Thursday, December 30, 2010

New York Postcards, #4 -- The Empire State Building Sucks

Is it awesome? (And please, I've spoken before of the use of the word Awesome. I intend its use as the Lord our God intended it to be used - a feeling of reverence produced by the sublime. Your '63 Chevy is not awesome. Nor is Lady Gaga.)

So - is the Empire State Building awesome? Sure. The world's tallest building for forty years - not a record that'll be broken. Tallest until the North Tower of the World Trade Center was finished in 1972. Tallest again in New York after September 11th, 2001.

Awesome not just because of its height, but because of its design - back when builders actually cared about design. Beautiful, yes, awe inspiring, yes, a marvel? Truly.

Just don't try to get to the observation decks.

Karen and I had a few hours to kill on our Saturday in New York, so we decided to be tourists and do the most touristy thing we could think of.

Top of the Empire State.

What the authorities don't tell you, on a beautiful Saturday in New York, is that it's going to take about four hours total to enjoy the view. 240 minutes. 220 of those minutes will be spent in line. After line. After line.

At least Disneyland has the courtesy to have those stupid little signs acknowledging that you have to wait.


Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage - Wait time - 120 minutes from this point!

I'm here to tell you, if we had seen a sign that said:

Observation Deck - Wait time - 220 minutes!

...we would not. Have waited. Of course, that's probably why the Powers That Be don't inform you of the stupid wait. In New York, there's always something else to do, so you'd do that. Something else. And not waste more than three hours for a glimpse of the stupid view.

Ok, the view's not stupid. Still. Three and a half hours? Are you kidding?

The only funny bit was the dad ahead of us in line. The way they work it, you think you're getting to the end of the line, when you turn a corner - more line! Or you get to a door, open it - more line! Elevator, in, out - more line! So this poor guy is in line with his two girls, and he's gotta use the bathroom. He figures, I've been in this fucking line for three hours, we ain't moving, I'm just gonna go pee. What could happen?

What could happen is this. Some freak in an ape suit could choose the exact moment that the bathroom door closes behind the dad to leap out and terrorize the crowd. He could beat his hairy King-Kong chest and roar like only a freak in an ape suit can roar. His rampage will cause the youngest of the two girls, the girls now alone, without their dad - he's in the crapper - Kong's frenzy will make the youngest of the girls scream in terror. Scream and cry, loud and long. She'll be screaming so loud and long that I, thinking about my own two little girls, will be tempted to cut through the line and offer succor to the wee thing.

Just before I make the move to try and stem her crying jag, the dad emerges, wiping his hands on his jean jacket.  He hears her cries and looks up. For a moment, he thinks - that's not my daughter. Can't be. But then panic sets in - he walks faster, starts to rush.  The crowd of us lets him know - yes, that is your daughter and where the hell have you been?

We're all imagining the conversation when the dad and the girls get back to the hotel, back to the mom that has taken the afternoon to luxuriate in the bath - maybe order room service. What do you mean, the mom'll say when the story comes out, you left the girls alone, in New York? Are you crazy? I knew I shouldn't have stayed behind, I knew it.

For the rest of us, at least, that drama broke up the wait. I mean, we knew the little Fay Wray wasn't in harm's way - just scared out of her gourd without her father to protect her, is all.

Anyway.  There's my memory of the Empire State Building.  And yes, the sight from the deck is breathtaking. Where else can you see five states at once? And our day was clear and bright. The Chrysler Building, from above? And the Flatiron? The Hudson River, the East? Brooklyn, New Jersey, Central Park? Amazing, yes, seen from so far above.

Karen's hair, blowing in the wind, the wind skirting across the top of the world.  That's my other memory.

But 220 minutes in line when you could be out in Central Park? Or Brooklyn?  C'mon.  You're with me, right?  You want a slice of John's Pizza more than you want to read about the Building's energy efficiency retrofit project while you inch through that line, right?  C'mon, right?


Saturday, December 25, 2010

And Silver Bells

Silver bells shouldn't make me cry.  Still, it's Christmas, so I'm allowed.

Christmas.  My mom can be a little over the top when it comes to Christmas presents.  Like on Monday, when Mr. UPS dropped a package at the store, addressed to me.  There was no indication of who had sent it, but since my mom had posted a similarly unmarked package last week - that one contained three boxes of candy canes and two huge nutcrackers, for the girls - my guess was that the three-foot tall Santa with his full and fluffy beard probably came from the same source.

Christmas.  This would have been the 49th that my parents spent together.  They got married in '62.  Their marriage was pretty typical for a couple from that generation.  You're watching Mad Men, yes?  Well, their union, my mom and dad's, didn't have that kind of glitz, but the gender roles?  Similar.  My mom stayed home, did everything that entailed, while my dad worked - a lot.  They were comfortable with their tasks.  And after forty-eight years, the comfort that one finds in the commonplace can often be taken for granted.

My dad never took my mom for granted.

But - there were things my mom handled, and both she and he understood and accepted this.  Christmas presents?  Definitely my mom's purview.  He may have had input over the years - the Daisy BB gun I got, circa 1976?  Maybe he had some say.  But the year in, year out?

Thanks for all of that, Mom.  Thanks.

A funny thing happened, though, when Karen and I were lucky enough to welcome Elizabeth into our lives.  That first Christmas, my dad decided he wanted to get her a Christmas present.  Something just from him to her.  My mom tells me she had no input on this.  He wanted it to be his gift.

My dad, with my daughter?

My parents were married in 1962, I said that, right?  Different times, different roles.  My mom did so much of the baby stuff, so much of the holding and feeding and clothing.  My dad was a dad of his time - so the baby stuff?  Not his bailiwick.  But when Elizabeth came along?  That first time I got fussed when my folks were over and I handed Elizabeth to him, without warning?  My dad sat there, holding her, holding his first granddaughter.  Worried there at the start - but quickly just smiling, just holding her gentle.

I think my dad loved being a grandfather because he got to experience babies for the first time, in a lot of ways, even though he helped raise three boys. 

Loved being a grandfather to Elizabeth.  Then Elizabeth and Kristina.  And then Eleni, my niece.

But that first year, that first Christmas, he thought about what he could give Elizabeth - and my dad came up with a Silver Bell.  This was so unlike him.  How did he decide on a Silver Bell?  My dad, so tall, and with his big hands, his hands - those hands, at least - his hands at least better suited to the coal mines my grandfather worked, his hands at least better suited there than the pharmacies he would grace.  And here was my big, Greek dad, picking out a Silver Bell?  Such a little thing in his hands, such a pretty, little, tinkly thing.

My dad had the Bell engraved.  One side read:


And on the other side:

From Papou

It was just splendid.  He was so pleased with the gift, with something just from him, just to her.

My dad would do this every year.  For Elizabeth - then Kristina, too.  And last year, when Eleni arrived, then also for her, for my beautiful niece.

So Eleni received a bell from her Papou - and this is important, so important, because the bells from my dad in 2009 - those would be the last bells he would gift to his grandchildren.

This year, when it was time to unwrap all the decorations, when the halls of our house needed to be decked - so many boxes, so many bags.  I love unwrapping the crinkly paper from each treasure.  The angel I got Karen in 1988.  The Scandinavian Star treetopper that we found in Booneville in 1989, the year before we married.

The Star is there now, as it's been every year, looking down on me as I write.

And then, this year, unwrapping the first Silver Bell. 

From Papou

Unwrapping the Bell.  Holding it, so cool in my hand.  Hearing its sweet tinkle as I placed it on the mantle.  Placing it there, in front of the antique clock, the clock that belonged to Karen's grandparents.

Crying, a little bit.  Sure.  Yes.  A little bit.

We had my family over to our house yesterday, for Christmas Eve.  Our first without Papou Tony.  And in spite of that, we had a lovely, sweet time.  Somber, fleetingly somber - I couldn't quite make it through saying grace, not quite, but still, a sweet time with everyone.  With my brother George, and his wife, Karna.  Dean, the youngest brother of we three, and his wife, Laura - and little Eleni.  Connie and Gordon - Connie godmother to Kristina.  Kristine came up - Karen's sister Kristine.  What would we have done yesterday without Kristine?  And my mom.  My mom, of course.

I made drinks - it's been a year since I made Aviations.  You should have one right now.  Trust me.


3 parts Hendrick's Gin.
1 part lemon juice.
1 part Maraschino Liqueur
1 part Creme de Violette.

Shake with cracked ice, pour into chilled glass.  Serve with Luxardo Maraschino cherries.  Two cherries, at least - maybe three - because they're so good.

We all visited, and drank, and ate.  Opened presents.  Near the end of the presents, my mom hands me an envelope addressed to her granddaughters - an envelope and three gift-wrapped boxes.  The envelope contained a note, and in the note, my mom wrote about Papou's bells:

December 23, 2010

My dear Elizabeth, Kristina and baby Eleni.

The year 2004.  When Elizabeth was born.  Papou Tony for Christmas wanted to give Elizabeth a silver bell with her name on it.

To Elizabeth
From Papou

He said, I will do this every Christmas so she can get many bells.

2007 Kristina came.

So he did the same.

To Kristina
From Papou

2009, Baby Eleni came.

So he did the same.  A silver bell, to Eleni.  From Papou.  2009.

He said they are so beautiful and bright, I hope their future will be as bright as these silver bells.  Annio, please keep doing that for me.

So my dear ones, I will as long as I am here.  I hope when you get older and understand, please remember your Papou Tony.  Because he loved you all very much.

I love you, too.  God bless you and Merry Christmas.

--YiaYia Anna

So the three girls received three more Silver Bells.  Elizabeth and Kristina, their Bells are on the mantle with the others.  Beautiful and bright, yes.

Beautiful and bright.

I hope you have a wonderful day - and even if your day doesn't involve Christmas, I hope it involves family and friends.  Or thoughts of family and friends.  Today's a hard one for me, hard but beautiful, too.  I'm lucky to have Karen, and my girls.  The friends and family we saw yesterday, the friends and family we'll see later today, in the Valley.

Take a moment, please take a moment and remember.  Remember - and wish family and friends, past and present, wish them well.

I love you, Mom.  I love you, Dad.

Merry Christmas.

Friday, December 24, 2010


Yesterday was Duane's last at the bookstore.  Good for him, bad for me.  He came back to Ye Olde Bookshoppe last December - to help out during the holidays.  Much to my pleasure, he stayed.  And stayed.  Working odd hours, bringing his strong presence through the doors marked 1344.  But, yes, all good things must come to end, and Duane's tenure here is one of those.

It's hectic in the Shoppe this week - not as hectic as it could be, but beggars can't choose - when we chose to do the little going-away thing for Duane.  The card, the cake, the stirring testimonials.

Well, I strove for stirring.

Do you like cake?  I do.  I mean, I prefer pie, but for going-away things?  Gotta go cake.  Cakes can be delicious, or dry.  They can be beautiful, and sometimes - not so much.  For the not-so-much, you should visit here, and you'll also be saying Oh, the wrecks!.  Cakewrecks, that glorious site, also does a calendar, and this time of year we sell lots of calendars, so I've been looking at Cakewrecks a lot, so for Duane's cake, I basically ripped off Cakewrecks.  I got Duane a cake, indeed I did, but it was so hard to know what to have written atop the chocolate sheet.  In the end, I told the baker that I wanted nothing on top of the cake.

She obliged, as you can see below.

So we ate the cake, stirringly testified, and did all this at the front of the store, not in back where we usually stir.  Too busy yesterday to get everyone off the floor, and I figured it'd be fun to sing Duane's praises in front of customers who have enjoyed working with him.

Quickly, though, we got back to selling and wrapping.  Quickly, the cake had been nibbled enough that it was time to get it into the back room.  It was just me and Samm at the cashwrap, everyone else was off delivering the Autobiography of Mark Twain into happy hands.

Do you know Samm?  You should stop on by and talk to her before she heads back to New York.  Samm, like everyone here at the store, is terrific.  Just don't call her Samantha.  I think she kneecapped the last guy who did that.  But besides that?  Terrific.

So Samm's selling Cleopatra:  A life - Stacy Schiff's amazing biography - to this hipster in a cloth cap, and I pick up the sheet cake to take it into the back.  The baker packed the cake kind of strange - it lay on top of a plastic tray, and then the plastic in turn lay atop a plastic base.  But the two weren't connected, you know?  Just laying there, one on the other.  And um, well, when polymer meets polymer, things can slip and slide.

Are you paying attention?  Do you see where I'm going?

I pick up the cake, the one with nothing on it, and I turn, I turn towards Samm, Samm innocently helping the hipster buy Cleopatra.  Instantly, I feel the cake continue going right, when I've made a sharp left.  I'm going left, cake's going right.  I correct, turn my wheels into the slide, and I, for a moment, think I've averted a crisis, I can feel the slick plastic of the cake tray sliding back onto the plastic platter, but I over correct, and the plastic slides forward, forward - I'm pushing the cake on the tray, the tray I hold in my hand, I push everything forward and tilt the tray up, trying to catch the cake as it slides, trying to flip it with a twist of my wrist, trying to flip it back to safety--

And Samm and her hipster stand unaware of the drama taking place, Samm blocking the hipster's view of my contortions, my not-so-dexterous attempts at derring-do...

It keeps sliding, sliding, gaining momentum, how could it slide faster?  I'm trying to ease the slide but it keeps going faster, the chocolate a blur, the hipster saying something about Cleopatra, me saying Oh, Samm hearing my exclamation but trying to do the customer-service thing, not about to move out of the way.  Why would she do that?  The cashwrap is cramped, there's no place for her to go, and why would she go anywhere since she has no idea the cake is sliding, sliding, slipping up and over, over, I'm going this way, it's going that, this way, that...

With one last lunge I push the cake forward, fast, where it glances off Samm's elbow, smears across the back of her shirt, down, slicing down over her belt, the seat of her jeans, brown frosting in a chocolate blur over her clothes.

The hipster now jumping back, grabbing Cleopatra, dusting the crumbs off her beautiful face, Samm turning, looking down, assessing the wreckage, gasping when she sees the rest of the cake, the uneaten rest, tumbled into our recycling bin, pulling it out, freeing it from the paper and cans nestled inside.

It's still good, Samm says.  It's still good.

I'm apologizing while the hipster backs away with Cleo clutched under his arm, while our coworkers now - now - flit close like bats to a streetlight, to see what fresh hell I've wreaked.

Through it all, through the jibes and laughter, Samm maintains her equanimity.  Grace under pressure and all that.

So that's how I spent yesterday trying to say goodbye to Duane.

Goodbye Duane.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Sleigh Bells

We've been doing treasure hunts at home, the girls and I.  The hunts begin with a poem, and each stanza will have a little hint about what the treasure is and it also directs the girls to a different part of the house, where they find the next stanza - behind a vase, in the piano bench - and off they go.  The culmination is the discovery of some fabulous treasure.  At least it's fabulous if you happen to be six or three.

Past treasures have included marbles bigger than a six-year-old's fist (Karen thought that one was dangerous - the marbles have since been confiscated) shards of crystal (purple and pink and green) pretty rocks - treasures are all around, you just have to give a child a map and watch where they'll go.

So for the holidays I thought we'd hunt sleigh bells.  I'm way into sleigh bells.  They're pretty, musical, their sound is Christmas - and they can be old.  I'm also way into old things.  Old booze, old books - my house was dusty before flappers came on the scene, and I might like it most of all.

I've been looking at the bells here and what bells they have! for a few years now but have never made the plunge.  But if I was going to get a sleigh bell, or a jingle bell, or, um, wait, what's that?  You didn't know about the different types of sleigh bells to be had?

There are petal bells and Swedish bells, double throat and round ridge bells, machine stamped and shank & rivet bells.  There were British bell-makers, like Robert Wells, American bell-makers, like William Barton.  Bells of brass, bells of silver.  Bells bells their tintinnabulation is magic - but magic often begins prosaic.

Why sleigh bells in the first place?  Well, sleighs can be hard to stop, don't you know, so laws were written requiring that sleigh horses wear bells to warn one and all that Trigger was coming through.  Some of these laws still exist in Canada, which is why Canada can often be cooler than the US.

Anyway - bells, bells, I love the sound of sleigh bells.  So we're going to go exploring and scavenging on Christmas, and sleigh bells will be the treasure.

Oh, one thing I didn't tell you about sleigh bells.  Petal bells like those pictured above are easily distinguished with the circle of petals around their tops, and some petal bells are marked with numbers.  That one up there, the one on the left?  Do you see the #8 above its throat?  Most numbers ranged from #000 (for 3/4 of an inch across) to #18 (for 4 inches across).  I thought it would be fun to get the girls a petal bell numbered with their age - so I was looking for a #3 and a #6.

Is this something we could do year after year, until they're 18?  Why, I hadn't thought of that.

The gentleman at Classic Bells couldn't have been nicer - and we quickly got the order taken care of.  But then, not long after, he called back.

I have some beautifully marked #3's, he said.  And I have some really lovely #5's, and some sweet sounding #7's, and while I have some petal bells that are 6's, I don't have any that are marked with the number.

Oh, I said.  And then I got quiet.

Your girls might not even notice, he said into the silence.

Elizabeth? I'm thinking to myself.  Elizabeth would notice.

Well, I said, after I recovered, could Santa write a note and tuck it in with the bell vouching for the fact that it's a #6 even though it's not marked?

This time it was his turn to get quiet.

For about a three-count.

Yes, he finally said, yes.  Santa could write a note.

I was going to dictate a little something, but he shushed me, he shushed me and said, Don't worry, Santa will come up with a little something.

And this, really, is why I love running a small store.  Because I can be like the kind gentleman in Potsville, Iowa - you knew he lived in a place called Potsville, right?  I mean, it had to have an echo of It's a Wonderful Life, didn't it?

Of course it did.  Just like you knew that on his website, he writes, We welcome visitors in our home-based workshop, but we do not keep regular shop hours. Please contact us a few days in advance to set up a time to visit.

So I love running a small shoppe because, if someone asked me to write a note, from Santa, I could pause, consider my own daughters (as he did.  His daughters are grown now, but his pause - after I asked if Santa could write a note - his pause allowed him a moment to consider his own daughters when they were little, and so of course he answered the way he did), and with any luck, if given the opportunity to answer a question from little Virginia O'Hanlon, even if it was in my guise as the manager of a little bookstore on Park Street, with any luck, I'd reply, Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Merry Christmas.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

To understand Don't-Ask-Don't-Tell, lets look at an intolerant third-grader

At preschool pickup yesterday, Karen got to talking to one of the other moms.  This mom, like us, has an older daughter.  Hers is in third-grade, ours in first.  The third-grader's been getting teased by a boy in her class. 

Why is the daughter being teased?  Well, she has two mommies.  Ooh, shocking, I know.  In the bay area, it should be as shocking as ordering a decaf, nonfat latte - but here's this little snot-nosed third grade boy, coming onstage to show us that you don't have to be an adult to be a jerk.

One day this week, the mom was picking her daughter up from school.  The little boy decided that taunting his classmate was so easy, he'd go after the mom, too.  So he asks her, he asks - Are you gay?  And the mom says, she says - Yes.  And the boy shoots back - That's gross.

The mom is startled.  She's suffered slings and arrows, sure, but usually not from a third-grader.  She recovers fast, though, and tells him that his comment is inappropriate.  I would have told him more, but I'm Greek.  Quick to anger, right?  With any luck, though, quick also to forgive.

The mom?  Because she's nicer than I am, she leaves it at that.  And I'd leave it at that, except for a conversation Karen had with our girls.  The two-mommy thing came up, and our oldest asked for clarification.  Karen said that a classmate of our youngest indeed has two mommies.  This news caused our oldest to furrow her brow and shout out - Hey, not fair!

God, I love that kid.

Now, I'm not here to say that I'm raising my kids better than you.  I mean, I could, right?  We all think that, right?  But I won't because, Lord, the night we just had - trying to get the kids down without a torrent of tears?  It makes the truth intrude, and Dr. Spock I ain't.

And I know I can be a better dad.  I'm aware of my shortcomings (at least the really obvious ones - you can help me out with the rest).  With that said - I can't tell you how gratifying it is to know that when my daughter hears about an acquaintance with two mommies, she's all indignant at the unfair world that saddled her with only one.  Because at least, for that moment, I can remind myself that Karen and I are doing something right.

Our girls may not sit still through an entire meal at a restaurant - but you know what?  In time they'll figure out that other diners - complete strangers - do not want to have their meals interrupted by two little girls interested in practicing their cha-cha-cha.

That lesson, in the long run?  Easy to teach.  Tolerance?  Not so much.

Because I've got a little girl who thinks that two mommies is way cooler than a mommy and a boring old daddy . . . because I've got a girl who thinks that way - even though she's in close proximity to some third-grade thug who's been taught by his own daddy (or mommy, or both) that people who are different are inferior - I'm going to enjoy her for just a bit, ok?

I mean - before I begin reviewing some of my more questionable parenting tactics of the day.  But for right now?  Allow me a brief revel.  I fear that we're given so many of these brilliant moments each day - and that we don't savor them enough, and instead dwell on the negative.  Tomorrow I'll try and remind both kids how happy they make me, how I marvel at the character that each possesses.

I'll forget, of course.  I'll forget that when Karen was reading to the girls - our oldest stopped her and asked, What's a scoundrel?  And then, before Karen could answer, our three-year-old said, Um, it's a person who steals.  Right, mommy?

And though I just love that, I'll forget it.  I'll forget it the way I forget so many of the precious details that make up our lives.  But I'll try and remember, I'll try.  And the trying is enough, sometimes.

Sometimes, it's enough.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

You Never Count Your Money - Redux

When last we visited the cozy confines of Books Inc. on Park Street, I'd just been robbed.

Dirty little bugger.

And no, there weren't any guns involved, no masked marauders.  Just some insolent little wretch who pilfered a bottle of bourbon I had artfully placed amongst copies of Keith Richards' autobiography, Life.

You may go here for the rest of the story if you want:  The Art of Stealing Bourbon

At the end of that tale, I had filled a bottle of the Royal with something other than the fine Scotch Whisky that had originally found a home inside its pretty belly.

I had asked my Park Street neighbor, Barbara, (her wonderful shop is here) for advice on how to color clear fluid to replicate warm whisky, and she recommended four drops of yellow and one drop of red.  As always, Barbara was correct.

The hue I achieved, and the shiny bottle with its royal blue label?  A stunning combination if I do say so myself.

What's that?  You want to know what the clear fluid was that those drops of food coloring colored?  I'll admit to water and white vinegar.  And that's all I'll admit to.

Anyway, I leaned the doctored bottle against a stack of books.  The whisky looked right at home snuggled up next to Keith's weathered face.

After placing the bait, like any good hunter, I waited - and not for long.  The trap was set on Tuesday morning, last, and it was sprung on Sunday.  Sue and Jerry were in the blind - otherwise known as the cashwrap - and they noticed a gent in a wool cap and a thin bomber jacket who kept his back turned to them.  He was awfully interested in Keith's book, they thought.

Then, naturally, they got busy selling and gift-wrapping, and when they looked up the gent and the bottle were gone.

Well played, faceless one, well played.  I only wish I were there when you toasted yourself with your ill-gotten gains.  What do you say - drinks on you next time?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

New York Postcards, #8 -- I Read The News Today

There were two things I wanted to do for sure on my first visit to New York - Ellis Island and the Dakota.
Yeah, I know, Ellis Island is touristy.  Walking through Battery Park with thousands of people all in awful clothes, queuing up for ferries to take you to the Statue or the Island.  What can I say?  I wanted to see the station where twelve million immigrants first set foot on American soil - including my grandfather, Papou George, in 1910.  He'd arrived aboard a ship from Crete when he was 18.

And the other - the Dakota.  Where John Lennon lived.  The Upper West Side, there on the corner of 72nd and Central Park West.  I've mentioned before that John wrote the soundtrack to so many lives.  John Lennon?  The Beatles?  Are you kidding me?  It's like he and they were a fiction, like Cecil B. DeMille and Federico Fellini scripted this fabulous foursome on some fantastical weekend bender that neither would later remember.

When our trip began, I got a text from my cousin Peter - it had been six months since I'd gotten a text from Peter.  It's Lennon's birthday (he wrote) and I just realized you're in NYC.  (And also)  How cool for you that your first trip to NYC is on Lennon's birthday.  (And also)  Is it a beautiful fall day in the park?

And indeed it was a beautiful day there in the Park by the Dakota, October 9th, 2010.

John Lennon only had 40 years.  And here I am, four years older than he, with four more years than he was given.  My friend Christian put this up today WOMAN IS THE N****R OF THE WORLD and there he is, a ridiculously young Lennon reading words of support from Ron Dellums before singing for Dick Cavett.

Another friend, Randy, reminded me not long ago about that dark night in December - thirty years ago?  How can it have been thirty years?

Randy was buying the Beatles' Rock 'n Roll Music Volume 2 at the Warehouse in Modesto on December 8th, 1980.  The hippie clerk took Randy's money and then told him that Lennon had been murdered.  Are you kidding?  That's how Randy receives the news?  Along with change from his purchase of a Beatle album?

I heard it like so many others - from Howard Cosell during Monday Night Football.  The Patriots at Miami:

Remember (Cosell said) this is just a football game. No matter who wins or loses. An unspeakable tragedy confirmed to us by ABC News in New York City.  John Lennon, outside of his apartment building on the West Side of New York City.  The most famous, perhaps, of all of the Beatles.  Shot twice in the back.  Rushed to Roosevelt Hospital.  Dead on arrival.  Hard to go back to the game after that news flash.

I didn't go back to the game.  I went into my room and turned on my clock radio - first tuning in KFIV.  Switching stations through the night.  All Beatles, all John.  I'd just purchased the Red Album, was playing it pretty hard in the days and nights leading up to December 8th.  From She Loves You to Help to Norwegian Wood.  Ticket to Ride?  I love that song.  I'd been playing them all to death, now everyone else was, too.

The next morning, spray-painted on the moonrock walls of Grace Davis High School in Modesto, were the graffitied words I READ THE NEWS TODAY OH BOY.

It’s just....Lennon was important.  To me.  I was fourteen.  Do you remember how important things were when you were fourteen?  I mean, his words, yes.  The music, of course.  His ideas.  How crazy, really, is give peace a chance?  But in the final-final, I mean, the Beatles?  They changed everything.  Everything.  And then for something so - so - senseless.

Senseless - this word - Senseless - this word loses meaning - Senseless - this word loses meaning the more it's used.  But I can't think of a word that describes the act with greater clarity.  Just a writer.  Just a singer.  A husband.  A dad.  But so much more because he was also a Beatle.  Killed . . . murdered . . . murdered because . . . .

Senseless.  Seeking reason where there is none.


Say the word.  Think about it.  What does it mean?


One of the first questions Randy asked me, freshman year at Davis High, just a few months before December 8th, was who my favorite Beatle was.  I have no doubt that if I had answered differently, we would not still be friends today - thirty years later.

But New York.  This is a New York Postcard.  Karen and I were at the Frick Museum at #1 East 70th.  The Frick - that gets its own postcard, #7, later - but after the Frick, I look in my guide book and I tell Karen, You know, if we just cut across Central Park, right across, we'll hit Strawberry Fields and then the Dakota.

Karen knows, so she didn't hesitate - actually led the way.

Through the wooded park, past the grandfather holding his granddaughter's two-year-old hand, past the brides getting their photos taken with fountains as backdrops, past the flags from the Columbus Day Parade, stacked against a wall.

Past the horse drawn carriages, the statue of Daniel Webster - and past the people, my god all those New York people.

Up a little rise and ahead of us a sign.  Strawberry Fields.  And so I want to do the picture thing, and as Karen's snapping away we both hear - we both hear...

Of course we're hearing Beatle music, right?  So we head up a little further, and there's a crowd gathered, listening to a band play the music, that music, playing Beatles and Lennon.  I mean, of course, right?  We're in New York on the weekend of John's birthday, his 70th.  His 70th if only, if only...

There we all stood.  In the middle of Strawberry Fields.  Listening.  To the words.  To the music.  Singing.  Of course we were singing.  You would've sung, too.  Trust me.  It was a concert, and we were suddenly all the players.  It was a moment - one of those moments - if we could've bottled that energy - that moment - our voices lifting high, singing along with Glass Onion

with Instant Karma

with I'm a Loser

with I Want to Hold Your Hand

It's a chestnut, one of those memories I take out late at night, when it's cold and the wind's howling.  That crowd, crushing towards those players, so many of us there in the park, so many - but none of us standing atop the mosaic, the memorial mosaic with the word IMAGINE in the middle.  Instead, we circled it, left it free for flowers and candles.

Lord, there's more.  With New York, there's always more, right?  Like how our day started when Karen and I met my friend Jenn and her kids in Greenwich Village - that's another postcard, #6 - and in the restroom of this swank little restaurant where we met for brunch, this swank little restaurant down a flight of stairs from street level, with marble tabletops and dusty-orange roses in water glasses . . . .

In the restroom there's a black and white photo of Muhammad Ali - right after he'd changed his name from Cassius Clay - Ali at home inside a boxing ring with the Beatles lying at his feet.

Ali so young and strong.  John and George hold their hands together in prayer, the prayer probably Please Lord let him not pummel us.  I mean, of course I'd see this picture of these great men at the start of their careers - of course this is how I'd start that day, right?


My trip would end the next day with a visit to the Strand Bookstore where I'd find a copy of How I Won the War - the novel turned into the movie with Lennon in a supporting role (but starring on all the movie posters and on the cover of my little paperback).  And then there's today, with people reflecting.  A somber email from my friend Danny to me and Randy.  Other people posting - and playing the music.  Go play the music.

Anyway.  Me?  I feel like the little drummer boy.  Just a poor boy, without a gift to bring.

Words, they're all I've got - on this, the 8th of December, 2010.  Words.  Just words to lay before you.

Words - and thanks.  Thanks to John.

Thank you, John.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

You never count your money when you're sittin' at the table - and you don't steal another man's bourbon


So, there are two gents who have biographies out this holiday season.  Both are 'Big' books.  Both have black and white pictures of the authors on the cover.  One's by a dead guy - the other's by a guy who should be dead but ain't. 

How are these two books doing sales-wise?  I'm glad you asked.  The book by Mr. Richards - titled Life.  Look, I know it's only rock 'n roll, but time was on his side and wild horses weren't going to prevent Keith from getting satisfaction.

I can't believe I just wrote that sentence.  But hell, it's late - may as well play with fire, eh?

Ok, ENOUGH already.  Sorry.  The point - my point?  We all knew it'd sell.  When I saw how many we had ordered for the store, I said get some more and some more after that.  I'm not very good at picking winners.  If I was, I'd be spending my time at Golden Gate Fields, not Books Inc.  But Keith?  It wasn't exactly a stretch to bet on him.

The other book was a little ditty dictated by a guy name of Clemens.  Samuel Langhorne, better known as Twain.  This was the one you wanted to succeed, but weren't about to bet the farm on.

So, what happened?  They're both selling.  God bless us, everyone.  But the interesting thing - Twain is outselling Richards.  In the store I manage, he's ahead by two lengths.  And if you check out the New York Times Bestseller list, you'll see that for this week, while both books are in the top ten, the author has overtaken the rocker - and the Huckleberry Star is actually ascending.

This outcome couldn't have tickled me more.  It's the kind of thing that gives me hope for the Republic.  But now that it's happened, I do find myself torn.  I mean, I love Keith.

C'mon, anyone who refers to Mr. Jagger as Her Majesty, Elton John as that old bitch, and who denounces Prince as an overrated midget - I'm going to pull for that person, you know?  So there I was, wondering how to give Keith a little nudge.  He's not going to overtake the father of American literature - unless UC Press is unable to get me more copies of the Autobiography of Mark Twain.  I'm out of stock.  Everyone is.  But the Press keeps promising more.

Still - how best to give Keith a little more in-store exposure?  The easiest thing, of course, is to highlight Life on it's own shelf there in the shop on Park Street.  We like to make the displays interesting by adding items that aren't necessarily for sale - but that add appeal.  So next to the stack of Keith's book, I added a good bottle of bourbon, a cocktail shaker, and an empty packet of smokes.  Duane was able to give me the empty
after he killed his latest pack.

So - books, bourbon, a shaker and smokes.  It had the desired effect.  People took notice.  Some wanted to buy the Bulleit, but more bought the book.  I've been adding alcohol to book displays for ten years.  Valentines Day?  It's also the anniversary of the publication of The Maltese Falcon.  Throw some whiskey on the table, an overturned shot glass, and you have the perfect accompaniment to that hard-boiled masterpiece.

I've never had a problem before.  Customers respect the idea.  They get it.  No one has ever tried to deface the Mona Lisa, not here in Alameda - or in San Francisco, when I tarted up the displays there.

No one until last week, when someone walked into the bookstore barehanded and left clutching that bottle of Bulleit.

Who steals another man's bourbon?  What kind of low down, scurrilous, pathetic cretin does that?

Yeah, yeah - alcohol has no place in the bookstore, you say.  I was asking for trouble, that's what you're thinking.  And to you I say, bah humbug.  It's a way to make the store more interesting, and anyone--

Anyone?  Who are we kidding?  Using a non sex-specific pronoun when you know and I know that we're talking about a guy.  No woman did this.  We're talking about some male chucklehead who stole my booze. 


Not that I'm bitter or anything.

What's a guy to do?  Get right back on that horse, right?  We were talking about the ponies earlier, weren't we?  So I'm gonna cowboy up, tuck another bottle into this here saddlebag on this here palomino, and make me another little ol display for Keith.

Course, this time, the bottle may not hold liquor, because this bottle?  This bottle of Royal Lochnagar Single Malt?  The Royal is a wee, bonnie Scotch Whiskey, given to me by a lass name of Grainne, given before Grainne sailed back over the pond.  Grainne bequeathed all her scotch and whiskey to me before she moved - a gesture as lovely as the lass herself.  I've been nursing the Royal like a bairn, and tonight I only have a dram left.  I'm sipping it now, this fine 12-year-old from the Eastern Highlands.  Queen Victoria bought a little place near the distillery - a castle named Balmoral.  She's rumored to have liked her Royal quite a bit, right Grainne?

I can understand why - a lovely touch of smoke going down easy on this December night.  Grainne, may ye ne'er want a frien', or a dram to gi'e him!

So I'll take that bottle of Royal, empty now, and fill it mostly with water.  Then a wee bit o' white wine vinegar, nice and clear.  Four drops of yellow food coloring, one drop of the red.  Mixed up, it'll take on the warm cast of the Royal itself.  Not perfect, mind ye, but close enough to the eye of a thief.

I worry the vinegar will give it a certain bite that the unsuspecting will regret.


(To read how this turned out, you may go here it you'd like.)