Boardwalk Empire: Part Two

It’s a strange new world. Robin and Dale walking up from Convention Hall toward what once was Million Dollar Pier (and is now a glitzy shopping mall)

It is late September 2012.  Robin and Dale walk ahead as I take pictures, trying to see what I used to see so many years ago.  The boards have been replaced many times, but still feel original.  They’re still wood.  They splinter and rot (especially evident while on a bike).  They smell.  There are still seagulls and pigeons flying around and landing practically at our feet.  There is still the beach and ocean to our right as we are walking heading uptown.  So what is to our right feels the same as it was, what is below us feels the same as it was.  But the heart of the boardwalk has been usurped since 1978, the last summer I spent living and working in Atlantic City.

The places I worked. Juice-a-rama: Gone.  Hi Hat Joe’s: Gone.  King Kone: Gone. The Steel Pier: Gone. Well, technically not gone, since there is a “pier” called Steel Pier

across from Trump’s Casino.  But it’s not my Steel Pier.  That Steel Pier burned to the ground (sand? ocean?) in 1982.  No, the “new” Steel Pier” was built over the ashes of the previous one in 1993, and it’s about 1/4 the size. But before I moan, imagine what the “sealine” of Atlantic City looked like in those ten years before it was sort of rebuilt? Kind of like the west side of Manhattan with all of its ghost piers.  The new Steel Pier is a pygmy, but at least something is still there.  It doesn’t stretch a mile into the ocean.  There’s no diving horse show at the long end of the pier (you’d have to walk past a mile of honky tonk to get there), where a woman on a horse rode up a ramp to the top of a platform, then the horse and rider “dove” into a pool of water while the crowd gasped and cheered (my first job at age 15 was selling peanuts to said crowd).  There’s no diving bell, an iron lung of a contraption that would slowly take you a mile down (it felt that way) into the briney depths of the Atlantic, then after a minute or two on the sea bed, would whoosh back up to the surface.  There’s no double movie theater where I remember seeing “The Day of the Triffids,” a movie about trees (or tree-like creatures) that ate people (and I was really scared).  There’s no musical attractions – I visited Steel Pier on my own in 1969 and saw a brand new group, the Chicago Transit Authority, whom I though were tremendous.  And all of this – all of this – for one “low” admission (but I think the diving bell was additional).

Connected to Trump’s Casino is the “new” Steel Pier. On the pedestrian bridge that allows customers to gain access to the pier without setting foot on the boardwalk is an illustration of what my grandparents would have seen in their youth.

Steel Pier is near the “end” of the boardwalk as I remember it.  Not technically the end; Garden Pier came after (as a youngster: zero interest.  There were no rides nor amusements to be had.  It was a garden.  On a pier).  But the fun of the boardwalk, the lights, the dazzle, the riff raff, the smells, ended after Steel Pier and it was just just residential urban Atlantic City until the inlet where Garwood Mills and Captain Starns restaurant was.  The inlet was only visited early mornings on my bike (or when we used to shop at Garwood Mills, probably the original dollar store.  I seem to remember buying my very first 45 there, Crazy Elephants’ “Gimme Gimme Good Loving” (though maybe I bought it at our local Woolworth’s in Philly.  Not sure.  Damn).  The inlet had lots of docks.  Sea lions used to perch on the docks.  But this was all a long time ago.

Many other boardwalk memories come back along the walk

Approaching Peanut World. Planters Peanuts was always a stop for us as kids on the boardwalk. This wasn’t Planters, but it looks like it could have replaced it in the mid to late 70s.

Dad used to love taking us into Planters Peanuts.  There were huge replicas of Mr. Peanut throughout, probably someone dressed as Mr. Peanut as well.  When I look at Times Square today, with all the Trademark stores (for example Hershey’s World), I think back to the boardwalk of yesterday and Planters Peanuts.  Dad would always buy a bag of freshly roasted peanuts (in the shells of course), then go wait outside on the beach side of the boardwalk to watch the parade of people walking by.  Letting the peanut shells fall wherever and just watch the throngs.  I’d join him, which is where I too learned the joy of people watching.  And the AC boardwalk was always ground zero to see the tide of humanity in all their summer glory strolling by.   Inside the store – for some reason – there was a water bed on display, and customers were invited to plop down for a slurpy moment on it, and Dale, Robin and I did just that.

A postcard from 1957, before my time, but you can see Steel Pier in all its glory, Planters Peanuts on the other side of a boardwalk, and one of the movie theaters. http://www.timepassagesnostalgia.com/&pm=0&searchkeywords=Boardwalk+Mr.+Peanut&sin=b360

Our Atlantic City trip happened five weeks ago.  And, in the life of the Jersey shore, it was a lifetime ago.  Last Monday, October 29, Hurricane Sandy rearranged it all.  The pictures I saw were of devastation.  The boardwalk north of Revel was destroyed.  The streets by the bay were flooded.  Dale, Robin and I were hanging by the bulkhead on the bay on our visit to Bartram Avenue (previous post).  How did it all fare?  Mike sent a picture of their vacation home on the bay in Ventnor, and it looked like it is now existing as part of the bay.  Lots of images floating (no pun intended) on the web for all to see.

Summer of 1962, opposite Million Dollar Pier

Boardwalk Empire: Part One

Taken from a deck open to guests staying at the newest casino in AC, The Revel Casino.  You can see the “new” Steel Pier and the recently renovated Garden pier – ghosts of their former selves.

I love this shot and it makes me yearn.  I love it for many reasons, and here’s the first: Robin, Dale and I walked into Revel by chance (so Robin could use the bathroom), and once in there we kept heading on up escalators.  Revel is pretty extraordinary in the world of Atlantic City casinos.  There’s nothing honky tonk about it – no loud music trying to drown you out on the boardwalk, no typical AC chintz, it’s a beautiful Frank Gehry-like expanse of a building near the inlet, north of Steel Pier.  Back in-the-day, a place where one wouldn’t venture.  And it’s pretty vacant outside of Revel, but the boardwalk has been spruced up nicely and there we were.  And we were  feeling back, back, back in an AC groove.

Yes, there we were.  We had been in AC for a couple of hours, having parked the car in a lot by the infamous White House.  Now I remember the White House also being in a no-man’s land, behind the bus station (and I remember as a youngster taking the bus down from Philly to visit mom-mom and pop-pop,  Taking a Friday night bus down the shore, then walking to Ventnor Avenue to catch a local bus to their house in Margate).  But the bus station is gone.  We parked in the huge municipal lot where the bus station used to be.  But the White House is still there, and you can smell it long before you realize “that’s it!”

You smell it before you see it. There’s a lot of signage around the White House, possibly THE BEST hoagies anywhere.

Some people truly know how to write about food: I’ve never even tried.  You walk into the White House and it’s brighter than you remember (new lightbulbs in the 35 years since you’ve eaten there?  Cleaned the windows?) The smell is incredible: Overwhelming wafts of pure and powerful hoagie and cheesesteak.  All around you are framed pictures of happy eaters over the years, some from your day!  There are the Miss Americas! There is Jerry Lewis!  You and your sisters place your order (an Italian hoagie cut into thirds and a chicken cheesesteak, all to share) and you wait and talk about memories and much more because Robin and Michael still come here.  You take a picture while you’re waiting, and here it comes, and it’s now in front of you and

I didn’t take this shot, but I should have. This is what you’re faced in when your order comes. A White House hoagie will cure depression, anxiety and despair, and give you a renewed belief in humanity. http://www.roadfood.com/Restaurant/Review/125-1910/white-house-sub-shop

OH MY GOD, the sandwiches are overstuffed and the hoagie rolls are the best ever (the White House gets fresh delivery of its rolls 12 times a day, and while we were eating a delivery guy came in delivering more rolls).  It’s probably much more than our family who has always said that the best rolls come from Atlantic City.  That is why the hoagies are so good down there and (usually) the pizza.  I am now typing this in Teaneck New Jersey and it’s so unfair.  I want to be at the White House right now having a date with a hoagie.  It’s an insatiable attraction.

You get a sense of the space, but what’s missing is the food. (see hoagie shot).  I’ve got to get back and take a picture with our sandwiches!

So we finish lunch (and I have to admit it, we couldn’t eat everything.  Oh, what I wouldn’t do for those final bits of hoagie and cheese steak that we couldn’t do, that we left abandoned on our paper plates.  Oh the sadness and futility of leftovers).  We start our walk to the boardwalk (in my memory the White House was in a different world than the boardwalk; in reality it was three blocks away.  But walking through the heart of Atlantic City can be de-spiriting.  There are a lot of massive casinos, and quite a lot of empty lots and decaying buildings that surround them.

Walking to the boardwalk you can see the rear of Convention Hall and too much vacant and decaying space.  The weeds win.

For Dale and me it’s all about the past, but for Robin it’s also about the present.  She and Michael took Carlie to see Jennifer Lopez (Carlie has a major JLo fascination) in concert at Convention Hall just a few months back.  Me? I don’t know if I ever set foot in the place.  For years the Miss America Pageant was held here, but they didn’t invite me.

Opposite Convention Hall, the Jail Bus would have been situated in front of the columns. Big bathroom structures bookend these Romanesque columns here from back in the day.

So, we’re walking up and Dale says, “Do you remember the Jail Bus?”  And a memory hit me like a freight train.  The Jail Bus? Of course I remember the Jail Bus!  I hadn’t thought of the Jail Bus ever… why should I have??  But I remember going into it over and over.  It was a bus, but with all the seats removed.  Instead, there were displays about life in jail.  You simply walked into the front of the bus, spent time looking at the displays and walked out the rear entrance.  And in the rear – which flipped Dale out – was an electric chair (with a dummy all strapped up and ready to spark).  And I had completely forgotten about this; it was because of Dale that I remembered this, and it all came back to me.  As a kid, this was something I remember doing often (and it probably didn’t cost our folks anything; it was there to teach you that a life of crime ends up terribly; their tax dollars at work).

The whole expanse of the space where the Jail Bus used to be parked. It was there to scare the kiddies so they don’t lead a life of crime.  Look at all that wood!  I still love the boardwalk.

The boardwalk has always been an incredible place, and no matter how many changes have occurred (and in the heart of Atlantic City, the city-side is almost unrecognizable), it still lures me.  For this trip, I had brought my bike with me, so I woke up early and biked the entire stretch, from Ventnor through to the end of the current-day incarnation (by Revel) and back. The early morning hours on the boardwalk have always been special.  I worked the 7am to 3 pm shift at Juice-a-rama, a tiny orange juice stand right on the boardwalk.  I’d ride my bike from Margate early in the morning, but my bike in the back, then ride home at the end of my shift.  The early morning hours were busy with bikers and people out for a morning walk – all wanting some of the liquid sunshine I was selling.  But after the morning left and the hot afternoon kicked in, the customers stopped coming.  I would love to know the cross streets, to see what casino took the place of Juice-a-rama, but I think I’ll never know.

The nature of the boardwalk changes.  In Ventnor, the sense of the boardwalk is how I remember it.  It starts out with the houses far away, but as you get closer to AC, there isn’t much separation between residence and boardwalk.  The houses, by and large, are huge and new.  Though some grand homes remain, bringing me back to an earlier era, most of the homes facing the beach and boardwalk are newer.  It is on Atlantic Avenue in Ventnor and the early blocks of AC that you still see the magnificent older homes.  And in Ventnor, the boardwalk is fairly narrow – it widens in stages in Atlantic City until it becomes the NJ Turnpike of boardwalks by what used to be Million Dollar pier.  These great family shots (below), taken over 51 years ago by Bartram Avenue (I imagine) in AC, where the boardwalk was (and still is) residential rather than commercial.

July 1961. I was two and Dale one. Mom and Dad and cousin Terry. On the boardwalk by Bartram Avenue? Shot probably taken by Pop-Pop, pretty good photographer! And check out the antennas sticking up on all the roofs; we are still two decades away from cable tv.

July 1961 walking the boards with mom and cousin Terry.

July 1961.  What a shot! I look at Pop-Pop and I can see Walt (who probably took the shot)? Mom-mom probably stayed back at Bartram and cooked.

Journey through the Past: Bartram Avenue, Atlantic City

One glance was all it took: This was the house.

There will be many posts related to the three-day trip that Dale, Robin and I took to Atlantic City and Margate to revisit past haunts.  I have ghost memories of this house; we spent summers there (two? three?) up through 1964, the summer I turned five and Dale four (the summer of 1965 we didn’t go down the shore because Robin would be born in June).  I remember the cement back yard and a tricycle I would ride in circles.  I remember a big porch in the front where we used to sit.  And I remember all sorts of family, not just the four of us (mom, dad, Dale and me), but my grandparents, Mom Mom Liz and Pop Pop Harry who lived with us.  And I’m sure we were constantly visited by all sorts of other relatives (who wouldn’t jump at the chance of visiting family who is renting the top of a big house in Atlantic City?)

And renters we were.  Like many owners of shore properties, the owner of the house on Bartram Avenue paid a lot of their yearly mortgage by renting their house out in July and August.  In our case, the owners had crafted an apartment in the basement in which they lived, and we had full run of the main two floors.  The toys we played on were not our toys, but the toys belonging to the children whose house we rented.  In the picture above you can see a small blue door with a mailbox signaling a basement apartment.  Dale remembered that little door, the entryway to their basement world.  Didn’t remember the apartment (did we ever go in there? Probably not), but she remembered the door.

Bartam Avenue is in Atlantic City, but it’s not where the action is (or was).  It’s the residential side, drive six blocks further and you’re in Ventnor.  We had spent the day on the boardwalk in the heart of A.C., and driven down Atlantic Avenue, past the circle, then continued on Ventnor Avenue (the names themselves reminding me that I’m on home turf).  Robin was driving, and we started to slow to read every cross street: Trenton, Harrisburg, Raleigh, Columbia).  We came a street without a sign and I knew.  I knew by the baby blue house on the corner (in my mind the color has not changed).  I knew by the fact that there was a store that took up the ground floor, its entrance on Ventnor Ave (what kind of store was there 49 years ago? A bakery?) And I knew the first house past this store on Bartram was our house.

I look at this house and I feel the years disappear. You can see the rear of the corner store as well as the residence above it to the left.  

We park between Ventnor and Atlantic Ave and the three of us walk up to the house.  I am so sure, Dale not as much, but as we stand in front of it, the certainty seems to come back to her too, especially the aforementioned door.  Here the three of us are, in September 2012, paying homage to a house in which two of us spent a few summers.  Robin can only listen; there was no “Robin” yet when we lived here.

A family of four, soon to be of five.

Looking at the above snapshot, taken in 1964, there’s so much I see now.  Look at the railing that we are leaning against, then look again at the railing in the photo taken last week, 48 years later: it’s the same railing.  In a world in which the old is quickly demolished and/or remodeled, it is the exact same! I look at the photo taken last week, and can see the four of us there posing for the picture (who took the picture?) When we walked on Bartram last week, we remarked how old the street felt; some houses have been updated, but nothing drastic.  The middle-class street – to us – felt dipped in amber in a way.  Not that much changed.  I love this family portrait because we were there then, and the same railing today signifies that the past truly exists. (The blue car – might be a Chevy ? – parked on the street… our old blue Chevy).

Mom Mom Ruth hugging her grandkids

It’s 1964 and we’re heading toward the beach.  One quick snap before we go.  It’s a three block walk, so we all have flip flops on our feet.  Mom Mom Ruth and Pop Pop Henry probably were visiting for the weekend.  She would have been maybe 41 or 42 in this shot.  You look down the street, and it is the same street, the same sense 48 years later.  The cars have changed, but sense of the street seems to have stayed the same.  Folks are gone, and we’re much, much older, but we are here.

Having fun in the backyard.

We can see the alleyway to the backyard on the side of the house, but we can’t go down there.  It’s not our house.  After a few minutes gazing, photographing and talking, we walk up Bartram to the bay.  Neither Dale or Robin thinks there’s a bay, but there’s a bay, only a block away.  The island is narrow at points, and where Bartram is it’s only about three and a half blocks wide.  It’s a beautiful day and we hang by the wooden retaining wall, looking out over the water, marshlands, and all that’s been “newly” built in the past 48 years.  After about ten minutes, we walk back down Bartram and stop again in front of our house.  Our house.  A house we rented almost half a century ago is still “our house.”  A man stops us.  “Do you want to buy it?”  It turns out he is the current owner, having purchased the house in 2001, the height of the market, for $500,000.  He is struggling to keep up with mortgage payments – nearly four grand a month.  He’s working two jobs and has five kids, the oldest on a full scholarship to Yale.  We talk for a few minutes, tell him our history with the house.  He noticed us lingering and taking pictures and was hoping we were there for more investment purposes, not this journey through the past. He may have been disappointed but we weren’t.

Signage by the bay

 

Connecticut College: Life was Elsewhere

Walking on the south side of campus.

It was a beautiful Monday morning in early September when I drove from Teaneck to New London, CT to visit Connecticut College, where I spent my freshman year.   A picture-perfect day for walking around the leafy campus taking in a world I tried to embrace and make my own 35 years previously.  I had previously returned about 25 years ago, for a stop a WCNI, the Connecticut College radio station, during one of the Whooping Cranes road trips up 95 to Boston and points in between.  It wasn’t very memorable – a quick jaunt to the radio station (which I registered had a complete makeover in the ten years I had been gone).  Aside from that quick visit, this was my first time back.

I’ve been to many college campuses throughout the years.  I teach at one (whose campus is probably the same size as CC, though without the endowment/budget/dorm living.  Still, it is a suburban campus).  I did college tours with my kids, and have spent time moving them in and out of Drexel University since the fall of 2008 (we’ll return to take Kevin back to Drexel in about a week).  I purposely chose early September to visit because it’s when the school year is new, when all the possibilities are in the air, where summer is still a part of everyone’s being, but where autumn, with it’s back-to-reality nibbling, is starting to settle on everyone’s skin.  I arrived onto the campus and slowly drove around the campus, looking at this somewhat familiar world through my windshield.  I wanted to park by the dorm I lived in as a freshman, knowing where it was but not remembering the name.  I worked my way, recognizing some buildings I knew from way back when, feeling ready to park the car and start exploring and photographing on foot.

Most kids enter their last year of high school in daze of not-knowing, of realizing that things are changing whether they want them to or not.  I was lucky enough to have entered my senior year of high school having gone through the same school suburban school district since I was in first grade.  Even though my folks split up and my mom got remarried and we moved, we stayed in the same general neighborhood.  So the faces I saw around me throughout elementary school were the same faces growing up with me in junior high and high school (obviously people moved away and new people came, but certainly not at a furious rate). But where do you go from here?  The school calendar forces you to change, to graduate, and even if you decide not to go to college (which was never a thought for me), even if you decide to stay home and work, the people you have known will have scattered.  There will be a core who will have remained, but most will have gone, and you’ll see new kids walking the halls of your high school where your people had been.  Ghosts start leading the charge, whether you leave or you don’t.  You can’t stay in high school forever.

My step-brother Jay was a sophomore in CC when I was a h.s. senior, and I went up to visit him a few times with my friend Mike.  Those times were tremendous.  The mid-late 70s was a time of the 18-year-old drinking age, so CC had a pub in the student union because

I found out that Connecticut College started in 1911; I assumed it was older.

everyone could drink.  Beer flowed in parties throughout the dorms.  And the campus was unlike anything I had ever experienced.  The thought came quickly to me through the beer, friendship, and step-brotherly love: I could go here.  Of course, this was the only campus I ever really experienced.  Didn’t put much deep thinking into it, only it felt right.  Don’t really remember any other school piquing my interest.  If I applied and got in, Jay would be at CC, and I found out that his older brother David would be the assistant crew coach (I had been rowing for my high school team my senior year, and I would row for CC in the fall of my freshman year of college).  There was a free-form radio station I could dj for, a coffee house to play guitar; it seemed right.  And as I settled into the spring of my senior year of high school, I had a serious girlfriend, Corey,  who would be going to Boston University, only two hours away by train (from the nearby Amtrak station in New London).

The day leading up and the drive to college are still memorable 35 years later.  The night before mom and Jack took me out to dinner to the San Marco restaurant on City Line Avenue, a place I had walked by throughout my entire life and had never been to.  The next day dad picked my up in his recently borrowed Lincoln Continental (from Joe Stafford’s Auto body; he possessed that car for a few years, or rather the car possessed him.)  We packed that car: crates of record albums, guitar, clothes and bedding, stereo, typewriter.  My entire life was cruising up 95, waiting for this next chapter to begin.  I was feeling awash with the excitement and potential of new opportunities, and dad had his own sense of bewilderment.  He had recently been renting a place in Santa Monica in Southern California, wondering if his law firm could establish a branch out there. Eileen had been spending a lot of time out there and the two of them were at a critical juncture in their relationship.  I remember the talking during the long car ride: Eileen wanted a baby, and he didn’t (he would have been …46,  she 31?).

We weren’t going to the move in the dorm on the same day of the drive (it was a five hours drive – now I think of that as an easy jaunt.  You leave in the morning and you get there.  But this wasn’t the case driving from Philly to New London.  We pulled

The Mohican Hotel. Opened in 1898 and at one point was one of the finest hotels in Connecticut. Dad and I stayed there after it bottomed out. In the 1980s it was converted into housing for the elderly (source: http://historicbuildingsct.com/?p=1805).

into the seedy Mohican Hotel in New London, and parked the Lincoln with all my stuff clearly visible right on the street.  Throughout the night I kept waking up, wondering if someone was breaking into the car at this very minute.  To this day, I am shocked that the car was still there and untouched the next morning.  That car looked like such an easy target.  Maybe because it was so badass with its white wall tires and gold trim that no low-rung wannabe criminal would fuck with it?  But the Mohican Hotel was its own badass.  Newspapers serving as window shades, if my memory serves me well. The next morning we cruised into the college and dad was truly amazed.  He talked about his own college years, living at home on Georges Lane in West Philadelphia where he grew up and commuting to Temple University.  This college, with all these young people walking around without any regard to  their youth and freedom was like visiting a foreign country.  Club Ed.

This must be the place. Though cosmetic renovations have happened, this is the entrance to the dorm I spent my freshman year.

This was my entryway into my college life.  I remember walking down the hall to a big living room that held a piano (!).  Windows against a wall looked out onto a field which was bordered by a dorm on the other side.  My dorm room was a triple, shared with John Ehrlich from Connecticut (who had the top bunk on top of me), and Lyons Bradley from Alabama who had the other bed.  We were quite the threesome.  Everyone else in the dorm was in a single or double, but the three of us – all very different, but friendly – worked it out.  In the spring semester, when a single opened up on the first floor, the college gave it to us, and rather than one of us moving into the single, we decided to use that as an

This parking lot shouldn’t be there! Behind the dorm were woods. Stepped into these woods at times at night and during the day – it felt like they went on forever. I lost my wallet in there during the first few days of school – how the hell did that happen??

auxiliary room – for studying, for when one of us wanted some privacy.  We truly worked as roommates.  I would play records, and Lyons would play his cassette tapes.  He had a little cassette player and a set of huge earphones that he placed on his head.  I remember him listening to nothing but Oscar Peterson.  To this day (and I listen to Oscar Peterson much more now than I ever had) I always think of Lyons when Oscar is playing.  Thanks Lyons.  I still think of friendships made, of playing my Yamaha guitar in the cinder block stairwells because the the echo (Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” comes to mind), playing the piano in the lobby when no one else was around (Neil Young’s “Borrowed Tune” comes to mind) – intense friendships considering I was only there for a year, and I spent some weekends in Boston with Corey (and she spent some here).

The two windows all the way to the left on the third floor was the dorm room John, Lyons and I shared. It looked over the open quad (there were other dorms on the other side. Music was continually blasting out of dorm windows in the warm weather, an absence I felt walking around on a Monday afternoon 35 years later. The big stereo has gone the way of the record collection, relics of a different age.

What a line of students waiting to enter the Harris dining hall, which is part of the same complex as Johnson Hall.

The students lining up to get into lunch brought me back in a way I hadn’t expected, and affected my thoughts as I walked around the campus.  As a student 35 years ago, there was always a line to get into lunch and dinner, and Harris was the main dining hall on campus.  Waiting for meals seemed to be a highlight of our days because there was really a lack of much to do.  You took four classes per semester, which didn’t seem to eat up that much time during the day.  After class, before and after meals, you returned to your dorm room and hung out with anyone available, did some work, but there seemed to be a lot of waiting.  For me, I felt as if I were waiting for something to happen that wasn’t happening.  Most of my classmates seemed to feel  accustomed to this lifestyle; many had gone to private schools or boarding schools.  I was itching to do something more, to be somewhere else.  To paraphrase Tom Petty, the waiting was the hardest part.  Growing up outside of Philly spoiled me… there were record stores, book stores, hobby shops, concerts, great radio stations, my girlfriend, my high school friends.  At Connecticut College there was nothing.  As the months drifted by, I settled into a Connecticut College groove – sort of.  But I kept fighting it.

A drab building built in 1959 (see the commemorative marker on the corner)… on one hand yes, but this is where WCNI was (and still is). The building has been remodeled, but walking inside it felt the same. The large staircase up to the second floor which housed the radio station was still there.

A powerful interest to break the tedium: I started working at the WCNI and had an early Saturday morning show which I truly enjoyed. I’d show up for my shift early and pick out the records from the shelves on the wall (as well as the new record bin; I needed to play a few new releases per hour).

Notice the WCNI sign? The station used to be one floor above. It’s still there!

I’d sit in front of the console with a turntable on either side of me and feel one with the world. From years of listening to the radio and a high school internship at WYSP in Philly, a rock station, I was inspired to become a dj.  In Connecticut College, I was able to make this happen.  An people listened: from the college as well as the outside community (probably a dearth of other options).  I’d sub for other dj’s who couldn’t make their shifts. I sat at the console, both the dj and the engineer, a turntable to my right and a turntable to my left.  Cue up the music.  Play three new tracks from the new album bin per hour.  Speak into the mike (how awfully embarrassing it would be to hear extant tapes from my shows).  But dj-ing on WCNI gave me a purpose, and I felt an identity being part of the radio station.

I am a dj, I am what I play: Spinning the records circa 1977, taken by mom on a visit to the college (how devoted was she… getting up really early to take this shot during my early morning gig).

Back to the present: The library. I’d spend many hours there studying, writing, reading, and dreaming. It was so quiet and I’d be there usually by myself. I missed my old life and felt my new life didn’t seem to be centered here.

The music building at the other end of the campus from the dorm. Lyons used to come here a lot to use one of the studio rooms to practice his piano.

The front of the building which housed the auditorium. I took a film class there, which I remember better than any other class. I think of that often when I teach film classes, trying to get students to engage with films other than passively viewing them. Beautiful building, adjacent to the music building. Had one concert the year I was there: Livingston Taylor, brother of James. Livingston Taylor also played one night at Lower Merion during my senior year of high school. Urgh. Cemented the feeling that there wasn’t much happening here.

I remembered night-sledding on plastic lunch trays during the blizzard of 77 (I am so happy I am a fan of Nada Surf).  School was closed for two day, which was pretty wild because almost all the students lived in dorms and we were all there anyway.  The snow kept coming and coming and accumulating.  It happened all throughout the northeast, except we were in our own world in CC.  The night time sledding was awesome, and it seemed as if 50 kids took part in it.  Maybe we were all stoned, or most of us?  I remember it all as being otherworldly, and I found the spot on my visit.  By walking around the campus, by visiting places that at first blush did not seem important to my memory, I found that unexpected spot, and the memories came flooding back.  I had time: I walked to the arboretum located just outside one of the side gates to the college, and on this beautiful September afternoon I was in the midst of a vista that I last visited one snowy evening over a third of a century previously.  As I walked down the wide grassy lane bordered with shrubs, it hit me: this was where we sledded!  The hill was much gentler than I remembered, but it evened out and ended in a pond (I think the lurching over the snow that our lunch tray sleds had provided had petered out in plenty time before icy wet disaster would have happened).  Standing on that wide lane I felt it all – it was an exciting moment.

I only spent a year at Connecticut College.  And it wasn’t a “real” year but an academic year.  However, I lived in that school.  Lived away from Philly or Atlantic City for the first time in my life.  September through December, then home (I would work back home in the Drexel University bookstore during the ridiculous six-week winter break), then back February though May.  1977-1978.  That was it.  But powerful memories remain of friends, relationships, and that tremendous feeling that adulthood and life was beckoning, but it wasn’t to reach its essence on this beautiful campus.

Dale and Drew’s world

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The summer’s over? The view of the LI Sound from the shore of Saugatuck Island where Dale and Drew live.  Their house is a block from here, but you’re always aware of the close proximity of the Sound.

It was such a beautiful day.  “Crystal clear” is an overused expression, but it fits.  I drove 265 miles on Monday Sept. 10 to visit New London followed by Dale and Drew in Westport, CT. The sky such a deep clear blue with billowing white clouds. Playing CDs in the car stereo that I’ve never listened to (Luna, tribute to Bob Dylan) or rarely (Matthew Sweet rareties, Little Feat, Sonic Youth’s Murray Street).  On such a day, 95 from New York through Connecticut, usually a dreary road, looked… good! Traffic was moving, the sun was shining and the music was transporting.  It was a day with the first hints of autumn in the air.  It truly felt like back-to-school (a fitting day to revisit Connecticut College). And one of many highlights was when Dale and I drove to their previous home in Wilton from their house in Westport – it was a top-down kind of afternoon in Dale’s convertible!

The view from the backyard of Dale and Drew’s old house in Wilton.  We parked in Nick’s driveway, who still lives behind this backyard

Driving from D&D’s house on Saugatuck Isl. to Wilton takes only about 20 minutes, but the locations are world’s apart (something Dale commented on).  On the drive, Dale remarked how she seldom had driven these roads in the 11+ years it’s been since they’ve moved, and as we drive further north on Rte. 7, closer to her old house on Sugarloaf Drive, the changes became apparent to her.  One big change: traffic lights where no traffic lights had been before.  We passed a carnival set up on the side of the road near the high school, and it was hard to miss the ferris wheel lodged perilously close to the road.  It brought Dale back: when the family live in Wilton, the carnival came every fall and she always hated that ferris wheel.  I can’t blame her – I, too, never trusted those temporary rides that were set up for a week or so, then dismantled and set up again elsewhere.  What if the installers missed an important bolt or tamp-down device??  Dale and I looking and commenting about the ferris wheel: a bunch of old worry-worts from the Crab family.

On Saugatuck Island you are always aware of the sky and the water, and on Sugarloaf Drive in Wilton you are simply aware of the woods.  Though the neighborhood is as they say in New England, “thickly settled,” you’re aware of the deep respect the homeowners have for all their trees.  There is thick cover over everything; huge canopies of leaves from all the trees cast a strong shade throughout the looping ride on Sugarloaf.  Traveling on Sugarloaf you quickly become one with the forest, and it is an awesome feeling.  And this isn’t a traditional first-ring type of suburb built to house the initial wave of city dwellers who left the city to commute from the “country.” Those original suburbs, like Teaneck, like Lower Merion, were planned with walkers in mind.  There are sidewalks, there is street parking, the houses are close together.  Wilton is over 50 miles from New York City.  Though now I imagine many residents commute to the city, it doesn’t have that first-ring suburban feel.  The houses on Sugarloaf are newer, most I imagine built in the last 50 years, though many (all?) of the original homes have either been extensively remodeled or torn down in favor of newer, bigger construction.  Driving on Sugarloaf, looking up at the all trees covering us (remember, we’re in a convertible), we realized there’s no place to park or to pull over.  We slowly drove past house after house which brought Dale back.  A few houses featured brand new construction since she’s been there last.  As we approached her old home, we knew what to do: go by their former neighbor Nick who lived right behind them.  We could park in his driveway and use that as an anchor for looking at their old house.

Nick happened to be home.  Nick and his wife Anne had moved behind Dale and Drew when Geoff and Alli were small, and they became good friends, sharing their backyard without any fencial interruptions (great word – don’t bother looking it up).  I think that friendship was one of the hardest factors in their move to Westport; you are very lucky if you have a neighbor who becomes a good friend.  Dale hadn’t been to Nick’s house since the move; when Nick’s son Teddy answered the door Dale was floored.  He’s a high school senior and Dale hadn’t seen him in a looonnnngggg time.  In comparison, her old house is pretty much the same, but kids, man, they change.  It is a flooring feeling to not see kids in years.

Walking into Dale and Drew’s old backyard. Nick is our guide. And here’s the hill where Geoff and Alli used to sled down.

When Dale and Drew moved into this house, it was a modest ranch on a huge property.  There was a ride-on mower somehow attached to the deal with the landscaped acre.  The part of the house that stayed the same in its transformation from ranch to two-story colonial was the wonderful stone fireplace in the living room.  Dale explains how she always loved that fireplace.  At five o’clock, in for the evening, she would light a fire and the living room  would then be the centerpiece, the gathering place, of the evening.  I’ve always romanticized fireplaces: we had one on Upland Road that was never used (mom had long claimed it was something with the chimney).  Her and Jack put in a ceramic fireplace in their newly-constructed den on Grassmere Rd.  One of the reasons Beatrice St. became a “yes” for me was the fireplace; maybe we’re carrying on the tradition that Dale used to embrace.

Looking at the house from the outside, there have been a few changes in the 11+ years: the paint,s a different color (Dale liked her yellow better), additional decking added to the rear, tastefully done mason work accenting the landscaping in the front, but overall the sense of the house remains the same. I wonder if Geoff and Alli were here would they would sense things differently?  Geoff was going into tenth grade when they moved; Alli was going into eighth.  Maybe the yard, which is big, had seemed massive to them, as if each end were in separate time zones.  I always got such a sense of space in their old house in Wilton, but that’s maybe I kept visiting from much smaller spaces, whether East 10th Street in the city, Delano Place in Fairview, Tilden Ave or Beatrice St (even though each subsequent space for us has gotten bigger an bigger).  It’s all about personal perspective – you can’t escape it.

The front of the house on Sugarloaf.

We never spent much time in the front (which looks so much smaller than the back view).  You’d spy the house on the road, then pull into the driveway (which, steeply banked, was very difficult in wintry weather, which Dale reminded me).  You’d rarely enter through the front door.  You’d enter through the kitchen door by the garage, or by the garage itself.  I have so many memories of the driveway, but most paramount was the dumpster that was in place when they were cleaning out the ranch house in preparation for the big construction (they lived in a condo for about six months until the work was completed).  I came up for a few days to help them out.  At one point Drew asked me to throw out his record collection.  Now this was the early, mid-90s, when the shift to CDs was complete, and many folks were foregoing their record collection in favor of CDs.  I’ve always loved my records, but these weren’t mine, they were Drew’s, so I brought armful after armful out to the dumpster.  Job completed, but then it hit me: what if years from now Drew began to miss one of his old records.  What if he were – in a wave of nostalgia – to set up a turntable and want to listen to his old vinyl.  He wouldn’t be able to, and why? Because brother-in-law Bob had thrown them all out.  No!!!  I went outside late that night, climbed into the dumpster, and dedumpstered Drew’s vinyl, telling him if he wants to get rid of the records, he would have to do the dirty work himself… I would not be blamed.

back to the back and the many-layered deck

Walking to the back again – our car is parked at Nick’s – I again look at the house.  We had a lot of good times in the backyard.  I remember all of us sitting on the deck at many gatherings.  If we were staying overnight, I could drink without thinking about driving back.  If we came for a day trip I would drink but then stop, giving me ample time to let the alcohol leave my system for the ride back.  And if it was hard to stop drinking in Wilton, it was twice as hard after Dale and Drew moved to Saugatuck Island, and Drew installed a kegorator first in his garage, eventually in his bar in the backyard.  Which brings us back to the present.

A view out the driver’s side window as you drive up Harbor Rd. toward Saugutuck Island.

There is nothing like the water.  It attracts so many of us.  We yearn to live by the water, to spend time by the water.  Even if you don’t take advantage of it, it is easy to romanticize a life by the sea (see my City Island post).  Though both Wilton and Westport are top-tiered suburbs, there is a great contrast between Saugatuck Island and Sugarloaf Drive (if you’re visiting them back to back, it’s very apparent).  Goodbye wood-chipper.  Hello clam bake.

A bridge to crawl over

How’s this for an entry way.  You come down Harbor and you have to drive real slow to take in the beautiful vista on your left.  As the road winds, up ahead is a… bridge? You slow down even further.  There are speed bumps and a “5 mph” sign.  You take it… barely.  You stay in first gear.  There is only room for one car at a time (no trucks), and you feel the earth…move…under your feet as you crawl up and down the bridge.  Sure, the powers-that-be could replace this quaint crossing in a heartbeat with something more efficient and sensible, but then the old worldliness of this crossing experience would be no more.  Yea to the old world! (and… there is a way onto the island without bridging it. In actuality, this really isn’t an island, but a peninsula.   If we have RINOs this election season, is this an IINO (Island In Name Only)?  Maybe at one point it used to be truly an island, but landfill changed it?

The back of Dale and Drew’s house on Saugatuck. The bar area is underneath the overhand.

Throughout these blog postings, you will probably see a scarcity of back yards, yet with Dale and Drew the back yards are featured.  Yea for access.  The area around Dale and Drew’s is spectacular for what you can’t see: the water.  However, you know it’s there, a block-and-a-half away.  But the Sound, and the spirit of the island, dominate their lives.  Most of the hanging is upstairs – it’s where the kitchen, dining room, living room and bedrooms are.  There’s a fireplace, but it’s gas, and a simple flick of the wrist turns it on and off (the massive chimney you see pictured is for the fireplace on the first floor, which isn’t used much).  The downstairs main room empties right onto the side yard and

If you look carefully, you can see the “Landshark” beer tap on the keg on the very left side of the bar

back yard patio. And the highlight of the patio is the bar.  Dale and Drew love to entertain, and Drew is in his element when he’s behind the stick.  Maybe in a former life he was a bartender (or a fisherman).  When Drew has his people around him, good music streaming from the speakers (you can see a white speaker above the bar), he is having a good time and is making sure that everyone is feeling the same.  I look at this shot, and think of other photographs taken over the past ten years and times simply hanging there.  There’s something I find very real about feeling nostalgic for the present – realizing that a place is special and will always be special.  Appreciating it in the now knowing that it won’t be there forever (well, it will, but other people will be living there).  If/when Dale and Drew move, how can this be anything but Drew’s bar????  If I come back to visit, I would sincerely hope the new owners would welcome me with a draft.  I’ll have to ask for that to be a rider in the sales contract.

Walking down Island Way to the beach, this is the house right on the water.

Out of all the houses I’ve seen in the places that Dale and Drew have lived, this is by far my favorite.  Of course it’s the location: right on the water.  But I love the simplicity of the structure and the dramatic opening that lets the view shine through for anyone walking down the street.  It’s almost as if the home were sharing: of course this is my view, but please look as well.  Enjoy.  It’s for all of us.  The home does not have to wow us with girth or decorative geegaws.  If you could live here, you wouldn’t need a television, you would only need to look out your living room window.  You would always be enlightened and you would never be bored.

City Island: The Grit and the Gulls

Wouldn’t you want to live here? Looking at Long Island Sound at the end of Carroll Street on City Island.  You can even see the twin towers of the  Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance, which reminds me of commuting.

Gail and I started the summer wanting to visit six New York Islands.  We started with Roosevelt Island, then ventured to Ellis Island (see previous post).  A few weeks back we spent the late afternoon/evening in City Island in the Bronx.  It is a world unto itself, a sea shore village with a unique urban edge.  It is also a place where Gail’s dad Harry lived for a year at some point when Gail was in high school.  Where did he live?  That was part of our detective work this afternoon.  One place that she always remembered from the few times she visited her as a youngster: The Black Whale where she used to eat dessert, and where we did the same at the end of our day.

The above shot I like for a number of reasons. The houses at the end of the blocks on the west side of the island are stunning and have incredible views (one can even see the city skyline about nine or so miles away).  They all have their own private “beach;” they’re waterfront properties that have the water all to themselves.  But the biggest reason: look past the manicured lawn, the Adirondack chair facing westward, and you can see the Throgs Neck Bridge in the distance.  My Throgs Neck Bridge (It’s all about me, right?)  The bridge I drive over four days a week when I’m teaching to get to Nassau Community College.  It’s always a highlight of my commute when I’m on the bridge (wait – can a horrible commute have a “highlight?”).   But bridges can be so iconic, and the TNB certainly is.  I fantasize: wouldn’t it be great to live on CI and commute to work from there?  I could avoid the GWB and the Cross Bronx Expressway. Living in CI, in a matter of moments I would be approaching the TNB.  My commute could be 20 minutes – if I lived in a dreamland (truth be told, it would probably take me a lot longer to get off island and then get to 95, but this is a fantasy.  Also, part of this fantasy is Gail having retires – this is years from now.  She could sub and one of the island’s two public schools).  And – hey – here I am on a beautiful August afternoon on this beautiful City Island and I’m strategizing commuting if we ever move here.  What is wrong with me????

Looking down Carroll Street looking west. The house from the first shot would have been by the water on the left side of the street. Notice the double-red stop light at the end of the block warning drivers that there ain’t no road left.

One of the unique characteristics of the island is how narrow it is.  There is one main drag that goes up and down the island.  It is the spine of the island.  The east-west roads only intersect City Island Avenue.  There are no other intersecting roads.  While City Island Avenue has shops, playgrounds, boat supply shops, schools, restaurants, churches (and abandoned store fronts), while it is a three lane road (with the middle lane reserved for emergency vehicles – after all most structures are pretty old and most are of wood construction) the traffic and noise can remind you that you are still in the Bronx.  However, step off the avenue and you feel as if you have stepped out of time into a different world.  It’s quiet.  You can smell good things like the sea, like the vegetation.  Late August sunlight is intense filtered off the water and through the trees.

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Gail walking eastward down Carroll Street, away from the house in the first shot.

Another house on Carroll Street. It is hard to believe we are in New York City

A beautiful clapboard church along City Island Ave. I love all the electric wires going north, south, east, and west. And look carefully, you can see a bit of the Long Island Sound to the left way behind the pole.

So we parked on Carroll and explored that street, we then walked down City Island Avenue a half-mile or so until the island’s end.  It ends in honky tonk, two seafood restaurants that remind me of a City Island version of Cape May Point’s Sunset Beach (multiply their six tables by 25??).  Pigeons peck and seagulls swoop.  Young guys in motorboats and jetskis are hot dogging and racing right by the sea wall – kinda like dudes on motorcycles screaming by you on the west side highway.  It is an intense scene.  Crowded for an early Thursday night.  We’ve eaten here before on a previous visit, but we wander, retracing our steps up City Island Avenue to find a place for dinner.

How can you resist?

We sit outside at Sammy’s a beautiful late August night.  The menu is extensive, and expensive.  It’s hot out – but we feel the air conditioning coming in from the open doors of the restaurant.  We order two beers and they come in frozen mugs… just the ticket.  We decide on raw clams and oysters.  It’s a hot night on City Island.  We leisurely eat our food, drink our beers, enjoy this deeply pleasurable moment of our lives.

Sitting outside at Sammy’s

Gail had remembered “Pilot Street” as her dad’s old address.  He lived there for a year, she visited him two, maybe three times.  How does she remember?  How does memory work?  How can we remember an old address from 35 years ago but not the name of the main character of a tv drama we watch week after week???  Pilot is just around the corner from Sammy’s.  We walk up the street of older homes.  Some houses in City Island look as if the caretaker stopped really caring sometime during the Bush administration.  Lots of sagging parts, yards overgrown and littered with rusty old shit.  And some homes are beautiful and impeccably maintained.  But walking down Pilot nothing seemed familiar to Gail.  Harry wouldn’t have lived in a house – it wouldn’t have been his style.   Maybe he kept his boat out by the island somewhere?  At the end of Pilot there is an apartment building.  It didn’t look familiar, but the longer we lingered, the clearer the realization came.

This must be the place.  Later the mystery is solved: 11 Pilot Street.

The building itself didn’t register any bang.  but where else would Harry have lived on Pilot?  And we’re talking 1975.  The building faces the water.  Harry could have been watching sunsets.  There was no “aha” moment, just the strong probability that this must be the place.  And later in the evening when we were having dessert in the Black Whale, the actual address came to Gail.  30 Pilot Street.  She Googled it on her phone and the building came up.

Okay, we’re not going to move there anytime soon (days later the realization came to me that unless you’re living right on the water, you really have very little access to the water.  It’s not like the Jersey shore where every block offers access.  Here there is only access for elite homeowner (though the 99%  can gaze from behind the concrete barriers at street’s end).  But it’s fantastic place.  A true mix of urban and sea shore.  The grit and the gulls.  The old buildings still seem to stand – there doesn’t seem to have been a rush of newer construction that ruined old places.  Sure some storefronts are new (or newly empty), and some new buildings have sprung up, but I would venture to guess that the essence of City Island hasn’t changed as much as other places have changed, say in the past 30 years.  It was already developed, it probably isn’t any more densely settled than it was.  Somehow, I feel at home here.  Through the mixture of urban and seashore, I’m reminded of the Atlantic City of my youth, but in a good way.  And you can see the Manhattan skyline from here.  One is never far away from the cultural hub of the universe.

Outside the Black Whale, which remains Gail’s strongest memory of her teenage visits to City Island. 

The sunsets are spectacular for those facing west on City Island. Notice the Manhattan skyline behind the gazebo.

Spending Time in Ron’s Room

In the back seat of Rojana’s VW camper van, on the way from Boulder to Red Rocks to see NY&CH!

Reader Beware: In the post ahead I risk sounding like a gushing teenager rather than 53 year old man.  Now, Gail and I have been to hundreds of concerts, and have hundreds of concert experiences, quite a few experiences punctuated with a capital “E.”  Neil Young and Crazy Horse at Red Rocks on August 5 deserves all the capital letters.

Ron had purchased four tickets – for Gail, me, himself, and, as it turned out, for his friend Rojana.  Ron made Rojana an offer she couldn’t refuse: In exchange for a ticket, all she had to do was drive us all in her VW camping van, in which we could pre-game and post-game in the comforts of the van in the parking lot of Red Rocks.   The ride from Boulder to Red Rocks is about 45 minutes, and in a van packed with beer, wine, and all sorts of delectables, off we went, Gail and I passengerizing about 12 feet behind the driver and her navigator.

we’re not in East Rutherford, NJ: Entrance to Red Rocks

Pulling into Red Rocks is an extraordinary experience.  You’re driving from Boulder with the face of the Rockies to your right and flat lands – more like gentle bumpy lands – to your left.  You pass signs for roads taking you up into the mountains.  You pass signs for Golden, Colorado, and, yes, you can see the Coors Brewery.  But the overall impression is space.  There are a few weathered eating/drinking establishments on the road, and a couple of recently-built condo developments, and as you’re taking it all in the driver makes a right up into the mountains, and you’re climbing, climbing.  Rock formations crop up and explode out of the red ground.  Before you know it, you are going into a tunnel carved through the rock.  Up ahead there’s a sign.  Further there’s a parking area.  There’s not a hint of commercialism, and except for the two land blacktop, no asphalt.  Welcome to Red Rocks.

The parking lot at Red Rocks doesn’t feel like a parking lot, more like a camp site.  What was so funny?

From car stereos parked nearby, you hear Neil.  Old Neil.  You unpack the camping chairs and the coolers.  It’s over two hours before show time and you take some photographs and take it all in.  The open space, the mountains, the rocks, the distances (yes, you can see Denver, which appears as some distant mirage).  You are having lots of laughs, Rojana talking about her years of following the Dead.  You’re all reminiscing of where you were and what you were doing the day Jerry Garcia died, the day Elvis Presley died, the day John Lennon died (how did we get here?)  All sorts of people walking by .  You are relishing in the moment, surrounded by a new friend and two of your best friends.

Another glimpse of the parking lot. Hey, who takes a cab to Red Rocks?

Walking from the parking lot into the amphitheater

the stage at Red Rocks

The stage at Red Rocks. Can you see Neil’s Indian statue?

Walking into the Red Rocks amphitheater is just as otherworldly as entering the parking lot.  Our lot was on top of the amphitheater, so we walked along a trail that afforded us the view that you see pictured.  You enter from below and we walked right in front of the stage.  Since the rows of benches are built onto the cliffside, the stage is not much more than a foot off the ground (front row seaters must feel like the artist is in their living room, or that they’re busking on the street – it’s that immediate.  You’re literally staring eyeball to eyeball with the artist).  And you can see from the image above that the stage is surrounded by rocks.  As Bonnie Raitt quipped to Ron backstage before a show at Red Rocks, “I feel like I’m in the Flintstones.”

The cheap seats offer the best view

After passing the stage, we climbed.  And climbed.  Huffed and puffed (the air is thinner up in the mountains).  When Ron bought the tickets he purposely bought the cheapest seats which would give us the greatest view of the space and place that is Red Rocks.  You’re not up close and personal with the artist, but you are up close and personal with the experience of being there: the artist and the environment.  This shot was taken during the opening set by the Alabama Shakes, who were great.  Transcended being so far away.  Soulful, hip-hugging, rocking.  They received a standing ovation from the crowd.  After returning home I immediately bought their record.  They were that good.

And Neil Young.  To put this show in perspective, like many of his best shows, over half the show was brand new material.  As I’m writing this post, I’m listening to Neil’s live acoustic album “Live in Massey Hall 1971.”  At one point, he explains to the audience (this is ’71 Neil I’m writing about) , “I’m going to sing mainly new songs rather than old ones.”  Of course these “new” songs played live in 1971 were eventually recorded and released as “Harvest,” arguable his most commercially successful record.  And now they’re classics.  But at that time the audience didn’t know them.  One of my all-time favorite Neil albums, “Time Fades Away” – criminally never released on CD – was a live album of brand new songs, songs that only exist on that live LP.  When I saw Neil in 1978, in what would be known as the Live Rust tour, “Rust Never Sleeps” had yet to be released, so they were all new songs.  And of course, one of my favorite tours was in 2003 when Neil previewed “Greendale”, playing the album in its entirety to a bewildered crowd at Madison Square Garden.  Me: I was enthralled and grooving on every new song.  The last time we saw Neil he played songs that were to become his mediocre “Fork in the Road” release.  But he keeps challenging his audience.

And, yes, he did the same thing at Red Rocks.  Half the set – half the set! was brand new material.  I was prepared to hear a lot of “Americana,” the first full NY&CH release in nearly 15 years (by “prepared” I mean I really like the record, but the novelty does flatten things out by the end of the listen, though the band sounds brutally fresh).  They played nothing from Americana, opening up with an explosive “Love and Only Love” and then “Powderfinger.”  And from that it got weirder.  And better.  One new song was especially mind-blowing, “Walk Like a Giant.”  On the ride up to Red Rocks, Ron was explaining how dinosaurs used to roam this area of Colorado, a large amount of dinosaur bones and skeletons have been discovered on the hills around Red Rocks.  And in this stomping, tremendous song, I felt I were living in the time of dinosaurs.  Neil and Crazy Horse were KILLING it.  The song went on for about 15 minutes toward what seemed like a natural conclusion.  But no.  The ending became brutal In its descending power chord thrust and chomp, (wait), chomp, (wait), chomp.  The three guitar players huddled together davening.  Yes, davening, like religious Jews at a temple.  And as it chomped on and on, the big red moon slowly rose over the landscape to add an even richer perspective to an already epic experience.  Again, at the risk of sounding like an over-excited teenager (and I’m writing about this over three weeks after the fact): OMG!!!

Red Rocks Parking lot at the end the day

Ron’s shot of us and the van hours after the show.

The last ending crunch of “Over and Over” fades.  No further encores.  The show is over.  Since we’re already at the top of the amphitheater, it’s not a long walk to the van where, once again, we take out the camping chairs and coolers and have another great time hanging while all the traffic tries to snake down from the mountain.  We wait.  And wait.  And Ron takes this great shot of the emptied parking lot at show’s end.

“I won’t retire… but I might retread.” Neil Young, “Falling from Above”

On reading The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

Opening page of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer

In a Mark Twain state of mind.  Having finished Ron Power’s biography, I moved into rereading the classic Twain text (which I last fully read – maybe…maybe… – twenty years ago).  In the years since I’ve read The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn maybe half-a-dozen times (because of teaching it).  HF looms large, and in many ways I’ve always been dismissive of TS , though that is largely from reading so much criticism of Twain that largely reduces TS to being a good story, but not in the same league as HF.  However, it is one thing to not be in the same league as, another to not bother with it because of its inferiority.  Does one forsake other Beatles albums because they are not in the same realm as Sgt. Pepper or Revolver?  Other Pink Floyd albums because they are not Dark Side of the Moon or Wish You Were Here (aside: which we listened to a few nights ago, sitting in the living room and just listening.  Gail, Jake, Jake’s friend Kim and me.  Kim had just seen The Wall performed by Roger Waters at Yankee stadium.  I digress).  Anyway, I wanted to reconnect with the book, having remembered some key scenes (the obvious fence painting, the cave scene (which I remembered incorrectly I realized.   Thanks memory).

One pleasure of the text: the ease of boyhood life that Twain depicts in his fictional town on the banks of the Mississippi – largely based on his boyhood in Hannibal, MO, in the early 1850s.  Twain – writing TS, Life on the Mississippi, and HF – brings the reader back to the world of his lived and imagined boyhood.  The 1870s and 1880s were a time rife with change (the failed Reformation, the industrial revolution).  Writing from his study in his newly built home in Nook Farm in Hartford (see previous post) as well as his sister-in-law’s home in Elmira, NY, Twain closed his eyes and visited the threshold of memory and imagination.  Twain writes to Will Bowen, a close boyhood friend, on Feb. 6, 1870: “I have rained reminiscences for four & twenty hours.  The old life has swept before me like a panorama; the old days have trooped by in their old glory again.”  Twain digs in deep and goes back to the Hannibal of his boyhood: the imagined, romanticized Hannibal of his early days.  In doing so he waxes nostalgic for a time that has passed, and as a man in his late 30s of a boyhood that has long passed.  It’s amazing – this is what literature does – to realize that nostalgia knows no particular era.  We as humans are always nostalgic for what once was.  The past is always present.  The present is always the past.

One of the pleasures of the text for me this go round: Tom Sawyer and the boys appreciating the act of being idle.  Idleness is a lost art: the art of doing nothing.  But nothing is never ever really nothing.  I can’t seem to be doing nothing, though someone looking at my life (especially in the summer when I’m not teaching) could say I’m “doing nothing.”  But our 2012 lives are crammed.  Jake and Kevin’s lives are crammed.  Their idleness seems to be in sleeping (though Jake has had a good loafing weekend this weekend (I’m writing this post on a temperate but cloudy Sunday afternoon while sitting out back on the porch.  And I ain’t loafing, I’m writing.  Though to some people this might be loafing.  Who am I fooling?).  Yesterday – my…ahem…53rd birthday – Jake took Kim to the airport at nine a.m., came home with bagels and lox for all (yeah Jake!), and after Gail left to go to a brunch, we sat around, played Twixt, then I played some old vinyl.  Hüsker Dü’s New Day Rising.  Jake was asleep on the sofa, his read nearly resting on his open computer, by side 2.  How could anyone fall asleep to Hüsker Dü?

But I digress.  Loafing.  On of the pleasures of the text.  Romanticizing of a rural time gone by.  Certainly a time of innocence and imagination.  A time in which kids could run free with their imaginations, pre television, pre air conditioning, pre computer games, pre internet and social media, pre parental involvement (but also pre medical advances and racial equality).  Shit, if kids didn’t come home after awhile, the adults simply dragged the river hoping their bodies would float to the surface! But the boys – Tom especially (it is his story) – had a rich inner life that showed a sensitivity and awareness of their awesome place in the scheme of life.  Followed is one of my favorite passages from Chapter 13 in which Tom, Huck and Joe run away to Jackson Island:

  • They found plenty of things to be delighted with but nothing to be astonished at.  They    discovered that the island was about three miles long and a quarter of a mile wide, and that the shore, it last closest to was only separated from it by a narrow channel hardly two hundred yards wide.  They took a swim about every hour, so it was close upon the middle of the afternoon when they got back to camp.  They were too hungry to stop to fish, but they fared sumptuously upon cold ham, and then threw themselves down in the shade to talk.  But the talk soon began to drag, and then died.  The stillness, the solemnity that brooded in the woods, that the sense of loneliness, began to tell upon the spirits of the boys.  The fell to thinking.  A sort of undefined longing crept upon them.  This took dim shape, presently – it was budding home-sickness.  Even Finn the Red-Handed was dreaming of his door-steps and empty hogsheads.  But they were all ashamed of their weakness, and none was bave enough to speak his thought.

I love how Twain allows all these young boys to be aware of the “sense of loneliness” of being away on the island for a few days.  This feeling will be heightened in HF; in the later book Huck seems to continually remark – in that powerful first-person pov – how lonely he is.

Another pleasure of the text is the illustrations.  I felt reading this facsimile of the first edition of TS, much as I felt reading the facsimile of the first edition of HF, that the success of the book owes a tremendous amount to True Williams’ illustrations.  Nearly every other page has some type of illustration.  It brings the reader into the world of the book in a way that Brian Selznick’s beautiful illustrations of The Adventures of Hugo Cabret did.  As a reader, it is so pleasurable to linger over the illustrations and let the images help inform and  color the world of Twain’s text.  Twain himself was very happy with Williams’ work, and though he composed without pictures – they were added with Twain’s enthusiastic consent in publishing – they are indispensable to me.  I can’t imagine feeling the same way in reading the book without the pictures (ditto for HF).  And most readers who approach the text have read it in budget versions that do not include illustrations as all!  A great injustice!  I found a 99 cent version online which replicates the original text (but on my Kindle in some kind of bastardized form – maybe better on an IPad?)  There is hope that future readers can all see replications of the original publication.  I am so happy to have these facsimile versions (and sad to see this series – published by Oxford UP – is now out-of-print).  I am proud to have four of their 20+ volumes on my bookshelf.  It was tremendous to read TS in this way in which it was originally published.  What follows are three of my favorite illustrations that truly capture the sense of place and space, something in which this blog is devoted to:

The above three images are some of my favorites of True Williams’ illustrations to Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer taken from a facsimile of the first edition of the text.

On a New York island (part one – visiting Ellis Island)

Looking northward from the dock at Liberty State Park

Friday was a cool, rainy, wind-swept day.  Perfect weather for a ferry trip from Liberty State Park to Ellis Island.  Gail had been there four, five, or six times previously with 70 eight and nine year olds in tow.  This trip was to prove to different in many ways.  Driving up to Liberty State Park is an experience.  You drive on a congested two-lane offshoot of the turnpike toward Bayonne and Jersey City.  You’ve got Death Cab for Cuties Plans CD playing loud because you just saw them then night before at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair, and that is your favorite of their albums.  You get off the slow-moving highway into what looks like nowheresville, NJ.  Sure Manhattan is looming right in the background, but you’re in this quasi industrial/rural-like forgotten part of New Jersey.  But there are signs that lead you.  Make a left.  Then another left.  The road surface goes from okay to neglected to – what’s this – cobblestones?  You don’t dare take the Honda out of second gear.  But you’re on a long straight road (could have been built by our forefathers, but realistically it was built in the past 25 years when this whole area was completely cleaned up and.  You drive the road and you see what looks like a grand ghost to an industrial age long past.  A huge railroad terminal at the river’s edge.  Maybe a dozen tracks feeding into it leading… nowhere now.  We parked the car and walked to the rusting steel fence.  The tracks are all covered but the weeds – many of them as big as basketball poles – have taken over.  We walk alongside the tracks maybe 500 feet until we get to the main terminal that feeds/once fed  the tracks.  This main terminal has been completely renovated/rebuilt and now houses the ticket purchasing and security to take visitors to Ellis and Liberty Islands.

Beware of ghosts: inside the main terminal remnant signs from an earlier era

Gail remarked what a difference a rainy day in July makes.  She had never seen the terminal so empty.  She bought our tickets, we walked outside to the grey to wait for our ferry.

Ghost slips waiting for the ferries from days gone by

Visiting Ellis Island is truly visiting a another world – doors are opened to a past 100 years before.  The main building has been completely restored, and walking through the hall and all the rooms you are reminded of visiting Alcatraz: it’s been fixed up to accomodate the throngs, but the past is always looking down upon us.  It’s all about learning and appreciation: Learning that it was just the steerage passengers who  were sent to Ellis Island; the first and second-class passengers were processed toward the end of the Atlantic crossing.  When their vessels docked in Manhattan, they were free to leave.  The masses in steerage had to then board ferries to take them from the docks of Manhattan to Ellis Island.

upstairs looking down upon The Great Hall, where thousands milled around waiting for their name to be called to start the processing.

Probably the most powerful display was on the third floor of the images taken before the restoration.  Looking at Ellis Island in all its dilapidated glory was truly a visual experience.  Rooms covered with torn sheets of peeling paint. Broken windows.  Grime. Dirt.  Decay.  It helps you realize what was once there years after what is being celebrated and before all the restoration began. The ruins are fabulous, but it can’t stay that way.  To make it a destination, revitalization has to come in.  And it makes sense.  The island was revitalized throughout its history: the main building was a wooden structure that burned to the ground five years after it was built.  The new “fire proof” building was built in the late 1880s (maybe?  fact checker?)

Okay. I didn’t take this shot. However, it gives you a good visual representation of the island and the huge circular wall of names.

The circular wall of names outside the Great Hall

Here are the Lazaroffs. None of these are my direct relatives. My great grandfather Michael Lazaroff came over previous to Ellis Island. He came into New York via Clinton Gardens (now referred to as Castle Clinton). There will be more about this in a future post.

Gail’s grandfather Sam is listed here – thanks to her Aunt Sandy and Aunt Alice for (probably) making the listing happen.  Shael is her great grandfather (she thinks).

on reading Sam Clemens, on visiting his home

Image

Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT

Welcome tp the 21st Century Mark Twain. Visitor’s to the Welcome Center outside the Mark Twain house are greeted by a life-size statue of the infamous author constructed out of Legos!

There are so many places and sights to celebrate.  You can travel far, far, far, or you can drive a few hours.  The next few posts will celebrate a trip I took with my nephew Geoff to Hartford, CT to visit and walk in the footsteps of two truly American writers.

Please look at the image above – Mark Twain’s house where he, his wife, and ultimately his three daughters lived for about 15 years during the “happiest” days of Mark Twain’s life (roughly 1875- 1890)   I learned a lot from the tour of the house, which was reinforced by reading Ron Power’s excellent and deep biography of Twain.  On the tour, Geoff and I learned that MT’s wife came from money, that she bankrolled the designing/building of the house, that they both loved to entertain in the lavish downstairs (though the upstairs was much more spartan and to the Clemens’s liking.  This was the house where Twain worked on his greatest books: Tom Sawyer, Life on the Mississippi, and The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (though much of the writing was done in a gazebo in his sister-in-law’s house in Elmira, NY where Twain and family loved to visit in the summer).  Sam Clemens loved technology.  The house was one of the county’s first to have a telephone (who would the person with the first telephone call?).  It also had an intercom between rooms/kitchen.  It had a burglar alarm (?)

It was tremendous to visit the house, to gaze upon rooms, to gaze out of windows, to gaze, gaze, gaze upon vistas the Twain himself had gazed upon nearly 150 years previously.  It is glorious that the house still stands.  The neighborhood used to be known as Nook Farms, and it was a very well-to-do intellectually curious community (Harriet Beecher Stowe was the Clemens’s next-door-neighbor).  We visited the library, Sam and Livy’s bedroom (with the infamous Venetian bed in place – Sam and Livy liked to sleep with their heads at the foot of the bed so they could gaze at the beautifully carved headboard), and Sam’s study where he did his writing.  Huge billiard table occupying much of the floorspace (and on the third floor no less… how did they get it up there?  How hot must it have been in the third floor in the summer – but they spent a lot of the summer in Elmira).

here’s an image of Mark Twain in his third floor study playing billiards at the huge table that took up much of the room (and must have been a bitch to move it there)

Finished Power’s book last night, and it had to end how it ended… Mark Twain had to die. It’s a huge problem with biographies of dead people; the book’s end when the subject under study dies.  It happened with Truman Capote (bio read during the winter) and it happened with Gram Parsons (the biography I finished about five weeks ago and Did Not Want It To End – loved the book and was deeply troubled about Gram  and his willingness throughout his life to throw it all away). Midway through each of these books the subject, whether he realizes it or not, is going to making the greatest art – contributing the most he is ever going to contribute in his life.   The biographer is the puppeteer – he’s the one guiding the reader, telling him it’s just going to keep getting better or it’s just going to keep getting worse (yes, kinda like those VH1 Behind the Music documentaries from years back. (Voiceover) “and if things weren’t bad enough, they were soon to become drastically worse (cut to commercial).”

There are many brilliant passages in Power’s book that I hope to revisit/relate to in future posts.  Clemens was deep inside himself, even though he spent so much time in social situations (and investing in truly madcap ideas.  The amount of time, money, and energy he     put into other people’s losing ventures was extraordinary).  But he was often revisiting the charms and the troubles of his youth.  In the midst of writing Life on the Mississippi and Huck Finn he returned to the river and to Hannibal and both his words – and Powers – are noteworthy concerning the returning visit many years later.

Back to the house: As mentioned earlier in its day the area was for the rich – those rich in the pocket and rich in ideas.  Now the neighborhood looks more like Hackensack (which is not to say there aren’t people “rich” in the same way.  Just lots of garden apartment complexes, chuches, restaurants, laundromats.  Twain’s house is literally the house on the hill.  The grandeur of it in an otherwise hardscrabble neighborhood is pretty stunning in the juxtaposition.