Sunday in the Park with Comics

30 January 2017

Sunday was a gorgeous day in New York City…a day when you’d feel guilty for not taking advantage of the weather and doing something noteworthy. It was 11:30 when, scouring the Times, we found a comedy show at 2:00 in Central Park, on the grass, under shade trees, just north of the Sheep Meadow. The guilt melted away…we had something to do.

So, with a blanket in a tote with a bottle of water, we took the ‘1’ (a subway line) to Lincoln Center and walked to the Park and found “Mineral Springs”, where a grass stage with a microphone and a couple of standing amps had been set up with low vinyl barriers to define the backstage, where the talent bobbed and weaved their nerves away before the show.

There were five comics, surprisingly not a weak link among them. The last one, the headliner, ‘killed’ (comic-speak for getting laughs) for half an hour and then they all bantered with each other backstage to come down from their performance highs. Each hoped they’d do it again next year, said their goodbyes…and left. The ‘headliner, though, was asked to stay for a second to wait for a praetorian guard of three park employees to escort her, ceremoniously, to a break in the fence…a triumphal exit for the star of the show.

The guard, respectful, bid her farewell as she then became just one of the legion of Sunday strollers, bikers, joggers, pedicabbers, horse-drawn carriage riders, disappearing into the crowd, walking toward Central Park West on her way home…a headliner for the 300 or so in the audience on the grass at the show, dramatically clad in a breeze-blown, diaphanous, painted veil over jeans and a tee shirt. But now she just blended into the flow of humanity…from star and larger than life…to waiting for the ‘walk’ sign, crossing the street. Highs and lows, the fate of performers…a face in the crowd to one of the crowd in the blink of an eye. I followed her with my eyes to see if an entourage, a husband, a friend met her. None did. And no one, but me, knew how extraordinary she had been, just minutes before.

Wisconsin, Take Two

10 July 2017

Every place is interesting. Every place has its characters, its local traditions and idiosyncrasies. I was surely, as a New Yorker, “from away” in Appleton, Wisconsin and was taken by the sincere friendliness of the local population (with exceptions…Joe McCarthy came from Appleton) who are polite and willing to please as if it’s a genetic trait or the dictates of a local ordinance.

We were taken by friends to a neat, unpretentious town on Lake Michigan…Two Rivers, Wisconsin, Trivers as it’s called locally…to a closed factory that once made wood type for printing, before linotype and computer type setting upstaged it. It was in its last chapter…made into a museum to commemorate the things it once did. Everything was just as it was on its last productive day, as if the craftsmen were on a break away from their benches.

But it was a street scene after the museum visit that made it all the more memorable. While friends were in the storefront of a smokehouse, buying smoked delicacies, (a vertical operation in business parlance…they caught the fish,  smoked them and sold them). I stayed outside looking for photographs to take. Across a narrow channel from Lake Michigan was a panorama of churches on a far hillside. A woman of comparable vintage to her balloon-tired Schwinn, standing a few feet away, told me there used to be a factory between us and the hillside of churches. I smiled in recognition and she went on.

Used to be four Catholic churches in town and four Catholic schools, she said. Now there’s just one church and no schools. She said it with the resignation of someone who has known better times. I was Catholic back then, but now I’m a Methodist. After pausing a few seconds, she inquired, and what are you? Jewish, I said, disarmed by how easily she asked. Oh, she said, a noble religion. The last synagogue in a nearby town closed a while back. There’s a “For Sale” sign on the building. That’s the way it is everywhere, I said, holding up my end of the conversation. The kids leave for the big cities and there are fewer and fewer people going to church. I know, she said, but where are they going to learn morality?

It was a thought that would have to wait for another day. Her sister exited the smokehouse with her smoked purchase. She smiled, said a quick hello and goodbye and they both pedaled off.

Marching Through a Well-Tended Life

4 July 2017

I don’t want the tone of my surprise to come across as coastal arrogance…I assure you it’s not. I’ve been reminded many times that I have little to be arrogant about. But it was a surprise nonetheless. I just didn’t expect Tiffany-like opulence to pop up in the summer-lush farmland of central Wisconsin.

We were visiting friends in Appleton last week. And they took us an hour further into farmland America to meet a friend whose hobbies, they thought, we might find a bit intriguing. In the east I have passed any number of hardscrabble farms…weathered barns, rusting machinery as well as the sophisticated, far-as-the-eye-can-see farms with complex irrigation systems, shiny silos, etc. So we didn’t know what to expect.

What we got was a greeting by an updated Grant Wood farm couple in Vineyard Vines finery…but he, at 87, had the forearms of someone who knew farm work. The farm was as manicured as the outfield at Yankee Stadium, but with no outward signs that anything wondrous was near. Then we were ushered into their living room, a high-ceilinged, wood-paneled room that could have been home to a Steinway grand or two. But the centerpiece instead was an immaculately restored 1930s classic car…he’s a collector…in the midst of farm country in Wisconsin. But cars weren’t his only passion. Our now-gentleman farmer friend (his children run the farm) has an ear for early music-making machines, late 19th and early 20th century…bits of complexity and mechanical wizardry that are dotted around the living room…a violin-piano-playing machine, a Nickelodean piano that plays music rolls, a Wurlitzer jukebox, a Polyphon that plays large perforated metal discs, an early Victrola with a flower-bell speaker and more.

Across the road was another of their farm houses with a long low building next to it with a line of garage doors. The doors open up to a long room, housing, you guessed it, more elegant, classic cars…a collection cap-stoned by a breath-taking 1930 four-door Duesenberg convertible (from whence the expression, “it’s a Duesy” came). As it turns out, one of the largest classic car exhibitions in America takes place every July in Iola, Wisconsin, about 14 miles away. I felt like Charles Kuralt “On the Road” finding the stuff that happens outside the proverbial bubbles of the east and the west.

It no doubt is the lure of mechanical puzzles, trying to figure out how these machines work…farmers are undoubtedly tinkerers, keeping the John Deeres going. So cars and music makers…are probably an extension of that. There were several more music machines in the garage… a blaring organ-sounding carousel music-maker, an accordion-playing machine. When asked if all his “toys” work, he said, straight-ahead and mid-western, “now why would I buy something that doesn’t work”. He was on an existential journey, lucky enough to waken each morning, knowing where he wanted to go…and  then pleased that he got there.

I didn’t mention that in his earlier years he was a flight instructor and that he ran a successful logging machinery business. And that at 87 he still plays tuba in a marching band. Maybe it’s not too late to catch up.

Hey, Where’s Your Free Speech Pin?

4 May 2017

What if we had free speech, but only what we could afford to buy on a government free-speech exchange. What if freedom of speech was the same as health care…you can talk, but only about what you can afford. There could be several categories of free speech, starting at the top with a ‘concierge’ policy (Maximum Allowable Free Speech). It would allow virtually unfettered free speech. Or another policy level, allowing reasonably free speech and renewable as long as you have no citations for exceeding your policy limits. Or at the lowest rung, a Buttoned Lip policy, allowing you to answer questions, but not to initiate conversation, not even to complain about milk bought fresh, but sour when opened at home.

Of course, like health care, we’d be able to fashion your own free speech policy by opting for situational permits. So within reasonable limits we could speak freely as long as we bought the required permits. But without buying these situational permits from the government free-speech exchanges, we would lose the right to complain, to protest or even to praise that which we have no permit to talk about.

And what a money-maker and job creator it would be…a new department, perhaps the EFE (Enhanced Freedoms Enforcement) would issue and police the government free-speech policies…the free-speech police, so to speak.

To facilitate enforcement for the EFE, everyone would have to wear a pin, identifying his or her ‘free speech’ policies and  indicating the speech in which they can indulge. The Golden Megaphone lapel pin would signify a ‘concierge’ policy…no restrictions, but at a price only the top tenth of one percent could afford. The Open-Mouth with a Bar of Soap pin would signify a less expensive policy allowing most speech, but  with no swearing, no double entendres and no mention of California. The Red Circle pin with Pursed Lips and a red line across it shows that one could speak, but only if spoken to.

The Situational permits would also require a pin, too, showing on what subjects your free-speech tongue could wag: a Tattooed-Arm pin, allowing everyone to be a general manager and wax about sports; a Crossed-Crutches pin, allowing talk of your medical conditions, both real and hypochondriac; the Wings-on-a-Hamburger pin, allowing talk of fast food, as long as you go easy on talk of  salt, fat or mega-sized sugared sodas; the Flooded-Miami pin would allow talk of climate change, but with restraint about wet feet downtown at high tide; the Cannabis pin, allowing a wink, but no talk…a hybrid of free speech.

Of course, ‘free speech’ would be a misnomer and monetizing it might seem drastic, but we desperately need to tamp down on folks bent on talking off the top of their heads or the seat of their pants…wink, wink.

I Hate to be the Bearer of Glad Tidings…

22 April 2017

A few months ago, an irritation on my ear seemed to have taken up a happy residence without an indication of when it would say its farewells and disappear. So, more than aware of its barnacle aspirations, I took myself to a dermatologist to have the condition explained. Or, as they say in medicaleze, diagnosed, which carries with it more ominous possibilities. Well, she said, it doesn’t look like anything dangerous, but I’ll have it biopsied. So she numbed the ear, scraped the evidence and sent it off. Two days later, I got a call that everything was fine…it was pre-cancerous.

Well, to me, fine and pre-cancerous don’t go together. Ed McMahon, Johnny Carson’s sidekick, said, after an operation, that the greatest word in the English language was ‘benign’. Benign without doubt is better than being told that the expunged tumor from his anatomy was, thank the lord, pre-cancerous. Why bring up the ‘c’ word, if it doesn’t apply? As it turned out, the dermatologist scraped off all the offending material for the biopsy on my ear, so that I was left with an ear cleared of irritation.

So I started thinking about other conditions that could be caught up in pessimist-speak. Your car could have a condition known as pre-rust…it’s not rusted yet, but it might be. (Oddly, rust in a car was called ‘cancer’, at least in the old days, when cars were actually made of metal.) Now most rust in a car seems to be taken care of prophylactically by making as much as possible out of plastic. Or milk…it could be called, legitimately, ‘pre-sour’…wait long enough and it will turn, but won’t, if it is used up in time. Instead of ‘pre-sour’, it could be called ‘still nasally pleasant’.

Or your house paint, it could, when new, be called ‘pre-pealing’ because eventually wind, rain, cold and ice will cause it to require attention. Why not call pealing paint ‘post-attractive’, not the best condition, but not sinister either.

Not to belabor the point, but, if the males on your mother’s side of the family are bald, do we tell a boy in the genetic line that he is ‘pre-bald’? I’m sure we can let the lad enjoy his hair, while he can. We don’t have to make it sound like his hair is living on borrowed time. It doesn’t mean that every condition we are ‘pre’ of shouldn’t be concerning. It just means we might tread a bit lighter on the rhetoric of disaster.

Balboas in the Bag…My Mind Elsewhere

17 February 2016

I’m always interested in how ready I am for surprises and how quickly I react to them.

A few weeks ago I parked in town (Larchmont) and walked to a local restaurant that has, since the 1940s, made an iconic Larchmont sandwich (The Balboa…along with a gorgonzola salad). I had them pack some to take to New York on a visit to my daughter and granddaughter. Walking back to the car, my center of thought scattered, I vaguely heard a car alarm, coming from a short distance away. But not paying attention to car alarms…I dismissed it. I got back to what I thought was my  car, but said to myself, that can’t be it…because someone is sitting in it. So I walked past it to look at the license plate. Sure enough, it was my car.

I’m sure I should have been more en garde than I was, but walked around to the driver’s side door and rapped on the window. How innocence could trump suspicion  I don’t know…with constant media stories rife with bad endings. But, luckily, what might have been a hair-trigger carjacker turned out to be a slightly addled elderly lady, obviously confused by unfamiliar surroundings. She looked up at me as I opened the door, smiling, so as not to induce a coronary and informed her that she was sitting in my car. Oh, she said, that must be why the alarm went off.  Yup, I said. No wonder my key didn’t fit and why I couldn’t remember what was in this package on the seat. It was only afterward that I realized I might have been a tad nonchalant. Who knows, she might have been supplementing her Social Security check, boosting cars… the modern day incarnation of Ma Barker with a Luger in her lap. I swore I’d be more ice-water aware than rely on just good fortune. Somewhat later, I felt a pang of angst, when it occurred to me that she’s driving on the same roads that we are.

Final thought…any visitors to Larchmont I’ll happily treat to a Balboa at the Tavern.

A Sea of Folks…Full Speed Ahead

5 November 2015

Been to Times Square at night lately? A megawatt bleach of LED light has turned the ‘Great White Way’ into an operating theater. What was once a softer neon night has turned into the perpetual day of the Arctic Circle, only not a northern half-light, but a bright squinting light. And because of that illumination, we have a greater ‘getting to know you’ intimacy with our fellow citizens, more than any of us could ever have hoped for…an illuminated sea of bus-tour touts, handbag sellers, commuters pressing to get home and theater-goers, carried by a tide of tourists agawk at walls of digital billboards that makes the word ‘overkill’ seem bucolic.

And the crowds at 6:30 at night…ten abreast on sidewalks moving as slowly as if barefoot on a TSA security line at the airport. And more desperate than the walkers and gawkers, at the end of their patience, were cabs and cars jammed up by crowds crossing against the lights. In the city’s impresario’s spirit…if much is good, more is better…this human cavalcade was inflated by a pumpkin patch set in the midst of Broadway (it was two days before Halloween), where kids could frolic amongst the pumpkins set on hay on top of the asphalt with Parks Department folks in bib overalls lending a touch of farm authenticity.

Problem was, I had a small fortune invested in theater tickets to ‘Beautiful’ and we were two blocks from the theater with twenty minutes to show time. Molasses could run through an hourglass faster than the foot traffic to 43rd Street was moving, so it was going to be close. Fortunately, the southbound flow made a sudden left turn on 43rd Street, moving toward a group of costumed super heroes. It was just the break we needed. Once on 43rd Street the crowd fever broke and we ambled casually into the theater with five minutes to spare…calm as royalty… without a trace of fluster we felt just five minutes before.

The City is like a high-maintenance ‘love of your life’. It’s difficult, but the rewards are breathtaking. “Beautiful” was brilliant. Carol King’s songbook is already a part of the American songbook. And if you have any notion that America is faltering, as some suggest, flow with the tide to 43rd Street and have your spirit renewed.

Five nights later another foray into a different neighborhood of the City. And again, high-maintenance, it takes a little bit out of you to take advantage of it. This time a subway to 59th Street, change to a different line to Grand Street and a six-block walk to the Eldridge Street Synagogue, now a City Landmark, once in the heart of Jewish New York, but now a lone Jewish outpost in spreading Chinatown. Just the signage we couldn’t read a hundred years ago (Hebrew) has been replaced by signage we still can’t read (Chinese). The more things change… That night a group of three violinists and a dulcimerist(?) played klezmer in the sanctuary, joined after the concert by other klezmer musicians in the audience who “jammed” with them. But the show didn’t begin until everyone had a turn at the buffet table…no one should listen to a concert on an empty stomach.

There goes NYC again, winning our hearts, while giving us a bit of a hard time as well (a six block walk and two subways back).

Give Me Noise…But after Nine

29 September 2015

There is a human space before the clank of the day that allows us time to enjoy and gradually build up to the hubbub we’ll eventually have to deal with. It is the calm of Tai Chi between dawn and the day; the quiet of factory towns before a call-to-work whistle; the tranquility of a suburban backyard; and the hope that callers will stifle the urge to call before nine. (How Neanderthal of me, thinking days begin cordially after nine.) But I got up early…earlier than some, later than most… to enjoy a cup of coffee on the deck surrounded by neighborhood drowsiness with time to think and read a digital newspaper before work…not even the crinkle of turning newsprint pages. So latte in hand this morning, I slid the deck door open.

And wham, the day unloaded an assault of 8 a.m. noise that rivaled Verdun. A neighbor’s lawn was being cut by a massive gas-engine riding mower without a muffler. Another gardener was at work with a string trimmer. A neighbor to one side let his dog out and it responded to the mower by trying to bark it to death. A second huge gas-engine mower started in on another lawn. (These houses, by the way, are on lots that are less than a quarter acre…talk about bringing a howitzer to a spelling bee.) At that point a faint cocktail of exhaust fumes began wafting over to me, ensuring a wonderful morning’s coffee.

Adding to the mix, a school bus was backing up on the street in front of the house, emitting piercing pings of warning. A helicopter, probably keeping track of traffic, hovered overhead. Thousands of feet above that was a jetliner, seen but not heard because of the ground noise. You think I’m finished, but I’m not. A caller did break the unwritten code of decency and called at 8:05. Amazingly I heard the ringer, as I did the door bell five minutes later. Fortunately by 8:15 all of these noises had disappeared…all except the dog that was rattled for the whole day and kept barking at the memory of combustion engines. Birdsong could once again be heard as the noise subsided and so, faintly, could the jets in their regular approach patterns to LaGuardia Airport 10 miles away.

Oddly enough, though, I realize that 24-hour-a-day tranquility would drive me as crazy as overwhelming noise. Thoreau might have treasured the absence of distraction on Walden Pond, but for the occasional otter or wind whistling through trees. But I don’t mind the resonance of life…the scrape of garbage trucks, crowd noise at a baseball game, a bit of traffic, neighbors talking, helicopters gathering traffic information.

Yup, I’m a creature of modern living…Now if I only could figure out the differences between Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and Pinterest, much less how to use them.

Laughs Among the Chop Sticks

15 August 2015

The unexpected is among the first laws of drama and comedy. Clever surprise…what you don’t see coming… either deepens the plot and adds mystery or can be laugh aloud funny. So it was in the last place I’d expect a laugh, a Chinese restaurant, where waiters are usually dour and predictably humorless. Like many immigrants, they seem unfamiliar with the nuances of conversational English. So catching on to New York humor and using it, are perhaps, the most difficult tasks of assimilation.

Anyway, five of us walked into a Chinese restaurant…sounds like the start of a joke. But, no, it’s a yearly tradition, when a friend comes up north for vacation, to have dinner at a very unpretentious, but very good Chinese restaurant in New York City (Szechuan Grand by name, on 24th Street and Ninth Avenue). We were early enough to get a table that was being set up as we sat…but with no linen table cloth, nor linen napkins that adorned the other tables (we got an uncovered table and paper napkins). An inchoate grumble from the five of us sent the waitress to the linen closet. Back she came with a linen table cloth draped over her arm, ostentatiously displaying it to us…with a cheerless look that bordered on annoyance. And as she spread it on the table, she said seriously, “This cost extra”. No, no, said one of our number, take it back. Along with the table cloth on her arm were linen napkins, and those she set about, putting one in front of each of us. “These cost extra, too,” she said. At that point her face lightened slightly and we realized we’d been hoist on our own western petard.

Then she set about taking food orders. Four of us got through that process unscathed, but our fifth had trouble deciding which peppery, gingery, lotus laced entrée to have. Asking her about a particular shrimp dish, she looked at him like a doctor assessing a skin rash and said, pointing to his very Caucasian arm…”no, no, you not yellow enough for that.” Who knows where that came from, but talk about comedy coming from unexpected places. Somewhat later, when everyone, but me, was chop stick deep in their food, I motioned to her and with a shrug asked, nu…where’s mine? The chef, she told me, had trouble catching Kevin (the chicken) in the alley behind the restaurant. But don’t worry, it’s coming soon. Thanks, I thought, for the FYI, but intimate details of kitchen goings-on I didn’t need.

I suppose it’s nice knowing that a new generation of ethnic waiters and waitresses will take the baton from the irascible, galling breed of Jewish deli waiters whose number has been downsized because of $20 pastrami sandwiches. Maybe humor will be the Szechuan waiters’ shtik. I hold out little hope that on next year’s visit to Szechuan Grand our waitress will still be slinging hash, as it were. I’ll just check headliners at comedy clubs to find her.

By the way, we never checked to see if the linen cost extra.

On the Plane…Off the Plane, the Denouement

18 June 2015
Once, we were regularly scheduled passengers, ready to fly home from Barcelona, with the usual runway jitters, but buoyant and jokey, greeted by crew like we were new best friends. But now, twice-cancelled, we were nomads, ghosts in the airport, folks the airline had to deal with, but wished it didn’t have to…like relatives, who promise you’ll always have a place to stay, but now’s really not a good time.

Today started in Castelldefels, a half-hour down the coast from Barcelona. At Sunday’s check-in we were told of a 7 a.m. Monday bus back to the airport, which cleared the rooms well before 7 a.m. There was a breakfast that most passed up in favor of lining up for a place on the first bus. And if it weren’t for a 92-year-old man in a wheelchair, the first seat would have been mine. Third day and the gloves were off.

The airport was a study in contrasts. On Sunday, just yesterday, an avalanche of humanity from Bilbao was going home after a Saturday night championship match in Barcelona. They brought the chaos and disappointment of Bilbao’s losing effort to the airport. And Barcelonans wanted nothing more than to shepherd the Bilbaons back home. Today it was our turn to be shepherded. But no shepherding was needed…the airport was eerily quiet…at 8 a.m. I was second on line at the check-in…aced out again by the 92-year-old in the wheelchair. Then to security for an x-ray and a quick frisk and…conformity to security norms once again established…we were cleared to roam the passengers-only part of the airport. It was 9 a.m. and our new just-posted departure time was 11:30.

Ritualized behavior clicked in; an attempt to use the airport’s free WiFi failed; then the usual breakfast of café con leche, croissant and orange juice. A couple we recognized from the cancelled flights ambled over to chat, telling us, in triumph, that they got rescheduled on a flight first to Frankfurt, then to Newark. It would take a few hours longer, but no way they were going to set foot on “that” plane again. We smiled a brave “what do they know that we don’t” smile and said auf weidersehen as they walked away.

It was then time for a third chance in three days to leave Spain…our passports were metal-clicked, making us emigrees once again in the “limbo” of the airport gate. “Only passengers beyond this point.” “Did anyone else have control of your luggage?” “Did anyone else pack you luggage?” A last passport and boarding pass check, and with pre-analgesic grimaces, expecting the worst, we lined up to board, group by group, one to five. One of our number, experienced with artful airline shenanigans, had taken a picture of the tail fin of yesterday’s plane and definitively announced that this, indeed, was a different 767. There was no catering issue, no crew legality issue, no cargo door closure issue.

The plane took off nearly on time, landed nearly on time (+48 hours, of course). “Piece a cake” as a trainer at the gym used to say, counting reps.