Friday, December 30, 2011

Never Such Innocence Again

I've been trying to get Sue down, in words.

It's been difficult.

Sometimes, you spend more time with coworkers than with your family.  If you're lucky, you enjoy those coworkers.

With Sue, I was lucky.

There are so many thoughts that come to mind when you try and picture someone who has died, so many thoughts and images.

With Sue?  It's the raspberries she brought from her garden to share with us at the store - red raspberries, wet and ripe.

With Sue?  It's the way she'd roll her eyes if I said something ridiculous - which was often.

With Sue?  It's the number of customers who would ask if Sue was working.  Why? I'd ask.  Well, they'd say, no offense to you, but Sue's recommendations have always been so great - is she here?

It's the image of Sue out back of the store, sitting there with a smoke in one hand and a book in the other.  I read a lot.  Sue?  Sue read more than anyone.  And when she'd see me, she'd call out, Hey Hon.

I really miss Sue calling me Hon.

I miss all of her recommendations.  It wasn't just customers she turned onto good books - it was all of us.  Her first tip to me was to read Barbara Hambly's A Free Man of Color.  Hambly's hero is Benjamin January, a Creole doctor who returns to New Orleans after being trained as a surgeon in Paris.  He's fleeing ghosts, only to confront new specters rising from Louisiana's swamplands.

Sue's mother still lives in New Orleans, so Sue often evoked it with food, music, and books.

So I miss all of that, but with Sue, the sadness I feel is tinged everywhere with guilt.  I should have been paying more attention - but I wasn't.  I just wasn't paying attention.

July 16th was a Saturday.  Sue was the opening supervisor for the store that day.  She always got here early on those mornings so that, before she unlocked our front doors, the cash was counted for the register drawers and the previous day's deposit had been tallied, the old newspapers had been pulled and the new ones put out, leaving her time for a leisurely smoke and a read.  That Saturday, I stopped by the store just before we opened.

I wasn't paying attention.

Sue was at the table in our back room, recounting the money.  That was unusual, but--

I wasn't paying attention.

Nick, Sue said, I don't know what's wrong.  I keep counting the money, but it's just not making sense.

I wasn't paying attention.

Had I been paying attention, it would have occurred to me that Sue never had problems counting the money, but--

I wasn't paying attention.

Had I been paying attention, I would have noticed that Sue's speech was slightly slurred.  But I wasn't paying attention.  It's only after rewinding that brief encounter with Sue that I noticed something was off - that something wasn't right.  What was it? I kept asking myself later.  What's the false note?

Her speech - I should have noticed the false note there.

But I didn't.  I was busy.  In a rush.  I didn't have time to put those two things together - the counting not making sense, her diction.  I didn't have time to put them together, to make Sue call Ernie and get to a hospital.  Right then.  Instead, it was Josette who would send Sue home that Saturday morning.  Instead, it was Tracy who would send Sue home the next day, Sunday, even before they opened the store.  I didn't do the simplest thing - pay attention.  I didn't call Ernie.

Do I have any idea what was so distracting to me that day?  None.

Sue's last morning here at the store was Sunday, July 17th.  Her birthday was two days later, on the 19th.  Sue's memorial was held at her son's house, at Jordan's home in San Francisco, on Saturday, November 5th.  Just a little more than three months later.

Three months.

I keep trying to get Sue down, in words, but it's difficult.  I'll start the writing, and then something will happen.  Jerry will bring in some gin and mix martinis after work.  On a Sunday night.  Late.  During the holiday rush.  And Duane, Ben, Jerry and I will drink the dry spirits that Jerry mixed, drink them from fabulous 50's martini glasses that Jerry brought in.  And we'll talk about the season, and how busy it's been because of Borders closing its doors, but pretty soon - we'll get around to Sue.  And we'll talk about Sue.  And we'll toast Sue.  And I'll break one of those fabulous glasses of Jerry's, and apologize, and Jerry will laugh it off.  No problem, he'll say.  Thank god it was empty, he'll say.

And then later I'll look at the words that I'd written and realize they aren't good enough, not nearly good enough, for Sue.

These photos were given by Sue to Jerry. Thank you, Sue, thank you, Jerry.

So I keep trying to get Sue down, in words, but it's difficult.  I'll start the writing, and then I'll receive a card from Karen, one of our customers.  And Karen will write: 

December 5, 2011

I am so very sorry to hear of Sue's death.  You all seem so close, I'm sure this loss of a dear staff member is just terrible.

Sue was my "bibliotherapist."  When I was first diagnosed, she introduced me to Meredith Norton's Lopsided.  It was "just what the doctor ordered:" a dose of reality and a dose of humor....Sue pointed me to so many good books.  One of my favorites is Gumbo Tales....We also had some good discussions about The Warmth of Other Suns.

Oh, I will miss Sue so much.  I love reading the little tags you have on the shelves with her recommendations - like little memorials.

My sympathy to you all.


And then I'll look at the words that she'd written - Oh, I will miss Sue so much - and realize that my own words aren't good enough.  The irony, by the way?  Of Sue pointing Karen to just the perfect book as Karen began dealing with her own diagnosis, her own cancer?  Irony is sometimes brutal.

I often look at the Drink books I have on my shelves when I don't know what else to do.  It's distracting.  I get to lose myself for a moment, read about Drinks I'll never make, ingredients I've never heard of.  So I did that the other night, thinking about what I should drink when I toasted Sue one last time in 2011.  I grabbed a copy of The Bartender's Guide, one of three out-of-print books that Bob sent me - Bob, another incomparable bookseller.  Bob had sent me the books just because.  What Bob didn't know is that his thoughtful gift would in turn send me on one last journey with Sue.

I looked at many of my books that night before settling on a Sazerac.  It's the most New Orleans of all New Orleans drinks.  Perfect for Sue.  But before that, before that choice, before the chase had even started, I turned to the copyright page of that first book - The Bartender's Guide - because I'm a bookseller, it's what we do.

Copyright MCMXIV, it read.

MCMXIV?  I'm a bookseller, right?  And we're a weird lot, so the copyright date of this random Cocktail book sent by a friend months before made me think of Philip Larkin's poem of the same name - MCMXIV - 1914 if the date wasn't printed in Roman numerals.  Larkin's poem is about the calm in England just before the Great War's madness descended.  If you don't have time for the whole poem, please read the last stanza - but here it is in its entirety. 

Those long uneven lines
Standing as patiently
As if they were stretched outside
The Oval or Villa Park,
The crowns of hats, the sun
On moustached archaic faces
Grinning as if it were all
An August Bank Holiday lark;

And the shut shops, the bleached
Established names on the sunblinds,
The farthings and sovereigns,
And dark-clothed children at play
Called after kings and queens,
The tin advertisements
For cocoa and twist, and the pubs
Wide open all day--

And the countryside not caring:
The place names all hazed over
With flowering grasses, and fields
Shadowing Domesday lines
Under wheat's restless silence;
The differently-dressed servants
With tiny rooms in huge houses,
The dust behind limousines;

Never such innocence,
Never before or since,
As changed itself to past
Without a word--the men
Leaving the gardens tidy,
The thousands of marriages,
Lasting a little while longer:
Never such innocence again.

Larkin's last line reminds me of Sue.  Sue had been through and seen a lot.  I don't know a fraction of her story.  She got some of it down, in words.  And I'm glad for that.  Of all the stories she told me, the one I always think of first is Sue, on her 18th birthday - in 1966, the year I was born - leaving home.  Leaving behind the violence that had visited there.  And I see her, at 18, a young, beautiful, African-American woman sitting on a Chicago street corner with a boa constrictor worn around her neck like a scarf.  I see that 18-year-old with so much living ahead of her.  Heading off to England as a single mom, with two kids - because it sounded like a good idea.  Drinking at an English pub with the Doors, laughing at English groupies.

I imagine all the years in between, twenty-five of them as a bookseller, and the misfortune that befell Cody's Books that led to my good fortune, that led Sue to write me a letter on my birthday in 2009.  In that letter, Sue wrote

I am able to handle chaos and remain calm.

She wrote

I am a book person.  I enjoy reading, talking about, recommending and selling books.

Such simple phrases that say so much.  That would portend so much that would come to pass in the two years I was lucky enough to work with Sue.  Working those two years, seeing her build relationships with customers and with us, with all of us.  Rejoining Elizabeth, also from Cody's, and Jerry, too.  Watching her friendship with Samm begin - Samm who would do so much for Sue in those three remaining months.

At Sue's Memorial, on that first Saturday in November, her husband took me aside.  Ernie said that Sue had wanted me to know that her last book was Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

That didn't make sense.  Maybe it was the wine - earlier, Ernie had directed me to the bottle without a label, to the wine he had bottled himself.  It's going fast, he had said.  Enjoy it while you can.

So I asked Ernie what he meant about Colson Whitehead.

Ernie explained that there came a time when Sue knew she had one last book to choose.  Sue, dear Sue, who spent so much of her precious time reading books.  Sue - always, always with a book in her hand.  And then there was only time for one more, and she knew it.

Sue had hosted Mr. Whitehead at Cody's bookstore - had met him and liked him.  Met him, liked him, admired his books.  And Mr. Whitehead had a new book out, so she chose it.  For her last book.

Of all the books in the world, Mr. Whitehead, Sue chose yours.

Did she finish it? I asked.

No, Ernie said.  She wasn't able to finish it.  But she enjoyed it while she could.

I keep coming back to that.  To the equanimity with which Sue was able to cope with her disease, with her prognosis.  The composure it must have taken to pick her last book.

I worry I don't have that kind of strength, that kind of control.  The power she had - even at the very end - to hold on.  To not let go.  To not close here eyes and let go even when the pain must have been overwhelming.

And why?  Why at the very end was she not allowing herself to let go?  Because she was waiting for the last of her children to arrive at her bedside.  The grown child who had gotten that dread call three months in the making, that they had to return home, to Sue, because--


And so Sue wouldn't let herself go until her last child returned.  Then, when that finally happened?  When everyone had gathered around her?  Sue relaxed and closed her eyes for the last time and let go.

She let go.

Oh, I will miss Sue so much.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

December 10, 2011 - a date which will live in infamy

So Karen takes the girls on that Saturday morning to Kofman Auditorium.  The kids will be going through a dress rehearsal for The Nutcracker Rocks! that they'll perform the next day.

I'm left home alone, which is never a good thing.  I go into our back yard to again look at the scene of the crime.

The scene of the crime?  We have a small yard, but in it we have a big tree - a redwood standing majestically in the far corner.  I'd love to string it in lights for Christmas, but it's just too tall.  I'd gone in the back a few days earlier to try and figure out a way to light it - or maybe a way to set a star on top.  That's when I saw all the branches dumped between the tree's trunk and the fence.  I had no idea that the winds we'd had on

December first had caused so many boughs to break.  And then deposited them neatly between the tree and the fence.

When I looked closer, I saw that the ends of the branches had been sawn through.  No wind shear here, just a grumpy neighbor playing lumberjack on our tree - and then throwing his debris back into our yard.


Listen, if you have a problem with branches hanging over your yard, you have every right to trim them to your heart's content.  My preference would be that you knock on my door and explain the situation - I'll call the woman that worked over our maples this year and have the work done properly.  In order to, you know, prevent the tree from being hacked at by a drunk Lizzie Borden.

But again - you can do what you want.  But don't then throw the branches into our yard.  That's a Jerk Move.  What do you expect is going to happen when the homeowner sees what you've done?  Maybe you don't know that this homeowner is Greek.  Maybe you don't know that this holiday season has been stressful.  That the store has been even busier than I could have hoped, but that this has only added to the strain of December.  Maybe you don't know that, left to my own devices, I'm going to grab the biggest of the dying limbs, its end as thick as my arm, its length twice my own, and drag that son-of-a-bitch out of my yard, down Monte Vista Avenue, up High Street, and then along Fairview until I get to your stupid house.

Where I'll throw the evidence of your destruction onto your front lawn, you jerk.

Where I grew up?  This is an example of going Greek.  Do you have the image?  Some idiot in his shirtsleeves on a brisk, December morning?  Pulling a huge branch behind him as his breath clouds the cold air in front?  Lugging that branch around two corners as needles break and trail after?  Trying to heave the branch onto the grass of a seemingly slumbering house?

That was me.

As I walk away from you and your stupid, undecorated-for-the-Holidays house, I see Good Neighbor Dave step out of his home, two doors down from yours.  Good Neighbor Dave is a musician with a couple of kids a little older than ours.  But he's always calm.  Good Neighbor Dave has never gone Greek in his life.

Hey Nick, he says.  What's going on?

So I tell him.

I get that, says Good Neighbor Dave.  You're upset.  I'm feeling - and here, his hand kinda makes a brushing circle in the air, like the Karate Kid doing Wax On.  I'm feeling, he says, some tension.  Wax on go his hands.  Some anger.  I get that, he says, I do.  But I feel like I should tell you something.  That guy? and he gestures over at the house, the house that has an abandoned branch in its front yard.  That guy is crazy.

Crazy, I say, or mean?

Oh, he's mean, says Good Neighbor Dave.  But he's also crazy.

For example?

Oh, well, says Good Neighbor Dave.  For example, when my oldest was about eighteen months old, we made a circuit around the block.  When we got close to our house, she pretended she was walking on a balance beam.  Took a half step off the sidewalk, started walking on the grass.  Arms out from her sides, waving a bit like she was working hard to keep a straight line.  But she was walking on his lawn - Good Neighbor Dave gestures again to the house with the branch in front - and that guy comes barrelling out of his house, yelling at her.  Vulgar words.  Yelling to get off his grass.

For example? Good Neighbor Dave says again.  One day, I drive home after shopping for groceries.  There's a car parked in front of my house, so I stop in front of his.  Just to unload my groceries.  I've dropped the first load inside, and as I'm leaving my house for a second load, I see him - again with the gesture - through my front window, and he's spitting on my car.

Because you parked there to unload groceries?

Yes, says Good Neighbor Dave.  So I wanted to tell you, he says, because, well, you've got the little girls....

Mentioning my girls of course changes everything.  I think about them for a second.

And you think, I say, that this is something that could escalate?

I do, says Good Neighbor Dave.  I do.

Then Good Neighbor Dave pulls the Gandhi card and says, I just think you need to find the answer inside you.  Gandhi found it there, you know?  He found peace there, even in the face of pretty extreme adversity.

Gandhi? I say.  Gandhi, he says.

We bid each other good morning.  I take a deep breath.  Look at the stupid branch over there in your stupid yard.  And march over to pick the son-of-a-bitch up and drag it back home.

As I'm bent over getting a grip on my branch, I hear the unmistakable sound of your front door being unlocked - click - and then that door being opened.

What Good Neighbor Dave failed to mention is that you are about six and a half feet tall and broad shouldered.  Really broad shouldered.  He also left out the part that you appear to be ex-military.  But not our military.  Like Stasi. Or Red Army.  Maybe Gestapo, but you're too young for that.  Though you're not too young to have a small and tight Chucky-grin stapled to your face.

It'll stay there through our brief conversation.

What's going on? you ask.

So I tell you.  I start with the tree and its sawn off branches.  I describe going Greek, though I may not use that term.  I explain - without mentioning Good Neighbor Dave - that I then had a moment of conscience.  That I decided that my action was as passive-aggressive as your own.  That throwing one branch into your yard was as silly as throwing all the branches over my fence.

And you just grin your Chucky-grin.

You tell me you didn't realize branches had made their way into my yard.  You allege you filled your green bin and your neighbor's green bin with the all the branches you had cleaved from my redwood.

You're lying, of course.  I had counted the jagged cuts despoiling our tree - nine - and I had counted the branches that had been tossed in my yard like corpses in a paupers grave - nine again.  So you lie, but I let it go.  Like Hamlet, conscience makes a coward of me.

We part with a handshake - me telling you that that my choice would be for you to knock on my door if you have an issue forcing you to action.  You lying through your stiff, Chucky-grin.  Me lugging my branch back to Monte Vista to cut into pieces small enough to fit in our own green bin.

It was too early for a drink, even though I wanted one badly.  Instead, I consulted Speakeasy, a cocktail book from last year.  Jason Kosmas and Dushan Zaric gave us a fine collection that came out of their New York bar, Employees Only.  I don't like the book only because Kosmas is Greek.  I mean, that makes it better, sure, but it's also full of great stories and quenching drinks.  I settled on something easy, something satisfying.  Something I could mix later that night, something that would chase the cold.  The perfect choice from a host of perfect choices?  The Whiskey Sour.


2 ounces rye whiskey
1 ounce freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/2 ounce freshly squeezed orange juice
1/4 ounce simple syrup
1 orange half-wheel, for garnish
1 brandied cherry, for garnish

Pour the whiskey, juices, and syrup into a mixing glass.  Add large ice cubes and shake vigorously.  Strain into a chilled rocks or Old Fashioned glass over large ice cubes.  Garnish with the orange and cherry.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Happy 75th Anniversary, Mr. Boston!

I've written about my fondness for Mr. Boston before, and explained why this particular cocktail book is such a favorite.  Mainly, it's like a beer stein being offered by a St. Pauli girl of yore - overflowing with goodness.

Not until the Volstead Act - that idiocy, that scourge - had a stake driven through its heart by the 21st Amendment, not until then would we be graced with the first version of Mr. Boston.  So it's this year, 75 years from the grey days of Prohibition and Depression, that we see the publication of the Diamond Anniversary Edition of his Official Bartender's Guide.

With 200 brand new recipes - and 1500 total, this iteration is fatter than you're used to.  And that's why Mr. Boston should be in everyone's home - at least in the homes of you stumbling sots out there.  It covers everything.  You don't go to Mr. Boston for depth, but for breadth?  He's your man.  So get thee to a bookery and then put the Mr. in someone's stocking - or just keep it for yourself.

I was going to keep it for myself until I handed it to my brother over Thanksgiving - but not before I used it to find a suitable drink for the Fall.  I wanted a recipe that didn't require me to buy some esoteric ingredient that I'd use just the once.  My bar is well-stocked, but it's not by any means encyclopedic.  I've been trying to keep it under control by, say, finishing one bottle of gin before buying another.  The bourbon's out of control, though.

Come, please, come over and help me bring the bourbon and rye back down to manageable quantities.

So, after positively deciding that I'd only pick a drink for the Fall that I could make with fixins from my pantry, I of course selected a concoction called Autumn Leaves.  Did it require the purchase of some stupid ingredient that I might use only once?  Sure it did.  But what's the point of making a decision if you can't break it?  Besides, wait'll you take a sip.


3/4 oz. Straight Rye
3/4 oz. Apple Brandy
3/4 oz. Sweet Vermouth
1/4 oz. Strega
2 dashes Angostura Bitters

Stir with ice and strain into ice-filled old-fashioned glass.  Garnish with an orange twist.

I used Laird's Applejack.  We've used Applejack before, you and I, when we mixed Laura's November Manhattan.  A year ago?  How did a year pass?  Laura's married now, taking care of a baby.  It's been a year since we shared Applejack in that wonderful Manhattan?  Too long.  It's been too long.

The second time I unfurled Autumn Leaves - it was near midnight, and the drink banished some of the dark and cold as it accompanied this writing - I used a touch more Vermouth and a bit less Strega.  Just a touch more, a touch less - but it's the touch that counts, yes?  Also, I did the shaken-not-stirred thing.  It's the Bond in me.

The idiot ingredient for Autumn Leaves is the Strega, an Italian herbal liqueur.  Or I thought it was the idiot ingredient.  Turns out it's not.

Detour with me?

The Strega Prize is Italy's most prestigious literary award.  Guido Alberti, owner of Strega Liqueur, was part of a social group in Italy in the '40's that met on Sundays to eat, drink, and attend a literary salon hosted by Maria and Goffredo Bellonci.  They had hoped that by bringing the literati together, they could help to heal the wounds wrought by WWII.  These Sunday Friends then launched, with Alberti's backing, the Strega Prize.  The Sunday Friends - now a jury of 400 - still nominate and select the winner.

I think I'd like to drink with the Friends.

Anyway.  Strega the booze, as opposed to Strega the prize?  It's beautifully yellow, and its color, when combined with the rich brown hues of the Rye and the Applejack, with the rose-red of the Sweet Vermouth, its color and these colors give the drink a soft, autumn blush.  Strega's medley of herbs adds a wonderfully complex hint of flavor to the drink - I taste mint, for sure, but I'm terrible at breaking down taste notes.  I know if I like it, know if I don't.

Autumn Leaves?  I like.

So again - come.  Come and we'll pour some of my abundant Rye, mix it with the Strega, and watch the leaves turn.  Salute!

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Amazing Shoes of Brian Selznick

When last we met, I was telling you about the astounding night we had at the Alameda Theatre celebrating the release of Wonderstruck - the latest and most spectacular offering from Brian Selznick.  In my telling, I mentioned that Daughter Number One was miffed that I hadn't take a snap of Mr. Selznick's shoes.  And once I had described them fully - in all their spectacular, shiny silverness - Daughter Number Two was equally as miffed as Number One.

If the shoes were so splendorous, how could I not have memorialized them in film?  I had my camera, yes?  If it failed me, was my phone not in my pocket?  Could it not have been used - easily, with alacrity - to document the footwear's greatness?

I hesitate to say my girls doubted the truthfulness of their father, but perhaps they began to lean towards the camp of those who suggest I am prone to exaggeration.

Lies!  All lies!

Anyway - after recounting my daughter's disappointment in that earlier posting, I included a plea to Mr. Selznick.  Asking (beseeching?) that if he, you know, wasn't busy flying to Rome for the premier of the film adaptation of his Caldecott-winning Invention of Hugo Cabret, maybe he could, um, take a picture of his shoes.  If there wasn't anything else on his soon-to-be-spaghetti-filled plate.

When in Rome, and all that.

I was kidding, kind of.  But I did mention that Charisse, Scholastic's Executive Director of Publicity - who was good enough to join us in Alameda for our Wonderstruck night - I did perhaps hint that Ms. Charisse knew where to find me.

Wink wink.

I digress.  And for that - not for exaggeration, mind you, but for digression? - yes, I will admit that sometimes I digress.  Because all I wanted to say was this:  not 24 hours after my entreaty was thrown to the wind, I received a response from Ms. Charisse. 

So, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.  And in my house, he goes by the name of jolly old Selznick.

Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you his Very Amazing Shoes:

I thank you, Ms. Charisse, and I thank you, Mr. Brian.  But more importantly, Daughter Number One and Daughter Number Two thank you both.  We all hope Rome was a holiday.

Friday, October 28, 2011


It's been so long since we talked!  There's so much I want to tell you - so much I want to share about the amazing evening I had on Wednesday with hundreds of others all packing the Alameda Theatre.  The latest Twilight release?  Nope, that's not for another 20 days and 7 hours.  And, I'm not counting.  And, I'm never going to write about that.

It's not even a movie that brought those hundreds out the other evening - it was a book.  I know, I know - who'd a thunk it?  Parents with their kids, kids flying solo, adults wondering what all the fuss was about.  Any time that much excitement is generated by a book, you should take notice.

The fuss?  The fuss was about Wonderstruck, written by Brian Selznick.  Mr. Selznick won the Caldecott Medal in 2008 for The Invention of Hugo Cabret.  You've read this magical book, yes?  Because if not - you go get the book, I'll mix you a drink, and we'll sit down and talk, okay?

Mr. Selznick is amazing - and yes, that's the second time I've used the word for those of you keeping track, but the night was (amazing) and Mr. Selznick is (amazing).  His black and white illustrations for those two books are stunning - each time I look at the works, I find some new detail I missed - a girl looking out a second-floor window; a stone that she'll stumble over, placed in her path pages before she'll trip over it, in the rain, as lightning flashes overhead.

So when we had the chance to bring Mr. Selznick to Alameda?  It was easy to decide to make the proposal - but many bookstores would be vying for his attentions, so we wanted to make our proposal stand out.  The new book, Wonderstruck, has an old-time Hollywood component - referencing back to an era when your local cineplex was instead a Movie Palace and not a warren of doors hiding smallish viewing areas - back when theaters were grand and opulent showcases of ridiculously beautiful architecture, all the better to show off the marvels that would grace their majestic screens.

Well, we have one of those Palaces in Alameda.  Designed by Timothy Pflueger - the same gent who created the Castro Theatre, the Grand Lake, the Top of the Mark - it was refurbished and now shines like it did in 1932 when it opened with a showing of Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm with the governor of California as the guest of honor.

I want to tell you about the theater, about how Kyle and Allison there helped us put our proposal together.  But that's about the theater now, and there's so much I want to tell you about the theater then.  About how pieces of it disappeared over the years - the art deco chandeliers from the mezzanine, the doors with blades of glass, the doors flanking the lobby in a beautiful crescent.  But bit by bit, as the theater fell into disrepair, as the screen fell silent on July 31st, 1979, as that led to its reopening as the Yankee Doodle Roller Rink, as that turned into a dance hall, scavengers made off with little pieces of its glory.

I want to tell you about the morning when, during the refurbishment, the chandeliers were found outside the theater's doors, returned by who-knows-who in the dark of night.  Or about the antique dealer who called the city and told them that he had purchased the crescent of interior doors back in the '80's and that he still had them.  Still had the original bill of sale, and if the city wanted to pay him his purchase price, he'd be happy to sell them back.

I want to tell you about the magic inside the theater, and how we thought it would be the perfect complement to host Mr. Selznick since Wonderstruck had that old-Hollywood tie in.  Since he's related to David O. Selznick.  Since the movie of the earlier book, the Invention of Hugo Cabret, is being released this month.  Hugo has a few people you may have heard of - Martin Scorsese, Jude Law, Ben Kingsley.

So I want to tell you all that, but also about how Tracy and I were discussing the fact that we were going to have a special guest - Remy Charlip.

Who's Remy Charlip? I said.

Tracy looked at me the way you'd look at a baby sparrow that fell from its nest.  Concerned, yes, but with the sense that, alas, this was the way of things.  Poor, stupid, ignorant little bird.

Only one of the most influential author/artists ever, she said. 

I'd discover that The Invention of Hugo Cabret had been dedicated to Mr. Charlip and that he'd been used by Mr. Selznick as the model for one of the book's main characters, Georges Méliès.

Okay, okay, got it.  But how was I going to recognize Mr. Charlip when he arrived at the theater?  I wanted to make sure he was comfortably seated in the area we had set aside.

Oh ho, Tracy said.  You'll recognize, believe me.  Remy doesn't blend into crowds - maybe he'll have on a fabulous scarf, something from the Doctor Who collection.  You'll know him when you see him.

So yes, I want to tell you all of that, and about how that conversation led to shoes, and how Tracy said Selznick would arrive wearing something breathtaking on his feet.

How can you possibly know what kind of shoes he'll have on, I said.

Again with that bird look.  Just trust me, she said.

I want to let you know that indeed his shoes were marvelous - shiny and silver and pointy.  I want to let you know that when I told my oldest about the shoes, Elizabeth widened her seven-year-old eyes and said, Oh daddy, can you show me a picture?  And that when I looked at her blankly she said, You had your camera, didn't you?  You took pictures of his shoes because they were so special, right?

There I was, a baby sparrow, nestless again.  I want to let you know how disappointed Elizabeth was that her camera-toting daddy didn't think to snap the shoes.  Mr. Selznick, if you're out there, please?  A pic of your footwear?  Roz or Charisse from Scholastic know where to find me!

I want to tell you how Mr. Charlip was indeed easy to spot - he wore a rainbow.  So colorful, so charming.  I want to tell you about the mom who asked Mr. Charlip, as she approached the signing table, if it would be ok for her daughter to take a picture with him.  About how Mr. Charlip graciously assented.  About how as the mom took the pictures, Mr. Charlip leaned in, carefully, and whispered something to the eight-year-old.  About how later, that same girl, for the first time in her life, begged her mom to stay up late so she could finish Wonderstruck.  How this non-reader was turned into a reader over the course of Mr. Selznick's presentation.  About how when the mom asked the daughter what it was that Mr. Charlip had whispered, the daughter smiled.  He said, Thank you, child, and bless you.

I want to tell you about the other child in the signing line who noticed Mr. Selznick's shoes, about how the boy asked, How much do shoes like that cost?  And that Mr. Selznick replied, A billion dollars!  And how they all laughed.

I want to tell you about the journey Mr. Selznick took us on during his presentation, how he showed all of us his writing process - work, work, work!  About how people gasped when he showed clips from the upcoming movie.  About how when one youngster asked if Mr. Selznick considered himself an illustrator who wrote or a writer who illustrated, Mr. Selznick replied, with a smile, that we were all too focused on labels.  That he considered himself someone who made books.  And how this conversation echoed an exchange that happened years ago in the Herbst Theater at City Arts and Lectures when a young woman asked Gahan Wilson, the famous cartoonist, the same question.  And how Mr. Wilson - brusquely! not with the grace of Mr. Selznick - dismissed the question.  And how when pressed by the moderator, Mr. Wilson further intoned, I'm 75 years old and I'm at an age when I don't have to do things I don't want to and I don't want to answer that question!

And how we all erupted with laughter.

I want to tell you about the people who have posted about the event, blogged about the event, who have called or come into the bookstore to thank us for hosting the event.

People never call to thank us for hosting an event.

I want to tell you how those many hundreds in the theater lobby, snaking up the staircase, waited so patiently for their chance to say hello to Mr. Selznick, to thank him for what he does - telling stories with words and pictures.

I want to tell you about Mr. Selznick describing the year-and-a-half he used to sketch preliminary drawings for the book - and how he then went out to find people that looked like the characters he'd created.  About how he found the perfect stand-in for Rose, one of the main characters from Wonderstruck, at a movie theater.  About how after the show, he introduced himself and asked the girl's parents if he could take pictures of their daughter so he could draw her.

About how after an awkward silence he said he was Brian Selznick and that he was a maker of books and that before he could continue they all relaxed because the entire family had read The Invention of Hugo Cabret the week before and so they knew he wasn't a stalker and then everyone was delighted at the prospect.

I want to tell you about the smiles from everyone in the theater after Mr. Selznick finished, about seeing so many of my friends, neighbors, and customers - Sharon and Jay, Mary Grace and Edward, Jengiz and his daughters, Beth and Spencer - about how excited they all then were to buy more books and get in line to spend some precious moments with a book-maker.

But the really important part of the night for me isn't any of that.  The important part of the night was this:  Mr. Selznick took the time at the beginning of his remarks to talk about a book that had a huge impact on his life.  About how Remy Charlip's Fortunately was a book that opened up a whole new world, a new way of thinking.  How Mr. Selznick spoke of Mr. Charlip's other books.  And their further influence.  And that at about the time that people were wondering why he was taking so long talking about another's work, Mr. Selznick then said:

...and I'm excited to let you know that tonight, Remy Charlip is in the audience with us.

And that when the spotlight hit the rainbow sitting in the front row, stayed on Mr. Charlip while he slowly stood up - have I mentioned that Mr. Charlip looks a bit like how Obi Wan Kenobi would look if Darth Vader hadn't dispatched him back in 1977? - so Mr. Charlip moves with great care, the care of age, of a long life lived, but that when he did finally stand, we continued clapping, thanking him for the books?  For the inspiration?

And maybe we clapped because we were also acknowledging Mr. Selznick.  Too often we celebrate the passing of the torch, as if it can only go one way - from the old to the young.  And here was Mr. Selznick, passing the torch back, making us all recognize that although kindling is found in many places, sparks are more elusive.  And here was a spark, Remy Charlip, so why not gather round and warm our hands by the fire he'd created?

And then I want to tell you about the after.

About how during the book-signing Mr. Charlip, again with great care, took the elevator up to the mezzanine, approached Mr. Selznick in front of the art deco mural that had been painted over decades before, painted over but then painstakingly restored during the renovation.

Approached his friend to say thanks - and then of course Mr. Selznick said, No no, my thanks to you for coming.

And then Mr. Charlip's whispered aside to the eight-year-old Melanie.  And then the rainbow bid us adieu and he headed back for the elevator.

I want to tell you that a little bit later I was in the lobby, in front of our sales table, when Mr. Charlip made his way to those pretty glass doors saved by a San Francisco antique dealer.  The lobby was still full, bustling, those in the crowd deciding on which other book to purchase before joining the throng in front of the up-staircase.  That's when someone - maybe a kid, kids are more observant than the rest of us - noticed that Mr. Charlip was leaving, had paused briefly in front of one of the lobby doors as it was held open so he could navigate his walker through it and out into the night.

There are words above all those doors in the Alameda Theatre.  The words say:


During his pause, that observant kid told his parent, Hey look!  He's leaving.  And that parent looked over, recognized the rainbow, and started to clap.  The clapping was heard by someone else, and they looked, recognized, and started clapping, too.  In an instant, the clapping turned into applause.  Mr. Charlip - we left him there at the door, remember? - he heard a commotion behind him, so he stopped, and maneuvered his walker so he could turn around.  When the crowd saw him turn, the applause grew instantly louder, louder.  And the look on Mr. Charlip's face?  As he raised a hand to acknowledge the applause, making the applause grow more?  His look was a little sight of heaven.  Thankful and appreciative and tender all at once.  If he could, he'd have probably said, Thank you all, and bless you.

But Mr. Charlip stayed quiet, nodded his head in thanks, and then the rainbow turned to the open door and shimmered out into an Alameda night.

And so that's what I wanted to tell you.  That, and I wanted to say thanks.  To Mr. Selznick, to Mr. Charlip, and to you for coming.  Thanks.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Did you hear the one about the Greek who was mistaken for an Irishman?

I left more than just the Island yesterday.  I left behind, if albeit briefly, stupid city politics.

Don’t ask.

I know, I know, that’s stupidly coy, kind of like saying – I heard some horrible news but I’d rather not discuss it.

Coy is usually dumb, n'est-ce pas?

I can't believe I just did that – here I am, doubling down. Not only am I being coy, I’m dropping French phrases to make myself sound smart when I have no real idea what n'est-ce pas means.  Could guess, but it’d be just that. Guessing.

Yesterday. Leaving Alameda in the midst of glorious September weather – clear and calm and almost hot. Earthquake weather, like we had on Sunday, when a trembler hit just after 8 in the evening, and the girls, home alone with Karen, felt the house pitch and shake before hearing a crash from upstairs. We hadn’t lost anything to an earthquake before, not even in the Loma Prieta, but the smashing crash let them know that this time was different.

Elizabeth and Kristina were sad to see that their respective Memory Blocks, the E and the K, were the only things that had plunged from the shelves upstairs.  Plunging and falling and scattering shards on the floor because the Blocks by Sid Dickens are made of plaster on wood and earthquakes and plaster don't mix.

The girls were worried that they’d somehow been selected for retribution since their Blocks – and nothing else – lay broken.

Big pieces, though. We’ll see if they can be glued.

Sorry, sidetracked. Earthquakes will do that.

So I’m heading to the Presidio yesterday, to the offices of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association.  Sebastian Barry was in the house, a little meet-and-greet for booksellers.

Great being back in our old neighborhood, skirting through the Marina, passing by Lucas Arts just inside the cannon-flanked Lombard Gate, through all that Presidio green, sidestepping the Parade Grounds.  All in pursuit of the opportunity to hear a great writer talk about his books.

At the start of Sebastian Barry’s latest, On Canaan’s Side, his narrator says:

But books have saved me sometimes, that is the truth – my Samaritans.

I feel that, truly, and it’s led to complications. Too many books at the house, for one (seriously, though, do you believe in such a thing as too many books?)

But see, right there! Evidence of the problem – not admitting it exists.

Also – first editions.  Lord, first editions.  And signatures?  Signed first editions?  My heart races at the prospect.  So of course I went to the Presidio when Lindsay W. invited me.  Of course I brought my UK first edition of Barry's A Long Long Way.  Of course.

I used to have authors only sign their names.  The value of a book – for some – is diminished if it's inscribed to Joe Smith.  Presentation copies are different.  A presentation copy, generally meaning signed by an author to some other notable – think Charles Dickens to Hans Christian Andersen (and yes, such a lovely does exist) – something like that?  That would increase its value.  But bibliophiles aren't queuing up to purchase The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay warmly inscribed from Michael Chabon to Nick Petrulakis.


Still, I've grown lax, and the value of my books is their value to me, so sometimes if the author asks my name, I'll give it and let him or her dedicate away.

Mr. Barry proved to be a talkative, wonderful chap.  One of the best Irish playwrights and novelists going.  Hut L., director of the NCIBA, finally had to intervene and cut Mr. Barry short.  We were having a grand time, we booksellers, listening to Mr. Barry do what he does best – tell stories.

But all good things must come to an end, and so it did, and then we waited for Mr. Barry to sign our books.  Fresh copies of his newest that I mentioned, On Canaan's Side.  I haha! also had my copy of A Long Long Way, and when Mr. Barry laid eyes on it he said, Well, well – that's the paperback version.  The true first edition, he said.  After it was nominated for the Booker the publisher came out with a hardcover, but this one, he said, as he held it in his hands, carefully, like a finch that might take flight.  But this one, he said again, as he opened the pages, turning back to the copyright page.  Hmm, he said, are there no numbers in it?

Because, see, Mr. Barry is like me – sniffing out the pedigree of a book, his book.  So I pointed down to the number line, under his hand, a small hand for a relatively tall man, the tall Mr. Barry sitting there in his red and white striped shirt.  And he saw the complete number line there, 2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1, and his eyes sparkled, Why, he said, you have yourself a first edition first printing, don't you now?

Yes, yes, I wanted to say.  I have this little problem with books, with first editions.  First editions, first printings especially.  But I didn't want to waste his time on trifles.

I mean, I did, but there was a line forming.

Your name? he had inquired when I first sat down.  And I had said Nick.

Really, he said?  Are you Irish?

And I thought that was funny, that.  Me, Irish?  But maybe Mr. Barry was homesick.  Looking for an Irishman, hopeful for a little touch of home here in these bookish Presidio offices.  He was traveling with his son, his fourteen-year-old grumpy son.  But the son was off adventuring in the Exploratorium, and there were no Irishman in sight, so maybe he'd just hoped.

No, I said, I'm Greek.  And here Mr. Barry pulled another trick out of his bag and surprised me by speaking Greek, saying hello, wishing me well, and it was the first time I'd heard Greek spoken with an Irish accent.  Reminded me of my dad, hearing Greek spoken by southerners – reminded me of my dad telling me how he laughed when he heard Y'asou, y'all! for the first time.

Mr. Barry spoke of his year in Greece, living on Paros, recalling it fondly, and so here was another reason for me to appreciate this scribe from the emerald isle.

He signed my books, Mr. Barry did, and bade me farewell, and I took my two and the cases that had been ordered for our stores, and Hut helped me out to my car with that cache of signed first editions.

It wasn't until late last night, when I was redipping into A Long Long Way, when I approached On Canaan's Side for the first time, that I glanced at the inscriptions.

Glanced, then stared.  For there, in writer-messy black ink, was the dedication inside A Long Long Way:

To Mick
Sebastian Barry

So I flipped open On Canaan's Side, and there, too, bold as brass, in his writer's scrawl:

To Mick
Sebastian Barry

And I suppose if I squinted, I could turn Mick into Nick.  His writing really was a little bit sloppy, wasn't it?  But no, the M was clear.  And now his question was clear, too.  Are you Irish? Mr. Barry had asked.  And he had wondered because when I said my name was Nick, he had heard Mick.  My fault, I'm sure.  Hadn't enunciated properly and the Irishman had heard perhaps what he had wanted to hear.  That one of the bookish admirers who had come out to hear him that sunny day had ties to the homeland.  His, though, not mine.

So I shall read On Canaan's Side, and reread A Long Long Way.  And if you ask to see the books, I'll take them down from the shelf – Julian Barnes on one side, Richard Bausch on the other.  And if you open either, note that they are inscribed, and then read what is written there, puzzling it out, looking at me and then the inscription – I may ask if you'd like to share a pint.  Share a pint and hear a tale of how the Greek was mistaken for an Irishman.  Guinness? I'll ask.  A Guinness would serve us well.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Bragging Rights

I like Mrs. T, lots.  A few weeks ago, at Back to School Night for Elizabeth's second grade class?  One of the first things Mrs. T said was:  Oh, and let's make a deal between me and all of you.  I won't believe everything your child tells me first thing in the morning if you don't believe everything they tell you at night.  Ok?

And there was a smidgen of silence from the gathered parents on that Thursday evening, and then, almost as one, we started nodding our heads, smiling, looking at each other and saying, Well, that's fair.  Can't argue with that.

I know my friend Nick would welcome this, Nick whose son - Elizabeth's age, seven-years-old - told his teacher that the reason he was moving a little slow that day was because he got drunk on jello shots the night before.

Needless to say, this was not true.

Another reason I like Mrs. T - she also said that maybe the most important thing we could do as parents was to encourage a love of reading in our children.  When Elizabeth expressed keen interest in Mrs. T's Magic Tree House Research Guide: Ghosts!, she was gobsmacked when Mrs. T said, Please, Elizabeth, take the book home with you - that's what books are for!  For taking and reading!

Still, given all this, morning Drop Off - especially when the kids hurry to get in the Line after the bell tolls - can be a little nerve-wracking.  Sometimes Mrs. T will zero in on a parent, take them gently aside, and confer with them about some little something that occurred the day before.  We'd had one of those huddles, early in the year, when Elizabeth was still shaking off the fun-dust of summer and hadn't, perhaps, wholeheartedly embraced 2nd Grade with the zeal of the converted.  That's different, now - now she's in school's great! mode, but then?  That first week?

Not so much.

So when Mrs. T made a beeline for me, gently motioning me to step away from the Line for a quick, hushed conference, I did think for just a moment, oh what fresh hell is this?

Nick, Mrs. T said, I just wanted to tell you what a joy it was to read Elizabeth's first writing assignment.  I had the kids write a paragraph imagining the likes and dislikes that an alien would have if it ever visited us.  Most of the responses were in the vein of:  I like butterflies.  I hate flowers.  Rainbows are pretty.  And that was just fine - it's exactly what I asked for.  But Elizabeth began her paragraph with the line:  I am an alien who has just arrived upon the earth.  And that's such a simple thing, a line like that.  But you know what it is?  It's voice.  I can teach grammar, and a certain amount of style, but what I can't teach is voice, and let me tell you, Elizabeth has it.

Try thinking of another thing, a different thing, that Elizabeth's teacher could have told me that would have excited me any more.  If you come up with one, I'd love to hear it - because I can't.  Sure, a cure for the common cold would be right up there, but Elizabeth is seven.

Is this just bragging?  The crowing bombast of a boastful windbag?  Yup.  You got it.  Guilty.  But I'm her dad, she's my kid, and I'm asking for a pass because - the kid's got voice.

Hey, don't go.  I'd love to show you these really cute pictures of the family that Karen just printed out - really, it'll only take a second...

Monday, September 12, 2011

Sarantismόs: Or, the Startle Reflex Explained

It’s called the Startle Reflex.  For some newborns, it's triggered when they hear a loud noise or have the sensation of falling – that makes them toss their head back and throw their arms out.  Elizabeth was a Startle Baby.  Even if I were holding her securely, any sudden movement would induce the reflex.  With her arms thrown out, she looked like a little baby Christ on the cross – it was kind of funny.

I know, I know, that’s sacrilegious, but true all the same.  And I’m not saying I’d feign a fall just to compel the reflex.  What kind of father would that make me?  But maybe, just maybe, it happened more on my watch than on Karen’s because Daddy thought it was funnier than Mommy did.

So the phone rings, causing the Startle Reflex in Elizabeth, and I stand there for a second thinking how darn cute she is before I answer.  It’s my mom.  She's wondering if we’ve set a date yet for the Forty Day Blessing.  In the Greek Church, the sarantismόs is the most important of all the traditions for a new baby and her mom.  It echoes Mary bringing the baby Jesus into the temple forty days after he was born.  And since tradition is everything if you’re Greek, this blessing wasn’t one to trifle with.

In Modesto, the blessing takes place following the regular service on Sunday.  After the congregation has left the Church, the priest comes to the back, takes the baby, and walks her to the altar, followed by Mom and Dad.  No problem, I’m thinking, and it just so happens that the closest Sunday to Elizabeth ’s forty days is Father’s Day.

We’ll be doing the blessing in Oakland, though, not Modesto.  Trying to start our own traditions.  I tell my mom June 20th, and that we’ll meet her in a back pew.  We prefer the right-hand side, the side we gravitate to in movie theaters.

Mom says okay, but she suggests we meet in the Cry Room.  In Modesto, it’s a little room just before the entrance into the nave of the church.  It’s got a big window, double-paned, so that parents and crying kids can see out – but can't be heard.  But I’m not sure if the Oakland Cathedral has a cry room, so I tell Mom, sure, but if we’re not there, just look for us in the back, on the right.

And Mom says, no no, let’s just plan on the Cry Room.  I’m looking at the phone, thinking that’s odd, it’s like she hadn’t heard me or something.  And then the penny drops.  Mom, I say, are you trying to tell me that Baby Elizabeth can’t enter the Church before she’s blessed?

There’s a pause.  Well, my Mom says, some Churches are more loose than other Churches.

But if this was Greece– I say.

Elizabeth wouldn’t be able to go in, Mom says.

So I’m looking at Elizabeth.  She’s distracted by the ficus tree in our front room.  Behind the tree, morning light pours through the window, and Elizabeth’s just into the contrast of the dark leaves against the lit panes of glass.  Then she feels me looking at her, and she jerks her little head my way, and her eyes are so blue, and her skin so fair, her hair soft brown with these ridiculous blond highlights, and she grins and blows spit bubbles and I can’t believe there’s a stricture against letting her enter anywhere, much less a holy place.

Mom, I say.

I know, Niko, I know, she says.  We’ll meet at the church, ok?

Ok, I say.

The Cathedral is in the Oakland hills overlooking the city, the bay, San Francisco.  Like most places of worship for the Greek Orthodox, it’s a dome, and since it’s a Cathedral, it’s bigger than most.  Elizabeth is dressed in white finery, and she’s wiggly.  But when we enter the doors, the warm, sweet smell of honey captures her, the scent rising from the rows of beeswax candles to the left and right of the doors leading into the cathedral.  The number of candles lets us know that there’s a big Father’s Day crowd inside.

Elizabeth is enchanted, both with the sweet smell and the flickers of light.

We enter the nave.  Outside, it was Sunday morning bright, but inside, it’s shadow within shadow.  Walking along the curving wall, Karen holding Elizabeth.  They’re bathed in the soft blue light coming through the walls of glass.  The dome of the church captures the light, makes it disappear.  The dome’s gentle curve is sheathed in panels of copper, and the panels glow faintly from the light of ten chandeliers, each a circle of black iron holding 36 votives.  The gold light of the votives plays on the smoke from incense, curling up, slow, then falling.

Incense mingles with the voice of Father Tom, and Elizabeth is transfixed by it all, especially the voices, the singing.  She likes music, this one, and it’s as if she understands the beauty in the words, Kyrie eléison, and we see my parents and brothers in a back pew, Kyrie eléison, there’s no Cry Room in the Cathedral, Kyrie eléison, this must be one of those loose churches.

Elizabeth doesn’t notice my family yet, she’s still all ears, but they notice Elizabeth.  There’s a lot of quiet cooing going on, and my brothers are making happy, exaggerated faces at her, and she’s happy, too, and we’re happy, everybody's happy and the service continues.  My brother George catches my eye and mouths the words Happy Father’s Day and that’s a first, and I look down at my daughter in white and I cry.

Suddenly, Father Tom is making his way down the center aisle, and he’s making eye contact with us.  He’s smiling and motioning us to meet him, and we finally realize that they do things differently in Oakland, Elizabeth's introduction to the church is going to take place during the service, not after.

After we enter the main aisle, Father Tom mainly talks to Karen – it’s really Karen’s gig, Karen and Elizabeth.  I’m there to carry Father’s hymnal – dark blue and worn – which he gives me before holding his hands out for our daughter.  She’s quiet now, almost asleep – lulled by the chants and the soft light – and her eyes slide open just a bit, but white-haired Father Tom looks safe, so she closes them again, and we walk.

Father Tom pauses in the aisle and intones that the Church welcomes the servant of God Elizabeth.  His voice fills the cathedral and he continues walking to the altar, Karen and I in tow.  I’m very aware that the eyes of the church are on our family, and I’m hoping that Elizabeth doesn’t burst into tears.

Father Tom pauses in the aisle, surrounded on both sides by the hundreds of congregants who have come to the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Ascension in celebration of faith, in celebration of Father’s Day.

Father Tom pauses, and raises our daughter high, Elizabeth all in white, and the light that the dome captures is right there above our heads and Elizabeth is raised into it, raised into that soft light.

It’s called the Startle Reflex.  If a newborn has the sensation of falling, she’ll throw her arms out and toss her head back.  And Elizabeth does just that, throwing herself into her Christ pose, eyes still closed but arms thrown wide, and then Father lowers her and she tucks back into her sleeping self.  A few more strides and Father pauses again, raises her again, and again Elizabeth becomes Christ in the hands of Father Tom.  And again, almost to the marble steps leading to the altar, the altar of earthy colored marble shot through with veins of white, and again she’s raised, and again I see Christ in my daughter, but I’m not thinking it’s funny now.  It’s beautiful now.

And Karen follows Father Tom, and she kisses the image on the iconostasis to the left of the altar, the one of Mary holding her child, and then Karen accepts Elizabeth back from Father Tom, another mother holding her child, her girl-child, and they join me, and we walk down the aisle together.

Ten Years Later

Because of the time difference, by 6 a.m. in San Francisco, September 11th 2001 was already over – even though, of course, the day hadn’t yet begun.

Karen heard about it before me – on the morning bus into San Francisco's Financial District. After she called, I called my boss - should we open the bookstore?  So many shops on Chestnut St. would stay shut that day.  Michael left it up to me.

We opened. Turned out, a lot of people - citizens, we were all US citizens, even the tourists from Germany, from France. Especially the tourists from Germany and France - a lot of us needed a place to go. To talk, to cry. To get angry, to mourn. To talk, cry, to get angry and mourn – over and over. Different people, but the same people. All day long. People we saw every day. People we’d never see again.

To talk.

People trying to make sense out of the senseless. Isn’t that the definition for crazy? But we were all a little crazy that day. All of us who came into the bookstore because we needed others.

To cry.

People like Paulina, Paulina letting me into Delaney’s early, to watch those images on the tv’s inside the bar. Those images on the tv. Smoke. Skyscrapers. Smoke. Plane. Smoke. Skyscrapers. Smoke. Plane.

Plane, then no plane. Fireball, fireball – a neverending fireball. Then smoke. More smoke. On the tv. Inside Delaney’s. All day.

To get angry.

New York was so far away. We felt so far away. But so close, because of the stupid tv. There in Delaney’s. There at the lunch-counter. There in your bedroom. New York was just right there. So close and so far.

On our way into Modesto - today, ten years later. Ten years later and now we have Elizabeth and Kristina. And now we live in Alameda, not San Francisco. Ten years later and we’re headed into Modesto for the 40 Day Blessing of our nephew, Andoni. Andoni - named after my father, Tony Petrulakis. My father who we don’t have, Andoni who we do. So much changes in ten years, so much.

And on our way to Modesto, speeding along 580, we approach an overpass at 1st Street and Springtown Boulevard. A Livermore overpass. And on that overpass this morning, at about 10:30 am, twelve hours ago, there stood a lone figure holding a flag. Just a man, holding an American flag. Knees locked, his body ramrod straight. Not responding to the honks from the cars rushing beneath him.

Just standing, holding a flag – the flag snapping in the wind.

And I know today there are commentators who say we haven’t done enough. Others who say we’ve done too much. And they’ll both use this day to get their warped little thoughts across. Because they won’t be satisfied just–

To mourn.

–they won’t be satisfied with anything other than not listening to anyone else. They won’t be satisfied until the shrill noise they’ve made today adds to the cacophony.

But when a figure holding a flag, a ramrod straight figure holding a flag, when that figure necessitates that you – makes a Mom and Dad explain to their seven-year-old and their four-year-old – when you are made to try and explain the senseless actions of lunatics to children, when you interrupt the children in the backseat who are singing silly songs, when you try and limn the ugly facts of that ten-year-old day to the singing children in the backseat.

When you do this because the day itself is so conspicuous.  When, as Elizabeth says, as your seven-year-old says, Mommy, Daddy, it's a special day, the day when part of America died. When flags are flying everywhere – not just from the overpass, not just held by a solitary man – when flags fly from front yards, from eighteen-wheelers, from the hillsides of the Altamont Pass.  When you and your wife are forced to explain all these flags, all the red, white and blue – to your silly, singing children?

You want the commentators to stop. You want the king to quiet. You want the pretenders to the throne to refrain – for one day.

And here I am, adding to the noise. Adding to the noise when all I wanted to do was – remember.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Tadpoles and Polliwogs

I can't say polliwog without smiling.  C'mon, say it with me:

Polli-wog.  Pah-lliwog.  Polliwog.

Not only is it just fun to say, it evokes summers - past and future.  It's 1971 again, I'm in Mrs. Johnson's kindergarten class again - bringing home a whopper of a polliwog with his big ol fat belly, legs just beginning to emerge in front of his strong tail whipping rightleft rightleft.

So when Karen leaves me a message, all in a rush,

Hey Nick so we're bringing some tadpoles home (laughter) from the birthday party so we're headed to Petco.  Talk to you later bye.

I shoulda been happy.  Tadpoles and polliwogs?  I don't know about you, but again, for me?  That was Modesto in the '70's.  Skipping around, looking in puddles for that day's wonder.  Baby frogs coming out of the ivy after the sprinklers had doused the clinging vines.

But then I thought, tadpoles and polliwogs?  I couldn't remember just exactly.  Had my polliwog finished his metamorphosis?  Or not?  And if it did, then what happened?

In the full throes of this Dad-worry - would the girls cry when the buggers died?  Would we have to do the pet-funeral thing, replete with a cross made out of Popsicle sticks?

(There's another one that's great to say:  Popsicle stick.)

In the midst of that grumpy Dad moment, I shot Karen a text:  WTF?

Only after I sent it did I see it for what it was.  Cold, overly terse.  Brusque.  Clipped and curt.

So I thought about it, and started to warm to the idea that a polliwog would be fun - life-span be damned.

I mean, it's July 10th.  The middle of summer.  Why am I being such a grump?

I'm picturing my girls running into Petco, their little sandwich bag sloshing with water and polliwogs.  Holding the bag up for inspection, asking what they needed to keep the dinky blokes happy.

Now I'm wondering if Karen is getting a fishbowl or if she'll just use one of our Mason jars.  Colored pebbles for the bottom?  We couldn't put one of those little divers - the guy in a full Jules-Verne suit, inspecting a chest of gold, the chest opening and closing as the diver bubbles there underwater - we couldn't put one of those in a jar, but if Karen got a little aquarium, we could rig one up, no problem.

Before I can go the full 20,000 leagues down, my phone rings.  It's Karen's number, but it's not Karen on the other end.

Dad? Elizabeth says.  The man at Petco said they weren't tadpoles.

What's that, honey? I say, because Kristina is in the background, yelling about squishing something.

Dad? Elizabeth says again.  The man said they were mosquito larvae.  He said we shouldn't take them home so Kristina squished some.  Then we threw them away in the garbage.

Mosquito larvae?  I'm processing that.

Mosquito larvae?  I'm processing that Elizabeth sounds bummed, but not ridiculously so.

Mosquito larvae?  Like my friend Mia said, helluva thing to put into a goody bag at a birthday party.

Or Tracy's response - Hey kids!  Know what I'm gonna get you for your birthday?  Malaria!

Dad? Elizabeth says.  Kristina wants to say something - and then there's the fumbling of the mobile being handed from a seven-year-old to a four-year-old.

Kristina's voice comes along the wire - at about 180 mph.  Dad-they-weren't-TADpoles-they-were-bugs-and-I-squished-one-Mommy-said-they-weren't-good-can-you-believe-it-bye-I-love-you.

Wow.  I'm thinking out loud here, and what I'm thinking is - they're not bringing home an aquarium from Petco.  Really, I'm going to hazard that guess.

But now I'm all geared.  I really want one of those diver-things.  If not an aquarium, maybe hermit crabs?

I forget, how long did my hermit crab live?

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Philco Model 620F

This Philco, Model 620F, went on sale in June of 1935.  It originally sold for sixty-five dollars - about a thousand dollars today.  It has three bands:  standard AM broadcast, shortwave, and a police band.

I love its Bakelite knobs.

The V pattern of the cloth covering the speaker.

I love that after you turn it on, you have to wait a few seconds for the Philco to warm up before you hear anything.

But what I really love is that, if you were to turn this particular radio around, you'd see, written in pencil on the cadmium coated chassis:

George Petrulas
Price Trading
Hiawatha Utah

George Petrulas was my grandfather, my Papou.  I don't have the full story on when our name got shortened and then lengthened back.  But when Papou bought the Philco, his name was Petrulas.

The Price Trading Co. was the company store in Hiawatha, Utah - the coal mining town where my father grew up.  I'm guessing my Papou had to pay for his Philco before it was shipped to the store, before someone scrawled his name and the radio's destination onto the chassis.  A thousand dollars?  For a coal miner?  Yeah, I'll presume they made him pay before placing the order.

 My brother Dean spent three years in Utah when he went to law school.  I envy him those years - years spent with our YiaYia, with our uncles and our Thea, hearing stories I'll never hear - living where my dad lived.  So it only made sense that Dean would get the Philco - the Philco that had been relegated to the basement in the house on Ramona Avenue in Salt Lake City after the family left Hiawatha and headed north.

The Philco was always there when we visited, always there in the basement - the basement where my brothers and I slept during those visits in the '60's and '70's.  The radio mute, a silent link to my dad's childhood.

That's why I also especially love those four Bakelite knobs.  Love thinking about the people who turned them.  My Papou and YiaYia.  My Thea Sylvia.  My uncle Dean, my Uncle Pete.  And my dad.

Of course, my dad.

I talked to my Uncle Dean the other night.  He still lives in Salt Lake City.  During our talk, the Philco came up.

I remember the dial glowed orange, Uncle Dean said.  Guess it hasn't glowed in a long time.  I loved that radio, all of us did.  It was in the front room of our house.  House #402.

What was your street called? I asked, and that made Uncle Dean laugh.  The streets didn't have names, he said.  We just lived in #402.  In Greek Town.  Hiawatha had neighborhoods, not streets.  There was Greek Town.  Jap Town.  Silk Stocking Row.

Our house, he said, had four rooms.  Probably all 10x10.  Three of the rooms had closets - small closets - the two bedrooms and the kitchen.  The front room didn't have a closet.  Your dad, me, and your Uncle Pete slept in one of the bedrooms.  Mom and Dad in the other.  Syl slept on the couch in the front room.  Otherwise, that room was off-limits.  Except on Sundays and during Christmas.  Sunday was radio day, and we got to sit in there and listen to shows like the Shadow.

I'm picturing my dad and his brothers huddled around the Philco on a Radio Sunday (Sylvia wasn't much interested in those programs, Uncle Dean said) fighting over who got to tune the dial, who got to lower the volume when it occasionally spiked.  The three of them sitting there in the middle of Greek Town listening to the shows.  Did any of the Pallios boys join them?  A Patterakis cousin?  Maybe an Orfanakis?

One time, Uncle Dean said, his voice over the telephone growing stronger as the memory took hold, Dad and Maragakis were talking.  Maragakis was a strong Greek, like Dad.  That song 16 Tons came on the radio - You load sixteen tons and what do you get?  Another day older and deeper in debt.  16 tons?  And Dad and Maragakis just shook their heads.  If you didn't load 30 tons, and there they both laughed, the Boss would be there to remind you that you were supposed to be working.

Saint Peter don't you call me 'cause I can't go
I owe my soul to the company store

Tennessee Ernie Ford could have been talking about Price Trading.  Uncle Dean said that my Papou and YiaYia would fight, near the end of the month, over what was owed to the company store.  YiaYia covering for the kids, covering for a little gewgaw that one of them may have picked up during the month.  Then their discussion would be over, Papou would go and pay, and nothing more would be said until the end of the next month.

So it only made sense that my brother Dean got the Philco, I said that, right?  Except now Dean awaits the arrival of his second child in as many years.  A girl then, a boy now.  The boy will be Anthony, for my dad.  So it only makes sense that Dean got the Philco, because he lived there in Salt Lake.  George and I don't have that kind of claim.

But Dean and Laura are in heavy nesting mode, and they're clearing out space for the new arrival.  Getting rid of things that they don't need to make room for things they do.  Need.

Dean calls me and says he's got two things that he'd like me to have.  The trunk that we hauled back from Utah after my YiaYia died, Dean and I driving a much-too-big cargo van - which was fine through the flat of Nevada.  Dean had the good sense to hand over the keys when we rolled into Reno.  There I was, happy to do my part, with no idea that it was soon gonna be all downhill.

In a much-too-big cargo van.

Much-too-big cargo vans have a tendency to fishtail when you're going too fast, downhill, through the Sierras.

It doesn't help when you're brother is laughing at you, at your inexperience behind the wheel of a much-too-big cargo van.

One of the things we were moving from Salt Lake to Modesto was the trunk (more on that later).  And now Dean didn't have room for it.

He didn't have room for the trunk, or the Philco.

I told him that was hogwash.  He told me to shut up.  I told him he'd regret it if he gave the Philco away.  He told me to shut up.  I told him if I did accept it - which I didn't want to, because it was his - that I would get it fixed.

He told me to shut up.

And then he delivered it and the trunk just a few days later.

It's harder than you'd think to get an old Philco radio fixed.  But if you're persistent, you'll find the website for the California Historical Radio Society.  You'll make some calls, maybe talk to a widow or two (the list of contacts for radio repair has been updated, so you might not talk to the bereaved like I did), but then you'll find someone who'll be happy to help.

I found Sam, down in Fremont.  I took the radio to him and he was surprised at the condition.  The plug, with its cloth-covered cord, was still sound.  All the dials were intact.  The cabinet was a little worn, hazed by some water stains, but nothing a little work-over wouldn't fix.

Sam and I got to talking, and it turns out that he worked and went to school at MJC - Modesto Junior College - in the early '60's.  He loved his time in Modesto, he said.  He was working hard for a steel company, but getting paid $2.25 an hour - just a quarter under the foreman's pay.  Sam had more money than he knew what to do with.  He had a fancy car - often drove it to Vegas on the weekends - girls galore.  Who knew the sixties were swinging in Modesto?

And did it seem too perfect that an old man with ties to my hometown would be the first one who returned my calls?  Sure.  Sure it did.

So Sam got the Philco, and I got to go on a cruise.  While I consumed Manhattan after Manhattan - rye, straight up - on the (not so high) seas, Sam snipped capacitors and resistors, replaced the old and worn out with the new and working.

I received Sam's call that the radio could be picked up - on Father's Day.

Of course, Father's Day.  Too perfect, right?

I got home, plugged the Philco in, stretched the wire that will serve as its antenna to full extension, turned the leftmost Bakelite knob, and waited.

First, the dial began to glow.  At the prompting of a Petrulakis, the dial on this Philco, Model 620F, began again to glow.  Orange.

Then, static.  The topmost knob is two knobs - one hidden inside the other.  The outer knob turns the tuning dial quickly - the inner is for fine tuning.

I sought out KNBR - 680 on your AM dial.  After a little of that fine tuning, the dulcet voice of Jon Miller filled the room.  He was describing a tight San Francisco Giants' game, one that Tim Lincecum would win 2-1 by striking out 12.  Not a bad contest to re-christen the Philco.

Karen wasn't home yet, so I called the girls into the office.  We three sat there in the coming dark, surrounded by the books on our new shelves.  The orange glow of the dial getting brighter as the light of dusk grew fainter.  Daddy? Elizabeth asked.  Are you okay?

Of course I wasn't okay.  I was sitting in our house.  In Alameda, California.  700 miles from Hiawatha, Utah.  Sitting with my daughters.  Just listening to the ball game.  On this Philco that went on sale the month my father turned three.


My father must've followed ball games on this Philco - must've listened to the Salt Lake Bees.  They played Pocatello on Friday, August 22, in 1947.  The program guide that Uncle Dean sent me, in the book Hiawatha Memories, tells me that KALL 910 began their broadcast that night at 9:30 pm.  8:30 in California.  About the time I turned on the Giants' game.

Come over, any time.  We'll tune in some baseball.  Maybe Perry Como.  His platters were spinning on KDYL 1320.  I'll pour the drinks.  The finest Manhattan you've ever had, or - just name your poison.

We'll sit, sip, and listen.

It's amazing what you can hear, if you just listen.