Hear, Ye, Hear, Ye…I Wish I Could

7 December 2017

The leaf blower next door started at 8 a.m. scattering the birds. It also blew a line of poetry out of my head that I had been polishing over coffee. Lines of poetry are notoriously flighty before they are written down. Ask any poet. The best lines are the ones he fails to write down in time.

I had escaped a clamorous weekend in New York City, back to the relative quiet of the suburbs. But the truth is, I don’t mind noise…New York City was in the midst of Christmas season, the Sunday of Black Friday. At Rockefeller Center, the world’s gravitational draw for all the holiday faithful, there was a crowd hum, as selfie sticks by the thousands saluted the First Tree above the ice rink. If selfies made noise the din would have been catastrophic. Foot traffic was shoulder to shoulder and four-wheeled traffic on Fifth Avenue was stymied. Taxies honked for exercise, knowing it would have no effect and, predictably, an ambulance, caught in the web, tried to siren its way through the backup. But ten minutes and two blocks later, the siren was still chasing away all, but shouted, conversation. And then there were the halal food carts on every corner…the purveyors, shouting about falafel and kebobs and banging the stainless steel covers on warming pans to attract attention. Silence you can find, but a mélange of noise like this you don’t find just anywhere.

But, oddly enough, my escape to the suburbs was not to embrace quiet. The leaf blower’s unmuffled engine was more to my liking than any silent world…in a monastery, being under water, or on a mountaintop. I like the distraction of non-silence. And the suburbs, thankfully, have enough silence interrupters…lawn mowers, leaf blowers, buses, barking dogs, sirens…to make me comfortable.

The subject of noise and silence was fresh in my mind, having heard an interview with a Norwegian author/explorer who worked at finding silence…trekking 800 miles by himself over 50 days to and from the North Pole without even a radio, just to revel in the the sound of nothing. He repeated that trek to the South Pole and climbed Everest in pursuit of silence, so he would have only his inner voice to listen to (though Everest’s winds are anything but noiseless). Home noise (three children and a wife) and city noise in Oslo drove him to seek absolute silence, which makes me uncomfortable, after seeing the enforced silence at the French penal colony on French Guyana (in the movie “Papillon”). It makes me cringe.

On the other extreme, I have been assaulted by noise that is so unbearable that shepherds and green pastures and still waters start to sound really nice. The killer noise of a knitting mill…hundreds of looms, knitting huge rolls of wool and cotton…a friend, proudly showing me around his family’s business. Or another friend, whose son’s band was playing at “The Bitter End” in New York who gave us great seats up front…next to an enormous vibrating speaker…so we wouldn’t miss a note. What’s a little hearing loss among friends.

 

 

Never Be Awestruck…It Hurts

15 November 2017

Decades before neighborhoods in New York City were known by acronyms…SoHo, NoHo, Dumbo, Tribeca, Nolita…neighborhoods that were pulled up by their beleaguered bootstraps to gentrified, pricey elegance; and well before ‘trendy’ was the term meant to convey that priciness, I lived in Lincoln Towers…a group of high-rise buildings on the West Side with views of the Hudson and strong afternoon sun. That was years before they were separated from river views and sunsets by a colossal strip of apartment towers and lost a good bit of their bright light and luster.

It was also a time (the 60s) when values (ethics) and values (prices) were about to undergo drastic change. But it was in that bubble, the time before change, thinking that things wouldn’t change all that much, that I made a blunder that still haunts me. It concerned a photograph.

I had been a devotee of photography for a long time, a taker of pictures and workshops, an admirer of great photographers and, at times, a photography teacher. There were galleries and museums that exhibited photographs all over New York. And there was a gallery on the East Side that advertised an exhibit of photos that included my favorite photographer…Andre Kertesz. He was someone whose photographs spoke to me, so, of course, I went to see the exhibit. And no photograph spoke to me more that one that was in the exhibit. What an awed feeling to be that close to a photograph I had seen only in books. My favorite photograph…a picture Kertesz took of Piet Mondrian’s foyer in Paris in 1926…and I could reach out and touch it. I was that close to it.

But more than that…it was for sale. I could buy it…own a picture I have stared at, admiringly, in books for years. What an overwhelming sensation. Was I worthy enough to own this magnificent piece of art or should I be restricted to admire it only in books? Would it become too commonplace, if I saw it every day, hanging on a non-descript plasterboard wall in Lincoln Towers. Shouldn’t it be in the Louvre, so millions could see it? I hemmed and hawed. I wish I had been resolute enough to have said to myself back in the mists of my youth that if I ever saw that photograph for sale, I’d buy it in a New York second. And the price of this print…I’d be too embarrassed to tell you. So now you realize that this episode does not end in ownership.

Fast-forward to this year. I was visiting a friend who is an art dealer/collector and is battle-savvy in the art wars. I told him, with great embarrassment, of not buying the Kertesz.  It turns out that he, too, loved that photograph…so much so at almost the same time, decades ago, that he, without the awe of the art and the artist that weighed down on me,..called Kertesz, who lived in New York. And the maestro picked up the phone. I thought there were layers of protocol between artist and fawning public. But he told Kertesz why he called…he loved the photo and wanted to know, if he could buy it. Sure, says Kertesz…what size would you like. You want more than one copy…sure, my printer is coming in next week. And the price…scarcely half what it was in the East Side gallery of my hemming and hawing.

When a door opens, my father-in-law used to say, walk through it. Maybe I should have, but I still have the picture in books.

Romania…Last Thoughts

2 November 2017

As we were driving through Romania, we kept seeing pylons for electric lines or highway lights decorated on top with wheels of branches, like some great ceremonial hat, or bird’s nest. I’ve seen birds’ nests, but these were far too large for nests. Maybe some iconic national decoration. I’ve seen cell phone towers here made to look like trees, so this, I figured, was a way to soften the hard edge of industrial design. We assumed that was it and so forgot about it.

Once back, though, we mentioned it to a friend who has traveled to Poland several times, telling her of this odd, but pleasant, Romanian way of decorating pylons. Not decorations, she said with professorial surety…they are stork nests.

Stork nests? Could it be? We reddened at our naïve assumption that they were merely decorations. You mean there are real storks, not just drawings on Hallmark birth announcements…a smiling stork, a sling hanging from its beak and an airborne newborn…an enduring folklore tale. (Not that central and northern European folks were ignorant about the actual delivery procedures, but it was a less lurid answer, when children asked where babies came from. And, conveniently, the storks were there.)

I told her we didn’t see any birds using the nests. They probably have migrated, she said, you know what Polish, Romanian, Ukrainian winters are like. True enough. Storks migrate south in the autumn, likely a week or two before we got there, down to sub-Saharan Africa. Then in spring, riding the updrafts from thermals, they come back, religiously, like swallows to Capistrano…sometimes to the same nest. And I thought Google Maps was good. Not to burden with too much detail; there are 5500 mating pairs of storks in Romania alone. The nests can be six feet in diameter, four feet deep and weigh 550 pounds. They do capture attention.

One other distinctive fact of Romanian life…the traffic circle…a bit of competitive jockeying to us westerners accustomed to the certainty of traffic lights…red, green; stop, go. Just choose your destination from the signs on the way around and off you go. And if you have a question about where you’re going, circle again. For a tourist it’s not perfect, but you know, when the road you’ve taken goes from two lanes to one, then pavement to dirt, you’ve likely taken the wrong exit. So back you go to try again.

A final note. No feeling is more helpless than a kid separated from his parents. But two companions separated in a foreign country, late afternoon without cell phone service at Bran Castle (of Dracula myth), well, that’s a close second. Roberta balked at climbing the narrow steep stone steps to the rooms at the top, so I did alone. We’d meet at the exit later. And there I was, half an hour later, having descended the worn steps to the exit, waiting as fewer and fewer visitors were left to come out and no Roberta. It leaves the mind awash in awful imaginings. I ran downhill to a coffee shop, figuring she’d be sitting there in distress. Not so. I ran back uphill, thinking we were permanently separated. And there she was, casting me a “where the hell have you been” look (any look was fine at that point). It was only our third day in Romania. We had cappuccino and apple strudel at the coffee shop down the hill, a wonderful anti-anxiety remedy, and then, hand in hand, walked to the car and drove gratefully to Brasov.

A Little Luck Helps, When Street Signs Don’t

25 October 2017

A trip to Romania’s not easy. It’s not mint julep country…feet up, poolside. It takes work getting to know it, even superficially, especially for a visitor with nine or ten days to spend there. And what you pick up is more your own observations rather than the self-reveal of the people. Though the Age of Anger, after decades of political repression, seems gone, a quick smile isn’t quite ready yet, certainly from older Romanians. The lingering of long soviet over-lordism ensures a memory of the way things were.

For instance, the depressing, sameness of housing blocks, imposed in parts of most cities and larger towns (the larger the city, the longer the run of these blocks). Eastern Europe was not an architect’s paradise…one design dictat and like Chia Pets thousands of look-alikes grew. It was the same design I saw in Slovakia three years ago. In the countryside small towns are not ‘towns’ as we know them with a commercial center and radiating residential neighborhoods, but a string of houses parallel to the roadway, one house deep on each side. These ‘long’ towns flash by, because there’s no place to stop and walk, no roadside shoulder to stretch your  legs or take a picture. It’s hard to build walk-around neighborhoods on a straightaway…and maybe that was the idea. (To be fair, we stayed in a neighborhood of newish houses in Suceava, laid out like suburbia here…with folks on a stroll, talking.)

But Romanians are, never-the-less, driving headlong toward the middle-class, literally. There are new car showrooms everywhere, mirrors of ours…huge parking lots for the cars, high overhead lights and tall blowup cartoon figures that flop in the wind. It works…there are Audis, Mercedes, Volkswagons, Fords, Opels, Fiats galore, sharing the roads, of course, with more than a few horse-drawn wagons. But there is a setting sun on the horse and wagon set in this year of 2017 I.C.E. (iPhone Common Era). The old ways don’t have a chance. Picture three toilers of the fields…a father, mother (a babushka) and young girl, bouncing along in the wagon’s passenger seat, overlooking posterior equine elegance, pulling a load of dry corn stalks for animal feed. The girl, however, seems perfectly detached… talking on her cell phone. Apple thankfully has leap-frogged a century for countries with few telephone land lines.

One last P.S. on the asphalt life of Romanians. A lot of them hitchhike; men, women, old, young, babushkas, pensioners…a fluttering hand, palm down is the signal…not thumbing.

I said Romania wasn’t easy. It’s like an enticing cold beer, but the cap’s on so tight, it’s hard get off. There are towns and cities with landmarks to find. But  don’t be in a hurry, because  street signs (and parking), for the most part, don’t exist. Having an address is no promise you’ll find it. In Radauti we wasted daylight trying to find our hotel’s street by listening to the silky voice of Google Maps, leading us. but in circles. (Otherwise, Google Maps was extraordinary.)

Finally in darkness and frustration, we pulled over, asked a man getting into his car, if he knew where the Hotel Fast was. Dumb luck, he was an English speaker, an Irani, living in Britain, who spent time in Radauti and knew it like the back of his hand. Except he couldn’t tell us how to get there…no street signs. So he said, getting into his car, follow me, I’ll take you to it. Google had neglected a couple of turns, but, hey, with Iranian help, I did eventually get the cap off that cold beer.

It All Begins with Chicken Soup

12 October 2017

It was midafternoon when we got to Gura Humorului, Romania, after circumnavigating the painted monastery circuit near the Ukrainian border. (The monasteries’ exterior walls have painted religious-themed frescoes from the 15th and 16th centuries.) We were in search of money…a bank to change some dollars to local currency, the lei. All we found was a closed bank with an outdoor ATM, the kind that ingests your card and then regurgitates it, on a whim…or maybe not. But it was Romania, 5000 miles from home and I wasn’t taking the chance. I didn’t need those sweaty few seconds of “why did I do that” terror, waiting for a soulless machine to do the right thing and give my card back.

But Romania is good about taking plastic, especially in restaurants, so we decided that we could eat without money. And eating is a decent substitute for a bank…it always is. But Gura Humorului, like many Romanian towns has no “walk-around” areas, no plazas with shops, restaurants, cafes…and people. “Let’s walk downtown”…uh uh, not in Romania. Places are on their own. They’re “find them, if you can” places.

So we picked such a place from a computer web site…Hilde’s Restaurant…and Google Maps, bless its digital heart led us to it on a road out of town, up a driveway, around the back, through a fence and, et voila, a very nice redwood villa, tiled floors, picture windows, castle-heavy tables and chairs, standing ashtrays outside (Romanians smoke a lot, but not inside).

More amazing are Romanian menus, Hilde’s was no exception; pages and pages of soups, appetizers, salads, fish, pork, beef, poultry, desserts, coffees, wine, beer. Fortunately, below each was a decent English translation. Even though Romanian is a Romance language, it’s hard to figure out English words from it as we can in more familiar Romance languages; Spanish, French, Italian, etc.
So I was down to indulging my eastern European culinary roots, led by remembered whiffs from my grandmother’s kitchen. (She was from Radauti, ironically, the town we started from earlier that day on our monastery tour. My orthodox Jewish grandmother would not have minded.)

So we started where everything culinary begins…with chicken soup and then, I’m embarrassed to say, with stuffed cabbage, mamaliga, chicken schnitzel, pickled cucumbers and finally apple strudel. Mamaliga for the uninitiated is polenta with scoops of cottage cheese topped with sour cream. You’re in pacemaker territory with a steady diet of it.

We left Gura Humorului for Suceava and a night’s lodging there. Roberta, my fellow traveler, lost a jacket that she traced back to Hilde’s. It was a dickens of a trip having to go back the next day to retrieve the jacket…and have another meal.

Side-Curls Dancing with My Privacy

1 October 2017

We heathens trudged up from the subway’s depths. And there on the sidewalk above, celestially, was a minion of fresh-faced young Hasids backlit by the setting sun, smiling down at us, ready to throw breadcrumbs of righteousness at our feet, so we could find our way back to piety…their piety. (Hasids are members of an ultra-orthodox Jewish sect opposed to lax ritual.)

“You Jewish?”, a doughy-faced redhead, his face set off in a halo of side-curls, asks with a hint of a smile, knowing he’s being aggressive and making us uncomfortable. It’s the second night of Rosh Hashanah and we’re on the way to Brooklyn friends for dinner. I’m carrying two identifying loaves of challah, but they can’t see that. They’re in an unmarked plastic bag.

“You Jewish?” Why do they think it is okay to be that provocative, that boorish, to a stranger. Are we all…but for them…lost souls, needing redemption? My ethical governor thickens my tongue and prevents me from asking why he’s out on Rosh Hashanah, asking a stranger if he’s Jewish.

“You Jewish?” Here are young guys, settled into their lives, clothed the way they’ll be their whole lives, walking the same streets, denying the outside world, never knowing the agony of rooting for the Mets…Talmudic lives…lives of proscribed experience, telling us they’ve got it right and we don’t. Privacy, of course, in the internet age is as foreign as white-wall tires. Why should we complain about their meddling, when we’re asked to verify almost anything we do with the last four digits of our social security numbers. Shouldn’t everyone, then, be allowed to intrude on anyone else’s privacy?  It wasn’t always like this. I remember privacy…and I liked it.

I think back to my father-in-law, giving off unvarnished observations from western Pennsylvania. One day he answered the doorbell. And on the stoop were two Mormon young men, standing there twinkly-eyed and friendly. “Can we come in and pray a while with you?”, they asked. And Joe, who was not terribly accepting of ideas outside his area of practiced thought, said, “sure you can come in and tell me about your more supreme Supreme Being than my Supreme Being. But first you’re going to have to listen to me tell you about my religion. Won’t take long.””Well, thank you, sir”, they said, “maybe another day.” And off they went.

The lesson is that a little verbal dart at the right time gives a lot of satisfaction.

Out of the Blue, A Breath of Fresh Air

3 September 2017

A young woman with obvious Asian features was the fourth passenger in a ride-share cab along with three of us (friends) who were in the cab before her. She apologized as if she were intruding and settled into her cell phone.

A few minutes into the ride, the three of us, sotto voce, like we were talking in an elevator, trying not to interrupt someone else’s private thoughts, were discussing where in New York to get the best bagels. The new passenger, engrossed, as she seemed to be, in text messaging with a friend she was going to visit, looked up like she was part of the conversation all along and said, assuredly, it was Black Seed Bagels. It would have been the same as if I were in a cab with three Asians in Beijing, who were discussing where to get the freshest bok choi and I, looking distractedly out the cab window, threw out the name of a food market.

Roberta, my lady friend, demurred about the bagels. While admitting that Black Seed’s were good, especially at their downtown location, she thought Zabar’s were better. Our Asian companion, very personable and brightly articulate, who was working at her first job out of college at a Wall Street financial firm said, “just so you don’t think I’m blowing smoke out of my ass” (her words…evidently she was not one to bleep words just because older folks were nearby…bless her), I come by my bagel opinions honestly. My father is a New York Jew…born in Brooklyn.

Doubling down on her knowledge of New York Jewish cuisine, she tipped us off that Russ and Daughters was still the best place to get lox…better than Barney Greengrass. But their bagels are lousy, so you get the fish from them, but bagels elsewhere. We started to branch out into the town’s best pastrami, deciding that Katz’s, down the street from Russ and Daughters, was too fatty, but a call rang into her cell phone.

Her conversation, as intimate as if we were all in a phone booth together, was with her mother, whom she told, excitedly, that she had had a second interview with Facebook and they were now recruiting her. While trying to seem casual about it, her voice betrayed a young woman, pleased to be on such a fast-track, as she no doubt was. It was a big deal, being chased by Facebook. But before any more of her biography could be written in the cab, the cabbie pulled up to her stop and off she went, telling us it was such a fun ride.

The glories of pastrami would have to wait for another day.

Sunday in the Park with Comics

30 July 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.