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.

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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)

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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Carol, Goodbye

There we were – my wife Sandy and I – zooming westward along the Pennsylvania Turnpike two Fridays ago. We were on our way to Ohio, its Cleveland area, for a reunion of some members of Sandy’s side of the family. We see a few folks from her clan regularly, but not so for the others. The occasion promised to be a somewhat reflective one, in that it was a gathering in honor of Carol, one of Sandy’s and my cousins who, in her mid-60s, died several months ago in Arkansas. There, for decades, she had made her home with her husband Mike. Carol’s brother lives with his wife near Cleveland, and it was said brother and his spouse, Steve and Carolyn, who organized the celebration of Carol’s life.

The gathering turned out to be wonderful. Thirteen folks, including Sandy and I, made up the group. Everyone was glad to be with one another. Lots of hugs and kisses were exchanged during the three days we were together. Lots of good food was consumed. Happy chitchat glided effortlessly through the air. And on Saturday, in memory of Carol, we all piled into our motor vehicles and drove to downtown Cleveland to attend a Cleveland Indians baseball game, the signature event of the family members’ weekend.

When it comes to Carol, only one thing could have been more appropriate than our visiting the Indians, and that would have been our attendance at a Philadelphia Phillies baseball game. Carol, as big a baseball fan as I’ve ever known, grew up in the Philadelphia region and at an early age became infatuated with the Phillies. That infatuation gripped her for the rest of her life. But through her brother, another baseball aficionado, she came to love the Indians too. During visits to Steve and Carolyn over the years she went to a good number of Indians games. If only she could have been with all of us that recent Saturday. In her element, she’d have had a blast.

45 minutes before game time
45 minutes before game time

I was pretty well stunned by the beauty of Cleveland’s  stadium, Progressive Field, when it came into view moments after I walked out of the parking garage. Intimate, with narrow outfield foul territory areas, it was modestly populated at 3:30 PM, forty-five minutes before game time. Hordes of fans soon would arrive. The outfield grasses, green as can be and meticulously groomed, looked magnificent. The enormous scoreboard flashed excitedly with bright-colored messages. With no rain in sight, the day held much promise.

Steve and Carolyn had gone whole hog by renting a suite for the family. I’d never been in a baseball suite before, and, you know, I have to say that it ain’t a bad way to go. A guy could get used to it. There was a buffet area within the room, a frig stocked with beer and a big screen TV for those who chose to watch the game artificially. And, best of all, a clean bathroom.

Photo taken from within the suite

And there was a door that led out to the open air, to a balcony of sorts that held a dozen chairs. The suite was halfway down the third baseline, and from the balcony the view of the game was fine. As were its sounds. I was amazed by the high decibel level of pitched balls crashing into catchers’ mitts. Man, pitchers these days throw hard. Harder, I think, than ever before. Boom, boom, boom, indeed.

Shadows enter the infield!
Shadows dominate the infield!

Well, the game passed pleasantly, though the final outcome wasn’t favored by Cleveland rooters, the Minnesota Twins winning the battle by the score of four runs to two. Like most of the family members I paid only half-attention to the game, spending much of the time wandering into the suite for food and beverage or talking about this or that with one person or another. Or fixating on the heavy, menacing shadows that began to cover the infield midway through the proceedings. How a batter can see a ball well enough to hit it under those shadowy conditions is way beyond myopic me. Carol, though, would have watched the action on the field with an eagle eye. You have to if you’re going to document the step-by-step developments throughout a game on a scorecard, something that few people know how or would want to do. Carol, though, knew how, and did. She was a true lover of the game.

Now, there was much more to Carol’s life than baseball. She was someone of wide mind and interests. But baseball is what many of us who knew her think of when we think of Carol. I mean, in Arkansas she subscribed to a special major league baseball television channel so that she could watch Phillies games. And at family gatherings it wasn’t unusual for her to be wearing a Phillies jersey.

It was fitting, therefore, that a few hours after the game ended, back at Carolyn’s and Steve’s home, everyone adjourned to a large room in which a piano resided. Steve and Carolyn possess excellent musical talent. And Mike, though not in their class music-wise, is a free-spirited singer, liable to burst into song at any given moment. Carolyn sat down at the piano and Steve placed his violin on his shoulder. Their young-adult son, also in possession of musical gifts, picked up a violin too. Next thing you knew a most rousing version of Take Me Out To The Ball game was under way, Carolyn hitting the keys hard and exuberantly, Mike singing with startling gusto and the two violinists fiddling away like their lives depended on it. Everyone else in the room was singing or humming along, and when the song reached its conclusion they burst into loud applause. It was by far the best rendition of Take Me Out To The Ball Game that I’ve ever heard.

Another good person has left the planet. Carol, goodbye. We miss you.

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

My Obsessions (Ain’t What They Used To Be)

Art by ATELIER DAYNÈS; PHOTOGRAPH: S. ENTRESSANGLE

Friendship is one of the things I appreciate a lot at this point in my life. Don’t ask me why, but for some reason I have more strong friendships now, in the way-past-my-prime years, than I did in my younger days, which were back when Neanderthals were disappearing fast from the face of the Earth. Ah, the Neanderthals. I was real, real sorry to see them go. They kept to themselves for the most part, sure, but they were good people. They had hearts of gold. I mean, they’d share their last hunk of fire-roasted, olive oil-infused wooly mammoth meat with you if you were hungry. Or give you pots of pigments, whatever colors you needed to finish your cave paintings. What the hell can you say? Times change.

Anyway, fast-forwarding through many millennia, I was at dinner recently with two of my great pals, Mike and Jeff, guys I used to work with. We hook up for meals, and sometimes for concerts and other stuff, on a regular basis. We get along swimmingly.

We were at a tavern in a tony section of Philadelphia, downing beers and pretty good food and yapping about the usual. Donald Trump, cute girls, movies, television, travel and sports, for instance. We detest the first subject on that list and plenty like all the others. The conversation turned to baseball. Aware that the local team had lost a ton of games recently, I genteelly said to Mike and Jeff: “What the f**k’s wrong with the Phillies this year? They’re f**king awful!”

“Right,” said Mike, “I was talking for an hour about exactly that with a group of guys this morning.”

But I couldn’t go into great detail about the Phillies’ situation, because I barely knew what was happening with the team. I had no idea which Phillies were stinking up the ball field and which, if any, were playing decently. That’s the way I am these days when it comes to sports. I keep up with certain athletics a bit in the newspaper, watch a few minutes of some games on the boob tube now and then . . . and that’s about it. I still like sports, sort of, but my interest is almost nothing compared to what it was in the 1960s and 70s and much of the 80s. In those years I ingested sports voraciously, in person, on television and by reading about them. And it wasn’t only the most popular games — baseball, football and basketball — that I followed. I was into tennis, golf, track and field, boxing, bowling . . . there wasn’t much I didn’t invest countless hours keeping up with.

But those days are long gone. Starting in the late 80s I began to experience déjà vu whenever tuning in to a game. “I’ve seen all of this before,” I would think to myself. “Like, eighty thousand times before.” Which was very, very true. And so my interest in sports started its what I imagine to be predestined decline. By the time I met Sandy, my wife, in 1990, I wasn’t all that big a sports fan anymore. That’s lucky for me because she’d have bid a quick adieu to anyone obsessed with sporting affairs. And I totally understand that viewpoint. These days I too don’t enjoy spending much time with anyone who is magnificently hung up on and consumed by sports. Or by any other subject, for that matter.

Such as music. Some people who have known me for years still think of me as a total music nut. Well, music is a big interest of mine, as the pages of this blog prove. But I’m one-fifth the music guy that once I was. Where I used to make a startling effort to follow what was going on in rock, jazz, blues, singer-songwriter, reggae, Americana and you-name-it genres of music, no longer do I behave that way. My effort these days is limited, not startling. And I’m much the happier for it. Now I have loads of time to spend on more important activities, such as trying to devise innovative afternoon-napping systems that will benefit mankind immeasurably by invigorating the human spirit as never before. Such work, I’m quite confident, will prove to be my most important and lasting legacy.

Still, music is wondrous. And, unlike sports, I couldn’t live without it. Or live without writing about it. And that’s what I’m about to do. You see, one morning last month I heard a song on WXPN, the University of Pennsylvania’s crackerjack radio station, that instantly blew me away. The song made my ears stand up, and then it carried me from the bathroom in which I was brushing my teeth to cosmic pastures. The date, I’m fairly sure, was April 24, two days after the band called The War On Drugs released Thinking Of A Place.

Now, I don’t know much about The War On Drugs, further proof of the enormous diminution of my once-obsession with music. I’ve never delved into their music. What I do know is that they are based in Philadelphia, the city I live near, and that they are a big name and also quite popular in the rock music world. Their most recent album, Lost In The Dream, came out in 2014. Thinking Of A Place, a sweeping, calming and improbably long (11 minutes and 12 seconds) song, is the first new material the band has released since then.

WXPN is pretty obsessed with Thinking Of A Place, and I am too. Despite its length, the station has been playing it once or more on most days. And though I don’t listen to XPN all that much, I seem to catch the tune half the times that I turn on the station. Which can’t be coincidental. Meaning, the music gods high above us have their gazes firmly fixed upon me. Without a doubt they want me to make known the existence of Thinking Of A Place to some good folks who likely haven’t heard it before.

Sit back, close your eyes and let The War On Drugs take you on a splendid ride. Thinking Of A Place is good for whatever might ail you. Here it is. Peace out, brothers and sisters.

The Final Curtain . . . Oy Vey

finalcurtain-hqdefaultMortality, one of the less-than-fun subjects to ponder, has been on my mind a tad more than usual of late, and I’ve been dealing with it like the well-adjusted adult that I fantasize being. I know why my gaze has moved slightly in that direction, and I’ll get to that shortly. Luckily, though, I normally don’t give the topic a whole lot of thought, which I suspect is the case for nearly all of us. Most days I subconsciously shrug my shoulders in the face of the inevitable and continue performing my clumsy dance through life. There’s nothing we can do about the final curtain, so why sweat it? It’s out there. We know that. And one of these days it’s going to drop . . . Hey, wait a minute. That’s really true, isn’t it? One of these days it is going to drop. On little ol’ me. Me, who never hurt more than a few thousand flies in his life. Me, who makes it a point to help the elderly cross the street whether they want my assistance or not. It’s not fair, I tell you! It’s not fair! Holy crap, I’m bumming myself out. I need to walk away from my computer’s keyboard and try to calm down before I resume work on this depressing essay. A beer, that’ll help. Let’s make it a six pack. Better yet, a full case. I’ll be back at some point, unless that f**king curtain falls sooner than I expect it to.

(Three days later). As promised, I’ve returned. And I’m in fighting shape once again. It’s time to continue. I recall a conversation I had six or seven years ago with a childhood friend. I was in my early 60s at the time and recently had celebrated a birthday. “You know, I’m not getting any younger,” or something similarly clichéd I said to her. “Neil, you’re not old. To me you’re youthful,” she more or less said to me. What? Was she kidding? All I could think of was an indisputable fact: Even if I were to live for another 30 years, I was a whole lot closer to the end than to the beginning. And today, as I barrel down the track towards age 70, which is a mere 10 months away, that’s far truer than it was then. Oy vey, what’s a poor boy to do?

Aging. Closing in on the finish line. They are mystifying phenomena. And when you’re truly getting up there in years they can be hard to wrap your head around. My mother, for example, couldn’t believe it when she turned 70. She laughed and laughed when talking to me about the dubious milestone she had reached. 70? Hah! She probably thought of herself as being 45 or 50, and those numbers pretty well reflect the way I think about myself today. But time marches on unconcernedly, despite what’s going on in our imaginations. My mom, a wonderful person whose health problems were considerable and heartbreaking, is long gone. The grains of sand in her hourglass’s upper section emptied pretty quickly after her 70th spin around the Sun.

Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/SoundSpike
Photo by Tim Mosenfelder/SoundSpike

And now it’s time to mention the reason I’m writing this story, which for sure is not of the fluffy and puffy sorts that I usually populate cyberspace with. Yes, philosophy fans, once in a blue moon I cautiously reach into my mental library of deep thoughts and pull out a couple. Problem is, my supply is incredibly limited, so I have to ration them carefully. Right, I still haven’t mentioned the reason. Well, Sharon Jones is the reason. Sharon Jones, the gritty and splendid soul/funk singer. Sharon Jones, who didn’t find musical success until firmly in her middle age and probably was all the more appreciative of it for that. Sharon Jones, who a couple of weeks ago joined the long list of notable musicians (Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Leonard Cohen, et al.) whose tenures on Planet Earth ceased in 2016. She made it to only age 60.

When I heard about Sharon’s death I felt sad. Quite sad. And not because I was a devout fan of hers. I wasn’t, though probably I should have been, as she was really, really good. Instead, her passing brought me up short because of something that I suspected to be very true. Namely, that undoubtedly she was a lovely person, someone whom I’d have been lucky to know and be pals with. I came away with those observations five years ago when my wife Sandy and I went with a group of friends to see Sharon perform in Philadelphia. As always, she was with The Dap-Kings, a horn-heavy, swaggering band she’d hooked up with in 2002, and found acclaim with over the succeeding years.

Sharon and The Dap-Kings’ performance was part of a weeks-long arts celebration that Philadelphia put on in the spring of 2011. On April 30 of that year she and her bandmates climbed the outdoor stage set up in the heart of town. They were the final act of that day’s street fair. The stage sat in the middle of Broad Street, Philadelphia’s main thoroughfare, and all around it were oceans of human bodies. I don’t know how, but Sandy and I and our friends found a few feet of open space pretty close to stage right. I was pumped. I knew that Sharon and company would be good, but had no idea they’d be fantastically good. And Sharon led the way. For an hour and a half or so she absolutely commanded the stage, shimmying and strutting and testifying and propelling songs to the skies with her powerful vocal cords. My God, she and The Dap-Kings rocked the city to its knees.

I was entranced. Not only that, I could tell that Sharon Jones was beyond ordinary in more than musical ways. That became obvious when she invited a group of little kids, who had been dancing their hearts out a few feet in front of her, to join her onstage. Sharon went wild with them, and the crowd roared. And they also roared, during the group’s signature song (100 Days, 100 Nights), when, with a “Come on, baby,” she motioned to a young man in the audience, Thomas, to climb up and party madly with her. She and Thomas made an exuberant couple. Here is the video of Sharon Jones, The Dap-Kings and Thomas:

What can I say? Beautiful people, those who are open and joyful, behave as Sharon did that afternoon. By that I mean that Sharon was a beautiful person. Which is why many in this world will miss her. It’s a sorrowful day when a bright light goes out.

 

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Stoned Again And Again (A Semi-Obsession With The Rolling Stones)

jumpin-jack-flash-coverIn the summer of 1968 I did a stint as a counselor at a boys’ sleepaway camp nestled in the Berkshire Mountains of Massachusetts. It was a good gig. I liked the kids in the bunk that I oversaw. And for some reason they seemed to like me. The air up there in the mountains was fresh, the water in the camp’s lake was clean and inviting and the female counselors in the nearby girls’ camp were cute. Like I said, a good gig. The best thing of all during that summer, though, was completely camp-unrelated. It was a tune that I heard for the first time ever while lying one evening on my bunk cot. A new song, it exploded from my teeny-weeny radio, and for the rest of my Berkshires sojourn I flipped that radio’s dial as often as possible each day, seeking out the music that had blown me away. Whenever I found it, which was pretty often, I shook my head in disbelief and let it rock me anew unmercifully. And you know what? To this day, a mere 48 years later, the tune has just about the same effect upon me. We’re talking The Rolling Stones’ Jumpin’ Jack Flash, birthed in the era when those British lads were idolized, really mattered and were flabbergastingly creative, writing and recording amazing new songs prolifically and seemingly with ease.

Stones on stage in 2016. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP -- Getty Images
Stones on stage in 2016. Photo by Nelson Almeida/AFP — Getty Images

In 2016 the Stones are still idolized, at least by some. But really mattering and in possession of creative zing? Those days passed the Stones by long, long ago. Sure, the boys, who range in age from 69 (guitarist Ronnie Wood, a longtime but not original Stone) to 75 (drummer Charlie Watts) haven’t broken up, and for each of the last five years they’ve toured a decent amount, rocking ferociously on stage (meaning, they remain fairly active and haven’t lost their chops). Problem is, though, in concert they are nothing more than rehashers of their own well-worn classic material. And that’s because, when it comes to composing and then recording new songs, they’re plenty constipated. Guys, I’m going to ship 20 cases of prune juice to your manager’s office. You need it.

Hey, Paul McCartney, Bob Dylan and Neil Young, all of whose tree rings number about the same as those of the various Stones, continue to gift the world with albums of original material. But the Stones? Nah. The only album of new bonbons they produced this century was 2005’s A Bigger Bang. And in 2011 they managed to record and release two more original songs. The well dried up after that. They do have a studio album coming out next month, but it’s filled strictly with cover versions of old blues numbers. Apparently they had entered the studio to try and crank out an album of newbies, but got nowhere with that. Trying to salvage the sessions in some way, they fell into a blues groove, jamming on numbers composed by Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf and other blues guys, and ended up with enough material for an album. I bet the record (Blue And Lonesome) will be good. But me, I’d much rather have the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards songwriting team on fire like they were looong ago. Who knows? Maybe it’ll happen again. Prune juice works.

Right, it’s kind of weird that I know about all of this Stonesy stuff. But I do. And the reason is that, in my wondrous dotage, I am, as I’ve been for nearly forever, a dopey fanboy of the Stones, though far less fervent than I used to be. I rarely play their albums at home anymore, something I once did religiously. But I keep my Stones jones alive by regularly checking up on their musical and other escapades on Google News. Did you hear, for instance, that Wood became the father of twins earlier this year? Or that Jagger will become a dad for the eighth time, at age 73, when his decades-younger-than-him girlfriend gives birth soon? Ah well, small news items like those fit comfortably into my small brain cavity. Decades ago I probably wouldn’t have thought my semi-obsession with the Stones would continue this far into eternity. Similarly, Jagger, when he was in his twenties, used to say that he couldn’t imagine performing rock and roll beyond age 30. So I guess I don’t feel too goofy about following him and his bandmates on their continuing trip. We spit at Father Time’s wrinkled face!

the-rolling-stones-we-love-you-london-3My best Stones moments in a while came recently courtesy of WXPN, a Philadelphia radio station adept at playing just about every style of music you can name. The morning DJ announced that she was spinning songs that originally had come out together on seven inch 45 rpm vinyl singles. In other words, she was playing sides A and B from a bunch of singles. When I heard her offer up the Stones’ Ruby Tuesday/Let’s Spend The Night Together something sparked in my head, turning my thoughts to another Stones 45 that I’ve always thought of as one of the ultimate singles, and whose two tunes I hadn’t heard in at least a few years. Released in 1967, during the Stones’ brief foray into psychedelia, We Love You and Dandelion found their most meaningful home on that single, as neither ever was part of a regular studio album. They did, however, eventually take up space on some of the greatest hits and compilation discs that the band is talented at issuing unnecessarily often. Great, great songs they are, despite being among the group’s lesser-known efforts.

I used to own the seven inch We Love You/Dandelion single. No more. My collection of 45s, unlike that of my vinyl albums, long ago found new abodes and/or an assortment of landfills in which to reside. Therefore, thank the stars above for YouTube, to which I turned to please my ears soon after the tunes popped into my mind. They sounded as good as I remembered them. Blessed with catchy-as-hell melodies, swirling and cascading vocals and pulsating instrumentations, We Love You and Dandelion set my head a-boppin’ and my mind a-floatin’. As always, shivers ran up and down my back as the songs’ high harmony vocal interweavings kissed the sky.

We Love You arrived in the wake of Jagger’s and Richards’ 1967 drug bust, short-term jailings, trials and, in the end, very light sentences. It was both a thank you to Stones supporters and a poke at the British legal system. Dandelion is less heady, a harpsichord and drum-driven relative of children’s songs aimed at anyone who likes to smile and groove. Both songs swell with musical daring, panache and beauty. I can’t recommend them enough. Such being the case, clicking here is what you’ll want to do to listen to the former, and here for the latter. I accept your thanks in advance.

 

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The No Bell Prize

Before I threw this blog into gear, in April of last year, I’d hardly ever looked at any of the who knows how many millions of blogs that flap their wings in cyberspace. Since then, though, I’ve become a blog addict and have clicked on the pages of at least a thousand. Most I’ve never revisited, for reasons only my valet Jeeves is privy to. But there are over 100 whose words and images I imbibe anywhere from occasionally to frequently. And that’s because they are good. Real good in numerous cases. If anyone had told me in April 2015 that Planet Earth houses many times more strong thinkers and boffo writers and discerning photographers than I ever imagined, I’d have responded “yeah right, and I’m going to win the Nobel Prize in Literature before this decade is out.” Well, all I can say is that I now am totally impressed, and intimidated, by the oceans of citizens who can turn a sweet phrase and/or snap a fine photo. And despite the obvious fact that a Nobel isn’t part of my future, I’m here to announce somewhat reluctantly that a No Bell is. More about that later.

Intimidated. Yes, that word surely applies to me. Trying to keep pace with the many who, anywhere from twice a week to daily, knock out good stories for their blogs intimidates me. I mean, it’s all I can do to compose a ditty once a week. Twice a week or more often than that? Ain’t about to happen anytime soon. I’m more likely to pack my bags for the Himalayas and scale Mount Everest or K2.

Inspiration that leads somewhere is what it boils down to, and some writers have it up the wazoo. Me, uh uh. Take one day last week, for example. I hit my blog’s “Publish” button early that morning, lofting my latest masterwork, Ponds, into the ethers. Hours later I was sweating up a storm, racking my brains for a topic I could wrap my head around and turn into another addition to the publication whose sentences you presently are glued to. The pressure was on. If something didn’t emerge pretty soon I’d be in sharp danger of being empty-handed when, the following week, the “Publish” button coolly beckoned me to depress it confidently. Becoming more desperate by the minute I yelled to myself “come here, topic, come here. Be a good boy and come here.”

And who’d have guessed it? Next thing I knew a few ideas began to dribble in. Starting to feel better I grabbed a pen and a pad and scribbled some notes.

img_1254Cape Cod were the first words I jotted down. Sure, how about another opus about The Cape? My previous two fell into that category, so why not make it a threepeat? On the other hand, I quickly decided, fuhgeddaboudit. I needed to point my blog in a direction away from The Cape, if only temporarily, before my meager readership abandoned ship entirely. “Cape Cod, my love,” I said to myself, “I’ll come back to you. Sooner rather than later. Wait for me, my dearest. Please wait.”

monkey-scratching-headIf not Cape Cod, what then? A few more words transferred from my brain cells to paper: Movies That Made Me Scratch My Head. Not a bad idea, I thought, as I’d seen two action flicks in October that I enjoyed but whose plots, par for the course for me, I couldn’t keep up with. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, a Tom Cruise-led endeavor, and Ben Affleck’s The Accountant were the films in question. Sitting back on my living room sofa I tried to bring Reacher and Accountant to life in my mind, but had only middling success. I could barely recall the plot twists that a few weeks earlier I’d been scratching my head about. Like much of my life, they’d faded into wispy memories. What, you expect a body to take notes when he goes to the movies in the event he might want to comment pointedly on them for his blog? I’ll take it under consideration.

You get the picture. I played around with a couple of other ideas and ended up tossing them aside too. And so, here I am with an essay about not much of anything. And the “Publish” button is staring me in the face. What’s a boy to do? That button is a demanding and inscrutable entity, one best not to ignore. It’s anyone’s guess what ghastly forces might be unleashed if I do.

In conclusion, I return to the aforementioned No Bell Prize. Here’s the situation: I have it on good  authority that next week I will be invited to Stockholm, Sweden, where, should I accept the invitation, I would be presented in December with a document inscribed as follows: We at The No Bell Institute Of Blogging Mediocrity hereby state that Neil Scheinin’s blog post from November 10, 2016 is not ring-a-ding-ding. It is unworthy of any number of bells, not five, not even one. No bells being more like it, we are issuing this certificate to Mr. Scheinin.

Ouch!

Oy vey!!

Onward and Upward!!!

 

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The Deck And I (A Sunset Story)

When my wife Sandy and I were house-hunting 11 years ago, looking to make the daunting leap from a Philadelphia row house to a slightly bigger spread in the burbs, our real estate agent took us to towns all over the place. Sandy and I examined a lot of homes. We wanted something middle-aged and attractive. And being a lazy guy who wasn’t up to taking on anything remotely resembling a major project, whatever dwelling I ended up in also needed to meet the definitions of renovated, clean and comfortable.

img_1056After a few months of searching we came upon the house we now call our own. And one of the big reasons we said “yes” to it was a feature I’d hardly ever in my life thought about, let alone thought I’d want. But when I took my first look at the house’s deck that sat eight feet above and overlooked the backyard I said to myself: “Holy sh*t, this is da bomb! I want it!” And since then I’ve had it.

But, dumbass that I am, I haven’t put the deck to extensive use. I’ve spent plenty of hours upon it, for sure, but erratically. This year hardly at all. When I want to laze I tend to do that indoors on the living room sofa where I practice spilling beer and dropping Cheez-It crumbs by the hundreds all over the cushions. I’ve gotten real good at those sports. I’ll note, though, that Sandy loves the deck. She’s thinking of moving onto it permanently, leaving her spouse to his own devices.

About 7 PM one evening last month, however, the deck called to me. I was on my way into the kitchen from the dining room. And, through the dining room’s glass door that leads to the deck, noticed the sky. It was fabulous, streaked with pinks, oranges and yellows. Our friend the Sun had dropped below the horizon minutes earlier. A grand sunset was on!

Chatham, Cape Cod. October 2015.
Chatham, Cape Cod. October 2015.

Me, I’m a sunset guy, though you wouldn’t know it when I’m occupying space in my manically overdeveloped suburban region. Here, it’s kind of hard appreciating sunsets displayed above a landscape crammed with strip malls and gas stations and office buildings. So, here I’m not in the habit of seeking out sunsets. But I get into them in a major way when in beautiful open areas. Sandy and I are fans of Cape Cod, for instance. At many Cape locales the vistas are something else: endless waters, sands and, sometimes, marshes. When I’m surrounded with ooh la la scenery like that I get jazzed watching the Sun drop and the sky drip with colors. And it’s not just me. Lots of people are into sunset-gazing on Cape Cod. No matter which beach area Sandy and I have stood on to take in the event, a bunch of other folk usually are there too with the same thing in mind. Sunset-gazing on Cape Cod, and no doubt in many spots all over the world, is almost a tribal ceremony, a quiet one that comes together seemingly spontaneously out of primal needs.

Cape Cod aside, I should but almost never remember to look at sunsets from my deck, the perspectives from which aren’t disturbed by strip malls et al. Sure, that perch isn’t the perfect one to take in the sky, what with the trees out back obscuring views profoundly. But, hell, it’s still awfully nice. What’s more, things seem pretty peaceful on the deck, since there are no cars going by. Peaceful, that is, till one of the multitude of nearby canines starts barking its fu*king head off. But I digress.

img_1052img_1044Yes, the sky was fabulous. I grabbed my iPhone, turned on its camera and went out onto the deck. To the south only half of the sky was visible, due to several big boy trees. Within the tree branches, though, bits and pieces of sunset hues played a cloak and dagger game, which I thought was awfully cool. And above the trees? Man, the painting was great, with swaths of pastel tones floating in darkening blue.

img_1047-2img_1049-2To the west was a somewhat different type of story. A few trees condensed the just-above-the-horizon view to a fairly narrow opening, but the gap was enough. Gorgeous colors drenched that section, the yellows falling lower and glowing brighter by the second. What can I say? I got drawn in. I dug it all, to the west and to the south. And I snapped pictures, as if the 500 billion sunset photos already taken by humankind since the invention of photography weren’t enough. Yup, there’s something about sunset pix. I’m not embarrassed to toss a few more into cyberspace.

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Mall Me

img_1036“You need to buy some new jeans,” my wife Sandy had mentioned to me, a reluctant shopper, a few times recently. She wasn’t wrong. Day after day after day I wear jeans, having abandoned other forms of pants when I bid adieu to my decades-long white collar cum chinos career seven years ago. Most of my current crop of jeans is three or more years old. And looks it. Deeply creased and worn areas in the fabrics abound. As do leg bottoms whose threads are unraveling faster than light beams travel. I pondered the situation and eventually submitted. “Want to go to the mall with me?” I asked Sandy not long ago. “I’ll try on jeans. You can tell me how they look.” It was one of those days that, like death, is inevitable.

A big, bright indoor shopping mall, anchored by several department stores (including Macy’s), dwells on once-forested land half a mile from our house. Sandy and I figured that, at the mall, Macy’s would offer the best selection of denim. To Macy’s we went. Sadly, the shopping excursion was not ring-a ding-ding. In the men’s department dressing room I tried on 21 pair of jeans. Some of them squashed my balls demonically. Others, with a modest tug, slid over my waist as if they were greased. What’s  a guy got to do to find a pair of jeans that fits right? Hire Levi Strauss’ ghost to custom tailor them? I stormed out of the dressing room, contemplating throwing myself over one of the mall’s inner railings to the ground level courtyard. Good thing Sandy was there to prevent that from happening. Otherwise the masterpiece that you at this moment are reading wouldn’t be floating around in cyberspace.

But all was not lost, for on the way to Macy’s Sandy and I had passed through another department store. Bloomingdale’s. And I, constantly idea-starved when it comes to blog stories, was amazed by how incredibly good the stuff for sale in Bloomingdale’s looked, not to mention the snazzy displays right and left on which the goods balanced and the aura of pizzazz that pervaded the store. “Man, this place is beautiful. It’s like a modern art museum,” I said to myself. And thus a story idea emerged. Let us proceed.

img_0934img_0935A few days after the day in which I came up jeans-less I was back in Bloomingdale’s. I entered through the portal that led directly to an artistic wonderland, the cosmetics department. Talk about kaleidoscopic vistas, layouts that Andy Warhol would have been proud to design and colors that rocked. I had never paid much attention to cosmetics departments before, but that day I was smitten. Almost sorry that I wasn’t female, I was tempted to sit down on one of the stools ringing some counters and let one of the beauty experts behind the counters have a go at me. Hell, my face could use a lot of help.

img_0941img_0943Next time I will. But I needed to move on, to check out the museum-worthiness of the rest of Bloomingdale’s first level and the two above that. Not far from cosmetics were women’s dresses. By the way, I saw dresses in other parts of the store too, later, and had no idea what the differences were between the various dress sections. Needless to say, I’m a fashion idiot. Anyway, four of the mannequins-in-dresses on the first floor were hot chicks clad in cinnamon, grey, and black. I could imagine those sculpted figures displayed within a gallery of The Big Apple’s Museum Of Modern Art, where they would be meant to represent, let’s say, a commentary on our society’s beautiful people. Lined up nonchalantly one behind the other, they wowed me. And, permit me to add, they were way beyond my league: now, then and always. Wait, I forgot . . . those girls weren’t real. And I also forgot that I’m married. If it weren’t for those two circumstances though, I might have had the courage to ask the pensive blonde to join me for some pizza slices and frozen yogurt at the mall’s food court. But probably not.

And so I wandered for 40 more minutes. After which I decided that my original impression was correct. And I expanded upon it: Bloomingdale’s is like a modern art museum that has outstanding holdings in color field art and pop art. And I’ll throw in some Matisse too. It’s a haven for color arrangements that sometimes smile and sometimes exuberantly clash. And for sculptures (mannequins) that might get you thinking about what they are thinking.

As usual I’ve entered territories that my analytical and intellectual abilities aren’t equipped to explore much further. And I’m also getting hungry. It’s 12:39 PM as I now prepare to remove my fingers from my computer’s keyboard. Almost time to feed the face that needs a lot of help. I’ll leave you with some additional photographic examples of how artsy-cool Bloomingdale’s is. And I’ll remind you not to be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article with others. And that if you click on any photo in this story, a larger image will open in a new window.

Peace out.

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