Sunday, July 26, 2009

A Sheep Spoke

I've just been away for a long weekend in Vermont, so I didn't have time to write on a new topic this week. Instead here is a meta post about other posts.


Runner Girl was one of the first two things I wrote for this blog, before its launch. The other was an early version of the college stories that will never appear. But I decided to start with In a Bag Concealed just to kick off with something short and not personal. Then, caution to the winds, Runner Girl.

She's in the photo. Did you notice that? I had the camera with me that morning because I was going to take the photos for Amiable Child that day. I had already written a draft of Runner Girl. When she ran past me I suddenly flashed on the idea of getting a photo of her. And I immediately rejected it as too creepy, since she wouldn't know I was doing it. But after a minute, I started thinking that it would be a good idea to grab a photo of the street in the morning light. I took the camera out of the case, and one rationalization later, I decided that it might be all right to go ahead while she was still in sight, provided she was so far away that no one could tell who she is. The photo turned out to be blurred from my hands moving slightly during the long exposure, and I counted that as a plus in this case.

The act of writing Runner Girl changed the whole picture for me. You have to realize that the reason I was so surprised she was there when I turned around is that I was not thinking about her. I was just walking to the station and looking around at the houses and trees and listening to bird song and turning to look at that car and WHOA, surprise, there's somebody there almost right next to me, and wait, I've seen her before, and...

But once I observed myself by writing about it, now I do think about whether she'll be there. It's turned into a Thing.

I'll digress to explain where that little expression comes from. When Helen and I visited our friend Michael at the place he used to live in the Bronx, we'd all go to pick up a pizza from a corner place called Nicky's. It's still there but with a different owner. Michael was there one day and heard a conversation between a customer and the pizza man that went something like this:

Customer: A large pie, with extra cheese.
Pizza man: OK. Large. Extra chees.
Customer: Hey can you put like double extra cheese on it?
Pizza man: No. You put too many chees, they turn into a thing.

I spelled it that way because the ESL pizza man seemed to parse "chees" as the plural noun for those little curly dairy products he put on pizzas. One of them would be a "chee" then, but you'd never talk about just one. That would be like taking one strand of spaghetti and calling it a spaghetto, which is grammatically correct in Italian.

Did you know that "pea" is derived the same way as "chee"? The name of the legume was originally "pease", a word preserved in the old rhyme that starts "pease porridge hot, pease porridge cold". Old English had a singular "pise" and plural "pisen". But "pease" sounds so much like a plural. That makes one of the little green spheres a "pea", right? It happened so long ago that the educational system that might have stopped it was not yet in place. Horrible.

Anyway, ever since Michael told us the story, any time there are awful consequences to an action, we say it's turning into a Thing. Like Runner Girl.

What's happened now is that every time I walk to work, I think of the story, and the silly name Runner Girl, and wonder whether I'll see her. All she does is run past and that's it, but now I'm thinking about it. I'm saying to myself, "I wonder if she'll be there today?", and feeling a little sense of loss when I don't see her. I could never be surprised now.

Wait, it's worse. The scientific part of my brain... Yes there is a scientific part of my brain, I will have you know. Look at who I spend my time with and consider the effects on me. Helen is a research scientist. I work with people who have engineering degrees. They plan things in methodical ways. I like their ways however foreign they seem. And I have said that I like to question things myself. Now, where was I?

The scientific part of my brain objected to my claim that "she's not running at exactly the same time". I had not tested that. The Research reader in Editorial would have circled the words. So I had to find out.

The Protocol was for me to check the time as I left the house, and then if I saw Runner Girl, remember that time. I got a sighting the first or second day. The next step was for me to leave at that time every day and see what happened. The Data soon showed that she ran within a couple of minutes of the same time every day. It was me who varied. The Conclusion was that if I left at that time I could maximize the chances of seeing her go by. Why does it matter whether I see her? Because I wrote an essay about it, that's why.

I wish this was the end of it, but there's more. One morning I was eating breakfast in the dining room, facing the front window, and saw Runner Girl go past on her way south. Remember, I told you I used to see her running south when I took the earlier train. The road she runs goes right in front of my house. Somehow I had not put this together before that morning. This could reduce the uncertainty! If I am able to catch sight of her going south, then I know she will appear later going north. Isn't it great? It sets my mind at rest.

See, it has turned into a Thing.

Besides Runner Girl herself, toward the end of the story I mentioned meeting someone I didn't know who liked my web pages. Since then I found out we have a friend in common, and I've spoken with her a couple of times, including a day out with the two of them to see a tunnel in Brooklyn.


There is a small ceremony there each July 15, the day St Claire Pollock died, and I wanted to go up there during lunch that day, but I forgot.


I take a partly different walk now. It's a little longer.

The Maplewood police have a radar device that shows your speed. They hang it at different places every few days, usually right below a speed limit sign. It has the permanent lettering YOUR SPEED IS, and an electronic display that shows your speed. Typically you'd see SPEED LIMIT 25 / YOUR SPEED IS 32, or something like that.

One morning around 04:15 I approached one of these unawares, and it suddenly lit up to show: 4. That was my speed. I thought these things depended on bouncing the radar off metal, but whether that was ever true, the one they have in Maplewood works on people too. I should have kept walking, but being me, I had to turn around and walk back a short way, and face it again. This time I ran at it, and got it to show: 6. No worries. It was less than 25.

Speaking of radar— is that a blend or what?— another morning I was down on Glen Avenue in Millburn, and as I passed a streetlight that glowed bluish light, I saw something flying around. It was a bat! It flew rapidly back and forth, diving and rising, under the light. I felt as if I could have stuck out my hand and touched it, it got so close. But its radar could detect I was there, and it evaded me to the extent that it paid me any mind at all. It must have been happily eating moths and whatever other insects were attracted to the streetlight. I watched it for a few minutes and then moved on. I did not see it again. If that was such a good spot, why did it not come back at the same time the next day? The world is full of mysteries.


My friend Michael, a few years ahead of me at the Prep, says it was his class who moved the desks forward. So it wasn't me.

He also reminded me of the Lord of the Rings obsession that had crept through the school, or at least among my friends. It went to the extent that when we returned from Father Fahey's funeral, my friend Ray echoed Samwise's words, "Well, I'm back". And it did not seem at all inappropriate, but rather conveyed the feeling that the good wizard had gone and we needed to find our own way now.



Sometimes I start writing one of these things and it just doesn't go anywhere interesting. Sharp eyed readers may have noticed that the Next Time line at the bottom of Huge Hall said Dating for a few days. That one did not work out. It was going to be about Egyptian chronology. I will never finish writing it. But I had a killer opening, and here it is.
Time time time, see what's become of me

Of course I knew the Simon and Garfunkel version of "Hazy Shade of Winter" from when it came out, but the Bangles version ROCKS. Play this loud. You don't hear that buzz once the music starts. Listen to Michael's bass line! Whoo! And Vicki's guitar lick that kicks it off! On a late Bangles record like this one it's rare to hear their terrific group harmony lead (instead of Susannah solo), and to hear Vicki let loose on guitar and Debbi banging away. They sound like a GROUP again. What the hell happened after All Over the Place? By the coda Susannah's little-girl voice comes out of nowhere as a nice contrast. Each verse has first those sustained bass guitar notes and then the walk at the end (yes I already mentioned the bass but it makes me happy), and Michael also sings solo that key line "I was so hard to please". She was usually the supporting player of the four but she shines on this one.

I am already way off the subject I wanted to tell you about. But it's one of those records, right? Do you ever arrive where you're going, but sit in the car a couple of minutes to let a good record finish? No?

All I really wanted to do was get the "time time time" thing established, because that's what this one is about. Time.
And it was downhill from there. Below is the only paragraph you'll enjoy.
The summaries of Manetho amount to lists giving the name of each pharaoh, the length of his reign in years and days, and a few comments on things that happened. "During his reign a sheep spoke", we are told of one pharaoh, but what the sheep had to say is omitted.

That's all I've got.

Photos: Runner Girl by me, March 2009 / Nicky's Pizza and Walton Road by Google Maps / Atlantic Avenue Tunnel by Sarah, July 2009 / Michael Steele from the video.

Next time: Demon Alcohol.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Two Degrees

I never met any of the Beatles. Well, neither did you, probably. They were the icons of our generation. They're not some guys we used to know.

I mentioned in Huge Hall how hearing "Revolution 1" on a good stereo turned my head around. I collected all the Beatles' records, even records they never released, and loved listening to them. By 1980 it started to fade and I was listening to other music. But then my new computer job in 1989 pulled me back in, because I was supposed to know about electronic mail and communications, and I took time on the job to check out Usenet Netnews. If you check the archives of on Google Groups you will find me writing several times a week as far back as it goes. It was great. I became part of a group project to compile the largest and most accurate list of recording variations, which you can see here. I really enjoyed working on that, all with people I never met in person. That paved the way for another cooperative project later, when I co-wrote a Bee Gees biography without meeting my four co-writers, who were in Scotland, Wales, and Australia (but I did meet them afterwards).

Sometime in the middle of the 1990s the Beatles went dormant for me again. I haven't listened to them in a while now. A few people have contacted me recently because of the forthcoming reissue box, in September 2009. What do I think of it, and so forth. I think it's about fifteen years late for me, to be honest. I'm not sure I want to drop five hundred bucks on it now. Hearing that the sound on the stereo disks will be limited to make them loud does not help entice me (I can rant about that abomination some other time).

But the email does make me think of the Beatles again, and a totally different conversation I had made me think of the Six Degrees meme. How far am I from any of the Beatles? Two degrees! That means just one person between me and each of them. And I can do it two ways, possibly three.

Do you want to know what they are? Sure you do. Here we go.


Back in college, I took a course about Architecture. It was taught by an Adjunct Professor, something not so common in those days. Eugene Raskin was a practicing architect who taught just that one-semester course each year. I'd heard it was good, and it counted to the Art History major, so I was in there. He turned out to be a great teacher and I got a lot out of the class.

But there was a curious thing. A few of us noticed that Mary Hopkin's hit "Those Were the Days" was credited to "Gene Raskin". It seemed pretty unlikely that this New York architect would be the same one. So none of us were silly enough to ask him. But he really was the same Gene Raskin.

Not only did he teach a course to undergraduates for forty years just because he liked to, but he also took off for a few months each summer to go to England and play folk music with his wife in pubs and coffee houses. Isn't that cool? And one of the songs they did was an old Russian song from the 1920s for which Gene had written new English language words, "Those Were the Days". (For more on the song go here.)

I like the standard version of the story, in which Paul McCartney heard Gene and Francesca doing the song, loved it, and started trying to find someone to record it. This led to his production of the song for his Apple Records discovery Mary Hopkin. Paul's girlfriend Francie Schwartz unfortunately remembers it as Northern Songs chief Dick James bringing the song to Paul one day when she was there in the Apple offices. If so, that knocks out Gene as my personal link to Paul. But no worries: I have two more.

That typeface says "those were the days" to me! Love the hat too. She's one year older than me. Lower right, what looks like a bit of Sanskrit is a fancy 3/. meaning 3 shillings no pence (which, at 2o shillings to a pound, wasn't much).


During the time I was very visible in I had a few conversations with Allan Kozinn, the New York Times music critic. He wrote a book called The Beatles in 1995 for a series on twentieth century composers. On one occasion I was invited to his apartment and got a look at his incredible collection of audio and video of the Beatles. My email from the 1990s is long gone but there are running conversations between us and others in the archive.

He's my second link. I know he interviewed Paul, George, and Ringo, more than once. Whether he got John, I am not certain, but he was doing freelance for the Times as early as 1977, so he might have interviewed John too, in the runup to the Double Fantasy album in 1980.

From: (Joseph Brennan)
Subject: Re: Beatles did not play their own instruments!
Date: 1995/12/15
Message-ID: <4aste0$>#1/1
X-Deja-AN: 122074160
references: <4aqv3q$>
organization: Columbia University

Kozinn <> wrote:
>This is all complete lunacy. . .
>there is approximately 30 hours of bootlegged session tape . . .
>in which you
>can hear them discussing things, trying out things, etc.

And it's a tribute to Apple that over all these years they've managed
to keep letting those doctored session tapes "slip out" (wink wink) to
keep up the charade. The boot CD of March 5 1963 "sessions" was very
impressive, and essentially a warmup for the faked Anthology cuts in
which we hear the "Beatles" "rehearse" songs and "change the
arrangements". The death of Paul in 1966 was nothing- this "play
their own instruments" thing is far more elaborate. It's no wonder
they had to give up public performance in 1966, although their miming
was good enough by 1969 for the Get Back "performances". Allan of
course is obliged by his contract with the Trilateral Commission to
post denials, but we all know the truth, eh?

Joe Brennan Columbia University in the City of New York ("affiliation shown for identification only")

Me, replying to Allan Kozinn, in a thread started by a troll. By the way at this time I administered Columbia's Usenet server, (seen there in the header). I was shown how it worked by the outgoing sys admin, Ben Fried, who is now the CIO of Google.


Then there's Maurice Gibb. I had a twenty-minute conversation with him on one occasion in 1996. An editor for Columbia magazine, as much a Bee Gees fan as I was, managed to hook an interview with Barry and Maurice on a day they were in town to record at the Hit Factory. The excuse for a story was web pages by Columbia people, and my Bee Gees page was one of the ones featured. So Kevin did an interview and I talked a little, and then Barry got impatient to get into the studio and left us. Maurice however just kept sitting there, and we turned off the recorder and the two of us just rambled for a while.

I had mentioned using Macintosh systems, and that's what he liked, so we had that in common. He told me about his huge disk arrays and how he was editing and processing video on them. This was 1996: iMovie was a decade away, and he must have had the fastest Macs on the planet to do the stuff he was doing. What a geek. I loved it. I knew by reputation that he was a recording studio rat, one of those guys who checks out every new piece of equipment in the studio and what you could possibly do with it, and clearly he had moved into computer software at an early date.

Somehow the conversation drifted to his two children, who were in their teens then. He said his dream for them was that they would find something they'd love doing, and it could be music or something else, but whatever fulfilled them. He knew enough not to tell them what to do. He said he just wanted them to be happy in what they were doing. He had this dreamy look talking about them and his hopes for them. He was just simply a dad who loved his kids. And he wasn't weird about saying so. This really hit home for me because my daughter was seven years old then, and I had the same feelings about her and whatever her future was going to be. I realized we shared something there.

I asked Maurice about the infamous track "Have You Heard the Word", and he tried to convince me that John Lennon and Paul McCartney are on it. I don't believe this for a minute. Both the Lennonesque voice and the McCartneyesque bass guitar are none other than Maurice himself. Later on I had a chance to talk with Steve Kipner, and he told me Maurice showed up at the session on painkillers from a broken arm and then proceeded to enjoy the bar in the studio, so maybe Maurice had even convinced himself that two Beatles were there.

You know what, I'm going to concede him the right to embellish. What I learned while working on the Bee Gees book is that Maurice liked to tell a good story, and if the real story wasn't that good, he'd fix it so it was. The point was entertainment. At one time it bothered me when someone was not being accurate, but I've changed my mind about that. A good story is worth something. Now I take the Maurice approach sometimes.

Maurice wasn't a saint. He fought alcoholism and other daemons for decades, and did some things no one would be proud of. But I liked him for his engineer geekiness, and especially because he was in love with his kids. Wow. He got to me there. When he was talking about those things, I don't think he was handing me the standard answers to reporters' questions. I think he was speaking from the heart. And I'm sorry he's gone.

Oh yeah. Degrees.

First. Maurice was next door neighbor to Ringo for a year or so, around 1970. And they did some things together: crazy home movies, and at least one recording that never saw the light of day. Nine years difference in their ages didn't seem to matter too much. They were both the most underrated members of their groups.

Second. Maurice told many people that he played on George Harrison's song "Isn't It a Pity". There are two versions of it on All Things Must Pass and we don't know which one. He's not credited on it, but neither are others, like Eric Clapton, who definitely played, and a young Phil Collins, who remembers seeing Maurice there, although Phil remembers a different song. Ringo played drums on many of the songs. Although Maurice liked a good story, I don't find it hard to believe that Ringo might have invited him along to one or more sessions, and that Maurice actually did play. These were wall of sound Phil Spector sessions with as many musicians as possible on each track. George might have easily overlooked a modest second piano player.

Third. Maurice claimed that he had been a drinking buddy of John Lennon, and that John introduced him to rum and coke, or scotch and coke. Again, it makes a good story, and while John never mentioned Maurice to interviewers or biographers, I don't think that rules it out. John's biographers report that in 1967 he would skip out of his suburban home every few weeks and drink all night in London at the clubs music people went to. And we know that Maurice, in his first year in London, spent time in those clubs. So it's not hard to imagine their paths crossing there. I'm calling this one believable.

Fourth. Paul? Maurice certainly idolized Paul as a bass guitar player. "So tasteful", he told me, naming "Michelle" particularly, a song he'd have heard while living in Australia. Did he have any significant contact with Paul? I don't know. But I have Allan Kozinn for Paul anyway.

This photo was taken at the Hit Factory the day of the conversation I described. We brought an old Mac with us as a prop, but no keyboard. Maurice on the right. Barry is having his usual cup of tea.


So am I really cool, or what? I've met people who know people. Oh, I don't know. I don't mean to brag. But, hey, if you want to be within three degrees of the Beatles, just get to know me. That and a Metrocard gets you on the subway.

Next time: A Sheep Spoke.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Huge Hall

Strange days have found us, and through their strange hours we linger alone. Bodies confused, memories misused...
I had that album, Strange Days by the Doors. The Doors of Perception, Aldous Huxley wrote, but even in the sixties that seemed too long and crazy a name for a band, so the Doors it was. Jim Morrison, lyrics. He'd be 65 now. Doing a six-month gig in Vegas, I don't know. Imagine that. He's up there shouting, "Mother, I want to— send you a greeting card!" Wouldn't that push the boundaries? Some people would walk out, their sensibilities violated. And everyone would talk about it. I know Jim would have the guts to do it. But I digress.

I've given myself a challenge. I can barely half-remember college days. Can I do high school days at all? Some little pieces of it are still there in the grey cells. Strange days. Not a child, not grown.

Look at that: junior year and my signature was still almost Palmer method cursive. History, Greek, German, Ape, Latin, Theology, Math, and I had to start off the week with P T.

Now say you have a class that is normally held on the fourth floor, but for some reason today it's been moved to the nearly identical room on the ground floor. The teacher always seems a little on edge. One of the boys takes a seat near the open window. At some point he stands and announces, "I just can't take it any more!", and jumps out the window. The teacher panics! It's the fourth floor! Well, it isn't, today, and the boy has had to go into a crouch as soon as his feet touch the ground three feet below the window, in order to disappear convincingly. It's lovely to think about. I wasn't there when this one happened. I wonder whether anyone was.

Or say you have a somewhat claustrophobic teacher. The boys notice that ever since the classroom floor has been cleaned, it's easy to slide the desks and chairs around silently. A plot is hatched. Each time the teacher turns his back to write on the board, everyone moves forward, no more than a half inch. He turns back, and things seem normal. Don't they? Thirty minutes later, the desks and chairs are at least a foot forward from their original positions, but as long as no one cracks, things still seem normal. But it's like the room is closing in. The suspense is overwhelming. How far can we go?

I'm not sure whether I was there when that one happened. Stephen Wright had this bit in his comedy act. After running through a series of jokes about things he did, he starts the next one, "and then I...", pauses, and adds "oh wait, that wasn't me". I liked that he was rambling through someone else's memory. No. I don't think I was there for the moving of desks and chairs.

If I had perpetrated these things, I would have got jug. I got jug once for nothing. My Latin class right before lunch was in a second floor room opposite the stairs, and that day I was in the desk next to the door. As soon as class ended, I just got up and walked down the stairs. I was the first one down. The Prefect of Discipline Emeritus— a hell of a title, isn't it— was waiting at the bottom of the stairs and pulled me over. He told me I should not run in school. I agreed. I hadn't been running, so it seemed safe to agree. He took my name and told me to report for jug. "Now, what did you learn?", he asked. I had no idea what to reply. He kindly did not add a day.

The derivation of the word "jug" was unknown to us. It's "Justice under God", according to some web pages, but I suspected it was the beginning of something in Latin about being put under a yoke. If the weather was clement, a fine high school word, jug meant you went outside after school with the other bad boys and walked in a line around a little campus lawn an indeterminate number of times. The path we trod passed through a little gazebo with four stone pillars holding up the roof, and on a dare, you could step out of line, hide behind a pillar, and rejoin the line the next time it came around. What fun. Unless you happened to step out during the last time around. Then you'd be stuck there. Now once again, did I see this happen, or was I only told of it?

Here's one I know I did. It was in a biology class. I was one of those kids who did all the homework and never caused any trouble. Don't hit me. Probably for that reason I was paired at a lab bench with a boy known as a little bit of a troublemaker. What they failed to reckon was that I liked the idea of making trouble as long as nobody got hurt. The legs of the benches were attached the floor with something like an L bracket. We noticed the leg on my side was a little loose, so we decided to push up on the bench any chance we got, to see how long it would take to completely pull out the screw. It took a few months. It was totally stupid petty vandalism. But it gave us a reason to look forward to that class. I was sorry when the screw pulled out, but just because then we couldn't do it any more. They never caught us for that one.

The Jesuits liked to be relevant as much as possible, and one of them had the idea of teaching about ethics and stuff by listening to popular music and discussing the lyrics. The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, whatever. I'm not sure they got to Dylan. One day there was something new in the classroom: a stereo system. Now I had at home a thing called a record player, a box about a foot square, with a turntable and an arm and a small speaker built into it. That was how you played records. They sounded all right if that was all you knew. But in this classroom they had a nice big speaker on each side and a decent turntable and amp. And I had no idea what was about to happen to me. We were going to discuss "Revolution", off the Beatles' latest album. Lyric sheets were handed out, and we were going to take a few minutes to listen to it first. The stylus dropped and a few seconds into the music SWEET ANGELS MY BRAIN WENT BLANK AND MY HEART EXPLODED.

I MEAN IT WAS AMAZING. Sheltered boy, I had never heard rock music played at proper volume over a decent sound system. I COULD HEAR EVERYTHING. The guitars, the drums, the vocals, everything, crystal clear, or at least a hell of a lot clearer than I had ever heard before. Lyrics? I don't care about stinking lyrics. I want to hear more music on this INCREDIBLE sound system! I was so hooked. To this day I want to hear music as loud and thumping as I can stand it. My poor ears. "What's that? Eh?" And mind you, this was "Revolution 1", the smooth version on the white album. If they had played the other take of the same song, "Revolution" the B side, with the shouting, distorted guitars and heavy drums, I don't know what would have happened to me.

That explains something about me. It was one of those formative moments. You're probably waiting to hear about another formative moment, if you've read the College Stories in some of my previous posts. I didn't realize it at first, but those stories make it seem as if the main thing I did for four years was check out girls. I am not ashamed of my orientation. After all I could have written about classes I took, or the guy who was my roommate in Carman, but you'd go to sleep. Anyway I am sure that now you are expecting to hear about the girls I knew in high school. I have three words for you: all, boys, school. There was, for a while, an after-school discussion group about some subject I forget that we could attend together with girls from the remarkably named nearby school Mount Saint Ursula. Of course I did go off on those expeditions. No friendships were formed there, but at least I got to, like, talk to some of them. Ah, now you see where I come from.

My after-school activity was the bookstore. One thing I learned that has stuck with me was to keep the pile of bills in the cashbox with all the heads facing the same way. Father Fahey, the Jesuit in charge, kept stressing this. The other day I saw a young cashier in our local supermarket doing exactly the same thing when I handed her a twenty and a few singles. You know what, I usually turn them all the same way myself, but I've been trying to break free of some little habits I have, so I didn't do it that day, and then I saw her turning them to make some manager happy. She's going to blog about it in whatever kind of blog people will have forty years from now, some kind of direct injection to brains I expect. "One thing I learned that has stuck with me", she will begin, and then have to explain what paper money was. I'm going to turn my heads the same way from now on, as a kindness to my fellow sufferers. I wonder how many customers do it. The ones who have worked in stores probably do.

This isn't much of a story, is it? It's more of a slice of life, full of random moments that maybe add up to something. It's Azumanga Daioh but with boys and no pictures. Maybe you'll get a feel for life at Fordham Prep years ago. Maybe not.

Father Fahey in the bookstore, and I think that's Ray.

Some of us were travelling downtown one day. As we were walking through a passage in the subway, our friend Ray asked the rest of us, "Am I hungry?" Sorry, Ray, that unanswerable question is the thing I remember you for. No, wait, the other thing is that one day Ray brought in an old 78 called the Okeh Laughing Record, and we must have had a record player in the back of the bookstore, because I know we played it. It is what the title says it is. Google the title if you want to hear it. They don't make them like that any more.

I was riding with somebody to school on the Third Avenue El. Only the Bronx portion of it still remained, and it was worked with ancient subway cars from the 1920s that were on their last legs. We got on at 149th St, and at the next station, one of the doors didn't close. I got up and pushed it shut so the train could start, and at the next stop my friend did the same, and we took turns at each station where it opened on that side. We said nothing about it. It was the el. Pieces of stuff fell off it to the street, doors didn't close, situation normal. We just wanted the train to make it to our stop. Our car was empty when we got off at Fordham Road. The train was probably stuck for a while at the next station, with no one left to close the door.

My best friend in school was Frank. His last name alphabetized right next to mine. That's how you met people in Catholic schools. You had to sit or stand next to them in alphabetical order all the time, so you might as well talk to them. In grade school sometimes the nuns had us line up in size place instead. Maybe that made a nice visual impression to some artistically inclined authority figure. The catch is that for young kids, size place kept changing. Alphabetical didn't, except maybe when a new kid showed up. My friend Michael recalls someone in his school who was always last in line, whose name turned out to be Zyzyk. Them's the breaks, but it's kind of a distinction though, really, if you think of it.

What adventures did I have with Frank? I don't know. He worked in the bookstore too, and I guess we left at the same time and took the same bus, but it's all gone now. I think mainly we kept each other's spirits up as we survived each day. We were both studious nerds. Oh no, what did I say up there? "I could have written about classes I took, or the guy who was my roommate in Carman, but you'd go to sleep." Sorry, I'm approaching that now, right?

Uh... OK, once we went down to Frank's father's office in midtown. He was with P & H, a manufacturer of construction and mining equipment. He had a toy truck on his desk, one of those huge yellow dump trucks they use on earth moving projects. The name P & H stands for Pawling and Harnischfeger. Yeah, Harnischfeger. That's a great comedy name. The hammer slips and you curse, "Harnischfeger!". Or you say a list of things and end with "and a henway, and a harnischfeger". There are so many possibilities. Oops, did you get to this web page by searching your family name? I'm sorry. But, come on.

Frank, me, and some random kid, at the bookstore.

I think my brain is degenerating back to high school humor. Well, that's my excuse. Look, the athletic field was Coffey Field, and Father Fahey kept referring to it as the Coffey Grounds, and we loved it. That was the stuff. He died in my senior year, a big loss. All of his students loved him. The school arranged a bus trip for us to the Jesuit Seminary in Yorktown for the funeral ceremonies. We thought of him as an old guy. I see from his dates in my yearbook that he was a year younger than I am now, and that's not old, I swear.

Speaking of old guys, one of the best teachers I ever had was Mr McDonough, Geometry, then in his fortieth year of teaching. And he was the opposite of burned out. It was what he loved doing. He taught with great clarity, and besides the logic of Euclidian postulates and constructions and proofs appealed to me. When you gave a good answer in class he gave you a McDonough Funeral Home pencil, a place run by his brother, and he made sure everyone had got at least one pencil by the end of the year. During exams he would get up for a few minutes and do a little soft-shoe number, singing some old pop tune in a soft voice, and then sit down as if nothing unusual had taken place. That's just about what I would do. He had the Mr Chips tweed jacket and a polite soft-spoken manner, but he was not to be underestimated. Once he was holding a wooden cone, and telling us about how to calculate the volume of cones, when some boy kept talking to his friend in the back. Mr McDonough informed Mr Soandso (we were all Mr) that if he didn't keep quiet he would be asked to sit on the cone, and added that that would shut him up. Big laugh all around. After us he taught ten more years of boys. They made him stop at fifty.

I recall another teacher too, Mr Martin, Advanced Placement English, known as Ape. We read Marshall McLuhan, from which my immature brain formed some concept of how the medium is the message. I should be thinking more of how a blog differs from print, shouldn't I? These long rambling weekly posts... oh never mind. Mr Martin posed the question to us one day, "what is the difference between fiction and non-fiction?". One of the usual suspects was called upon. Mr Suchandsuch informed us that the difference was that fiction was not true. "NO!", Mr Martin shouted, and he picked up an eraser and threw a fastball to the kid, just missing his head. I vowed to myself never to call fiction untrue. To this day, I will not say it.

Huge Hall was our name for the building Fordham Prep was in, Hughes Hall. It wasn't that big. That's why we called it Huge. We noticed that the steam radiators had a date in the 1880s cast into them, and being the youngsters we were, with our minds on the present, that seemed too impossibly old to be true. But it was. It was less than a hundred years ago at the time. Some of the classrooms still had the old iron desks attached to the floor, the wooden desktop equipped with a pencil groove and a hole for the ink bottle, the wood worn beautifully smooth by generations of boys. The walls had real slate blackboards. It was a great atmosphere. It reeked of tradition.

Hughes was too old to be a steel building. The support system was the external stone walls and a single row of iron columns down the center on the long axis, visible only on the ground floor where space was opened up for a gym. Yes, a gym with padded iron columns within it! Oof! The stone wall on the ground floor was three feet thick, making for nice window seats.

Some of our classes were in Dealy, once a near-twin building to Hughes but renovated to death with all new interiors, a classroom building shared by the College and the Prep. The Prep at this time was still a school within Fordham University.
My class card you can see near the top of this post has quite a few classrooms marked D for Dealy.

Huge Hall is now a first-year college dorm. No going back.
Παντα ρει και ουδεν μενει. Και ωδε συνεβανικαις. Some of us in Greek class made up that second sentence. It was our "Kilroy was here". But the catchy rhyming first sentence is "everything flows and nothing stays", from Heraclitus, roughly 500 BC, by way of Plato. See, I learned a few things there. Heraclitus didn't seem especially depressed that everything changes, either. He was just saying that's how it is.

Next time
: Two Degrees.

Saturday, July 4, 2009


[The College stories start here.]

My friend Mary finished Barnard College in three years by taking as many courses as possible and working like a demon. It was really quite an achievement. She got top grades too, as if she were just taking a normal course load. That's why she seemed to be either working or studying all the time.

When I mentioned to her that the same course load in Columbia College would have got me out only one semester early, not two, she was not happy with me. I was just making an observation, but in my usual way I had failed to recognize how someone else would feel hearing it. I should have just congratulated her and let her feel good. That would have been the right thing to do.

If I had done the right thing, then, later, after the good feeling had settled in, then we could have got into the differences in how our two schools counted credits, and I could show with diagrams and logic how I would have fared taking exactly the same course load. I would wait and do this at the right moment. I don't know what the right moment would be exactly, but at the right moment. Now if you're wondering, it was because Barnard counted courses as units, while Columbia assigned points to each course and counted points. My wife, also a Barnard girl, told me later how this worked against science
majors. Columbia gave most courses 3 points, a few only 2, but the awful science courses with lectures, labs, and recitations could run as high as 6 points. But to Barnard girls, each course was one course.

I had a big day out with Mary somewhere around here. Where do you think we would go in the world's most exciting city, New York? Yes, of course we went to the New York Public Library Research Collection at Fifth and Forty-Second, the place with the lions out front. I loved going there.

We found our books in the huge card catalog, and turned in our slips to the clerks, who put them into pneumatic tubes that sent them off to the stacks. Then we went and sat together on the bench waiting for our numbers to light, when we could collect our books.

Mary was working on a term paper. I was reading about the history of the New York subway system. Some small part of the notes I took may have ended up on my Abandoned Stations pages thirty years later. You can see how dedicated we both were to our obsessions. We sat next to each other at a big table and worked quietly for hours. I liked sitting near her. And then we went home.


I lived in John Jay. God! Those long corridors lined with doors, those little rooms with a desk, a bed, and a sink, and those central toilet and shower rooms. You wanted to bang your metal cup on the door until the guards let you out for exercise. It was not a healthy environment. I was only in there to sleep and read. Otherwise I got myself out of the place. As a result I did not know the neighbors much beyond giving each other a nod and a grunt in the hallway.

All right, it wasn't hopeless. No. What would cheer me up was to buy a quart of milk and a package of Nabisco Chocolate Grahams, and sit down with them and read a book. That was nice.

When the red and white milk carton was empty, I would save it, and when I had enough of them, I started building a dinosaur. A Tyrannosaurus. It must have been about three feet high when I finished it. It had the big hind legs, the fat body, the little arms, the big head. It was in the bad upright pose we used to think was how they stood. The cartons were mostly intact, but I cut the ends or sides off, with my communist scissors, wherever I needed to, to make them fit. It was held together with masking tape.

Fine, but what was going to happen when I had to move out? Toward the end of the school year, one fine day I brought the dinosaur over to Philosophy Library and sat it on a nearly unused section of desk in the back of the office space. You could see it from the reading room through the little windows. It looked pretty good there I thought.

Someone admiring it asked me whether it was a lot of work cleaning the milk out from inside the cartons. No, I said, no problem. I didn't want to say that I had not thought about it. I think I rinsed them in my little room sink, I'm not sure. It should have smelled like old cheese, or turned blue from the inside out, but it didn't. I think. I don't have a good sense of smell.

After a short time it was thought better to have the staff up in the Burgess-Carpenter office admire it, in a more private space, so I moved it up there. It stayed there for some weeks, and then one day it was gone. At least I didn't have to be the one to throw it out.

Or maybe some admirer took it home, and maybe they still have it. I can dream. I would charge money to sign it for them.


That last semester, Mary worked Sundays and I did not. One day I had the idea of calling her at
the library and asking if she'd eat supper with me, and she said she would. We went over to the McIntosh Center at Barnard and got burgers. That building is gone now. It had a line of glass doors on the outer wall of the big room we'd eat in, all marked "this is not a door" because they were only for emergency exits.

We ended up doing the same thing for weeks on end. I called her each week as if I just thought of it. She'd say yes. I would go up to the library desk and walk over with her, and walk her back as far as the outside door of the library. I think we argued about politics sometimes. It didn't matter. The next week we'd do it again. Sunday night was kind of a dead zone on campus. I don
't know where everybody went really, but I had just been grabbing something to eat by myself, and so did she I imagine, and now we had somebody to talk to, somebody else in the same boat. It was pretty nice.


Then came our last summer. Mary was allowed to work her student job until the end of the summer, so we continued in what we considered normal life. We both ended up living in a building down at 102nd St and Broadway. I was rooming with a Philosophy grad student, Carl. Mary moved down there a little later and did not have a roommate right away.

Rachel graduated. I mentioned her in the last story but forgot to say she was a year older, a year ahead of me. I didn't mention sitting in the grass with her after class a few times, near the end of term when it was warm, her long black hair shining in the sun, and her great smile. Maybe the Nice Jewish Boy thing she was into took all the pressure off, but she was easy to talk to. I wished her well in the end and I do hope she found was she was looking for. She deserved it. I'm smiling as I write this.

Lisa was away that summer, back home living the glamorous life of a Friendly's waitress. We decided to correspond, and I wrote her more letters than I ever sent to anybody. I should have hers somewhere, because I never intentionally threw them out, but I have not seen them in decades. Maybe it's better to imagine. I don't even know what we wrote about any more, except that we got to know each other better than we had done.

There were a lot of thunderstorms that hot summer. One day I forgot to bring my umbrella, and was allowed to walk under Mary's in the pouring rain all the way down to 102d St. The cold raindrops, the steam rising from the pavement, the sun peeking out ready to raise the humidity beyond endurance. We didn't talk, so we could stand to walk that close.

In mid summer our apartments changed roommates. I was the hot potato passed along to fill space, since I wasn't going to be permanent. Once again I had lined up a nice dorm room for the coming school year. Carl had found a long term roommate, and so I was sent off to Mary's apartment. Believe it or not.

This was where we made cheap food like slumgullion, and where we got tired enough to talk normally some nights. It turned out she wasn't so bad after all.

She was out more than I expected though. Weekends, she often left in the morning and wasn't back till dinner, or after. Weekdays, she got in late sometimes. Then the big guy came by one day and she introduced me. I was actually a little jealous.

One magic evening Mary and I were sitting in her room talking about stuff, and she said, "I want to show you something". She pulled a flat box out from under her bed, lifted the lid, and started removing 8 by 10 black and white photographic prints. She put quite a few of them on the desk and dresser, leaning against the wall, lining up a nice little gallery. They were nature scenes, beautifully done, and they were hers. She had taken them, and developed and printed them, the previous summer when she was away at home.

I was knocked out. I had never seen her do anything artistic. She never did much of anything to my knowledge but work and study. And here was this talent that I knew nothing about, expressed only when she had somehow found time for it, during a summer when I assume she was working at some job. The pictures were great. I must have jammered some kind of praise. I sure hope so.

I don't know how many people ever saw them. If it was a rare honor, and I think it was, I thank her for sharing it with me. It was a nice gesture.

So what was that about? Did she want me to tell her how awesome she was? Did I miss a chance there? No. I don't think so. I think the boyfriend was pulling her out of her shell, and she just thought the art history boy would like the photographs that she'd been maybe too self-conscious to show to people. And she was right about that.

When summer was over, we were done.

I can't believe this, but I have no memory of moving from there. I don't even remember by what means I moved my stuff from there to the dorm. This is New York. We didn't have cars like normal Americans.

More importantly I don't remember ever saying goodbye to Mary. Was she not there the day I left? Or did we just shrug our shoulders at each other and say "huh, see ya" as I handed her my key? I haven't the slightest idea.

It should have been a memorable occasion. There was a lot left unsaid. I know only what I thought of her and not what she thought of me. But enough was enough. I could have gone back to visit but I did not. She never looked for me either. It was as if she'd gone to some distant place. But I think she was there, only a half mile away, for years. I don't know.

It did not bother me then. I was looking forward, and finding new people and new connections. It was only years later that I started to wonder what different course my life could have taken if I had done different things at certain times, and that useless daydream only works when you have forgotten what it was really like. I need to trust my young self, and remember that it did not matter to me then.

This is not Mary's picture. The trouble I go to for this blog: I took this picture in July 2009 in New Jersey, as a pathetic attempt to show you the kind of picture I think Mary took. We might have a laugh someday at how far off this is from what she really did. I think hers had a lake in the background.

Lisa came back in September. And I met some new people including somebody really special. Does that help? I don't want to bring you down and leave you there.

Before we move on, I want to get back to that Anthem song that I linked to in the last college story. What got me onto it was Bob Lefsetz's blog The Lefsetz Letter back on March 20, 2009. As you can see it inspired my title, a blog about the war of yesterday.

The title is not just for the college stories. A lot of my stuff is about getting at the truth about the past, exploring how we know what we know, and debunking the misconceptions that turn into history. That's the war of yesterday. Nobody gets killed, but there's some disagreement. In my Beach Pneumatic pages for example, I show that the story everyone knows is wrong, and in the Bee Gees book I helped write a few of us straightened out some mythical stories. But I digress.

Bob writes about the music business. He stumbled across the song on satellite radio and the words hit him just about as hard as they hit me. Bob wrote, quoting the lyrics:
This is an anthem for the girl that got away

You can research her on the Internet, even though it might be difficult to find her, because she's changed her last name, to match that of her husband.
I admit it, I did it, when I started writing the college stories. Mary did not change her last name, so it wasn't that hard. The women of my generation did not all change their names. My wife did not, and neither did the woman in a married couple I work with now who are just three years older. And as we met my daughter's friends' parents, we kept running into other old parents who didn't change either. There was one couple with different names, with two children, and the boy had the mother's last name and the girl had the father's, a neat concept if you have two kids. Our generation were the weird ones. That went out of style fast.

Of course I have changed Mary's first name, and some other things about her. You got that, right? The narrator of Drop told you he wrote a biography of Homer G Classics. But it's still her as far as I'm concerned.

Bob continued:
This is an anthem for the war of yesterday

You can make contact, but that would be a mistake. What would you say? You might be melancholy, you might be looking for something, but chances are they are not. You want to marinate in your memories, you'd rather dream about what could be, than be confronted with what isn't.
Right. What would I say to her older self? It's too long ago. At best we could get together and have a few laughs at what fools we were, or what a fool I was anyway. That would be all right. I'd get a kick out of doing that with her. That's all I would want.

Besides, Mary is not the girl who got away. I don't think I had any chances to miss. But the song still touches me somehow, and the comments under it on Youtube show that it has reached many other people too. That's one of the great things about music. I've written a lot about music elsewhere. It has a power to touch feelings that words alone do not have.

If you would like to hear Eric Lumiere's song without the dance beat, go to In the upper right, where you see the list of songs, mouse over the little triangle under the list, until you scroll it down to "Anthem with strings 2". Click on the title. Somehow I prefer the Trance version by Filo and Peri, the one in that video. As Bob writes:
It was like the action froze at a rave, and a mindless bopper turned to the camera and started riffing on what he was truly feeling, what he was trying to escape by getting high and dancing like this.
That's life. We rarely say what we're truly feeling. We move to the beat of our ordinary routines, because that's easy and everyone is doing it, except that just once in a while, we stop. And that's when something happens. Whatever it is.
This is an anthem for the rebel of my youth
Milk carton dinosaur. What the hell? Why did I do that? Why do I do half the things I do? I haven't changed that much.
This is an anthem for the risk of loving you

Next time: Huge Hall.