Monthly Archives: June 2014

Do the Hustle

New York is full of great things to do all-year round.  But, for me, the more serious pursuits of autumn — opera, museums, drama —  give way to freer-spirited festivities in summer. Shakespeare in the Park, outdoor concerts, riding the ferry to nowhere (the last of which I did, albeit somewhat unintentionally, with Childhood  Friend last weekend.  Who knew that you had to get off at Governor’s Island, buy a return ticket, and wait for the next boat?  I suppose we would have had we paid attention, but CF and I talk to one another entirely too much for that.  Besides, we’re both just a tad impulsive.)

One of the funner things I’ve recently done was to attend Midsummer Nights Swing in Damrosch Park (which is basically my backyard) with Boon Buddy.  On the particular Thursday night we chose to go,  the theme was disco, hosted by the wonderfully-named Losers  Lounge (who are neither losers nor a lounge), and the dance lesson was of that venerable staple of my college years, the Hustle, which none of us back then knew how to do.  At least I didn’t.  I more or less Peanuts danced with white man’s overbite.  Turns out that a forty-five minute lesson doesn’t do much to change this.

Permit me to pause on the music before we reach the dancing.  The history of American popular music seems to reveal the requirement that every generation must reject the music of its parents before, a decade or so later, it returns as nostalgia for those who hadn’t quite lived it. The nostalgia is invariably accompanied by irony so, heaven-forbid, your friends don’t think you actually like the stuff for its own sake.  But then, something funny tends to happen. Once the irony starts to wear off, everybody realizes that they actually like the music for its own sake.  And why wouldn’t they?  Good music is good music.  We don’t throw out Rembrandt just because Picasso started painting.

So it is with disco.  Good disco is good music.  It’s fun, the beats are great, the harmonies, orchestrations, and vocalizations generally are lush, if a bit straightforward.  It’s happy music.  What’s wrong with that? Ok, leisure suits, gold chains, pointy shoes.  But I’m talking about music here, not fashion.  In order for the fashion industry, like the auto industry, to survive, it requires consumers constantly to be changing their preferences in order to keep them buying.  It does this by making it embarrassing to wear perfectly good if outmoded clothes. But music is infinitely elastic.  True, we only have so much time to listen.  But we don’t have to throw away music to hear more music.  You can only wear so many clothes.  You can listen to music all the time.  In any event, I’m glad it’s ok to listen to disco again without irony.

That said (about fashion), I seized the opportunity to wear my flamboyant jungle-print Versace silk shirt, white pants, and white shoes.  I mean, it’s disco, right?  (I got a lot of compliments on the shirt.  It is kinda gorgeous in a Robin Williams-Birdcage sort of way.  But I can’t wear it to the opera.)

In any event, we met at Damrosch Park which was decked out like the high school gym on prom night (except most people, bowing to the reality of a reasonably humid June night, had the good sense to wear light clothing, including shorts for men.  I’m not going to take your time on my rant about how men of a certain age ought not to wear shorts unless they’re playing sports, and most certainly should never wear shorts in a restaurant lacking a 99 cent menu (which I see them do all the time), but I did get the point, especially about 15 minutes in when my Versace was rather wet.  Anyway, I digress . . . .)

The dance floor was large and nicely assembled.  The big stage was ready for some serious music and dancing.  The teacher came onto the stage.  And then.

“Take a partner.”  Oops.  This wasn’t high school prom, it was junior high dance.  Yours truly, who is very shy around women, turned to BB in horror. But BB, far more composed and self-assured (as he has always been) was confidently striding toward a woman.  Lucky for me, as I turned a bit further, a very kind young woman took pity on me and asked if I would be her partner.  Phew.

It got worse.  You see, this is a really fun event.  But, before you take a dance lesson with several hundred other people, it probably helps if you have some idea how to dance in the first place.  Our instructor was doing her best, but she had forty-five minutes and was up on the stage.  Nevertheless, the terms “ball turn” and “Michael Jackson Michael Jackson” didn’t mean very much to me.  Fortunately, neither did they to my partner.  After a few false starts, we conferred.  She suggested, quite intelligently, that we try to make sure we were doing whatever it was we thought we were doing at least in the right order and at the right times, and that perhaps other things would fall into place.  At least I think this is what she was trying to say when she gave me a dirty look and said, “do it.”

So I did.  Forty-five minutes later, I can’t say I quite knew how to hustle, and still didn’t get “Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson,” but, as the lesson ended, my partner smiled sweetly and thanked me for the dance.  She went to find her friends.  That would have meant I had to ask another woman to dance as the dance actually began. Fortunately, BB wanted a beer, so we hung out for a couple of hours, mostly watching the professionals in the crowd and trying to analyze their steps for next time, I pretending that I was just too cool to ask just any other girl to dance.  But it’s good that we tried to learn something. Because we’re going back.

Lawrence Mitchell

When Jupiter Aligns with Mars

It’s been a tough week.  And yet.

This evening I was riding the Washington Metro from Union Station.  I had just put on headphones and was listening to Stevie Wonder’s fantastic rendition of “For Once in My Life.”  It made me the happiest I’ve been all week.  I must have been bopping and weaving more than I realized for, as I looked across the train, I saw a stunning young woman watching.  Her skin was the milkiest cafe au lait.  She had the most fabulous Afro I’ve seen in forty years.  Her gold-rimmed aviator sunglasses and perfectly Carnaby striped bell bottoms completed a look that was, well, perfect.

In any event, I looked up at her.  She, too, was wearing headphones.  She looked at me.  Smiled.  Nodded.  Raised her hand in beckoning.  And, together, across the train, to different tunes, we danced.  From Dupont Circle to Van Ness, each in our own world but, for those precious few moments, in the world of the other as well.   We didn’t notice the other passengers.  Who cared?

We reached Van Ness and both exited the train.  On the escalator, she thanked me for the dance and put out her hand.  “Time for a real connection,” she said.  I took it, but our connection already was wonderfully real.  I smiled as she danced up the escalator and out onto the sidewalk.  Stevie and I bopped behind her.  We went our separate ways.

And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.

Thank you, Shevaunee.

Lawrence Mitchell

Selected Poems 1998-2014

Life of its Own

Life gives ground quite hard.
Tiny moth, torn up
wings just half a bow,
unseen, unseeing,
with flutter force it
fights its fate so clear,
but will not gentle go.

The fuse force drives through
hard pack snow ’til ice
prevents its flower,
yet waits behind the
death cold veil in vain
for warmth that too late
comes to free its power.

A headless bird, an
open frog display
in their great death dance,
grotesque perhaps, the
lovely lasting life
that does not give ’til
no will can leave a chance.

Birth is where we start,
death the apogee.
And I watch you friend,
as life in death holds
fast without relief,
will not give you up
until it’s forced to end.

Power far beyond
any choice we have,
drawing out the day
’til failing flesh no
more can hold its spark
and must allow that
shard to find its way.

Lawrence Mitchell

Selected Poems 1998-2014

A Different Sort of Love Song

Don’t write for me
of cobalt nights
and blood-red moons,
of autumn air
that chills us close for warmth.

Nor tell me of the crystal spring,
of green so soothing soft
against a robin sky
when feather breezes
silken through my hair and
early warmth gleams brilliant
in my eyes.

Forget about the salty summer dusk
when sun shot arrows
splay across the ripples on the bay
as we hold each other deep within
the spruce green cave and watch
the blue go violet with the sea.

No, sing to me instead of winter storms,
of dark gray skies that claim the light,
of needling hail and pounding snow
that wind whips sidelong
in our faces
’til it piles dead upon the ground,
of branches ‘tombed in gleaming ice
drooping over banks of snow
made fitlhy by home-drawn cars,
of ripping cold, and crackling gloom
that shatters through the quiet day.

Versify me just these things,
the shadows not the light,
the fight and not respite,
the end and not the life.

If you can sing the wonder of these things,
then you can endure my love.


The First Day

On the first day of my death
I guess I’ll sleep late.
But how will I know when late is?
Perhaps some subterranean timekeeper
chimes the bell on the hour
just to help you keep your bearings.
But maybe you’re on your own.
That would be kind of lonely, so
maybe on that first day I’ll just wake up
and meet some people.
I should know a lot of them.
Old friends, who knows? And family too.
They must have made up some games by now
to pass the time.
But I’m kind of shy, so
on that first day
I guess I’ll sleep late.

Lawrence Mitchell

Selected Poems 1998-2014

Those of you who visit this space know that, when I write, I write from the heart, whether the subject is the stock market, music, art, or the bus.  I’ve decided to vary my posts a bit for a while, from prose to poetry.

Over the next few days, I will be posting a number of poems that I have written over the past decade and a half.  Lots of people write poetry, and they write for many reasons.  But the poetry I have written, I have written for me.  I hope that it is more than simply unburdening my soul, a function to which poetry may be uniquely suited.  While it certainly is that, I have tried to do my best to do so artistically.  For the poem is a medium which, at its best, can reach the highest art.

All of the poems I shall post have been carefully crafted, to what end you will judge.  While I accept at some level Alan Ginsburg’s dictate, “first thought, best thought,” and thus none of these would have been written had something not come out directly, still the craft of writing requires some – craft.  (Howl could have used some editing.  Leaves of Grass, by contrast, clearly was edited.)  I don’t have Ginsburg’s talent – hence more work needed to be done.  As for Whitman’s – enough said.

If I have written for me, why do I post these poems?  Good question.  I guess I’ve come to the conclusion that writing solely for one’s self is a bit autoerotic.  And I have been grateful to my readers over the years — from my scholarship to these blog posts — for showing some appreciation for what I have to say.

So it is.  I hope you enjoy them, or at least find something of worth in these efforts.

Lawrence Mitchell

Storm King

Fifty miles north of The George Washington Bridge, on the west bank of the Hudson, is one of New York’s cultural treasures. Storm King Art Center is, in my experience, the most extraordinary outdoor collection of sculptures ever assembled.  But it is more than a collection of sculptures.  The landscape and art are curated together (and, in the case of one remarkable Maya Lin installation, are one and the same), creating almost a symphonic interplay of shape and color, structure and freedom, theme, counter theme, obligato, and counterpoint.  At least that is how it seems to a musician who loves the visual arts.

A day at Storm King would be special even without the sculpture.  Although it is hard by the Thruway, you can close your eyes and pretend that the ebb and flow of traffic noise is nothing more than the waves lapping the shore (except when a truck backfires – but that’s only a foghorn)!  The mountain is lovely.  Broad mowed fields, clumps of forest, high wavy grasses. The topography is gentle.  Hills, yes, but nothing terribly strenuous.  (If you must, there is a tram that circulates throughout the property.  Native Companion, who is herself an artist and has visited Storm King many times, insisted that we board it.  Fortunately for me — I love walking — we always just kept missing it, and so walk we did.)

It was a glorious day, apple green beneath a Simpsons sky.  Although I know the hot and sticky weather is coming, after 20 years of living in Our Nation’s Capital it is a pleasure to have the occasional summer day that is sunny and warm enough but (relatively) dry. The parking lots were full but, among the other joys of Storm King is that the facility (I know, a strange word choice for a mountain) is so vast that you would never have known.

I will refrain from using the word “monumental” more than once, for the sculptures at Storm King are almost entirely of a scale that befits a mountain.  But — just once.  We parked in the South Lot and began to stroll down the tree-lined, unfortunately named “Bunny Road,”  a name that seems to me to belie the intensity of the art.  And, to our left, arising amid a rolling meadow, was a collection of — here it comes — monumental Mark Di Suvero sculptures.  As we say on Pesach, dayenu!  Abstraction be damned, nobody had to tell me which of the ten sculptures was Mozart’s Birthday, nor Beethoven’s Quartet for that matter.  Just as Bruce Lazarus creates sculpture out of music, so Di Suvero creates music out of metal.  Up a meadowy hill to the right and – there was  Maya Lin’s Wavefield.  One looks down upon a vast installation of earthwork, grass-covered, mini-mountains and valleys. Not western mountains, but eastern. Anybody who has ever flown over the Alleghenies or Catskills would easily recognize the rhythm and flow.  Anyone who has ever stood on the beach at Nauset would see the continuum of earth and sea. Anyone who has been to the Vietnam Memorial would recognize the artist. Rain had soaked the earth, prohibiting us from walking among them, but no matter.  Breathtaking.

Don’t worry.  I’m not going to comment on all 136 sculptures in the permanent installation.  Yes, count them, 136.  And that doesn’t include the truly extraordinary special exhibit of the work of Chinese sculptor Zhang Huan, about which more later.  But indulge me on just a few.

It was a pleasure to see a Roy Lichtenstein that reminded one of why he was a great artist, before all the knock-offs made him seem quondam. HIs Mermaid, a fancifully painted sailing yacht’s hull, positioned by the water that meanders through the property, made me smile.   Up the mountain and on the other side of the museum building, the Noguchi beckons you to sit on it, even from a distance, and the breathtaking Richard Serra invites you to ignore the improbable balance and stand beneath it.  Nevelson, Smith, Calder, Moore, Oldenburg, etc., etc., and so forth.  It seems as if every great modern sculptor is represented.  Down towards the north parking was one of my favorite places — a pasture populated with two Alexander Liberman pieces.  Again, smile.  Despite their industrial monumentality (sorry, there it is again) they seem like such a natural part of the landscape that you can’t help but just be happy that humans are sufficiently brilliant to collaborate on art and nature in such an aesthetically satisfying manner.  It’s certainly beyond my imagination.

And then — the Zhang.  Holy Buddha!  As we walked up the hill bordered by the achingly beautiful dry-stone serpentine wall created by Andy Goldsworthy, emerging from the shade of the trees, one sees on the hill a gigantic bronze temple bell from which is suspended as a clapper (but below the rim of the bell to make it wholly-visible) a life-sized sculpture of the artist in gold leaf.  The manner in which this literally binds the artist to his cultural and religious tradition is profound.  But it took me a moment.  To an American observer, it bore at first a disturbing resemblance to a lynching.  But art, if nothing else, allows us access to other cultures in a manner both intellectual and visceral, and my first reaction gave way to appreciative wonderment.  Zhang creates, among other things, intentional ruins, as the outstretched copper-clad  arm of a Buddha statute beckoning in the grass called.  And he plays with tradition, as his Three-Legged Buddha, disembodied head in the grass below the tripod of legs,  led me to think about the adaptability of tradition.  Inside the small, Dutch-stone museum, was a video of Zhang, both engaged in his performance art and talking about his work, as well as several smaller pieces constructed of the ash from temple incense.  The Zhang exhibition runs only through November.  See it.

Departing the mountain, the contrast of the view into the valley (to dignify it) of Woodbury Commons Outlet Mall was more than a little striking.  Just a few miles south of an experience so profound as to be religious is the other side of us.  Lest you think I’m snobby, I would have stopped to shop — honest — but the crowds were overwhelming.  I was happier letting the Storm King experience slowly penetrate.  I can’t wait to go back.

Lawrence Mitchell

Infinite Jest (or, the howling fantods)

Those of you who are regular visitors to this space have seen me mention David Foster Wallace several times.  Wallace was, to my mind, one of the finest writers of non-fiction prose the English language ever has produced, as well as a man of almost unbearable sensitivity and insight.  I just finished reading his magnum opus, the novel Infinite Jest.  It is, simply put, one of the five or so best novels I have ever read.  Thus it is that I feel impelled to share.

Let me start by saying that I can’t remember ever having read a novel I wanted to reread immediately upon finishing.  And at almost 1,000 pages and 400 footnotes, this is quite a read.  But the minute I closed the book I missed Don Gately, Hal, Pemulis, Madame Psychosis, and even Orin.  Some of the screwiest people ever to grace pages since Faulkner put down his pen had become my friends.

The plot is silly, bordering on ridiculous.  Most of the action takes place in the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, at a time when corporate sponsorship of time eliminated numbers.  It involves the struggle between O.N.A.N. (the Organization of North American Nations), led by United States President and former Las Vegas crooner, clean-freak Johnny Gentle, against Quebecois terrorists, represented by the Wheelchair Assassins (Les Assassins des Fauteuils Rollents — and I won’t reveal how they got that way) to find the master tape of the last film produced by one James Orin Incandenza, an auteur of dubious talents.  The film, Infinite Jest, is evidently so transcendentally entertaining that viewers cannot tear their gaze away — resulting eventually in starvation and death.  The Quebecois are rather upset that, in forming O.N.A.N, the United States “gave” Quebec most of New England north of the Boston area (in which most of the action takes place), the “Great Concavity,” into which immense quantities of American waste are catapulted daily and is now overrun by extraordinary forests and human-sized hamsters.  The A.F.R. hopes to use the film as a terrorist weapon against the United States to retrieve their trashless sovereignty, and against O.N.A.N to achieve separation from Canada.

The plot is merely a vehicle.  And it almost has to be silly.  Because the real story is in the characters. And every one of the principal characters (except for the very disabled Mario) lives in such excruciating pain that a serious plot would make the book almost unbearable. I know, this really makes it sound like the book is no fun.  That would be the wrong conclusion.  While there is something at which to wince on almost every page, DFW’s extraordinary sense of humor, as well as his light, inviting, conversational style, make it bearable.  Not only bearable, but irresistible.  I’m not the kind of person who likes to stare at train wrecks.  Quite the opposite – I can’t even watch violent movies.  But I really couldn’t put the book down, no more so than in some of the most horrific scenes.

The cast of characters is enormous and each, no matter how minor, is beautifully drawn.  The principal characters are: Hal Incandenza who is, for want of a better candidate, the protagonist.  Hal is a brilliant polymath and rising tennis star, enrolled in the Enfield Tennis Academy which was founded by his late father, the aforementioned James Orin Incandenza, Himself (for that is the way he is referred to by his children) a prodigy whose pre-auteur specialty was lenses, and a failed tennis star.  Don Gately is a recovering addict who is on staff at the Ennet House Drug and Alcohol Recovery House (redundancy in the original), just down the hill from ETA.  Joelle van Dyne, a/k/a/ P.G.O.A.T (the Prettiest Girl of All Time), a/k/a Madame Psychosis (an obvious play on metempsychosis — is it any wonder that I kept comparing this book to Ulysses as I read?) comes to reside at Ennet House after a suicide attempt through overdose.  Joelle was the only true love of Orin Incandenza (Hal’s brother and a journeyman tennis player turned punter for the Arizona Cardinals) and the amanuensis of James Orin Incandenza (Himself), as well as a sometime star in his movies (including Infinite Jest).  Hugh/Helen Steeply, the poorly cross-dressed investigative agent from the U.S. Office of Unspecified Services, and Remy Marathe, a member of A.F.R and a quadruple agent (ultimately working for the U.S. in order to obtain  the money for treatments for his wife who is missing a skull) play the central role in moving along the plot as the search for Infinite Jest (referred to primarily as “the Entertainment”) progresses.

I mentioned pain.  It is, throughout the book, both physical and emotional.  Almost everybody is addicted to something.  And almost everybody is trying to beat their respective addictions. As the plot moves closer to the discovery (or not) of the Entertainment, so Hal and Gately are drawn closer — figuratively and literally, intermediated in part by the Wraith (the shade of Himself) .  It is not evident until relatively close to the end, but Hal and Gately  are parallel characters and, by the end, Gately’s almost unendurable physical pain is matched by Hal’s increasing emotional pain.  Yet, for both, the almost maddeningly inconclusive end promises each a sort of redemption.  Life is mindless, almost unendurable suffering, Wallace tells us, but redemption is possible for those who seek it.

Wallace’s intelligence and knowledge are prodigious, as is evident in his descriptions of the tennis academy,  the pharmacology of narcotics, their effects, and the symptoms of their withdrawal, his understanding of game theory, the choreography of fist fights, and so much more.  His imagination is remarkable and extraordinarily detailed.  The game of Eschaton is almost excruciating in the complexity of its presentation, as the game that creates members of A.F.R. is simple, bizarre, and utterly believable.  And his knowledge and use of the English language?  As someone who was taunted as a child due, in part, to an unusually broad vocabulary, I have to confess to having to look up words almost on every page.  But the prose is lapidary.  Even the Faulknerian sentences are honed just-so.  It is magnificent to read.

I have never seen the work of any artist who makes the pain of living so much fun.  And yet.  There is a special poignancy in reading this book, knowing that its author, in his own words, “eliminated his own map” in 2008.  For, with that knowledge, one can see why DFW killed himself as one reads Infinite Jest.  It is hard to imagine going through life with such an unblinking appreciation of the human condition, even one as leavened by humor as was Wallace’s, without something snapping.  It is a very sad loss for all of us.  As it is, Infinite Jest is, to my mind, our generation’s equivalent of Ulysses.  That would be enough for anybody.  But one can only imagine what he might have written had he survived.

Read it.  You’ll thank me.

Lawrence Mitchell

Get on the Bus

So, I’m a train guy.  I’ve always loved trains. I’ve studied railroad history. I can tell you all about the great railroad men of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  And, as an East Coaster for almost all of my life, I have more than a passing familiarity with Amtrak,  a perfectly lovely way to travel between Washington and Boston.

Other people seem to think so, too.  So Amtrak, despite its government subsidy (or perhaps because it is insufficient), has become rather expensive, especially if you, like I, travel frequently up and down the line.  I do not own a car (a fact about which I am almost deliriously happy), so driving is not an option.  And flying is also expensive and, when you consider airport transports and waiting time, a real pain in the tuchus.  So Amtrak it was.

Until.  The Megabus!  Now, I know I’m a bit slow on the uptake, and the Megabus (and Bolt bus, heirs both to the popular Chinatown bus) have been around for a while.  But I emphatically am not — or, rather make that, was not — a bus guy.  Leaving aside bad memories of the Port Authority in the old days, the image of Buddy Ebsen, hayseed-resplendent, sadly pulling out of said Port Authority on a Greyhound, and some olfactomemories of the rancid diesel smell, buses were out of the question.

That is, until my dad — a man who has not been known to set foot on public transportation since the Dodgers played in Brooklyn — suggested the bus one day when I was kvetching about Amtrak prices.  (My dad, probably like yours, is very good at suggesting that you do things he would never do himself. But that doesn’t always mean he’s wrong.)  He’d seen the buses too — specifically, the come-on ads that suggest you can get a ticket for a dollar. ( I suppose some people do, booking two years in advance.)  But, I figured, what the heck, nothing to lose, so I did some investigating (consisting of looking at the Megabus website, which is everything you’d expect from a cheap-bus company).

I know.  You get what you pay for.  But — holy herring — twenty dollars from New York to DC?!?!?!?!  In only four scheduled hours? (The word “scheduled” is, as you may have surmised, about to become important.)  Free WiFi?  How could I not?  And so I did.

At first, everything was fine.  My first trip went as scheduled.  And the second.  And the third.  I was able to travel at hours between rush, so traffic wasn’t a significant impediment.  The bus is comfortable enough for a four hour ride (although I wouldn’t want Doc Golightly’s trip between NY and Arkansas).  The WiFi stinks, but there’s always data and, in a pinch, iTunes.  And books.  The biggest setback is that you congregate midtown hard by 12th Avenue next to adjacent Halal guys.  This is fine in good weather (leaving aside the fact that you wind up smelling a bit like shawarma), but, when it’s cold or rainy, you begin to miss the Port Authority.  (That must be part of the price difference, by the way.  Bolt, owned by Greyhound, sometimes uses Greyhound buses. They must charge something like landing fees at the PA that drive up the price of departing under shelter.)

And bus people are nice.  Everybody knows that space is tight.  Overhead storage is minimal on Bolt (and non-existent on Megabus).  Sometimes the outlets are loose and your plug keeps dropping into your neighbor’s lap.  Trash receptacles miraculously appear only on arrival.  But everybody gets it.  We all understand these features. I have yet to meet on the bus the equivalent of the guy who hogs the armrest on a plane. Very rarely are there loud talkers whose life narratives shatter the peaceful hum of the motor, who drive the happy few to the sanctity of the Quiet Car on Amtrak.  OK, so the toilet is disgusting about 30 minutes out. But it’s a bus, people.  Stability is minimal, even if your natural aim is better than that of a 57 year old man.  We do the best we can. And so everybody settles in, smiling at one another, content in the knowledge that their trips are cheaper than walking.  And that is enough.

And yet.  Before going on, let me note that a bus breakdown is radically less consequential than breakdowns of other forms of transportation, say, airplanes for example?  On the other hand, one suspects that, precisely because of this fact, maintenance is not quite at the same level.  Like the airlines, though, these buses appear to operate on a just-in-time principle.  If the bus you are expecting is late, you’re going to wait.  And there are no bars or lounges in which to hang out.  If a bus breaks down en route — well, that is another story.

For that is just what happened on Friday the thirteenth.  It was a rainy day.  I had walked down to W. 34th from W. 60th because I knew it was the only exercise I’d have all day.  I was wet.  My luggage was soaked. I arrived early, but the line was long.  And wet.  Now, the absence of a terminal means that one waits for and boards the bus in something like slightly organized chaos.  The bus fare may be cheap.  But this is big business.  Buses to Boston, Providence, Philadelphia, Delaware, Baltimore, Washington — and points west. Rochester (yes, there evidently are enough people traveling between NY and Rochester to justify a regular bus), etc.  All squeezed into about half a block.

Anyway, I digress.  The 11:30 to DC left 15 minutes late. Not terrible. You’d celebrate an airline that did that on a regular basis.  And we were cruising. No traffic.  Once through the Lincoln Tunnel, I hefted my copy of Infinite Jest onto my lap, determined to finish it over the weekend.  (I did.  It’s just stunningly brilliant.)  By the time I looked up, we were passing the exit for Camden.  Not bad at all.  “Counting the cars on the New Jersey Turnpike.” Delaware Bay out of the corner of my eye.  Still cruising at the beginning of the JFK Highway portion of I-95, usually a real trouble spot. I checked the time — spot on schedule.  And then.

We began to slow.  I looked up.  We had exited the highway.  It’s hard to see much from the back of the bus but a moment later I realized we were at the Maryland Inspection Station.  I had seen trucks pull up there before on drives, but never been in a situation where I had done so myself.

The bus was silent. And then, a voice.  “Pull over this way, around the back.”  Uh oh.  The driver did as she was asked.  Into a hangar-like garage we pulled. And stopped. The silence roared.  Not even the usual conversation among people in such situations as to what was happening.  And then:  “You can’t drive this bus.”

Yikes.  We were in the middle of Maryland.

Now people started talking.  I love listening in these kinds of situations.  It’s kind of like the Olympics.  Just as, during every quadrennial contest, people who have never seen snow become experts on the luge, so in situations like these expertise is automatic.  Everybody, it seems, understands the mechanics of a bus.  Some people are more adept at expostulating  what they know the company will do.  Others, on alternative ways out.  The truth is that nobody — not even the driver — had a clue as to what was going to happen.

Order out of chaos is the progression of science and mankind.  Not so, bus lines.  As it turns out, the nice Maryland State Trooper escorted our undriveable bus the five miles down to the Maryland House rest stop.  Who knew that the inspection station and rest stop were in such close proximity?  Any conspiracy theorists want to speculate on the relationship between the Maryland government and Nathan’s?  When we arrived, the driver cheerfully told us we were free to go inside.  And then what?  She had no clue.  What if a bus came to pick us up?  We’ll get you.  How?  No clue.  Is there a place you want us to meet?  No.  When is another bus coming?  I don’t know.

All-righty then.  I went inside to get something to drink and sat down.  And then, fear of being left behind overcame me.  I went back to the bus.  A few people remained. Still no information.  I picked up my book, but for some reason had lost my attention span.  I had an appointment in DC at 4:30 and, here it was 3 pm, at least 90 minutes out.  Not going to happen.  My 8 o’clock dinner reservation (which eventually became 9 o’clock) was in jeopardy.

But a funny thing happened as others began to trickle back.  Nothing.  Nobody was especially annoyed — not even me.  I had a very long conversation with a lovely young woman.  Others around us were getting to know one another.  We were told that each bus coming down the ‘pike would stop and board us to take their empty seats.  Fears of Lord of the Flies abated as we mutually realized that, however those seats were allocated, it would be fair and fine.  (In the event we never were tested since no passing bus – and we could see them go by — managed to stop.)

Close to four hours later, a cheer went up as the rescue bus that had been dispatched from DC arrived.  Calmly, orderly, we boarded.  And then, just as cheerfully as we had waited, we rode to DC.  The bus was more conversational this time, with new acquaintances continuing their conversations.  Arriving in DC more than four hours late, I was almost disappointed.

Disappointed, because I had learned something nice.  It’s something I’ve always known, and hoped, but something I see less than I would like.  People are basically decent.  I’ve had the misfortune of dealing with some pretty nasty people, as I’m sure you all have.  But, when push comes to shove, most of humanity accepts its lot with good grace, optimism, and even charm.  At least the most of humanity that rides the bus. (I could tell you tales of the tantrums of some of those denied United upgrades to First Class, but that is for a different day.)  Nobody complained.  Nobody blamed the driver. Nobody lost their cool.  It was more like a picnic in a parking lot. True, a broken-down bus isn’t a tragedy, but everybody handled our small adversity in the most admirable fashion.  So if you want to see how people really are, get on the bus.

Lawrence Mitchell

Wringing Music from the Stars

Among the more delightful dimensions of returning home is the opportunity to renew old friendships.  Some have, like me, experienced their own odysseys and returned safely to New York.  Others have never left.  But distance, time, and the peculiar responsibilities of life challenge all but the very most intimate of friendships.  Proximity facilitates.

Among the people with whom I’ve had the pleasure of reconnecting is a very dear friend whom I have seen but rarely over the years.  I’ve known Bruce Lazarus since we were about six years old.  That’s a long time.  Only my wonderful friend Phil is of similar vintage.

Bruce is a warm, sweet, funny, and very smart guy.  All of this is clear in his music.  Bruce, you see, is a composer.  He is also a pianist of enormous talent.  I have to confess that, much as I like Bruce, I was a bit jealous in high school.  My pianistic technique could not compare with his.  But envy is a sentiment of the young.  It rather easily transforms into admiration.  I admire his talent the way I do that of writers like Robert Caro and David Foster Wallace.  No matter how good I might become, I will never be that good.  Nobody is.  So let’s call it the admiration of a journeyman for an artist.

Part of resuming friendship with Bruce is, for me, the opportunity to catch up on his music. You may want to, as well.  I’m linking to his website here.  In fact, let me recommend highly that you do.  Bruce’s music is extraordinary.

Last month I was privileged to be present at the world premier of selections from Bruce’s song cycle setting the poetry of Lewis Carroll.  The music was pure delight.  Its humor honored Carroll’s quite well.  There were moments of deep poignancy, revealing pain beneath the laughter.  There was energy and intelligence. And fun.

But  I’ve been listening over the past few weeks to one of Bruce’s major compositions. Messier Catalogue of Star Clusters and Nebulae is Bruce’s setting for piano of selections from the catalogue compiled by Messier in the late 18th century.  According to Bruce, his inspiration was a series of photographs taken with the Hubble telescope (as well as his life-long interest in astronomy.  Bruce and Phil shared this interest seriously.  I was a curious camp follower.)

No surprise to me, the music is wonderful (and Bruce’s playing is about as authoritative as it gets).  I don’t have the vocabulary to do it justice, but I’d like to tell you a bit about it in words that can only convey impressions.  (For those who want Bruce’s own description of the piece, click here.  I haven’t read it yet because I wanted to describe the music in my own way, uninfluenced by the guy that wrote it.  How postmodern of me!)

The piece consists of 14 separate portrayals of specific entries in the Messier catalogue.  They run from about a minute and a half (the shortest) to almost four minutes (the longest), but average about 3 minutes each.

It opens with the “Sombrero” Galaxy.  There is an immediate shimmer in the music with an insistent pulse.  The virtuosity required to coax such ephemeral sounds from the piano is remarkable, and of course Bruce has it. Just as you’re entranced by the dazzling light, the music pauses briefly for a passing lyric, before resuming a declining shimmer into darkness,  rising again, more mysteriously, more distantly, slowing thoughtfully, contemplatively, reluctantly resolving.  It’s quite a start.

Each of the phenomena depicted seems to have its own personality.  By the time we get to the “Crab” Nebula — “Expanding Remnant from Exploded Star,” it is aggressive, brooding, angry.  A little frightening.  Or so it was to me.

What astonishes is Bruce’s ability to create musical geometry.  The striking patterns of the “Ring Nebula” are almost visual in quality.  “The Pleidaes” literally climb.

I was particularly taken with the Andromeda galaxy. It is often steadily rhythmic, with simple melodies repeating over complex harmonies. Bruce uses repetition to transfixing effect.  Like some glorious pattern of light from which you cannot remove your gaze, you are drawn ever more intensely into the swirl.

Bruce’s music is controlled passion, while at the same time deeply intellectual.  You can hear him think, and he makes you think.  But sometimes he achieves levels of sensuality all the more surprising for their departure from the insistent structures.  The “Sunflower Galaxy” is where this happened for me.  Unexpectedly,  he introduces fleeting measures of gorgeous, sumptuous harmony, almost lounge-y in a way, even a bit  transgressive.  There is an intimacy that intertwines the listener with the galaxy, an intimacy that interrupts the posture of observer in which you are cast by most of the music to, almost, the embrace of lover.  But, like the embrace of lovers, it is fleeting, and you are soon hurled back to earth.

I’m getting carried away, so I’ll skip to the last portrait, “Globular Cluster in Hercules.”  Really, “globular” is not a word that, to me, promises beauty.  But what is a name?  We are treated to virtuosic skipping scales and chords. Frankly, I’m not at all sure how he can play them.  The piece begins with a strong directional pull upward, but Bruce is a bit of a tease.  Even as the music climbs, he periodically and rather abruptly pulls you back, keeping you on edge.  The rhythms and the almost quirky interruptions in this selection reminded me very much of Robert Schumann (and, more specifically, Carnival).  Bruce stands on his own, and doesn’t need comparisons with other composers, but Carnival is one of maybe my five favorite pieces to play (when I’m in shape enough to play it), precisely because of these qualities.  So I mean only the very highest praise.

The piece works wonderfully on piano and, as I’m sure Bruce intended, shows off the pianist’s virtuosity and range.  But toward the end I couldn’t help but wonder how, were Ravel alive, it could orchestrate.  I suspect wonderfully well.  (OK, so I started orchestrating it a bit in my head.)  But no matter.  My friend Bruce is a huge talent.  Listen to his music. He’s also a great friend.  I’m glad to be back.

Lawrence Mitchell



Crying Over Spilt Borscht

As you know from previous entries, Jewish history and culture are among my interests.  Thus it was that, Saturday morning, I was train-bound for Tarrytown, New York.  There I was met by my dear and erstwhile friend to whom, for purposes of this essay and in tribute to the late, great David Foster Wallace, I shall refer as Native Companion.  For Native Companion had been raised in Liberty, Sullivan County, New York, in a Brigadoon that was known in its day as the Borscht Belt.  Better yet, Native Companion is herself Borscht Royalty.  A relative of fairly close consanguinity owned one of the great hotels, and employed her father and, later, her.  (Come to think of it, she bears more than a passing resemblance to Jennifer Grey.)  So, while not on the level of a duchess, she occupies a rung somewhat higher than a provincial peerage. In any event, her life and upbringing creates in her some of the embodied history of that storied place.  She’s also got some great stories.

My family wasn’t especially borscht.  I am fourth generation American which, by Eastern European Jewish standards, makes me eligible for membership in the Mayflower Society.  (Or at least the Sons of Flatbush.) By my parents’ generation, although we were reasonably observant as far as Reform Jews went and culturally quite Jewish in a New York sort of way, we were also pretty well assimilated.  Even my grandparents were well on the way to Americanism.  That said, my mom’s parents had a bit more of the borscht in them than my dad’s, and were habitués of the Homowack hotel in Ellenville.  They were kind enough to bring me with them on a couple of occasions.  It was a treat I remember well

Nonetheless, Native Companion had it all over me. As we followed the rising sun into the beautiful Catskill mountains, she fairly kvelled.  And kvell she should; it was truly beautiful, and she was home.  Ellenville,  South Fallsburg, Kiamesha, Loch Sheldrake, Liberty.  The Homowack, the Raleigh, the Concord, Brown’s, Grossinger’s.  The names resound with the echo of tumult, raucous dining rooms, and raunchy comics.  I was thrilled to be there.

And then. Grossinger’s. Peaking proudly above the hill, just as it always did.  Up we drove.  Approaching the unmanned gate, we saw the mass of a sprawling, burned-out hulk. Acres of ruins.  I understand precisely what it must have felt like for a middle class Roman, circa 480 or so, to go back for a visit.  Chain-link fencing surrounding the property (which was better than the Paramount in Parksville which is equally a wreck and wholly unguarded).  Overgrown everything.  Trash everywhere.  What a change from the era in which these institutions competed to have the most modern and up-to-date facilities, the cleanest and most beautiful properties.  What a change from an era in which the hills echoed with the sounds of Saturday lunch.  (Dairy because it required no cooking on Shabbos– bagels, lox, fish — fantastic).

It’s easy to make fun of the Catskills.  And, as recently as at last night’s Tony Awards, people have.   There was, after all, a vulgarity about the massive and constant quantities of food, the inactivity between meals of the patrons lounging amid unused recreational facilities, the acts in the nightclubs which could range from the extraordinary to the simply crude  (coexisting in brilliant balance in Buddy Hackett).

But the Borscht Belt mattered.  It mattered for several reasons.  First, it gave New York Jews of the 1940s, 50s, and 60s, a place to go.  They weren’t welcome at gentile resorts.  This was the era of the gentlemen’s agreement, when  towns like Bronxville still maintained restrictive covenants in deeds, when young Jews graduating from law school could find work in only a handful of firms, and young engineers — forget it.  These were places were Jews could go and be embraced, comfortable within themselves. And the kosher menus meant that Jews of all levels of observance would be accommodated.

Second, it was a place where middle class Jews could go.  These resorts were not expensive.  Their all-inclusive nature meant that families of modest means could spend time there without worrying about racking up an unexpected and unaffordable bill. And they were close to New York.  Transportation was cheap, and families could stay throughout the week with dads coming up on weekends.

Third, they provided their guests, many of whom had only recently entered the middle class, with a patina of sophistication.  I will never forget the thrill I experienced at the childrens’ “cocktail party” at the Homowack, when I was given a ruby Shirley Temple in a highball glass glistening with ice, with a huge, multicolored paper fan sticking out.  (I’m not even mentioning the pigs in blankets or little eggrolls, which will lead me to crash the next bar mitzvah I can find!)  Menus were written creatively to rename ordinary dishes in European style.  The modernist architecture of many of the hotels conveyed its own sort of sophistication.

Fourth, they were safe.  They were in the country, the properties were self-contained, and there were plenty of activities for kids, who could roam at will.  Finally, they were places where hard-working balabustas could leave the kitchen and relax, where women whose role in life was to take care of everybody else could, for a time, be taken care of by others.

There are many reasons why the hotels finally failed, but I’ll mention just a few.  First, by the 1970s, and certainly by the 1980s, gentile resorts could no longer afford to exclude Jews.  We had very solidly entered the middle class, and had become as prolific consumers as everybody else.  Second, as Jews increasingly assimilated, the attraction of kosher resorts diminished.  Third, options increased,  Atlantic City opened.  Resorts developed in the Poconos.  Air travel and cruises became more affordable.  And, like all Americans, middle class Jews were anxious to see their own country and the world.

My reaction in the mountains on Saturday was one of deep sadness.  On reflection, I think that was the wrong reaction.  Sure, nostalgia for one’s youth, for loved ones who are gone, for a culture that was very special and specific to time and place, tugs at the heart.  And it is sad that the properties clearly haven’t sold or, if they have, the buyers have not seen the economic viability of tearing down buildings and developing alternatives.  Saddest of all is to drive through the towns and see once prosperous middle class houses owned by the hotel workers and the professionals who served them sitting as wrecks only slightly better than the hotels themselves, to see already small houses subdivided into apartments, to see the economic devastation of a region that politics has prevented from prospering.

But for the story of the Jews, sadness is misplaced.  The hotels are gone, largely because we have succeeded.  We have entered the mainstream, become American, have been accepted as American.  (I want to be very cautious here because we all know that anti-Semitism is alive and well and on the rise, but I am writing here in relative terms).  The story of the fall of the Borscht Belt is the story of the thriving of the Jews.  I’ll take the trade.

Lawrence Mitchell