Tuesday, August 28, 2018

I Forgot the Question

But Arlen Specter is the answer. These days lunch could not be complete without looking up some piece of trivia on a smart phone. I don’t have one but my friends always do. It leaves no question unanswered except, perhaps, for the meaning of life, what are we doing here and what just went wrong with our country. As for Arlen Specter, Google him if it matters.

I doubt if any of our ancestors had as much knowledge crammed into their grey matter as we do. Our heads are stuffed with gigabytes (whatever that means) of facts. Too bad knowledge doesn’t translate into wisdom. Was it Plato or Yogi Berra who said that, knowledge is knowing that tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is knowing not to put it in fruit salad. Actually it was Miles Kington who deserves attribution. He also said that a pessimist sees a glass as half empty. An optimist is the guy who drinks what’s there’s and orders another. I know all this because I just looked it up…but at least I waited till I came home.

Given my creeping senility and early signs of nominal aphasia I expect to forget his name by next week, deleted in the clutter. Knowledge has a shelf life. Wisdom is more like what we know but cannot quite articulate. Wisdom is likely to be an interrogation. Why and How rather than Who or When. Possibly what happened when we didn’t notice. The ineffable. A instance of congruence in the discord. A pattern seen from a distant perch.

Knowledge has its place. It is one step ahead of info, data and nomenclature. If they opened me up out would come pouring a compendium of pharmaceutical terms, a dictionary of words and an encyclopedia of political events, a smattering of history & geography, a gaggle of ballplayers, movies, actors, big-band leaders and a libretto or two from Gilbert and Sullivan. The stuff that might get you on Jeopardy.     

It may be that wisdom comes in two sizes: petite and extra-large. The tiny wisdoms probably depend on a fair amount of basic knowledge. One couldn’t draw lessons from Karl Marx  without familiarity, at least, with the language of economics. There’s even wisdom in Harpo. Sort of like knowing what it takes not to add tomato (or ketchup) to the fruit salad. Harpo got to us with a shrug, a nod and a honk.

The great wisdom said to be found at the foot of the Himalayas or the bottom of your oatmeal bowl comes to those with a mind empty of distraction, ego and noise. When the Zen novice arrives at the monastery seeking answers he is told to wash his bowl. The floating world is that which eludes Google over lunch but may be accessible to the dishwasher in his reverie. In simplicity and silence one learns to listen for the wisdom which lies within.

Peggy knows all this. The poet doesn’t exert herself scrambling for the word. She receives it. The poet is not only a seeker, she is a finder. There is an art in the joy of irresolution, in the universal muck. It presumes a portal to the unknown. That may be the only wisdom I have ever witnessed.

Yes, Virginia, life is a fountain and a journey but those have exhausted themselves into platitudes. Wisdom is more likely to be found in the roots of an old ficus tree, Liszt's First Piano Concerto, a succulent peach or in Harpo's overcoat with his one roller skate, (unsmart) telephone and a cup of coffee... artifacts of a fractured civilization. He saw a broken piano and made a harp of it.

Monday, August 20, 2018

Planning My After-Life

As a mid-octogenarian it’s not too soon to entertain such thoughts. I’ve been forgetful lately. Maybe I already died and it just slipped my mind. Peggy and I like to think it may have happened about 30 years ago when we fell off the back of a bus on Oxford St. in London and were splattered under traffic. In that case this bliss could be eternal.

But just in case we survived that day I have a plan B. I look to the caterpillar. Not in her wildest dreams does she imagine morphing into a butterfly. If it’s good enough for that fuzzy creeper it works for me too. My shoulders have agreed to sprout wings.

In fact I’ve been in consultation with my aged body parts and they’ve all given their consent to make a contribution…or at least they haven’t said No. We recently signed up for donation of our organs and tissues. Have a spleen, a liver, an eyeball. (Pick up and drop off are free) I would hope that DJT has made similar arrangements so medical science might study what went wrong with his genome. He owes us that much.

Don’t get excited. Neither Peggy nor I have any imminent plans of leaving this mortal coil. I have set my dial to her present age, ninety-seven, which will make her a robust 109… unless I am a piece of broccoli with a pulse and nothing else. If you are reading this, Death, get away from our front door, even our mailbox.  

Depending on how you look at it this is either the best of times or the worst of times for a demise. I’d prefer my curtain to go down when the country is on the ascendant. That is to say, when Donald is a mere asterisk in our chronology, when the reign of tyranny and virulent imbecility has passed. I am foolish enough to believe in Progress however zig-zaged. Call it a spiral with its plateaus and dips but moving nevertheless toward higher consciousness.

Maybe I missed my chance to check out on election eve, November, 2016. Now it’s too late.  What a sadness it must have been to end it alI in 1914 or ’41 when we were on the brink of wreckage. I want to be here, not for happy ending, but for the happy continuance, to bear witness to our repair and reinvigoration. I would like to be around for the restoration of Science as we heed its call to save our planet. And when we learn to love each other or else.

Then I shall get my wings out of the dry cleaner and investigate the pollen in the flower bed. Hold the harps. I'll flit to the music of the spheres and at rest recall my previous incarnation grounded and always at the ready for transformation.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Con Artist vs Artist

I give up. In a previous blog I said he is an aggregate of ignorance, arrogance, mendacity and malice. My store of invective against the Nameless One is exhausted. I have the feeling he enjoys being vilified as long as his name appears…. which I no longer can bring myself to utter. We’ve been sucker-punched. What is red meat for his cohorts has also been our empty feast. The maggots and the birds together get their bellyful. The menu for Fox (faux) news to be revered is the same for MSNBC to be ridiculed.

It keeps us busy for the news cycle and distracts us from creating our own agenda. We need to make news, grab the narrative. Make the case for taxes as providing services, for Entitlements as compensation earned, that education is a Right without becoming a debtor for decades. For diversity. For healthcare, clean air and water as Rights which can be afforded by the wealthiest country in the history of the world.

If the Nameless One is an artist it is a con artist, creating a model for Mussolini-like Fascism. He is the master sculptor having turned the soft clay of amorphous fear and grievance into a hard edged hatred impervious to reason. He promises order out of the chaos of his own creation, repairing what he just broke. He resets the clock, makes sure the trains run on time…and the train of thought as well, absent of dissent.

Fifty years ago I had dear friends who saw their lives also in turmoil and the country mean and soulless. They joined in a counter-culture community with a powerful leader. I attended one of their meetings in San Francisco. The group of a few hundred were clearly under his spell in what I regarded as hocus-pocus paranoia. There was a jazz band. The members had been persuaded that society threatened their fellowship. Gradually they gave up their autonomy. Their dying began when doubt was forbidden. The judgement of the man at the helm was not to be questioned. His name was Jim Jones. My friends, Claire and Richard survived but lost their two teenage children.

The one whose name I cannot utter has also reached cult status. He can insult, act impetuously, fabricate, have tantrums and surround himself with incompetent and admitted criminals … all with impunity. His rallies generate chants. On cue his base drinks Kool-Aid staunchly supporting policies detrimental to their own livelihood.

To call him an artist does a disservice to all artists. True art doesn’t promise Order. In fact its vitality is in its association with the disreputable, disruptive and reckless. It more closely resembles the demography of this country in all its shades of skin and beliefs. It is inclusive and welcoming of the new. It challenges convention which Republican reactionaries uphold as a fixed ideal. Art resists margins. There is a democracy inherent in paint and words ever pushing toward a new way of seeing, rearranging the senses and interrogating the unknown.

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 /clerk. 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 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, 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 so blatantly. 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

Gishkins, Pops and...

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.

There was 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.