A Colorful But Awfully Flimsy Story

Some stories coalesce properly, their meaningful themes presented intelligently, their aims met, their pacing expertly handled. Such stories have a powerful reason for being.

And then there are those stories that don’t have any good reason for being at all, such as the one I’m attempting to bang out right now. Holy crap, sweat beads are pouring from my brow, straining so hard am I to create product out of the thinnest threads of inspiration. My editor, Edgar Reewright, whom you possibly might recall from his previous appearances on these pages (click here and also here, for instance), couldn’t believe how low I was reaching when I tried to convince him that it didn’t matter if I published a pretty pointless article, considering that an infinitesimally small percentage of the human population ever reads anything I pen anyway.

“Edgar,” I said to him over the phone recently, “I’m shit out of decent story ideas. But I have to publish something, you know. Can’t let too many days elapse between articles, right? Right.”

And then I quickly summarized for him what I had in mind. I was met with dead silence for 15 seconds after I stopped talking. Finally Edgar spoke.

“Neil, you’re out of your friggin’ skull if you green-light this piece. It’s ridiculous. It’s dumpster-worthy. I want no part of it. You’re on your own with this one, cowboy.” And he hung up. Brusquely.

I took a deep breath. Tried to steady my nerves. And decided that, yes, the next day (February 11) I would proceed with my plan by beginning the writing process. Which is what I’m doing right now, as today indeed is the 11th. On what date I’ll complete the opus and punch the Publish button, I can’t say yet. But it will, of course, be well before Hell freezes over, unless that event occurs within the extremely near future.

The saga began a few hours before I dialed Edgar’s phone number. I was sitting on my living room sofa, trying to come up with something to write about, when I picked up The Philadelphia Inquirer’s sports section and began perusing the box scores of the previous day’s National Basketball Association (i.e., professional) games. In the distant past, when I was one of the way too many sports fanatics stomping around on our blue planet, I not only read the box scores every day during the pro basketball season, I also knew who just about every player was. My fanaticism having dissolved long ago, these days I’m familiar with maybe one out of six basketballers. But I continue to read the box scores nonetheless. What, like I have anything better to do?

Lo and behold, when I reached the final box score on the page, a synopsis of the February 9 game between the Houston Rockets and the Denver Nuggets, my eyes were drawn to an oddity in the Houston listings. What the listings contained was something I can’t remember ever coming across before during the countless hours I’ve spent in my life studying box scores from various sports. To wit, the final three surnames listed for Houston, meaning the gentlemen who were the last three to enter the game for the Rockets, were Green, Black and Brown. Wow! Three colors in a row! I had no idea who the players were (it turns out that their first names, respectively, are Gerald, Tarik and Markel), but that didn’t matter. What did matter was that I, story idea-wise, now had something to work with. Colors would lead me to good places I naively assumed.

Maybe, I mused, I’ll package the green/black/brown coincidence with a discussion of my favorite colors then and now (yellow when I was a kid, blue in my adulthood), some thoughts on the insanely huge numbers of colors described and displayed in Wikipedia articles (click here, here and here to see them), and somehow bring the proceedings to a tuneful conclusion with entertainment by musicians whose names are those of colors.

But on second thought all of that seemed too much, too ungainly. What, after all, do I have to say about the infinity of colors out there? Not a whole lot, except that it’ll drive you crazy when you’re trying to decide which color to choose for your living room or bedroom walls. Too damn much choice, as is the case with nearly everything nowadays.

And so I was left with music. Poor, pitiful me. Down to the dungeon I lumbered. It is there that I store my vinyl album collection, not to mention my world-class collection of pet spiders. I’ve got about 1,000 albums in all. And about 700 spiders. I’d decided to search for color names among the vinyl platters, which hold a nostalgic and esthetic spell over me, rather than from my sizeable trove of CDs. That’s because vinyl album covers have a whole lot more charm than their CD counterparts.

On the way down the stairs I further decided that I wanted color names that were surnames, not first names, in order to continue the pattern established by Monsieurs Green, Black and Brown. And I didn’t want to duplicate the colors already taken by the basketball guys. Thus, Red Garland (jazz pianist) and Pink Anderson (blues singer and guitarist) were out, as were James Brown, Jackson Browne and Al Green.

Patient readers, let me cut to the chase. I found only three musicians who met my goofy criteria. I selected one album by each. The musicians were jazz artists. I use the past tense because all of them, sadly, are gone. Only one (Horace Silver) is fairly well-known to the general public. The other two, Don Cherry and Michael White, decidedly aren’t, especially White. Silver, a prolific composer and hard-working band leader, played straight-ahead jazz. Cherry, one of my musical heroes, was an adventurer. His trumpet forays often would blister the atmosphere. White, who wielded an electric violin, possessed a mindset somewhat similar to Cherry’s. As a side note I’ll add that Horace and Don were major talents. Michael was good, but certainly not great.

Here then are three YouTube videos. Each offers a track from one of the albums whose front covers I’ve ever so lovingly photographed for this article.

A basketball box score. And three weirdly-chosen musicians. Yup, that’s what this story is all about. Don’t say I never did anything for you.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on Facebook, Twitter and their ilk. I thank you.)

Advertisements

Snap, Snap, Snap: A Photography Story

Philadelphia (2017)

Starting in the late 1970s, and continuing for 10 or 12 years, I passed a good amount of time wandering around Philadelphia (where I lived), other parts of the States, Europe and elsewhere with a Kodak Pocket Instamatic camera in hand or in pocket. A non-techie all my life, the Instamatic was the perfect camera for me. Small and easy to load — you dropped a film cartridge into place and then closed the back cover over it, a process even I could handle — the camera provided photographic images that struck me as just fine. Bulky cameras, special lenses and filters, carrying cases? Man, I wanted no part of any of that. And still don’t. I like my life plain and simple, because I’m a plain sort of guy who some might describe as being simple too. Doesn’t offend me. I’m simple that way.

Philadelphia (2017)

And so, wander I would, snapping photos of things that caught my eye. Street scenes, decorated house doors, gnarly trees, cool-looking cars, mountains and forests . . . fairly avidly I documented all of those and more. Outdoor photography was fun, a hobby that made me think creatively and provided exercise in the process. What was not to like?

Manhattan (2017)

Alas, for reasons I haven’t tried to decipher, my photography excursions came to a halt. The photos I took, and they likely number in at least the high hundreds, lie within boxes shoved into attic and basement and closet niches. I haven’t looked at any of them in 10 years or more. And I probably didn’t label half of them. I swear, I’m going to hire a personal assistant one of these days to haul out those photos and put them into working order. And then I’ll donate the pictures to the Smithsonian Institution, which I hear has a program called We’ll Accept Anything, As These Photographs Taken By Extremely Ordinary Americans Clearly Prove.

Manhattan (2017)

Fortuitously, my wife Sandy, whom I met in 1990, picked up the slack. On our vacations and at family gatherings she’s the one who for years took nearly all the photos. Sandy, kind of a photography buff, always has had cameras far more advanced than the Instamatic, and happily danced into digital camera ownership earlier this century. I had no problem with her handling the photographic duties. I didn’t miss them, whatever the reasons might have been. Needless to say, when I started this blog in April 2015 Sandy was the chief photographer.

Cleveland’s baseball stadium (2017)

And then came January 2016. During that fabled month, Sandy bought a new iPhone and donated to me the iPhone she’d been using till then. iPhonically-speaking, for me it almost was love at first sight and first usage. I mean, the phone is so cute, so compact, and not too hard for a technological imbecile like me to figure out.

Cape Cod (2017)

Before then I’d been a flip-phone person, basically ignorant of the wonders of smart phones. But within days I became an addict, surfing the web, watching videos, etc., etc. And my iPhone’s camera? Why, it called to me with a song that I was powerless to resist. Before I knew it I was snapping photos left and right, far more than I did in my Instamatic days. Twenty-six months later I’m still snapping. And, by the way, not long after the iPhone came into my possession Sandy lost her photography job with this blog.

Cape Cod (2017)

And why do I bring up all of this? Hold tight, Bunky, as I’m about to tell you. Not that you haven’t already guessed, seeing that photos are on display right from the start of this essay.

Cape Cod (2017)

A day or two before I sat down to begin the composition of that which you presently are reading, it dawned on me that not the worst idea in the world would be to write a story into which I might place a number of photos that I took in 2017. Dozens of them I’d already used in blog articles during that year. But many others were sitting all sad and lonesome, feeling unwanted, on the hard drive or whatever it is within my iPhone. “I’ll liberate some of you! And I accept your thanks in advance,” I said to the pictures.

Cape Cod (2017)

Yes, it’s as simple as that. As I’ve prominently noted above, I’m a simple guy, so what would you expect? In any case, the year 2017 found me in my suburban Philadelphia region, in the City Of Brotherly Love itself, in The Big Apple, in Cleveland and on Cape Cod. There were a few other locales too, but that’s enough. I selected about 30 photos from the previously-unused pile and studied them almost assiduously. I whittled down the pile to the eleven pix herein contained. Some are artsy shots, some are candid, some display the wonders of nature, some have sentimental value to me. My favorites are the two that follow: a selfie of me and Sandy taken on Cape Cod, and a spontaneous etching that I made in the sands of a Cape Cod beach.

Thanks for reading and gazing. Your humble reporter is now going to sign off, hopefully to return in the near future with an as-yet-undetermined commentary upon something or other.

(If you enjoyed this article, then please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing it on Facebook, Twitter and the like)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)

Helping Hands And Improbable Odds: Tales From The Information Desk

My once-a-week volunteer job at a medical office building across the street from a major hospital and not far from where I live has been, on the whole, fun indeed. I’ve been at the gig for about eight years, and usually look forward to hauling my ass out of bed at 6:30 AM so that I have time to wash up, down a couple of cups of coffee and a bite, and play a few rounds of tiddlywinks with my pet chimp, Chomp. When it comes to tiddlywinks, Chomp almost always wins. Chomp ain’t no chump . . . Chomp’s a champ!

Anyway, back to reality: The job begins at 8:00 AM on Tuesdays. For four hours I man the building’s information desk, which is on the ground level of the structure’s three stories. I handle a fairly wide range of visitors’ questions about doctors’ offices, the locations of bathrooms, payment options for the parking garage nearby on the grounds, etc. And I try to untangle situations that visitors aren’t sure how to resolve. You wouldn’t believe, for instance, how many of our fellow citizens can’t find their cars in the parking garage or their spouses who were supposed to meet them in the main lobby near my desk.

The infamous information desk

Like I said, I get a kick from the job, from helping people out to be specific. Hell, plenty of folks have helped me out over the last many decades. It’s only fair for me to do my wee share in keeping that mode of behavior alive and prosperous.

Two Tuesdays ago, aka the 23rd of January, wasn’t a typical day at the ranch though. There was plenty of the usual, yes. But two incidents definitely were outliers. And they’ve stuck in my mind. I was a helper-outer in one of them but not in the other. Yours truly is now about to send recaps of  the events into cyberspace.

It was a dreary, rainy day. The skies had sent down billions of gallons of water by 10:00 AM, at which time the rains slowed to a medium drizzle. It was around that time that a guy came up to me at my post to let me know that the toilet in the men’s room had overflowed and that a fragrant pool of water was all over the floor.

“I’m on it,” I said, and called the housekeeping and maintenance departments. The former’s charge was to clean up the mess, the latter’s was to unclog the toilet. And I taped a note to the loo’s door, advising the males of my species that the room was out of service and that additional facilities could be found upstairs.

The worker from housekeeping arrived first, not long after I placed the call. In the midst of doing his thing he came out into the lobby, hands wisely encased in bright yellow rubber gloves. One of those hands was holding a small rolled-up black umbrella. He looked my way and hoisted the contraption.

“Somebody left this in the bathroom,” he said. “Should I put it somewhere? Trash it?”

Wow, volunteers aren’t meant to deal with heavy decision-making! “I’m not sure,” I answered. “How’s about we . . . ”

“Trash it?” he asked.

“Right,” I confidently replied.

Into the narrow thigh-high trash can near the elevators the umbrella went. Another piece of whatever destined for a landfill.

The infamous trash can

Forty minutes later the conditions outside worsened. I could hear heavy rains coming down, though from where I was standing I couldn’t see them. A fellow I’d noticed earlier entering the building was now about to leave, his medical appointment completed. He went out the main door and seconds later came back inside. “It’s pouring like crazy out there,” he said. I took a few strides to position myself at a better vantage point and had to agree with his statement. The waters were descending in incredibly thick sheets.

“Do you have an umbrella I can borrow?” he asked. Right, like I’d ever see my umbrella again if I handed it over. And that’s when I remembered the trash can. “Hold on, ” I said. I walked down the lobby to the receptacle and stuck my right hand inside. It was a tight fit. Wouldn’t it make more sense for a trash can to have a wide opening rather than a narrow one? Its manufacturer forgot to consult with me before starting production. Undaunted, I fished around, trying to disengage the umbrella’s spokes from the confines and eventually had success.

“Here you go,” I said to the guy, extending the prize catch towards him. “It’s yours.” He took it and away he went, seemingly unimpressed by what had just occurred. Me, I thought it pretty uproarious that the buried and left-for-dead umbrella, as quick as that, had been resurrected. What were the odds?

The morning progressed. Plenty of people came up to me with one question or problem or another. Around 11:15 a guy ambled down the hall. When he reached my area he asked me if there was anywhere in the building he could get a cup of coffee. I got the impression that he had time to kill. He probably was waiting to drive a patient, probably his wife, home from a procedure, which probably was a colonoscopy.

“There’s vending machines one floor above us,” I told him. “Sodas, chips, candies and stuff like that. But nothing hot. If you want coffee you’ll have to go across the street to the hospital cafeteria.” While I was telling him this, a cardiologist walked by and went into her office. Dr. **, who never wears a white coat or any other garment that would identify her as a doctor, smiled and waved at me, as she always does when she passes the info desk. She’s a really nice person.

The guy shrugged and was about to amble back to wherever it was he came from. That’s when a loud and clear “Sir, are you desperate for a cup of coffee?” filled the lobby. A second later Dr. ** appeared. The guy didn’t know who she was, but he wasn’t about to turn down a gift. “Follow me,” she said, and led him into her office suite. “I’ll get some coffee for you.”

A few minutes later the recipient passed my way, cup in hand. “It’s your lucky day,” I said to him, adding that his benefactor is a physician. What were the odds that the only doc within a 50-mile radius who would do such a thing would overhear my conversation with him?  I mean, when was the last time a doctor gave you anything, unless it was a sample of hemorrhoid cream or something like that?

But, like the guy upon whom I’d bestowed a hidden and seemingly doomed umbrella, Mister Coffee didn’t appear to be overly amazed. “She is?” he answered blandly, and disappeared down the hall.

But I was amazed. Tuesday the 23rd, a day in which I was reminded that expecting the unexpected isn’t a farfetched stance at all, struck me as being very right. Right as rain, so to speak.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on Twitter, Facebook and the like. Gracias.)

Signs In The Windows

Last Friday I could feel a story idea calling me from far, far away. I cupped my hands behind my ears and did what anyone would have done: “What?” I yelled into the wilderness of my soul. “You have to speak louder, for crying out loud. Give an old guy a break!”

I waited for a response for a while. When none was forthcoming I waited a little longer. Finally I gave up on the idea of waiting. I’m a man of action, right? Well, not exactly, as proven by the impressive and permanent dents in the cushions of my living room sofa. Still, I rose anyway, put on my coat, stuck my iPhone into one of the coat’s pockets and explained quickly to my wife Sandy what my amorphous game plan was. Then I headed for the door, on my way to the three-level mall minutes away from my suburban Philadelphia house.

“You’re not going to do any shopping?” Sandy said to me as I exited. “Anyone else would go shopping.”

Shopping? Hmmm, not a bad idea. I could use a pair of slipper socks to replace the ones joyfully embroidered with Daffy Duck images that I’ve been wearing for the last 60 years. But whatever it was that was trying to reach me from the wilderness of my soul, shopping wasn’t part of it.

I pulled out of the driveway at 10:15 AM and pulled into one of the mall’s gargantuan parking areas at 10:20. Few cars were around. I entered the wonderland through a door that deposited me in Bloomingdale’s, a classy department store whose goods and displays I always marvel at during my infrequent visits. I felt at home, pretty confident that something somewhere in the mall ultimately would result in yet another blog essay being catapulted into cyberspace.

A poster in Bloomingdale’s cosmetics section caught my eye. “Everyone’s Invited!” it partly read. At once a bell rang in my head. Ouch, that smarted! I shook off the twangs of pain and went with the flow. If I wander around the mall, maybe I’ll spot all kinds of signage that share a sentiment similar to that poster’s, I thought. “C’mon in!” and “Don’t be a stranger!” would be good ones to come across, for example. But, nah . . . after I made my way out of Bloomingdale’s and into the main arteries of the mall’s lower level, I walked past store after store and came up with zippo. Nix that story idea.

All was not lost, however. Far from it. For what I realized is that beautiful signs, primo examples of artful composition, grace the windows of many of the shops. There was my story, I concluded. I would navigate all the avenues of each mall level, photographing the window signs that struck me as worthy of immortalization. I breathed a sigh of relief. The wilderness of my soul, at least for the moment, became a less scary place.

I went at it for an hour, 16 signs making my grade. The majority of them are on display in this essay. At the moment, examining the photos from the comfort of my home, it’s hard to say which of the signs I like best. Who can choose? Why choose? Isn’t it better just to appreciate each sign’s worthy aspects? Okay, you’re right. Choosing isn’t all that difficult. Let me think for a few seconds. I’ll be right back.

You know, I like the one picturing a pink Adidas cap, which fills a big section of glass at the Lids hat store. I’m one with its simplicity and admirable balance.

And I can’t deny the power of the seductive image of Selena Gomez balancing a black and pink handbag on her right leg. I had to restrain myself from marching into the Coach store and buying one of those bags, so helplessly jelly-like am I in the presence of gorgeous girls.

And let’s not overlook the black and white flag that stares out at potential customers from the mall’s Gap store. Maybe it’s a political statement of some kind, I don’t know. But it’s clean and taut and hard to take your eyes off of, from an aesthetic point of view.

There was more to my mall escapade than art appreciation, as it turns out. As I made my way around the mall’s highways and byways it dawned on me that I was getting some needed exercise. And that it felt really good to be stretching my legs. I tried to remember the last time I’d gone for a long walk. I think it was in October, on Cape Cod, upon whose open and natural areas I’ve racked up the miles in a major way.

But when I’m home? The landscape in the burbs, an homage to concrete and asphalt, doesn’t thrill me. And I sometimes forget that areas worth walking in, such as the olden streets of Philadelphia, aren’t much more than a hop, skip and a jump away.

But walk now and then in the mall? Hey, I never really thought about that before. We’ll see. I’ve read that plenty of folks do it regularly, placing one foot after the other upon the mall’s interior corridors as if those paths were athletic field ovals. I saw some of the hardy souls during my rounds. One of them, a millennial of the female variety who was attired in black workout clothes, passed me twice. I watched her do her thing. Her ears were home to earbuds and her eyes were glued to the screen of her phone as she relentlessly pushed ahead. You go, girl! Maybe I’ll join you some day. In my dreams.

An hour and change had passed by the time I got back in my car. I felt refreshed. My head was clear. My mood was up. And the remainder of the day, I was certain, would unfold attractively. That’s what good art and a two-mile stroll will do for you.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story on Facebook, Twitter and the like. Thanks.)

(If you click on any photograph, a larger image will open in a separate window)

Soul Town, What Would I Do Without You?

There’s a guy — a cool guy — out there in Blogger World who, like quite a few bloggers, doesn’t reveal his real name. But as I say, he’s cool. How do I know? Well, anyone who calls himself Cincinnati Babyhead has got to be cool. And maybe a tad loopy too?Whatever, I dig him, though we’ve never met. But we’ve conversed with one another a lot in the comments sections of our stories, and we seem to blend like olive oil and balsamic vinegar. Like me, he’s a lover of music and film. Those are the subjects that he mostly writes about on his blog, which you can visit by clicking here. CB comes at you straight from the heart. He’s down-to-earth and nicely nitty-gritty. Go, man, go.

But hey, that’s all the free publicity I’m going to send CB’s way! I ain’t all that generous normally. What am I trying to do? Turn over a new leaf? Anyway, my reason for bringing up CB is that on January 7 of this year he wrote about a rocking song by the late, great Jackie Wilson and, as these things sometimes happen, I heard that song, Baby Workout, on the radio two days later. It’s a hell of a tune, bright and audacious and finger-snapping good. It came to me on Soul Town, one of SiriusXM satellite radio’s channels, and one that I’d be hard-pressed to live without. During a 20-minute period that day, Soul Town made my day.

When my wife Sandy and I bought our newest car six years ago, little did I know that I’d fall madly in love with SiriusXM, with which it came equipped. But I did, and quickly. So many channels! A dozen or more of them became close friends, including Soul Town, to which I listen maybe more often than any of the others. Who doesn’t like Marvin Gaye, The Delfonics, The Stylistics, Aretha Franklin, The Supremes, to name a few of the soul and R&B artists that Soul Town plays round the clock? Huh? You in the fourth row aren’t a fan? I’ve just notified Security. They’re going to escort you out of the classroom and bar you from ever again entering a WordPress site. That’ll learn ya’!

There I was, then, returning home from the supermarket in mid-afternoon on that storied Soul Town day. I pressed the SiriusXM button and then let my right index finger tap on channel 49. My timing was perfect, as I caught the opening notes of Baby Workout, a ditty that has been with us since 1963.

I tell you, I couldn’t contain myself. I hadn’t heard the song in ages and had forgotten just how saucy and slithery it is. Jackie is coaxing a girl to join him on the dance floor, and he’s showing her his dance moves. Me, I started to move too, bouncing around in the driver’s seat like a wild man, slapping away at the steering wheel and ceiling in unusual fashion. Good thing nobody was around to see me. But uh-oh, there was. Flashing lights appeared behind me, a siren wailed righteously. I pulled over.

“Your license and registration, sir,” said Officer Bea Bopp. I handed over the documents and watched her peruse them. “What in the world are you doing? Don’t you know it’s incredibly unsightly for a septuagenarian to boogie down? Sir, you’d do well to keep your antics confined to the privacy of your own home. And there, be sure to have your shades drawn, unless you want some of your neighbors to die from laughing too hard.”

Rolling her gentle, pale green eyes, Officer Bopp handed back my papers. I thanked her and drove away.

Baby Workout was ending at this point. I was in a sweat and needed to calm down. “I’ll put on the Sinatra channel,” I said in my head, and was about to press its button when the opening, heavy piano chords of Cool Jerk came out of the speakers. Man, you’re not about to find me turning away from Cool Jerk. The song is a trip, replete with giddy whoops and hollers and hipper-than-hip lyrics. The Capitols, pretty much a one-hit wonder, nailed Cool Jerk when they entered a Detroit recording studio back in 1966. This song has never gone away. And never will.

Yeah, you guessed it. The same thing happened with Cool Jerk as with Baby Workout. I became a sight to behold within my metal cubicle. I kept glancing in the rear view mirror. Nervously. I didn’t notice any police vehicles.

Four blocks from my house Cool Jerk came to its end. But Soul Town wasn’t done with me. How do you follow-up two kick-ass numbers? The programing genius at Soul Town’s controls knew what was needed: a heady, spacey, swirling funk song that goes on and on and on. That’s what Creative Source’s 1973 cover of a Bill Withers tune is all about. Who Is He (And What Is He To You)? flowed from my car’s radio like a psychedelic dream. What was a guy to do? Pull up in front of his house, turn up the volume, keep the engine running and get out of his car, leaving the door wide open to let the music be heard, that’s what. And dance along the street with arms widespread and a beatific smile on his face.

I nearly was afloat. And I wasn’t surprised by what happened next. One, then two, then three house doors opened. My neighbors too were under a spell. Soon we all were gliding on the road, deep into the music, visiting the galaxies above.  This was a scene straight out of a movie. And it got better. Somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I returned to Earth and turned to see Officer Bea Bopp staring at me.

“Sir,” she said, “I’ve been following you. In my 32 years on the force I’ve never seen anyone behave like you did in your car. And now this?”

I gulped. But then she smiled bashfully. I looked into her entrancing eyes. Their soft tint went swimmingly with her blue uniform. I was sort of in love.

“Sir,” she continued, “I’m two days away from retirement. Is it against the law for an officer of the law to have some fun? It isn’t.”

She closed her eyes, held out her arms and began to groove to the music. It was a lovely sight. By the time that the final notes of Who Is He dissolved into the ethers, she had sailed to the next block. Dreams of many rosy days ahead, I imagine, were playing in her head.

(This story isn’t total fantasy. I heard those three songs on Soul Town in my car that afternoon, and CB walks among us. As for the rest . . . )

(If you enjoyed this story, then don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing it on Facebook, Twitter and the like. I thank you.)

A Frigid Classical Music Story

Man, the weather in my region of Planet Earth (i.e., southeastern Pennsylvania, USA) not only sucks right now, it has sucked for the last several weeks. You like cold? We’ve got it up the frozen wazoo, and it’s going to get worse.

I’m typing the opening salvos of this pert essay on the 4th of January at 4:30 PM. Several inches of white stuff fell from the heavens earlier today, a minor amount to be sure. Much more to the point, complaint-wise for me, is that it’s a bone-unsettling 20°F (-7°C) outside, which is on the high side of what the numbers have been since Arctic air began its southward trek into wide portions of North America last month. In the wee small hours of Saturday the 6th, the vapors around here are predicted to tip the scales at 4°F (-16°C). And 24 hours after that we can look forward to a tantalizing reading of -2°F, which computes to -19 degrees in the Celsius realm.

Where’s my bathing suit? I’m heading to the nearest beach!

Well, I’m fairly sure that this is the first time I’ve groused about the weather on the pages of this humble blog. But hell, that’s what old guys do sometimes, right? And it’s not as though I have anything better to do, unless you count as a worthy activity the many hours I’ve recently spent compulsively tying the remaining strands of hair on the crown of my head into square knots. I’m a wiz when it comes to tying square knots. Thank the stars above that the training I got eons ago as a Boy Scout went not for naught.

Still, it’s not as though the present draping of cold air should come as a surprise to those who reside far from the equator. Such was the message, in fact, from the announcer who handles the mid-morning shift on WRTI, the Temple University radio station that plays classical music for half of each weekday (6:00 AM to 6:00 PM) and jazz for the other half.

“Buck up, buckeroos. It’s winter. You’ve heard of winter, haven’t you?” is what, in effect, the announcer said a few minutes before 9:00 AM on the aforementioned 4th of January. “We’ve dealt with below-average temperatures before, yes? So, don’t panic, don’t fret. The Earth is still orbiting the Sun, and everything will be all right.”

This wise man, Gregg Whiteside, then softened his message by adding that he realizes that the current undesirable situation is highly upsetting to more than a few members of the populace. And that’s why he then cued up a piece that he assured his audience would settle their nerves and ease their worried minds. And he was right. Sitting on my living room sofa, square knots in progress, I was taken by the great beauty of Frederic Chopin’s Ballade No. 3 in A-flat major, as performed by pianist Antonin Kubalek. I think you’ll like it, too. Here it is:

Ah, it’s a gem. But Gregg must have felt that one heavy dose of soul satisfaction wasn’t enough. When the Chopin opus reached its conclusion he wasted no time in hitting the button to send Antonin Dvorak’s Nocturne in B major over the airwaves. The composition was played by the British orchestra that goes by the name of The Academy Of St Martin In The Fields. It’s a magnificent work, as you will discover by clicking on this YouTube video:

See? Mr. Whiteside provided a temporary panacea for emotions jangled by wintry onslaughts. But let’s fast-forward a bit. It is now 10:15 AM on January 5. More than 24 hours have elapsed since Gregg advised me to make the best of it. During that time I’ve shoveled my driveway and walkways clear of the four inches of snow that I mentioned earlier. I kind of enjoy shoveling snow. Been doing it all my life.

But I don’t like the deep freeze we’ve been in day after day after day. It’s intimidating and it’s a pain in the ass, not to mention unsafe. Gregg’s musical offerings of help and warmth notwithstanding, there’s no getting around the fact that cold is cold. After I’d been at it with the shovel for an hour, completing the job at hand, my poor ol’ nose, fingers and toes were waving the white flag. Thankfully, I have a lot to be thankful for this winter, and a nicely-heated home is at the top of the list. Into said abode I went.

Just as every essay must end, so must every weather pattern. Which is to say that relief from the meteorological conditions that I’ve been bemoaning is in sight. Soon after I publish this chilling story, my neck of the woods will be emerging from the woods, so to speak, as the weather forecasters are assuring us that the thermometer needle will creep ever so slightly above the freezing mark at some point on Monday the 8th.

I’m now going to remove my fingers from the keyboard upon which I’ve been tapping away. I will relocate to the living room sofa, tune in to WRTI and attempt to undo the square knots that decorate the crown of my head. I’m tired of that look.Wish me luck. The Boy Scouts taught me how to tie square knots. But not how to untie them.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article on Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

One More Look At 2017 Before It’s Gone

It’s now 7:20 on a Wednesday morning as I sit my ass down to type this little opus. It will be my final post for the year during which Donnie Trump first sat his ass down behind the desk in the Oval Office. His ass, unlike mine, is fat. And he, unlike me, is nasty, intolerant and a pathological liar. Just sayin’.

“Hey, Neil,” my wife Sandy, who is staring over my shoulders at the computer screen as I peck away, said two seconds ago, “I thought you weren’t going to talk about Trump in this essay.”

Well, she’s right. He’s depressing. Maybe I’ll turn my attention to other topics, such as Yemen and Myanmar (the former Burma). Wait — am I nuts? The horrors going on in those regions are immense. Talk about depressing. I tell you, I’ll never understand what the story is with the human race. Actually, I do understand. Bottom line is that scads of people just don’t like scads of their fellow women and men. Never have. Never will.

“What are you doing, Neil?” Sandy just asked. “You told me 15 minutes ago that you were going to keep this story light. You know, like all the other disposable, puffy pieces that you’re known for churning out. Get back on track, boy! You’re out of your realm right now.”

Thank goodness I’m married. Okay, Sandy, let me see what I can do. Enough about Trump and hatred. Hmmm, an end-of-year story should offer some words of wisdom, shouldn’t it? Wouldn’t hurt. And though I’ve always been more than a bit low in the wisdom department, I did have a good thought or two in a recent article. Here’s what I said: “ . . . if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that being friendly to people right and left is the way to go. It won’t kill you. Or so I’m told.” Imagine that — me quoting me! There’s a first time for everything. Or so I’m told.

Moving right along, folks, I might do well to mention a whole lot of things that satisfactorily filled my well during 2017, excluding those I’ve previously oohed and aahed about on these pages. But to avoid being at my keyboard for the next three days I’m going to forget about a whole lot of things and limit myself to only two. Which two shall it be? Ah, yes . . .

Number one: If you want to dive into a better than average novel, may I suggest you glue your eyes to Perfume River, which came out in 2016. Robert Olen Butler, an acclaimed author whom I basically knew nothing about before almost randomly pulling Perfume River off a local library’s shelf a few weeks ago, penned the graceful volume. The book’s narrative floats easily between the near-present and the Vietnam War eras. That war impacted the lives of the Quinlan family in mega-blast ways. The book examines their plights, the decisions that brought them to where they are, and the secrets they hold from one another and, in truth, from themselves. What insights into their own makeups and into those of others are people able to gain as the years elapse? Perfume River is where to look to find a number of delicately-threaded answers to that question.

Mbongwana Star at Abington Art Center

Number two: Do you enjoy exuberant, scarily good music? Then go to see Mbongwana Star, the band from the Democratic Republic Of The Congo that melds African melodies and rhythms with blazing rock and roll. Your chances of ever catching them, though, aren’t large. The band does tour, but not all that much. That I was in their presence over the summer is, to me, rather miraculous. And their performance was, by a reeeeally wide margin, the best I took in during this expiring year.

I’d never have been at their concert were it not for Later . . . With Jools Holland, probably the best music show on television. In the early months of 2017 I caught a repeat episode (from 2015) of Later, which is taped in Great Britain, and was floored by one of the bands appearing on it. Mbongwana Star, needless to say. Their name stayed with me as the months passed. And that is why I nearly fell off my living room sofa when, in June, I saw on Abington Art Center’s website that Star was scheduled to perform on the center’s lush, rolling lawn the following month. How was this possible? How had the center even known about this band? Whatever, I wasn’t complaining. I was exalting. Abington Art Center, in the Philadelphia suburbs, is only three miles from my house.

This show was to be among Star’s final on foreign shores for 2017. Sandy and I arrived early, grabbed a good spot on the lawn for our folding chairs, and waited for the group to come on.

Well, unstoppable, roaring power blasted from the stage from the opening notes. No ballads for Mbongwana Star. Rarely do I rise from my chair at concerts to boogie, but boogie I did, heading down to within 15 feet of the stage and kicking out the jams in my inimitably nerdy, old-guy manner. It was fun of the highest order. Here’s a video of the band playing in Europe in 2015:

Besides Star’s incredible musicianship, the astounding thing to me was that two of the performers, both of whom are vocalists, are in wheelchairs, victims of childhood polio. And yet these gentlemen, dealing with profound problems, are able to celebrate magnificently through their music. Some remarkable people are on our planet, and Theo Nzonza and Coco Ngambali are among them.

Like I said, I’m limiting myself to only two items. And (sometimes) I’m a man of my word. Thankfully, this article has manifested itself fairly fluidly, rather than in the fits and starts that are common for most of the pieces that I write. I take that as a good sign. And so, I now shall conclude the proceedings by wishing one and all a safe, happy and healthy 2018. A relative smattering of hours after I hit the Publish button for this story, Sandy and I possibly will be at Penn’s Landing, part of Philadelphia’s waterfront. If we’re there, we’ll gape at the fireworks being launched in the middle of the Delaware River. We’ve ushered in many previous New Years precisely like that. Let there be light.

(If you enjoyed this article, then please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing it)

Santa Claus, With Keith Richards In Tow, Is Coming To Town

Keith Richards, with brisket gravy dripping down his chin like a Mount Vesuvius lava flow, couldn’t contain himself earlier this week. “Bubala, my kishka’s sendin’ out an SOS. I’m gonna plotz!” he nearly roared, beaming at my wife Sandy. “The potato latkes, the brisket, the roast chicken . . . a magnificent feast! Sandy, my tuches must be three inches wider than it was before we sat down to eat.”

Photo by Mark Seliger

We were at my and Sandy’s dining room table, gorging on a traditional Chanukah dinner. It was the eighth and final night of the holiday. “Keith, we’re glad you’re here with us,” said Sandy, the meal’s creator. “And I have to tell you that you did a wonderful job tonight lighting the candles on the menorah and an even better job saying the Chanukah prayer. Not every goy can pronounce baruch the way it’s meant to be said, with that khhhh sound grinding away deep in the back of the throat. But you, Keith, you nailed it.”

“Thanks, Sandy,” said Keith sheepishly. “I’ve been practicin’ hard.”

“Would you expect otherwise?” I asked Sandy. “I mean, Keith’s a mensch.”

Keith, my longtime friend, liked that comment. He smiled his widest smile at me. Thank you was written all over his face.

It was good having Keith at my suburban Philadelphia home. I hadn’t seen him in a real long time, though we keep up pretty regularly on the phone (you can learn how our friendship came about by clicking here). I was happy to hear from him when he called last week from his Connecticut estate. He said he needed to get away from the spotlight for a while, seeing that his plans to leave the music biz and celebrity game, which I wrote about 10 months ago (click here), had fallen through. And so, the spotlight remained blinding.

“Neil, I’d like to stay with ya for a couple days next week, if that’s all right,” Keith had said. “I can relax when I’m around ya. Your humdrum, vanilla way of living is something I kinda crave, bro.”

“Yeah, Keith-o, that’ll be cool. Come on Wednesday. And brush up on your Yiddish, okay? Remember how you got a 50-point bonus in Scrabble a few years back when you laid out all seven of your letters and spelled schmuck?” I could feel Keith basking in the glow of that memory.

“Oy gavalt!” Keith muttered into the phone. “Patti [his wife] just whispered in my ear that a reporter from People magazine is at the front door. He’s the fifth media person to show up today. One of ’em wanted to know if the Christmas season increases my sex drive. I told him ‘only when my balls are cold.’ He liked that quip. And another asked why The Stones never recorded a Christmas album. You know, that left me tongue-tied. I mean, we shoulda done one of those. We’d have knocked The Little Drummer Boy out of the ballpark. And Mick was born to sing O Little Town Of Bethlehem, don’t cha think?”

“See you soon, Keith,” I said.

The Chanukah dinner over, and Keith’s tuches looking not the least bit rock star-ish, we three retired to the living room. A Scrabble board was open on the cocktail table. We were about to start the game when, incredibly, the roof of the house shook, startling the crap out of all of us. And only 15 seconds later a lot of frantic words began to emanate from the direction of the fireplace.

“Help! I’m stuck! Give a guy a hand, you nitwits,” said the shouter, who was dangling headfirst from the bottom of the chimney. Needless to say, it was Santa Claus. He and I had bonded last year (click here), so I can’t say I was surprised to see him again. Sandy, Keith and I moseyed to the fireplace and pulled the portly gent out.

“Hello, Santa. Great to see you. What gives? Christmas Eve isn’t for another five days,” I said. “Not to mention, in case you forgot, that Christmas isn’t my holiday.”

Santa Claus shot an exasperated look my way. “I know that,” he grunted at me. Then he presented a nice and warm “Hello, Sandy” to my wife and did a double take when he saw our guest.

“Santa, Keith. Keith, Santa,” I said by way of introduction.

“A pleasure, my man,” said Keith, extending his right hand.

Santa grasped it immediately and said to Keith, “What in the world are you doing here?”

“Huh? Ya know who I am, Santa? I wouldn’t have expected that.”

“Are you kidding? Of course I know who you are. Where do you think I live? Siberia? On those long sleigh rides I’m famous for, I’ve got Beggars Banquet and Exile On Main Street playing on repeat on my iPod. I’d never be able to complete my rounds if it wasn’t for you and your bandmates. How’s Mick, by the way? Any chance he’d consider teaching me how to dance? That boy’s got more good moves than Bobby Fischer.”

I glanced at Keith and could tell that he didn’t want to break the news to Santa that the chess champ Fischer is long gone.

“So, what brings you this way, Santa?” I asked. “Do you need some cheering up, just like you did last year?”

“I do, Neil, I do. But I’ve got a more pressing problem that I’m hoping you’ll be able to help me with. Bringing toys to millions of children isn’t easy. The average Jill or Joe wouldn’t in a million years be able to handle my job. But I’m not getting any younger, as the saying goes, and I really and truly could use a helping hand. Neil, if you’ve got nothing better to do on Christmas Eve and early Christmas morning, how’s about you join me in my sleigh and pitch in with the deliveries? That would be heartily appreciated.” And Santa then let rip a “ho, ho, ho” for the ages.

I didn’t want to let Santa down. But what could I do? Sandy and I would be flying south on the 24th for a six-day vacation in Jamaica. I explained the situation, and Santa, though disappointed, seemed to accept it.

“Oh well, just thought I’d ask. You and I got along so well last year, I couldn’t think of a better companion than you for the upcoming big night. No worries. I’ll get by.”

That’s when Keith Richards, who’d been listening to the conversation with mouth agape, placed his hands on Santa’s shoulders and looked him straight in the eyes.

“Santa Claus,” Keith said, “there is no doubt in my mind that cosmic forces of an extraordinarily wonderful essence are at play here. They brought us together in this unlikely spot tonight, and the reason is obvious.” I kind of swooned at Keith’s unexpected eloquence.

“Santa,” he continued, “you’re lookin’ at your man. I’m a fountain of energy. I’m skinny, so droppin’ down chimneys will be a breeze for me. Don’t worry about my expanded tuches, by the way. It will be back to normal size in 48 hours. And I love to deliver goods. I’ve been deliverin’ the goods all my life. Where, and at what time, do ya want to meet on Christmas Eve?”

Well, ye of good spirits, little more needs to be said. A relative handful of hours after I publish this story, a Stone shall be flying through the air, out of the media spotlight while performing his mission and happy as a lark. Christmas 2017 will go down in history as indescribably remarkable. Who’d ever have thunk it?

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. Thanks.)

The Day I Came THIS CLOSE To Sort Of Meeting John Lennon

Was I going through a period of temporary insanity back in 1973? Had the gates regulating the flow of my positive emotions gotten stuck in the closed position? Well, yeah, that’s not too far off the mark I guess. It was a long time ago, and I have trouble enough figuring out the current status of my state of being. But I’m not totally clueless when it comes to identifying where I was at, mentally and emotionally speaking, in my days of yore.

Photo by Bob Gruen

Yes, my recollections may be on the spotty side. Still, there’s no denying the fact that my brother Richie and I were standing on Broome Street (in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood) one morning or afternoon in May or June of 1973, when John Lennon, unaccompanied and moving briskly, walked past us. I was living in SoHo, and Richie, a student at Columbia University, resided way uptown.

Out of the corner of my eye I’d noticed Lennon approaching. Richie saw him too. Yet we were blasé about the situation. Neither of us made eye contact with or said hello to the guy we’d worshipped, who had been one of our ultimate heroes only a couple of years before.

I won’t speak for Richie, but I will for myself. “Yo, schmuck! What the hell was wrong with you, Neil?” I just heard myself asking myself.

Hey, give me a break! I was (pretty) young.

I recall this incident every great once in a while, but hadn’t in ages until Thursday of last week. As I was brushing away that morning’s breakfast, hardened like cement on my teeth, Lennon’s song One Day (At A Time) came on the radio and, for reasons unknown, it instantly brought me back in time. And I knew for sure that John Lennon was to be the key for the story you presently are reading when, a few hours later, I heard a radio disc jockey sorrowfully mention that the following day (December 8) would mark the 37th anniversary of John’s death. As nearly everyone knows, he was murdered by a crazed, miserable asshole outside the apartment building in which he lived with Yoko Ono on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.

There are reasons why John Lennon and I more or less crossed paths. Here goes.

That long-ago spring found me, four years post-college, floundering magnificently in the game of life. My romantic prospects were nil. My meaningful career prospects were niller. My bank account had a few bucks in it, but basically was pitiful.

Pretty much unanchored, I sublet for three months, with a friend from my college years, an affordable, beautiful apartment on Broome Street in the up-and-coming SoHo section of lower Manhattan. I spent my time traipsing around the city, checking out the neighborhoods and low-cost entertainment and picking up temp work to bring in a smattering of bucks. Those were the days when you could eat cheaply, a slice of pizza being available for a mere 25¢, and when a person might devote a lot of hours to worrying that his personal compass wasn’t pointing in a good direction.

John Lennon wasn’t having the easiest time of it either back then. The U.S. government was doing its best to try and deport him. And he and Yoko were having big marital problems. Somewhere I’d heard or read that they were separated and that John was living in SoHo. I never knew any details of his domestic situation while I lived on Broome Street, but I kept half-expecting to see him around.

See a Beatle on the street? Man, once I’d have fainted if that ever came to pass. I mean, I’d been an incredibly major Beatles fan. I lived and breathed Beatles for years. But strangely, a year or two after their 1970 dissolution, their aura began to dissipate. I still kept up with each Beatle’s doings, but the magic spell they’d had me under was no more.

Yep, John had plenty to worry about in 1973. But his woes didn’t stop him from doing what he did best: Writing songs and making music. Undertaking a bit of research last week, I discovered that he entered a Manhattan studio in July 1973 to record his Mind Games album. Most likely he was writing some songs for that record when I saw him on Broome Street. And the kicker is this: One Day (At A Time) comes from Mind Games. There’s a real chance that the lovely song that set this story in motion might have been partially playing in his head when our near-encounter took place.

Some stories need a moral and/or reason for being, and this is one of them. I therefore pose this question: If I knew then what I know now, would I have acted differently? Answer: Damn straight, boys and girls. I ain’t exactly deep on the path to enlightenment in these latter stages of my life, but I sure have a few bits more sense than did my more youthful self.

For example, if there’s anything I’ve learned over the years it’s that being friendly to people right and left is the way to go. It won’t kill you. Or so I’m told. If I’d had my head on straighter in 1973 I’d have smiled at John Lennon and said “Hey, man. Thanks for all the great music you’ve made,” or “Hello, John. Fancy meeting you here.”

Lennon likely would have saluted Richie and me and thrown a “It’s a pleasure, gents” type of remark at us while continuing on his way. And if something along those lines had taken place, I’d now have a hell of a better tale to tell than the one I own. Or, come to think of it, maybe not . . . as with all aspects of life, it depends on how you look at things.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article)

A Seeker Of Beauty Am I: Art On Wheels, Part Two

I’d have to examine this blog’s archives, an activity worth doing on only the rainiest of days, to discover whether or not I’ve ever done a part two for a story before. Off the top of my head I’d say no, but the top of my head frequently is not reliable. Nor are the middle or bottom sections of my head, come to think of it. Not much I can do about any of that though. I was born that way.

The first good-looking truck I saw last week

In any event, soon after I completed my article about artistically-adorned motor vehicles (click here to read it), I was pretty certain that I would revisit the topic. I mean, I’d had fun driving around, keeping my eyes open for good-looking and creative designs painted on the sides of trucks and vans. And taking photographs of them. Three months later the itch to do so again became strong. Itches need to be scratched, as everybody knows. And so, last week, seeking beauty, I took to the roads and to the shopping centers in my suburban Philadelphia area. And beauty I did find.

Now, eye-catching trucks and vans and buses are not uncommon, comprising maybe 15% of the commercial and public vehicle population, I’d estimate. Driving along, you see plenty of them on the road. But, unless you have a death wish, you’d do well not to attempt to photograph them from a moving vehicle. I was tempted to on many occasions, but I kind of enjoy breathing. So I didn’t.

Which is why I hunted my prey in shopping centers and strip malls, where I was able to drive slowly, scouting out the parking areas and store delivery sections. I set off early on Wednesday morn and kept at it for three hours, a lot of time to devote to an admittedly loony quest. I drove all over the local map, visiting shopping places that I’d been to often over the years, and some I’d never ventured to, despite their being not much beyond spitting distance of my home. And, much to my delight, I snapped a photo while on the road of a snazzy waste disposal truck, its sides a vision in yellow and cool shapes, while beside it as we both waited for the traffic light to turn green.

It was a hit-or-miss operation, a question of being in the right place at the right time. As is much of life. And I was in the wrong place more often than not. I couldn’t believe how I kept coming up empty while trolling the huge receiving docks sections of the types of stores that, in some sense, have come to rule sizeable chunks of the world: Target, Lowe’s, Walmart, Staples. What the f*ck? Not only were there no gorgeous trucks there, for the most part there were no trucks at all!

But hey, just when I was giving up hope during various intervals of my expedition, something fine came my way. Such as the image of a sun-drenched wheat field decorating a Schmidt Baking Company truck. I encountered the vehicle in the supermarket where my wife Sandy and I do most of our grocery shopping.

Even better was what I saw in the desolate rear of a Wegmans supermarket, seven miles from my house. Fresh off the strikeouts at Lowe’s, Walmart, etc., I was expecting to uncover nothing there. But lo and behold, what was that in the distance? I drove closer and grinned. Why, it was a masterpiece, my favorite canvas of all I was to see that day. Luscious, exploding with color, the Wegmans veggie painting made me shout “yo, stop the presses! I’m going to become a vegetarian, and maybe even a vegan!” Luckily there was nobody around to hear my outburst. A nanosecond later I reconsidered what I’d said and tossed the idea in my ancient Honda Civic’s ashtray. But I will say this: The Wegmans truck artist sure as hell knows how to make a humble trailer look exquisite. I drove away with all kinds of warm and wholesome feelings in my heart.

A few days after completing my photographic mission a number of things occurred to me. For one, it seems as though you don’t see a whole lot of dazzling trucks or vans with black as their base color. Strange, considering that a hefty percentage of the cars and SUVs on the road are painted black, and that black is a staple in hip fashion. I came across but two fine black-based commercial vehicles: The Shred truck pictured a few paragraphs above, and Air Purity Experts’ van. Both shone like gems.

The truck behind Wawa store

The Air Purity van was parked behind a Wawa convenience store, around one of the building’s corners from a Coca-Cola truck. That truck was the second Coca-Cola deliverer I went eyeball-to-eyeball with that day. The designs on the sides of the Coke vehicles were different yet sublimely similar. And both are timeless. Coca-Cola trucks absolutely flaunt their red, and have for ages. The oceans of red grab the eye, entice, seduce. You want a Coke right now? I wouldn’t mind one at all. That’s an example of the kind of power that good art sometimes has over me.

(Don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article. Gracias.)

(If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)