Thursday, December 26, 2013


It's raining here in New Orleans. The sound is steady and beautiful. I have both French doors in my apartment open to it.  I can feel the freshness of the rain waft into the room where I'm working and I can smell the freshness as well. The way you can breathe rain even indoors. When rain falls, I always feel a kind of absolution. It means I can start anew. It's a kind of recurring baptism. 

Yes, there are rains that are not pleasant. I think of cold windy rainy March days in New York City. Or when you're driving at night and the rain is so brutal you can't see even beyond your windshield and your heart is about to exit your body.

All in all, though, everything about rain is mysterious and poetical. It's not a coincidence that Ernest Hemingway begins his memoir about Paris, A Moveable Feast, in rainy weather. This is is a cold, sad-producing rain, but nevertheless an inspiring rain. He walks from his apartment to the Place St-Michel to a good cafe. He takes off his damp coat, sits down, and begins to write. He's writing a story that we will all read one day, and, as the writer, he knows this, because he is writing this as a man of sixty or so, looking back.  So we are conscious of this and feel, in a way, intimate with the writer.

Hemingway writes,

"A girl came in the cafe and sat by herself at a table near the window. She was very pretty with a face fresh as a newly minted coin if they minted coins in smooth flesh with rain-freshened skin....."

If rain accompanies strong sensual moments, then you live a poem, you are fully alive. In college, years ago, I was in love with a beautiful, melancholy girl. Her name was Sarah. She would stay with me in my apartment off campus over the weekend. I remember, even today, one afternoon, together, in bed. I remember it started to rain. I remember the sound of the rain slapping against the leaves on the ground, and the damp smell of it breathing into the window and cooling our bodies. My arm was draped around her bare shoulder. The cascade of her soft hair fell onto my naked arm. I often think about the soft sound of the rain against the windowsill and on the leaves on the ground. Of us in bed together as we talked dreamily to the tat-tat-tat of rain against the leaves.

If we think about the wonders of being alive, so many are simple, straightforward. Rain is one. Replenishing, cleansing, encouraging. Making us poets at least for an hour or so. The beauty of those drops coming from the sky. The mystery of it. There are things in this world that are dark. Rain is not one of them.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

John Waters: The Pope of Trash

A recent article in the New York Times about John Waters reminded me how much I dig this guy.

John Waters has always been himself. He doesn't give a good goddam what you think about what he does or says or what kind of movies he makes. He's not aggressive about it. He just is.

There are really two John Waters, at least as far as the movie-going public is concerned. The first is the John Waters of Pink Flamingos, Female Trouble and Desperate Living. The second is the John Waters of Hairspray. Pink Flamingos may be, to borrow a phrase used to describe its main character, the great transvestite actor, Divine, the filthiest movie ever made. Once, years ago, a good friend of mine, on my spirited recommendation, took his girlfriend to see Pink Flamingos. The ticket seller leaned toward them and whispered emphatically, "Do not see this movie!" There is a now-notorious scene at the end where Divine proves she is the filthiest person alive by scooping up some freshly deposited dog shit and taking a big mouthful. Just before she shoves the doggy poo into her mouth, she looks to the camera and mouths, "I'm so hungry!"

Every movie John Waters made before Hairspray was rated X or R. Hairspray was rated PG. This to many Waters fans seemed a kind of betrayal. As Waters himself said, "After that, I thought I'd never work again." I love Hairspray. (No, not the Broadway musical or the movie musical.The original movie.) It's easy to think of Waters as pure camp, but I don't think of him that way at all. I think Hairspray, which, among other things, is about racial integration in 1962 Baltimore, is a truly great comic film. Divine plays Edna Turnblad, the housewife who just can't understand her daughter Tracy's obsession with the Corny Collins Dance Show (obviously patterned after American Bandstand). One of my favorite Edna Turnblad lines: "Now l've got nothin' but hampers of ironing to do...and my diet pill is wearing off." Every child should be required to see this movie.

Now, here's the best part. I went to see "A John Waters Christmas" here in New Orleans on Tuesday evening at the Civic Center. It was a live show with the pope of trash himself. It promised to be an incredible evening. I love bad taste. I mean, what's not to like? He was f-king hilarious. One example: he said, "If you go home with someone and they don't have any books, don't fuck them." He did seventy minutes without stopping, and never disappointed once. The place was packed. It was great to see how much New Orleans loves him. Merry Christmas, John Waters!
John Waters' 2006 Christmas card

Saturday, November 30, 2013


Many summers ago, I was in Denver visiting my sister and her family. One morning, someone suggested a game of golf.

I don't play golf. But I figured, nice day, get some exercise, move the legs, see some scenery, try my hand at it. What the hell. So, off we went to a course whose name I no longer remember. My brother and brother-in-law were playing, and my nephew was there, too. Playing at a high altitude helped, since even a bad shot went further in the thin air. The course was fairly narrow, and some new houses were being built on either side of the fairways. Around the third hole, I realized I was actually having fun.

Not that I knew what the hell I was doing. I just reared back and let her rip. Sometimes the ball went somewhere, and sometimes it trickled off the tee disconsolately. I took a lot of mulligans. No one cared. It was just a good time on the links.

Somewhere along the seventh or eighth hole, I teed up. It was a par five. I would have been happy with a ten. I wielded some kind of driver, a number five, if memory serves. I liked that little head. I did some obviously fake warm-up stuff, stepped up, reared back and swung. Thwack. Miraculously, the ball took off from the head of the club and sailed high and long away. That felt good!

And then mid flight or so, the ball began to curve right. What is that called? A slice? Or a hook? Well, it curved right and headed directly for the houses that flanked the side of the course. "Uh-oh," my brother-in-law said. "Get ready to pay for a window," my brother said. I didn't hear any glass breaking, but of course we were pretty far away. "Nice shot," my nephew said. "Even better of it had gone straight."

We walked down the fairway until we came to where I thought the ball had gone. There was a house, and then, next to it, a house in the middle of being built. I walked to that house, the walls of which hadn't been raised yet, and encountered a man, obviously a carpenter, lying face up on the wood floor, arms outstretched, a hammer in his open hand. One of his fellow carpenters was kneeling next to him and saying, "Dude! Dude! Can you hear me! Dude, are you ok?"

Next to the prostrate man was a golf ball. Indeed, as it turned out, my golf ball.

Restraining my first urge to flee, I walked toward the poor guy who was moaning, but not dead. First good stroke (no pun) of good luck.

"Dude! Speak to me!" his friend said. And, thank the gods, he began opening his eyes.

"Whappened?" he asked dreamily.

"You got beaned by a golf ball, Dude. I think it was this dude who did it." He looked at me.

"Hi there!" I said.

"Oh, my head hurts," the injured party said, rubbing the back of his head.

But the fact is, he came around. He even sat up. I apologized like an insane man, offering to take him to the hospital and pay whatever bill there might be to be paid, hoping an operation wouldn't be necessary.

"No, man," he said, continuing to rub the back of his head. "That's ok."

"What are the odds of that happening?!?" I said cheerily, picking up my ball.

And guess what--it was ok. I got his number and called him the next day, and he couldn't have been sweeter. I apologized again, and he really was all right about it.

But for years afterward, I would hear that refrain at family gatherings,

"Dude! Dude! Can you hear me? Dude!"


Saturday, November 23, 2013

Library Kid

In the 1960 movie, The Time Machine, the lead character, played by Rod Taylor, travels forward in time to the year 802,701 via a machine he's invented. Once there, he discovers a world literally divided in half. Above ground live a passive, unthinking people called the Eloi. Below ground live their masters, the hulking Morlocks. Every once in a while, some Morlocks will emerge from a hole in the ground at night and grab some Elois for dinner.

Mystified, the hero at one point asks an Eloi if they have any books. He wants to see if he can find out how this frightening evolution occurred.

"Books?  We have books," the Eloi replies somnolently. The hero is led to a futuristic-looking library where, yes, there are books, rows and rows of them. He takes one from the shelf, and it turns to dust. He sweeps his hand across the long row of books, and they disappear in a cloud.

I live in New Orleans. There are three well known universities here, and I go to each of their libraries. Increasingly, though, as I walk into these libraries, I have the sinking feeling that I'm walking into mausoleums. I walk into the stacks and down the aisles, and the books on the shelves seem like relics. Or like tombstones, each one telling me tersely about its deceased occupier. I have never looked at books that way, and this is disconcerting.

I have always felt like Henry Miller felt about books. He wrote, "They were alive and they spoke to me!"

I'm not alone in my generation as being someone whose life was not only molded by time spent in libraries, but saved, as well. The books were alive and they did speak to me, often when actual people would not. Here there were accepting voices who welcomed me into their worlds, which were often strange and remote, sad and harrowing, thrilling and funny, and, yes, sometimes dull.  But always accepting, without reservation.

Are books on electronic devices books?  No. A book is something between two covers with printed words inside that can be held in your hands.

I'm not going to live long enough, but what I once thought was only a cinematic dream may come to pass. One day, perhaps not terribly far from now, someone will walk into one of those libraries, reach for a book, and feel it turn to dust.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Stars taking up collections, final curtain

I played A Young Collector in A Streetcar Named Desire forty-five years ago. When I did, I stepped into a complete world. In this short scene, I have come to collect for the newspaper, and Blanche Dubois, alone in the house, has not wanted me to leave. She's used several slim excuses for me to stay, but now, finally, I am about to leave.  I think.        

            Young Man:
Well, I'd better be going--
             Blanche [stopping him]:
Young man!
     [He turns. She takes a large gossamer scarf from the trunk and drapes it about 
     her shoulders.]
     [The young man clears his throat and looks yearningly at the door.]
 Young man! Young man! Young, young, young man! Has anyone ever told you that you look like a young Prince out of the Arabian Nights?
    [The Young Man laughs uncomfortably and stands like a bashful kid. Blanche speaks 
    softly to him.]
Well, you do, honey lamb! Come here. I want to kiss you, just once, softly and sweetly on your mouth!
    [Without waiting for him to accept, she crosses to him and presses her lips to his.]
Now run along, now, quickly! It would be nice to keep you, but I’ve got to be good--and keep my hands off children.
    [He stares as her for a moment. She opens the door for him and blows a kiss at him as 
    he goes down the steps with a dazed look.]

She kissed me. This older woman who was everything that was forbidden to me. Those lips!  Now, in a few minutes, everything in my life was changed. I didn't want to leave. I wanted to stay and I wanted her to kiss me again. I wanted to touch her dress and her face and I wanted her to teach me everything she knew and to talk to me while she did about how I looked like a young Prince. I was a Prince. I was not a Collector. Her kiss remained on my lips. I walked slowly away and then off the stage. But that mean nothing, the exit. Tennessee Williams' world stayed with me. I walked within it for for hours and hours. (And still do, in a way.) Blanche DuBois had commandeered my heart. I had to see her again. And, as luck would have it, I would, the next night, at eight o'clock.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Stars taking up collections

I played the role of A Young Collector in A Streetcar Named Desire forty-five years ago.  In this brief scene, I have come to collect for the New Orleans Evening Star, and Blanche DuBois, alone in the house at the time, does not want me to leave. I am no longer who I was. I am in this world, and I am a young man. Everything that happens is as it happens.

Hey! [He turns back shyly.  She puts a cigarette in a long holder.]  Could you give me a light? [She crosses toward him. They meet at the door between the two rooms.]
            Young Man:
Sure. [He takes out a lighter.] This doesn’t always work.
It’s temperamental?  [It flares.]  Ah!—thank you. [He starts away again.]  Hey! [He turns away again, still more uncertainly. She goes close to him.]  Uh—what time is it?
            Young Man:
Fifteen of seven, ma’am.
So late?  Don’t you just love those long rainy afternoons in New Orleans when an hour isn’t just an hour—but a little piece of eternity dropped into your hands—and who knows what to do with it? [She touches his shoulders.]  You—uh—didn’t get wet in the rain?
            Young Man:
No, ma’am.  I stepped inside.
In a drugstore?  And had a soda?
            Young Man:
            Young Man:
No, ma’am. Cherry.
            Blanche [laughing]:
            Young Man:
A cherry soda.
You make my mouth water. [She touches his cheek lightly, and smiles.]

I said that I was in another world then, a world as real, even more real than my everyday world. I was, and absolutely. It was all unfolding before me. The feeling of being with someone feral, who could have her way, but what was it? What did she want from me? She touched me once, on the shoulder. I could see her face so clearly, her smile. I could smell her perfume. Then she touched me on the cheek. I was at a complete loss. Was I supposed to stay? Could I?  And then....

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Stars taking up collections, con't.

I had a small part in A Streetcar Named Desire in a college production almost forty-five years ago. The impact of that experience was strong, and it was permanent.

I played the part of A Young Collector.

To set the scene:  Blanche has met Mitch and she (and we) see possibilities.  We've already had the poker game scene where Stanley, drunk, goes after Stella and she escapes upstairs.  Then the famous, STELLA! which brings her back to him. Now, Stella and Stanley have gone out, and Blanche is alone in the house, waiting for Mitch to arrive.

Enter me.  Or, rather, enter A Young Collector (who Williams refers to in the body of the script as the Young Man). I walk over to the door, ring the bell, and then....

Come in.
            [The Young Man appears through the portieres.  She regards him with interest.]
Well, well!  What can I do for you?
            Young Man:
I’m collecting for The Evening Star.
I didn’t know that stars took up collections.
            Young Man:
It’s the paper.
I know.  I was joking—feebly!  Will you have—a drink?
            Young Man:
No, ma’am.  No, thank you.  I can’t drink on the job.
Oh, well, now, let’s see….No, I don’t have a dime! I’m not the lady of the house.  I’m her sister from Mississippi.  I’m one of those poor relations you’ve heard about.
            Young Man:
That’s all right.  I’ll drop by later.  [He starts to go out.  She approaches a little.]
Hey! [He turns back shyly.  She puts a cigarette in a long holder.]  Could you give me a light? [She crosses toward him. They meet at the door between the two rooms.]

I was listening to Blanche DuBois.  There were no actors.  There was no play.  I was a newsboy in New Orleans.  It was as if I'd walked through that liquid mirror into another world, but a real world, a three dimensional world that I belonged in. Everything about it was authentic.  And what was happening was as it happened in life.  It was real life--mine. I felt awkward and uneasy and thrown off balance by this woman.  She was beautiful and hypnotic.

What would she say next?                     

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Stars taking up collections, curtain up

I have acted in one play and one only. That play was A Streetcar Named Desire.

Yes, I know.  I'd be perfect for Stanley.  Many many people have told me this.  Well, actually, none.   The year was 1969.  I was twenty-four.  This was when I was going to graduate school at Wayne State University in Detroit. A lot of my friends were theater majors, actors.  "You should try out for something," they said, noting my hammy tendencies.

So, I did.  I auditioned for the part of Stanley in Streetcar, as actors referred to it.  I got the part of A Young Collector.

I'm not even sure I'd read the play before.  When I did, I saw that the Young Collector (a teenage newsboy collecting for the local paper) was a small part, came in the middle of the play somewhere, and didn't seem to have much significance.  No many lines, maybe twenty-five.  The scene is between the Young Collector and Blanche DuBois.  When he comes to collect for The Evening Star, she pulls him into her world briefly. Then, exit.  

The part of Blanche was played by a suitably flamboyant, self-absorbed actress. I'd watch from the wings as she and Stanley went at it.  Exciting, raw stuff.  The play took shape, we had dress rehearsals, and all of a sudden it was opening night.

I was nervous, of course.  Felt silly in my Young Collector outfit in clothes that weren't mine.  Had all the known fears and some unknown.  I'd forget my lines.  I'd trip and fall.  You name it, I fretted over it.

Then: Time to go on.  I was given my cue, and, deep breath, I stepped out onto the stage.

And then the whole world changed.
                                                (To be continued)

Monday, November 4, 2013

The Courage of Thomas Lanier

I'm living in New Orleans, not far from where Tennessee Williams once lived.

He lived in several places in the French Quarter, and my current apartment is close to where he sets A Streetcar Named Desire.

I have always looked to him for courage, and now that I am growing old in his favorite city, even more so.

Every so often I pick up the marvelous biography of his early life, Tom: The Unknown Tennessee Williams.  It's a highly under-appreciated book.  I like to to read about those early struggles of his, many of which took place just a few blocks away.

You get the impression in letter after letter, journal entry after journal entry, that, no matter how bleak the situation was for him, it never came close to dissuading him.  He hocked his typewriter, he hocked his only suit, he hocked his bicycle to pay the rent, to pay for food.  He wrote.  He never stopped writing.  He was a courageous writer, a courageous man.

Brave and funny.  I remember seeing him on a Chicago talk show once with three or four other people.  One of them was a Catholic priest.  Tennessee had recently converted to Catholicism.  The priest, knowing this, said, "I shall pray for you."

Without missing a beat, Tennessee said, "I don't require your prayers."

Years ago, I read something he wrote in a preface to one of his plays: "...time is short and it doesn't return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition."

I can hear it, the ticking. 

Give me courage, Tennessee.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013


"Every breath is a victory!" Herbie Weitz said when I asked him how he was doing.

Herbie was a bookbinder who worked in New York City. He called himself "bookbinder to the stars." I met him about ten years ago when I did a profile of him for a magazine

He was a raspy-voiced showman with long curly gray hair and a thick New York City accent. He seemed to have a single topic of conversation: himself. The subject was endlessly fascinating to him.  A 1987 New York Times article about his bookbinding business called him "energetic and flamboyant." To say the least. He would have fit in perfectly in a Damon Runyon story.

"I've bound books for all the stars," he told me. "Some," he said, with great seriousness, "whose names I'm not at liberty to disclose. I've been sworn to secrecy."


I can't do justice to Herbie's multi-colored stories about his past, many of which seemed invented on the spot. He once said to me, "I tell you without any false modesty, I am the best bookbinder in the world. Living." We took a ride on the F Train deep into Brooklyn to his studio not far from Coney Island. I heard about wives, girlfriends, gangsters--he'd once run a nightclub for some less than reputable characters--movie stars and politicians. "I know everybody," he said straightforwardly.  "And they know me."

And the books he bound? I saw many of them. They were splendid.

I came back home after that dizzy day and began to write the article. I found I had a few points I needed clarifying, so I called him up. I asked him how he was.

"Every breath is a victory!" he said. It sounded silly to me, a bit like a slogan.

The article was published. I was good to him in print. About a week later, he called me up to tell me how much he liked it. He was extremely effusive.  "I am enjoying the recognition," he said.  He also said, "If you ever have trouble with anyone, I can help you with that. I've got friends" I politely declined the offer.  A month or so later, I spoke to him again.  We lost touch after that.  I asked him how he was, and, true to form, I heard him say,

"Every breath is a victory!"

I'm Herbie's age now, if not older.

I pause.  I take a deep breath.  I let it out.  A victory.                                     

Sunday, October 27, 2013


I look at my bookshelf, and I see hundreds of love affairs I've had.

Each affair was different.  Some were passionate.  Some were perplexing.  Some were very dramatic.  Some were delirious.  Some were youthful affairs.  Some changed me forever.

Some were two-week flings, even one-night stands.  Some were intense love affairs that went on for months.

Yes, some didn't last.  We just didn't get along.  We, well, weren't right for each other.  As Cole Porter wrote, "It was just one of those things."

It used to bother me that I didn't like some books that other, more learned people did.  Not any more.  Besides, I'm inclined to believe those learned people may not have read those books anyway.  Or finished them. 

When I look at those rows of books, some tilted toward anther, some with famous titles on their spines, some with titles only a few know, some beaten up a bit, some looking hale after years of standing duty, some drab, some gorgeous, I see the range of my love. I gave them the best of me, and in return they gave that back.

Sometimes I quarreled with them.  Sometimes I even got angry.  But so many times I was swept away by the beauty, the melody, the language, the story, the characters, the unique vision of the world, by the heart at the center of the book. How else would I encounter so many exquisite lives?

I love you.  I love you.  I love you.


Friday, October 18, 2013


Beloved sister.

Want to take out a loan of time so I can have some more to thank you for everything you've done.  For me, yes.  But far more for others.

So self-effacing you are, so modest.

Sister, you need to know how much you've done, how much you've given.  So many are takers (raise my hand), but you give, give, give.

If I were the great award giver, the great announcer of accomplishments, this is what I would say:

Tonight we are honoring Mary Downs, who has tirelessly, her whole life, put others before her, who has made the world a kinder more compassionate place, who has lifted us higher, who has showed us the better angels of our nature.

Gentle, kind and unstinting in your search to provide comfort and a haven to those, human and animal, who can't provide it for themselves.

Luminous spirit and soul.  I've learned goodness from you.  Or tried to.

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

The Verti Marte

Those first months in New Orleans, I was working very hard at the University of New Orleans so that they wouldn't uncover me and send me back to New York.

When I drove back in the evening to the French Quarter where I lived, I was too tired to fix myself dinner.  Instead, I went to the Verti Marte for dinner.  Or, rather, to buy my dinner and take it home.

The Verti Marte is a small market on Royal Street at Governor Nicholls, not far from where I lived at 729 Ursulines. It's a cramped place, as tightly laid out as a submarine.  Two people cannot walk down one of the two short aisles at the same time.  The food on the shelves is out of the "Leave it To Beaver" era.  Some cans and boxes I hadn't seen since I was a boy in the 1950s. 

In the back, though, at a counter, behind slanting glass, are long rectangular stainless steel containers full of different kinds of food.

The Verti Marte!  It inspires a kind of lyric rapture.  I think about it and I feel like I'm Shelley.  I want to write a poem: "Hail to thee, blithe Market!"

The food?  Well, yes, very New Orleans. Meaning, weight watchers, abandon all hope ye who enter here.

To wit: Barbecued ribs.  Blackened catfish.  Crab cakes.  Shrimp Creole.  Stuffed pork chops.  Turkey and dressing.  Cajun red beans with smoked sausage. Meatballs.  All delicious. (Paging Mr. Shelley for a better word than "delicious.")

And: the best meat loaf (called "Grandma's Boarding House Meatloaf") I have ever had the privilege to put into my mouth.  I can taste it now.  I can see it now.  I can smell it now.  I am like a Great Dane drooling now, lakes of spittle coursing down my chin.

And you get two sides. Lima beans.  Mashed potatoes.  Dirty rice.  Mac and cheese (outstanding). Broccoli and cheese.  Many more.

Behind the counter, Ken and Rikki.  They were welcoming, funny, attentive, inquisitive and helpful.  Everyone should make themselves a stranger from time to time to understand again how powerful these gestures can be to the heart.

I'd order.  Main dish with two sides. (8 out of 10 times, meat loaf.)  They put it warm in a box container.  Handed to me, felt heavy as gold bullion.  I bought a few beers.

I went back to 729 Ursulines, the box warm in my hands, the gorgeous smell wafting out.  Sat down, and, though eating alone, I was happy.

Rocked in the sweet arms of Verti Marte.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

A Sense of Style

Many years ago--forty to be precise--I was living in Cambridge, MA. I didn't like Cambridge, but one of the great redeeming features about living in the Boston area was reading George Frazier in the Boston Globe.

Frazier was a columnist whose writing was lively, acerbic and highly opinionated.  He wrote about all sorts of things, but whatever he wrote about he was always, in one way or another, searching for a sense of style.  By that he meant not simply what a person wore--though this was very important to him--but the way a person lived as well.  He had his heroes--Fred Astaire, being one. There was a man who embodied all that Frazier admired and loved.

Frazier's writing could be abrasive.  But it was always 100% entertaining.  He never disappointed.

He also wrote a column for Esquire Magazine.  I am thinking about that as I feel grateful for just being alive.  I know some of these posts have been dark.  Life can be dark.  And will be.  But overall, I'll turn to a cliche: It's great to be alive.

In this particular column in Esquire, Frazier was writing, once again, about a sense of style.  He put forth several examples, mostly about African-Americans, and then he concluded the column with a brief encounter he had with Duke Ellington. 

Frazier wrote, "There was a night when, as I stood with Duke Ellington outside the Hickory House, I looked up at the sky and said, 'I hope it's a good day tomorrow. I want to wake up early.'

"'Any day I wake up,' said Ellington, 'is a good day.'

"And that was style," George Frazier wrote.

That's exactly how I feel, dark thoughts or not.  Any day I wake up is a good day.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Acceptance, LA

I live in New Orleans.

I know what you're thinking.  I've taken up the trombone and am playing with jazz great Irvin Mayfield in his nightclub.

Just a few more practice sessions, and then, yes.  Need to buy the trombone, though.

I came here two years ago to take a teaching job at the University of New Orleans.  It's a tenure-track job, and I think, at age seventy-two, I may be the oldest tenure-track professor in the history of higher education.  Someone fact check that.  I think I deserve something for that.  Maybe a gold-plated eraser.

What I have discovered in my wanderings around the city, particularly at various music spots, is that I don't feel like some kind of interloper amongst the various young people there.  The other night I went to hear Lucinda Williams at Tipitina's, a great club, where the floor was packed with standing fans.  They were from all age groups.  I think I even saw some older than I.  We all fit in, moving and grooving to Lucinda's wonderful raspy vocals, as one.

Because the fact is, you can tell if you feel alien when you come into a place that's full of young blood.  They don't even have to look at you.  It's in the air, like an odor or like some low-sounding alarm.  You do not feel welcomed, much less accepted.  Nobody wants to feel that, and, in my case, I usually leave soon.  That's a downer, because it's all about age.

But that's not what happens when I walk into most joints in New Orleans.  Like The Spotted Cat on Frenchman Street, a casual bar where musicians play, it seems, around the clock.  And where people swing dance like nobody's business.  I fit in. I stay.  I have a great time.

That's the way it should be.  But, in the rest of the world, it hardly ever is.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Oh Diana!

In the late 1970s, I belonged to the Midtown Squash Club in New York City.  It was a great little club.

One of the members was Diana Nyad.

She wasn't Diana with a capital D then, but she was getting there.  She was an amazing athlete to watch.  In incredible shape with a fierce drive and whiplash power in her stroke. I loved to watch her play.  Everyone knew her.   

But we didn't know what she would become.  A world-class squash player? An Olympic athlete of some kind?  The first woman to summit Everest?  All I know is that she put me in awe.

Through the years I heard about her from time to time.  I don't recall under what circumstances.  But then she began this Cuba to Florida swim, trying and trying.  She came front and center into the news.

I saw that she was on Twitter, so in the spring of 2012 I contacted her and told her I used to watch her play squash years go and that I loved watching her.  She replied.  "1970's huh?  Time sure flies."  We exchanged, oh, maybe five or six tweets.  It was such a treat to be "talking to her."

And now she's done it.  She tried and tried and if at first she didn't succeed, she did.


And what did she say when she emerged from the water after 50-some hours in the ocean swimming?

"You're never too old to pursue your dreams."

She's sixty-four!                              

Sunday, August 25, 2013


Look at this woman.

She was beautiful when she was young.  But she had a haunting, defiant beauty when she was old.

She always did, always could, look a person in the eye.

She went to New Mexico, to the desert. She bought a house in 1940 and lived there until she died at 98, in 1986.

She had that essential rarefied beauty of the bleached skulls she loved to paint.

It doesn’t matter what you think of her paintings.  She was an artist in a man's world.  She did what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it.  That was character.

I'd like to have a face with that rugged simplicity in my very old age. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Top Hat and Tails

In 1982, New York City put on an event called "Night of 100 Stars." It was a benefit, and it was held at Radio City Music Hall. I was living in New York at the time.

Yes, there were 100 stars—and more.

A day or so before the event, I was walking west on 52nd street toward Madison Avenue when, about fifty yards ahead of me, I saw a slim figure of a man get out of a limousine.  He was frail-looking, moved a bit unsteadily.  He was walking toward a small hotel near Park Avenue. Someone was by his side helping him.

There were people who had been waiting for him, it appeared, a group of bystanders.  When they saw him emerge from the car, they began applauding.  Not shouting or screaming, applauding.  I realized he must be someone famous. 

He turned to them and smiled, waving a little shakily.  That smile.  I realized who it was.

It was Fred Astaire.

My first reaction was one of absolute, narcotic joy.  There he was! Astaire!  You couldn't mistake him.  He was smaller than I imagined.  He was never tall—only 5'8" in his dancing prime—but now, in old age, he surely had lost a few of those inches.  In 1982, he would have been eighty-three.

In my mind, of course, I—like everyone else—have the picture of this incredibly elegant dancer, the man who the great ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov called "a genius," and—well, what can I tell you about Fred Astaire that you don’t already know?  And haven’t seen him do so wonderfully, particularly with Ginger Rogers, in his films again and again?

He looked, as I said, unsteady, as if he might fall.  He took his steps slowly.

Can you imagine?  Fred Astaire taking his steps slowly, cautiously?

And that's the point, isn't it?  It's unimaginable.  And unfair.  And wrong.  Yet, there it is.

But, like most of us, I'll always see him as the marvel he was.  And, as he sang so well, they can't take that away from me.