Thursday, November 30, 2017

We all need heroes

As a writer, I've had my share of dreams and fantasies. I've long since abandoned some of them--Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, MacArthur Award and various other honors in a galaxy far, far away.

But then there are dreams and fantasies that may be highly unlikely, but not necessarily impossible. One of those is to tell my literary heroes (living, of course) how much they have meant to me. It's hard to describe how intimate a relationship you can have with someone you don't know when you're a writer. Those writers who have inspired you are often the only people who seem to understand what you're trying to do, even though you've never met them. They do, because, by writing, and by writing with passion and dedication, they tell you that what you're doing is worth it all.

Sometimes, they can even rescue you. Which is what happened to me. It was Laurence Wylie who did the rescuing. You probably don't know who he is. He wrote a wonderful book called Village in the Vaucluse about living in the South of France in the early 1950s in the hill village of Roussillon. Today, Roussillon is a hub of tourism, but not back then. Wylie went with his family to see what living in a small French village was like. The result is a sympathetic, fair, compelling and ultimately delightful book that takes the reader through all aspects of French village life, from birth to death. 

So, how did Wylie rescue me? In the beginning months of living in my small village in the South of France, I was lost. I didn't understand a lot of the ways and means of the villagers. They weren't friendly. And they essentially didn't recognize me. I, of course, thought I would instantly become everyone's best friend. There were a lot of books in the house (owned by Americans, it turned out) I was living in, and one of them was Village in the Vaucluse. The landlady recommended it. I read it, and then everything was made plain. I saw my villagers in Wylie's book and understood I was no exception as to how they led their lives. I was fine after that.

When my book about living in that village was published, one of the first things I did was to send Laurence Wylie a copy in care of his publisher. Along with it, I sent a letter explaining how he had rescued me and how his book would live forever because it was true. I had no idea if he was even still alive at that point. It was forty years after Village in the Vaucluse had been published.

Then, one wonderful day, I received a handwritten letter from Laurence Wylie. This, in part, is what he wrote:

"Your letter was important to me because it helped me shove aside a sort of feeling that at 83 my life is dwindling without my having made a difference by living. Your letter made me feel that I had done something, so I thank you."

That was beyond great expectations.

Two years later, he was gone. But his book lives on, and I believe it always will.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Getting rid of my sex toys

I saw a column in The New York Times a while back by a woman urging older people to get rid of their sex toys before they die so said toys are not found afterwards by their children. Who will be embarrassed.

"Look, Timmy, Mom sure had a big dildo, didn't she?"

Or, "Is this garter and stocking thing Dad's?"

Or, "Sis, I just can't picture Mom shoving this up her butt."

I actually feel the opposite.  I don't have any sex toys.  But now that I'm getting older, I may get some just to give the impression that I had a tumultuous sex life.  I want to appear rakish, daring, uninhibited.  I want them to whisper things about me.  I want them to be envious. Awed

"Gosh, he must have had a lot of wild sex in here!  Look at this box labeled, Handcuffs. Don't lose key!  And this leather mask!  Wait, there's a note under it: Too small. See if can exchange for Large and a knitted scarf."

"Oh, look over here!  Is this ring for what I think it's for?  Whoa."

"I didn't know you could buy condoms in bulk. But look at this tub from Costco!"

So, hand me that "Sex Toys R Us" catalog. I'll make them think I was the Marquis de Sade, Warren Beatty and Frank Sinatra all rolled up in one.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Commencing with the simplest things--death

I was cleaning the apartment the other day and had Pandora tuned to the Bill Monroe station.  So it was country, it was bluegrass music, of the truest kind.

I listened for close to an hour.  Then something made me stop and listen to Ralph Stanley sing "Who Will Sing for Me."  Here's the first verse:

Oft I sing for my friends
When death's cold hand I see
When I reach my journey's end
Who will sing one song for me?

Then it struck me--and this is certainly not an original observation--how boldly and movingly country music talks about death.  There are so many great, poignant songs about death in country music.  The most famous is probably "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" by the Carter Family.  This is the first verse of that song:

I was standing by my window
On one cold and cloudy day
When I saw the hearse come rolling
For to carry my mother away.

Country music faces death.  Looks it straight in the eye.  Fears it.  Respects it.  It doesn't serve up any "Death, Be Not Proud" hokum.  (John Donne, it does not work.)

Those people--and here I mean the purebreds, the mountain singers, those from deep in the hollers where there isn't an un-genuine note--tell the truth.  That music will send chills down your spine.  It can be stark, but it's always true, the best of it.

Stark.  What is more stark than death?  I want to look it in the eye.  (Not for too long!)  I want death to know--I see you.  I know I will meet you one day.  And you will prevail.  These songs help me with that.  They give me courage. (And, yes, I am afraid.)  Especially at seventy-two, when I'm starting to hear footsteps.

Ralph Stanley wrote the most chilling, wonderful song about death.  He sings it unaccompanied, a capella, just that pure mountain voice of his.  It's called "O Death."  Some of the lyrics are below.  Nobody looked at death more clear-eyed than he.  But you have to listen to him sing the song. (Click here to do just that.)   It's something I can't describe.

Death, be proud.  Ralph Stanley wrote a killer song about you.

O, Death
O, Death
Won't you spare me over til another year
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
Whoa, death someone would pray
Could you wait to call me another day?

Ralph Stanley

Tuesday, November 14, 2017


On a bright September day in 1972, I walked up to an apartment building at 8 Duke Street in London. I looked at the list of names next to the door, and I found who I was looking for. I nervously pressed the buzzer next to the name. Pause. Then I heard, through the intercom, a nasalized, even-keyed voice.


"Uh, it's...Richard...Goodman.  From America."

"Come on up."

Buzzzz. Door released. I walked inside.

I walked three flights up, and, arriving at the door, I knocked.

It was opened by William Burroughs.

William S. Burroughs himself. The author of Naked Lunch, The Yage Letters and Junky. This was the same William Burroughs who had been called the father of the Beat Generation, the friend and mentor of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. There he was, smaller than I had imagined from the photographs, wearing a dark turtleneck, gray hair pulled over to cover some baldness. He beckoned me in.

I had written my Master's essay on Burroughs, and, during the process, had written him in care of his publisher with some questions. He replied!  We struck up an irregular correspondence. When I wrote him I was coming to England and asked if I might come see him, he said yes.

That is how it came to pass that I was in William Burroughs' London apartment. At first, he seemed shy, even a bit awkward. He sat on a stool in the center of his small living room with a cigarette almost always pressed to his lips or dangling from his hand. Ashtrays seemed to grow hills of butts quickly, and soon the room was very smoky. What was I going to ask him? There were so many questions. Thankfully, he began.

"I just got back from New York," he said. "I flew over there with the film script of Naked Lunch. Terry Southern and I were working on it. A producer said he was interested: I think he does ‘The Dating Game’ or some quiz show. So, Terry and I flew out to LA at his expense. When we arrived, this big black shiny Rolls-Royce met us at the airport, whisked us on into town. Well, it turned out he wasn’t interested. He said we’d have to cut out all the sex scenes and a lot of the scenes with violence. But what’s Naked Lunch without sex and violence?"

He spread his arms to indicate "nothing."

"Terry and I did some cutting, but he still wasn’t satisfied, so we gave it up. When we went to leave, the Rolls had shrunk considerably, down to some kind of mini. I said to Terry, 'We’d better get out of here fast before he decides not to pay the hotel bill.'"

He talked more and, gradually, he loosened up. (I'm not sure I ever did. It all seemed so unbelievable to me. I was just twenty-seven.) This was helped by the fact that friends of his began showing up all through the day. 

I told him that I liked The Yage Letters very much (a book consisting of an exchange of letters between Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg) but that I didn’t like Allen Ginsberg’s contribution. I thought it was self-indulgent. (God, that sounds insufferable now.)

"Oh, well," he said. "Allen has this idea that the whole world is love. Everyone is everyone’s brother, that kind of thing. He’s always felt that way. But I have a different view. I think there are sinister people about, trying to do you harm."

What about the revolver the character Lee (an early pseudonym for Burroughs himself) carried in Junky? Did Burroughs himself ever carry a gun? I was not going to ask him directly about his shooting his wife dead during a William Tell game gone wrong when he was living in Mexico in the early 1950s.

"Ohhh, yeah. When I was in Mexico City. I used to have this big ol’ .380 automatic. Used to stick it in my pants, right here." He pointed to his stomach-belt area. He was getting into character. "I remember one day I went into this pissoir, and I was waiting for my turn, when this man comes in — a typical punk — and he pushes his way in front of me. So, I opened my coat and tapped the handle." Pause. "He didn’t go into that pissoir ahead of me."

At a certain point, everyone decided to go to a restaurant in Soho. A caravan formed, and we headed out.  It was, ironically, a Mexican restaurant.  We ate and drank a lot.  I'm not sure why now, but I asked him about Norman Mailer.

"I like Norman,” he said slowly and precisely, "A lot of people say they have trouble with Norman, but I don’t. Get along with him quite well."

He seemed distant, so I let him be. Afterwards, we all walked out into the London night. Burroughs seemed a bit wobbly to me, and I was worried that he might have trouble finding his way back to his apartment building. He was going to walk. He was in a bright mood now. He shook my hand warmly.

"Ok, Baby," he said. "You’ve got my address. Next time you’re in London, look me up."

He waved and ambled off down the street. We all watched him disappear into the blackness of the night. Then we turned away and began walking.

"Will he be all right?" I asked one of his friends.

"William? Oh, sure. Somehow he always seems to find his way home."

William Burroughs at the time I met him

Saturday, November 11, 2017


I was getting a tattoo.

My twenty-four year-old daughter had gotten one, an owl, the symbol of Athena.  She suggested I get one, too.  She was visiting me in New Orleans.  I decided I would.

You may wonder: why?  Why did I want to get a tattoo at all?  
Good question. I’m tempted to say, “Why not?”  The answer is, simply, for the adventure.  For the sense of solidarity with my daughter.  For the—badass-ness of it.  One of my friends here, a man about my age, said, when I told him that I was thinking about getting a tattoo,

“But you’ll have that on your body for the rest of your life!!!”

“I’m seventy-three.  Rest-of-your-life is not particularly worrisome at this point.”

Anyway, it wouldn't be anything unusual in New Orleans, a heavily tatted city.  (I’ve picked up some jargon along the way.) I'd chosen the likeness of a bicycle for my tattoo, an old Raleigh three-speed that I owned when I first came to New York and that I'd loved.  My daughter had pulled a photo from the Internet for the tattoo artist to work from.
The hour arrived, and my daughter and I drove to Pigment, the tattoo parlor on Magazine Street in New Orleans we'd chosen.  On the way up, I asked her if the actual tattooing hurt.  She'd gotten hers in New York where she lives.

“Not really,” she said.  “I was nervous when I went in, but when he started, it just felt like he was putting pressure on my skin with the needle.”

We arrived at Pigment.  I had just one moment of hesitation, at the door.
“Dad?” my daughter said, a slight bit of tone in her voice.

“Yes! Yes! I’m doing it.”
In we walked.

A heavily tattooed—surprise!—young man in a t-shirt was behind the counter.  The place looked surprisingly orderly and, well, normal.  I could see some cubicles in back where the tattoo artists were performing their magic.  No screams.  I explained to the man what I wanted, showed him the image of a bicycle on my daughter’s phone.  He examined it.
“Yeah, we can do that.  Where do you want it?”

I had decided my upper left arm.
“Ok, wait just a minute.”

He went to the back and a few minutes later a young man, slightly disheveled with clearly unwashed dark hair and, somewhat alarmingly, shaky hands, stood before me.  His name was Sean.  I explained what I wanted, gave him the phone with the image.
He then said something. I couldn’t make it out, because he mumbled.

“Yeah, ok. I can do this.”                                    

“How much will that be?”
“Uh, I can do this for one-fifty.”

That didn’t seem unreasonable.  I said yes.  He made a Xerox of the image on the phone and took it back to where he worked to make a sketch of it.
“Do you think he might be a heroin addict?” I asked my daughter.  “I mean, look at how his hands shake.  I’m a little concerned—you know, the needle.  I don’t want to end up with some sort of insane zig-zag thing that looks like a toddler did it.”

“Yeah,” she said, “he is a little shaky.”

“It’ll be fine.”
About ten minutes later, he came back with the sketch.  He showed it to me.  It looked all right, nothing spectacular.

“Sure.  Looks good,” I said.
He nodded.  Then he went back to make a stencil of the drawing from which he would make the actual tattoo. He finished and beckoned me back to his cubicle.

So it came to pass that I was lying in a semi-twisted position on the kind of plastic cushioned couch you find in a doctor’s office, turned away from Sean so as to better afford him a good vantage to work.  And then he began to tattoo me. 

The first thing I realized was that it hurt.  It fucking hurt.  It felt like a constant stream of flu shots.  Daughter!  What the hell?  You told me….but of course I couldn’t say this because I’d seem too much a wimp.  You can’t be a wimp in a tattoo parlor.  It just won’t do.  That would be like saying you don’t like loud noise at a Hell’s Angel’s rally. ("Hey, you guys, be quiet!") So I just took it.  And took it.  I remember lying there, about twenty or thirty minutes in, tired of the puncturing needle and suddenly becoming conscious of the music that was playing all around me.  Of course, it was going to be tattoo parlor music.  And it was going to be loud.  This is the lyric that I kept hearing:

You think your great big husband will protect you, you are wrong!
            You think your little wife will protect you, you are wrong!
            You think your children will protect you, you are wrong!
            You think your government will protect you, you are wrong!

It was sung with ferocious vehemence, in that monotonal, punishing pulse that punk rock does so expertly.  Lying there, in pain, that music assaulting me, made me think, as I winced—what the fuck am I doing here?   I found the song later.  It’s titled “Heathen Child” by Grinderman.  Play it when you’re getting a root canal.  You’ll see what I mean.

I calmed down. I had not spoken to Sean while he was doing his work.  I didn’t want to break his concentration.  After one particularly painful jab, I did ask, “Has anyone stopped you in the middle of a tattoo and just gotten up and left.”

“Hasn't happened so far,” he said in his mumbly voice.  He paused.  “Why—you thinking of that?”

“Me?  Ha ha!  No, no!  Of course not!  Just curious.”

Finally, after what I suppose was about an hour, Sean was done.

My daughter moved in to have a look.

“Oh, that looks great!” she said.

I got up and, slightly dazed, shirtless, looked in the mirror.

There it was, on my arm, a bicycle.

And, I have to say, it looked pretty damn cool.  It really did look like my old Raleigh three-speed.  The detail was amazing—all the spokes, radiating from the center of each wheel, faithfully rendered.  I could even sense the heft of the bike, its presence.  There it was, memorialized on my upper left arm.  My daughter was beaming.  I thanked Sean.  Sincerely.  Because he really had done a marvelous job.  I was, well, in awe.  He looked pleased.  He took a shaky photo of his art.  Then he streaked some salve on the still-aching arm and covered it with Saran Wrap.  My daughter later told me that was customary.

“Just wash it with some mild soap three times a day and put some AV cream on it.  After a few days, it should be fine.”

I put my shirt back on.  I shook Sean’s hand.  Then, with my daughter, I walked outside.  I was suddenly feeling very cocky.  Very baddass.  Seventy-three, and look at me.



Tuesday, November 7, 2017


I find the world is divided into people who want to remember family and friends who have died, and those who don’t.

Take my family.  I’m always eager to talk about family members who have passed away.  My parents.  Uncles, aunts.  Grandparents.  Cousins.  I want to summon them back with stories, with smiles, exasperation and sighs. And, yes, if warranted, with a bitter taste.

My family's not interested, though. I can get them to talk about the long gone for a minute or two. Then it's quite clear they're ready to move on. 

I find a surprising number of people do not want to talk about the dead, even those who were close to them.  Sometimes it’s because the memories are too painful.  I understand that.  But more often it’s because they simply have no interest in it whatsoever. 

But if we don’t talk about them, the departed, they vanish.  We exist after death only in photos and, I think more vitally, in the mouths of others.
I worry that I will vanish forever, like some vapor out of a tea kettle rising, then gone. How long does it take to be forgotten?  How long before they don’t recall my birthday, the way I walked, my face, my voice?  How long before my name is brought up once a week, once a month, once a year, then never?   
I would like to imagine that after I’m dead and gone, my sister or my brother, or a friend, or just someone who knew me, would be sitting in an outdoor café in New York City and, apropos of nothing, just because the thought hit them, might say, maybe with a touch of wistfulness and small delight, “Nobody loved New York more than Rich.  He would sure love to be here right now looking at the crowd going by.”  There would be a small pause. The thought would linger very briefly, and then it would be gone. The day would continue, living lives would go on.  But for a small spotlight of time, I would be there, not exactly alive, but with those who were. 
Talk about me when I’m gone.  Don't let me vanish.

Sunday, November 5, 2017


My daughter has been taking improv classes for a while now.  She’s loving it.

“You should try it,” she said to me.  “It would be good for you.”

Why would it be good for me?

Because I’m basically a shut-in, for one thing.  Not to mention I can be suspicious, timid and judgmental.  All qualities that make successful social interactions somewhat elusive on occasion.  She reckoned this situation might be helped by an improv class.

“You have to interact,” she said.  “And trust is a big part of it.”

“Do it, Dad.”
So, I did.  I enrolled in a “Level I” improv class at the New Movement Theater in New Orleans where I live.

Yes, the first class was scary.  Here were seven people, complete strangers, I was going to have to improvise with in an intimate basement theater.  The urge to flee was at DefCon4.  But so was the lovely desire to encounter an adventure and let it take me where it would.  Passing that up felt unseemly.
What have I learned in improv class?  I’ve learned they don’t ask you to pretend you’re a tomato.  Although the teacher said that if we wanted to be a tomato, it was fine with her.  But the exercises she gives us don’t really call for, or lead to, produce roll-playing.

They lead to walking on air.

Basically, I have learned, improv is about listening.  And about saying yes. And, yes, about the afore-stuttered trust.

I’ve learned you never crush someone’s scenario.  If the person sitting next to me says, apropos of nothing, 
“Who knew Costa Rica had so many barbers?”

You do not say, “They don’t have a lot of barbers.”  Or, even worse, “We’re not in Costa Rica.  We’re in Schenectady.”

You are in Costa Rica, señor.  Both of you.  And you have no idea what comes next, but you have to trust that the two of you will figure it out.  Or not.  
My friend Molly Peacock--poet, memoirist, inspirer--said something relevant about this.  She was talking once about writing in a genre she wasn’t familiar with.  “It’s scary,” she said.  “But that fear makes you feel young.”  I have to say, I do have a spring in my step walking home after class.

Now here's something really scary. My class will have a showcase on Monday, November 20 at 8pm at the New Movement Theater on 2706 St. Claude Avenue.  And I'm inviting you.  All of you.

Meanwhile, you can find me in Costa Rica.  At the barbershop.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Reinventing yourself, if not the wheel

Flashback:  2010, New York City.  Yours truly was sitting in an apartment I hated, in a part of Manhattan I felt no affinity for, age sixty-five, no full-time job and no prospects for the future.  No idea how to get out of this place.  State of mind: black. The future: visions of riding the subway all through the night, disheveled, pee-stained trousers, discovered by my daughter as she gets on with some friends.

Read an ad for a one-year visiting professor job in English at the University of New Orleans.  Applied.  Why not?  By this time, it's all rote anyway, these job applications.

A week or so later, got a call from the chair of the English Department at UNO.  Chair wanted to set up a phone interview with himself and his colleagues.

Another week later, after said interview, I was offered the job.

Huh?  Pick up and go?  I'd never been to New Orleans.  Have no place to live.  And have to begin teaching in three weeks.  Remember: only a one-year appointment. (Read nine months. The gig is just for the teaching year.)  Then what?

Who knows?  But I do know one thing: sitting in that room in upper Manhattan one year from now would make me up my anti-depressant dose twenty fold.

I said yes.

Packed my car (this is the shortened version), got in, and went.

Three days, three overnight stops and 1350 miles later, I arrived in New Orleans.  I didn't know a solitary soul.  Pulled my car up to 729 Ursulines in the French Quarter where I would live that first year in a furnished apartment. I'd found the place on the fly.

But I was feeling like I'd shed fifteen years.  I was alert, scared, charged, and suffused with wonder.  No idea what was ahead.  But I knew one incontrovertible fact. 

It would all be new.  And I was through with that dingy apartment in New York City.

I was on my way to reinventing myself.