Flowers are beautiful.
Art is meaningless.
Some people seek love.
Others expect the end.
Tesla sought perfection.
Edison gave them a lightbulb.
I like bones.
Almost everyone in the world has a phone. Cellular service can connect my phone in New York with Antarctica or Greenland. I can call Fenway’s mom in Thailand and Mam will pick up on the other end. Every minute millions of cellular calls and SMS messages crisscross the globe searching millions of destinations. We are so close, yet so far away from each other.
Yesterday evening AP and I moved a set of headboards from the 3rd Floor to the penthouse landing. They were heavy and luckily neither of us hurt our back.
“Thanks,” my landlord/friend/architect said, walking down to the 2nd floor.
“No worries.” I ascended the stairs to my apartment.
Those three syllables ended my verbal communications for Saturday. I shut the door and pulled out CITY OF THE NIGHT.
I was asleep by 11. Three beers sang my lullaby.
Sunday morning I slowly rose from my slumber . Rain splashed against my window. I checked my watch.
Today was a day of rest and I shut my eyes in hopes of making it to noon.
My second unconscious state extended another five hours and close and I woke at l 11:16am.
The rain was falling harder than before and ominous clouds crawled across a charcoal gray sky. I pulled the cover over my shoulder and read more John Rechy's novel about gay hustlers. The book fell on my chest for another half-hour.
Waking up I looked at my phone.
No one had called me yet.
Not my wife in Thailand.
Not my family in Boston.
Not my friends around the world.
I got out of beed and looked out the window of my Fort Greene penthouse. Not a soul was visible in the alleys behind the brownstone. The dark sky was devoid of airplanes. I could be the Last Man on Earth, but I am not Mada, Adam’s dead end. AP should be downstairs with loving wife and two adorable children and I opened the door to the stairway.
This afternoon there was no noise from below.
AP must have gone out with his wife and kids.
I shut the door. My breakfast consisted of two slices of toast and milky tea with one sugar. I sat by the window to examine the windows across the backyard alley. There was no sign of life from the neighbors.
Five million people lived in this borough, unless zombies had risen from the dead and eaten the entire population of Brooklyn.
I looked out the window again and sipped the tea.
There are no zombies. I would have heard the screams of their zictims.
Families were having brunch at the restaurants in Fort Greene. Kids were on playmates with their friends. Lovers were lying in bed. None of them weren’t thinking about me and I went into the bathroom to run a hot tub.
After a good twenty minute soak I decided to resign my day to a monastic vow of silence, because if I didn’t leave my top-floor apartment, I could spend the entire day without speaking.
This was a tradition dating back to my old apartment on East 10th Street.
During the 80s I regularly exiled myself off from the rest of the world. Sunday mornings were spent in bed with a book. A late breakfast was followed by a long afternoon bath with my evenings devoted to finishing the book and drinking a bottle of wine.
Once or twice during these Sundays I would check the phone for a dial tone. I was somewhat disappointed to discover that buzz, because it meant that no one thought to call me on a Sunday and I returned the favor, as if we had a pact.
This vow of silence lasted, until I started dating Ms. Carolina. The former beauty queen liked talking and I couldn’t blame her. She lived in a redneck community below the Mason-Dixon Line. Many of her neighbors entertained very conservative thoughts about the intermingling of races and religions.
"Sometimes I need to speak to someone sane." Her accent was pure Tarheel.
"I'm not really sane." I warned her about my Sunday tradition.
"You don't speak to anyone on Sunday."
“Is it a religious thing?" Ms. Carolina had been educated at a convent school back in the era when convent schools were convent schools.
"No, I'm an atheist."
“Then why the silence?”
“Seneca said, “As often as I have been amongst men, I have returned less a man.”
“Which means?” Ms. Carolina was used to my odd behavior. She thought I was an eccentric.
“After a six days of listening to New York bullshit, I need a day to clear out my head.” I was working as a diamond dealer on West 47th Street. New Yorkers were addicted to the sound of their own voices and my ears were constantly crammed by the constant blather of my co-workers and clients.
“Don’t worry. I respect your beliefs.” The blonde southerner was a true gentlewoman. “But what about if you just pick up the phone and listen to me? That’s not really breaking your vow of silence.”
“Let me think about this.” One Trappist sect was very strict on silence, but my rest of my life style was a complete rejection of the Cistercian dictates and I told Ms. Carolina, “As long as the phone calls don’t last longer than twenty minutes, I’ll pick up the phone.”
“Thank you.” Her gratitude was sincere.
Ms. Carolina was obliged to attend church every Sunday morning at home and the service at her husband’s church lasted two and a half hours. Baptists wasted the entire day trying to save their souls. Her congregation was very advanced for North Carolina. They believed that blacks had a soul.
The next Sunday my once-silent phone rang at 11:15.
I was laying in my bathtub. It was in the kitchen. My apartment was very East Village.
I picked up the phone.
It was Ms. Carolina.
She recounted the preacher’s ranting sermon.
“He believes that all homosexuals are damned to Hell. I told him after the service that I knew that he was going to some Richmond bars where men were dancing with men and gave him a check for $25. It’s going to fix the roof.” Ms. Carolina was originally form New Jersey. Her family was Old Yankee same as half mine. We had more than those genes in common. I knew her husband. The doctor was a good man and I was feeling bad about ‘us’. She kept the conversation low and ended with the wish, “Good luck with your vow of silence.”
Luck had nothing to do with that Sunday’s silence.
A ravaging hangover had silted my mouth with rust and I hadn’t really spoken with Ms. Carolina.
I had listened to a woman on a phone.
Words never left my lips.
Two weeks passed and Ms. Carolina drove north to visit me in the East Village.
Saturday night we went to a good restaurant in Soho. I drank more than I should, but I was a sucker for a good Saturday night drunk.
Sunday morning I woke up before Ms. Carolina. Light filtered through the shades. My eyeballs were socketed in sandpaper. My guest lay on her side facing me. She liked to watch me sleep. I picked up a book, Peter Freuchen’s BOOK OF THE ESKIMOS, and read away the pain in my head.
A little before 11 Ms. Carolina opened her eyes and said, “Sometimes I think you’re dead when you’re reading. You barely breathe.”
The blonde heiress accepted my shrug as an answer. We had one week a month together. She deserved more, but I could only give what I had to give.
“You know the Trappist monks never really had a ‘vow of silence’.”
This was news to me. My mother loved the quietude of their monastery outside of Boston.
“St. Benedict, their founder, had three tenets; stability, fidelity to monastic life, and obedience. Benedict preferred the monks to exist in silence, because speech was disruptive to contemplation.” Ms. Carolina was as good as a nun and only wicked with the lights out.
Like my Irish mother I have the gift of gab, although dampened by my father’s preference for silence. The Maine native had held his piece for years under the blitzkrieg of my mother’s monologues, but today Ms. Carolina wanted to hear my voice and I surrendered to her need.
“I’ve been to the Trappists monasteries in Belgium. They made good beer. Actually not good, excellent. I ever tell you how my ‘vow of silence started?”
“No.” Ms. Carolina was a repository of my vocal history. She had heard many of my stories on our road trips through Guatemala, Peru, and the Far West. Listening was one of her better traits.
“Back in 1979 the phone in my 10th Street apartment was shut off.”
I had racked up a $700 bill tracking down the whereabouts of my blonde model from Buffalo. My broken heart remained broken all that time.
“My service was cut for years. I never could get together the money to pay the bill. The phone gathered dust under the sofa. One Sunday I was watching a BONANZA re-run and a telephone rang. I thought to myself, “That’s funny, I didn’t think they had phones on the Ponderosa.”
“And they didn’t.” Ms. Carolina laughed at the image. She was my best audience.
“No, it was my phone. It rang for a minute and then stopped. I picked up the phone. There was a dial tone. I tried a number.” My parents. I hadn’t spoke to them in ages.
“It worked and not only that I could call anywhere in the world.”
“Even stranger was that the phone would ring every Sunday at the same time.”
“Correct.” I liked the chemistry between Little Joe and Hoss.
“Did you ever pick it up to find out who was calling?”
The phone stayed in service for two month, then went dead again. After that I never spoke on Sundays. At least until I met you.”
“You’re still quiet on Sundays.”
“I try my best.” I led Ms. Carolina by the hand into my bedroom. There was no need for words in the darkness. Our bodies did the speaking and this Sunday I’ve yet to say a word to a living human being.
That Sunday was over fifteen years ago. The sky was lightening over Brooklyn. A scream shivered up the stairs. AP was back with the kids. They hadn’t been eaten by the zombies after all.
I went to the refrigerator and took out a bottle of beer.
Orval is a Trappist beer.
The suds poured into my mug with a pleasant glut glut glug.
There was no danger of Ms. Carolina calling me.
She had passed away in the winter.
I raised my glass to her.
She had been a good friend.
Another five hours and it would be Monday.
I would call Mam. Fenway would get on the phone. He likes to speak with me and tells me to come home soon.
My vow of silence would end then as it always does, because no Sunday lasts forever.
Times are tough for Zeppelin.
STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN used to be # 1 for years.
1057 the hawk FM complied this 1-15 list of best rock songs of all time.
i.e. since the debut of rock and roll in 1955.
15 LED ZEPPELIN Stairway To Heaven 14 ZZ TOP Sharp Dressed Man 13 BLUE OYSTER CULT Don’t Fear The Reaper 12 STEVE MILLER The Joker 11 EAGLES Hotel California 10 AEROSMITH Dream On 9 JOURNEY Don’t Stop Believin’ 8 QUEEN Bohemian Rhapsody 7 PINK FLOYD Another Brick In The Wall 6 AC/DC You Shook Me All Night Long 5 LYNYRD SKYNYRD Sweet Home Alabama 4 LED ZEPPELIN Black Dog 3 KANSAS Carry On Wayward Son 2 BOSTON More Than A Feeling 1 AEROSMITH Sweet Emotion
I would not have picked one of these MOR hits.
My # 1 is John Lennon - Imagine
To view this song, please go to this URL
May 29 1966 was my 14th birthday. A few days later I graduated from the 8th Grade of a Catholic grammar school south of Boston. I was no hippie.
I wouldn't hear the Velvet Underground until 1968. ROCK AND ROLL on the radio. I never saw the group play.
To hear ROCK AND ROLL, please go to this url
I stole FREAK OUT from a store at which I was working in 1969. I got fired for that theft.
I still love HELP I'M A ROCK.
I never saw the Mothers of Invention either.
To hear HELP I'M A ROCK, please go to this url https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ukbu9dmmzJg
Just good old vandalism.
People around the world are angry with the status quo and commented on huffingtonpost.com report by Alex Gorlach's opinion piece 'Austria Is Just the Beginning of a More Polarized World.'
Mainstream media has no contact with the real world and responded to my saying that democracy was passe by writing, "The problem with that is: A little less than half the developed world's population is not interested in helping others unless it personally enriches them. That's the root cause of the divide."
I called out this bullshit by countering, "I've lived many places. everyone in the world is the same. they wake in the morning and hope for a better day. the problem are the elites. once during a uprising in SE Asia the people burned, but did not loot a luxury mall and a taxi driver said to me, "I can live with them having stolen my life, but i hate them for wanting to steal my children's lives."
I've heard the same thing in other countries. the struggle is not for the right to vote, but the desire to be human. that less than half number is .0000001 %. the banks, the government, the army, the police et al suppressing life itself. here in the USA as well.
The movement for increased wages for workers has evoked calls for increased robotics in manufacturing and service industries. A former McDonald's CEO said before a shareholder meeting, "It’s cheaper to buy a $35,000 robotic arm than it is to hire an employee who’s inefficient, making $15 an hour bagging french fries.”
Classic heartlessness from the capitalist elite, although the present CEO told shareholders that labor will be moved out of the kitchen into the dining area to improve customers' enjoyment at the fast-food monolith.
Sales at Mickie Ds have been sliding as their customer base is priced out of the menus by incessant drive for rising profits instead of serving actual food.
But robots don't care what food tastes like and neither do most people visiting the Golden Arches.
They are all robots.
After all we are what we eat.
Comic book characters rarely had all their fingers. Many artists are unable to draw a hand, which I've always deemed to be the cause for the advent of abstract expressionism. Most recently I went online to look at wedding bands for a friend. The website offered this image.
Not really a hand.
Then again nothing on the internet is real.
Just zeroes and ones.
Binary number system developed from the I Ching
It holds the power of the known universe.
For man and hands.
Last night the Empire State Building was lit up red and green to celebrate the 120th years of the Dow Jones' existence. The colors symbolized the ups and downs of the market. The darkness between them represented the loss of the wealth for the majority of Americans and people around the world. While the .0001% fear tax increases, their greater worry should be the Guillotine.
It's an idea who's time has come again.
Off with their heads.
Only red running in the gutters.
I loved the old Times Square.
Now it's a tourist trap waiting the rebirth of a generation of vicious Fagins, the criminal kingpin of Charles Dickens' OLIVER TWIST.
I have more respect more respect for the ruthless thieves of the 70s than the XXXXL tourists stuffing their faces with fast food on the ruins of Forty-Deuce.
Now the Times Square Association complains about the near-nude buskers such as Ms. 48D Long as eyesores.
I love her.
And I hate squares.
And so does the past.
I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of the night. - alan ginsburg - howl To listen to Alan Ginsberg reading HOWL, please go to the following URL
Every boy has a best friend in his youth.
In 1959 I was lucky enough to have two; my older brother Frunk and a neighbor.
Chaney and I attended the same kindergarten class at Pinewood Elementary in Falmouth Maine and we did almost everything together boys were supposed to do that far north.
In the winter we played hockey in the small backyard rink my father built from 2 by 10s and also sledded down a gully to a tidal ice pool. During the summer we swam in the shallow waters beyond the marsh grass and bicycled to the forbidden bridge crossing the salt flats to Macklowe Island.
That August in 1959 the two of us crawled under the fence into a strawberry field and ate ripening fruit on our backs. The farmer caught us and my father paid him for four quarts. They were worth his angry words and ten whacks of the wooden spoon from my mother.
Partners in crime, but Cheney and I were in love with the same girl. Kathy Burns was sweet on Chaney. He played the accordion. I had no musical skills, even though my mother was famed for a voice capable of silencing the Portland Cathedral choir.
Chaney was a protege on the squeezebox. He mastered SINK THE BISMARCK and DAVY CROCKETT as well as the standard songs learned from his music teacher; YELLOW BIRD and MACK THE KNIFE. I envied his virtuosity as well as Kathy's admiration of his talent.
That autumn our brunette schoolmate held a birthday party to which I was not invited. Chaney brought me a piece of chocolate cake and told me how he had kissed Cathy in her basement. The cake tasted like chalk, but I congratulated Chaney's success. We were best friends.
Thw next summer my family moved south from Maine to a suburb south of Boston. Chaney and I vowed never to go swimming, unless we were together. His parents had a place on Lake Sebago and my grandmother's cabin was on nearby Watchic Pond.
"Wait for me."
"You and me only swimming together."
"And take care of Kathy Burns."
"I will, because one day I'm going to marry her."
I bid him good-bye and my father drove us south in our Ford station wagon. It had wood paneling and he liked to go fast.
That summer was warm in New England and my parents took us to Nantasket Beach for Memorial Weekend. My mother considered the wide strand of sand to be the best beach in the world and she had been to Bermuda for her honeymoon. My brothers and sisters ran in the eddies of the surf. My father swam past the waves. i sat on the blanket and my mother asked, "Why aren't you in the water?"
"Because I told Chaney I wouldn't go swimming without him.
"We won't be in Maine for another two weeks."
"I can wait."
"Seems a waste." She reached out her hand. "Come with me."
I was a good boy and obeyed my mother.
The Atlantic was cold, but not to the young.
Upon our return to our suburban development my father hosed off the sand and salt off his boys outside, while my mother showered my two younger sisters inside. We dried off in the warm summer sun.
The phone rang in the living room. My mother answered it and came out a minute later with wet hair.
"Go sit in the car."
"What I do wrong?"
"Nothing. Just do as I say." She was on the verge of tears.
"Yes, ma'am." I went to the station wagon and sat in the front.
To the West the setting sun shadowed the silhouette of Great Blue Hill.
Several minutes passed before my mother came to the car. She leaned on the open window with a pained weariness and said, "Chaney drowned this afternoon."
"Drowned how?"I already knew how.
"In Sebago Lake. Everyone had gone waterskiing and left him with his grandmother. He swam out too deep and struggled in the water. The grandmother couldn't swim and he drowned. Say a prayer for him."
"I don't know. This afternoon."
My mother walked back into our house.
I sat in the car and looked at the sky seeing only the sky.
Chaney had broken our vow, as had I at Nantasket Beach.
One of us paid the price.
Two weeks later my family headed north for a vacation on Watchic Pond.
My father drove first at Falmouth Foresides. New people were living in our old house. We stopped at the Noyes. I hung out with his brothers. None of us spoke of Chaney. As we prepared to leave, I saw Cathy Burns across the street. i walked up to her and she said, "I know what you did and so did Chaney."
"You were wrong."
"I was. I miss him."
"Me too. Chaney could play accordion."
Yes, he could."
My father hour later I was swimming in the tannin-tainted waters of Watchic Pond. It was wide enough, but short by a mile to make a lake.
That night my parents sat around the campfire and my mother sang 'YELLOW BIRD'
I wished Cheny was there to play accordion.and since that sad day every time I see an accordion I think of Chaney and any time I see a street accordionist I ask them to play SINK THE BISMARCK. None of them know the Johnny Horton tune and I request IN-A-GADDA-DA-VITA.
None of the accordion players can play that 60s hit either, however I'm sure that Chaney would have liked Iron Butterfly.
Cathy Burns too.
After all we were all best friends.
To hear Rene Sevieri's cover of IN A GADDA DA VIDA, please go to the following URL
It was a good day to visit Coney Island.
Memorial Day was America's introduction to summer.
It had been a long winter in New York.
Ellen was with her friends.
The Argentines wanted to see the sea,
But there was no way to refuse the rides.
None of them went in the water.
It was too cold, but the sun was hot.
They walked back to what was once The Great White Way.
The Giant Elephant was gone,
So were the bathhouses,
But the Wonderwheel stood its ground.
Ellen and the Argentines rode the Wonder Wheel.
Their car soared into the sky.
There were no clouds.
Only the beach, the people, and the cold green Atlantic.
From the top of the spin Ellen saw people in the water.
She could feel the cold and thought, "How cold could it be?"
The hoi polloi leaping off the pier knew how cold.
Ellen took photos from the top.
Photography was her art.
None of her models were in the Freak Show.
Ellen was an artist
And artists see the truth where no one else sees it.
Even from the top of the Wonder Wheel.
The Wonder Wheel stopped and Ellen got off the ride.
Her friends looks at her, "What next?"
She was not from New York,
But the first time she came to New York,
She came to see Coney Island.
The years had not been kind to Coney Island.
The Cyclone was ready for arson.
NBA star Stephon Marbury came from the Surfside Gardens.
He learned ball on those court.
Those boys had a tough game.
Then was a long time ago
And now was today.
Ellen turned to her friends.
"We can go to Nathans."
Her friend Peter had suggested a hot dog there.
The Argentines said, "Yes."
Nothing was more American than a hot dog
And nothing was more America than Coney Island.
It was the world.
THANKS TO ALL THE PHOTOGRAPHERS
I LOVE YOUR WORK.
A dawn of rain, drizzle, snow, and ice pellets greeted Boston on the first day of 1975. The weather on the second day of January was equally miserable, but by late morning the temperature had risen into the 40s and I walked from my Beacon Hill apartment to Chinatown.
The Mass Pike onramp was the good place to start a trip across America. The highway went in every direction, except east into the Atlantic.
Dropping my bag on a patch of dry pavement, I tucked my newly shorn hair under a watch cap and stuck out my thumb.
The silent majority was in their seventh year of ruling America. They hated the counter-culture, so getting rides was easier without long hair reminding the squares of LSD and anti-war demonstrations. In their mind we had been supporting revolution and the Viet Cong.
A hippie in a VW van stopped within two minutes.
Cary was headed to Ohio.
“I’m going to California.”
"Sort of." I had saved almost a thousand dollars over the autumn.
"How you crossing the country?"
I thought I-90 to I-80." The Interstates provided almost a straight line from Boston to San Francisco.
“My girlfriend told me Cleveland was freezing this morning and a blizzard was on the way.”
“That’s not good news.” Hitchhiking through snowstorms was not an option and I took out a map of the USA to plotted out a southern route to LA .
“Guess I’ll head south on I-95.”
"Sounds like a smart move."
"More like the only move."
The hippie dropped me at Sturbridge and I caught a long ride to Washington DC.
Earle was a sailor returning to duty in Newport VA. We listened to soul music and discussed race.
"I'm from Roxbury. People in Boston are just as racist as the crackers down South."
I agreed, since I was employed as a substitute teacher at South Boston High School.
My hometown was on the verge of a race war and that school was the flashpoint for battles between black and white teens. I needed out, because I was a race traitor and hell had a special place for my kind in South Boston and even worse for people like Earle.
South of DC Earle said, "I'm turning east."
The radio had warned of deep snow in Tennessee.
"I'm heading south to Florida." I-10 from Jacksonville was the warmest course across America.
"You're right about that, but better I leave you here. Them peckerwoods don't like white and blacks together."
"I understand. They don't like it in Boston."
My next lift went as far as Richmond.
Virginia was the Deep South, but rides came easy on the interstate. Truckers wanted company on the long stretches of highway and salesmen needed someone to keep them awake between cities.
I hid my Boston accent with a broad drawl.
The Civil War was not forgotten south of the Potomac.
Twenty-two hours after leaving Boston I crossed from Georgia into Florida.
The palm trees swayed in the balmy breeze, as I drank a complimentary orange juice at the Welcome Center. I stuck my leather jacket in the canvas bag. A tee-shirt and jeans was a welcome change from heavy winter clothing. After finishing my OJ I stood on the highway with my thumb in the air.
A Chevy SS stopped on the shoulder. The big V8 throbbed with power. I jumped in the passenger side.
“Name’s JJ. Where you going?” The longhaired redneck was wearing a Lynard Skynard shirt. The residue of reefer smoke mingled with fuel fumes. JJ was my kind of people.
“What for?” He stomped on the gas.
“To see a girl.” I adjusted my glasses on my nose.
“Long way to see a girl.” JJ gripped the wheel with a stranglehold.
“I know.” Over three thousand miles from coast to coast and even more with my detour from winter.
Diana was studying film at UC Santa Barbara. We had spent our Christmas holiday together. The blonde athlete was the kind of girl who slept around with men and women, but six days and nights in my cold-water apartment on Beacon Hill had calmed the wanderlust in her heart. When I had called to tell about my coming out west, Diana had said it was a good career move for a writer.
“LA’s west, not south.” JJ pointed to the right.
“There’s ice storms and snow in Iowa. The passes through the Rockies are snow-packed, plus I’m a little too white for LA.”
“You’re never too white.” JJ was a die-hard cracker.
“Yeah, I need color before I hit Hollywood.”
“If you mean sun, then the Sunshine State is the right place to pick up a tan.” He stuck in the Allman Brothers in his 8-track.
“Newcomers are easy to spot in Southern California.” They had no color.
“You lay out for five days in Miami Beach and you’ll be browner than George Hamilton and he’s the blackest white man I ever seen.” JJ wasn’t saying anything bad about the star of WHERE THE BOYS ARE, the ultimate Florida beach movie.
“I don’t know if I want to go that far.” The Hollywood playboy was darker than a leather coach.
“LA is like Miami. Only undertakers don’t have a tan.” The hippie cracker turned up the MIDNIGHT RIDER on the stereo.
“I have no intention of becoming a zombie in California.” Prescription sunglasses, a haircut, a convertible car, and a movie studio job would complete my metamorphosis from substitute teacher to screenwriter. Fame and fortune were within my grasp. “I’m going to write movies.”
“Does being a writer get you chicks? Because movie stars sure as hell get girls.” JJ shifted into a higher gear. We were rolling at 100.
“Maybe I will to.”
“I don’t know any writers getting girls. Most of them are fags like that Truman Capote.”
“Do you read?”
“Only Playboys and then I looked at the pictures.”
Me too.” Bebe Buell had been a satanic goddess as the cover-girl for the November issue and I had scanned every inch of the centerfold more than a hundred times.
“Where you thinking of hitting the beach?”
“I’ve already been to Fort Lauderdale. I had stayed across from the Elbow Room during Easter Break in 1971.”
“George Hamilton had hung out there in WHERE THE BOYS ARE."
“Yeah, we thought that we would meet Yvette Mimieux.”
“Fat chance of a movie star hanging around that dump.”
“You got that right. My friends and I drank beer the entire week. None of us got a tan or kissed a blonde.”
“You should check out Miami Beach. Good town. Cheap hotels. Try the Sea Breeze.” Speed ate up the road paced by Dicky Betts’ blistering guitar on IN MEMORY OF ELIZABETH REED.
There wasn’t much to see from the highway at night. Florida was mostly swamp.
Around midnight he turned off the highway and stopped on an empty road.
“Goin’ see my baby too. You have a good trip.” The muscle car was aimed into the swamps.
“You too.” I got out of the car and the Chevy SS thundered away from the highway.
This exit was about 100 miles short of Miami. I didn’t like hitchhiking in the dark. After midnight drunk crackers got mean.
A golf course lay across the highway. I walked over to the row of scrubs at the 17th green. I had cash in my pocket. Thieves preyed on hitchhikers. I crouched behind the bushes. No one could see me from the road. I almost felt safe and lay down with my bag as a pillow. The Milky Way burst with more stars this far south and I counted a hundred galaxies before falling asleep.
At dawn a spray of sprinklers spurting from hidden hoses woke me.
Slightly soaked I scurried to the rough.
A red sun rose over the grassy fairways.
A Cuban diner was opened near the highway. Cars and trucks pulled in and out of the parking lot. I walked over to eat breakfast with farm workers heading to the sugar plantations in the Everglades. After eggs, beans, rice, and coffee I stuck out my thumb on Dixie Highway.
A Cuban farmer stopped in his pick-up truck.
“I’m going to Little Havana to see my sister.”
“Would you mind stopping in Miami Beach?” I offered him $5.
“No problem. It's only a little out of my way.”
Two hours later Raoul dropped me in front of the Sea Breeze on Collins Avenue.
The temperature was in the low 80s. The sidewalks were empty and I could count the sunbathers dotting the wide beach on two hands.
Decrepit beach hotels lined Collins Avenue. The Sea Breeze looked better than the rest.
The rooms were $15/night, $90/week and $250/month. There was no pool.
The breezy art-deco lobby embraced a decade of neglect. The open windows were glazed by sea salt and the 60s furniture was aged from overuse. The management was relying on the flaking pastel blue and chalky white paint job to carry the hotel into the 1980s. The Sea Breeze was no Holiday Inn.
“I want a room,” I told the lank-haired teenager behind the desk.
“Day, month, or week. We don’t rent by the year,” he spoke slowly like he had to remember every word before he spoke it.
“How much by the week.”
"$100 in advance."
Dozens of keys hung on the wall. I chiseled him down to $65 for a week. Vacancy was at an all-time high. Miami Beach had lost its luster for the American tourist. They wanted the Caribbean and not the Gulf Stream.
“A room with a beach view.”
“That’s ten dollars extra.”
“Five.” I played hardball with the clerk.
"Okay, but guests are five dollars extra, if they stay the night."
“You got it.”
The desk clerk was the youngest man in the lobby.
I surveyed the Sea Breeze's clientele in the lobby. The white-haired men and women sat in groups of two or three. An elderly man wearing sunglasses plinked out STORMY WEATHER on the piano. The seventy year-old had a light touch with the ivories.
I hummed Etta James’ version on the stuttering elevator up to the 5th floor. Room 514 faced the ocean. The blue-white color scheme matched the view of sea and sky. I tested the AC. The old machine wheezed like a TB ward.
I shut it off and slid open the balcony's glass door. The gulf breeze filled the room. The TV was a Zenith black and white. Three channels were available. One was in Spanish. The signal came from Havana.
After a tepid shower I descended on the creaking elevator to the lobby. It was too early for a drink, so I ordered a beer from the raw-boned desk clerk. He said his name was Nick. He looked like a young baseball player from the 50s.
"You have any cold beer?"
Busch is the beer of Florida."
"I'll have one, if it's cold.
"Can't drink it any other way." Nick handed me a frosty can. "I'll put it on your tab."
I walked out of the lobby.
The late morning light bounced harshly off the tiled patio.
The old geezer at the scarred piano was one-fingering a familiar tune. It took me a little time to identify the plunking arrangement as Art Tatum’s TIGER RAG.
A steady mumble of choice expletives fumbled off the piano player’s lips and the other residents steered clear of the sun-warped piano.
I returned inside the lobby to call Diana from the hotel lobby’s pay phone.
There was no answer from the other side of America.
I told myself that she was at class and went out to the veranda. My flip-flops whisked over the cracked floor. I sat on a distressed rattan chair and drank my beer sheltered from the sun by a ratty umbrella. Only yesterday my fingers had been numbed by the cold.
I dozed off to the pianist’s rambling monologue of the blues, bread lines, and riding the rails, punctuated by patches of praise for the smell of the sea in Texas, Florida, and a place called Tulum. Coughs punctuated his rant often enough to create a rhythm.
A half-hour later the sun shifted beyond the tree and fell on my feet. I slipped out of the chair and I ordered another beer and bought cheap sunglasses from Nick.
“Who’s the music man?”
“Old Bill’s been here since before God invented dust. He’s meaner than a snake with a wire up its as, so do yourself a favor and give the old bastard a miss.”
“Thanks for the warning.”
I shuffled back to the patio with the morning Miami Herald.
Hippies waiting for Zeppelin tickets had rioted in Boston Garden inflicting over $30,000 in damages. I had seen Zep at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival and thought about asking the vile-tempered pianist to play DAZED AND CONFUSED, except the gaunt septuagenarian’s was lost in toying with a tuning fork and small wrenches.
His muttering rant was horrific.
No race was exempt from his scorn. No religion was beneath his contempt. He called the male guests ‘bums’ and the blue-haired ladies ‘whores’. They ignored his epithets, as he riffed through EVERYTIME WE SAY GOODBYE from John Coltrane’s LP MY FAVORITE THINGS.
His vile banter was getting on my nerves and I strode into the lobby for a third beer.
“You’re right about Old Bill,” I said to Nick without looking over my shoulder. “He’s got a serious dose of assholiness.”
“He wasn’t always like that from what I hear,” the younger desk clerk whispered under his breath. “Ever since his wife died two years ago, he’s been on a roll.”
“Why doesn’t the management kick him out of the hotel?” I didn’t like bullies.
“First he’s blind and second he keeps the piano tuned and lastly the residents like his piano-playing. He even plays requests.”
“Nick, what you and that hippie boy talking about?” Old Bill shouted from the piano.
“How he know I was a hippie?”
“Old Bill got good ears. Right, Bill?” Nick lifted his head, as if the blind man could see the gesture.
“Hippie Boy, this C sound right to you.”
A crooked index finger poked at a key.
I joined him at the piano.
His t-shirt and khaki trousers were stained by food and perspiration. Old Bill was not a man who cared much for his appearance.
“I think so.”
He scratched his buzz-cut, which was more white than gray.
“I’m trying to adjust the interval between tones to correct the interaction between notes. You ever play an instrument, Hippie Boy?”
“I sang a little and played bass in a garage band." Three months of covering Barry and the Remains and several years as a baritone in Our Lady of the Foothills choir were the extent of my musical training.
“You young people don’t know shit about music. Electric guitar solos by longhaired drug addicts. That ain’t fucking music. This is music.”
His spidery fingers crawled hesitantly across the keyboard to interpret a bluesy version of Dave Brubeck's BLUE RONDO. Old Bill stopped after ten bars.
“My wife loved that song.”
The way he said ‘wife’ indicated that she was dead. The residents at the Sea breeze were experts at outliving their mates.
“Hippie boy, you still there?” Old Bill took off his sunglasses. His blank eyes were as blank as cue balls, yet glowed, as if a statue had come to life.
“I knew that, but was asking if you knew you were still there.”
“Yeah, I know that I’m still here.” I stepped closer and asked, “How you know I was a hippie?”
“Everyone your age who stays at the Sea Breeze is a hippie. It’s cheap and close to the beach. Plus everyone your age is either a hippie or queer. You don’t have a lisp, so you ain’t queer, are you?”
“No.” I had danced with a few men at the 1270 Club in Boston. Kissing them meant nothing. “I like Russ Meyer movies and not gladiator films.”
“Ha, are you sure?”
Old Bill couldn’t have ever seen the buxom beauties in BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS and I asked bluntly, “Why? Are you queer?”
“No, but if I was I’d suck your dick?”
He may have been blind, but I didn’t take shit from anyone.
“I’d like a snappy streak, Hippie Boy. You have any requests?” His hands dropped to the piano.
“What about IN-DA-GADDA-DA-VIDA?” I doubted if the bitter old coot had heard of Iron Butterfly.
Old Bill nodded his head and played the heavy metal classic’s strident opening as a peace offering.
“Surprised you, huh, Hippie Boy.” Old Bill's self-satisfied grin was a tribute to no dental care. “I listen to everything on the radio. My wife Mary used to say it was my TV.”
“I like the radio too.” As a young boy in Maine I had listened to radio drama at night, when my ears painted moving pictures on the interior of a ten year-old’s eyelids. “All kinds of music too. I liked your rendering of BLUE RONDA.”
“Hippie Boy is a music lover. You from Boston, Hippie Boy?”
“That’s right.” My r-less accent was a dead giveaway.
“You be careful with that tropical sun. It burns northern white boys like pigs at a barbecue.”
“Thanks for the advice.” I left him for a swim in the ocean. The water was ten degrees warmer than the beach at Harwichport in the dead of summer. I bobbed on the waves for a good hour and then returned to the hotel. The sun had had its way with my skin and I crashed in my bed before the sunset.
The next two days passed with my following routine.
Breakfast, beach, lunch, beach, dinner, sleep.
The majority of the Sea Breeze clientele appeared to be harmless seniors with a short term on life. Nick nicknamed the Sea Breeze ‘the Stairway to Heaven’. After the third day people nodded hello with reservation. I was Old Bill’s friend and they maintained a distance.
My calls to LA went unanswered, while my scorched skin deepened to a golden brown. I sent two postcards to Diana and paid for another week at the Sea Breeze. Old Bill and I spoke often, as he worked on the piano. It was never in perfect pitch to his ear.
"My favorite turning fork is an A. It has a 444 frequency in hertz. Orchestra like that pitch." He stuck the piano with the tuning fork. It seemed ready to hum forever.
More he talked and I listened to him.
His hometown was Baltimore. He had been blind since birth. His mother had taught him how to play piano. His father had died young in a dock accident. He was an only child. The state had sent him to schools for the blind. His entire childhood had been filled with the abuse from bullies.
“The punches came from nowhere.”
His spindly nose wavered like a crooked road. Unseen fists had broken the beak more than once and scars laced his face.
“I was no Helen Keller, so I fought the bullies. They would laugh until I hit them. Made them think that I really wasn’t blind, but the blows were easier to take than the whispers. I heard them say everything. They thought they were funny. I hated them, but music saved my soul.”
“I got beat up in 7th Grade.”
“Then you know what I’m talking about. You fight back?”
“They were three of them. Fighting only made them meaner."
“Tough odds.” Old Bill shrugged with one shoulder. “I hate bullies. That’s why I hate most of the old coots here. Most of them are crackers who loved to lynch niggers and right-wing thugs looking to jail commies.”
“You seem to have a way with people.” The residents of the Sea Breeze were neither racists nor fascists, but his dead eyes saw things his way. “You have any friends?”
“If I wanted a friend, I’d buy a dog. My music is my best friend. I was lucky to have learned piano tuning in his teens. My travels around the country were financed by sick pianos. Bad weather and heavy hands take their toll on the keys. New Yorkers treat their pianos with respectful neglect, while Texans beat the shit out of theirs. I made a good living out of finding the perfect fifth. Miami Beach is good for fucking up pianos. The sun, sea, and humidity play havoc with pianos. And all those rich motherfuckers thinks their spoiled brat is going to be the next Glenn Gould. Not one of them silver-spoon brats can play a lick.”
Old Bill and I drank a beer and argued about greatest pianist. He favored Thelonius Monk, while I preferred McCoy Tyner's chordal phasing with John Coltrane over the Phillie pianist. Both were in our top five.
“You wanna know something, Hippie Boy.” Old Bill never asked my name.
“Maybe there’s hope for you after all. My wife loved McCoy.” He drained the beer and returned to the piano to play a rudimentary GIANT STEPS. Old Bill was good, but he'd never be great in this lifetime.
That evening I wrote a long letter to Diana about Miami Beach, Old Bill, and the sun ending it with ‘see you soon’. I figured I would leave in another week, because winter was losing its grip on Dixie.
Every afternoon Old Bill and I went to Wolfie Cohen’s Deli. He hated the hotel food. We could have taken the bus, but he preferred to walk with his slender walking cane tapping out the way. The counter staff greeted him with warmth. He never tortured them with his bad attitude.
“I don’t want them spitting in my food.”
One day he pointed out a tidy woman at a window table in the famed deli on 172nd Street. Her two friends and she were eating jello.
“That’s Mrs. Meyer Lansky. She comes here everyday with those two old broads.”
The waiter delivered bacon and fried eggs to our table. They were a special every hour of the day.
“Meyer Lansky the mob mastermind? He had added the 00 to the roulette wheel to increase the edge for the house."
“That’s the one.” Old Bill’s fork picked apart the eggs. His eating habits were a sight that sored eyes.
“She doesn’t look too well-off.” The tiny woman could have been a tenant at the Sea Breeze.
“Lansky supposedly left no money when he died.” Old Bill stuck a dripping yolk in his mouth and swallowed without chewing. “Her son from her first marriage was shotgunned to death outside his restaurant in Bay Harbor. An old debt being paid. So much for Lansky’s luck. The murdering bastard. I tuned his piano once. Tried to chisel me on the bill.”
He waved to the old woman on the way out.
She waved back like they were old friends.
Old Bill had lots of stories and he loved telling them at the Deuce Bar, which was close to the Sea Breeze.
“This place smells like New York to me. Sour beer, whiskey sweat, cheap perfume, and cigarettes. Back in the 50s I used to go up to Harlem and tune whorehouse pianos. Now that was nice.” He inhaled the air, as if to pick out a faint trace of that memory on the breeze. "Lilacs and a woman's glow after a trick."
A saccharine version of MISTY played on the jukebox.
"Jackie Gleason. People loved his music. He composed and arranged the theme for his TV show even though he couldn't read music."
"I watched THE HONEYMOONERS with my parents." His interpretation of a luckless Brooklyn bus driver was hilarious.
“He was more than funny. You know he did his show down here?”
“THE JACKIE GLEASON SHOW.”
“It was broadcast live direct from Miami Beach. A lot of people worked on that show here. It was a big operation. I wish that I was one of them, but Jackie only worked with union guys, although one time I had drinks with him. The big man was really into UFOs. He thought they were going to kidnap him into Space. Fat chance of them fitting the Great One in a flying saucer."
“I loved him in the movie SOLDIER IN THE RAIN.” Jackie Gleason had played a conniving sergeant opposite Steve McQueen. "The ending made me cry."
“You were never in the military, Hippie boy, were you?” The words were almost an accusation.
“No.” Vietnam was a war fought by the working class and I tensed up in preparation for an attack.
“Chill out, Hippie Boy. I wasn’t in the army either, but I did get drafted. The damned draft board thought I was faking my blindness. After a check-up they wrote up that not only did I have perfect 0/0 vision, but I had flat feet too. Never knew that. Good thing I got a long nose. I can smell everything around me like a bloodhound tracking a runaway slave.”
Old Bill raised his head and howled off-key. He was no singer.
I ordered us another round.
The Deuce Bar served cheap Canadian whiskey to Old Bill and I drank Busch Beer. The rough and ready bar had a warped pool table and Old Bill’s favorite antic was to challenge a newcomer to a game using his cane as a cue stick. All he had to do was sink one ball. The rube would accept the challenge and then Old Bill would accuse them of cheating. He thought it was a good laugh.
That night I called Diana from a hotel phone booth. I hung up without anyone answering on the other side of America.
"What's wrong?" asked Bill.
"You don't sound like nothing. More like a woman problem."
"A good guess."
"Better that than getting old. Everyone in the Sea Breeze is happy to wake up in the morning. They think you're good luck."
"Because no one has died since you came here. Hey, I have a joke for you."
"I can imagine."
"There's these two old guys living in Miami Beach.
Izzy and Moishe sit on the terrace of the Sea Breeze Hotel and Izzy says, “You know Moishe, we’ve had a good life, but I’ve been wondering about what’s next?”
“What’s next is we die. One of us first and then the other second.”
“What about Hell?”
"There's no hell or heaven." Moishe was an atheist.
“But what if there really is a heaven and hell?”
“This I don't know, but I tell you what, if one of us dies and there is a heaven or hell, he should come back to say if there is a heaven or hell. Is it a deal?”
“For you, anything.”
The two were old friends and neither man thinks anything about the oath until Moishe dies two weeks later.
"At least he went in his sleep.” Izzy tells the children who are transporting the body back up north, because one gets buried in Florida. A week goes by, then another. A month and then more."
"This joke feels as long as a month."
"Patience." Old Bill raised his hand. "A year to the day of Moishe's passing, the curtains of Izzy’s windows billow inward without a breeze. The temperature was in the 80s, but the room is freezing. Moishe can see his breath and asks, “Izzy, is that you?” “Of course it’s me, who else were you expecting?” The voice sounds like it’s coming from across the universe. “Only you, so tell me, are you in heaven or hell?” Moishe is eager to hear the answer, since then he can tell Izzy that he was wrong about heaven and hell. “Neither.” “Neither?” Moishe hadn’t expected this response. “So what do you do all the time?” “I eat, I fuck, I eat, I fuck, I eat, I fuck, and then I go to sleep.” “Well, aren’t you in heaven?”
Old Bill waited a second and then dropped the punchline.
“No, I’m a rabbit in Texas.”
I got a good laugh and forgot about Diana for about a minute.
"Don't worry about that girl. She'll be there. She's going to school and they don't end till the Spring."
Nearing dawn we rode the elevator up to our floors and I fell asleep thinking about rabbits. There were probably a lot of them in Texas.
That weekend we watched the Super Bowl at the Deuce Bar. Both of us bet on Pittsburgh. The Steelers covered the spread by 13. We celebrated our win with a long night of drinking rum and cokes. The bartender threw us out at dawn after an obscene toast to the MVP Franco Harris.
Walking back to the Sea Breeze he turned his head to the northern sky. A white contrail pummeled through the clear morning sky.
"That's a rocket was lifting from Cape Kennedy going where no one man has been before.” Old Bill chuckled and grabbed my arm, as he stumbled off the curb. “Damn, drunk doesn’t combo good with blind. Better watch where I’m going.”
Old Bill’s geographic memory prevented most accidents, but one afternoon he entered the hotel with blood streaming from a cut on his head.
“I went out for a job in Coconut Grove. The bastard customer left me on the wrong side of the road and I walked into a damned coconut tree. I felt like Helen Keeler after her parents moved the furniture. Lucky a coconut didn’t fall on my head.”
He wiped away the blood with his tee-shirt to wipe away the blood.
“You know all pianists spread their notes over three or four octaves. McCoy Tyner was trying to stretch the sound. It’s all a question of string scaling.”
“Sorry, Old Bill, that’s Greek to me.”
“To most people too. I feel like the last of my kind, but that means I always have a job. You know the song HOUSTON.”
“Going back to Houston.” I sang the line from Dean Martin’s hit.
"You can't sing for shit either, but that's the tune. I got an old girlfriend east of there. A town called Bumfuck, Texas. She wants me to come tune her piano. She’ll pay gas and food. You want to drive me there?”
“A Delta 88,” he said it with pride.
“You have a car?” My father drove the same vehicle. It weighed a ton.
“I bet no one asks Stevie Wonder if he has a car, Hippie Boy. You fuckin’ saying I’m not normal?”
These were the harshest words Old Bill had ever aimed in my direction and I said, "Why you have to be so mean all the time?"
"Me mean? I the world is mean and I been taught that every day of my life. And you know who's been good to me. My wife Mary and her people. That's all, so if I want to be mean than I got good reason."
I tried to apologize, but he pushed me away.
“If you don’t want to drive to Houston with me, just say so.”
“No, I’ll drive you there.” Diana's skin was smooth as the morning breeze off the Gulf Stream and Houston was almost halfway to the coast.
“Don’t bullshit me, Hippie boy.” We had arrived at the Sea Breeze.
“No bullshit.” I had Diana’s address. She would be surprised to see me. The look on her face would tell whether the surprise was good or bad.
“Then pack your bag. We’re going now.”
“Now?” It was almost midday.
“Check-out's at noon and I want to be in East Bumfuck tomorrow night.” Old Bill hurried into the lobby headed for the stairs.
“I’ll see you down here in ten minutes.”
I showed up in five minutes and dialed Diana from the telephone booth. She answered after two rings, sounding like she had been expecting someone else.
“Where are you?”
I told her about the Sea Breeze and Old Bill. She laughed and said, “Sounds like it’d make a good film. I’ll see you in a few days.”
I handed in my key. Nick said that he was sorry to see me go.
"Everyone else too. You know no one's died since you came."
"Old Bill told me the same thing."
"Where you going?”
“I’m driving Old Bill to Houston.”
“Whatever you do, don’t let him drive.” The clerk bit his lower lip. “That old man is dangerous. To himself is no problem, but don’t let him kill you.”
“Stop talking about me like I’m not here. I’m blind, not deaf.” Old Bill entered the lobby with a leather satchel in his hand, wearing a black suit shiny with age and a rumpled white shirt. The dust had been wiped off his shoes.
“You look good.”
“Of course I look good. A man should make a good impression on the road. Nick, I’ll be gone a week and I'll see you suckers when I see you."
No one in the lobby wished him ‘good luck’. They were happy to see his back, if only for seven days.
Old Bill’s car was in the rear parking lot and I pulled the cover off the big Detroit boat. The Delta 88 steel was painted a somber gray. He walked over to the passenger side and opened the door.
“Mary used to drive me in this car. She liked driving fast.”
“I don’t drive that fast. I hate speeding tickets.”
“My wife never got a speeding ticket.” He stopped speaking, as if he were checking his memory, then said, “C’mon, get in. We don’t got all day. You hippie boys think the world one big Woodstock. Naked girls and LSD.”
“And would that be such a bad thing?”
“It would be for the clothing factories in the South and tobacco growers.”
We left Miami on US 27 and hit Lake Okeechobee at 2. Old Bill didn't like the Interstate. The noise of the semi-trailers hurt hiss ears.
Small towns interrupted the endless swamp.
Clewiston, Venus, Lake Placid, Sebring, Lady Lake.
He gave directions, as if the bumps in the road were Braille. We stopped every four hours for gas and a walk. I drank coffee and ate donuts to save my money.
Back on the road Old Bill fiddled with the radio. Florida radio played mostly country or Latin and black stations were ghettoed on the end of the dial.
“Can’t stand that peckerwood shit and I’ve heard enough spic music in Miami to last me a lifetime in Texas.”
“But you’re okay with soul.”
“My wife loved that darkie R&B.”
Old Bill drank whiskey from a silver flask.
“None for you, you’re driving.”
An hour after sunset we passed through Ocala. The cowboy town looked mean and I kept driving at the speed limit. Florida was a big state at 55.
I got on the Interstate after Lake City.
Old Bill drunkenly bitched about the trucks.
"Not many other options." I wasn't keen on driving through the backroads of the Panhandle. "This is cracker territory."
“I know, but those trucks sound like giant frogs fartin’.” He stuffed wads of wet paper in his ears and fell asleep until we reached Mobile around four in the morning.
“There’s a good crab shack before the bridge.” He lifted his nose to the open window. “The second one. We’ll eat there. My wife liked it.”
Old Bill’s choice was on the money.
The crabs were big and juicy.
He tucked a napkin into his collar and spread a handkerchief on his lap.
“Only got one suit.”
The other late-night diners watched him crack the crabs and stuff the succulent meat in his mouth. Shells and crab were scattered all over his side of the table. I averted my eyes from the horror of his enjoyment. At the end of the meal Old Bill wiped his mouth with the napkin.
“I get anything on my suit?” He stared down with an inquisitive sniff.
“Nothing.” It had been a miracle.
“I’m a lucky man.”
“How so?” I felt good too.
“I got me a full belly of crab.”
"Me too.” A warm wind bleew off the Gulf and the road was open to LA. We got back in the Olds.
“This car belonged to my wife. She drove me everywhere. You might have noticed that I’m not an easy man, but she brought out the best in me. We must have stopped at this crab shack ten or fifteen times. Tonight it was almost like she was there with me. She didn’t speak much and neither did you. That’s why I dressed up for this trip. She hated me looking sloppy. You speak with that girl of yours?"
“Right before I left."
“That’s good. A man alone is not a good thing. Look at me. Old, mean, and alone. No one care a shit for me.”
“But you had Mary.
“Yes, I had her.” Old Bill scratched his nose, as if he were sharpening it to keen his whereabouts.
“And I thought Mary would outlive me. All women are supposed to outlive their man, but not Mary. I put her in the early grave with my craziness.”
Old Bill took out a handkerchief and blew his nose.
“Sorry, any time I get near New Orleans I get a little misty, I met Mary there. I was playing piano in a bar. Never knew its name. Only the smell. One night a perfume caught my nose.Not a whore. A lady. Mary. She liked my playing. We went out and I stopped seeing other women. We had thirty-three years together. And not once did I sniff at another woman. Are you still there, Hippie Boy?”
“Right behind the wheel.” The last coffee was wearing off fast and I suppressed a yawn.
“Don’t pay for an old man to think too much about the past. The old sentiments sneak up on you like the Japs at Pearl Harbor. You’re not feeling tired, are you?”
“Just a little.”
“Soon you’ll be resting one eye and then the other. Good way to find yourself off the road into a tree. Pull off the highway round Bay St. Louis. We’ll sleep by the beach. Nice to wake to the sound of the sea. Unless of course you want me to drive. The road gets mighty straight around here.”
“No, I'll drive.”
Pass Christian was our final stop for the night. We parked by the beach and opened the windows to the gentle night air. A frail moon illuminated the gulf.
Old Bill handed me the flask of whiskey.
“You earned it. Sleep good.” Old Bill dropped his seat into a deep recline and he was snoring several seconds later. I listened to the mosquitoes hunting my blood. I don’t remember falling asleep.
A rap on the car trunk woke us at dawn. A police officer stood next to the Delta 88. His hand was on his holster. The gun was a .45.
“You boys run out of gas.”
“Just steam, officer.” Old Bill righted his seat and took off his Ray-Bans. “My young friend here drove all the way from Miami yesterday. He had to get some sleep or else drive into the beautiful scenery.”
“Something wrong with getting a hotel?” The trooper stood by my door.
;“Just trying to save money,” Old Bill spoke like he had been reared in this parish. “We have ID. Have money too. This is my car.”
“What’s a blind man doing with a car?”
“This used to belong to my old lady. She’s dead two years now. This young fellow offered to drive me to Houston.”
“He’s got hair long enough to be a lady. You ain’t queer, are you, boy?”
“Officer, Hippie Boy ain’t no queer and I ain’t no bum. You want to see our registration?”
“No, aj ust get moving. Don’t need your type in our town.
“Have a good day.”
“It’ll be good once you’re gone.”
The officer returned to a souped-up Chevy cruiser and 180ed in the opposite direction.
“I don’t like eating crow, but that’s all the cops serve around these parts.” Old Bill spit out the window. “Let’s do like he said and get moving.”
We crossed the bridge between the old towns of Pass Christian and Port St. Louis. A sandy beach to the left was lined with trees and antebellum mansions lay to the right.
“Avoid New Orleans.” Old Bill ordered at the turning. “Don’t much like the Pearl City anymore. It reminds me too much of Mary.”
We skirted the lake and entered Baton Rouge around 9, where we had donuts and coffee for breakfast.
I called Diana from a gas station.
The phone rang ten times.
The day grew hot, as we drove through Lafayette, Iowa, and Lake Charles. I turned on the AC. Old Bill liked the cold.
With Texas was less than 20 minutes away Old Bill had me pull into a gas station in Beaumont.
The men looked at me funny. Cowboys didn’t like hippies and they thought Old Bill was weird.
He heard their mutterings.
“Damn goat-ropers.” He fumbled for coins from his pocket and gave me a slip of paper. “Dial this number for me.”
The area code was same as the pay phone. The call cost 90 cents. I put in the money. A woman answered on the other end. Old Bill had better luck than me. I handed him the phone.
Old Bill spoke for three minutes and then hung up.
Walking back to the car he said, “Not far now. Maybe ten miles. We get off the highway next exit. I ever show you a picture of my Mary?”
Once inside the Olds he fished out a tattered photo from his wallet. The woman was pretty with jet black skin. Living in the South as a mixed couple must have been hard on both of them.
“That she was.” He put away the photo after a kiss.
When we left the highway, Old Bill sniffed the air and said, “Stop here.”
“Here?” A straight two-laner disappeared to the north through bare fallow fields.
“Yeah, I know the way from here. I want to drive.” He pushed me hard.
“You sure that’s a good idea?” Nick had warned me against just this.
“This is my damn car. If I want to drive it, then I’ll drive it. You don’t think that I know what I’m doing? Get the fuck out of my car, Hippie Boy. I’m not joking.” His fists were tight balls of old bone and flesh. He raised one in anger.
“This is fucked.” I opened my door and started for the passenger side.
“I think you know where you’re going, but can’t see the way.”
“I don’t need to see. I have an ear for the road, so where I’m going, I’m going alone, so I don’t need a seeing-eye hippie."
“Have it your way.” I angrily grabbed my bag. Expecting a good goodbye had been too much to asked from Old Bill.
“Hey, Hippie Boy?”
“What’s your name?”
I told him.
“Hippie Boy suits you better.” Old Bill turned on the radio. Booker T was playing GREEN ONIONS.
“Now that’s some good traveling music.
“You’re right about that, Old Bill.”
“You have a good time with that hippie girl in California.”
"And don't worrying about me getting killed. If that happened the worst thing would be my ending up as a rabbit in Texas and you know what they do all day?"
"Yes, I do."
"See ya, Hippie Boy." Old Bill drove slowly down that long road and the Delta 88 wavered from side to side without falling into the drainage ditch. He was not driving fast, but within several minutes the Delta 88 was a little black dot.
I turned to the highway.
An hour passed with southern slowness.
Finally a semi-trailer stopped for me. The bearded driver was bound for Austin, Texas. The capitol of cowboy rock was home for Commander Cody and Asleep At The Wheel.
“What were you doing out there?” He shifted the big rig into gear.
“A friend dropped me off.” There was no car on the road.
“The middle of nowhere.” He squinted at the flat East Texas landscape.
“He was going to see an old girlfriend and a piano.”
“What about you?”
“I’m going to the West Coast.”
“Anyplace not cold sounds good to me this time of the year.”
The big truck picked up speed and I started humming IN-DA-GADDA-VIDA.
Old Bill’s version was a song I couldn’t get out of my head.
Just like a tuning fork sounding a perfect fifth.
It was a hum destined to last forever.
My older brother's school was a trolley ride away from our suburban house. Boston College High School excelled at sports and academics. I wanted to join my brother in the following class of 1970, except I won a full scholarship to Xaverian Brothers located only ten miles away from our exit on Route 128. The distance seemed small to my parents, but I ran track and once the school bus for my hometown left the parking lot, my only option to get to 109 Harborview Road was to hitchhike from the East Street on ramp of 128.
My hair wasn't long. I was good-looking in my school uniform and blazer. Balding men stopped for me. They smelled of Aqua Velva. After a few minutes on 128 the drivers never failed to ask, "Do you like gladiator movies?"
"No," I said, fearing an escalating series of homo-erotic suggestions and the drivers dropped me at the dreaded I-93 cloverleaf.
Several long walks to the 138 exit taught me that saying 'yes' was better than 'no'. I never told my parents about these or that Brother Jerome the school's librarian asked the same question during Reading 101.
After graduation I didn't hear that line until I saw the movie AIRPLANE in 1980, when Peter Graves of MISSION IMPOSSIBLE fame asked a young boy, "What do you think about gladiator movies?"
Every man in the audience laughed in solidarity. None of the women broke a smile. This was our little secret and males my age recognized the influence of gladiator movies on our pubescent libidos.
I don't care what anyone thinks.
Steve Reeves the Hercules of the 60s wasn't gay.
Tony Curtis on the other hand was very gay in SPARTACUS.
A slave to a Roman master played by Larry Olivier.
Very out and when GLADIATOR was screened in 1980, I saw the first show. My friends and I went to dinner and told the maitre de about the movie.
"It doesn't sound like a real gladiator movie." Marvin sniffed with disdain. He was 6-1 and weighed 145. Mussels were a dish served on a plate not on his bones. "They're never a real gladiator movie unless two men wrestle naked."
That comment certainly shone new light on the wrestling scene between Alan Bates and Oliver Reed in the film adaptation of WOMEN IN LOVE. They were gladiators too, if only for that scene.
Naked men and gladiators might say something to some men, but Steve Reeves was not gay.
No way, but that didn't stop him from being an idol.
My high school German professor smoked cigarettes in the classroom. Ashes from his dying butts dropped onto his black cassock, as we read Kafta's DAS URTEIL from a blue book.
"Du sprechet wie Arschloch."
Bruder Karl's cigarette ravaged voice grated the cinderblock wall.
Boston accents have no R and our class defiled the Teutonic language.
My 1st semester grade was an D-.
I was on academic scholarship.
The Principal and Vice-Principal suggested a change of language to Spanish.
I refused their offer.
My 2nd semester earned an F in German troubled by another F in religion.
I no longer believed in god.
The school withdrew my scholarship. My uncle was a lawyer. He persuaded them to reinstate half the scholarship and I remained at Xaverian to learn German.
My accent barely improved despite Bruder Karl's tutorship and I graduated without any honors other than the annual delivery of Bruder Karl's Christmas card.
"You were my star student."
"Wahrheitsgemäß." I doubted him.
"You were the only one who could speak Deutsch."
"But you failed me."
"Because you couldn't read it." He stubbed out his cigarette and clapped a hand on my shoulder. "One day you will speak German in Deutschland and maybe other countries too, for once you can speak one language you can speak them all, especially one as hard as German"
His prediction came true, when I took a job in Hamburg at the door of a pimp's nightclub, BSIR.
"Es tut mir lied."
I said that whenever I didn't let in a nightclubber.
I said it in French more than once in Paris, but there I said, "Je m'excuse." or 'I excuse myself'.
I learned this phrase in Italian, Indonesian, Indian, and Chinese, because I have sinned around the world and I have been sorry for my transgressions, however I have never heard a Thai person say that they were sorry.
The words do exist in Thai.
Your girlfriend can burn your house down with a burn-the-house-down smile.
Leave you for another man.
Say you don't love them enough.
Their lack of contrition was a parody of the famous adage from the movie LOVE STORY.
"Being in love is never having to say sorry."
Thais love everyone and we all know that Beauty never says sorry to the Beast.
In the late-60s I attended a Catholic Boys high school ten miles away from my house. No buses or trains ran between the suburbs on the outskirts of Boston and only connection between these bedroom communities was Route 128 orbiting Boston from Nantasket Beach in the South Shore to the North Shore fishing port of Gloucester.
Boys from my high school had three choices of transportation from my high school. Freshmen and sophomore were stuck on expensive private buses, while upper-class students organized car pools sharing gas and driving. The final option was hitchhiking, which required walking from the school to 128. For some reason townspeople never picked up Catholic schoolboys, but getting a ride from the East Street exit was easy, since sex predators cruised the highway for teenage boys.
"You ever seen a naked man in the shower." They loved that line.
Car pools avoided that sexual confrontation and mine was divided between my VW Beetle, Chuckie Manzi's Plymouth, Frank Monaco's Comet, and Tommy Dangree's Mercury Cougar. Every afternoon we hit 128 to race the other teenagers on the eight-lane highway. My daredevil driving skills in the VW beat out more timorous drivers behind the wheel of muscle cars, but Tommy's Cougar GT was powered by a 390 FE V8.
That car accelerated down the ramp and Tommy's specialty was the speed record between East Street to Rte. 138 beneath Big Blue Hill. The distance was three miles. His best time for the autumn of 1968 had been 2 minutes and 21 seconds, until one spring afternoon WMEX started playing the Chambers Brothers TIME HAS COME TODAY upon our reaching East Street.
"How long is this song?" Tommy shouted back over the salt-marsh grit of the 50,000 transmission.
His radio had one volume.
"The AM single is 2:37," I answered knowing that WMEX's format never allowed the 11-minute-plus version.
"I'm going for the record. Time it." Tommy stamped on the accelerator. His tank was filled with Sunoco's best octane 100 from a musclehead gas station near Wollaston Beach. The tachometer redlined and the speedometer swung right beyond 100.
We had an open road.
The other cars were a blur.
"Time has come today." The four of us sang with the windows shut for aerodynamics.
He hit 126 heading up the incline to 138 and Tommy braked for the exit. The Cougar fishtailed into the cloverleaf followed by the smell of burning tires and us singing the final chorus.
Now the time has come
There are things to realize
Time has come today
Time has come today
"2:05." According to my Timex.
"I'll break that one day," Tommy boasted with high hopes.
Speed was his drug, however he failed on numerous occasions to better that time. Traffic or weather interfered with his many attempts and twice state troopers stopped him for violating the speed limit.
My efforts in the VW Beetle were pathetic. Its top speed 85 with a tailwind and the 60s ended without any one bettering Tommy's speed.
The record seemed as safe as Babe Ruth's home run record, then in the Spring of 1973 my favorite cousin dropped off his prom date near my high school. Her name is unimportant. Errol was wearing a black tux. His shirt had ruffles and his red tie was undone. He might have had a few beers before getting behind the wheel of his father's Sky-Blue Lincoln IV with a white hard-top. A 460 in³ (7.5 L) Ford 385 series V8 engine was under the hood. The twenty-foot long sedan was a monster.
It was 3am.
There was no traffic on Route 128.
Errol tells the story this way.
"I gave the beast the gas and saw the fuel gauge drop a few inches." The Mark IV sucked gas like a black hole. "Zero to 60 in two seconds. I stomped the pedal to the medal and within a few seconds I'm at 100 mph. The speedo went to 160 and I kept both hands on the wheel, as the car hit a small bump in 128. Only at that speed with that car's suspension there are no small bumps. I was launched into the air and the Mark IV hit the highway in acceleration mode. I swear on our grandmother's grave that I made the 93 exit in 35 seconds and 138 in a minute-ten. I must have broken the sound barrier. I was traveling that fast."
Errol loved telling this story and I sort of believe him, since for me all stories are true if interesting and no one is going to break his record.
Not on 128.
Not with all the traffic.
Not in this century for some pleasures have been lost to the 21st Century like driving a Mark IV Lincoln at full speed without worrying about the police. That sensation is lost forever, but not the excitement of hearing TIME HAS COME TODAY and to view the Chambers Brothers classic hit, please go to the following URLhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uHfB63ln1Ig
At Xaverian High School outside of Boston Brother Phelan taught history without any deviation from the path of the textbook. I was Brother Phelan's # 1 student, since I had read the textbook from beginning to end during the first week of the semester. During class I stared out the window, thinking about my cheerleader girlfriend, Kyla. A month into the semester the old boxer requested his students to write essays about the Magna Carta, Napoleon, and the Civil War. My classmates turned in papers of various lengths.
"Smith, help me grade the papers." Brother Phelan waved for me to join him after class.
He was no greasy chickenhawk.
The robed teacher and I gathered up the reports and we walked down the corridor to the stairwell. I thought we were going to his office, but the broad-bellied brother stopped at the stairwell and commanded, "Toss the papers one by one up the stairs."
I didn't understand the why, but like I stated earlier Brother Phelan had been a fighter.
They earned respect and I did as I waas told.
After two minutes forty odd hand-written and typed papers were scattered up the steps.
"Here." Brother Phelan handed me a small notebook and said with a Connemarra accent. "Record the name and the grade."
He started at the bottom.
He cleared the stairs and midway up he said, "C-."
This went on until he reached the top, where he gave an A+ to a thick tome of thirty pages.
"Aren't you going to read them?"
"What for? I grade them by weight. The heavier ones go farther. The lighter one less so."
"So everything they write is unimportant."
"You could think of it that way. The Magna Carta was signed by King John and he killed all the nobles.
"With the help of foreigners."
"Correct." He tapped the papers into a neat pile and came back down the steps.
"Napoleon loses at Waterloo."
"Able I was ere I saw Elba," I repeated the fallen emperor's famous palindrome to his English doctor on the remote South Atlantic island.
"You show great promise, but I didn't find your paper in the pile."
"It wasn't there."
"I didn't feel like rehashing history as we know it." I reached into my bag and pulled out a treatise on the 1848 Revolution titled UP AGAINST THE WALL. I hadn't wanted any of my classmates to see it. America was at war with the Viet Cong. My friends hated commies. I was an atheist. They hated us even worst.
"Four pages?" He flicked the paper like a poker player waiting the last card on stud.
"A C- according to my grading scale."
"Better than failing."
"I supposed you're right, boyo, but I'll give it a read."
He bid me well. I had a track meet that afternoon. I ran the 440 and relay along with doing the long jump.
I finished 4th in the first, the team won the second, and I hit seventeen feet off the wood into a sawdust pit. Brother Phelan helped me to my feet. No one beat that distance.
"Now that's history."
"Yes, it is," I answered, because history was all about how long history flew through time.
And time lasted forever for teenagers of the 1960s.
My mother deteriorated rapidly in her bed at MGH. She was in the final stages of her battle with cancer. It was not a pretty fight, but her beauty remained intact to the end. On Christmas Eve my mother held my hand and said, "I'm so happy I made Christmas."
"Me too." I thought about John Wayne at the end of THE SEARCHERS and forced back my tears.
"You've been everywhere in the world. You've never been to Ireland. I'm leaving you a little money. I want you to go to Ireland and find a girl like your aunts or sisters to marry. Will you do that for me?" Her grip tightened to crack my knuckles. She knew her own strength to the measure. Her grandmother had fled the Aran Isles as a girl of twelve. Nana never went back home. The one boat trip was enough for her.
"Yes, I will." There was no refusing here, despite the incestuous nature of her last demand from her second son.
"You're a good boy." She released my hand with a sigh. "Help me with the medicine."
By medicine my mother meant her morphine drip. I hit her up good. Her tender eyes rolled into heaven and I kissed her forehead. Three weeks later she passed from this life. No one in my family contested her will and six months later I received enough money to survive four months in Ireland. My good friend Camp had arranged a rental in the far west of Galway beneath the Seven Pins of the Connemarra. The renovated school house belonged to the Guinness family. They made beer.
"So it has to be grand?" I had read about the nearest town. Clifden had fifteen pubs. The guide books said nothing about women.
"It's the Guinness'. How grand couldn't it be?" Camp was English. He lived north of New York in a valley dedicated to the pleasures of the wealthy. I trusted his taste, even if the Brit had never been to Ballyconeeley. Camp was an interior designer. Straight, but still an interior designer. They knew style.
The cottage was rented until the end of the summer and I sublet my apartment at the beginning of September. My boss at the diamond exchange wished me luck with my wife hunt.
"May you make your mother happy." Manny was a mother's boy. We all are in the end.
"I'm doing this for her. I doubt there will be any women." Most Irish women like women everywhere else left their hicktowns for big cities and the guide book had indicated that a small village could get more hickster than Ballyconeeley. It was renown for its cows.
"Better you than me." The seventy year-old jeweler was in the first stages of divorcing his second wife. "I'm done with women. But you're still a young man."
"43." My father had six kids at this age. I had none.
"43. I would cut off your right ball to be 43 again." Manny slipped me a c-note. "Save it until you have a girl to take out to dinner. A yard has to go a long way with a girl from the sticks."
The flight to Dublin was six hours. I found myself a cheap bed and breakfast on the other side of the Penny Bridge. I phoned Lord Guinness to pick up the keys for the house in the West. A taxi took me out to LOdge Park. The red-headed driver was impressed by my destination.
"I helped pay for this with all the Arthurs I bought." The gravel driveway led through a quiet park to a large Georgian mansion with a nearby Victorian shed housing a steam museum. The only word for the estate was grand.
"Arthurs?" My ear was adjusted to the accent.
"Pints of Guinness. The founder's name was Arthur."
"Right." I stored this tidbit of local lore for use at a later time and tipped the driver
His house was a palace complete with medieval tapestries and 16th Century paintings. Selling beer was a good business and I thought to myself, "If the cottage is a hundredth of this barrack, then I will be living in the lap of luxury."
Lord Guinness greeted me and we drank a glass of an excellent St. Emillion to seal our verbal agreement. After my paying the rent for three months in total the white-haired aristocrat drove me back to Dublin in a gray Ferrari from the 60s. The 250 GTE hit 120 mph on the rainy motorway. The windshield wipers worked over-time. A mansion and an Italian sports car were good omen for the cottage in the West.
"I love this car, but I'm getting too old to drive it."Nearing Dublin he slowed down to 60.
"I know what you mean." Getting in was easy. Getting out required a man-servant.
We stopped at the Shelbourne Hotel for drinks. My landlord was greeted by several of the men at the bar. He ordered the finest whiskey at the bar. My rent money paid for both rounds. It was an early night for both of us. He dropped me at my bed and breakfast and I bid him fare-well.
"Enjoy yourself. My friends have spend many summers in that house."
"You don't live there."
"No, I live at the family house."
Oh." I entered the B and B thinking how bad could it be. The man had a Ferrari.
The next morning I rode the train to Galway. A bus brought me to Clifden. A taxi finished off the journey and the female driver asked, "So you'll be staying at the schoolhouse?"
"Yes, you know it." I had great expectations.
"Ah, yes, it's a fine building." She was in her 40s. Her brogue was thick than a slab of breakfast toast. The turn indicator presaged our entering a dirt track. The uneven surface would have broken the axel of the 250 GTE. "This is it."
"I guess it is." I got out of the car and shivered in my light jacket.
The lawn was overrun by thistles and the tufts of grass wavering in a wet wind. The whitewashed house was devoid of any modern design or ancient practicality. The tall walls stood facing the west. The Atlantic lay beyond the field. The color blue matched the shreds of sky visible through the tattered clouds.
"You'll be wanting to wear a few more sweaters in the house. Cold comfort." She joined my shiver. "I went to school here. The teacher lived in the upstairs. Some people say the house is haunted. What do they know. You have a good day now?"
She drove away in the direction of Clifden. I stood and examined my home for the next three months. It was not a mansion. Part of the roof was in need of repair. A neglected graveyard lay in a bog dominated by a burnt church. The wan sun slipped into a cloud bank and the rain beat on the hard dirt. I ran inside the house. The woman had been right, It was colder within the old schoolhouse than outside. The decor of the sitting room affected the height of simplicity and the furniture might have been rummaged from the local dump. The telephone worked and there was pile of peat by the fireplace. I lit it several chunks and spotted a nearly empty bottle of whiskey on the desk.
I felt no heat from the fire and smoke was curling out of the fireplace to form a low fogbank in the sitting room.
It was no mansion. The Ferrari was back in Dublin. My fingers were losing feeling from the cold and I poured two measures of Paddy into a fruit glass grimy with fingerprints. I downed the fiery antithesis of Jamison's Malted Whiskey in one go. My body shook with displeasure.
All and all it wasn't bad, because this was where my mother wanted me to be and wherever she was in the afterlife, she knew that I had obeyed the first part of her wish.
Getting to Ireland was easy.
Meeting a girl like my sisters or aunts.
That was the hard part.
There was only one way to make it easy and I finished off the bottle. It went down same as before and I wouldn't have expected anything different from a house without a Ferarri.