One Of Al Green’s Songs Righted My Ship For A While

Mount Digitalium

If I were younger by about 30 years I’d buy a good pair of hiking boots and some mountaineering gear and then haul my ass up to the top of Mount Digitalium. Once at its summit I’d catch my breath before laying into the resident gods who control the performance of the internet and of computer hardware and software on Planet Earth. These titans are, needless to say, magnificently intelligent. They also are f*cking pains. And they seem to get a big kick out of being the latter.

“Yo!” I’d yell at them. “I can’t take it no more. It’s bad enough that my desktop computer has had a nasty case of the freezing-ups for the last year. And a worse case of the displaying-message-alerts-that-make-no-sense. But did you have to slip a bottomless bottle of vodka to the computer monitor two weeks ago? I can barely make out anything on it since then. It’s taken wobbly and blurry to Olympian heights.”

“And that’s not all,” I’d continue. “This morning my wife Sandy wanted to take a look at her most recent credit card statement, wobbly and blurry be damned. She signed into her account, and you know what? That’s a stupid question because of course you know what, seeing that you caused the problem in the first place. I’ll tell you anyway — the statements section of the website was empty. Nothing was available to examine or to print out!

I would be shaking like crazy at this point. And the gods undoubtedly would let me shake for nearly forever before one of them made a comment or two.

“Thanks for stopping by, Earthling,” the chief god, Malfunctional, finally would say. “Now, though, it’s time for you to be on your way. Suck it up, fella, and figure out what your next steps should be. And, by the way, nobody ever said that life was easy for humans.”

That’s true. Nobody in their right mind ever did.

Back to what passes for reality. Still shaking, I fled the house and left Sandy to figure out what were the appropriate next steps, as I needed to be somewhere soon. Namely, at a local supermarket where once a week I bag and then load bakery items, donated by the market, into my car. Sandy delivers these goods to the food pantry she volunteers at.

Naturally, the credit card website situation wouldn’t disappear from my cranium. Man, I need to hire a personal assistant to handle tech issues for me and Sandy. It’d be worth it. That would free up more time for other aspects of living to rattle my very rattle-able nerves.

As I pulled out of the driveway, though, relief arrived. It came in the form of music, as often is the case for me. My benefactor was SiriusXM satellite radio’s The Loft, a channel that plays all sorts of good music. And the tune that filled the car’s interior and my ears as my journey to the supermarket began was a superb number that I hadn’t heard for some time: Al Green’s Tired Of Being Alone.

You know, there are hundreds of recordings that, when I hear them, I say to myself that they are just about as good as any recording possibly could be. That’s exactly what I thought when Tired Of Being Alone shot into my blood vessels and set me vibrating. A few simple, clear and rolling notes from an electric guitar, a handful of piercing trumpet blasts, and drums that snap steadily and regally set the table for Al’s entry. And what a pleading, powerful entry he makes. His is one of the great voices of the last 50 years, vulnerable when it needs to be, strong and sure when it doesn’t.

Not to downplay Green’s singing even a little bit, but I have to mention that I’m in love with the late Al Jackson Jr.’s drum work on Tired Of Being Alone. It couldn’t be more alive, even at the 1:47 mark when, empathizing with Green’s meandering, uncertain thoughts, it softens into a clickety-clack pattern for a spell. But when the spell breaks, Jackson’s drums explode, truly explode, as Green’s voice moves into vivid mode and female backup singers kick in loftily.

It all ends shortly after this, the dials in the studio having been gently turned to fade out the song. Maybe I wish that a different choice had been made conclusion-wise. I’d be a happy boy to be able to listen to another minute or more of Al’s and the gals’ and the instrumentalists’ amazing ride.

Or maybe it’s better that the proceedings were cut off artificially. After all, I was left breathless, a very good way to be left.

Al Green wrote Tired Of Being Alone in 1968. For various unimportant reasons it didn’t come out until 1971, and has been a pop music staple ever since. It’s a song about love, as most songs are. Al loves a girl. He can’t stop thinking about her. But she has sent him packing, and Al wants her back. He knows, though, that she’s unlikely to change her mind. But a guy can fantasize, can’t he? And that’s what Al does, ruminating during the song’s middle section about the nature of lost love and what he might be able to do to re-win a heart. With these words Al describes what many of us have felt at one time or another:

I’ve been wanting to get next to you, baby,
Sometimes I fold my arms and I say,
Oh baby, yeah, needing you has proven to me,
To be my greatest dream, yeah.

Many folks have heard Al Green sing Tired Of Being Alone not only on record but on stage. But will anyone ever encounter a stage version again? Hard to say. About 40 years ago religion called Al, and he, for the most part, left the pop music scene (his most recent tour was in 2012). He is the pastor of the Full Gospel Tabernacle church in Memphis, Tennessee. In an interview last year he left the door open for a return to public performance (click here), but I’m not holding my breath.

Yes, Al is doing what he must. And as he does so his many hits live on. I was a lucky individual to hear one of them on my way to the supermarket. It steadied my jangly nerves for a while. Thanks, Al. I needed that.

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Fishtown (As Seen Through Max’s Eyes)

I’m back! Not that I was gone for long. I wasn’t. I was on the road, for only a handful of days, with the Tingling Brothers Traveling Circus, with whom, on a whim, I’d taken a job as an apprentice elephant-dung shoveler. But the elephants ran into visa problems, what with Trump’s new, stringent guidelines, and had to be shipped back to India. End of job.

I apologize for not writing a story last week, and I totally understand the frustrations that my editor Edgar Reewright expressed in the piece that he posted concerning my absence (click here). Seeing that he’s not well-endowed (financially-speaking), he badly missed the paycheck that I neglected to issue to him. I’ve rectified my wrong. Edgar now is back on the books and once again is as happy as a poorly-adjusted, angry middle-aged guy might be expected to be.

With circus life behind me, for today’s sermon I shall turn my attention to the post-Tingling visit that our nephews (20-something Jesse and 30-something Max) paid to me and my wife Sandy. They were with us for a number of days, and we did so many enjoyable things together I’d have to write a 20,000-word opus to cover them. I’m not up to that, being very much low on gas. The circus gig took a lot out of me, you see. I had no idea how heavy elephant crap is. So, in order not to interfere with my current regimen of napping and thumb-twiddling, I’ll focus on merely one highlight — the time that Max and I spent in Philadelphia’s Fishtown section the day before he returned to his home in Texas. Jesse had, by then, gone back to his abode in the Big Apple. And Sandy sat out the Fishtown adventure. “Have fun, boys,” she told us. “I’m staying put. Did I mention that George Clooney will be stopping by the house this afternoon to show me how to operate that needlessly complicated Nespresso coffee- brewing machine he peddles on the boob tube?” She hadn’t.

But, f*ck Clooney. Fishtown was calling, and Max and I headed its way, arriving there around 12:30 in the PM. We wandered for close to two hours, checking out this, that and the other thing, and had a low-key kind of blast. Not everyone, I’ve discovered over the years, is into open-ended strolling such as this, which is why my meanderings often are done by my lonesome. But Max is. Which proves, I’d say, that sometimes a great mind (Max’s) and a middling one think alike.

Fishtown, for sure, isn’t a knock-your-socks-off kind of neighborhood, but it has its charms. Unlike downtown Philadelphia, which is only two miles away, there are no tall buildings or crowds of workers and tourists to gaze at. But I’m a sucker for narrow, twisting streets and for houses, churches and factories that went up between the mid-1800s and early 1900s, and for calm, gracious neighborhood parks. Fishtown’s got plenty of those items. Not to mention a supply of new housing and restaurants and taverns and music venues to accommodate the millennials who discovered Fishtown earlier this century and have been changing it for the better. But none of the newer stuff is overdone, at least not yet, which is why you don’t see all that many people on Fishtown’s streets in the afternoon. The neighborhood hasn’t lost its small-town feel, and that’s a good thing.

We began our expedition at the corner of Frankford and Girard Avenues, in front of Johnny Brenda’s, the tavern cum rock music club that set Fishtown’s rebirth in motion after Brenda’s opened in 2003. At that corner I had a brainstorm. I asked Max if he’d like to use my iPhone to take photos of whatever caught his eye as we made our way around the neighborhood. And that, if he did, I’d use some of them to illustrate a story I’d write about our day together. “Great idea,” he said, ripping the phone out of my hand. I’m going to sue him for bruising my pinky. Little had I known that Max is a photo-taking fiend. He, with his pix-snapping right index finger in tow, bopped through Fishtown happily and giddily. Dozens and dozens of shots were added to the phone’s memory that afternoon.

I culled through the images a few days later. What you see, then, on this page is Fishtown as Max saw it. He peered at lots of things, big and small, and framed them well in his photos. Store signs, well-aged streets, new home construction, a house one side of which is covered with an astonishing mass of ivy,  . . .

Max was drawn to hip color arrangements, to the nifty contrasts formed by buildings near to one another, and to the unexpected. And he asked me to make sure I included the selfie he snapped of us and Homer Simpson outside a store on Frankford Avenue. I don’t look all that good in said picture, but what the hell. Candid photography is where it’s sometimes at.

When Max next visits us, he and I probably will scout out another section of Philadelphia that’s off the touristy trail. Maybe an area that I, who despite having lived in or near Philadelphia for 40+ years of my adult life, barely know. Such as Port Richmond or Kensington. It’ll be fun. And, no doubt, will be documented by he and I.

(Photos by Max Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open in a separate window)

An Important Announcement From Neil’s Editor: Neil’s Missing!

Greetings, Earthlings. My name is Edgar Reewright. I’m an editor. And I’m writing to you on bended knee, as I will explain a few paragraphs down the line.

Over the years I’ve worked at The New Yorker, The New York Times and, most recently, Playboy. Prestigious jobs they were, not to mention excellent distributors of cash and benefits to yours truly. But as we know, life can throw curveballs and spitballs at any of us at any time. And come my way they did.

I won’t go into too much detail. Let’s just say that I didn’t do myself any favors when, after having devoured two bottles of Jack Daniels at a dazzling party at the Playboy Mansion in 2014, I made a pass — actually, more like 15 passes — at Hugh Hefner’s wife. When I came to a few hours later I discovered myself to be robed in a Playboy Bunny outfit and draped over a traffic light, 20 feet above ground, on Sunset Boulevard. Hef’s boys don’t mess around. Needless to say, my career in big-time journalism was over.

Thanks are due, therefore, to the blogging gods of small-time journalism. A prime example of which is Neil Scheinin’s blog. The one you’re staring at right now. Neil fancies himself to be a writer. What the hell, I always say, let him believe what he wishes. He’s hardly the only delusional collection of skin and bones traipsing around among us.

Anyway, the flimsy quality of Neil’s opuses doesn’t mean a fig to me. What does matter is the paycheck that Neil sends my way weekly. Seven hundred and fifty dollars ain’t bad dough to someone in my situation. Damn good thing I answered Neil’s ad (“Help! Dork desperately in need of editorial assistance,” it read) in the January 2015 issue of All Praises To The Blogosphere. The rest is history. Or something along that line.

Here’s why I’m writing this article: I’m very, very worried. Neil has disappeared. Foul play? Nah, there’s no evidence of that. By his own volition? You can bet the house on it. The louse didn’t even have a story-in-waiting to be published this week. Who does he think he is, skipping a week of writing? His audience probably could care less, but me? I care like crazy. And that’s because Neil not only put down his story-writing pen, he also put down his check-writing pen. I have $236 dollars to my name. If Neil doesn’t come out of hiding, or wherever he is, and pay me my weekly allowance . . . hell, I don’t even want to think about it.

Readers of Neil’s blog, I’m pleading with you to try and find him. His wife Sandy has looked high and low for him and has reported Neil’s absence to the authorities, but so far they’ve come up with nothing.

Me, I think there’s a chance that, in search of inspiration and beneficial aura fields, he’s gone to visit one of his blogging buddies, people who, unlike him, truly fall into the category of writer. And who not only churn out essays with regularity but have penned books. K E Garland, for instance, whose The Unhappy Wife is a strong look at marriage and relationships. And Andrew Ferguson. He wrote The Wrong Box, a romp of a murder mystery filled with sex, laughs and a twisty plot. Neil has told me more than once that he too would like to create a book one of these days. Yeah, right. Believe me, holding your breath waiting for that to happen would be a mistake of the highest order.

Send out the search parties! Spread the word on Twitter and Facebook! Neil is out there somewhere and he needs to return home. His wife will do just fine without him, sure. But not me. My bank account is staring at me with pitiful eyes. He better come back! And pronto. Here’s a photo of Neil. It’s the only one I have. It’s from a recent New Year’s Eve, and maybe will be an aid in finding him. Say what you will about Neil, you’ve got to admire his taste in leis.

Thanks for your help.

(Photo by Max Scheinin)

A Big Apple Day

Is New York City the apple of my eye? Well, once it was. I spent who knows how many hundreds (thousands?) of hours in one or another of its five boroughs while growing up on Long Island. And after moving to Philadelphia in the mid 1970s, to start what became a 34-year career in government work, I made pretty frequent trips to NYC, 10 or 15 each year. I was pulled there magnetically by its museums, architecture, music clubs, gracious and spacious parks, and streets just made for strolling and girl-watching. Nobody needs me to tell them that the Big Apple is one of the coolest kids on the planet. It has been for, what . . . at least 100 years?

But, for one reason or another, those Philly-to-NYC visits became less and less common when the early 1990s rolled around, petering out to a mere one every few years. Incredibly, New York City, with which I’d had the cuddliest of relationships, faded gently from my mind. “New York, wait for me! You’ve meant the world to me! I’ll be back semi-regularly, I promise. Hell, you’re only 100 miles away,” is what I should have felt and said. But I didn’t. Man, if you’d have told me before then that such ever would become the case, I’d have had you committed.

This, then, is where Dave, one of my greatest pals, enters the story that you’re reading. He, like me, used to be a Long Islander. We became friends there in high school, during the Middle Ages. And he used to love NYC. These days, though, the city’s hustle and bustle does a superb job of frazzling Dave’s nerves. He ain’t in love with NYC anymore.

Still, Dave, who took up residence on the West Coast 40 years ago, visits New York now and then, despite the jittery situation with his nerves. I guess he’s a masochist. And one of those now-and-then occasions occurred recently. “Yeah, I’ll see you there,” I told Dave when he informed me of his impending eastward trip. Thus, two Saturdays ago I headed north from my home in the Philly burbs to hang out with Dave for half a day in the greatest of the famed metropolis’ five boroughs. Manhattan.

We met where 42nd Street and Broadway colorfully come together. In other words, at the bottom end of Times Square. And for the next four hours we graced various neighborhoods, and Central Park, with our dynamic presences. Though on the cusp of age 70, we strode the streets like the titans we vaguely once were. And vaguely still are. Gorgeous girls couldn’t keep their eyes off of us the other day. Isn’t that right, Dave?

“Damn straight, Neil,” Dave just told me. “Damn f**king straight! Even though it could be that our 20/80 visual acuity distorted our view of things just a little bit.”

Speak for yourself, Dave. I know what I know.

Here’s how we spent our time together: We shot the breeze vigorously, catching up on each other’s doings. And we walked and walked and walked while shooting that breeze. And when we got tired of walking we sat on boulders in Central Park, and a little after that on chairs in a snazzy restaurant near the park’s southwestern corner.

What’s more, we didn’t have any interest in taking in any famous sights, though we saw some anyway (such as Carnegie Hall, Columbus Circle and horse-drawn carriages in Central Park). You can’t not see them in this history lesson of a city. To repeat, then, what’s already been said: Yapping, wandering, eating and girl-watching proved to be the items on our agenda.

The time flew by, as sometimes it does, and around 3:30 PM Dave and I said our goodbyes. He needed to go back to his hotel and start getting ready for the wedding that had brought him to NYC in the first place. One of his friend’s daughters was about to get hitched.

But my bus wouldn’t be leaving for an hour and a half. I had time to kill. And what better way to do that than to stroll along some of the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, the Garment District and Times Square. Those nifty sections of the city run into each other, and would keep me close to the Port Authority bus terminal, from which my Philadelphia-bound ride was scheduled to depart.

Which brings us to the final topic I want to talk about. To wit, photos. I didn’t take any while with Dave, except for a couple of selfies of him and me. Why? Man, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since starting this blog, it’s that obsessive photograph-snapping can interfere one whole lot with enjoying the time you’re spending with people you like. Besides, who the hell would want to see a picture of the roast beef sandwich that Dave tore into at the snazzy restaurant, or of the boulder we sat upon in Central Park? Oh, you would, would you? It figures.

All I can say is that it seems that you’ve come to the right place anyway. Because after Dave and I went our separate ways my picture-taking mode kicked into high gear. And the pix that I shot over the subsequent hour are the ones you’ve been looking at on this page. New York City is a lot of things. One of which is photogenic. So, even a clod like me can’t help but come away with some nice shots.

Thanks for reading and viewing. Till next time . . .

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

Sue Miller The Novelist Got Me Thinking: Uh-Oh!

Who am I? Deep inside, I mean. For that matter, who are any of us? Man, those are questions I don’t think about too much. They make my head spin. You wouldn’t think they would, though, considering that my college major was psychology, some of whose branches attempt to help humans find answers to such concerns. I liked my psychology courses, and did pretty well grade-wise in them, but I guess that psychology and I never clicked meaningfully enough. We didn’t waltz together as a loving couple. At no time, then, did I see a psychology-based future for myself in my crystal ball. In fact, sad to say, when I gazed deeply into that glass hunk I didn’t notice any future career at all. Alas, with college degree in hand following graduation in 1969, I trod a long and winding road halfway to nowheresville, scrambling with little sense of direction to find steady employment and a decent-paying job.  Oy vey summed up my situation and prospects nicely.

Thank the baccalaureate gods above, the ship began to right itself a number of years later, the proverbial pieces starting to fit together. And in the end pretty much everything worked out quite attractively for me. But looking back on it all from five decades later, maybe I’d have found steady employment and a decent-paying job a whole lot sooner had I been more attuned to examining and answering the foreboding question, “Who am I?”. Not to mention another question, to which we’ll turn our attention shortly, that wasn’t at all on my radar screen in those days of yore.

In any event, here I am today, rolling “Who am I?” and its like around in my brain because of a novel I snatched off the shelf in a local library a few Fridays ago. Not paying attention to the hour of the day, I arrived at the library only 10 minutes before closing time. I realized this when the lights began to flicker, a signal to pack up and get out of Dodge.

Determined not to leave empty-handed I moved quickly down the fiction section’s M aisle, which is where I was standing when the lights started doing their thing. My eyes darted here and there and landed on books by various Millers. Should I try something by Andrew Miller, whom I never heard of but whose volumes were emitting vibes that appeared to be meshing happily with my own? Or one of Henry Miller’s opuses, HM being a hip and bawdy cat I’ve plenty dug over the years? Nah, I wanted a female author. In the intellectual, not the carnal sense. Which is why I grabbed a few of the novels by Sue Miller off the shelf and scanned the synopses on their inside covers. I knew of Sue, she of the bestselling The Good Mother and The Senator’s Wife, and made my decision pronto. Home I went with The Lake Shore Limited sitting beside me in the car.

Sometimes you win, sometimes you don’t. In this case I won, because The Lake Shore Limited is a fine, fine book. If you are in search of a handsomely-wrought creation whose characters act and talk and think believably, it might be for you.

The Lake Shore Limited not only is the name of Sue Miller’s novel, it also is the title of a play set within the novel. What’s more, it is a real-life passenger train that connects Chicago with several cities in the northeastern United States. The play, which is seen through the eyes of various characters in the book, is the novel’s fulcrum. Its powers cause them, including the play’s author, to take good, hard looks at themselves and in some cases at those in their immediate orbits. All find within the play circumstances that resonate with or parallel their own lives.

Wilhelmina “Billy” Gertz, the novel’s main character, is a playwright living in Boston when the book opens. The year is 2007. Her latest product, The Lake Shore Limited, is in performance at a small Boston theater. And gaining strong reviews. Billy felt compelled to write the play, which she battled with for years trying to discover what she really wanted to say, because her once-boyfriend Gus had perished in one of the planes that demolished the World Trade Center on 9/11. Billy’s play tells a tale of an emotionally-numb man, Gabriel, waiting for Elizabeth, his wife, to return from a trip. She is travelling on The Lake Shore Limited. For many a moon, he and Elizabeth have not exactly been the happy couple. In no real sense are they together.

But life can change fast. The Limited has been targeted by terrorists, bombs ripping through it as it reaches Chicago’s Union Station. Gabriel’s soul-plumbing, while he waits to learn of his wife’s fate, reveal him to be more alive than he or the play’s audience expected.

Moving back and forth in time, Miller lays out the lives, past and present, of Billy, Leslie (Gus’s sister), Rafe (who portrays Gabriel in the play), and Sam (Leslie’s friend and Billy’s pursuer). We view events and encounters through their differing perspectives. And we learn that each character often isn’t too certain of the solidity of his or her perspective to begin with.

Which, to me, sounds like the way things are in real life. That’s one reason I enjoyed The Lake Shore Limited as much as I did. Its players come across as true flesh and blood. Miller’s novel also is layered delicately and precisely, which makes it rich. And ripe for discussion. Care and concern, unbridled love, grief, selfishness, infidelity, deception . . . these primo examples of the human stew are on full display in the novel. Maestro-like, Miller elegantly weaves these themes and emotions through her pages.

Not to downplay those just-mentioned examples, two of the things that have stuck in my mind like glue about The Lake Shore Limited even more are the “Who am I?” question and another question with which it goes hand-in-hand. Miller doesn’t dwell on them, but I felt them running as undercurrents in her novel. Billy, for instance, thinks of herself as a semi-loner. And, I believe, she knows that not only is it her insecurities that lead her in the loner direction, but that trying to overcome them by adopting a less-defensive approach to life might result in a jump in her happiness quotient.

And Sam, a successful architect, can only feel bad about how he failed pretty considerably as a parent when his children were young. They, now well into adulthood, and he don’t have world-class relationships. “Who the heck am I?” I can envision Sam asking. “What do I need to do to change my course?”

Billy and Sam . . . I can relate. We homo sapiens are emotional and malleable creatures, open to improvement and expansion, and vulnerable to blows. Yes, “Who am I?” is a biggie as questions go. But even if you find the answers to it, you’re not going to bloom enough if you don’t get around to examining, and acting upon, “What sort of person do I want to be?” too.

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I Need To Sit Down! (Tales Of A Dazed And Confused Volunteer)

On Tuesdays I man my post in a medical office building in the suburbs of the City Of Brotherly Love. The hours I put in there are of the volunteer variety, and I’ve been putting them in for the last seven years. Hey, a guy has to do something meaty when he hangs up his spikes from paid employment, or he very well might find himself hopelessly engulfed by his living room sofa. And volunteering is one of the good options for the post-career stage of life — giving back, as millions of people like to say. Yeah, that’s true — I get satisfaction from helping others at this and at my other volunteer gigs. But keeping busy is really more to the point. You’ve got to watch out for that f**king sofa, believe me. Its grip can be ferocious.

The infamous information desk

In the medical office building, which is one small part of an enormous regional health system, I stand behind the information desk from 8:00 AM until noon, doing my best to respond in an accurate and semi-intelligent manner to visitors’ questions and concerns. Though there is a chair behind the desk, I rarely sit in it. I do enough sitting at home.

“What room is Doctor Watson in?” is an example of the questions commonly asked of me. Hey, I know the answer! Do I win a prize? “Take the elevator over there,” I say, pointing my admirably-toned right index finger in the elevator’s direction, “and go up to the second floor. He’s in room 222.”

Or, “Is there a bathroom on this floor?” I’m queried frequently.

“Yes, luckily for you there is,” I answer, pointing to the niche that leads to the female or male loo, depending.

Or, “I don’t have any cash to pay to get out of the parking garage,” many people say to me, regarding the cash-only policy of the multi-level structure behind the medical office building. “What should I do?”

“Well,” I’d like to say, “how about wising up and carrying some money with you at all times? You never know when you’ll need it, genius.”

But instead I tell them that the cashier will ask them to fill out a form so that a bill can be sent their way, and then will raise the gate to let them out.

Another fascinating view of the desk.

None of this sounds too exciting, right? But I like the job, you know. Lots of people come up to me during my shifts, and that volume of situations keeps me on my toes and agrees with me just fine. Still, I get a bigger charge when the unexpected, in addition to the usual, occurs, and once in a while that happens. Now, keep in mind that I medicate myself with LSD on a daily basis, the better to stay in touch with my innermost self, so possibly neither of the following incidents took place two Tuesdays ago. But I’m more than certain that they did.

I was behind the info desk, absentmindedly stroking the three remaining strands of hair on the crown of my head, when a suspicious-looking, middle-aged guy burst in through the main entrance. I say suspicious because a sizeable firearm was poking out of the waistband of his jeans.

“Where’s the Wells Fargo bank branch around here, cuz?” he breathlessly shouted. “I’m lost, and I’m supposed to meet my three partners there in 10 minutes.”

“We’re going to hold up the place. Don’t tell nobody, okay?” he added, nodding at his waistband.

“I won’t, sir,” I said politely, somehow able to mask the panic that was threatening to turn my knees into jelly. “Your secret is safe with me. The bank you’re looking for is three blocks north of here on this same side of the street.”

“Appreciated, amigo,” the guy said as he bolted out the door to the car he’d parked in front of the building.

I took several deep breaths, regrouped and did a pretty good job of putting the incident out of my mind. Next day I read — that is, I’m quite sure I read — about the robbery. It was big news. The newspaper reported that all four participants had been captured by the police, 15 minutes after making their escape, in a nearby McDonald’s where they paid for their Happy Meals with a crisp $100 bill. Their server was in the midst of giving them change when the cops arrived. Apparently one of the bank employees had heard the robbers talking among themselves as they were exiting the bank. “I’m hungry,” one of the bad guys had said. “There’s a Mickey D’s a minute from here. Let’s go, boys. We’ll divvy up the loot after chowing down.”

That’ll teach ‘em. They should have gone to a Burger King instead. The food’s better there.

Anyway, the day’s electric jolts hadn’t ended. That’s because a real looker, somewhere in the second half of her 40s I’d say, came up to me about two hours after the pistol-packer departed. I’m a sucker for real lookers.

“Young man,” she said, eyeing me from head to toe and apparently not noticing that I am 20 or more years her senior, “I dropped my husband off an hour ago for his cardiologist appointment. Then I went shopping at the mall, and now I’m back. He was supposed to meet me here in the lobby after he was through. But he’s gone. Gone, I tell you. I think he skipped off with Susie, the physician’s assistant he’s never been able to keep his eyes off of. The girls at the front desk in the cardiology office looked high and low for him. There was no sign of my Kevin, who never checked in with them, and they couldn’t find that floozy Susie either.”

She took a few steps toward me, coming very close, and then, unbelievably, began to twirl playfully the aforementioned three remaining strands of hair on the crown of my head. “Pretty boy,” she said, “how about you and I go back to my place right now for a coffee and maybe something more? I’ve seen you here before and I’ve always liked your style. I know that you and I would find much in common, if you get my drift. I’m Lola, by the way.”

What? Nothing like this had ever happened to me. Once again I began to feel weak in the knees, not to mention in the head. “Hang on a sec, Lola,” I said. “I need to think. But first I need to sit down, which is something I almost never do here.”

I plopped into the chair behind the information desk and closed my eyes. Almost immediately I found myself in dreamland. When I woke up 10 minutes later, Lola was nowhere in sight. Maybe she’d located Kevin. Or maybe she’d found companionship with the FedEx deliveryman who makes his rounds in the building at about 11:30 on Tuesday mornings. Probably I’ll never know. Whatever, I headed for the parking garage, got into my car and made my way home. I’d had enough excitement for one day.

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Three Songs New To Me

“Yo, what the hell are you doing?” my editor, Edgar Reewright, shouted into the phone early last week. Wisely, I moved the receiver five inches away from my ear.

“I swear, never again will I take on a blogger as a client,” Edgar continued loudly. “Last week you wrote a story that featured three songs. And now you’re telling me that your next piece also is going to be about three songs? What gives, Neil? Can’t you come up with a different idea? How about writing about a childhood memory instead, like the time, when you were four years old, that you got your head stuck in an iron fence and Navy Seals had to be brought in to get you out? I tell you, if it weren’t for the $750 you pay me each week I’d drop you faster than I would a rattlesnake.”

“Edgar, maybe you mistake me for Ralph Waldo Emerson or John Updike,” I said. “They never lacked for things to write about. They were writing machines, for crying out loud. But me? Hey, story ideas don’t exactly flow from my cranium like lava. Right now, back-to-back pieces on music is the best that I can do. And how’d you find out about that iron fence incident anyway? The military’s report on it is locked away in their Too Weird To Be Made Public files.”

“Edgar,” I went on, “the check is in the mail. As always, it’s been a pleasure.”

I hung up. And Edgar didn’t call back.

Three songs it is then. A few weeks ago I heard them for the first time. They are good ones, two of them pretty spanking new and one an oldie that could be mistaken for a country-kissed soft rock number put on wax just yesterday. The tunes came to me via WXPN, a primo radio station in Philadelphia that should pay me a hefty fee for mentioning them as often as I have in my stories. WXPN loves to play new songs and obscure songs while finding plenty of space for ones we’ve heard a thousand times. I am one with the station’s mindset. That’s why XPN and I are pals.

I liked the three songs in question so much, I immediately made a note of their names and performers. Nightime Lady, by Rick Nelson & The Stone Canyon Band, was the first to reach my ears. Two days later, within minutes of each other, came Waxahatchee’s No Question and Zeek Burse’s Dry. As different as the three are, sonically-speaking, they share some common ground. Each examines love, for example, that most complicated and shape-shifting of emotions. And you can shake and groove to each of them, though the boogying you might do to Nightime Lady would be highly restrained compared with the workouts you’d get from the thrashing No Question and the pulsating Dry.

If I ever had heard Nightime Lady before, all memory of it was erased from my brain. I was slowly eating breakfast while leafing through the newspaper on a quiet Sunday morning when it came on the air. “Man, this is a lovely song,” I thought to myself. “Who is this? Sam Beam? Conor Oberst?” No, of course, it wasn’t either of those present-day heroes. I was a bit amazed when I soon found out that Rick Nelson is the singer and song’s composer. And that it dates back to 1972. Rick released the album Garden Party that year and had a monster hit with its title song. Nightime Lady is track number seven on that disc.

Well, I take Nighttime Lady as the tale of an immensely lonely man who finds comfort with and feels a mighty attachment to a lady of the night. Probably he has been with her on many an occasion. Lost when it comes to meeting true love, he’ll take whatever soothing caresses he can, wherever he may find them. I assume that Rick didn’t base Nightime Lady on personal experience. He always seemed well-adjusted to me, handling teen idol status in the 1950s calmly and politely. Then he plowed past those years to establish a long and successful career as a musician. Sadly, all came to an end when he died in a plane crash on the final day of 1985.

I was staring at the sky from my house’s deck when No Question grabbed me by my privates. Man, what a snarling rocker. It, and the album on which it appears (Out In The Storm), were released last month. I was panting for breath when the song ended because it doesn’t take much snarling before my head starts bopping to and fro uncontrollably. And oh happy day, WXPN wasn’t finished with me, as Dry, which came out in April on the album titled XXII, set me bouncing in my chair minutes later. Dry’s take-me-to-the-disco beats beckoned me to jump up and glide all over the deck à la Michael Jackson. I started to do exactly that, but then I remembered that my dancing ability is buried in the negative numbers. I stayed seated, though continuing to bounce in place.

No Question and Dry look at love from very different perspectives than does Nightime Lady. No Question’s young protagonist rages against her (former?) unfaithful lover. And in Dry we hear the thoughts of a guy who is ready to stay with and please his girl forever . . . or is he? He doesn’t seem all that certain, actually. Sure, everyone knows this, but I’ll state it anyway: If it weren’t for love — its solidity or lack thereof, its absence, its frustrations —  hardly any songs ever would have been composed. Topic number one it is and has been, by far.

So, what’s up with the name Waxahatchee? It’s the stage and recording moniker that Katie Crutchfield, who sings lead and wrote every song on Out In The Storm, goes by. She took it from a creek, the Waxahatchee, in Alabama, the state she grew up in. Katie, who now lives in Philadelphia, has become big in the indie rock world over the last two or three years. And probably is going to get even bigger.

Big is a word that Zeek Burse, another Philadelphian, probably hopes one day will apply to him. Stranger things have happened. He sings great, and that’s a big start. And he can write, having composed or co-authored every track on XXII. Still, the music biz is rougher than rough. For now, Zeek remains one of who knows how many thousands of professional musicians that virtually nobody ever has heard of.

Before I say goodbye till next time, I’d be impossibly remiss not to mention a main reason I wrote this article. You see, when it comes to music, we live in storied times. The number of ear-pleasers out there is beyond incredible. Nightime Lady, No Question and Dry represent merely a nano-percentage of the millions of good songs I’d never heard before that I could have chosen. And that’s because nearly everything that ever has been recorded is available to us in our Spotify-edly and YouTube-edly blessed age. Musical riches that only a handful of years ago were unimaginable are now a click here and a click there away.

Party on, amigos!

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Three Songs Of Summer

Hooray, it’s summer in my section of Planet Earth! Hooray, day after day has been hotter than hell! Hooray, the humidity has been flaunting its energy-sapping powers majestically! Hooray, early last week I was sweating like a frigging pig and well on my way to heat-stroke territory while mowing the lawn under a ridiculously strong, early-evening sun!

Summer . . .   for the last 25 or more years I have placed it in the This Kind Of Sucks category.

When I was a kid and teen and young adult, though, summer was the best. I loved going to the beach, spreading out on the sands for hours atop a blanket and happily slathering Coppertone suntan oil on nearly every exposed inch of my body in the hopes that my pale white-guy skin would achieve at least a smidgeon of brownish tint. Yeah man, roasting under heat rays generously sent to us from 93,000,000 miles away was the way to go. Sunscreen? Fuggedaboutit. It hadn’t been invented yet and probably would have been laughed off the stage even if it had. Too bad that I, like all guys and girls back then, didn’t have Nostradamus-like abilities to gaze into the future and marvel at the many visits to dermatologists’ offices that awaited us.

Anyway, there I was at 10:00 AM, a few days after mowing the lawn, on a journey to my local supermarket. As I pulled out of my driveway I partly rolled down a couple of windows to let some of the suffocating heat escape. It was already 82° Fahrenheit outside and a hell of a lot hotter than that inside the car. Should I turn on the A/C, I wondered? Nah. The supermarket was only seven minutes away. Only a wuss would need cooled air for a trip of such short duration. Me, I’m not a wuss. I’m a man. More or less.

Seven minutes later, with sweat flowing off me faster than a mountain stream, I arrived at my destination. Good thing I’d had good company along the way. By which I mean I heard a great song on the radio, one that hadn’t crossed my path in ages. Summer Breeze it was, but not the 1972 original by Jim Seals and Dash Crofts, who authored the tune together and had a monster hit with it. The Seals & Crofts recording is a-ok, a gentle and calming invocation of warm summer nights. But the station I was listening to, SiriusXM satellite radio’s Soul Town, played the 1973 cover version by The Isley Brothers.

I’ve always preferred the way The Isleys handle the song to Seals & Crofts’ approach. The complexity of the arrangement, the Chinese-sounding entry into the song, those shimmering, impossibly high voices, the gorgeous electric guitar solo that starts shortly after the four-minute mark and keeps on going to song’s end two minutes later . . . I tell you, in the car I was carried away by Summer Breeze’s grace and power. Here it is:

I completed my rounds inside the supermarket in a semi-flash. On my way home I punched Soul Town’s button once again, usually a good idea. I love that channel. The station came on mid-song. And the song — Hot Fun In The Summertime — was one that nobody in his or her right mind ever will complain about. Sly And The Family Stone put it out in 1969, during their glory days. It’s a champ. Dig the pounding piano that never lets up, those exuberant vocals, the piercing trumpet. Hot Fun’s good vibes guided me back to my house.

Wow, two songs about summer had found me during the handful of minutes I’d been in my car. As a massive believer in the gods of the blogosphere, I had no doubt that a mighty message was directed my way. And that the message was this: “Yo, you who is wearing the incredibly sweat-stained Fred Flintstone tee shirt, listen up! It is your duty to fashion a story out of the first three uplifting summer-themed songs that you hear today. Yes, the songs must invoke summer’s good times, despite the fact that you no longer are a fan of the hot season.”

“And remember,” the message continued, “your story must focus on three songs, not merely two. There is something special about groups of three, such as the three strands of hair remaining on the crown of your head.”

Well, back at the ranch I turned on the stereo system and began flipping from one station to another. I did this on and off for several hours. I knew that a great number, such as The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Summer In The City or Mungo Jerry’s In The Summertime soon would be heading my way. When it didn’t arrive I started to fidget and worry. I had been commanded to compose an opus, but there was only so much time I was willing to devote to the enterprise. Finally though, WRDV, the low-wattage radio station located not far from my home, delivered the goods at 3:15 PM. But my heart sank a little, for through the speakers came one of the summery songs I’ve never been thrilled about: Those Lazy-Hazy-Crazy Days Of Summer, in this instance sung by the great Nat King Cole. Corny lyrics abound. I suppose that in some sense they seem charming, especially if you’ve tied one on and feel compelled to sing along with all your might. The blogging gods obviously are taken with the song, or otherwise they’d not have placed me in position to hear it. Who am I to argue? Okay then, here we go — a one, a two and a three — “Roll out those lazy, hazy crazy days of summer . . . ”

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Look Up, Young Man!

When the phone rang at 8:15 AM on Wednesday of last week I reached for my blood pressure pills and popped not one, but two. Ordinarily that’s a big no-no. But somehow I knew who was calling. And since said individual has the talents to launch my diastolic and systolic readings halfway to the Moon, a medicinal overload was a necessity. On the fourth ring I picked up.

“Good morning, Edgar,” I said to Edgar Reewright, my blog’s editor. “It’s always a pleasure.”

“Cut the small talk, Neil,” Edgar said, “and let’s get down to business. Neil, I know you. Right now, I’m more than certain, you’re at the dining room table with a cup of coffee and a buttered, toasted bagel and your vial of blood pressure pills in front of you. And you’re doing your damnedest, without much success as usual, to solve The Philadelphia Inquirer’s crossword puzzle.”

I gulped. Heavily.

“I’m fed up with having to remind you of your responsibilities,” Edgar continued. “The five or six people who look at your blog — your wife, your criminal defense attorney, your proctologist’s mistress and a couple of others that I haven’t been able to identify — have come to expect one stab at an article from you each week. And my gut feeling is that you’re planning to let them down, that you’re all set to take a week off. Neil, this is unacceptable. There are dozens of stories out there waiting to be written. Get off your unbalanced ass and start working.”

Holy crap, not only is Edgar annoying, he also was correct. And so, after politely ending my conversation with him, I gathered myself and my thoughts together, pondered this and pondered that, and eventually came up with a story idea. Look Up, Young Man! would be its title. And central Philadelphia would be where I would attempt to make it blossom.

Thus in early afternoon I boarded a Philadelphia-bound train in the suburbs, arriving in the fair city’s central section an hour later.

“Look up, Neil,” my parents used to say to me when I was a kid walking along with my eyes aimed downward. I must have been suffering from a lack of confidence in those days, reluctant to meet the world head on. Not that I’m bubbling over with confidence all these many decades later. Anyway, I don’t stare at the ground anymore when I’m strolling around. I look straight ahead or side to side.

But upward? Well, like anybody, I do some of that. But consistently for a couple of hours or more? Nah, I couldn’t recall ever doing that in my life. It’s not exactly a world-class notion, but it had appealed to me when it jumped into my mind a few hours earlier. I liked its simplicity, its openendedness. Who knew where or what it would lead to?

Pow! Moments after exiting the train station and stepping onto Market Street I gaped at what to me is one of the iconic outdoor sculptures in Philadelphia. It’s a giant replica of an electric guitar, and it rotates, as if on a spit, 15 feet above the ground at the corner of 12th and Market Streets. It’s hard not to notice this symbol of the Hard Rock Café, which is housed within one of the classic stone buildings that once belonged to the long-defunct Reading Railroad.

But I wanted to look higher than 15 feet. So I crossed to the south side of Market Street and, lifting my eyes to the skies, took in the first of five or six incredibly tall construction cranes that I’d come across during the afternoon. As I usually do when staring at one of these amazing machines, I wondered how in the world it stays balanced and how in the world anybody is able to manipulate its movements so precisely. Good thing it’s not me at the controls.

I was off to a good start. And one block later the good start continued when a sweet juxtaposition caught my eye. Philadelphia is famed for the several thousands of murals painted on the sides of buildings, and a great one adorns the lower reaches of a 16-or-so story office building near the corner of 13th and Market Streets. The mural is titled The Tree Of Knowledge. A ladder, a good item to have if you’re planning to pluck some information and wisdom from a tree, comprises a major part of the composition. I sidled up nice and close to the wall and looked up. The office building’s windows took on a new aspect, flowing gently in streams towards the heavens. And the ladder? It led the way to the levels above. I was tempted to climb it and see what happened.

Forty-five minutes later another mural, Reach High And You Will Go Far, crossed my path where 20th and Arch Streets meet. It too is a beauty, painted on the side of a three-story structure. Only a fool would argue with its message. I couldn’t get up close and personal to it though, as I had with The Tree Of Knowledge, because it is fenced-in. But I remembered to look up. And what I saw behind the mural, one block to its east,  was a giant tower, the under-construction Comcast Technology Center, that will top out at over 1,100 feet when completed next year. It is destined to become Philadelphia’s tallest building by about 150 feet. Reaching high, for sure.

All told I spent two and a half hours roaming the streets, covering several miles-worth of territory. I spent much of the time in the areas where the city’s skyscrapers are most concentrated, and also walked along many blocks whose buildings are of normal size. My eyes darted here, there and everywhere, but I kept my mantra — look up! — firmly in the front of my mind. The patterns up above formed by contrasting buildings, the wonderful reflections of sky and surrounding edifices in way-up-there glass sheathings and windows, the loving details carved into stone not far above ground level in stately three-story homes . . . all of these made me smile.

I admired the words etched above the entranceway to The Alison Building, a calmly regal structure that faces one of the city’s finest parks, Rittenhouse Square. On an ordinary day, with my eyes looking straight ahead, I wouldn’t have noticed them. “He that soweth bountifully shall reap bountifully” they read. Hmmm, sounds like something that Benjamin Franklin might have said, I guessed. Incorrectly, of course. The phrase comes from the Christian Bible. Ben, though, probably knew and liked the statement, one you definitely can’t argue with.

My stroll ended alongside Philadelphia’s City Hall, an impossibly ornate hulk smack dab in the center of town. This monolith took around 30 years to build, finally opening for business in 1901. I’ve never been able to decide whether I like its exterior design or not. Some days I do, some days I don’t. It depends on how receptive to over-the-top decoration my mood is. As I approached City Hall from the south I naturally had to look at its highest point. Namely, the hat sitting atop the giant statue of William Penn, who more or less was Pennsylvania’s and Philadelphia’s founder in the late 1600s. That hat rests 548 feet above the ground, which made City Hall the tallest building in the city until 1987, when the first of Philadelphia’s now-numerous sleek, modern skyscrapers was erected.

Well, it almost was time to call it a day. I made my way to a subway station and rode a sub into South Philadelphia, an enormous area filled mostly with row houses. There I met two of my bestest pals, Mike and Jeff, for dinner at a pub. The hours of looking up had ended. Beers and some grub were the next things on the agenda.

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