Saturday, October 26, 2013


  hey folks

to the people I originally linked this out to on an email chain

the reason I wanted to do this blog thing was to practice writing again AND to get advice, feedback

not from the greater world or strangers (and God bless you strangers) but to hear you

guys say "Yeah that works" or "No that's a mess" because you are people as writers and thinkers who I


so if you have the time….and one of these strikes you, please, the whole point was not to get an internet

audience or to get flattery, which is nice sure, but the opposite…..critique me if it bothers you or

seems ineffective. (Matt I thank you for doing that recently) Im not trying to goad people into response

but to say "Don't worry i can take it. " I woulda kept it in my diary if I couldn't.

 much love


Thursday, October 24, 2013

It's not even past.

   The A train's a long ride thru Brooklyn. We're a ways from the mythic express to "Sugar Hill up in Harlem". A subway with an anthem, written by a kid from Pittsburgh. The reality is; you wait. It's a workmen's train. A student teacher's train. A feeder line from deepest Brooklyn into downtown. Brooklyn. Much less Manhattan. Alas, you must take it.
   Some wheelmen aren't so subtle with the brakes. There's an art to releasing them as you lay on the power. Time it wrong and it's like a blown shift. The train bites forward. It jumps, you jump. And curse.
  My mother told me her uncle would sit by the window of his train on their trips across the country into the great Western mountains and he'd stand a spoon in an empty glass. When the spoon rattled more than he cared for he'd start counting, wait for the next mile marker and then jot down the number.
  The next day men would reballast the spot.
  My great uncle, grand uncle I suppose, ran a railroad. How odd.
  I've seen home movies of him sitting by that very window looking very continental in his black blazer and black shirt, a strange Tuscan cast to this Philadelphian power broker.
  He died in 1960. 7 years before I was born. My mother's uncle. The railroad halted operation for three minutes in his honor. I suppose when you invent standard time you get to suspend it. 
  My mother also remembers as a five year old being told by her great grandmother that as a five year old she remembered meeting Confederate soldiers the family used to hide in the basement coming thru the back door of their Alexandria home and pausing in the kitchen.
  1863. My mother tells me this in 1993. Three voices. Three people speak to each other and 130 years pass.
  I was walking down the stairs of my best friend's fifth floor walk up when I noticed that the steel framing for the stairs was bare. It had never been covered or painted over. I followed one of the I-beams back for a few feet and upside down in the middle of the span were the letters J&L.
  As anyone from Pittsburgh knows that's not J and L, that's J&L. Jones and Laughlin. One of the original industrial pillars of the town and nearly every building in Manhattan under 14 stories ( Lord knows why that number) was framed out with Pgh steel. Almost every one. Now I know this conceptually and I've walked up and down the 5 flights of Etsu's place for over a decade but when I put my mind to it, when I put my hand on it, and then walk out into the New York din and look about me, it's astonishing. I think of row after row of homes hung on the hills of Pittsburgh and the names…..the lists of men and women who came in waves to settle and work there and this is what they made. If I could strip away the walls and the brick and the paint and the doors of all of Manhattan and just see the gridded forest of their work. I sometimes wish for it.
  The past compresses, and leaps right into your lap. The riveter who fixed the ceiling of your NY subway stop lived half a mile from your childhood home 100 years ago. The woman who sat for the portrait in the foyer of the second floor galleries of Hartford athenaeum was buried in the earth in 1801 and yet …there's her smile. Those are her eyes. Whitman had it right. Chekov. Shakespeare. Those yet unbidden and unborn, hear us.
  I think it's a kind of a mortal sin that I can't remember every Christmas I've ever had. Toss out the first infant four and that's 41 days. 41 memories. Now I can remember 41 books. 41 lines of poetry is a laugh, something done in a day. 41 meals is easy, 41 women not even a question, but Xmas, one of the central rituals of my life I have left lost to busy memory. And they're literally in me, fixed in my brain and its wiring like buried crystals waiting for the water of I-should-give-a-greater-damn. But I didn't. I let them be mortal.
  So why do we? Why do we allow the cord to slip from the hand? Why let the loved one walk away? Why not speak out, write it down, remember it unmixed with baser matter?
  I can remember things Vronsky did in Anna Karenina more than I can remember all of junior year in college. I go to Gettysburg and walk around and I feel closer to their needs, those of these doomed men than my own the following day. Or the day before.
  I went to Trinity College once, not to Dublin where Swift and Beckett and Wilde went but to Hartford. Connecticut. Where not only does time forget, but no one remembers when time ever gave a damn. Birthplace of Colt Arms and the Insurance industry, the Scylla and Charybdis of American progress, this town gives new hope to backers of the Neutron Bomb. Evidence that if we dropped one it wouldn't be so bad. Business would carry on.
  My grandfather and great grandfather on my mother's side went to Trinity. I thought I owed it to them both to walk the campus. And a woman I'd loved madly and stupidly had gone as well. Something had to happen in the halls of trees that lead from the gate. And it did. They were, two of whom I had never even met and the girl with her ice blue eyes, all around me. Like the groan of planes you think are in the soundtrack to a play you're watching but are simply planes flying over the theater. Or music scored in the film next door. You follow, it's lovely, but it's not your life.
  But anyone who thinks life has a soundtrack you get to choose is truly lost. To history.
  So maybe that's it…..I try not to try and remember because to me it's like always being your own DJ, always using the I-pod in the car, like you have any idea that you know what you really need to hear.

Friday, October 18, 2013

One teacher

  Bill Turley taught me calculus in High School. 14 years later he died watching the cooking channel. I was on the roof of a theater in San Francisco. I'd called a classmate to get my mind off the play and after a few minutes he realized I'd called just to shoot the breeze. "You know Turls died?" He hadn't shown up for his 9 am class, the boys shrugged it off, but after the 10am went by folks went looking. Found Bill on his couch, the tv still blaring. His pure bred bulldog so frantic she'd clawed a hole in his face. I used to think that was gruesome or unseemly to speak of but having stood and watched a few people die since then, if I had fewer brain cells or a fiercer instinct I could imagine tearing at my beloved's face to get them to wake up, to say something, to feed me.
  In Bill's last years which shouldn't have been his last years -he was 50, and his parents lived into their 90s- he started taking trains across country. To nowhere in particular. He just liked moving through the landscape. He liked sitting with complete strangers, sharing a meal, he liked the rhythm and the pace and what they had to say. Now mind you, this was not someone you'd call a people person. At first glance, well at any glance to call him formal would have fallen short of the mark. Robert E Lee not receiving a single demerit at West Point gives good example of Bill's aspect. For instance, though the previous sentence works on a casual level -let's call it a bloggish one-  Turl's would have nailed me for the mixed metaphor. "Ah David, calls and glances are not arrows and though they too may fall let us say on some Mark and not short of one."
  I woke up on a train from Pittsburgh to DC last week. A tiny sleeper room. All sliding doors on one side and a window on the other, the width of closet. A box of light bisected by a bed I could fold away. I woke up in the middle of the Appalachians, the Cumberland forest below the Mason Dixon, country both Bill and I could call home. Mist rose like steam out of the trees which at this elevation wore their full Fall colors. I'd left Pittsburgh in the dark. Rust, mass, hunkered hills and dark green. And now I was in some glowing summit dale. Even the mud looked bright and clean, a brown you'd be happy to wear you boots through.
  Bill and I wrote letters back and forth for about the last five years of his life. Letters with envelopes, on actual paper. Bill was a computer whiz and had no time for Luddites, he would have loved the internet I'm sure, but things had their place for him, their way. You could dress like a bum in his dorm, but when you walked in to his class you were at attention, he loved a good joke but if you laughed at someone's mistake you felt his wrath. Manners were not the code of a class to him, they were decencies, they were gestures of respect and the grace notes of civilization. "I don't wear this tie to impress you, David, I wear it because I take what we're doing here seriously."
  What we were doing at that moment was having lunch. Being friends. Listening to each other.
   In his letters he said he was going back to church. Sometimes. And then more regularly. He loved the hymns, English evensong and the matins, the vocal tradition of the Anglicans. I smiled because Bill had been raised a Southern Presbyterian, and his father a Baptist. I was the Anglican. He was saying he thought of me, that he remembered something about me which at the time I didn't even know I valued when he drove the 30 miles to the nearest Episcopal church.
   I don't know why it breaks my heart and at once make me smile when I think of Bill listening in a pew in some Gothic revival chapel with the regular ladies of that corner of Western PA glancing at him or in a diner car somewhere outside of Sheridan Wyoming hearing out the story of a miner headed West or a couple from Chicago whose love for trains happily hid the limits of their love for each other. I was elated that he was out in the world, putting his arms out to it and saying out loud, I like this.
   "Ah David surely two 'outs' is enough? Let us when we write follow Shakespeare and not.....the Yankees."
    Brief candle no doubt.
    And he mentioned a few times that he had met someone. Or that he was going to a particular church because of a particular person. And I thought this is what it means to feel the earth move, when one of your idols confesses to need. How divine.
    I suppose you can extrapolate that Bill was unique, that he was extraordinary, as sensitive as one of those machines that measure tremors in the earth ( Fitzgerald fans forgive me) brilliant in a way that hurt the eyes, that still does. I'm 3 years younger than Bill was when he died and I still shake my head as his references land, his gifts, his intentions. Seeded in me as boy, bearing fruit in a bookstore, or a concert, or an argument 30 years later. He was one of those teachers scores of men would swear their lives by, that could in gesture, in a phrase pull you out of the basement of your adolescence and make you want to dream. I could list the instances all day, Wildean epigrams; never ending, always good, he had the right words ready like Cyrano, they flew from him like birds.
   One example. I blew a test. A mid-sized quiz really. But I was strung on a wire in high school. My scores were my armor, my fuel, they got me from dorm to class, held me up from weekend to weekend. Without them rising I wept. So I'm a grown up now and an actor and I can still see as clearly as I can see Fonda in Grapes of Wrath, or Deniro in The Deer Hunter, I can see Bill Turley laying that quiz on my desk, the turn of his body, the light tension in his right hand, the timbre of his voice "Now don't despair David", everything he did to spare my feelings, or play them against themselves. It was masterful. A dance, a performance. The tiny breath of privacy as he spoke, the informal placement of the paper, the knowledge that something so small could be so colossal, both comical and profound and to transmit as much as he passed my desk one afternoon in the Fall of 1983....Genius.  Every day. 30 years. Hundreds of kids. He loved us and we loved him back.
   And I suppose you can garner that Bill was what we would now call "gay". That he was "closeted". That he had to "repress" something for most of his life. But I wonder is the spectrum of human happiness so manichean? Are our desires so simply plumbed they can be slaked like thirst?
   ( Oh Bill now I'm slaking some sorry...)
   We define ourselves by such weak machines, such indelicate meters. People spend their lives plumbing the depths (that's better) of a novel, one book, but rarely does anyone let their self, their soul have an equal measure. Whitman, Thoreau....what would they say.....I knew a man once who had what I think Leaves of Grass is praising, who felt in the world what Walden Pond says is in there.....had he lived among the Romantics they would have said he vibrated with song.....had he been a Jacobean he would have cast lightning on the day.....I guess he did, anyhow, in Saltsburg PA in the age of calculators and video tape, when phones still had booths and Berlin had a wall.
   I wake up on a train in damp forest rolling by, softly visiting the yards of the rich and poor as we fall toward Virginia and I think of my math teacher.....every trip is like this I suppose, even the crap ones... there'll be a place you want to posit someone, to see them set against the landscape and listen to them speak, what they would see and what they would tell you. Funny how we go all that way to find them.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013


    I live two blocks from a mosque. I don't know if it's Sunni or Shia but most days I hear one of the calls to prayer, at least.
    I had no idea they have names. All five, each of them phrased differently, sung in different patterns... melismas. What a word.
    I know next to nothing about Islam. But there have been times amidst the general din of Brooklyn, or sunk in the dull hum of daily entropy that I've heard the prayer and I can't put it any other way but I felt relief. I felt lucky.
   That there was this beat taken, this pause, this space made by the voice of someone saying 'In all this.... God's all there is."
   How you define God or Godliness is up to you but some presence of the divine or the divine in us is at base, I would argue, all there is.
   (That and of course economic equity based on a marxist model. But that's another story)
   I used to wonder how in the Hell anyone could be a scholar or a writer in New York. How do the Hasids survive here? How can you choose limits within such limitlessness?
   But it's really the opposite that's true. New York was made to harbor the peculiar and the intense, the zealot and the artist. It's the perfect place to turn your back on "all" because here you can imagine that this IS everything, that the universe has been packed down and put up to shop on a couple islands 8 miles wide. So once offered, once seen in a literal sense, the land commensurate to your capacity for wonder can be .....ignored.
  But that's a fatal dream as well....
   I came home one night, it must have been after 4 and as I was opening one of my three front doors the muezzin started his song. The fajr I think it was....after dawn but before the sunrise, the coming of the white light.....or maybe it wasn't that early and what I heard was the rarer Taraweeh, sung throughout Ramadan after midnight late into the dark. Coulda been. But this time the song wasn't quiet, it wasn't sliding under the din of the day, it was everywhere. The whole block in a mist of music, of prayer. My long street of nineteenth century brownstones built by Dutch sailors or Jews from eastern europe some of whom still owned them others held by Barbadian and Trinidadian families waiting for the coming Bobo a language I can't even break into verb or object , God is great, God is Greatest, a language of liquid poetry, Hasten to prayer, Hasten to success...
  I sat on the stoop and thought about a line from a Dawn Powell novel..."and why no rest house for the runners in this race.." Dawn Powell writing and writing for 40 years, her Cassat to Hemingway's Degas but without the fortune that kept Mary safe. Dawn Powell dead and her lover lets the city dump her in pauper's grave.....two years before I was born.
  Somebody pray for us.

Monday, October 7, 2013


   This is a true story I find hard to believe. What's odd about that is it happened to me, I was the of the players in the drama..... and I still don't buy it.
  In 1984, I spent a week in Saratoga Springs. It was spring break, but Spring was still Winter in upstate NY that year. The town was buried in snow, the temperature hovered in the twenties. It was glorious.
  My closest friend, the Neil Cassidy in my life, the Gatsby to my Nic, the Fin to my Gene, the Hall to my Oates, had lived there on and mostly off for most of his 18 years, back and forth between his father teaching at Skidmore and his mother searching for its HS equivalent from Texas to Pittsburgh.
   He was not a Steel town boy not by a long shot and he relished the difference. Artist, dancer, bon vivant, and boy about town, he was as close to fabulous as we were ever gonna get in Western PA. He was a piece of downtown NYC or what we'd later learn was happening in the Manchester club scene delivered to us by divorce. Mom got custody, dad got visits. We got Lowell.
   Anyhow he was divine - not a breath of fresh air but a window broken open for us self conscious snivelers from Scots Irish Pittsburgh to jump thru. He made us dance when dancing was standing by the stage and nodding to Skynyrd. He made us dress when boys got beaten for anything more than a tour shirt and jeans. He smoked cloves and spat out Reagan's name. When he walked down the street grown women followed him. When we talked about the Steelers he laughed. He hated lying.
   He was my idol in all things. I must have been unbearable.
   Junior year he asked me to visit him at his father's place. The deal was we could stay out as late as we wanted, we could drink as long as we didn't drive, and we had the run of the college his father had tenure in. All this as long as when we got home...whenever that was, staggering at 3 am... before we went to bed we wrote out the story of what we had done that night. His dad had a tax. You're free, I trust you...but you've got to tell the tale.
  And I can still see Lowell, hunched over a notepad in his father's kitchen scoring out the night's adventure.
   He showed me where Legs Diamond's famed casino had been. He showed me the track where the millionaires would be that summer, as every summer. He showed me where the stars of the NY ballet liked to stay and smoke when they were in town, summer as well, but I didn't care, I had Lowell what did I need with fantasy.
   We danced, we got thrown out of clubs, we walked home shirtless in the frozen daylight on a dare, we affected, we posed. We were kids waiting for someone to invite us home.
   And then I met Debbie, a friend from his childhood. As if he'd had one, as if he ever could have been little. His dad liked to remark that they'd taken baths together as children, Lowell joked it should happen again. She was beautiful as a clear day. She was dark and light and perfect and my heart cracked the second I saw her. Lowell saw and laughed. Two wholesome american kids he said deserve each other.
  I was a swimmer so she said let's go swimming sometime and we did, in Skidmore's pool, her in the lane to my right and drifting out of my turns I'd watch her body glide by turning to the surface wrapped in the medium, a perfect selky of a girl, unfathomable, simple, there. When we were done she rose up out the pool, shoulders shifting, water falling from her like a sheath of grace. What do they say? Beware the books you read at an impressionable age for they'll mold your mind for life? It's a legitimate question. What do I remember better; Charles on the stairs of Brideshead telling Julia, "I hope your heart will break, but I understand" or Debbie Butler rising from the sea of my imagination in Saratoga?
   I think we sat somewhere and talked. I remember that she didn't blink much or have a problem holding my gaze. We talked preciously about what we liked to study, where we wanted to travel, and cold war kids that we were we both said Eastern Europe, and of course college. Sometime later all three of us went out for ice cream at this new place, Ben and Jerry's, of which there were probably three at the time in the entire country, this in an old gas station and we thought, smart business. We walked. Lowell invented something he had to do and I actually asked her if I could kiss her goodbye and we did. Her lips strong on mine. Her eyes like dark precious stones, worlds hovering so close I couldn't bring them into focus.
  And then I went back to Pittsburgh and I never saw her again.
  The next year, Spring break of my senior year I was in Leningrad. I'd never left the country before. I'd never been on a plane. And then I was in Soviet Russia. At some point we'd broken away from our tour group and wandered over to the frozen gardens behind Peter's statue, the famous Bronze Horseman of Pushkin's story, that the Soviets protected during the War as if it were alive. Kids were building snowmen and throwing snowballs along a park walkway, tiny railings not two feet high covered in rime. We joined in, things escalated and a little girl's snowman got wounded by a cocky little Russian. I walked over knowing full well I was now the heroic foreigner, the good boy, and gathered some snow to heal the wound. I patted it better, she looked at me with that look men work their whole lives to find in a woman's eyes and in that high pitched sing song voice some Russian females have said "Spa see ba".
    "That was kind." English. He was my age, maybe a little older. His eyes were blue like people's are when they're hurt. They were so blue they looked like they hurt him. He had on the big fur hat and a long military overcoat. A student at the Admiralty, he said. A naval cadet. Would we like to come back to his apt for some tea and listen to music.
   Every time I read a Russian novel set in St Petersburg or Leningrad, every time they talk about the housing stock of the city, like that of Venice, left to rot and decay, battered and polluted by 70 years of war, famine, poverty, and indifference, in the 30 years since I entered this boy's flat I see it come back to life on every page. His 18th century rooms, cut from a stately home, they must have been the morning room or the one just off the foyer where you could leave your card from 2-4, the paint mottled like dying skin barely adhered to the walls, the lights run at illegible wattage, his bed a cot, and on his walls drawings tacked and unframed, pastels of some Blakean demon run riot thru the Russian psyche and I thought, we are not from the same place, he and I, we are not.
   But he was gracious and he certainly had guts- a military student inviting a trio of foreigners into his home during the Cold War. The tea he made had a jam in it I haven't tasted since. He brought the pot to a boil on a hot plate the size of a coaster. We looked at a map of the United States he had on his wall. Pins in it. Tiny pins. They were every American he'd met, they were their homes. One was stuck directly into the small city of Saratoga Springs NY.
   I was just there last year.
  Oh I met the most beautiful girl....she was on a school trip like yourselves...
   What was her name?
   Oh she had dark hair and such eyes.....
    Do you remember her name?
   Of course, are you mad, look here she wrote it down....
   And in some corner of Leningrad not far from the Hermitage, in March of 1985, 3 days before Gorbachev was installed as the General Secretary of the Soviet Union, setting in motion the beginning of the collapse of what we called the twentieth century, I met a guy who'd kissed the same girl, right on the same mouth, both of us lost beside those same eyes, in two cities 3000 miles apart.
    And then I left for Moscow by the night train and I never saw him again.
    I don't remember his name.
    Maybe there was more than one Debbie, in Saratoga Springs in the 80's.
    I don't know about you but I don't believe it.