Azaleas! Rocky!

As I’ve known for many decades, I can be a very dumb shit, and I proved that in the story I published on April 18. That opus is a recount of the walk I took in Jenkintown, a suburban town near Philadelphia, during which I gorged myself on springtime’s greenery and flowering trees and bushes. The middle of the piece contains the following sentences: But where the hell were the azaleas? I saw only three. Maybe somewhere in Jenkintown were a bunch of “Azalea Bushes Are Not Welcome In This Community” legal notices.

Yo, Neil, listen up! The three azaleas in flower that you saw were not the only azaleas in Jenkintown. There are undoubtedly plenty of azaleas in Jenkintown, but most of them had not blossomed yet. That’s because azaleas come in many varieties and do not necessarily bloom at the same time! The ones you saw, with purple flowers, were the only ones that had so far.

Yeah, I know that. But it had slipped my mind during my April stroll. Nobody ever has or ever will mistake me for a botany whiz kid.

Anyway, a couple of days after launching the story into cyberspace, I awoke from my azalean slumber, realizing the error of my ways. And since then I’ve had azaleas on my mind. Hey, why not? Azaleas, when in flower, are beautiful. And within the last two weeks I noticed that scads of them in the Philadelphia burbs, where I live, had opened their wings. The time had arrived for me to investigate the azalea situation in a pretty big way, something that, as far as I could remember, I never had done.

It was only a natural, therefore, that visiting Philadelphia’s Azalea Garden would strike me as the appropriate thing to do. I mean, come on, it’s called the Azalea Garden! And so, on the 1st of May, a cool and cloudy day, I boarded a train that transported me to the City Of Brotherly Love. But a few minutes before I climbed aboard, I snapped a photo in my neighborhood. The picture is of enormous and awe-inspiring azalea bushes that adorn the front lawn of my friend Joyce’s house. Regale your eyes:

Joyce’s azaleas.

I hadn’t been to the Azalea Garden in 15 or 20 years. I had no idea what condition it would be in or how many azaleas it nowadays contains, but I guessed that all would be well. And it was. The AG is a sweet, four-acre park near the Philadelphia Museum Of Art, a few blocks outside the hustle and bustle of downtown Philly. Azaleas were plentiful and in bloom. White, pink, red, yellow and orange azalea blossoms looked smashing amidst the park’s greenery. Especially the white ones, of which there were thousands. I’m sure I’ve never seen so many white azalea petals in my life. They alone were worth the trip.

I took my time in the park, covering all of its grounds. I said hello to the azaleas. I sat on a bench for a while and ate the sandwich I’d brought from home. And I took lots of photos.

And then nature called. Not one to ignore natural processes, up a hill I strode to the art museum, of which, luckily, I’m a member. That’s because members get in for free. Otherwise, for the pleasure of using the facilities I’d have had to pay the $18 museum admission fee required of seniors. I’m here to tell you that everything came out very artistically! Monet and Picasso would have been proud of me.

There’s not much more to this story. Well, I suppose I could drag it out for another 1,000 words, actually, but I’m not going to. Old f*ckers like me get tired easily, you know. But I will add one more non-azalea anecdote. You see, on the way back to the area where I would catch a bus to take me to the train station, I passed the Rocky statue. It’s a two-ton, bronze replica of Rocky Balboa, the cinematic boxer, and originally was featured in the Rocky III movie, which came out in 1982.

Amazingly, the statue has found success in real life. Sylvester Stallone, who portrayed Rocky, donated it to the city when filming for Rocky III was completed. It used to stand outside a Philadelphia sports stadium, but since 2006 has occupied a niche near the famous art museum steps that Rocky ran up in the movies.

There were lots of people around the statue the other day. Lots. Almost as many as I saw in the museum while heading to and from the can. I’d never known that the Rocky statue is an immense tourist attraction, one of the biggest in the city. Ditto for the Rocky steps. Hell, just about everybody loves a hard-working, decent guy, and that’s what Rocky personifies.

Nature lovers and boxing fans, that’s a wrap. Any day filled with blooming azaleas and with Rocky is a good day. I went home satisfied and content.

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

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I Have Some Faves. How About You? (Art On Wheels, Part Four)

There must be a good reason why I occasionally slip behind the steering wheel of my ancient but spunky Honda Civic and drive around my area to photograph attractively-adorned motor vehicles. Maybe it’s because I’m older than dirt, a condition that leads some people to engage in oddball activities. Or maybe it’s because I’m inherently an oddball, and has nothing at all to do with my advanced years. I asked my psychiatrist, Dr. R. U. Forereel, about this during a recent session.

“The answer, Neil, is obvious,” she said. “Yes, you’re old. Really old. Might not be a bad idea to have some work done on your face, in fact. There are dried-out prunes in my refrigerator with fewer wrinkles than you have. And yes, you’re an oddball. But who isn’t? Neither of those factors explains the situation, though. So, here’s the answer: The universe requires each of its components to play their proper roles. One of your roles is to immortalize eye-catching designs on motor vehicles. If you don’t do it, who will? Nobody, Neil, nobody. So, keep up the work. Notice that I didn’t say good work, by the way. I’ll see you next week. And pay at the front desk with a credit card this time. The check you used for the last session bounced.”

Perhaps Dr. Forereel’s theory is correct. It’s as good as any. Anyway, where was I? Right, last week, for the fourth time since launching this website, I hit the roads in the Philadelphia suburbs, aiming to find sharp vehicles to photograph (the previous entries in this series may be read by clicking here, here and here).

Plenty of lovely vehicles passed me as I drove, but, having no interest in buying a ticket for an early grave, I didn’t attempt to snap their pictures when my Honda also was in motion. As always, then, I pulled into strip malls and shopping centers and other commercial areas where my potential victims might be parked. Whenever I spotted a looker, I’d park too, get up nice and close to it, and press the button on my phone’s camera.

The day proved to be not only pretty fruitful but less demanding than I’d expected. I found more than enough subjects within a three mile radius from my house, rather than the eight miles I’d been expecting. That took a nice amount of strain off my sagging shoulders, though the crazy amount of traffic in my region and the abundance of assholic drivers more than made up for that. “Yo, dipshit, get off my tail!” I yelled in my mind any number of times at others sharing the roads with me. Man, my kingdom for a relaxed, casual drive.

I set one rule for the day: I wouldn’t take photos of vehicles I’d photographed before. Alas, I had to ignore a magnificent, huge Dunkin’ Donuts truck, which was delivering goods to a Dunkin’ franchise near my house. One of the truck’s clones made an appearance, you see, in the Art On Wheels story that I published last August.

And I had to tread lightly a couple of times. I’ve shopped now and then at the Best Buy store a mile and a half from my house, but till the other day hadn’t noticed an employee parking area behind this electronics emporium. Wow, it was partially filled with Geek Squad vans, the vehicles used by the Best Buy workers who make home visits to fix problems with computers and other complicated wares. Damn right I took a bunch of photos there. And damn right somebody drove into the lot to ask what the hell I was doing. “Nothing much,” I mumbled. “I’ll be on my way now.”

So, off I went to Best Buy’s customer parking section, where sat a delivery truck upon which was painted a very fine arrangement of fruits and vegetables. A produce truck at an electronics store? Its driver, who was sitting comfortably behind the wheel, probably had pulled into the lot to take a breather. I loved the truck. It would have made it into this article. But I didn’t need the driver climbing out or rolling down a window to ask what the hell I was doing. One encounter of that sort was enough.

I snapped the portraits of 17 vehicles during the two and a half hours that I devoted to the project. Looking over the pix after I got back home, I concluded that 10 made the grade for this mighty story. I’ve looked at that group several times, narrowing down my absolute favorites to four: Terminix, for its design’s clean lines and limited but highly effective palette. U-Haul, because who else ever has painted bats on a truck? Fast Signs, which is as colorful and cool as it can be. Five Star Painting, for the same reasons as Fast Signs.

And my number-one choice is? Ladies and gentlemen, there’s no way I can not go with Five Star Painting. Concise, breezy and hip, the artwork on that car is a feast for the eyes.

And how about you? Which designs rock your world? I need to know! The box in which to enter your comments is below. Adios till next time, amigos.

Seeing Green: A Philadelphia Story

Last Saturday, one day prior to St. Patrick’s Day, I was itching to stretch my legs. The skies were clear, the temperature tolerable, and my schedule was open. A walk was in order. Where, though? My ultra-hilly suburban neighborhood? Nah. I’d made the rounds there on foot a few days earlier, huffing and puffing my ass off as I scaled the slopes. Yo, there’s a limit to the number of hills this old boy is going to attempt to conquer during any given week, you dig?

Anyway, I was in the mood for some liveliness. And because my area is not blessed with lively as its middle name, I decided to do what I’ve done a ton of times before: Board a train in my little town and allow it to transport me to the mostly flat City Of Brotherly Love. I stepped into the choo-choo at about 10:40 AM and arrived in central Philadelphia’s Jefferson Station 50 minutes later.

I was equipped with the semblance of a game plan. I would wander, as is my wont, but with a notion that St Patrick’s Day had put into my head. Namely, I would look for the color green, in all of its various shades. Not just the green clothes worn by St. Paddy celebrants (Philadelphia starts to celebrate way before the actual day arrives), but wherever green might be. Aboard the train, I couldn’t guess how much or how little green I would find.

Well, I wasn’t surprised when some partially-green-clad 20-somethings entered my field of vision a few minutes after the train pulled in. They soon were to begin, no doubt, an adventure focused upon getting truly shit-faced. Ah, it’s good to be young. And shit-faced. I snapped their photo as they were leaving the station. And then I exited too. I looked all around. Green, where are you? I saw none at all, except on the street signs at 10th and Filbert Streets just outside the station. I walked another block. Green? Nada, but for the 9th and Filbert signs. Just about every street sign in Philadelphia is predominantly green, by the way. So, hold your head up high, green! Where would we be without street signs, after all? Lost, man, lost! Even more lost than we, by nature, already are.

St. Patrick’s Day celebrants waiting to enter a tavern in Philadelphia’s Old City section

I spent most of my time in the Old City part of town, where titans such as Benjamin Franklin, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson lived and helped orchestrate the creation of The United States. Many structures from the 1700s still remain there. As in most of Philadelphia, the main colors in Old City are in the tan, brown and brick-red families. Earth colors. I knew that, but hadn’t thought about it in a good while.

Treewalk

Now, there’s a lot to be said for an earth-toned palette. It brings a sense of calm, a sense of permanence, both of which you won’t find me arguing against. Still, there’s also a lot to be said for explosions of zesty color. They’re exciting and invigorating, and all my life I’ve given them two enthusiastic thumbs up. Luckily, Philadelphia is home to several thousand man-made examples of such. Meaning, eye-popping murals that have been painted on sides of buildings throughout much of the city over the last few decades, often through the efforts of the city government-supported Mural Arts Philadelphia organization. During my march along Market Street into the heart of Old City I passed one of them, Treewalk. Lush and verdant, the mural slapped me upside my frequently unobservant head.

“Hey, you with the foot-long jowls! How come you never noticed me and my shades of green before?” it asked while it slapped. If I hadn’t been in a good mood I’d have retaliated. Created by Paul Santoleri on an otherwise unremarkable office building, Treewalk faces a courtyard, not Market Street. That’s why it’s easy for passersby on Market to not see it. In any case, this swath of leafy art has got what it takes.

Bladen’s Court

Okay, so what about real trees and shrubbery? Well, the deciduous trees of Philadelphia won’t be in leaf till mid-April at the earliest. And the fauna that remain green year-round ain’t voluminous on the blocks I trod upon. One small rhododendron bush kind of wowed me, though. Bursting with green brightness, that afternoon it was the star of Bladen’s Court, an Old City niche containing a few mid-1700s brick houses.

What else did I notice when it comes to green? Sidewalk kiosks into which you deposit your parking fees when you park on Philadelphia’s streets are green. Ta da! And I liked the rugged looks of a green door on North 2nd Street. And of Brownie’s bar, whose green façade and awning rock its side of its block. Other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot of green to be found. Or, for that matter, of any other bright color.

After racking up a few miles of sidewalk-pounding, I strolled back to Jefferson Station where I had 45 minutes to kill till my train arrived. In the waiting area I twiddled my thumbs, unobtrusively scratched my balls and yawned. Those fruitful activities took up 30 minutes. That’s when I was inspired to take a close look at the tile mosaics that decorate the walls overlooking the train tracks, one mosaic per side. Down the stairs I went to the train tunnel.

The mosaics are twins, but not identical. One is pure abstraction. The other, though plenty abstract, contains recognizable shapes: trees, grasses, sky. And each mosaic is not only incredibly long — hundreds of feet — but very beautiful. They are among my favorite pieces of public art in Philadelphia, yet they seem to be taken for granted. Information about them is scanty, though it’s possible that they are by David Beck and Verlin Miller, and probably date from 1984.

Part of the tree-filled mosaic
Another part of the tree-filled mosaic

I looked with pleasure at the pure-abstraction work, and then went to the opposite side of the tunnel. There I really took my time investigating the tree-filled mosaic, because its greens couldn’t be ignored. I let them, and the other colors, wash over me. I’d received a smaller dose of green than I’d have liked during the previous two hours, but now that was more than made up for. It was the perfect ending to my green quest.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this story. I thank you.)

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The Story That Almost Wasn’t: A Sculptural Walk Through Philadelphia

“When things go awry, write the f*cking story anyway.” — Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia, October 2, 1774

Leave it to Ben to get me back on track. Last week I happened upon the above quote in Mr. Franklin’s excellent book, Good Advice For Those Who Probably Are Too Damn Dumb To Know They Need Some Good Advice. Franklin published Good Advice in May 1775 at the behest of his friend Thomas Jefferson, a future American president. A few months earlier Jefferson had lit a fire under Franklin by saying this to him: “Ben, you’ve been talking about compiling some of your recent sayings into a book. F*cking do it already!” I tell you, I like the robust way that Ben and Tom talked.

If I hadn’t been thumbing through that little-known volume in a local library, the story you’re currently reading wouldn’t exist. Thank you, Benjamin. I’ve always believed the multi-talented Mr. Franklin to be the most accomplished and remarkable American of all time. And never, certainly, did I expect that he would kick my ass into gear.

For a year or more I’d had it in my mind to stroll through Philadelphia’s central sections, looking at and taking photos of my favorite outdoor sculptures. And, it goes without saying, turning the adventure into a story for my online abode. When the 6th of December rolled around last year I decided that the time had arrived. Despite it being a windy and cold day, into the city I headed from my suburban town. I was feeling good and was ready for action.

I arrived in Philadelphia with a list of the works I planned to visit. They comprised a tiny percentage of what’s out there, because Philadelphia, and not just in its central region, is loaded with outdoor sculptures. Many of them, natch, are of war heroes atop horses. Civic leaders, natch, also are well-represented. Me, I dig those sorts of fare — statues if you will — when they’re done stylishly. But I’ve always been more drawn to sculptures that are less standard and full of flair and vigor.

Bolt Of Lightning, by Isamu Noguchi

My first sculptural stop would be in the city’s Colonial-era section, at 6th and Race Streets, near where Franklin lived and even closer to where he is buried. There, in the middle of a traffic rotary often crazy with vehicles going to and from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, stands Isamu Noguchi’s 101-foot-tall Bolt Of Lightning. It commemorates Franklin’s kite-flying experiment, during a thunderstorm in 1752, that showed the connection between electricity and lightning. Yes, Ben was the man.

In retrospect, the Bolt Of Lightning situation that I encountered should have tipped me off that the day might not turn out as hoped for. I wanted to dodge the whizzing cars and climb onto the rotary, where I’d get some up-close-and-personal photos of the very cool sculpture. But, wouldn’t you know it, a police car was parked beside the rotary. Sure as shit, if I had tried to reach the Bolt a police car door would have opened and I’d have been told to get the hell out of there. So, from a hundred feet away I took what images I could.

Milord La Chamarre, by Jean Dubuffet
Paint Torch, by Claes Oldenburg

After that I walked and walked, grabbing shots of artworks I’ve loved for years. Jean Dubuffet’s Milord La Chamarre, for instance, which is a wild and wooly vision of a nobleman, and Claes Oldenburg’s giant representation of a paintbrush balanced on the tip of its handle. Claes’ sculpture, Paint Torch, is appropriately placed, as it sits beside The Pennsylvania Academy Of The Fine Arts.

The Bond, by James West
(Ben Franklin on left, George Washington on right)

In front of the Masonic Temple, on my way to the Oldenburg work, I passed James West’s The Bond, a lifelike and life-size sculpture of Ben Franklin and George Washington, the USA’s first president. The guys, both of whom were Masons, are happy to see each other and are admiring Washington’s Masonic Apron. I probably had walked past this piece before but hadn’t really noticed it in a meaningful sense. At once it leaped onto my list of faves.

Brushstroke Group, by Roy Lichtenstein
Rock Form (Porthcurno), by Barbara Hepworth

Yeah, things were going swimmingly. But in the latter half of my stroll, my phone’s battery did something it never had done before. It went dead. I went into a public library and plugged the phone into an outlet, eventually resuscitating it. Then I continued my trek, a few minutes later reaching the Rodin Museum, on whose grounds sits my number one outdoor sculpture. Its English title is The Burghers Of Calais. The creation of Auguste Rodin, a Frenchman, it is stunning. A memorial to bravery and a profound depiction of anguish, the sculpture shows leaders of Calais, in the mid-1300s during war between France and England, gathering to face their death. The men had volunteered to be executed by English hands in lieu of a threatened killing of their city’s entire population. The intervention of the English queen, at some later point, saved them.

The Burghers Of Calais, by Auguste Rodin

I planted myself in front of The Burghers, aimed my phone’s camera at it and pressed the button. Voilà, a pretty good shot. Then I moved to a different spot to take a photo from another angle, got the camera ready, and . . . the screen went dark! The frigging battery had died a second time. An attempt at revival, via an electrical outlet inside the Rodin Museum, failed. Disgusted, I made haste to Suburban Station, within which trains that go to my little town may be found.

My mission had not been accomplished. Rodin’s sculpture required multiple photos, I felt, to capture its complexity. What’s more, two other sculptures on my list were left waiting for my visit. They had to be part of my write-up. A dejected semi-perfectionist, I threw the outdoor sculpture story idea into my cranium’s rubbish bin and left it there to decompose.

Seven weeks later, thankfully, I encountered Ben Franklin’s words of wisdom, the ones that are placed at the top of this essay. And I also encountered my wife Sandy’s comments when she was looking through the photos on my phone (the phone, by the way, somehow bounced back to life on December 7). “I like the sculpture pictures that you took last month,” Sandy said.

Looking at them again, so did I. And thus I decided to write the f*cking story anyway, a story that has some warts and holes but will have to suffice. As everybody knows, not everything turns out the way you want it to. You’ve got to roll with the punches and get on with life. That’s what big boys and big girls need do, a truth I’m not always great at keeping in mind.

(Please don’t be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this piece. Gracias!)

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Picking Pix: A Photography Story

It’s a wonderful thing, photography. At a push of a button we can immortalize anything or anyone we want: flower gardens; baseball games; birds in flight; bird crap on car windows; pals; lovers; favorite cousins; despised in-laws. You name it, somebody has taken its picture.

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (September 2018)

Those obvious notions came to mind a few nights ago when I decided to green light an essay about photography, whose final form you are now looking at. I’ve written before on the subject. And that’s because I get a soul-satisfying kick out of shutterbugging.

Santa Fe, New Mexico (May 2018)

That kick had lain dormant for decades, but vigorously popped out of its coffin in January 2016 when I came into possession of my first smartphone. An iPhone, it struck me as miraculous. Hell, was there anything it couldn’t do? Well, the phone balked at fetching my dog-eared slippers and washing my dirty underwear. But other than that, it was primo.

Philadelphia’s Powelton Village section (February 2018)

And the phone of course came equipped with a camera lens that, despite its incredibly tiny size, took, for the most part, damn good pictures. Good enough for me, anyway. Within no time I was snapping away. And decorating my journalistic output with some of the results of those snaps (prior to that, my wife Sandy took the photos for the stories). Man, I had lucked out, if you want to look at it that way. Meaning, even though I was a whole lot older than I could believe, depressingly older, at least I had added two worthy creative endeavors (writing and photography) to the late autumn/early winter of my years. Excuse me for a moment, please, while I now resume watching those f*cking grains of sand continue to fall, fall, fall to the bottom of my hourglass. Oh, my breaking heart!

Truro, Cape Cod, Massachusetts (October 2018)

Okay, I’m back. Where was I? Ah, yes. Here’s the way I look at photography: Many of us, including yours truly, can’t draw or paint or sculpt worth a shit. But it’s not too hard for anyone to be pleased with their photographs. All you have to do is decide what angle you want to take a photo from and what person or object should be its focus. Then you frame the shot and, if needed, adjust the light level. At that point the magic moment has arrived in which to tap the camera’s button. Voila! Mission likely accomplished.

Orleans, Cape Cod (October 2018)

But I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. That’s the beauty of photography. It’s an art form made for us all.

Coast Guard Beach, Truro, Cape Cod (October 2018)

So, what’s the deal with the photographs that I’ve included in this essay? Let me start by saying that all of them date from 2018 and that they are among the 1,000+ that I took during the year. None of them have appeared in previous articles. I suppose that my aim is simple: To publish photographs on this page that strike my artsy-fartsy sensibilities just right. Each has some combination of shapes, colors, angles and textures that I can’t deny. Yeah, these photos do something to me.

James “Blood” Ulmer, Philadelphia (April 2018)

Take the one of musician James “Blood” Ulmer, for instance. Ulmer, unaccompanied, performed deep, heavy blues in April in Philadelphia at the Outsiders Improvised & Creative Music Festival. The golden hues of his outfit and the jumble of audio equipment nearly encasing him give the picture a techno/alien quality. “Prepare for blastoff,” the photo is announcing. “Destination unknown. Mysteries await.”

Tree in Santa Fe (May 2018)

And I like the grand grooves in the Santa Fe tree, and its thick, finger-like upper sections. But what gives the photo its distinctiveness is the modest yellow, black and red traffic sign standing contentedly next to the behemoth.

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico (May 2018)

The deeply pock-marked cliffs at New Mexico’s Bandelier National Monument are modern art taken to an elemental extreme. And the photo of trees, hills and houses in Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico would have floored Paul Cézanne, so Cézanne-ish is it in its blocky composition. Talk about pure luck. I took that picture from a moving car. Nearly every other picture that I snapped from within the car that day was meh.

Cezanne-like scene from Ohkay Owingeh, New Mexico (May 2018)

I’ll mention one more snapshot, that of the sunset at Mayo Beach in Wellfleet, Cape Cod. The picture appears almost theatrical in its lighting. The light on the picnic bench came from my car’s headlights. The car’s engine was running because it was as cold as a witch’s tit that night, and I jumped out only for a second, documenting the beautiful sunset with my phone’s camera and then admiring the view again from back inside the heated vehicle.

Mayo Beach, Wellfleet, Cape Cod (October 2018)

By the way, like every picture herein, the sunset pic is unmanipulated. Being a natural sort of guy, so natural that I prance naked in my dreams, I wasn’t about to crop, enhance, rotate or do anything else to my babies via the photographic software that came with my computer. Popeye The Sailor once said, “I yam what I yam, and that’s all what I yam.” If my photos could talk, each would quote those immortal words.

Marshland near an Atlantic Ocean inlet, Orleans, Cape Cod (October 2018)

In closing, I’ll add that all of the selections come from New Mexico, Cape Cod or Philadelphia, places that I’ve written about a lot this year. They are good places, fascinating and colorful and full of the unexpected.

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

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I’ve Got My Faves. Which Are Yours? (Art On Wheels, Part Three)

8:51 AM

Last Friday, the first day without rain in what seemed like forever for southeast Pennsylvania, I decided pretty early in the morning to scour the grounds of local businesses in pursuit of colorful designs and nifty patterns. I’d gone on such journeys twice before, penning the recaps for the publication that you’re currently staring at. And speaking of which, if you are interested in reading about Art On Wheels, parts one and two, then click here and here. Okay, with that matter out of the way, let’s now move on to my latest effort to spot and photograph good-looking trucks and vans.

8:55 AM

I left my suburban Philadelphia home at 8:45 AM. Six minutes later, near the delivery bays of my town’s supermarket, I parked my car and got out to snap a picture of a Maier’s truck that was filled with breads and rolls. Hey, not only did I like the looks of the truck, I also liked the feeling that immediately swelled up within me: Namely, that this was going to be a productive morning. I mean, the supermarket was the first place I visited, and right off the bat I’d hit pay dirt.

9:02 AM

Pay dirt. I knew from past experience that it wasn’t necessarily lurking everywhere. Hardly. For every truck and van worthy of attention there are 15 or more that are real plain Janes. Not only that, it ain’t possible to photograph the lookers, vehicularly-speaking, that are on the move. If I attempted to do so while I too was cruising along the road, then I’d now be writing this opus from six feet under.

9:11 AM

I’m here to report that things panned out. After immortalizing the Maier’s truck, I spent an additional, and fruitful, hour and 45 minutes on my project. In parking and delivery areas during that time I met plenty of trucks and vans, of which nine (including Maier’s) made the grade. And — bonus! — later in the day, while coming home from an ordinary shopping mission, I lucked out by crossing paths with a long, long trailer that was making a delivery to a Dunkin’ Donuts store about half a mile from my house. That bad boy was a slam f*cking dunk for me. And it brought the total up to 10.

9:30 AM

Ten excellent vehicles! That’s success in my oddball book. After all, this was a mission of serendipity. It was impossible for me to know what trucks, if any, would be at the locales I visited. Yeah, for some reason truck drivers don’t give me their delivery schedules. And one beauty, a Lehigh Valley dairy products truck, wasn’t where I’d have expected it to be. Instead of being in the delivery section of the Walmart mega-store on whose property it was parked, it was on the outskirts of Walmart’s enormous parking lot. Its driver was not in sight. Maybe she or he was reclining amidst the cargo, grabbing some ZZZs. Whatever, I was more than glad to find that truck.

9:36 AM

Well, I’ve placed the photographs of the 10 head-turners in the order that I encountered them, noting the time that I snapped each picture. And I’ve studiously gazed at the photographs, trying to come up with my top three. It wasn’t easy. For instance, I dig the Utz truck, which carried potato chips and other snacks. Its black, white and red design reminds me of the era, maybe 20 or 30 years ago, when those three colors, in conjunction, were de rigeur in the fashion world. But ultimately Utz didn’t make my cut. I guess that these days I’m more in tune with splashy lines and a palette that dips broadly into the color spectrum.

10:13 AM

Here then are my top three, in ascending order: Edible Arrangements, Lehigh Valley and Dunkin’ Donuts. Yes, that Dunkin’ truck drives me wild. “I’m Number One! I’m Number One!” I can hear it yelling.

10:25 AM

And how about you? Which of these 10 exhibits particularly ring your bells? If you let me know in the comments section, indicating the ranking you give each of your top three choices, then I’ll compile the results. And once that’s done I’ll spend however many it takes of my remaining Earthly days to track down the winning vehicle. And when that mission is accomplished I’ll pin a big gold ribbon somewhere on its glorious body.

10:57 AM

One final note: Yes, I agree, it’s on the odd side for a geezer, let alone anyone, to get his jollies from trolling the parking and delivery areas of shopping centers, strip malls and stand-alone businesses, with art as his prey. What can I say? I like to wander. I like to look at pretty things. When it comes to jollies, my philosophy is to try and grab ’em where and when I can. Amen.

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Plaza Blanca Knocked Our Socks Off: New Mexico, Part Two

 

Sandy and Neil in Frijoles Canyon
Rio Grande Gorge

For the last few days I’ve been thinking about what I should include in the second installment about my recent adventures in sun-drenched New Mexico. Climbing up ladders attached to the sides of cliffs in Frijoles Canyon (part of Bandelier National Monument) — to reach niches within which indigenous peoples lived centuries ago — seemed a natural, as did viewing the deep and dangerous Rio Grande Gorge just outside of Taos village. But you know what? No more will I now say about those experiences, as excellent as they were, because wafts of inspiration caressed my face a little while ago. And, as I’ve learned over the last few years, one shouldn’t argue with inspiration. This story, therefore, shall be about Plaza Blanca.

Plaza Blanca

May 29, the last full day of my wife Sandy’s and my visit to New Mexico, found the two of us inside a Honda Accord being driven by my brother Richard. We were on our way from Santa Fe, where Richie lives with his wife Sara, to Abiquiu, an area famously known as the one-time home of the late, great painter Georgia O’Keeffe. Richie had printed out some information about the sights in the Abiquiu region and, 10 minutes into the journey, asked me to take a look. Scanning the pages I noticed a paragraph about Plaza Blanca (The White Place), described as unusually beautiful. “Hey, let’s go there,” I said. Nobody objected.

Luckily I found a website that provides precise driving directions to Plaza Blanca, because it’s not the easiest locale in the world to find. The final leg of the motorized segment of the journey was upon a dirt road. Expecting numerous ruts and holes, we were relieved to see almost none. Richie parked the car in Plaza Blanca’s small parking section. Then the three of us got out and looked around. From first glance we knew that we were in a special place.

We spent an hour hiking through Plaza Blanca, a masterful collection of rock formations not far from forested mountains. The sun was high in the sky, clouds were few, and the views, to employ a cliché, were awe-inspiring. I’ve gone limp now and then over the years from the beauty of what was in front of my eyes, but that hadn’t happened in a good long while. And, now that I think about it, I hadn’t been as stunned by a natural landscape or seascape since 1982. That was the year of my trek through the high Himalayas in Nepal, the one truly astonishing adventure of my life.

And I wasn’t the only one to gaze in wonder at Plaza Blanca’s cliffs and columns, or at its other wildly surreal sculptures. Sandy and Richie were as spellbound as me. We were in a stark fairyland where strange, beguiling shapes reigned supreme. The formations sat stoically, yet pleased with themselves. They knew that they are remarkable creations. I caught Richie staring unbelievingly at one vista, imperceptibly shaking his head and not quite knowing what to say except for the obvious: “This is incredible” were his words.


As for Sandy, she agreed when I suggested that Plaza Blanca likely was the most beautiful and fantastic landscape she’d ever set foot in. A compact expanse of desert, Plaza Blanca is where one might go to let the problems circulating within one’s head fade away for a bit of time. It’s where you likely will be able to engage undisturbedly with the powers of nature, since Plaza Blanca is off the beaten track compared to many other spectacular sites. Only two other souls crossed our paths as we made our way around. That was two too many, but it was far better than the hundreds you’d encounter at the Grand Canyon or at Yosemite.

A geologist I’m not, but from what I’ve been able to piece together, Plaza Blanca is the result of volcanic activity that took place roughly 20,000,000 million years ago, and of the subsequent effects of heavy erosion. Its cliffs and other structures are composed of varieties of sandstone and of other types of rocks. The place was drier than the driest bone the day that my trio was there. But I’ve read that flash floods sometimes develop during heavy rains, racing mightily between the giant pieces and with the potential to sweep incautious visitors away.

Georgie O’Keeffe, From The White Place. Image copyright: The Georgia O’Keeffe Foundation/Artists Rights Society, New York.

Georgia O’Keeffe was smitten with Plaza Blanca (as she was with much of New Mexico). She wandered around and painted in The White Place many times. Her desert homestead was about 15 miles away. I wouldn’t mind owning one of her renderings, From The White Place, pictured above, which she painted in 1940. It would look smashing on a wall beside my living room sofa. I doubt if the Phillips Collection in Washington D.C., where the painting is housed, plans to put it up for auction anytime soon. If they do, however, I’m ready to launch a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $20,000,000 or more that will be required to make it mine.

Sandy and Richie in Plaza Blanca

As I mentioned in my previous essay, staying very hydrated in New Mexico is the thing to do. The Sun there can be brutal. I’d been downing water conscientiously before arriving at Plaza Blanca and continued to do so during my hike on site, but there was no point in taking any unnecessary risks. My companions must have felt the same way. Without discussion we took our last looks at Plaza Blanca, immersing ourselves in its glory. And then we made our way out from between the art works and headed back to the car.

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(All photos are by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin, with three exceptions: Richard Scheinin took the photo of Sandy and me. I took the photo of Rio Grande Gorge and the one of Sandy and Richie.)

Santa Fe Pleased Us Just Fine

My wife Sandy and I had been itching for a good while to stretch our traveling legs, to go somewhere we’d never been that’s far from our suburban Philadelphia environs. But where? “How about here? How about there?” we pondered.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Well, in the end we left here and there for another day, as the answer was right at hand. My brother (Richard) and sister-in-law (Sara) moved to New Mexico several months ago, after occupying space in California for 30 years. Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capitol, was their new home. Sandy and I wanted to see them and also were more than happy with the idea of poking around Santa Fe and other parts of NM, a state full of deserts, soft-colored hills, mountains and mind-boggling rock formations. New Mexico it would be.

Ergo, late last month we spent eight days in the Land Of Enchantment, as New Mexico is called by some, unpacking our bags chez Richie and Sara and doing our best to be good houseguests. I think we succeeded in the latter, but, as with much of life, who really knows? Anyway, we passed mucho hours wandering around Santa Fe with them, occasionally without them, taking in a good deal of sights and the general swing of things. I’ll leave New Mexico’s natural landscapes, which we also visited, for a future story or two. My typing fingers are all set to concentrate solely on Santa Fe right now. Away we go.

Turns out that Santa Fe, a sweet place whose buildings primarily are adobe-style and low to the ground, is high as hell. By which I mean that this city of 80,000 humans lies in the high desert, 7,200 feet above sea level. That’s up there. The air is dry and fairly thin and, when a drought is on, as is currently the case, the sun is unrelenting. Drinking lots of water throughout the day, therefore, is pretty much a must even if you’re the indoors type, unless you enjoy the effects of dehydration. As is slathering on lots of sunscreen and donning a hat if you plan to spend more than 20 minutes outdoors.

I took to Santa Fe from the get-go. I liked its look, an amalgam of the influences of indigenous peoples and of the Spanish, who conquered and colonized enormous chunks of the Americas starting in the 1500s. Adobe, adobe everywhere. The earth colors made for a soothing experience. As did Santa Fe’s overall quietness, the lack of a mad rush of residents and tourists. Motor traffic gets fairly rough on certain avenues at certain times of day, but for the most part cars and trucks don’t interfere with the easy-going feel of the city’s central sections.

At right, Richie and Zella

A number of my walks through town were in the company of two individuals: my brother and Zella, who is Richie and Sara’s large dog. Zella is a Bouvier, a breed I’d never heard of till making Zella’s acquaintance several years ago in California. Zella doesn’t use sunscreen or wear a hat in Santa Fe, though I urged her to. She took offense at my suggestion, indicating that she doesn’t look good in hats and, in no uncertain terms, that I should go f*ck myself. Naughty doggie. However, Zella does imbibe a sensible amount of H2O throughout the day. Smart doggie.

Zella received a good deal of attention from pedestrians during these walks, far more than I did. And she was made right at home at a shop we passed one morning, a dog-loving establishment that has a Dog Bar, just outside its front door, where water and treats are at the ready.

One afternoon, Sandy, Richie and I were plopped on a bench in the Santa Fe Plaza, a park in the center of downtown. Zella wasn’t with us. We were eating chicken fajitas that we bought from a food stand at the park’s southeast corner and were watching the world go by. You never know what you might see in parks, which is part of the fun of hanging out in them. That afternoon a bubble-blower, probably a Plaza regular, showed up. With a net-like bubble-making device he filled the air with soap bubbles, some of them really big. The fajitas were tasty, the soap bubbles were captivating. Sandy and I agreed that we were feeling fine.

Cafes, restaurants, boutiques, art galleries, crafts galleries, museums . . . Santa Fe has them in quantities far beyond what you’d expect in a small city. It’s one of the major art centers in the USA, which was fine with me, as I’ve been popping into galleries and museums for nearly all of my life.

Left to right: Sandy, Sara, Richie

Appropriately enough, Sara and Richie took us to Museum Hill, a part of town that, also appropriately enough, is home to several museums, including the Museum Of International Folk Art. Our group of four headed to the Hill one afternoon for lunch at a café. We then entered MOIFA, an astonishing place. Sara had been there before and decided to go back to the café to read a book. Richie wasn’t a first-timer either, but he was in the mood to see the collection again.

Mexican musicians

And what a collection! I spent time mainly in the Girard wing, which houses folk art from all over the globe that one couple (Susan and Alexander Girard) accumulated during the mid-1900s. They donated their collection to the museum in 1978.

Mexican village

The Girard wing contains dozens of exhibits that are recreations of village scenes and of everyday life, all populated with miniature renditions of people, houses and appropriate accoutrements. The two exhibits that rang my gong the most were Mexican-themed, one of a village in all its colorful glory, the other of musicians having the times of their lives in a crowded three-level performance area.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Trees In Autumn 1920/1921, oil on canvas, Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Gift of the Burnett Foundation

You can’t go wrong in the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum either. It’s one of the many museums in Santa Fe that are not part of the Museum Hill complex. I’m a fan of O’Keeffe’s paintings and had a tip-top time looking them over. On her canvases, O’Keeffe captured the essence of the landscapes and objects before her — be they mountain scenes, vast deserts, or flowers only inches away — with bold shapes and intense colors.

O’Keeffe lived in New Mexico for part or all of every year starting around 1930 until her death in 1986. For much of that period she made her home on a property in the desert about 60 miles from Santa Fe. She attained huge fame in her lifetime, and her reputation since then hasn’t waned. Deservedly.

Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery store

Nor can you go wrong in Andrea Fisher Fine Pottery, one of the many shops that I entered. I don’t know if I’ve ever been in an indoor space of any kind whose every item struck me as beautiful. But that’s what happened at Fisher, which carries Native American ceramics both old and new. Magnificent stuff, beautifully proportioned, colored and decorated, in styles that date back numerous centuries. I should have made a purchase. Man, I can be dumb as shit.


Okay, I can’t leave without talking a little more about food. Sara is an excellent cook. She and my brother fed us deliciously. And on a couple of nights the four of us ventured out for dinner, hitting the jackpot on one of those excursions when we had terrific pizzas at Pranzo Italian Grill. Sandy’s and my Margherita pie, with added olives, is pictured above in the forefront. Its extremely thin and charred crust was a model for how pizza crusts should taste and look.

Good trips are good for the soul. Sandy and I had a very good trip, spending quality time with family, gathering new experiences, seeing sights worth seeing and dining well. We’re fortunate folks.

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A Less-Than-Epic Quest For Signs Of Spring

There I was, on the second Monday of the present month, heading south from my suburban Philadelphia home to the Abington Art Center a few miles away. I was seated within my trusty 2001 Honda Civic, a vehicle that has served me well. I consider it to be a good friend.

I would be remiss, however, not to note that my wife Sandy feels no affection for my wheels. She used to love the Civic as much as I do, but those days are in the distant past. Yes, its forest-green paint has faded and developed splotchy areas so prolific they stun the eyes. Yes, the fabric that used to be tautly attached to the underside of the roof now billows downward like an open parachute. And yes, those conditions are fixable, but haven’t been addressed because I’m a lazy son of a bitch. Still, are the Civic’s flaws good enough reasons for Sandy to refuse to step foot inside the vehicle and to wish and pray that some day soon it will drive itself to the nearest junk yard and stay there? No, I emphatically state. And I rest my case.

Anyway, the Abington Art Center is a community organization that offers classes and programs in a once-private mansion and whose grounds include a huge, hilly lawn and a patch of woods. I was driving there because a story idea had occurred to me earlier that day: I’d decided to look for and write about signs of spring. Now, spring has been late arriving this year in my part of the States, what with below-average temperatures that don’t seem to want to loosen their grip. And even though I hadn’t seen much springlike activity among the flora in my neighborhood, or anywhere else in the region, I had a good feeling about what I might come across at AAC. That’s what happens when you’re a born-again optimist.

Arriving at the center at around 2:15 PM, I began my stroll. Right off the bat I noticed that there were no trees in flower. And that there were no flowers worth mentioning of any kind except for the yellow beauties attached to a large forsythia. In other words, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to flowers.

As for the trees, they appeared as they would have in the dead of winter, at least to my eyes. No doubt the leaf-budding process had begun, but highly-myopic me was unable to determine that for a fact, as so many of the the branches were too high up for me to discern much about them. At eye level, though, there was some action, because bright green leaves were emerging on scraggly bushes that were fairly populous on the grounds. All in all, though, there wasn’t much to write home about at AAC when it came to buds and new leaves.

But I wasn’t disappointed that my article about the Earth’s vibrant rebirth would have to be put on hold. In fact, I very much liked the look of my surroundings, where practically every shade of tan and brown known to man was on display. I’m a big fan of blisteringly bright colors, but I’m totally down with neutrals too.

What’s more, I liked the quiet of the place. I heard one dog bark for a few seconds, and the sounds of automobiles on the roads bordering AAC were now and then apparent. But overall, things were peaceful at AAC. No other human crossed my path or field of vision during the 70 minutes I spent there, and so I found myself getting lost in the center’s 20 or so acres of semi-nature. Not lost in the sense of not knowing where I was, but lost as in going with the flow. I don’t know about you, but my life sure could use many heavy doses of the latter on a regular basis.

Flow-wise, I spent time in the pursuit of, well, whatever. I began to look around and was glad to notice, for instance, complex tangles of roots and branches, scalloped white fungi plastered on a fallen tree limb, and elegant beige leaves that had refused to drop from their tree’s branches during the winter.

A bunch of back-to-nature types of sculptures have been placed within the woods. Of those, the one I liked the best (Just Passing Through, by Laura Petrovich-Cheney) is a string of five tree trunks. Only the bases of the trunks were used in the sculpture, a display of elemental shapes and of the power of deep browns. One day these trunks will have rotted away and become one with the soil.

We have arrived close to the end of this essay. Hoping to leave with a sort of bang, I’ll make mention of something I hadn’t expected to find within the woods. Namely, inserted into the barks of a number of trees were small mirrors. I guess that Jeanne Jaffe, the artist behind the mirror sculptures, if you want to call them that, was very civic-minded, wishing to give the public the opportunity to check if their makeup needs refreshing or if their nose hairs could use a trim.

Me, I peered into one of the mirrors and was highly disappointed by the visage staring back at me. Might as well take a picture of my reflection anyway, I decided. Yeah, my iPhone’s case is pink. I like pink a lot. In fact, by the time my next article hits cyberspace there’s a good chance that I’ll have dyed my hair the most shocking hue of shocking pink available. I’ve been thinking of doing that for the longest time. And there’s no time like the present, right?

But if I do, Sandy probably will see to it that I’m inside the Honda Civic when it decides to drive itself to the nearest junk yard. That’s life.

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Signs In The Windows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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