Saturday, December 28, 2019

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, December 17, 2019

Richard Goodman's Christmas for the Lonely and the Depressed

Having spent my share of sad, dreadful, double-up-on-the-anti-depressants-Christmases, counting the hours until the fucking holiday was over, I thought I might create a way of not just surviving but actually coping with Christmasand invite you along.

What we're going to do here is to create a Christmas so bleak and desperate that nothing can be as bad ever.  And we'll do it together!

We'll start Richard Goodman's Christmas on Christmas Eve, because that's when things get serious, don't they?  All the happy people are huddled by the fire drinking their mulled wine and saying things like, "Ok, you can open one present--but only one!!!!!"

Not us!!!!  We'll be headed to the New York City subway system. We're going to catch the F train at 34th Street, a particularly crowded, noisy station, at 6pm and ride the train for the next three hours back and forth.  The train will be extremely crowded because of the hour, and I will have arranged to have six out-of-tune street singers perform, without stopping, directly in front of you.

At 9PM we'll get off the subway back at 34th Street.  We will emerge at Herald Square and walk west to the Hudson River.  On the way, we'll dine at White Castle, a hamburger chain known for its harsh fluorescent interiors and for being high on the Board of Health's watch list.

After dining, we'll head to the Hudson River where, if my past experience is any guide, it will be cold and windy and dark.  We'll stand there for two hours, shivering.

Eleven o'clock!  Time to head to the pay-by-the-hour motel I've booked you in just up the way on Eleventh Avenue near the Lincoln Tunnel.  The noise and pollution will keep you up most of the night.  But that's a good thing!  Because you won't need a wake-up call!

Christmas day!  This is the heart of the Richard Goodman Christmas!!!

We'll meet at 5am at New York's famed Port Authority bus terminal!!  Here's we'll enjoy a holiday breakfast of coffee in a Styrofoam cup and stale doughnuts.  Then we'll hop on a bus for a day in Staten Island, in one of the most isolated and xenophobic neighborhoods in New York, if not the worldNew Springville.  We'll knock on random front doors starting at 7am wishing the homeowners, "Merry Christmas!!!  Unless you're Jewish!!!!"  Then we'll sing "The Little Drummer Boy" six times to the lucky person who answers the door.  Those of us who are met with some hostility or even physical harm will be left to fend for themselves.

Time for presents!!!

Each one of you will have been given $3 to spend at the Dollar Store to purchase your gift.  And each of you will have the name of one person in the group who you exchange gifts with.  This ceremony will take place in an empty parking lot.

Time to have our big Christmas meal!!

We're going to a dumpster!!!  This dumpster, located in back of a local high school, will have treats from the two or three cafeteria meals the kids ate!  Chances are, you won't be able to determine what it is you're eatingbut, hey, this is an adventure!!

After our sumptuous meal, we'll take the bus back to Port Authority for an afternoon of pornographic films on Eighth Avenue!!  You'll be able to choose from classics like, "Inside Mrs. Claus," "Rudolph the Rimming Reindeer" and "Bite Christmas."

Guess what?  The holiday is almost over!  But not before we have our holiday toast.  We'll gather at Shaney's Irish Bar on the Bowery, known as one of the last bars for the downtrodden, where you can get a 50cent beer in an unwashed class!!!  What better way to close out our Christmas together.

We'll raise our glasses and make a toast!  "Thank God it's only once a year!!"

So, I hope you'll join me this Christmas for an incredible experience!!  It's just $53, which includes subway ticket and your room at the Tunnel Motel.

Let's celebrate the holiday togetherthe Richard Goodman way!!  No Christmas will ever seem as depressing again!!!

Thursday, November 28, 2019


Thankful for so many things.

I am thankful most for my beautiful daughter, Becky. The best thing to happen to me in my life is being the father of this radiant, brilliant young woman.

I am thankful for being alive. For my good health.  

For light; The English language; olive oil; Thoreau; pencils; walking; kissing; travel; reading; Hemingway; museums. 

For laughing; storms; Paris; writing; birds; learning; the ocean. For outdoor showers; Maine; surfcasting; Henry Miller; Willa Cather; Flaubert's letters.

For peaches; the moon; The Great Gatsby; Southern food/soul food.

For my memory.

For music; M.F.K. Fisher; Giotto; books; Van Gogh; French bookstores; the smell of moist soil.

For the sound of rain; dogs; New York City; fall, winter, spring, summer. For walking in Paris; Ralph Ellison; Velázquez; Verdi; back country roads; blues music.

For my sister; snow falling down; road trips; going to sleep when I'm exhausted; tea; kayaking. For Van Morrison; the Italian language; my bicycle; Michelin maps; Francois Truffaut; tomatoes; tall, slim pine trees; Tennessee Williams.

For old docks; going barefoot; women in summer dresses; friendship; work; porches; the songs of birds; Balzac; my body, every supple, practical, miraculous part of it; for water. 

For sight.

For garlic; Cole Porter; West Fourth Street in New York City; John Waters; libraries; the smell of hay; sweat; the Seine; Rome; the stillness of early morning; Pablo Neruda's poetry.

For Langston Hughes; Greenwich Village; warblers; kindness; pastrami; bellylaughs; breathing; Lucinda Williams; the smell of suntan lotion at the beach; dusk; coffee; soft breezes.

For brilliant sunsets; Central Park; Wellfleet oysters; stretching; friends' voices; affection; holding hands with a woman you love; the release of crying; watching my daughter grow up; John Lennon; truth.

Thursday, November 14, 2019


Quincy was my best friend Alex's cousin.  She came, with her Greek boyfriend, Christo, to stay with us in Paris when we lived there in 1972.  They also brought their black lab, Orion.
You can see her here, in the murky photo--God, I wish we'd taken better pictures--in a white sweater, her right hand resting on Orion's side.  We're sitting at our table at 43 bis villa d'Alesia in Paris.  That's me, on the right, long hair and all.

Quincy was a bright-spirited, highly-energetic woman who loved to walk around Paris.  She was relentlessly cheerful and all but unstoppable.  I would walk with her from time to time.  She had a quirk of rubbing her thumb and forefinger together as she walked, the rubbing faster as the pace became more brisk.  And it always did.  She was slim, with long, fine brown hair and a ready smile.  She had a sly sense of humor, and she was kind.

A few years after all of this, I was living in Cambridge, MA.  Quincy came for a conference and visited me.  It was so good to see her.  We walked together around a lake, and I had a hard time keeping up with her.  "What's the matter, Rich--have you let yourself go?  Come on! Let's go!"

A few years after that, I got a call from Alex.  Quincy had been in an automobile accident.  Her spine had been severed.  She was paralyzed from the waist down.

The great walker would walk no more.

Nothing makes any sense sometimes. 

But in my mind's eye, I still see the Quincy from Paris and Cambridge.  This is who will always be Quincy for me.  The relentless walker, moving swiftly on the balls of her feet, on and on and on, urging me to keep up with her, and I can't.

Monday, November 11, 2019


A strange thing has happened to me.

Not bad, just strange.

I remember when I was a kid, small kid, I read about a guy named Albert Schweitzer.  I know who he is now, but back then, he was this white guy who went to Africa to help people.  I don't think I even really knew where Africa was.

This was all in Life Magazine.  Too bad for you who never got to experience that publication.  It was a sprawling, lap-sized magazine that, really, told the story of America.  Or part of it.

Schweitzer.  A Life reporter asked him about his reverence for life, his belief of not killing any creature.  He said something to the effect, "And that would include even a flea."  I thought he was crazy.

Now, at 74, I'm finding that I find it hard to kill anything--yes, even a fly.  If it's a moth or a spider or a wasp, I'll do my damndest to capture it with a paper towel and release it outside. Didn't do that before.

Perhaps getting older makes one sharper and clearer about life, being alive, what it is that makes someone or something alive.  It is the great mystery.  Holy, if anything.
Albert Schweitzer

Friday, October 25, 2019

James Beard

I'm writing about James Beard, because he was a wonderful writer who deserves to be known by all who love good food and good writing.  

I'm worried that too few people know who he was, except as the name affixed to a coveted award.  He was a giant, figuratively and literally. He was born in 1903 and died in 1985. 

He wrote over thirty cookbooks, and I have had a few through the years, but the one I've had for forty years and always return to with delight is James Beard's American Cookery.  Some of it is datedhe has over thirty entries for "Candy," for example.  But most of it isn't, and, more important, none of the writing is.  I have yet to find a writer who knows more about American food and its history than James Beard.  Each recipe is preceded by intriguing, highly informative prose about the dish and its background, often with a personal note.  Beard draws on an enormous store of cookbooks and writers, many I'd never heard of.  He seems sometimes to have one footmaybe twoplanted firmly in the early twentieth centurysay, 1918.  I feel, sometimes, as if I'm sitting around a boarding house table with him, the table groaning with fresh stews, vegetables, breads, puddings and pies.  That would make perfect sense.  His mother ran a boarding house in Portland, Oregon.  

He didn't have to learn about farm-to-table, because that's where he came from.  He only ate the freshest ingredients when he was a boy growing up in Oregon, and that's what he espoused from experience and taste.  His family took summer trips to the Oregon coast, and that's where he learned about seafood.  All of it fresh, of course.

I saw him once.  In Greenwich Village, where he lived.  He lived on West 12th Street, and so did I.  I'm surprised I didn't see him more often, but one day, I did.  It was in a little Italian Restaurant on Hudson Street, near Abingdon Square.

I must have been engrossed in my mealit was a great little place, cheap with delicious foodbecause I didn't notice him when I walked in.  At one point, I looked up and I saw him from behind, that enormous bald head and equally large frame.  You know how you can identify certain people from behind?  I knew it was James Beard.  Of course, I also knew he lived in the neighborhood, so it made sense.  This would have been about 1980, so he would have been in his early eighties.  I was so pleased with myself for having seen him, as if I'd planned it.  I only remember hearing one thing he said, in a soft voice,

"Everyone knows I'm a pussycat."

Lion, I'd say.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Truth of Fashion

Two years ago, Azzedine Alaïa died.

I wouldn't be surprised if you didn't know who he was.  Unless you are familiar with the world of fashion, there's no reason you should know his name.  He was a designer of women's clothes in the tradition of Dior, Yves St. Laurent, Givenchy, Armani.

He made dresses. Spectacular dresses.  But dresses nonetheless.

Great designers, those who work in Paris or Milan, will have two distinct lines of clothing.  They make one-of-a-kind dresses that cost extraordinary sums of money.  And they make a line of clothing that is ready-to-wear.  In French, it sounds classier,  prêt-à-porter.  Means the same thing.

In ready-to-wear, you do not get a dress that's unique, but the clothing can still be very expensive.  A typical price for a ready-to-wear dress by Azzedine Alaïa is around $3000. The one below, a lot more.

  Azzedine Alaïa and model

It's very easy to dismiss the world of fashion, especially when it reaches upper heights of richdom.  Especially at $3000 a pop.  Cue the yearly income of a farmer in Bolivia, which is perhaps half that, probably far less.

But I've always loved fashion, especially high fashion.  I've loved looking at the work of Christian Dior, for example.  I'm transfixed by his designs.  And, more recently, by the work of Emanuel Ungaro.  

How can I justify paying more than 20 seconds attention to a business that caters to the rich and the vain?  I dress in LL Bean and J. Crew on sale, quite happily.  It seems so frivolous.

I justify it because of beauty.  No, not the beauty of the women who wear the dresses.  The beauty of the dresses themselves.  The intricacy of the work, the immaculate detail of it, the creative use of fabric and hue. Dior was a superb craftsman, designer, artist.

Christian Dior, left, and right, with model

There is probably something in your life that you lust for that is very expensive.  Lust for--maybe admire, even worship in a way.  Is it a Lamborghini?  Is it a room at the Ritz in Paris?  Is it Beluga Caviar?  You'll never purchases these things, but you would if you could.  Wouldn't you?

If I'm being honest, the few women I've met who can afford these dresses haven't been very interesting.  I generally have found most very wealthy people to be boring.  (Expect blowback, but who cares?)

I separate the garment and the craftsmanship, the artistry, from the people who wear it.  All you need to do is thumb through the pages of any good book on Dior designs, and if you like beauty, you'll like at least some of his dresses very much. And, yes, I'm with Keats.  Beauty is truth.  Lies are ugly.  And beauty never lies.

It's no coincidence that one of the top ten most-visited exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York was the 2011 exhibition of the work of the British designer, Alexander McQueen.  I was in Denver over Christmas, and the exhibit, Dior: From Paris to the World, was a smash at the Denver Museum.

So, RIP, Azzedine Alaïa and fellow creators of beauty.  We can never have enough of that, in whatever form.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

French Quarter, Je t'aime

I published a love letter to the French Quarter of New Orleans recently in the splendid French Quarter Journal. This is how it begins:

            In 2011, I came to New Orleans from New York City to take a teaching job at the University of New Orleans.

            I’d never been to New Orleans.  I didn’t know the city at all.  Where to live?  A friend, who had once lived in New Orleans, advised me:

            “Don’t live in the French Quarter.” 

            “Why not?” I asked.  After all, Tennessee Williams had lived there, and he hadn’t done too badly, had he?  

            Because, he said, it’s too expensive.  And you’ll never find a place to park. 

            I didn’t heed that advice.  I reasoned since I didn’t know a soul in New Orleans, at least I’d be living in a neighborhood where there was always something going on.  I wouldn’t be lonely.  As for the parking, well, I’d lived in New York for thirty years.  Parking, in the French Quarter, compared to the ferocious, gladiator-like struggle in New York City to find a space for your car, couldn’t be nearly as daunting. 

            When I came to New Orleans to search for an apartment, I enlisted the services of a real estate broker who specialized in the French Quarter.  He lived in the Quarter, and his family had been selling and renting houses there for years.

            “What do you do?”  he asked me.

            “Well, I’m a writer.  I’ve come to New Orleans to take a job teaching.”

            “A writer?  Oh, well, you must live in the Quarter.”

(You can read the rest of the piece here.)

Friday, August 23, 2019

Rick Stolorow's Guide to What Is Jewish

Richard Norman Stolorow.

Fellow prep school student.  Roommate at the University of Michigan, freshman and senior year. 1964 and 1967. Yes, many moons ago.

Taught me so many things.  We were a team.  The two ridiculous brothers.  Going to parties at U of M.  Smoking dope.  Inhale.  Cough.  Pass that joint.  Whew.

Competitive.  Both won awards at U of M for writing.  We would be writers.  Maybe.  We both had domineering fathers. 

Jewishness.  Learned most everything from Rick. Went to his house one weekend when I was a teenager at prep school.  His family, very Jewish, culturally.  At dinner. Talk:

“Let’s do the ‘What’s Jewish’ thing,” Rick said.  “I’m in control.”  He knitted his fingers together and spread them out. “So,” Rick said, picking up a salt shaker, “what about salt?”
            “Salt is Jewish,” Mr. Stolorow, his father, said.  He wore huge glasses that went far beyond his eyes.
            “Pepper is Christian.”
            “Ok, what about water?” Rick asked.
            “Water is Christian,” Mr. Stolorow decreed. “Ice is Jewish.”  He came up with answers immediately, as if they were obvious. He was the Supreme Court of what was Jewish.  
I blinked in wonder.  Growing up Christian in a small Virginia town, I knew nothing of this.
“Potatoes?” Rick asked.
            “Mashed potatoes...” Mr. Stolorow paused and reflected, “can be either Jewish or Christian.  Baked potatoes are Christian.”
            “What about boats?” Rick asked.
            “Sailboats are Christian,” Mr. Stolorow said.  “Powerboats are Jewish.  Everyone knows that.”
            “Boiled chicken is Jewish.  Fried chicken is Christian.  But chicken in general is Jewish.”
            Mr. Stolorow looked at Rick as if a three-star chef had just been asked to flip a burger.
            “What about card games?  Poker?”
            “Poker is definitely Christian.  Gin rummy is Jewish.”
            I listened, slowly ate my food in amazement.
            “Speaking of gin,” Rick said, “what about—gin?”
            “Gin is Jewish.," Mr. Stolorow said. "Scotch is Christian.  Though that may be changing.”
            “Christian.  Catholic, even.”
            “Budweiser is Christian.  Stroh’s is…” he named the local beer, “both Jewish and Christian.  But,” he raised a finger in refinement, “Jews are not great beer lovers.”
            “Mailboxes are Christian.  Mail slots are Jewish.”
            I wanted to contribute. 
            “What about dogs?” I asked abruptly.
            Everyone turned and looked at me.  For a split second I wasn’t sure if I’d committed a grave mistake.  I’d entered a world uninvited.
            Mr. Stolorow eyed me.  Was I making fun of him?  He paused.  I held my breath.  Then he spoke.
            “Poodles are Christian," he said.  Then he looked down at their own dog and his drooling, gummy maw.  "Boxers," he decreed, "are Jewish."

Rick Stolorow, top row, second from left. Only photo I can find.