was cramming for final exams in college. Along with two friends I rode the subway through the wee hours in order to stay awake, memorizing structural formulas and botanical origins for a course called Materia Medica. We stuffed our heads with a glossary of name from rhizomes and roots to the inner rind of fruits. None of it had the slightest relevance to my life as a pharmacist counting and pouring. 

Could it be, at the midnight hour, white sheets from the laundromat floated over to the pharmacy like ghosts of alchemical ancestors over a smoky cauldron to do their sorcery in the dark shadows of a CVS all-night inner sanctum? Could it be? I doubt it.

Friday, November 17, 2017


There is no word for it. Those long moments when you are not quite asleep but not awake either. The clock says 2:14 and the next time you peek it is 2:57 and then 3:41 yet you could swear only five minutes have passed. I’ve been told whatever you do, never look at the clock. Therefore I do.

On the board game of sleep you are stuck at Yawns. And that was hours ago. The next station is Snores or at least a snort and chortle. You’re waiting for Uber to take you to Dreamsville. But instead your arm itches. Your leg twitches. You’re hot. You’re cold. A car alarm goes off four blocks away. Did you forget to take the clothes out of the dryer? There goes a motorcycle revving its engine.

Now you are traveling back to 1943 when your friends would look up at the sky and say B-52 or Lockheed P-38; how they could identify airplanes or cars by the grill or talk about carburetors…….and you knew not a thing nor cared a hoot about any of this. But why dwell on that in the middle of the night?

Dreams are a collage of debris, shards of broken pots or pot holes as if floating in inner space. Unresolved moments. Fears materialized. Where did I park my car? Will I miss my flight? Here is my father turned into Spencer Tracy who becomes Barack Obama. And then there’s the mystery of why the cool side of the pillow is the one facing down.

There is no predicting a night’s sleep. Some nights are seamless with dreams of exotic flowers strewn around on a path of rolling hills like the belly of a giggling Buddha. Other nights feel endless punctuated by a restless bladder and dreams of a besieged pharmacist in a flu epidemic with screaming babies, six phones ringing and a broken keyboard.

It’s a bone-brain thing. Those hours in the nether world of half-sleep seem to be a misalignment. The body is bone-weary but the brain thinks it is 2 P.M. instead of A.M. Eyes close but synapses are buzzing. Peggy uses Azerbaijan as a mantra. I wish some word would transport me to a third world country even if I’d be looking for my parked car.

It is now 4:03; too late to reach for a Melatonin, too early to rise. I’ll just stay put reviewing my entire life starting with carburetors, manifolds, fly wheels and gaskets…all those strange words which already are putting me to sleep. Here I am drifting off. But not quite.

I had a breakthrough dream last month. I suddenly discovered myself sitting in the car that I was looking for. I think I was in the back seat. Uber me home.

P.S. I have now been told that there is a word for that half-waking, half sleeping consciousness. It's called a hypnagogic state. I learn something every day and if I hadn't written this down I'd have forgotten by now.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Making America Grate Again

Oops, wrong homonym. Be careful Donald. America is great because America grates.

The dictionary defines the word, grate, as

1-  To reduce a substance to small pieces
2-  To make a rasping sound

By his very presence he has concentrated the national consciousness as a negative model by shredding the culture of male dominance till it screeches with the toppling of predators. 

It is certainly no coincidence that the president’s female grabbing, revealed during his campaign, has led to the fall of Harvey, Kevin, Louis et al along with Roy Moore. The sound you are hearing is the crumbling of the patriarchy.

Credit Trump with this single accomplishment…unintended as it is. A nation nominally led by such a vulgar, narcissistic miscreant ignites an equal and opposite response. Call it revolution, American style. It took a Donald to rouse us from our slumber.

Now if we could only extend the outrage to his dismantling of government agencies, bellicose prattle and abject ignorance of climatologists we could further demonstrate the greatness of our democracy.

Sometimes it takes a tragic misstep in history to make us see with clarity and redress the grievance. The election in 2016 was one such event.

One hundred years earlier an Irish rebellion was put down. The British executed leaders of the uprising. Out of that tragic event William Butler Yeats wrote his poem, Easter 1916. The recurrent line in the piece is, A terrible beauty is born. The death of the revolutionaries had a reverse effect on the Irish people. The militants became martyrs and the movement was reinvigorated.

So too, the Trump presidency has seemingly consolidated the opposition. A terrible beauty is born out of the grating, the mass shootings, nuclear brinkmanship abroad, and threats to health of our planet. It’s the only one we’ve got.

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Family Secrets

Pssst. Don’t let it get around but I have none. Family, that is.

I was the unintended outcome of a chemical reaction by a mad scientist in a subterranean laboratory. A precipitate in the bottom of a beaker, left in the wilderness to be suckled by wolves and then deposited in a shopping cart in front of a 99 cent store. Or so it seemed.

The great thing about being bereft is that you get to make up a lot of stuff. My mother actually had five brothers who lived in the Bronx. My father had four half-siblings who lived in Brooklyn. I don’t think the boroughs ever met. It should be noted that four half-siblings are not two people.

In any case these nine uncles and aunts yielded cousins by the dozens …none of whom did I know. They are out there somewhere. If, by chance, cuz, you happen to read this please contact me especially if there’s an inheritance involved. If, on the other hand, I owe you money, forget about it.

I have a dim memory of maternal grandfather, Morris, who lived with us. When he died I was about six. At that point my mother stopped talking to her brothers. It had something to do with who was to pay for his tombstone.

My father’s father was destitute and given to drink. After being widowed he passed along my father, Sam, at age three, to an aunt who raised him. Grandpa Lou then remarried and had four more children... at least three of them brought up as wards of the state. The first-born was a boy he also named Sam, possibly in a drunken stupor or memory lapse. Sam, meet your brother, Sam.   

My favorite cousin, whom I last saw about 78 years ago, is Mildred, daughter of Nettie & Irving. She would now be pushing 90 and happily unmarried. Whenever referred to in family lore she was known as Mildred-Who-Never-Got Married. I’d like to think she was way ahead of time.

Perhaps Mildred was a gun moll or paramour, hopelessly stuck on Bugsy Siegel or Mickey Cohen; in fact her last name was Cohen. Or maybe Mildred was thoroughly Modern declaring her preference for same sex union in a way that baffled Nettie and Irving.

When I was diagnosed with a motor neuron neuropathy about thirty years ago my doctor asked if there was any family history of such. The question prompted me to call my mother's last surviving sister-in-law.

Hello, is this Aunt Anna? This is Norm. Do you remember me? How are you and my cousins? How is Mildred?

You know, she never got married.

Though I wouldn't know her if we met in a crowded elevator Mildred-Who-Never-Got-Married is my favorite because she stood up against the chattering conventions. She is a reminder of why I left New York. One July week in 1954 I got my marriage license, pharmacy license and two tickets out of La Guardia airport. I’m sure that cousins and other members of my tribe meant well but nothing prepared me for relatives meddling or even whispering about my choices in life.

My idea of family consists of my daughters and step-son and family along with grand-children and one great. I would also include my step-niece or is it step-second cousin, Karen. I also count my ex-brother-in-law who has become closer to me since my divorce. Come to think of it my clan is bountiful and keeps growing. I prefer to think of friends as family and family as friends.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Parallel Universe

Seems like most books I read or movies I watch have, at their core, the issue of how to be OF this world but not altogether IN it. If there is an alt-universe there are times I want to get myself on that queue. However my guess is we’re already there. We live with one foot on the ground and the other perched in some mid-distance elsewhere.

It’s the last train to Clarkesville / And I’ll meet you at the station.

About thirty years ago Peggy and I fell from the back of a bus on Oxford St. in London. We had hesitated getting off and when it started up again we tumbled into traffic. Sometimes I think we were killed that day and all these years are just the beginning of our after-life. I could live or rather die with that.

So maybe I didn’t burn the toast this morning...and the Dodgers didn’t go listless in that 7th World Series game ….and Trump really isn’t President.

Show me the way to get out of this world / cause that’s where everything is.

The operative word is transcendence. How to lift off, find the metaphor, burst through the margins, sometimes in an act of creative destruction. It may mean not only smelling the flowers but also listening to them. It may entail finding connective tissue that isn’t there, risk going crazy and it may be worth it.

One author (Jean Giono, Joy of Man's Desiring)) takes the pastoral road into a bucolic world of farmers communing with animals in a peaceable kingdom. Another writer (Richard Powers, Orfeo) sees the artist as a misunderstood fugitive in flight from convention and a fearful populace.

I suspect we all, to some extent, live inside our own paradigm, the one we’ve created in order to breathe freely in Trumpdum. Outwardly we exist in this agreed-upon world. Yet at the same time we inhabit that parallel one where Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto drowns out the sum total of all his majesty’s Tweets.

All four-legged, fin-legged, no-legged and winged creatures prance, slither, gurgle and flutter out their days hearing their own sounds beyond our frequencies and know nothing about the headlines that tremble us. Soon we may join them.

From pre-history on we have sensed a glimpse of an imagined beyond. We love the mystery; that unaccountable twinge felt when mad Uncle Abner dies three continents away or the word succotash appears in the newspaper at the moment it is spoken on the radio or that dog whom your neighbor thinks is her deceased husband having returned.

Conspiracy theories are yet another way out of here. Page eleven of the rag at the check stand tells of the half a mermaid discovered inside a tuna fish sandwich. On page twelve is a JFK sighting or was it Jesus in the arrangement of cornflakes in the cereal bowl.

Next flight in ten minutes. If I had my druthers (and when don’t we all have our druthers, existentially speaking?) I’d book passage on Rauschenberg Airlines or board a slow boat to China with a collection of William Trevor stories accompanied by a bluesy sax to see me off. Anything will do for transport to that other dimension, parallel or wobbly.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Sport's Cliches

At some point a phrase falls limp from exhaustion. One day it is pithy wisdom; the next day it’s bad journalism or hollow string of words.

Q-Will you be ready for the big game tomorrow?
A-We’re going to leave it all on the field.

There’s no place like a locker room for dead language to pile up. Athletes are great practitioners, answering clichéd questions with clichéd responses.

Q-How did it feel hitting that home run?
A-I was just trying to make contact.

The sportswriter has a deadline. He/she’s got twenty minutes to file the story, get the close-up, the quote, the gem. But there is none. The player is numb. He hasn’t processed what just happened.

Q- How was your approach facing that pitcher having struck out in your last twelve trips to the plate.
A-I can’t hit and think at the same time. I live in the moment. I just try to slow the game down and focus.   

Professional sports is theater, human drama in real time, sometimes rising to the level of experiential art. It may be the only thing we don’t record. We want to see it live. Interviews are weak tea, superfluous captions to what we witnessed. Incapable words.

Q-What went wrong tonight? Were you feeling fatigue? How did it feel letting your team down?
A-Nobody’s perfect. Credit the other team. Now shut the hell up.

Q-What were the takeaways you learned from this series?
A-The Zen you find on the mountain is the Zen you bring with you.