Sunday, January 31, 2010

Jane Doe

I've got a story for you. This one could have been part of the College Stories series, but I wasn't sure about it. You'll see why. Besides, the College Stories were mainly about Mary, and to explain about her, I didn't need to tell you this story. Well, all right, I know I put other things in there that I didn't need to tell you either, but they were different.

Then I thought of including this story in Demon Alcohol, but that ran a little long, and once again I decided this was the story to drop.

But it's a cracking good story. Let's go for it.

This happened back in the summer when I lived on 102d St. By that time I was trying to dial down the Mary thing, but she was still pushing the buttons without even trying, and since we worked together and lived in the same apartment, I could hardly avoid her.

A whole group of us student workers from the library got together one evening after work. I think someone's birthday was the excuse. Whatever the deal was, it was an evening when we didn't have to work the next morning.

I teased you in Demon Alcohol with the idea that there might have been a third time when I'd had too much but was not sure I could remember it, and that was where I was going to lead into this story.

There was a girl working with us called Jane. Jane Doe. I admitted in Dinosaur that I had changed some of the names, among other things, but the names I used are similar in some ways to the real ones. In Jane's case I don't even want to get close.

I had been getting the impression that Jane liked me. You know. Liked me. This situation always took me by surprise. Despite what you might think this does not happen to me all the time. To have a girl unexpectedly like me placed an obligation on my shoulders. I felt that I had to live up to the position I was being placed in.

My reaction was always, "Oh no! What do I do now?" Oh what an inconvenience, you idiot. This is evidence of insanity. Isn't it nice to have someone like you? I wasn't sure.

I went to the West End along with Mary and Jane and quite a few others. We occupied a large table in a dark corner. But what am I saying? It was the West End. It had many corners, and all of them were dark. Where else could we have found a large table in that cavern?

Pitchers were brought and glasses were distributed. We partook of American beer and some kind of food and had a few laughs.

Mary sat next to me. She nursed one half-full glass for a while. She was even less into crowds and drink than I was.

"Do you want to go home now?" She was done.

"Not yet. Are you OK walking down by yourself?" Broadway's pretty full of people, and it wasn't that late. She'd be OK, I figured. I wanted to check though, and ask.

"Sure. See you later." And she got up and slipped out. Mary's not really in this story.

Now what do you think? Does "do you want to go home now" really mean "please walk home with me"? I take questions like that literally. It gets me in trouble. I answer the question and say whether I want to do it. Mary may have a blog where she writes stories about this clueless boy she knew long ago. But she's not in this story.

The Road Not Taken would have led to a peaceful normal evening. As far as I know.

Mary and I were sitting in chairs on the outer side of the table, so it was easy a minute after she left for Jane come over and sit where Mary had been. She leaned over to my ear so I could hear her speak just to me.

"Why didn't you want to walk home with your girlfriend?"

"She's not my girlfriend!"

"She's not?" Jane was surprised.

Look what had happened. Jane had seen Mary and me coming and going together each workday, and saying shorthand things to each other that seemed to reference previous conversations, and being annoying to each other. What else could she conclude?

As a result of this great revelation Jane attached herself to my side for the rest of the party. She had not realized I was available. It wasn't so bad though. I have trouble lasting at these things if I don't have a friend next to me to talk to, and Jane was all right. Really. I was getting happy that she was there with me and took an interest in what I said.

I am not sure how many times we filled our glasses, but Jane had some combination of more beer than me or less tolerance for it. She had begun leaning against me, and then straightening up, and leaning again. She looked tired. When I went off to the men's I leaned her the other way against someone else.

Then several people started to get up to leave. It was like a flock of birds changing direction. I don't know who started it. It just seemed to be time. We all got up. And then the trouble began.

Jane was definitely not steady on her feet.

One of the other girls offered to walk her back to her apartment.

"Nooo. I want Joe to walk me home."

"Where do you live?" I hoped desperately that it was close.

"Around the corner."


"You know, the, the building, with the thing."

This was not helpful. The girl who offered to walk Jane back now took Jane's bag and fished out her wallet. I would never have done that. I don't like going into Helen's bag even after being married to her for umpty years. It just seems invasive. Maybe it's a girl thing, going into each other's bags.

The girl showed me Jane's address and apartment number on some card that was in the wallet. It was only a block and a half up Broadway. I decided I could do it. I put the card in my pocket for reference. I was not that clearheaded myself. I thought I might forget the address and apartment during the walk. Especially because I have trouble with things like that even when I'm sober.

I stood alongside Jane, put an arm around her waist, and directed her toward the door. Her balance was off but her legs were still strong. It looked like this was going to work. All I had to do was walk her into her apartment and let her collapse on her bed. I would be doing a good deed.

We made it to the building. But we had to get in. Tricky. I stopped at the door, and then I had to balance Jane against me, invade her bag by feeling around in it for keys, and try them. But there was no lock on the door. Strange. Oh wait, this was the outside door. It just pulled open. The inside door had the lock. See how well I was thinking.

With some effort on my part we passed through the inside door, and got up the elevator, and went into the apartment. It was dark. Whoever she lived with was not home. That was too bad. I could have got out of there if there was a roommate friend. Jane headed me toward one of the bedrooms. She even slipped off her sandals by herself. Done! I got her home! And safely onto her bed.

No. As soon as I leaned her down on the bed Jane spoke.

"I'm gonna throw up."

Oh great. I was pretty sure she could not reach the bathroom alone, so I had to help her down the hall. We made it. She kneeled at the porcelain throne and dumped her stomach contents neatly into it.

It's nasty watching someone vomit. I found myself going into some kind of panic. Adrenaline rush. My thoughts got a little clearer.

And suddenly I felt very protective of her. She had chosen me to get her back safe, and damn it, I was going to do it. This is what I later recognized as Parent Mode. I didn't fully get what it was until I had a kid of my own. It has to do with knowing someone is helpless and really needs you. You just have to respond to it, no matter what.

When she stopped heaving, I patted her on the back and told her softly that it was good she got that out, she was doing good, now she'd be able to sleep better. I wanted to be soothing. She gave the ghost of a smile.

I ripped off a piece of toilet paper and wiped around her mouth. There was a plastic cup on the edge of the sink. I didn't know whether it was hers but I poured water in it and held it to her mouth so she could drink from it. I flushed the vomit away and helped her up.

Now I was done. All I had to do was get her back onto the bed.

No. Jane spoke again. She was able to describe bodily functions.

"I have to pee."

And she pulled her pants down. Just like that. As if I wasn't there. But not only that. She started to let loose before she sat down, and the start of the stream hit her pants that were down around her ankles. At least most of it went into the bowl.

I went farther into panic. How bad can this get? I am standing in a strange bathroom, looking at myself vaguely in a mirror, feeling dizzy, and listening to a girl pee. I was not used to seeing parts of the female body at all. But I still wanted to come through for her. She had picked me for this mission.

She managed to wipe herself. Thank God. I wasn't ready to do that. It's amazing how something you learn by age 2 sticks with you no matter how drunk you get. She was about to pull up the soaked pants when I realized I had to stop her.

I pulled them off over her bare feet. I approached over her shoulder, so I could look at the floor as I did it. A delicate operation.

Jane seemed slightly puzzled, but only slightly, like she was trying very hard to make sense of things and this was not much stranger to her than anything else that was happening. I carefully told her the pants were wet so she shouldn't wear them. "Oh. OK." I guess it made sense to her not to put on wet pants.

I got her up and wrapped a towel around her waist. Somehow I held that on with one hand and used the other arm to steady her, and we got her back to her bedroom wearing shirt and towel. I felt bad for her. What would she do without me?

I rolled her down onto the bed, and covered her up to the shoulders with the sheet. There, at least she was decent. She deserved that.

She rolled on her side, and she was lying there moaning. "I don't feel good. I don't feel good."

I'm sure she didn't feel good. But I had got her down, and she was probably done emitting fluids and was ready to sleep. Done. My adrenaline rush was spent. I felt exhausted. I got my shoes off and lay down on my back next to her, on top of the sheets, just for a minute. It was a warm night. I listened to her moan. She was facing away from me, so I was almost alone with my thoughts.

I still felt like I shouldn't just leave her there. I also started wondering whether I could make it the ten blocks to my apartment. While I was thinking about these things I fell asleep.

Look, kids. There is a time when you should call 911 and let a fully conscious health care professional tell you whether the drunken person is going to recover. All too often when you are in this situation, you are not capable of thinking things through. Such was my state. I am not sure I did the right thing. I thought I was being so helpful. Maybe I did not do enough. I got away with it, but maybe you won't, if this happens to you.

The next thing I knew, daylight was coming in through the window. I was lying on a bed in a room I had never seen before. Next to me was the back of a girl's head, most of her under the sheet. My muscles all tensed. Then I remembered.

The light must have hit her face right after it hit mine.

"Uhhhh", she said slowly, starting to move. Then she realized I was right next to her. Then she realized she had only a shirt on.

"What did you do to me? You bleeping bleep! I thought you were nice!" She dropped into a loud whisper as she said it, as if the sound of her voice made her head hurt. She wasn't really saying bleep either.

I just lay there looking at the ceiling with my head near hers. When she stopped I quietly told her what I remembered. All of it. "No!" she sighed, a few times, especially for that last thing she did.

"And if you think you're all right now, I'd like to go home." I thought this would be a gracious exit. Before she threw me out.

"Yes, I'm going to be all right. You can go. I have to get up..." and she laughed just slightly. I knew what she needed to do. "You don't need to be there this time."

I glanced at her and we shared just that awkward moment of twisted humor.

"Actually I need to go too. But you can go first."

"Then would you please take my pajama pants off the floor and give them to me, and turn around."

What? She was right. They were right there next to the bed. I must have been pretty out of it myself. I hadn't seen them.

Once we had both micturated, separately, I took my leave.

"See you."

"Uhhhh... yeah." She seemed pretty uncertain about the idea.

I walked down Broadway still in my clothes from the day before, acting as if I was just walking down Broadway. I don't think anyone noticed anything.

When I got back to our apartment, Mary was sitting in the little kitchen sipping tea.

"What is this? Are you OK? You didn't call or anything."

"Sorry. I was a little out of it. I slept in somebody's apartment." That's all I told her.

I don't know what Mary thought happened. Our weird relationship was in its last weeks anyway.

I discovered I still had Jane's address card in my pocket. Jane seemed to be avoiding me the next day we worked, but I found her and handed it back to her.

"It's a secret." I figured that's what was bothering her.

"Oh. Yeah, OK." There was something half-hearted about it, as if she had something to add, but that was all she said.

Other than this, Jane and I only nodded to each other at work for the next few days. No talking. Then I didn't see her for a couple of days, and then someone told me the reason she wasn't there was that she'd taken a job in one of the other libraries. I guessed it was too weird acting like nothing happened.

The next time I saw Jane was months later, at the library Christmas party. I wasn't sure what to say, but as I moved across the room to her, she nodded toward the door, and we went out and down the hallway. She wanted to talk now.

"I don't think I ever said thank you. I'm glad you helped me out. I sure was in a state, wasn't I?"

"You could say that. It was pretty weird. Anyway, I kept it to myself, OK?"

"Oh, don't worry about it. Look, a while ago, with my friends, we were talking about crazy things we've done, and I had the best story. They thought it was hilarious, what happened."

"What? Really?"

"Yeah. Come on. It's a good story for you too. I bet nobody believes you."

And that was it. It didn't need to be a secret. What a different kind of person she was than me. And she must have thought the same in reverse.

I saw Jane around a few times after that, but we never went out for a drink.

Next time: Doune.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Twenty Ten


It's Twenty Ten!


The Summer of '69 story played out almost in real time, didn't it? It was nice to think about hot weather.

You might have noticed that I could work a few weeks after Labor Day before going off to college. The old Columbia academic calendar had classes starting the last week of September. At Christmas break, we weren't done with the semester yet. We still had term papers hanging over our heads, and we had to keep course content fresh in our brains for the final exams we'd be doing a couple of weeks after classes resumed.

After exams there was a useless intersession break at the end of January that cruelly mocked our inability to relax and let go back when we wanted to, a month earlier. The end of January: hey, time for some fun! Let's go outside and freeze! It's the second-coldest week of the year in New York, according to this page. And if it's on the web it must be true.


In Days of Peace and Music I mentioned getting some Crosby, Stills and Nash CDs. Megan was home the weekend the box came in the mail.

"What did you get in the box?"

"Some CDs."

"Who buys CDs? Download!"

Oh, she's right. Yet another recording medium is on its way to the antique shops. Long players and 45 singles were just coming into their own during my childhood. I saw eight-track and cassettes come and go. And now CDs.

My excuse to Megan was that I wanted to get the art and informative booklets, but that was weak. It's just habit. I still have the LP sleeves if I want to see CSN album art the way it was intended, and some of the CDs I got had only the same old art and notes reproduced in a size reminiscent of microfiche. (And there's an antique medium for you.)

But there was something I'd wanted to do years ago that was now practical to do, thanks to the digital age. I could catch up on Crosby and Nash recordings with their previous bands. I had picked up all of Buffalo Springfield long ago, so I had Stills and Young covered. I like Neil Young. If I want to hear something loud, that is where I usually go. Ragged Glory— whoa! Listening to things like that at the volume level God and Neil intended are the reason I can't always hear you. Huh? What's that? I just saw him doing a great acoustic "Long May You Run" on Conan's last Tonight show.

The Byrds and the Hollies were little known to me outside of what I could remember hearing on the radio. I read many web pages to find out which songs particularly featured Crosby or Nash, and which ones fans and others thought were the good ones. And then, I bought the digital songs, picking selected tracks from what would have been a whole pile of original albums. OK, Megan? I got about twenty tracks.

The Byrds songs Crosby co-wrote weren't a big surprise. I expected the spacey laid-back sound, the McGuinn twelve-string all over, and somewhat CSN-like harmonies with Crosby in the mix. They sound really good. The band played beautifully and the recording is excellent. The number of distinctly Crosby songs is small though. The well-known "Eight Miles High" was in his box set of a few years ago, but fans on the web ridicule its inclusion because he contributed just a little to it. After all the band tossed him for being too full of himself. Two good ones with Crosby solo vocal: "What's Happening?!?!" and "Everybody's Been Burned".

But never mind the Byrds. The Hollies were a revelation!

Wait, I have to admit the engineering sucks. Stereo mixes from hell. They almost outdo the stereo mixes for the first Buffalo Springfield LP, which are so bad that Neil Young allowed only the marginally less awful mono mixes into the BS box set.

I grabbed about a dozen Hollies tracks and loaded them into Sound Studio one by one. I was able to fix some of the worst offences. I wish I could share them but I am not allowed. (Why is something forty years old still protected? That's crazy. I'll save it for another rant.)

"When Your Light's Turned On" has a great British Invasion electric guitar band all in the left channel and the vocals all in the right. What is this, a twintrack from 1963? (See Please Please Me.) No, it was 1967. What was the engineer thinking when he recorded this? We'll never ever want to release this in stereo? You can't undo that but you can make it a little less harsh on the ears. Reduce the left channel volume in the intro and break so that it's consistent with the rest of the song ; boost low frequencies to give it some punch ; reduce volume on the right channel. (Close listening shows that the lead guitar is on a separate track, probably because Tony Hicks played both rhythm and lead, so theoretically you could mix this with vocal center and lead guitar right if you had the master tape. It would be a little better.)

And "King Midas in Reverse". It seems to be a three-track recording. Band, vocal, string section. The string section doesn't start until after verse 1. So how would you mix it? I'll tell you what their engineer did. Band left, vocal right, and then when the strings are about to come in, suddenly toss the vocal to the center, and put the strings on the right ; and make the pre-strings section louder to maintain the same volume level as the rest (even thought it was played quieter!). Oy. In the section before that change, first drop the volume level in both channels, listening to the left channel and getting the band level consistent across the change. Then guess the correct level for the right channel, set it, copy it, and mix it into the left. That'll definitely center the vocal, but you'll need to listen to the vocal across the change to see if you got the level right. I got it on the second try. It's not as hard as it might sound.

The copy of "Maker" I got has the left channel louder than the right, and the vocal is toward the left. I was suspicious. If you reduce the left and raise the right until the vocal reaches the center, then everything sounds good. In fact the right channel peaks higher than the left, but it's those Indian instruments ; notice the Western music interludes peak very equally. How did this get to release so unbalanced? This isn't rocket science.

If you will overlook the technical shortcomings and focus on the music, this is great stuff.

These are my picks. It's less than a dollar a download, you know. Many are available in both mono and stereo, and not always labelled, so check what you're getting.

On a Carousel
Carrie Anne
When Your Light's Turned On
Stop Right There
King Midas in Reverse
Everything Is Sunshine

We've got Allan Clarke, the Hollies' usual lead singer, taking parts of "Carrie Anne" and "When Your Light's Turned On", and even guitarist Tony Hicks singing verse 2 of "Carrie Anne". "Carrie Anne" is the one I remember, or at least its chorus of Nash voices. I did not remember things like the alternate chorus intro and the steel drum instrumental break. Did you? The other songs are not quite typical Hollies, because they're all Nash lead vocals.

The three band members credited their compositions Clarke-Hicks-Nash, but from what Graham Nash and others have said, the last six up there are mostly or entirely by Nash. Like his songs for CSN, some are fun and lightweight, and others have some real feeling to them. And all are damned catchy. They were stuck in my head after a few listenings. Look out!

That's the cover art for the Hollies' Evolution LP, released in Britain in June 1967. Photo by Karl Ferris, with fashions and artwork by Simon Posthuma and Marijke Koger a/k/a The Fool. Said to be the first psychedelic album cover, soon followed by Ferris's photographs on several Jimi Hendrix albums and Donovan's Gift from a Flower to a Garden. Graham Nash, a supporter of Ferris's work, produced The Fool's LP in 1968. The American cover, which was used for the CD reissue, has the same photograph, but replaces The Fool's stylish lettering at the bottom with amateurish lettering at the top and the crass note FEATURING CARRIE-ANNE (sic).


It used to be annoying to collect rare tracks. I remember the Kinks were a trial. Even in Britain many of their songs were only issued on singles and EPs, but in the US some were not available at all. The preoccupied staff at their American label, who compiled new albums out of the British material, got so confused that they not only never released some songs but also put one song on two LPs. One thing I was doing in those Greenwich Village shops I mentioned in Truth and Soul was looking for British budget-label LPs that collected a mixture of hits and rare tracks. I didn't have a master discography, so for a while it seemed like there was an endless supply of Kinks tracks I didn't know about. There was the excitement of the hunt. If I really persisted, I'd find something new once in a while. A couple of times I bought an LP for the sake of one song. At least LPs were still cheap then.

Now? The price of CDs is ridiculously high, but as Megan said, who buys CDs? If I want one track off this one and two tracks off that, I only need to buy downloads of those tracks. It's better for the consumer, and you know what, the Hollies got a couple of dollars from me that they would not have got. Everything is a single now.



Twenty Ten. It's not Two Thousand Ten. It's Twenty Ten.

We have to stop this Two Thousand thing we've been doing. Helen thinks it goes back to the movie 2001, which everyone called Two Thousand One. Maybe it does. Maybe the first year Two Thousand set the pattern. Maybe it sounded weird to say Twenty Oh One, up to Twenty Oh Nine.

But Twenty Ten, right? Now we don't have to stick the Oh in there, it's shorter to say Twenty. I'm hearing Twenty Ten on TV, not every time, but enough to make me believe it's in the style book. If they still have style books.

I said Two Thousand Ten the other day and wanted to rewind my life. It will take some discipline, but if we all do it, the world will say Twenty Ten.

I don't know why it's important to me.


New college story next week. It's complete in one part, but I'm not sure about it, so see whether it shows up.

Next time: Jane Doe.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Summer Ends

[The Summer of '69 stories start here.]

Summer ends.

College was coming. I was going to commute to Columbia College for first year. Terri was off to Northwestern. That's in Evanston, just north of Chicago. I had to ask where it was. (What was it northwest of?)

Clearly Terri would not be working at Schoolmaster. Neither would I. I could not say for sure how much work college would be, but people kept telling me it was more than high school. I thought it might not be wise to work weekends like Terri used to do when we were in high school. I told Sue and she was not surprised.

We saw Sue talking to a few students who came by. How she located them I no longer know. They were not familiar customers like I had been.

Last week of August, Nancy showed up. She must have been 16, going into junior year of high school. Two years' difference was a lot then. Blond hair, bangs, cute like a kid is cute.

We were going to be open Labor Day, the only Monday we opened, because it was the end of summer. I agreed to work it.

The day before, Terri sat with me on the porch to eat lunch, while Sue and Nancy were inside.

"I'm not here tomorrow," Terri said. I knew that. In the moment's silence following the sentence I knew what else she meant. She continued.

"This was a really nice summer. It was fun working with you."

"Yeah, I'm glad I took this job." But let's get to vital matter at hand. "Are you working next week?"

"No. I have to get ready to leave. This is it. Today."

"You didn't tell me!"

"I don't like goodbyes. Don't say it. I'm thinking about us having a good summer. Things we did here. It was good, right?"

"Yeah, it really was." I meant it. Pause.

"I wish we had gone into the city again. That was good. I'm glad we did that."

"Me too." My brain was going numb. "There's still Tuesday."

"No, I have to get packed and all. No time."

"I'll miss you, you know." I had to say it.

"Don't say it."

She was determined. We were going to go back in, work the afternoon like it was any other day, and walk out like it was any other day. That was what she wanted. I admit I had no better plan.

It seemed to me we should do something special, but I couldn't think of anything. I like to believe that if I'd known even the day before that this was her very last day, I would have done better. On the other hand I could see that Terri wanted to just make a break for it, walk out, and be done.

That's almost what she did. Sue saved the day. As soon as we closed, she made us stay for a couple of minutes. She said a few words about how good it had been working with Terri, and gave Terri an envelope with something in it. She gave Terri a big hug, and Nancy who'd been there for five days gave Terri a hug, and so, what else could I do? I gave Terri a hug. It was weird. She was a thin thing and I could feel her ribs on her back. Right, that's my big memory there.

"OK, I have to go." Terri did not say goodbye. She gave us a little wave and turned and walked out quickly. I glanced at Sue, who shook her head slightly, like, let her go. I could hear a car leave outside a minute later.

I walked home with my throat feeling a little tight. That was something new. It was the summer of change. I acted normal when I got home. I mean for me.

I worked three weeks more, with Nancy on the weekends. I showed her how to do things. I took her down to the Post Office. Everything reminded me of learning the same things myself only a few months earlier. Nancy seemed about as happy as I had been, too.

And then I was off to college.

I had a plan though. Even though Terri and I had never gone to each other's houses, I knew where she lived. Sue had our addresses and phone numbers on a paper pinned to the wall next to her desk in the office. I had written down where Terri lived and found it on a map.

On Thanksgiving, I went out for a walk. A two-mile walk, each way, which I figured I could manage. What I was going to do when I got there was not actually in this fine plan. I mean, I had no idea.

Anyway things did not reach that critical point. I found the house, but it was dark and there were no cars in the driveway. I had not considered the possibility that Terri and her family might be away visiting relatives somewhere else. Oh well. Best laid plans.

Nothing to do then. I walked back. I was out for about an hour. Did I have a good walk? Yes I told everyone I had a good walk. At least Christmas break was only a month away.

On Saturday I decided to go to Schoolmaster Books. I hadn't gone for a couple of months, not since I quit. I really was busy with school now, but I still could have gone. I just didn't.

Nancy was at the counter. "Hey, Joe, good to see you." She was pretty damned perky, that kid. There was a thing she did with her eyes that made them sparkle for a moment, and she gave me a shot of it. Yeah, college dude and high school junior, you're thinking of things. Didn't happen.

"At least you're still around," she continued.

"You mean Terri? I haven't seen her." I said it as if I'd been in touch with her regularly.

"Oh, I didn't expect her to come back just to see us," Nancy said. This was getting mysterious. Terri had worked with Sue for a couple of years.

"Why not?"

"Well, you know, it's a long way from Chicago." She grinned and said it as if I was teasing her and she was playing along.

"Yeah, but I thought when she came home to see her family, she might come by here."

"Mmmmmm...." Nancy crinkled her forehead and looked sideways and down. She and I realized that I didn't know something important. Out with it. "They moved to Chicago."

Holy Jesus! That's why the house was dark!

"She didn't tell you? That's odd." Even the kid thought it was odd. Terri told her and not me? Or maybe Sue knew and told Nancy. Oh forget it. It didn't matter how Nancy knew.

I said something to Nancy, I don't know what. I was stunned. I had just felt that kick in the gut that reality sometimes has waiting for you. You know the one. What the hell?

Terri really did not say goodbye. As in, I will probably never see you again, goodbye. No wonder she needed time to pack. She had to pack everything.

I walked home slowly. There were kids running around playing football on the Grammar School grounds. I looked at the graffiti under the highway bridge, and at the cracks in the sidewalk, and at the shapes of the trees along the street. I stopped at the top of the hill near my house and listened to the distant sound of the cars on the parkway. I watched little birds picking at the ground near the road. I went down the grade and around to my parents' house. I didn't say anything about Terri.


The illustrations are by an anonymous artist, possibly Marie Honore Myers, from two small books: Each in His Own Tongue by William Herbert Carruth, published by Wise-Parslow, New York, 1925, and Just You by Elizabeth Gordon, published by Algonquin Publishing, New York, 1925, both credited to the P F Volland Company.

Next time: Twenty Ten.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Days of Peace and Music

[The Summer of '69 stories start here.]

"They really were swimming naked."

Terri was looking at the Village Voice number with coverage of the Woodstock Music and Art Fair. The papers had mentioned something about the swimming and the mud, but it took the Voice to give us a wide shot of a pond with small figures in it, in blurry black ink on newsprint. We wouldn't have done that. Right?

Terri and I were working away in a used book shop while all this went on, but we had been following the incredulous news reports about hundreds of thousands of young people like us camped out in a farm field in some remote place upstate. Even if it had gone as planned, with far fewer people and organized crowd control, the festival had sounded to me like an experience I would not want to endure, regardless of the excellent lineup of bands they had. There you go.

What person of my age group would admit today that they didn't feel like going to a thing like Woodstock? Maybe I'm the one. Now, I'm sorry I missed it, but then, I didn't even try to go. Imagine if Terri had said we should go and she'd drive us there, and Sue had been kind enough to allow us a few days away on a hot August weekend. We'd have been up there sliding in the mud and getting high on the atmosphere, and doing whatever else we would have done. We'd have come back with stories to tell our kids, if our memories held out. (Oh! Maybe we did go and I forgot!)

Sometime before this I had made a suggestion about the radio. I found it was hard to listen to WABC longer than a few hours straight, the way they repeated the same songs. I had made a hit with Terri by bringing in the Voice so I thought maybe she'd go for this too.

"Could we listen to something else sometimes?" There, I took a stand.

"Yeah. What do you listen to?" See, she gave me an opening. This was going great.

"Try 102.7 FM, WNEW." I was only asking her to try it. That's not too demanding, right? How could she object?

was at its peak in 1969 under the able direction of Scott Muni. The playlists were based on albums, not singles, and on musical style and whatever appealed to the deejays. It was folk and rock, the same mix chosen by the promoters of Woodstock, New Yorkers who may very well have been WNEW-FM listeners themselves.

So we were both familiar with the Woodstock artists. The deejays were somehow getting set lists of what was being performed, and played the records of those songs. No mean feat in 1969, with no cell phones and hardly any traffic moving in and out of the area. Or am I wrong? Maybe they just knew which artists were playing and giving us a best guess of what they would play, based on their usual set lists. That could be it.

Some of them, I never knew from owning the record myself, just from hearing them on the radio. Like Country Joe's "Fixin' to Die Rag". I can still run through the tune in my head, and here's the chorus, from memory. There's one short bit I can't remember. I know it's online and I could look it up. Go ahead. The point is, I can remember this much of it forty years later solely from radio play. He played this at Woodstock.

Well it's one two three,
what are we fightin' four?
[something] I don't give a damn.
The next stop is Vietnam.
And it's five six seven,
open up the Pearly Gates.
There ain't no time to wonder why.
Whoopee! We're all going to die!

That was the mood of us draft-bait boys. I had just been to the Draft Board in June when I turned 18, and got my 1H deferment by showing that I was going to college. I had a little paper Draft Card that I was supposed to carry with me at all times just in case someone from the government stopped me and wanted to take me away. It's not so theoretical when you've got that little paper in your wallet. That made it real. They weren't kidding about this. There were a group of old people in a little wood-panelled room in Spring Valley who'd be perfectly willing to send me off to the jungles. In four years I was going to be 1A.

Want to do something about adventurism in Afghanistan and Iraq? Bring back the draft. It changes people's priorities. Most people would start asking what the goal is and how what we're doing gets us there. I hated the draft, but it has that going for it. And don't exempt college kids this time. That'll take care of things.

I wish I weighed 141 now. But I'm taller. Oh, that schoolboy signature.

Wow, that got off track. Just some 1969 coming back to me.

Scott Muni was a big British invasion fan, and had a show himself on Sundays that counted down the British chart. It was more similar to the American chart then than it is now, but there were still some interesting differences.

Some of you know I was a sixties Bee Gees fan. Should they have been at Woodstock? Maybe not. Anyway at the time they barely existed, with Robin Gibb in this corner and Barry and Maurice Gibb as a duo in that one. Neither had a tour band together so it wasn't even an issue. But both camps had English number 2 records that July and August. They were kept out of number 1 by the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman". I was sure that their singles were not even released in America, but they were ; they just didn't chart. I liked the intro to Robin's "Saved by the Bell", a piano note followed a huge orchestral flourish, before it settles down to its weird arrangement of guitar and beat box accompanied by orchestra. It was probably the first pop hit with an electronic beat. Oh OK, "Honky Tonk Woman" had a killer opening too, cowbell and drums into staccato guitars. I am not complaining about it doing well.

Off track again. Sorry.

One of the big things that summer on WNEW-FM was the Crosby, Stills and Nash album. I think they played every song on it including the seven-minute "Suite: Judy Blue Eyes". Terri and I turned up the sound a little if we were near the radio.

I've just now been inspired to get their stuff on CD for the first time, prompted by a gift card from Christmas. Helen saw what I took out of the box that came in the mail, and told me how familiar the CSN album looked, because her younger sister played it all the time. Well, so did I.

Somehow I'd missed all three of them up to this point: Crosby in the Byrds, Stills in Buffalo Springfield, Nash in the Hollies (not even him, with all my Brit Pop leanings). CSN hit people like me full force. Great songs, harmony singing, acoustic guitar. It sounded very fresh.

Interesting about the acoustic guitar: listening to the songs now for the first time in quite a while, I realize how much electric guitar Stills played on there. It might be an example of how the first song in a set influences your perception of the rest. Sometime I might try to write about programming albums, almost a dying art in the age of downloads. I've never seen anything written about it except stray comments here and there. Arif Mardin once told me how he did it, and that's a hell of a name drop, isn't it? But once again, I digress.

I think I'm avoiding something.

Guinnevere had green eyes
like yours, mi'lady, like yours,
when she'd walk down through the garden
in the morning after it rained.

Helplessly hoping, her harlequin hovers nearby
awaiting a word.
Gasping at glimpses of gentle true spirit he runs,
wishing he could fly.

If you smile at me I will understand,
'cause that is something
everybody everywhere does in the same language.

CSN were at Woodstock, with new member Neil Young. That was confusing. We'd had only about two months to get used to them and they were already morphing into a new group. See, I liked things to stay the same. The Beatles had been around forever, right? That's what I wanted. Boy, I was going to be in for some news six months later.

Back to the pond.

"Well, they didn't bring bathing suits. And they must've gotten all sweaty, being out in the sun all day." I tried to be logical, ignoring the scary part of it. It was pretty hot outside where we were.

"I know..." She dragged it out. She was looking at the picture and seemed to be considering that situation.

"How hot and awful would you have to get, to do that?" I felt like I was really pushing the limits here, but hey, she started it. I wouldn't be able to answer the same question. I didn't even like to wear shorts at that time.

"I don't know. People could see me." She looked down at the floor. I think she was still considering, or maybe she was getting embarrassed. I let it drop.

I guess we should have gone. Then we'd have learned what our limits were.

Next time: Summer Ends.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Truth and Soul

[The Summer of '69 stories start here.]

As I recall, it happened during a quiet moment on the job on a sunny afternoon, in the front room of Schoolmaster Books. It might really have been in an upstairs room on a busy day during a thunderstorm, but that's not how I recall it, so I'm telling you, it was sunny, a quiet moment, and the front room. That's when, right there, in plain English, Terri asked me a simple question.

"Can we go to the city next week?"

She took a chance on me saying yes. My heart jumped, but I managed to say it.

Going to New York was a mysterious process. There were no bus stations, and the few stops in our area that were marked had no schedule information. You'd have to determine the name of the bus company, maybe by looking at the side of a bus if you happened to see one go by, and then make a phone call and be prepared to write down times.

And transportation planners wondered why bus usage was not greater.

Your best bet was to find someone who already took the bus and see what they knew. Maybe they'd even have picked up a printed schedule at the George Washington Bridge Bus Terminal, and maybe they'd share it.

And of course, even better, maybe your friend with the inside knowledge would want to come with you.

"Uuuuuuuh, sure. What do you want to do?"

My reaction time to new things was always delayed. I probably sounded like I was suspicious. But really I was just lost at sea, having had a whole new idea suddenly thrown at me. I cannot explain my younger self any better than this.

"I want to see a movie that's only playing in the city." See? She was hedging too, not naming it right away. Maybe it was my tentative reaction. I was probably hard to figure out.

"Oh. What is it?" Today I would be saying with some enthusiasm "Great! What is it?" even if I had no idea what was coming. Who cares, you idiot? Trust her judgement. Go see a movie.

"Putney Swope."

I gave her a conspiratorial look. I knew what it was, because we'd read the review in the Voice a few weeks earlier and told each other it sounded crazy. "You want to go see it?"

"Yeah..." Her voice trailed off. She grinned.

This was going to be a really rebellious act. I want to give younger self credit for going along with it. I was in some way scared of a movie like this.

The review made me think it would be like Mad magazine on film, mocking advertising mercilessly with improbable television commercials made by an agency whose board had accidentally elected their token black member to leadership. The commercials sounded promising, and a race relations satire would be pretty hip. But the movie would contain what we used to call "language". Not only that, but we'd be seeing some nipples. Holy crap! Not for the innocent!

The authorities might raid the place! Our morals would be corrupted! We'd have to spend a few extra weeks in Purgatory for this! This would go on our permanent records! Do you hear me? There would be unimaginable repercussions! I said unimaginable. Don't try to imagine them. Would they even let us buy tickets?

This turned out to be the coolest thing I did all summer.

The two of us were going to sneak down to the city and do something really bad together. Watch a movie.

I got the playing times from the Daily News. I wrote them down when no one was looking, and the address of the theater. I remember it was on the East Side, and the trusty New York Times online tells me, when I look it up now, that it was the Cinema II, still in business at Third and 60th.

I did not say anything special to my parents. I went to the city every week anyway. Terri must have told her parents she was going to New York with somebody, but beyond that it's a mystery to me what she said to them. Maybe she told me.

We met at the bus stop in the middle of town, where two bus routes were available to us, and we could take whichever showed up first.

In the immortal words of Tom in The Norman Conquests, Terri was "wearing a thing". Either a skirt or dress, I forget, but one of the two. It was the start of August after all. It was just that in the shop she wore clothes that could get dusty. This was nicer.

The A train down to 42nd and Eighth, and the E back up and across to 53rd and Third, and walk. That's probably what we did. There are pictures online of the types of railcars that were in use. The A had the "new" R 10 cars from 1948, and the E had its original cars from the 1930s. They had the plastic rattan seats and the big fans on the ceiling, and ran in the summer with windows down and the end doors open between cars to let in a rush of air. No air conditioning. You could smell the iron tang of steel dust in your hair afterwards. The motors made a satisfying rrrrr sound that stirs memories in veteran subway riders. To be heard over the roar coming in the open windows, you had to shout or talk right in someone's ear. We tried the latter. It was a more sensory experience than the trains they have now. (cough cough)

We arrived early for the first showing, around noon. We looked at some shop windows to kill time and then went in.

I have not seen Putney Swope since 1969. I remember that it was awkward in places but pretty funny in others. We enjoyed the whole experience, and I don't think our morals were too corrupted. They were corrupted just enough.

The review had named the filmmaker as if the reader would know his work, but I didn't. Looking it up now, I find that it was Robert Downey, not yet known as "Senior", since his now-famous son was still just a little kid. He made other low-budget independent films that I have never seen.

Most of Putney Swope is in black and white, but the commercials are in color. One hidden meaning is that color stock costs more.

Here's the opening sequence. This shows you how there's something a little off in the pacing or direction. Maybe everyone.. speaks.. too precisely.. one phrase.. at a time.. while the other actors wait their turn. Is that what's wrong? Or is it just slow? Anyway this is the setup for the rest of the film, so take a look.


Here are two commercials. NSFW!

Face Off was a pretty ordinary client, a pimple cream. The interracial couple would have been controversial in 1969, even if they did meet at the Yale-Howard game (was there ever a Yale-Howard game?). That wasn't enough for the Truth and Soul agency. (This clip starts with part of another commercial ; the Face Off pitch starts with the ducks swimming.)

Face Off

Lucky Airlines promised that one passenger per flight would get lucky. Truth and Soul made sure you understood that. Watch till the end where a dashiki-clad agency man tells Swope that in his opinion these commercials are tasteless. That man was making the most subversive point of the film. In 1969 some starry-eyed revolutionaries thought that if the old white men were no longer in charge, things would be different. Downey said what Pete Townshend would say two years later: meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Lucky Airlines

It might have been a little weird for us to see that together. But we didn't need to talk about the details afterwards.

We came out of the inky blackness of the cinema into bright daylight, more or less proud of ourselves. We'd done it.

Now what?

It's a little vague to me now. We ate something somewhere cheap. Terri wanted to go to the Village and look at the record shops I knew, so we must have gone down on the Lex to Astor Place. My memory mixes up the rounds I did for more than a dozen years, but it would be something like this : the tiny import and genre shops in St Marks Place ; those two upper storefronts on West Eighth (was Revolver Records there yet?) ; that place on McDougal ; the two on Bleecker west of Sixth ; and the one in the basement in the little street off Bleecker. I think we each got something, but I wonder now what we got.

I picked up a Voice too, but Terri either didn't want to drop 15 cents for a second one or didn't want to bring it home. So I took one, and I let her look at it on the A train and the bus.

It was a wonderful day out. We were tired from the heat and the walking around. She leaned on me a little on the bus. Not a big deal, but it was a big deal.

She drove an old car, and she'd driven it to town rather than pick up the bus two miles up the road, just to meet me at the stop. She offered me a ride home, and I told her where to leave me at the end of my street. I don't know why I did that, but it seemed to make sense to her too. We thanked each other very much for a great time.

And that was it.

Next time: Days of Peace and Music