Category Archives: Story
Last January 6th, The Feast of the Magi, which is also known as Epiphany or Little Christmas, my wife and I are guests of some people in Coventry, Rhode Island who get together each year to celebrate the Feast Day, and the end of the Christmas season.
Little Christmas is the name we gave it when I was a kid growing up in Kingsbridge, a part of The Bronx, the only place I know aside from The British Isles which is distinguished by the definite article in its name. I used to think Kingsbridge was a place filled with Catholics, Irish, Italians, a German or two and, even, maybe, someone not from one of those places. I loved it for a lot of things, and remember them all. But, my favorite memories were the smells from all the different kitchens, big ones, little ones, all kinds, ; which, I long believed, were all Catholic kitchens. Because, even though St. John’s, which was the church and school I went to, was right next door to a Protestant Church, I never ever saw anyone enter or leave that place. You are looking for a church to go to on a clear Sunday morning in Kingsbridge Fifty, sixty or so years ago, and you ask me or any of the guys I grew up with, and your will hear us all say, “St. John’s.” No one I knew knew of any others. Until I am about 14 I think the only kind of people there are are Catholics, and the only kind of food, no matter from where, is “Catholic” food.
Anyway, at the little thing in Coventry, a lovely name for a place, there were all kinds of folks. We got there early because we came down from Nashua, and grabbed a hotel room nearby, so we could stay a bit longer than a half hour before having to drive home in a snowstorm.
Our host and hostess are really nice people. She has her picture next to the word “homemaker” in the dictionary, even though she has a bunch of letters after her name, so the place was filled with lovely decorations in every room, more lights than Rockefeller Center and the smell of good old fashioned homemade, tried and true stuff wafting through the house from the kitchen and making me hungrier than a whale after a two thousand mile migration swim.
Thus it was that after the greetings and smiles and stuff, I grab a plate of good old food, pausing to let my nose enjoy itself, and wander into the room where the guys are sitting. An old Jimmy Cagney movie, one with George Raft looking like he had his hair painted on, was playing background noise…more or less…for the conversation going on; a conversation about baseball.
We were at this place last year, so I probably sit in the same spot where I sit now and listen to the baseball conversation; which conversation is probably the same one as last year’s was I began to think.
I am not at all complaining, because I find such conversations fascinating; conversations which I have listened to and sometimes taken part in in places from The Kingsbridge Tavern and Toolan’s in Marble Hill, to a place in Singapore called Raffle’s where I spent a few nights talking baseball with some cops from Australia a thousand years ago. They are probably all the same, generally, guys talking about players and teams, averages and plays, managers and pitchers, and balls and strikes. There’s a lot more of course, but that would fill a book. And has.
I sat and listened for about a half hour, talking a bit with one of the wives who wandered in and probably felt like she was on Mars. With her I do not talk about baseball, because, frankly, I am a little afraid I might not measure up. There are guys sitting beside me and standing around who can probably tell you the hand span of every manor league pitcher from 1898 until yesterday. My only claim to baseball history is I grew up in The City when Micky, Duke and Willy played there, and I saw Ted at bat. What he did and when he did it, though is lost in King Solomon’s mind.
I forget what I talk to the nice lady about, but she tells me she remembers me from the year before, and I am scared, because I draw a blank, like one of those old maps filled with empty spaces and bad guesses. I practice smiling, and punctuating her conversation with eyebrow raises and smiles and “Uh, huhs” and big nods while she talks about stuff. I get comfortable when she talks about the stuff on her plate, and what she likes about the spread.
Then she leaves and I go to the kitchen to fill my plate again. The kitchen is a place I like. It’s full of food. I cook, and can ask food questions; things I know about, like herbs, and spices and sauces and stuff. There’s one or two guys there mining this or that dish and I go over to them to talk the”game”. But, they know about what’s in front of them about as much as I know about pitching, or stealing a base. They can use a serving spoon though.
The hostess is there too, making sure no one lacks for anything, and she gives me a short tour of the “field”. I am happy for this, and try to ask a few questions about the things I see and how they got to be what they are. She is happy to answer, and for a few minutes we go on about ingredients, and what was handed down from who, and timing and staging. I feel like myself again, warming to the topic. But, then, the front door opens and another family tumbles in. the Woman of the House goes off to welcome them. I am alone among the pots and bowls and dishes; alone but for those two guys from the other room, now talking batting averages. They don’t even know I am there.
I look deep into the big bowl of mulled cider and see a darker mulled me looking back. Then I nod and wander out. You know, I think to myself as I wander into the parlor, which is nearly empty, and survey the Christmas Village spread across the top of the piano, I would love to have been a chef in a big deal place. I look down at the little town and remember those times I fed a crowd; when I made it to The Show.
There were a couple of times like when we had about a hundred over for burgers, dogs and games at the Upper Biscayne Clubhouse. They were great fun. But I remember, back in the ’80s, when I cooked a meal for a couple of hundred people a couple of times. It was a Seder celebration back when bunches of Catholics were getting in touch with their Jewish roots. I am on the Parish Council then, and since I have such fun doing a couple of big deals at the house, I think it would be even more fun to throw open the doors at the parish.
I make a connection with the banquet manager at the Park Plaza in Boston, and he introduces me to the Executive Chef. It is a highlight of my life when I meet him, and I regret I did not get his John Henry on a hambone or something. What I do get is twelve boned legs of lamb that look like beach balls, and the fixins’. All of this is gratis when I tell my friend upstairs in his banquet office it is for a church dinner.
It is from a top shelf hotel, so it is all top shelf stuff! I do not think to ask him for the china, silver and glassware but I wonder what would have happened. I mean they probably have freight cars full of that stuff. On the way home, back to the parish with a trunk full of the goods I feel sorry for it because it’s going on plastic.
The first thing I find out is that we never cook all of that stuff in the one chicken oven at the Parish. We need something on the order of a Bessemer furnace. God rest her soul, my friend Barbara Keegan, who should have been, could have been, a D.I. at Quantico, orders up the kitchen at Bishop Guertin High school, and we are good to go.
The day, when it comes, goes off without a hitch; well without too many of them. Barbra, now straightening out heaven’s kitchens, is on the lamb. I am up at the parish polishing the plastic, setting the tables, preparing. When the time comes I drive down there and remove six legs, place them in the back of the car and deliver them, like six pizzas, to the gathering wandering Israelites.
It is not too shabby, if memory serves. Some folks even eat the bitter herbs.
But, I find out one thing. Ham is a big deal in New England for Easter dinner. There are quite a lot of folks who never eat Lamb. This I cannot figure in a religion whose Savior is referred to as The Lamb of God.
My apple pie disappears, though. And the Charoset which I make at home the night before. I keep two of the beach balls and give four away. Easter dinner is big deal at our house that year.
I try the same thing once more, but, fewer people show up. The next year someone suggests ham, or even turkey.
And, I ask to be traded.
The photo above is of my grandson, Joe, getting ready to steal second. He’s twenty-one, soon, and a damned good cook.
I am upstairs in this new place we have down by the river, upstairs earlier today when the morning is almost the afternoon. We are at home for about two hours after the eight o’clock Mass where we provide the musical entertainment, and after that, we stop off at the house of Tom Bolton, a retired state trooper, who lives a few doors down from us with his wife Dee, and their two dogs, Lillian who is a well mannered Chocolate Lab approaching a dignified age, and Garda Siochana, a youngster who is learning her manners, slowly, very slowly. She just goes by the name of Garda, though. Tom’s son, who is also Tom Bolton, named her. It is probably because he is a Sergeant on the Nashua P.D., a pretty sharp cop who teaches at a local college and up at the State Police Academy. That, and the fact that they are Irish. Garda Siochana is the official Irish name of their national police force.
We bring them communion after Mass every Sunday because Tom has a motorcycle accident about ten years ago which almost kills him and leaves him not able to ride a motorcycle any more in addition to not being able to do much of anything else, including pee standing up. Motorcycles will do that to a person. It is a fact that my sister, Stephanie, does not come to my wedding in St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Sheila Marie Teresa Welby back on a nice summer day in July in New York City, at 11:00 sharp in the morning, because she is in the surgical ward at Bellevue Hospital. This is because she gets the big toe on her right foot cut off in the drive chain of the motorcycle owned by a friend of mine as they are about to come home from an evening celebrating that she will get the exclusive use of the bedroom that her brothers have now left.
We get the phone call near midnight, and my parents rush down to the hospital in a cab. I stay at home and keep vigil with my friend Tom Sheridan, and fill a garbage can with empty beer cans. Next day, after the ceremony and the reception, we begin our honeymoon with a visit to my sister in the hospital where Sheila delivers a piece of wedding cake and gives her the bouquet. And, as a direct result of that, I like to think, Stephanie marries Frank Morse a few years later who is a policeman in New York City, but is not attached to the motorcycle squad.
My friend Billy Chase, who we call Charming Billy, because he was just that, and has two blue eyes that don’t hurt the impression; two blue eyes like a soft summer sky, or a robin’s egg, and a voice like the feel of a cool silk pillow case on your cheek, was a cop for a few years in Watertown, which is a town next to Boston. It has an arsenal that becomes a mall; an updated example of swords becoming plowshares. One afternoon we are sitting in a car watching something that is supposed to happen not happen, and telling each other stories. This is a thing to do to pass the time, after you have discussed everything else. He tells me that when he is a rookie cop in Watertown he is riding with an older guy one night when a call comes in about a motorcycle which loses a fight with a telephone pole, and would they like to go over and make sure the pole is all right because nothing else is. And, when they get there they see that the motorcycle is scrap, and so is the guy who was riding it. Only the motorcycle has all of its parts, but the guy is missing one of his. The part missing is his head! And, every thing for a few yards all around is covered in the guy’s blood like a fire hydrant blew its top.
“Go find the head,” the old cop says to my friend. “I’ll stay here for the fire department, ambulance and the wrecker.” So Billy says he gets out of the car and goes off looking for the head which he does not find where he thought it would be. It is not anywhere in front of the headless guy for a few dozen yards, or on either side for a few yards this way or that way. He walks past his partner who throws him a questioning, “What’s up?” look from his seat in the car where he is sipping his coffee. Is a head that hard to find? And he starts looking down the street on both sides for the missing head.
Which head he finally locates about a hundred feet away on the other side of the street. Off the road. Under some guy’s boxwood hedge. Still wearing the helmet. “I found it” he yells. His partner motions him back to the motorcycle. When he gets there they talk, and wait. One guy sitting in the car drinking coffee. Billy leaning against it outside the car. The head is where it landed. The engine arrives and they leave, soon. No fire, no need. The ambulance comes next and two guys get out.
“Most of him is there,” Billy says pointing to the mess partly on the bike and partly not, staining the street and sidewalk. They walk a couple of feet. Make a few remarks. Then one of them says, “Where’s the head?” Billy,says, while he points down the block, “Back there about fifty feet under the hedge.”
The guy says, “Fly ball?” Billy looks at him. “Was it a fly ball or did it take a hop? Any brains or blood on the road along the way?” Billy says no. The guy’s partner says, “He fouled out, then.” The four guys laugh. The sanitation guys show up shortly and hose down the street after the dead guy and his head are bagged and taken to the ME for a medical ruling of death by fouling out.
Billy tells me this story again at least twenty years ago while we are drinking in a bar one night during some bullshit conference in Newport, which like most conferences is really an excuse to get drunk with your friends in a place where you are close enough to walk to a comfortable place to sleep. Only this time he has added the detail about the cause of death. Stories have a life of their own, I think.
When I am upstairs after bringing communion to Tom Bolton who, I swear to God, had his head sown back on his shoulders. I’ve seen the scar, and the tattoo he had put on his neck, a zipper. I think of the story again.
I get the book I went up to get and come back down here to read it. “Damon Runyon: A Life” by Jimmy Breslin. I always like a story by either of these guys. They were like farmers with the facts.
I never asked what happened to the helmet.
We need some structural work, and can’t find a good carpenter. We need the plumbing re-done; a new hookup to the sewer. Well, we need a sewer, because the leach field out back is poisoning the corn field down hill of it. Been that way for two years, and the public was supposed to do something. And, guess what, we can’t get a plumber, and the DPW don’t answer the phone anymore.
We need the road outside paved. That was promised years ago. And I think Jasper, the guy over on the other side of the hill? I think his pickup’s still in the hole where the road washed out last March. Ain’t no glass in the window, and the electric’s been out for six months since the creek took down the bridge and the feed from the power company. Killed most of the trout up and down for a mile till someone down there cut the switch to up here.
Ain’t got no phone. That went with the electric. The old man lost his job cause the bridge went out and he couldn’t get acrost the creek. Tried beaver and muskrat trapping, but he can’t get out in the water with no boots, which he gave up when he got work in the town, and the boat got crushed by the bridge fallin’.
Got no firewood. We was countin’ on Uncle Dan to deliver us a load, but last we talked, he said he can’t get enough for himself, and there ain’t no coal left since the mines was shut down.. Besides, creek’s to wild to walk it across since the damn cracked and flooded everything upstream last year.
But, what the hell. Winter’s still three or four months away. We don’t starve first, when it comes real strong we’ll freeze to death. That’s a good way to go. Painless, kinda easy, happy like.
Tommy, the oldest one, set out yesterday to walk across the mountain to see if there’s anythin’ them folks can do in North Valley. He took the last blanket, a cook pot and some coffee. Not much else.
If you’re readin’ this, we’re dead. Bury us upland of this place. We always like lookin’ at it, an’ hopin’.
It’s raining this morning. Raining cats and dogs. Earlier it was raining refrigerators, boxcars and horse drawn wagons; with horses attached. But, none of that stuff happened last night. Last night it rained home runs, big cheers and great joy! Great joy after deep gloom; the best kind to have. That’s the story of baseball, one of mankind’s greatest achievements along with a cold mug of suds and a fat sandwich, and kids who play the game with heart, so guys like me never have to grow old.
Here’s how it happened.
A BRIEF CAUTIONARY NOTE: The reader will be aware, I hope, all half dozen of you, that what I shall tell below is a story, not factually perfect. I took no notes, and I work from an overtaxed memory. But it’s a true story, believe me.
It all started a few days ago when the home town team, The Nashua Silver Knights, was scheduled to play The I Mavericks from Portsmouth, NH, in a three game series to see who would go up against the Western Division’s team for the 2016 Champeenship of the FCBL (Futures Collegiate Baseball League). We’ve had season tickets for several years now, and a season’s worth of ball games in the open air, with attendant beer drinking and hot dog eating and screaming at the umps, cheering for the good guys, costs about as much as a night down in Bean Town or a day at Fenway , is closer to home and better for the soul.
Anyway, our guys lost the first game. Actually it was stolen from them. But, like Mom always said, “There’s no use…”, right? And besides winning or losing, we knew we were better than “them”. So, like everyone in Brooklyn long, long ago, we headed for the next game, last night’s, up in Portsmouth at what I was led to believe was a nice place for a game, Leary Field; our hearts topped off with hope and swagger. We bought our own chairs with us, and I thought, “This is real!” as, after paying only three bucks, we wandered across the field with our folding seats, and jackets just in case. It was a beautiful night for baseball, a game of which makes every night more beautiful. But, nature had put on the Ritz for the game: clear sky, high clouds, a neat little park across from the library with church steeples and old houses and tree lined streets ringing the place, and a quarter moon crooning brightly in the light of the setting sun. I kept looking for Norman and his easel.
The game was late getting started, and I can’t remember thinking it was because of the crush of the crowd. Fewer than a hundred people were in the stands, or spread out along the chain link fence on the visitors’ side. I remember thinking that the ball park was a hitter’s paradise. It looked like a place for high school ball; no fence further than about 350′, and none higher than 7′. Compared to ours in Nashua, where Don Newcombe and Roy Campanella played, it was an orange crate to a mahogany chest.
Anyway, I couldn’t help remarking to one of their players, as we passed them by on the way in, “Good game last night.” He looked up from his stretches and said, “Thanks.” “You got lucky, ” I answered and walked on. It was going to be a serious night of ball.
The first three innings were a hitless, scoreless pitchers’ duel, lots of strikeouts, but, also something else. There were lots of terrible calls from the home plate umpire. By the end of the third inning, it was more than obvious that the bad calls on the other side were for balls instead of strikes, and on our side he called them the other way ’round. I know it’s not a good thing to hate anyone, but this fellow was the one exception where hatred was a virtue. Well, not “the one” exception. But, you know what I mean.
Striking everyone as odd, the first thing he did when coming out to the field was rearrange the batter box boundaries, a thing no one had ever seen before.
And so it went. We scored two runs on one hit in the fourth, and it seemed to me, and every other one of the folks with us that the ump was definitely favoring the other side. Yet even with a tenth player on their side, they couldn’t score. Our coach was visibly angry with the guy, and our own players were getting upset. One of our pitchers, the starter, came out in the middle of the fifth because he was too visibly upset to continue. The umps tactics had gotten to him.
The relief fared no better, and by the 7th inning the score had been tied. Then, they broke out in front, scoring three more runs on a double by their big first baseman with the bases loaded; bases that were loaded on three walks in succession delivered to them courtesy of the ump, and another pitching change for us due to the same cause. The kid who came in took the mound, and I could see that the terrible conditions behind home plate had already had an effect on him. His behavior was full of contradictory signs, all doing with trying to work under tough conditions. It’s hard building a castle when it gets knocked down before you can get a wall up. Bad metaphor, I know. Nevertheless the whole team was by this time affected.
We fans, we few on the right side, were catching the virus, too, feeling powerless. About all we could do is commiserate with the team, and curse the ump, while watching bad call after bad call, and our hopes drain away. Strangely enough, there was a deafening silence from the fans on the other side; as if they were, somehow, ashamed.
The “scouting report” on our opponents from one of the fellows who was with us said that they were weak in pitching. Who needed good pitching when one was able to count the ump as a player. Nevertheless, there were some things the guy had to call balls, and out bats still worked. So, despite the handicap, the fellows managed to even the score. And it was tied at five runs apiece.
But in the eighth inning one of our guys hit a solo home run, a shot clearing the fence way out in center field; too far, I thought with a grim satisfaction, to be ruled foul by anyone so inclined to try. And, that ignited everyone! The celebration lasted through the next two at bats by our lads, I think. Some folks were literally dancing with glee. I know I was. It was Christmas and the Fourth of July and VE Day! I picked the latter to remind everyone, you special seven readers, that work had still to be done.
The bottom of the eighth didn’t change a thing for them, and we went into the ninth ahead by one run. I have to say the other side tried everything they could in a long time at bat; but their best efforts still left things as they were. And, as they were was definitely not to safe a position to hold on to. One run against a team that had beaten us by five just two days before was no cushion to rest on. It was a sharp rock in your back! Everyone knew it, and knew we needed to build a bigger lead. A combination of worry and determination and purpose built like a coming storm on us, on everyone, I think. The “game” took one a meaning more than play. The on deck “circle”, a stretch of gravel next to the ugly squat cinder block shelter that was the dugout, was a busy place with sometimes three players stretching, squatting, practice swinging, loosening up….waiting, and trying not to wait. The dugout itself was quiet. The fans, when we weren’t biting our nails, and looking for rabbit’s feet were doing what fans ordinarily do; our best to build a little hope, give a little support.
Have you ever been in a position where you get in inkling that the weather is about to change, feel a cool breeze on a hot sweaty day, a lightening of the heart, a change in attitude about someone or something? I had sat quietly for some time during the last inning really worrying about our thin lead, and, I guess, praying that we could build on it, to ensure the win I hoped was coming. And as the first batter walked to the plate, I thought I felt that breeze. This is no hindsight working on me now. I simply had a premonition that things were going to be OK. Only, I didn’t yet know how OK they were going to be.
So, I stayed to see.
I mentioned that pitching was our strength. Well your can go for the ride of your life on a pitcher’s arm, and we certainly had a stable full of thoroughbreds. On the other side of the field, they were no judges of horse flesh. I guess that is why they relied so much on the kindness of umpires. In this instance it failed them. The fellow on the mound, God bless him, could give the ump no help, because he kept throwing things so low only an ant could hit them. And what wasn’t low, was west of Chicago. Oh, there were a few pitches that weren’t ankle high, and one of them, perhaps more, became hits. He may even have walked one of them, despite the umps’s best efforts for the team. The bases filled, then, and another single sent another run in.
The sun had arisen on a beautiful day and the birds were all in marvelous voice. As a matter of fact everything sounded great, including the prolonged madness of our celebratory screaming. We filled the bases again with, I seem to recall a miserly hit to shallow right field. And that inkling I had had was growin’ fast, beyond intuition, beyond certainty and coming up on fact. By that time several among us behind the chain link fence may have been frothing at the mouth. I know at least two who certainly sounded that way.
The next fellow up, one of the steady producers, but not the biggest weapon by far in the arsenal, cleared the bases with a grand slam. And while it was all over in a few dozen seconds, it seems to me now that it took several hours while tragedy and triumph mingled on the plains of battle, and the opposition’s dugout became a mortuary.
And then, our last at bat grounded out. And, as if all it was was Dad and his pals leaving the factory after the whistle blew, our few fellows on deck turned and walked off the field. And I felt as if civilization had just been saved.
I listened to the sound of Verdi’s “Dies Irae” in my brain as the other guys trudged up to the plate, and I asked God for one or two small favors, three mercifully quick outs or perhaps a couple of runs, sort of as a comforting sip of water, a mercy before the just end. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it? And it was God’s pleasure to remain where He was and let unfold what had been ordained before the worlds were made, before the stars in all their solemn majesty were set on high above. There was no long tragic march into Valhalla, no Wagnerian parade across the bridge into Valhalla. The end was a brutal fact. Merciless and swift and sure, as the lion suffocates the helpless zebra. And silence. For a split second before we all,players and spectators erupted in one triumphant rush and roar.
He had granted my first prayer…the one I really, really wanted.
I opened my eyes as the train, the IRT #1, was just pulling out of the station at 135th Street and knew in a moment I was headed in the wrong direction. I glanced quickly at my watch and saw that I had been headed in the wrong direction, this time, for at least three hours, give or take. It was early, very early, on New Year’s Day in the mid-60’s, about in the middle of that decade when the nation, and much of the rest of the world became afflicted with that paroxysm of self indulgence which continues today; worsening down the decades since. Hours before, together with my friends, most of whom are dead now, I had taken liberties with my body and soul to mourn the old year’s passing and greet the new one before the chance for a massive hangover in its honor escaped me. I had succeeded beyond my wildest imaginings
I was in the car with only one other person. He was a “long drink of water”, taller than me, slim and neatly dressed in white tie, wearing a well polished shoe on his left foot and an old style high topped canvas Keds sneaker on his right foot; very sloppily laced and tied. I knew he was taller by the length of his legs reaching almost beyond the pole, one of three down the length of the middle of the car placed for standees; none of whom were now here, and would not probably be for at least forty-eight hours.
As I slowly returned to the state I was beginning to wish I hadn’t, I noticed something else about him. He was playing a harmonica, not well, but not horribly, and barely audible above screeching wheels and echoing roars and rattles coming from the empty train. He looked at me and winked, smiled behind his cupped hands and kept playing. He was playing, I determined, something of Wagner’s, The Entry of the Gods Into Valhalla, from Das Rheingold. And, I thought, entering something like consciousness, why not?? What better thing to hear than a Wagnerian march-dirge played in time to the Cage-like screeches and roars of a 60′ tin can in a dark, wet, cold tunnel.
We were alone, but I thought none of this was at all unusual. New York City, I’d long ago learned, was a big enough place to handle a waking drunk and an oddly dressed virtuoso harmonicaist (?) by themselves in a subway car so late in the night that the hours are probably not on the clock.
He stopped around 96th Street and I clapped, bringing my hands slowly together and making as soft a sound as I could stand, and managing a weak “Bravo!” Well, it was brave, anyway, his performance. For that, I thought, he should receive recognition, small as it might be. This made him smile. “You like it?” And , it was my turn to smile. And nod, slightly, my head not yet fit for much more movement. He rose, stretched and galumphed across to sit next to me. I realized he was that kind of tall person who occasionally appears; the ones two sizes too big for their ability to do little more than sit; who, once upright, appear always on the very edge of tumbling into a mess of separate parts and pieces, like a pile of Legos the dog just ran into.
Tucking his harmonica away in his jacket he offered me his hand. “Photius Jarndyce Le Pense,” he nearly trumpeted in a squeaky tenor, perfectly matching the rest of his presence in the world. “Photius for the heretic. My mother is one. Jarndyce for the case. My father is an attorney. Le Pense is French. We are all thoughts. Of God, don’t you think? Very pleased to meet you!”
I returned the gesture and the sentiment, though I wondered then how much pleasure I had to offer. But, I gave it my best shot. “I’m French. Are you?” I hadn’t spoken my name, I supposed, loudly enough for him to hear it clearly. So, I repeated it, and added, “No.”
And there began a friendship that endured across time and distance until just a few months ago. It was a strange one, I’ll admit, but, nonetheless ..
By the time I had arrived at my own stop in The Bronx, the sun was making great advances on the night.The sky above the hill that framed the eastern edge of my neighborhood, Kingsbridge was beginning to glow a warm and delicate pink. The last stars and a slice of moon hung approximately above the station platform I was standing on; still a bit unsteadily on legs not long ago washed in a storm of inibriation.
I felt a steadying hand on my arm, and Photius’ said, “Nice place, this. I’ve never been here. Let me help you home. Don’t worry. I haven’t a thing to do today.” He spoke like a telegram.
I was grateful for the offer, because I had figured out that I could either wait in the cold station until full light came, and with it one sight and sobriety, or reach the street below the only way then possible; by tumbling down three flights of steel stairs.
So off we marched. It was a short three block walk to the door of the old apartment house, and along it I answered a few questions from him, and he answered a few of mine. We exchanged nothing of either a deep or profound nature along the way. He told me he preferred three minute eggs, and loved creme fraich on his breakfast cereal. I learned what creme fraich was, who, in fact, hadn’t known it existed until then. He learned that there were thirty two taverns along Broadway and the neighboring side streets between the 225th Street El Station and the line’s end at 242nd Street.
Upon the foundation of such confidences was our life long friendship built.
Photius delivered me to the door of my apartment on the ground floor shook my hand, wrapping his long bony fingers about twice around my hand firmly and bowed slightly while wishing me a “Happy and Holy New Year.” Then, with a word of thanks for the company, and a quick glance at my watch …he carried none…he left, saying he would be in time for the 9:00am Mass at Holy Name down on 110th Street.. I stumbled through the door and was asleep, probably, before he crossed the old bridge over the railroad tracks across the street.
We never met in person again. Ours was to be an epistolary friendship, his first letter, a charming and amusing description of his life as a student at Morningside Heights, and comments on students, professors, food and drink, music and art, on life, arriving a few days later. I did my best to keep up, but I couldn’t. Photius was a river. I was a little pond, more often a puddle.
His Christmas letters were the best, and I shared them with friends and family, quite a few of them becoming friends with him themselves.
He never married. He never published anything, though many people often urged him to do so. He was simply happy writing, I came to conclude. It really didn’t matter to him if he was ever read by anyone. But, he was. Maybe it wasn’t millions, or even thousands. Perhaps several hundred people at most knew of him, and enjoyed what he did for them, the places he went, the things he saw, the people he met, and his stories about them all.
But, it had to end, and it did. The letters suddenly stopped, and we wondered; myself and the few of my own friends I had introduced to Photius over the years. For a year there was silence. And, then, on Christmas 2001, the week before to be exact, I saw his familiar scrawl on an envelope and opened it to read this, Photius’ last letter to me, or to anyone else.
Believe me, I tried to find out if there were others. I reproduce it here for you. Don’t let his first sentence confuse you. I think Photius lived “in” Christmas, and considered all of his letters, perhaps everything he did, to be taking place during Christmas, and to be about things and people taking place and being in Christmas:
As you know for some years now I have been in the habit of writing an annual Christmas letter at least once a year. I know that as well. So, we agree. That is good.
I used to have a lot of time to do it, and unlike what many people do with Christmas letters, I took pride in making sure everything I wrote was Gospel truth. I checked my sources and my facts, reviewed my notes and recordings of my conversations with all of you. I worked for weeks assembling the vast amount of data I knew you would examine closely with microscopic attention to detail, hoping for some notice from me of your role in my life, or a mistake about it. Have I ever failed you? Honestly, now. Remember, God is watching you.
Well all that has changed, and who knows it may all be for the good. I don’t mean, I am not speaking, about failing you, but about having the time to put together an accurate and interesting Christmas letter. What to do about it has been troubling me a bit lately. I thought of asking one or two friends to sort of ghost write one for me, figuring that presidents and such have staff writer who do things like that. But that wouldn’t be me. It’s deceptive, and I have never lied when I didn’t have to. In that matter I have always followed the advice of my friend’s Uncle Dennis, a very wise man, given to me personally many years ago, “Never waste a lie, Photius, lad. If you do, you’ll always be one behind.” The man, God rest him, never passed up a drink, either, and for the same reason. he believed in something he named, alternatively, the Economy of Truth, and Alcohol. Conserve the former and consume the latter.
I thought about sending out some form of letter full of blamk spaces that might be filled in by you, whoever you ar, with whatever was exciting in your own lives. You could then read it to your friends as if it came from me. But, I decided that wouldn’t do. It would rob you of experiencing my own wit and style, no small reason why there is, I have been told, a brisk trade in bootlegged copies of past letters copied on Xerox machines i places as disparate as Xingiang, China and Peoria, KS. I don’t say this with any sense of hubris at all. Well not with so much as to be disgustingly smug.
It happened that I was thinking what to do with this year’s letter the other day when in the mail arrived the answer. it was the Christmas letter of my good friend Homer Timolean Clinch originally from an real American town, Rubberlip, TN. Homer had moved here about six months ago and started a business, Homer T. Clinch Pasta, right out of his kitchen. He’s already got ten employees, eight of them family from Rubberlip, living in his apartment, and is in production “most every day it matters” as he says. His stuff has become pretty popular around here, especially the Alfalfa Linguine with Hog Ear sauce. It’s an acquired taste I’ll warrant, but don’t knock it you people back east. So are chocolate covered ants.
Here’s what Homer has to say to his “Frayuns and Famlee” this year:
“Hy, Y’all, it’s me again, Homer. By now most of you are missing me, and those that ain’t I ain’t sending no letter to anyway. Me and Alma Jean and the Spawn moved up North to the other side of the Ohio. It was business took us. Most f the folks here are nice people, but, this ain’t no joke, they talk funny…and too darn fast. I have got to figger me some way to listen faster. And stop laughin at ’em.
Take last Friday. I was in the kitchen stirring up a mess of dough for my special Christmas pasta, Green and Red, from collards and red beans. It was comin’ real good, too. the phone rung and I put down the oar I was using for stirring. I don’t use it for rowin’ no more since some folks complained about the pasta tasting like pond water. I may go back to it when I come out with my Algae pasta in the spring…and from it, ha, ha.
Anyway, I put down the oar and Dolph, my hound with the chewed ear, begun ‘a likin’ on it. “Damn Dolph,” I said, “You’re mor trouble than hungry wet twins. Don’t I always give you a lick when the batch is done?” He just looked at me with them goober eyes of his and went back to licking and scratching while I answered the phone.
Howdy, Homer here,” I said, real pleasant. Was a lady on the line and she said, “Help!” I got that clear. Oh I do good on one word at a time. And then she took off…
She begun about a three minute mess on how she was planning a big supper for some outta town friends who ain’t never been down this far before. They was, I figure, the tie, jewelry and powder wearing kind, you know? I was able to make out she wanted a mess of pasta from me for one of the courses on this hog waller she was puttin’ on. So I run down the list of what I got. And the only thing I heard her say clear was, “I don’t boil Hog Ears!” That was real clear. Well, I told her, who does? I’d chop ’em. I told her I’d take off most of the hair since she had Yankees eatin’. So, after some back and forth, we worked down to where I thought she’s ordering a mess of my special holiday Hog Ear sauce. So I thought she wanted me to do it up and bring it over hot and ready.
How many was all I wanted to know , and I mad out her sayin’ thirty. I guessed that was the number of folks at this party. At two ears a plate, that figgered out to 120, give or take. A big order, and I could use the ten bucks. “What time you eatin’, Miss,” I asked her, and thought she said Saturday at 8:00pm. I told her since I don’t stay up that late unless there’s a game on, I might have to charge her more. I thought she said, “Don’t matter.” Then I hung up and commenced to cooking for real.
I was at the door with a mop pail full of steamin’ pasta at 7:58PM. Big house, lots of windows and curtains on every one as far as I could tell, even on the top floor. Some fella from the army opened the door and let me in, and even took my coat which I asked him to put on the chair. He put it in a closet as big as our downstairs. He wanted to take the pail of pasta, too, but I said , “The lady of the house is waiting.” I bust right past him into a big room with more candles than a church and about the most dressed bunch of folks this side of one of them walt Disney cartoon movies all sitting around a big long table talking real low and drinking from skinny glasses; not a jug in sight. I heaved the plate up on the table and said, “Y’all pass your plates on down this end and lemme slop some of the best stuff you ever wrapped your lips around onto ’em!”
One of the ladies way down the other end, I recognized her whe she started talking, she was the one placed the order, said, “Excuse me, but just who are you?” I said, real loud ’cause this might be a good place to advertise, “I’m Homer Clinch from Homer’s Pasta, and I brung you the best mess of Alfalfa with special Holiday Hog Ear sauce, you ever swallered.”
Two ladies got up and ran from the room right then. A couple of fellers got up after them and started moving my way. I figgered they was coming to help until they grabbed me and begun to hustle me back to the door and the army guy. The lady followed and another army guy come up and took the pail of pasta and sauce off the table. “Hey, I thought you wanted me to bring this stuff on over tonight, lady,” I said. She got all stiff all over and said, “What I told you, Mr. Clinch.” I got all this now on account of she was talking real slow, “What I told you after hearing your list of revolting products, was “Don’t soil my ears.” “Now, ” she continued, “I’ll be happy to see your back and the last of your (here she shook all over like someone who just stepped in a mess of stuff real soft would do) Hogs Ears.” “Not so fast, Miss,” I said while the two guys held me and the first army guy was draping mu coat over the top of my pail of sauce. “Not so fast. It took me some time to make this up and I’m out $7.00 for the ears.” She turned to the army guy and said, “Give him enough to get him out of here.” The she left to go back to her long table, skinny glasses and whispers.
I took a chance and told him I wanted $12.oo, so I made four dollars on the night, and sold the pail full of pasta to Millie, down at her Diner for their Sunday Dinner Special, for another $3.50 and a mess of sweet potato pie. I threw in the use of the mop pail for a week. She got a mop but no pail and been using the dish sink water on the floor.
I don’t figure I’ll be doing no deliveries soon,a nd it’ll be a while before I break into the city market
Me and Alma Jean, the kids and Lump wishes you a Merry Christmas,
This is all I have of him. I’d kept all of his letters in a box in the basement of the house we just moved from to this place on the river not far away. Somehow the box, along with a couple of thousand old photos I was sure I had, never made the journey. The other place is empty now, echoing with the ghosts packing their own gear. I’ve left them the new address. They have a standing invitation.
I’m hoping Photius, wherever he may be, picks one up.
I miss the odd fellow. My memory is clouded about what took lace all that long ago. It is working on data that was hazily acquired at best. But I remember the voice, the tall thin awkward fellow, the stilt like legs in their formal dress. I remember his Adam’s apple oscillating as he spoke. And I remember his kind eyes. Blue, like the lightening sky.
I never did find out how he wound up with one shoe and one sneaker, though for years I kept meaning to ask him.
Here is my friend’s show piece:
Some scholars say that this is one of Robert Frost’s last poems. No scholar myself, I simply know that it cannot be from the textual evidence. Can you see why Frost could not have written it?
The Edge of Winter
Windy Autumn brawls down my street
Kicking fallen leaves aside.
Frantically scuttering they compete
For any safe place to hide
This dance I think is good excuse
For me to wait until the Spring.
Leaf herding with split bamboo’s
No good at all for my old wings.
The brash youngster across the way’s
Gone and got himself a leaf blower
That stirs up a hurricane
Of leaves and needles. A shower
Surrounds him slowly blowing
His way across the lawn.
I watch him working, knowing
While he works the law time worn:
The afternoon won’t have ended,
Day will not yet have gone
Gentle, but bright colors blended
Once more will blanket his deep green lawn .
I ran into this guy last week when we were down in Florida, near Venice, at this place called Our Lady of Perpetual Help Center for Prayer and Spirituality. We were there for a retreat, and a week long steam bath. He was a few years older than me, I guess, with an Irish face and a New York accent. You can’t hide either of those things, and when I saw him, a little bent from the waist, about five degrees from straight up, I figured him for my age or a few years older.
He and his wife sat down next to me and mine at breakfast that first day. He said, “Hello.” I said, “What part of the city are you from?” “I’m from all over,” he replied. “I lived in Manhattan, The Bronx, Queens, and even Jersey City. But, I’m from Brooklyn. That’s where I grew up.” “You left out Staten Island,” I told him. “No bridge back then?” “There was that thing in Jersey, but I forget its name. Too much trouble.” I wasn’t sure if he meant the name of the bridge or was making a comment on getting to Staten Island before they built the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. But I knew what he was saying. I mean Staten Island? And, you gotta go through Elizabeth to get there?
It was my turn, then, so I told him I grew up in the Bronx, in Kingsbridge, and swam in the Harlem River when doing that was more hazardous than walking across the Grand Canyon on a tightrope. He understood. “You a Yankee fan?” he asked after we had been talking for a few minutes, and I told him I had gone to a few games in the Stadium when I was a kid. “Not now though,” I said, “all the Yankees I was a fan of are dead. Besides, you have to mortgage the farm to go to a major league game these days.”
That got us talking about The City, the three teams that played there and the guys who played on them. I’ve got to admit that his memory was much better than mine. He was a Dodger fan, and remembered meeting the players on subways going to work, talking to them just like regular guys outside the park after the games and being treated with genuine respect; no star behavior, no bodyguards, no tattoos, no bling, no babes. More often than not there was a family waiting for the Old Man to come home from work..
I mentioned that some folks I know still carry a rock in their bags for O’Malley for leaving Brooklyn, and he told me he blames Robert Moses for that; Moses who told O’Malley he’d build a new ball park for the Bums…in Flushing Meadow. This I hadn’t known. “Yeah,” he said, ” and O’Malley said that he wasn’t moving the Brooklyn Dodgers to Queens.” “There would have been riots in Brooklyn if that had happened,” he said. “Now there’s just despair,” I said, and he nodded. We were quiet a while, remembering.
Then he turned to me and spoke a little bit of history. Coney Island, the beach on a summer day, was dotted with knots of men, sometimes as many as 50 in a group, gathered together. “Tourists” for a day from places like Jersey City or Hoboken coming to the beach would see these groups and wonder what was happening, a fight, a card game, something else? No, nothing of the kind. They were fans gathered around the guys who had their transistor radios…something new back in the late ’50’s… down at the beach and tuned into the Dodgers game. No one listened to anything else, he told me. Guys would stand around listening to the play by play and seeing everything like they were at the park.
He still missed them himself, he said, even after all this time.
The Yankees? He told me that he could never think of himself as being a Yankee fan, even if they played good ball, even if they were decent guys. They were a team for rich people, not regular guys. He said that he was still angry that the Yankees would tie up players in their farm organization, places like Kansas City, for years; players who would have started on any other team in the league. That’s how they got to be in the shape they were. Then he remembered again the players on the subway or the bus, guys who were earning ten, maybe fifteen thousand dollars a year while DiMaggio was making $100,000.00. “It wasn’t right,” he said, “it didn’t feel right to root for guys, for a team like that.”
An interesting conversation, indeed.
A couple of day later, while I was thinking about this, and Brooklyn, the Dodgers, Moses, O’Malley, the Yankees and money, I was reminded of a conversation I had a few years ago with a fellow who was a Massachusetts Parole Officer. We were looking for a fugitive I wanted to talk to. This guy had grown up in West Boston, the neighborhood that included old Scollay Square. That’s where the New City Hall is now, an excrescence in concrete, a bad dream of a building squatting in a barren brick clad emptiness. What has to be the world’s largest municipal parking garage is there too, twelve stories and two blocks of chunky grayness, a few post-Communist style government office hulks, and other architectural adventures. He told me that forty years later folks are still trying to get the state to recognize the damage it caused when they destroyed the homes and demolished the people.
“We still have reunions,” he said quietly as we drove past the block where he used to live.
A few years later when my mother-in-law was in the hospital we stayed in the flat faced block long Holiday Inn that took its place; built over the bones of homes and memories. There were forty or so free channels available on the TV in the room, and, if I wanted to, I could watch “adult” movies for a few dollars more.
(I am conflating some things, changing names and stuff like that. But I am telling the truth. What happened actually happened. I imagine it was/is rather common.)
This is no deep dark secret, though it was never anything that we discussed around the supper table with the kids and Gramma, and I never told Mom and Dad.
Donnie’s mother was Den Mother for about five or six of us who were in a little Scout Troop in our neighborhood. I attended one meeting at her house, ate a few cookies, got a handbook and learned how to make a paste out of water and flour; a skill which has saved my life and the lives of everyone I know on innumerable occasions. It is probably the only life-saving skill I have. I may have been ten years old.
Why did I never go back? Why did my career end before it had never started? The truth is that I am lazy. I looked down the corridor of years and saw how long it would take to become an Eagle; to reach the summit of Scoutlife and soar and said, “Nah, not for me.” As a result I never have been good sitting Indian style, or at paying attention at meetings and starting fires with moss and flint. I guess I never really wanted to be, though I do admire the Natty Bumppo’s of the world.
Ronny was different. He stayed in, and got good at all that stuff, and had a sash that got progressively more busy with badges and ribbons as we got older. We hung out, all of us, scouts and non-scouts. It was an egalitarian society of boys, and the odd girl in dungarees as jeans were known back then before “denim” and “jeans” entered the language. As long as they could run as fast as the rest of us, what the hell? I never gave them a second thought.
Oh, there were one or two who were different. They were “Girls”, and wore dresses, and made mud pies, and jumped rope and giggled. We chased them away. The ones in dungarees came and went, occasionally wrestled when we played “pile on” or had free for alls, and played in the outfield when we played ball, and stood up on the swings at the playground when the “parkie” wasn’t there to enforce the rules against standing up on the swings at the playground (as senseless a rule as there ever was).
And life went on, and we got older. Even Ronny, who was there, but he wasn’t if you know what I mean, got older. He didn’t fit right, and we always felt a little strange, and he always acted a little strange when he was around on the ever more rare occasion. Other than that he was a normal guy. Tall, with straight black hair, no pimples, slim, athletic looking, he could have been a model for one of those Greek statues one sees in all the best museums. Did I mention he had a clear complexion? He was quiet, and a bit awkward. I remember that the guy couldn’t tell a joke and couldn’t make a wisecrack that landed with effect on its target. He was a good looking goof. No one really missed him, but we all waved at him and opened up our little circle when he showed up on these fewer and fewer occasions.
Soon enough we had discovered girls. It was difficult at first fitting them into our busy schedule of ball games and rough house, but we managed. We were all sophomores; those of us still in school thought less and less about that (small loss) and more an more about them.
There was a bar on the corner, The Kingsbridge Tavern, run by a little Italian guy named Angie. He may have had another name, but if he did I have long forgotten it. Betimes we noticed it and entered its hallowed precincts, became initiates in its rites. I mean to say that we cut our milk teeth on drinking at Angie’s. I did homework at the bar, and had fights outside of it, some of them with people I never knew. I often collected The Old Man and brought him home from Angie’s loving care, becoming, then, a sort of father to my Father. That was not so unusual in my neighborhood.
Late one night (or early one morning) at about this time of the year, I was in Angie’s. Only a few folks were there and the place was quiet. Ronny walked in and we said hello. He sat next to me and we “exchanged pleasantries” as a fellow from New Jersey often put it. Ronny had joined the Air Force and must have been home on leave. Or, maybe he was on his way to Basic. It doesn’t signify.
We kept our seats and exchanged our pleasantries until Angie poured our last beer. Then Ronny suggested we grab a six pack and go across the street to finish the evening under what stars remained. I was then and am still a “dirty stay up”, and he was paying. So, it was the best idea ever, and I joined him.
We drank one or two beers as we sat watching the sky lighten behind the buildings on Kingsbridge Hill. And we solved some world problems. Then, I turned to Ronny and made my excuses. And then, he laid a hand on my arm and made me an offer.
“Nah,” I said, “I ain’t built that way.” “Oh,” he answered, “Sorry.” He was polite, an Eagle Scout I think. I never saw him again.
A month or so after that night, when I had “sailed away for a year and a day to the land where the bong trees grow”, one of my shipmates told me rather crudely that the Chief Steward, whom I had thought was a friend, wanted to do to me what Ronny had wanted to do. On this occasion I found a fire ax and sought the fellow out but was prevented from doing him what I thought was a service to all by cooler heads.
He was a good cook. But I never knew if he was a Scout.
There have been other occasions, but none recently. I stay away from Scouts, and will lengthen my distance.
We live in a smallish town in New Hampshire, the Granite State. The town is called Nashua and it rests on the border between us and The People’s Republic of Taxachusetts. As with most places in America, the most powerful beings in the town are the automobiles. The Peddlar’s Daughter and Martha’s Exchange are two restaurants in the center of town, one of the favorite places for automobiles to hang out. This is a disquisition about restaurants, automoblies and rare aquatic creatures. Some of it is true and actually happened…or happens.
It was a couple of years ago this happened. My wife and I were having a quiet lunch outside at the back of the Peddlar’s Daughter. It was a lovely day in late Spring. Or, was it early Summer. No matter, the day was just fine, and the venue just fine, too.
Why, you are entitled to ask, did we choose to eat our lunch way back there away from the madding crowd? The question provides its own answer. I have sat at table in front of Martha’s Exchange on lovely evenings, and tried to carry on a conversation. One gets distracted among the rumble of cars and trucks, the roar of Harleys and the sight of their middle aged riders’ unruly mullets, floppy tattooed arms bared to the shoulder under their leather vested colors. And, that’s just the women bikers. It is a problem to carry on a conversation above the roar. It is worse, though, eating while wondering what delicious coating of petro-chemicals was softly descending onto my crusted salmon.
Lest you think I have an animus against Martha’s, please let me put you at your ease. I do like the place very much, and especially enjoy their craft beers. We need Martha’s. We need The Peddlar’s, too, and all the other downtown venues. But, you know, every time I drive in either direction on Main Street during the summer I feel two things. I feel sorry for the folks outside trying to have a nice meal in all of those nice places that line those few blocks, and I feel guilty about being there in my car among all the other vehicles spitting noxious gases, making indecent noises. And, I think, there must be something we can do to make this a more congenial place. After all, cars don’t vote.
That is why we chose the back of The Peddlar’s over the front where we could “be seen” and admired as we believe we should be.
I know that the folks down at City Hall have ordered up and darn near completed a bit of a makeover for that part of Main Street near Peddlar’s Daughter. I happen to think they did a nice job. The six lights give the bridge there a kind of 19th century retro look. The granite posts, while they won’t prevent a terrorist in a bomb filled pick-up from crashing into the bridge and ruining river traffic for months, do remind me of hitching posts. I see them and say, “You know, a horse drawn carriage would look good tied up along here.” And, I day dream, imagining a scene from a Sherlock Holmes film.
My wife and I escaped for a week long cruise up the Rhine a few weeks ago. We stopped along the way in several old towns and cities. I remember one sight among many pleasant ones. In every one of these places, these old towns vehicular traffic is banned, more or less, from the center. Town centers, town squares, are flooded with people. Even in November, by God, the squares are full of restaurants and cafes with tables in front of them playing host to substantial numbers of customers enjoying coffee and other lovely things. Alongside the cafes, and in between, shops carry on a brisk business. Those places are people magnets, especially now, when they fill up with outdoor Christmas Markets; as I imagine they do regularly on other occasions throught the year.
The sight we saw? That was in Cologne in the central square before the huge hundreds of years old cathedral. There in the middle of the place, crowds of people flowing by it, was a Mercedes limousine, brand new, black and shiny; a vehicle of power and authority. Inside of it was the driver…trapped. He was trying to get off the square and could not move. How he had gotten on was a mystery to me. How he would get off was an even greater one.
Why not here as well as in Cologne?
After we left our delightfully serene lunch in the back of The Peddlar’s Daughter that day, we strolled out along the walk and began to cross the bridge. There were two couples, tourists obviously, taking pictures of each other on the bridge facing toward the old power station that is now Margarita’s. Strolling by I asked one of the couples had they seen any of the “fresh water sharks” which inhabit the river. “Sharks,” they said questiongly. I nodded, and added in my most sincere voice that they swim upriver froim the Merrimack to spawn every summer. These folks called their friends over to the rail as we walked on, leaving them to search for and get a picture of Nashua’s fresh water sharks.
I do happen to think they were satisfied in their quest though the Nashua River shark is a rare animal, but can’t help wondering how many sharks would return, and how many other animals with them, did we make some room for people downtown where now the automobile rules and roars. Perhaps, we might see the very rare and very gentle New England Manatee again?