When I was a kid, everyone in my neighborhood was divided into categories along three dimensions. There were color differences (light vs. dark hair and skin), there was the Catholic vs. Protestant divide, and there was the binary distinction of whether or not your dad served in World War II. In fourth grade and again in seventh, I attended a new school and each time encountered a greater diversity of kids and teachers than I knew before, and learned about new kinds of people. At the same time, I would often visit my father at work, and during the summer he and I would have breakfast downtown at the Dewitt Clinton. Then we’d go our separate ways to our respective jobs (he had a real job…I had one of those urban make-work jobs designed to get the kids off the streets), and in these contexts, I met some adults that were different from the ones in my neighborhood.
So, over time, I learned about people who were different from me, and like anyone else, I formed opinions not just of these people, but opinions of the kinds of people I was beginning to learn about. Most of this ended up having to do with “ethnicity” and that, in turn, was shaped mainly by complexion, hair, and other physical features, and to a lesser but not insignificant degree, religion, cuisine, and other cultural traits. I was getting my identity ducks in a row. Continue reading My Journey Through Race and Racism→
[D]ennis removed the top of the hamburger bun, flipped the meat out of the way, laid down catchup on both sides and reassembled the Cheeseburger Special Agnes had just laid before him as deftly as he always did. And, as expected, the new guy shyly and quietly took note of this culinary quirk, and I knew that starting soon, if he remembered having seen this today, he’d be putting the catchup on both sides of his burger too, as we all did once we saw Dennis do it. It’s just better that way. It’s not like it’s more catchup. The same amount of catchup distributed on both sides of the hamburger works better for three or four reasons, all of which anyone who tries it a few times will learn. Now that you know to do it, I think you’ll start doing it too. If you remember.
For or five of us sat squeezed into the booth at Shuluski’s Diner, internalizing a much deserved lunch following a long morning of digging trenches all over town. Waterford, New York had never had a proper modern sewer system. The entire town’s sewage, and at the time this was the most populous “village” in the state, entered an ancient pipe and vault sewer system that barely served as a septic tank as the sewage made its way fairly quickly to an outlet just below the waterline in the Mohawk River, down on Front Street. None of us will forget the day we discovered the outlet, which had never properly been mapped.
We were sitting there on the edge of the river eating our lunch, when a change of hidden currents in the murky, notoriously polluted river below our dangling feet caused several minutes of fresh effluence to rise to the surface before dispersing downstream. I guessed that it depended on the temperature of the water and the flow of currents around the nearby Erie Canal locks. Fresh human shit, wadges of recently used toilet paper, and a condom came floating by in the first batch. Being some ten feet or so below us, it didn’t smell any more than the background olfactory heaviness that followed this river for much of its course. But it did strengthen our resolve to continue with our trenching, which would ultimately lead to the installation of the most modern, cleanest, and most efficient waste water treatment system Superfund money could buy for this quaint and sleepy town on the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson rivers.
Across the restaurant at a table were Henry and his two boys. Henry was little and tough, the boys very large and in his employ. Henry wore a wife-beater tee and a perpetual two-day-old shadow, and when he worked the levers of his backhoe, his tongue protruded from the side of his mouth to keep an eye on things. He was precise, professional, and fearless. He could pick up a shard of historic pottery from the shadowed bottom of a 15-foot trench. Most of the time, I was the crew leader and had the job of telling him where to dig, how deep, and most importantly, when to stop and when to switch from trenching to centimeter by centimeter careful archaeological excavation. This old historic village was build on amazing prehistoric and contact period sites, and a sewer pipe was going to be laid down every single street. So by the time we got half way done with the backhoe survey, looking for sites, assessing the lay of the underground historically modified landscape, tracing out areas of disturbance vs. “high potential” for sites, Henry and I had become twins connected at the bucket. My subtle hand signals guided him, but he needed little guidance. I rode the bucket into and out of the deepest trenches, and the occasional shared knowing sidelong glance would have us agreeing tacitly but firmly that a particular trench was too deep. Then, as we would watch the trench collapse with no one in it, we’d exchange another sidelong glance knowing we were right to not go in that one.
And as I said, fearless. We had a trench that would ideally be dug perpendicular to the edge of the bluff overlooking the rapids below the damn and waterfall. Henry dug the trench perfectly, backing his machine up to the point that only two of his four wheels were on the ground, the giant back left wheel dangling off the cliff with nothing but air for a hundred feet below, the smaller front right wheel hanging forward in the air like the flailing arm of some moron going down on the ice for the last time. He balanced the damn backhoe with his tongue, sticking out, watching him straighten the edge of the trench and just as the last bit of solid ground started to crack beneath him, using the bucket to drive the backhoe off to the side and to safety. Even his sons, almost pathologically emotionless as they watched their father daily work his backhoe magic, breathed a sigh of relief. And somehow I was not surprised when Henry sauntered over to me and pulled up his shirt, pointing to two bullet holes in his chest.
“I had to do almost the same exact thing in Korea once, but under fire. Today was easy!”
So as we sat munching our cheeseburger specials, Arnold sat at his habitual, perpetual, butt-worn stool at Shuluski counter, overlooking the window through which we could see Albert S. cooking up the orders transmitted to him by his wife Agnes. Arnold was a young man in an older adult’s body. A very young man, if you know what I mean. And his main job seemed to be to say, “Hello,” to every person who came into the diner and, “Goodbye,” to everybody who left the diner and, “That looks good,” to every blue-plate special Albert shoved up on the back counter for eventual delivery by Agnes to an expectant, hungry customer. And if he knew your name, he’d append that to his goodbye or his hello. So, when he said, “Goodbye, Mr. Wilson,” it was not a surprise to see Old Man Wilson, a crumpled mess of bills and change left on the table next to his empty soup bowl…oh, the soup at Shuluski’s was the best for miles around, and this was soup country…hobble, all old and shit, towards the front door of the diner. Mr. Wilson’s left arm rose in a backhand, friendly goodbye for Arnold’s benefit, but he mainly focused on keeping his balance as he maneuvered his oldness around some tables, bones creaking and joints stiff.
Munching on my double-catchup’ed cheeseburger special, about halfway done now, I watched as Old Man Wilson stopped on the sidewalk in front of the diner and cleaned his glasses, waiting for a car or two to pass on the only busy road in town. Which was not. Busy, that is.
And I thought about our afternoon. We’d go with Henry down to Front Street to continue trenching the low ground in the oldest historical part of town. In my mind, I was imagining how long it would take for us to dig each trench, how much time we had before shutting down for the afternoon. If we could get in four trenches, we’d be done with the zone and could move on to the next area. Not likely to get that many trenches in one day. The engineers were hoping we could finish here and move on because they needed clearance on on the northwest side of town for some geotechincal work they’d be doing. Yes, yes, I was thinking, we’d push to get all the trenches done this afternoon and that would make Mohan, the head engineer, happy, and my job was to respect the archaeology, abide by the regulatory law, and keep the engineers happy, all at once. With luck, this would be an easy week to do that, in case nothing went wrong….
…and as these thoughts developed and started to settle down from analysis to conclusion, I noted that Old Man Wilson had made it across Main Street and was just closing himself into his giant wood-side suburban wagon. I started going over the trenching pattern in my head again, trying to think whether there was a certain order we could do the trenches in so we could possibly rule out digging the last one…if we found evidence of disturbance, or evidence of amazing archeology. Either way, digging the fourth trench would be unnecessary.
Old Man Wilson was starting his car as I thought of the irony…if three trenches showed nothing, we could go home knowing the fourth would be of no use. Mohan would be happy, we’d move to the new area on Monday morning. If three trenches showed great amounts of early archaeological material, we would not need the fourth trench to know that much more archaeology would need to be done here. Either way, we could likely finish this afternoon if…if nothing went wrong.
And it was just at that moment that Old Man Wilson slammed his car into gear and took off in a sudden lurch. Then, as quickly as his giant wood-side suburban station wagon had lurched its first 15 feet backwards and onto the curb, in the wrong direction, Old Man Wilson stopped the big-ass car on a dime.
Unfortunately, the dime was sitting right next to a recently painted red and yellow fireplug.
The fireplug sheered off cleanly at the base. This fireplug was the second or third lowest fireplug in elevation in the whole town, I was thinking. I knew this because it was my job to know things like that. This meant that this fireplug would have a very high pressure unless there was a fire or something bleeding off the water. Which naturally there was not. The water that came out of that fireplug was enough to keep one or two tires of Old Man Wilson’s wood-side suburban wagon off the ground as the vehicle rocked back and forth and side to side and up and down, rubbing on a nearby power pole, which kind of kept the vehicle in place as it bounced up and down on the unnatural cold water geyser.
Old Man Wilson found his own personal athleticism just at that moment. He was out of that car and standing, staring back at it from the middle of the street, in a matter of seconds. And as he stared, head-scratching, and I finished off the last of my hamburger and was about to start on the french fries, the images of a dozen cartoons in which I had seen this exact event or something like it flashed before my eyes. And probably his as well.
The new guy said, “Wow, what do we do?” to no one in particular, and following this cue, we all looked over to small, tough Henry and his giant sons, who were now squarely on their feet, watching Mr. Wilson’s wood-side suburban wagon dancing on the water column across the street.
“Well,” Henry said, “we’ve got to inform the head of the public works department, call the fire chief, and have the city’s fix-it contractor get out there, turn off the water, and fix the fireplug.”
The new guy stared at Henry. Henry’s sons started to laugh. I said, “Well, I guess that means we all are going home for the day, because if I recall correctly, those three people would be you, Henry.”
Dennis, who had progressed to about the same point as I had with his french fries, all the cheeseburger specials at the table ancient history, glanced at Albert, who was standing in the cook’s window holding his patty-flipper to the ready. And he looked at Agnes who’s eyebrows were riding high over her lightly watering eyes, visibly working out something kind to say to Mr. Wilson (Agnes was nothing if not kind). Old Man Wilson himself was by this time heading back to the diner to fetch help. And as he glanced around the diner, Dennis groked the situation. And he said what we had all been thinking.
“Finally, for once we have time to get a bowl of that soup!”
And we did.
Mohan would understand, and one more day of sewage after 300 years of wanton effluence by the good people of Waterford, New York would make very little difference. That day’s soup was Minestrone.
I was trying to decide which episode in this loosely connected series of posts on music and me I would touch on this week. As I was looking over the list of ideas, in the background was the Rachel Maddow show talking about the Stonewall uprising. Well, duh, I’ll talk about GJ’s.
GJ’s was a bar I lived over for a couple of years. The bar was on the first floor and I was on the top floor. Some of my most notable roommates lived with me in that apartment. I can briefly summarize. I moved there to live with my girlfriend, Amy, a girl I’ll call Junette and the niece of Henry Mancini. Junette was so loud when having sex that her boyfriend Mike wore earplugs and the police were often called by neighbors thinking there was a murder. Or wishing there was a murder. That was not her only annoying trait. Junette soon moved out and we had a huge party, playing Eric Clapton’s song “She’s Gone” over and over again. Police were once again called. Then Ms. Mancini moved out and took my girlfriend with her. The vacancies were filled by two people whom I’ll call Tashina and Ron. Tashina was a drop dead gorgeous bisexual African American model from NY with a shaved head (a bit rare in those days), and Ron was an authentic Cajun boy fresh from the Bayou near Baton Rouge.
One day Tashina asked to speak to me privately. “Honey, what do you do to get rid of crabs. Crotch crabs. Just tell me what to do and don’t tell anyone we had this little conversation, ‘kay?” I told her what to do.
Later that same day, Ron cornered me alone in the foyer. “Hey, my man, I do dee-claire I gotta bad, bad problem. How does a guy stamp out dem little bugs, dem baby micro-scopical crawdads down in the you know where, if you get my drift?” I told him what to do.
That made me laugh.
Then one day Tashina got a job back in the city and left, and that’s when Raheem moved in. Raheem was one of my favorite people ever and we became pretty good friends. He was a fugitive from the police, so I will not provide many details. Buy me a beer and I’ll tell you the most hair-raising story you’ve ever heard. Raheem eventually moved on as well, leaving a vacancy that was filled by a sequence of low-life felons and undesirables.
Eventually, The Cat moved in. Again, one of my favorite people. The Cat always wore black, had a D.A. haircut and was a full-blown bodybuilder and generally very, very scary person. His twin brother was exactly the same but not as built, and every time the two of them got together and had a few beers, they would get into a fist fight. This brings us downstairs to the first floor to GJ’s for a moment, because that is usually where that would happen. The two of them would end up out in the street about to punch each other, occasionally taking a swing but mostly posturing and dancing around each other long enough for the local detectives who were never far away to saunter over, flash a badge and separate them. Like clockwork.
Ron stopped paying his rent about two months before The Cat moved in, and after one more month of that, The Cat and I threw him out. Then another individual moved in, who was the actual nephew of Carlos Castenada. No kidding. He was a total dweeb and also forgot to pay his rent for a few months. He had a lot of cool stuff, so when we took all of that cool stuff and put it on the curb, I kept a couple of his cooking pots and utensils.
I could go on and on, but I won’t. Because it is time to turn to GJ’s. The reason for the link between GJ’s and Stonewall is simply this: GJ’s was for a long time the only openly gay bar in the city. Later, a gay club opened up, and still later a few other more or less gay bars opened, but GJ’s was it for a long time. Interestingly, the bar was not owned by anyone who was gay. GJ’s became a gay bar simply because…well, it just did. The right place at the right time. Half the bartenders were gay, the other half not, more or less. And the same was roughly true of the clientele. The important thing about GJ’s is that it was a comfortable place, where everyone knows your name, where everyone was always glad you came, where everyone, gay or straight, felt their troubles were the same. Like Cheers. But almost everybody was a freak. Half the freaks were gay, half the freaks were straight and the other half were just odd.
GJ’s had a jukebox with exactly two kinds of music on it: disco and good. PJ, who always dressed as a sailor for Halloween and worked three night shifts a week in the bar, would unlock the jukebox and reuse as many quarters as the machine would take and load up the play list with pure disco. Donna Summer got a little richer every time PJ was bartending. Alternately, Steve the Biker and Tex the Cowboy would take half their pinball money and load up the play list with non-disco songs, mostly Rolling Stones. The beer was good and it was all done in good fun.
Every now and then (and don’t tell anyone this part, please) closing time would come around, and we’d pull down the shades and turn down the lights and have a private party for the next couple of hours. If a anyone had to leave, they could not come back because the doors were locked. Relatively speaking, the parties were pretty tame most of the time. It was just like having the bar open, except certain things happened that otherwise could not happen and certain things did not happen that otherwise would. I’ll let you use your imagination as to what those things were; it will probably be more interesting than the reality.
On winter afternoons, Biker Steve, Mike (the guy with the ear plugs), Marylou and Sue (new girlfriend and local sex worker, respectively) and I would hang out watching the snow fall (those were wintry years, statistically) and waiting for people to get stuck. Then we’d pile out of the bar and push them free. Over the course of a snowy afternoon, that would get sillier and sillier until finally they were pushing us out of the snow.
So what was the music we were playing in GJ’s? Offhand, I remember a few songs: “Tonight’s The Night” and other songs by Rod Stewart; “Higher And Higher,” Rita Coolidge; “Dancing Queen” by Abba; “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffet; “Hotel California,” Eagles; “Fly Like An Eagle” by Steve Miller Band (whom I just saw in concert a few months ago); “Stayin’ Alive” by The Bee Gees; “Lay Down Sally” by Eric Clapton; “Beast of Burden” by The Rolling Stone; various songs by Steely Dan; “Last Dance” by Donna Summer; and a lot of stuff by the Village People, Santana, some heavy metal and the Grateful Dead.
[T]he reason that hanging out with a bunch of temporarily insane Viet Nam vets fresh back from combat was a new phase in my own musical experience, aside from the fact that I’m obviously using music as a ragged thread to tie together utterly unrelated themes, is the importance of music to some of those vets, and to the era that was just winding down in the early 1970s.
Music was part of the Revolution, the anti-war protests, the hippie movement, all of it. One of my coworkers, the assistant director of the place I did archaeology, was a Rolling Stones fan. This big, scary guy all tough and shot up from the war, this thuggish guy from a tough neighborhood in New York where being Jewish meant you had to learn to fight, this guy who had the swagger walk down cold and carried a crowbar in the front seat of his car and knew how to use it, once told me that he “cried and screamed like a girl” when he saw The Stones at the ball park in New York.
“You saw The Rolling Stones live?”
“I cried like a girl, no kidding.” He was getting teary-eyed again as he sat behind the desk in his office, his head covered in most spots with randomly placed and pointy tufts of flaming red hair, and his smuggish face pointing nose first at the object held above the desk in his hand. He had used the intercom to call me into his office a moment earlier and was showing me an album he had just acquired…a Rolling Stones album…and was telling me about the concert and the album at the same time. I did not fully understand why we were having this conversation.
“So take this and fill it out,” he suddenly said, thrusting a small square of paper in my general direction, a piece of paper that looked like a postcard on one side and a form to be filled in on the other. “As soon as you can. Do it right now.”
So my boss had just forced me to join the Columbia House Record Club so he could get a free album by getting someone else to join. I had to pick five albums from this list of mostly totally stupid stuff. I was able to find one to give to my mother as a birthday present, and it was an album by Jim Neighbors, the enigmatic actor/singer. Another remains today as one of my favorite albums of all time, Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
So, now that I had albums coming, I had to get…a record player. So I consulted with Carl, and we managed to dig up a tuner and a record player and set it up in my room. I scavenged my parents’ old speakers from The First Stereo. I dug deep into my pockets and searched for change in the couches and got enough to buy a new needle (that’s the device that reads data off the album on the record player). And the records came and it was good.
The other benefit of the stereo was the built-in radio. Not very many months later, I moved from my parents’ house into my own place. My girlfriend at the time, Leslie, just recently told me that she thought it was SO cool that her boyfriend had his own place. Now that I think about it, that would have been pretty cool for a couple of 16-year-olds. She reminded me that we would get together and tune in the radio to listen to The Fourth Tower of Inverness…indeed, we did. Now that I think about it, holding hands with Leslie and listening to The Fourth Tower of Inverness was even better than Mad Dogs and Englishmen.
Which brings me right up to the present. Since I mention my first girlfriend, I will also mention my last girlfriend, Amanda. There are a number of things that I’ve always liked but no one that I was “with” (as it were) also liked, or at least, such things were not important to them. For instance, I’ve always wanted to own a Subaru. No one I was “with” ever wanted a Subaru, so that never happened. Amanda strongly prefers Subaru. So now we have a couple of them. How cool is that?
As I say, there are a number of things like that with Amanda and me. And it turns out that even though she did not really know Joe Cocker when we first met, one of her favorite songs is “Feelin’ Alright“…the version done by Joe Cocker.
Amanda was somewhat ensaddened to learn that the song is not about feeling all right. It’s about how, “You are feeling all right because you’re an evil thoughtless person, and I’m distinctly not feeling all right at all. In fact, I feel trapped and I’m having nightmares and I dread the day you dump me for some guy with a different name, a different face” (I paraphrase).
But who cares what the song says. It’s how it makes you feel that counts.
[F]irst, let me say right away that I was never in Viet Nam. To do that, I would have had to be Vietnamese, because I was too young even to be a Marine in that war. In fact, I have never been in the military. But during the very last years of the war, when almost all American soldiers had come home from Southeast Asia, I worked for a unit of city government that was funded by the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a kind of WPA for returning vets.
I had turned 13 years old the week before I started working there, and it was a summer job that would turn into a volunteer position and eventually a year-round job. During this time, as was the case before and since, music was not really especially important to me, and I continued to have a very passive relationship with that particular fine art. But there were individuals who influenced my tastes. New people, whom you have yet to meet.
Since I came from a good Democratic family in a Democratic city, I was eligible to go down to City Hall that June to get a summer job. I remember going into this big room with lots of people. This guy who I later got to know pretty well, State Representative Jack McEneny (this was before he had run for any office), got up in front of the group and demanded the attention of the hundreds of 13-year-olds who were in the room.
“OK, folks. Who wants to paint fences this summer! We’ve got a lot of fences to paint.”
About half the kids raised their hands. Those who raised their hands were escorted out of the room, I suppose to go and join the fence-painting crews.
“OK, kids, now let’s see a show of hands again. Who wants to paint curbs!!! We’ve got a lot of fine curbs that need paining!” And half the remaining kids raised their hands, and were duly escorted off somewhere.
“Kids…listen! Who among you wants to paint fire plugs! We need some really good painters to paint fire plugs!” and most of the remaining 13-year-olds, figuring that they had held out for the good job, raised their hands and were taken away.
And there were six of us left. We had been herded to one corner of the room, where we sat on gray folding chairs at a tattered oblong table and stared at each other. Mike. Jane. Jack. Some other kids I don’t remember. Mike was a funny-looking kid with a strange bone disease, and he would tell everyone he met that he had only a few years to live. We were to hit it off really well. He was very short and a photographer and specialized in what he called “nostril shots.” Jane was very smart and nerdy. I totally got a crush on her. We would later do some nerdy stuff together, like hiking in the Adirondacks and going to used bookstores. I don’t really remember the other three kids very well.
As we sat there, a large, imposing, dashing but scary man…large-framed, trim and muscular, long hair tied back and a huge mustache, a loping gait and a dueling scar…came over to us. He put one foot up on a chair and stared menacingly at us, dour-mouthed and severe in countenance. I was eventually to get to know this man as well as I know anybody, and I would learn that this stance of his … the dour chair stance … always came just before a joke. Usually, the joke was entirely for his own benefit, and only rarely did anyone else get the joke.
(Indeed, as I think of it, I may have learned my own brand of obtuse humor from this man. But I digress.)
So this man, named Bob, stared at each of us kids–as we realized one by one that we had been left alone in this cavernous, now nearly empty room with this guy who looked a lot like a pirate.
And he said:
“You six. Painting fences wasn’t good enough for you? Are fireplugs beneath you?”
We all kind of looked at each other and nodded. We might have been scared of him, but this trimming down process had left him with a half dozen 13-year-olds with attitude.
“Good,” he responded. “As of right now, you’re archaeologists.”
And that was the start of my career.
And a new phase in my appreciation of music. But I’ve taken up too much of your time already. I’ll pick this thread up at a later time.
[D]uring my personal musical eclipse, after the novelty of the stereo and before I ever met Carl, my brother had a band. This was eventually to become a sort of secret band. He and at least some of the other band members had regular jobs, like working for the state, etc., and I’m not sure whether everybody they worked with knew that on weekends they would go home, dress in shiny white lamé suits, and play rock and roll at one or two high schools.
I remember the early days, when they were just learning to play together and they’d practice in my house, piping their guitars through that old stereo. They would listen to popular songs and try to figure out which notes were which so they could play them. (Apparently, sheet music was invented some time later.) I remember them learning to play “Wipe Out” by the Ventures (originally recorded by The Sufaris). As a little kid, I heard them play it over and over again so many times that I learned it. I can still play it on a guitar. Continue reading OK, I didn’t really have a career in music→
[I] am the least musical person I’ve ever met who is still alive. Of course, most nonmusical people don’t go around talking about it, so I probably actually know more tone deaf, talentless people than that. It is strange, though. I should be musical. My mother sang semiprofessionally, doing radio in the pre-WWII days before they had things on tape, like commercials which were sent by telegraph to various radio stations then read and/or sung live in the studio. My oldest sister is known as Lightning Fingers Liz, owing to her prowess with the mandolin. My brother had a rock band from something like 1968 through 1990-something and is quite talented with the lead guitar. My other sister takes the cake, though. She has a couple of PhD’s in music or related topics, is an accomplished composer, and has learned—to at least a reasonable level of competence—one instrument in each known and extant class of musical instrument. (This required her to learn the bagpipes and the didgeridoo, because they are almost exclusive in their own classes.)
[M]y heart would be racing and my breathing labored. I would be in the house, often in the basement or in the scary front hallway that was made into a dark crypt-like room for the mimeograph machine by being blocked off by a bookshelf on one end. I would hear the sound…
Thump. Thump. Thump. Thump.
It was like a giant monster steadily tapping on the roof of the house, trying lazily to get my attention becuase it knew I was in there.
To escape a horrid but unspecified fate, I would have to get out of the house, and more than that, I had to make my way across the back yard to the base of the tree in the corner, where the fences met. This was the climbing tree. It was a medium-sized maple that I could climb quite high in, even as a small child. I could use it to jump into any one of three different yards (and later, as needed, retreat from said yards). I could climb into it and sit perfectly still and silent when my mother or my siblings came into the yard to do some thing, and they would finish their task and leave without ever knowing I was up there hiding. It was my escape tree, my spy tree, my safe tree. I knew I needed to get to that tree and, and then to find the hole at the base. The cage. The cage that was made out of a dug out hole at the base of the safe tree.