Silly Fairy Tale, Part the Second

Silly Fairy Tale
Part the Second

(Part the First can be read here)

 The Story Continued…

 

Needless to say, the sassy black lady wasn’t about to teach Sylvana how to read, no matter how much she pitied the poor child.  I mean, ain’t nobody got time for that!  And so the girl left the Royal Department of Human Resources, full of hope and full of despair.  Full of hope, because she now clutched in her hand a list of names and addresses for all the woodsmen in the king’s service.  Full of despair, because she didn’t know how to read it.  Not knowing what else to do, she went back to the castle, whereupon did she bound right up the spiral staircase, run into her room, slam the door and crawl into bed.  And she started to sob.

This being a castle, however, and she being a pre-princess, there was no such thing as privacy.  Indeed, her very favorite lady-in-waiting was already in her room.  Waiting, obviously.  And when she saw the girl in such a state, she approached her and asked what was wrong.  The girl then told her the whole story.  When she’d finished, the lady-in-waiting smiled sweetly at her and patted her cheek.

“Be of good cheer, child,” she said.  “Though the hour seemeth dark, there is yet hope.  For I am a woman of letters, old crone though I be.  And t’would be my honor to serve thee in thy quest for thy father.  Ye have but to put yon parchment in my grasp, and lo, I shall be thy guide.  I shall be as thine eyes.  Such is my love for thee.”

“Oh my god!” cried the girl, throwing herself face-down into her pillow.  “You know I don’t understand you when you talk like that.  God, speak English!”  Whereupon did the lady-in-waiting roll her eyes.  Twice.  Then she facepalmed herself.

“I said,” she said, “don’t get down, girlfriend.  I know shit be lookin’ bad right now, but it’s all’a work out.  I mean, I know how to read, hun.  Even though I’m old.  And I’m tryin’a say, I’d be happy to help you look for your pops.  All you gotta do is gimme that there list, and I’ll take care of the rest.  You dig?”

“I dig,” said the girl, drying her eyes.  Then she threw her arms around the lady-in-waiting’s neck.  “I love you Brangien (that was her name), you’re the best!”  And Brangien hugged her back.  “But wait,” said the girl.  “You really know how to read?  I mean, you’re…a woman.”

“Of course I do, sweety.  Back in my country, I have a – “

“Lemme guess.  A PhD, right?  Apparently that’s a thing now.”

Anyway, they soon got started.  Led by the noble Brangien, Sylvana visited one woodsman after another.  But none of them were her father.  Wouldn’t you know it, but they even visited her father’s flat.  Only he wasn’t home at the time.  Madison answered the door.  He was very surprised to see Brangien.  Sylvana was even more surprised when the two of them kissed each other passionately on the lips.

“You guys know each other?” asked the girl, clearly astonished.

“Oh yes,” said Madison.  “We were at school together back in the old country.  We even dated for a bit.”

“What happened?” asked the girl.

“The war,” they said together.

“We were both taken prisoners,” said Madison.  “And we never saw each other again after that.”  Then he looked at his old flame.  “I had no idea you were here,” he said softly.

“I had no idea you were still alive,” she whispered.

“Well, here we all are now, happy together again,” said the girl impatiently.  “But more important, I’m looking for my father.  Have you seen him?  He’s a woodsman in the king’s service.”

“I see,” said Madison.  “And what’s his name.”

“Oh my god, why do people keep asking me that?!”  The girl was clearly annoyed.  “I’ve only ever called him father.  I don’t know his name.”

“Well, what does he look like?”

“I don’t know.  He looks like a man.  With a beard.  He has big strong forearms, stout legs and a barrel chest.  He usually likes to wear plaid flannel and a knit cap.”

“So, you’re saying he looks like a woodsman.”

“I guess, yeah, I mean, like, I don’t know what other woodsmen look like.  I just know that’s what he looks like.”

“Right.”  Madison pondered this for a moment.  “Well, look.  My roommate is a woodsman, and he fits the description.  But he’s never said anything about having a daughter.  Not that we talk much.  Honestly, he’s kind of a xenophobe.  I mean, I don’t hold it against up.  He lived his whole life in the woods, probably.  Never met anybody from anywhere else.  I suppose it’s only natural.  Point is, we don’t talk much.  So maybe he has a daughter, but what do I know?”

“So there’s nothing to indicate that he has an important person in his life?” pressed Brangien.

“Now that you mention it, he keeps this little square wooden frame next to his bed.  I once asked him what the deal with that was.  He said it was a ‘picture frame,’ whatever that is.  But I think it’s meant to symbolize somebody that matters a great deal to him.”

“Like a daughter?” asked Brangien.

“Yeah, maybe.  Or a wife.  Or a mother.  Or a dog.  I’m not really a fan of hypotheticals.”

“Please mister,” whined Sylvana.  “This is important!  Like, très important.”  And somewhere, the sassy black lady was all, Oh, you know how to use très in a sentence, but you didn’t get my clou joke?  Shiiiit.

“Tell you what, child,” said Madison.  “Why don’t you come back tomorrow around supper-time and you can meet my roommate.  Maybe he’s your daddy, maybe not.  But there’s only one way to find out.”

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you!” cried the girl.  And she gave him a big hug.  Then she turned to her lady-in-waiting.  “OK, Brangie, let’s go.”

“Actually,” she said slowly, “I think I’m gonna stay for a bit.  Madison and I have…a lot of catching up to do.”

“Oh, you mean like telling stories about all that’s happened in your lives since you were separated by the war?  Sure, sure.  I get it.”

“Umm, yeeeahhh, that,” said Brangien and Madison together.

Whereupon did Sylvana take her leave and headed back to the castle.  And she strolled the city streets, she wondered to herself, what kind of hipster name is Madison?

Anyway, to make a long story short – or rather, to cut out the bits that arent’ really relevant – the next night, Sylvana returned to chez Madison around supper time.  The woodsman wasn’t home yet, so she just sat on the couch and drank tea with upwardly mobile emancipated slave.  At last, the doorknob turned, the door opened, and there stood the woodsman.  He looked at the girl.  She looked at him.

“Hey, chief,” said Madison.  “Homegirl here thinks she might be – “

“My daughter!”  And they raced to each other and were soon locked in a warm embrace.  And when they had broken off their hug, the woodsman looked once more upon his daughter’s face.  “What are you doing here?” he asked.

“Looking for you, silly!”

“No, I mean, what are you doing in the city?  Do you live here now?”

“Oh my god, I didn’t even tell you!  I’m engaged to the prince!” she squeeed.

“What wonderful news!” exclaimed the woodsman.

“Say what?” blurted Madison.

“Yeah,” she started.  “He, like, just found me in the woods one day and wanted to marry me!  Can you imagine?  Marry a prince?  So obvi, I was all, ‘yes,’ and shit.  And here I am!”

“Ain’t that some shit,” muttered Madison to himself.  “Here I am, with a PhD in advanced mathematics, and I’m bustin’ my ass, just to get emancipated.  Ten years working in the Royal Office of Accounting, and all I got to show for it is this lousy flat and a xenophobic roommate.  Meanwhile, homegirl here get’s to marry into royalty, because why?  Because she’s pretty?  Homegirl can’t even read.  Ain’t that some shit.”  But the girl and the woodsman heard none of this.

“Daddy, I’m going to bring you to live with me in the castle.  It’s going to be uh-mazing!”

And that’s just what she did.  I suppose I could end the story here.  I suppose I could just say that she married the prince, her dad moved into the castle and they all lived happily ever after.  Which is basically – Spoiler Alert – what happened.  But why not tell the story the right way?

OK, so the woodsman moved into the castle.  And for two months, father and daughter were delighted to be together again.  I mean, it was a little awkward.  After all, there was indeed a rather high degree of class-bias at court.  Everybody sort of looked down on the woodsman, with his beard and his flannel.  And while there was plenty of talk behind his back, everybody saw how happy the soon-to-be princess was and so they basically just put up with him.

Well, after two months, it was time for the wedding.  There was, of course, a royal wedding planner.  She took care of renting the hall.  Or rather, reserving the hall.  The hall, of course, belonged to the king, so they didn’t have to rent it so much as just raise taxes for a few weeks to cover expenses.  Obviously not a big hit with the locals, but it’s not like they could vote the king out.  So what can you do?

Anyway, the royal wedding planner had hired (read: conscripted) a decorator for the event.  Only, nobody was really happy with him.  I mean, he was very good.  But his style was rather rococo.  A bit over the top.  It didn’t really fit with the hippy girl from the woods.  That’s when the woodsman had an idea.

“You know,” he said at a wedding planning meeting, to the prince, and his daughter and the wedding planner, “my old roommate is actually a great decorator.  He was always doing the loveliest things with flowers and drapes and…doilies?  Is doilies a word?  Why don’t we see if he can help us?  I’m sure he’d do a great job.”

“Hmm, yes” said the wedding planner, trying to be polite.  “But this is a royal wedding.  Isn’t your ex-roommate a…slave?”

“An emancipated slave,” said the woodsman proudly.  “And he has a PhD in advanced mathematics.”

“Typical,” said the wedding planner with disgust.  “All these immigrants with their advanced degrees.  How are we citizens supposed to compete for jobs anymore?  And anyway, advanced mathematics is not decorating.”

“I’m telling you he’s good,” insisted the woodsman.

“We want to give him a chance,” added Sylvana.  “Don’t we, honey?” she said, squeezing the prince’s hand.

“Anything for the little lady,” said the prince, displaying no trace of independent thought.  “Make it so.”

“As you wish,” said the wedding planner.

An hour later, the four of them were knocking on Madison’s door.  And they explained their proposition to him.  And when they’d said their piece, he looked confused.

“I mean, I appreciate you guys thinking of me, honestly,” he said.  “But, you know I’m not a decorator.  I’m just gay.”

“You mean…” said the woodsman.

“I like men, yes.”

“But what about Brangien?” asked Sylvana.  “You said you guys used to date.”

“Girl, it’s a spectrum,” answered Madison, waving her off.

“I don’t know about this,” said the royal wedding planner.  “A gay, decorating the royal wedding?”

“I don’t know about this,” echoed the woodsman.  “A gay, decorating my daughter’s wedding?”

“Oh, daddy,” said the girl, gripping her father’s epically massive forearm.  “Don’t be like that.  Madison is allowed to love whoever he wants.  Who are we to judge him?  And anyway, it’s not like he’s a Jew.”

“Jesus Christ,” said Madison, facepalming.

“See?!” exclaimed Sylvana.

“You will, of course, be paid quite handsomely,” said the royal wedding planner.

“Money, I got,” said Madison somewhat indignantly.  “If y’all want me to decorate this shindig, you’re gonna have to do better than just a big fat check.”

“A what?” asked the royal wedding planner.

“Gold coins, whatever.”

“What’s your price?” asked the prince.

“I want a transfer out of the Royal Office of Accounting.  I want a position at the Royal Institute of Mathematics.”

“You want a RIM job?!” asked the prince incredulously.  “You.  An ex-slave.”

“That’s right, and I won’t settle for anything less.

“Oh, let him have it, honey,” pleaded the girl.  “It’ll be so worth it.”

“Very well,” said the prince.  “I will personally see to your RIM job.  On the sole condition that my bride is satisfied with your services.”  Whereupon did Madison extend his hand to the prince.  Whereupon did the prince look skeptically upon the ex-slave-hand before him.  But, after a quick elbow to the ribs from his fiancée, they shook on it.

Well, needless to say, the wedding went off without a hitch.  The decorations were beyond fabulous.  Everybody had a great time.  And when it was all over, the prince took his literally criminally underage bride up to his royal quarters and there did what all medieval princes do with their more-often-than-not criminally underage brides.  It wasn’t long before she got preggers, and the whole kingdom was rejoicing at the news of it.

So now the girl-princess, the royal-by-marriage woodsman and the prince were all living together happily in the castle, enjoying life with their children/grandchildren and basically making a story-book existence of it all.

Not that there weren’t rough patches.  The princess opened up a little menagerie on the castle grounds, where she brought her bear and squirrel friends from the woods to live with her.  And for most of them, this was great.  There was a never ending supply of nuts in the castle, and fresh fish every day.

But one of the squirrels soon became a little too enamored with life at the royal court.  It wasn’t long before he started hanging out with the wrong crowd, spending way too much time with the idle, foppish dilettantes who clung to the king.  And being of the aristocracy, they were very free with spending their fathers’ money.  You know the type.  Anyway, this particular squirrel soon developed a nasty coke habit.  I mean, you think regular squirrels are fast.  You should’ve seen this guy go after a couple of lines.

It got to the point that the princess – to say nothing of the other squirrels – was really starting to worry about him.  But she figured it was his business, and she didn’t want to intrude.  But he made it personal when he stole one of her pearl necklaces and sold it for two ounces of coke and a bag of chestnuts.  The princess, bless her heart, wasn’t so much angry as hurt.

So she, and the other squirrels, staged a little intervention.  And they told him that if he didn’t “straighten up and fly right,” they’d kick him out of the castle and send him back to the woods.  It was hard, at first.  It always is.  But eventually, the squirrel got his shit together, and he’s been clean ever since.

And so that brings us to the end of our story.  The princess and the prince were a happy couple.  The woodsman and the girl were happy to be reunited.  The animals were living it up.  Even the courtiers had begun to accept the woodsman, as he was often carving little trinkets for them.  Oh, and Madison got his job at the Royal Institute of Mathematics.  Not only that, but he and Brangien got back together, only this time, it was in the form of a poly relationship that included the village blacksmith.  As for the sassy black lady, well, the princess never forgot how she’d helped her.  So she saw to it that a proper window was installed in the Royal Department of Human Resources.  To which, SBL said, “Oh, thank you, child.  You’re a sweet thing,” before adding under her breath, “Ex-slave gets a RIM job and all I get is a stupid-ass window.  Shiiit.”

And they all lived happily ever after.

Silly Fairy Tale, Part the First

Silly Fairy Tale
Part the First

Prologue:

            Not wanting to do another actual blog post, and having completed my Hebrew studies for the night, I find myself still wanting to write.  To write something.  And so I am remembered of a game Charlotte and I used to play.  The game goes like this.  Charlotte asks me to tell her a story.  Whereupon do I proceed to invent a fairy tale out of thin air.  What follows is the sort of story which I’d usually make for her.  In fact, I think it’s probably based on one I’ve already told.  But it’s also different.  I made this up, just now.  For fun.  I hope you have as much fun reading it as I did writing it…

The Story So Far…

Once upon a time, there was a woodsman, who lived in…well, he lived in the woods, obviously.  His job, basically, was to chop wood for the king.  You see, the king lived in a big old palace.  And in the winter, it would get very cold inside those drafty stone walls.  So the king always need firewood.  And so it was that he contracted with several of the local woodsmen to provide the royal kindling.

I say “contracted,” but this was really a feudal sort of arrangement.  Because fairy tales almost always take place in feudal times.  And this might sound romantic, because fairy tales are always romantic.  But it was not romantic.  It was a raw deal, not to put too fine a point on it.  See, the woodsman worked the king’s land, but most of his labor-product wound up in the castle.  He had very little left to himself at the end of the day.

And the woodsman was, perhaps, peripherally aware of all this.  But he was not an educated man.  Neither was he a revolutionary.  He was just a guy that chopped wood for a living.  And it wasn’t a very good living.  Still though, at least he had a little cabin in the woods.  So it was better than working in the salt mines.

Of course the salt mines were in Africa.  Salt was brought into the kingdom by Arab traders.  So really, the salt mines were an abstraction.  But there were rumors.  And the rumors made the salt mines sound pretty terrible.  All this to say, the woodsman was not entirely chagrined by his lot in life.

And anyway, he had a daughter.  Now, the woodsman loved his daughter very much.  She was the apple of his eye.  Or, at least, she would have been, if he’d ever seen an apple.  But all fresh fruit went directly to the castle.  So he probably had some other metaphor that he used to describe his daughter.  Something lumberjacky.  But if he did, it does not come down to us.

The point is, he loved his daughter very much.  There was nothing he wouldn’t do to make her happy.  You see, it was just the two of them.  I know what you’re thinking.  The mother died, right?  Maybe even in childbirth?  Because that’s how it goes in fairy tales.  Well, not this time.  This time, the girl’s mother was this weird hippy chick that lived in the woods.  She was really into prancing around the forest naked, but it was all PG because her hair was so long, you couldn’t see anything anyway.

Well, years back, the woodsman and the hippy girl shacked up for a bit.  Neither of them were really happy.  See, she was all “Why do you break your back for The Man, maaaan?”  And he was all, “Why can’t you settle down and get a job?”  So they didn’t really have a lot in common.  It was more just that they were the only two people within miles, and they did what people do in those situations.

It was only a matter of time before the hippy girl got preggers.  But of course, she was all “I refuse to be pigeon-holed by gender stereotypes.  Just because I’m a woman, how come I have to be the mother?”  And he was all, “Ugh, fine, but coat-hangers haven’t even been invented yet, so what do you want to do about it?”  And she was all, “What’s a coat-hanger?”  And he was all, “I literally have no idea.”

Anyway, what happened was, she carried the baby to term.  Somehow, in that age before medicine and real doctors, she even managed to survive childbirth.  But once that baby was out, so was she.  That very night she was splitsville, never to be seen again.  Although even now, there are rumors of a crazy hippy lady dancing naked in those very same woods.  The police even tried to find her a few years back, but all they came up with were a couple of teenagers smoking pot.  But never mind about that.

So she had the baby, and it was a little girl.  And the woodsman couldn’t be happier.  He’d always wanted a daughter, and now he’d got one.  He named her Sylvana because she was a child of the woods.  But she never liked this name, and so she took to calling herself Cinderella.  Unfortunately, she soon received an anachronistic cease-and-desist letter from the not yet incorporated Walt Disney Corporation, whereupon will she have had to let it go.  So she took to calling herself Winter, because she was sad in her heart.  Sad that she would’snt be allowed to go by Cinderella, and also sad because she never knew her mother.  Needless to say, the woodsman thought this was all ridiculous teenage melodrama and so continued to call her Sylvana.

But enough of this.  One day, a knight-errant, on a mission from the king, came to see the woodsman.  “Stout yeoman,” said the knight, “the king requires your services in the castle.  Wherefore must you pack your things and come with me.”

“But what about my daughter?” asked the woodsman.  “Surely I can bring her with me?”

“I’m afraid not,” said the knight.  “Tax revenues this year were pretty low, to be honest, and the king can’t afford to put up whole families.  You’ll have to come alone.”

“Well what am I supposed to do with her, then?” asked the woodsman.

“Not my problem,” said the knight.

And so the woodsman explained the situation to his daughter.  He was worried that she’d start crying, but she actually took it quite well.

“Why are you taking this so well?” he asked.

“Because while you’ve been out chopping wood, father, I’ve been studying.  The squirrels have taught me how to gather nuts.  The bears have taught me how to take apart a deer carcass and how to fish.  And the owls have taught me how to catch mice, though now that I say that last part out loud, it doesn’t sound so useful.”

“And what will you do for clothing?” he pressed.  “You know nothing of tanning leather or weaving wool.  Not there are any sheep in the woods, so I guess that’s a moot point.  Still, though.”

“Who needs clothes?” she guffawed.  “I’m going to be like my mother now.  I’ll dance naked in the woods under the starlight.”

“I never should have told you about that,” said the woodsman, rolling his eyes.

“Honestly, father, I’ll be fine.  Go serve the king.  Make me proud.”  And she smiled the sort of wild-eyed smile her hippy mother used to smile.  Whereupon did the woodsman kiss her tenderly upon the forehead before departing with the knight.

So.  Whose life do you want to hear about first?  The woodsman or the girl?  Let’s do the woodsman.  Right, so the king – or rather the Royal Department of Human Resources – set him up in a small flat.  It wasn’t in the best neighborhood, but at least it was within the city walls.  It was a tiny little two-bedroom, and he shared it with an upwardly mobile emancipated slave, who had been captured during the last war with the neighboring province.  His name was Madison.

“What kind of hipster name is that?” asked the woodsman when he moved in.

“It’s not a hipster name,” said the ex-slave.  “I’ll have you know, James Madison will be the father of the American constitution one day.  It’s a very noble name.”

“Father of the what?”  The woodsman was confused.

“The American constitution.  You know, as in America?  As in, the New World?”

“New World?” asked the woodsman.   “What are you talking about?  There’s just the world.”

“Yeah, here there’s just the world.  But what do you think is on the other side of Ocean?”

“I never thought about it,” said the woodsman slowly.  “I guess I just always assumed that when you get to the end of Ocean, you fall off the edge of the world.”

“You know, in my country, I have a PhD,” said the ex-slave, facepalming himself.

“Why do immigrants always have to say in my country?” retorted the woodsman.

So no, they weren’t off to the best start.  But they figured it out, after a while.  Anyway, the woodsman soon found that his new gig wasn’t so bad after all.  Instead of simply chopping firewood, as he’d done in the forest, he was now apprenticed to the master carpenter.  And soon, he was turning out work of expert craftsmanship.  Indeed, it is said that the king’s very favorite chair was made by the woodsman in those days.

Also, the pay was a little better.  He actually had spending money in his pocket.  He could buy his own bread and cheese and wine now, so he was feeling pretty good.  He could even afford a ticket to the yearly jousting tournament.  And the jousting tournament was the highlight of the year.  Not because of the sport.  No, the woodsman viewed that as barbaric.  But the tournament attracted food vendors from all over the world.  His favorite was the chinaman, who made these things called ‘dumplings.’  They were like pierogies, but more savory.  They were like knishes, but lighter, and also untainted by Jew-hands, polluted with the blood of Christian babies.  Yeah, I know how that sounds.  But fairy tales always take place in the middle ages, and you know what they were like back then.

Anyway, the woodsman was living a pretty good life, there in the city.  Except for one thing.  He missed his daughter.  Terribly.  Every day, he woke up thinking about her and every night, he went to sleep thinking about her.  And she was all he thought about as he toiled away in the carpenter’s shop.  Hell, he even kept an empty picture frame next to his bed.  “As soon as they invent photography,” he’d say to himself, “I’m going to put a picture of her in there.”

But what about the girl herself?  Well, in the beginning, she was pretty happy.  You know how teenage girls are when it comes to their independence.  She’d spend her days gathering nuts with the squirrels or fishing with the bears.  At night, owls would bring her dead mice, but that got old fast.  And in between her hunter-gatherer routine, she’d dance naked in the woods, like nobody was watching.

Only somebody was watching.  Not in a creepy, pervy way, mind you.  More in the, you can’t really ignore the naked girl dancing in the woods kind of way.  But it wasn’t just anybody who was watching her.  It was the king’s son.  The bloody prince, he was.  He was 22 and she was 16.  And by today’s standards, this gets all kinds of wrong in a hurry.  But back then, it was all kosher.  Though they didn’t use the word kosher, because anti-Semitism.  And anyway, she’d grown her hair out, just like her mom, so you couldn’t see anything anyway.

Well, one day, he rides up to her on his white shining horse.  And he gives her the whole fairy tale prince routine. You’ve heard it before.  “You’re the most beautiful girl I’ve ever seen.  Come live with me in the castle.  Come be my bride.  Yadda yadda.”

And she thought about this offer.  As she saw it, this whole woodsy-hippy thing was getting old.  And winter was coming.  She didn’t know how to chop wood to make a fire.  She didn’t have any clothes.  She’d always supposed she’d just hibernate like her bear friends.  But really, she’d never thought it through.  Anyway, this was a better offer.  Of course, between the age difference and the royal-v-peasant dynamic, it wasn’t really a fair offer.  Not that the prince was some kind of medieval Roger Ailes, of course.  Far from it.  It’s just, well, they weren’t really on level ground.

But this is where she differed from her mother, whom she never knew, but about whom she’d heard an awful lot.  Her mom was the sort of feminist that would reject the proposed arrangement on the grounds that she didn’t need any man to make her happy.  The girl, on the other hand, viewed herself as being rather empowered, and had no qualms about marrying a freaking prince to advance her station in life.

Also, she really missed her father.  Every day, she woke up thinking about him and every night, she went to sleep thinking about him.  She would have kept an empty picture frame next to her bed, but she lacked the perspicacity to envision the invention of photography.  And anyway, she didn’t have the carpentry skills to make a picture frame.  So instead, she’d gotten into the habit of carving the word father into tree trunks.  Only, she didn’t know how to write, so it was always just an odd assemblage of random angular scratch marks.  But it said father to her, and that was all that mattered.

In any event, she agreed to go with the young (albeit older than her) prince, and to be his wife.  Also, she reasoned secretly with herself, if she moved to the castle, she might get to see her father again.  But she didn’t mention this part to the prince, whom she suspected was possessed of a certain degree of class-bias and might frown upon her familial relations.

So they moved into the castle.  And life was, well, it was boring.  It was a whole lot of sitting at court.  She had all these ladies-in-waiting, but all they ever wanted to to do was gossip and bathe her.  And having grown up in the woods, she was not a really a big fan of baths.  The prince, it should be noted, was a perfect gentleman.  He never once laid a hand on her, as they were not yet married.

If anything, he was kind of boring.  He’d read her love poetry or show off for her in archery.  Which sounds nice, except the Prince had this awful lisp, and so she had a helluva time trying not to laugh at his recitations.  And as for archery, well, he was pretty second rate.  What I’m trying to say is, nice guy though he was, the prince was not exactly a winning argument for hereditary monarchy.

Anyway, one day, the prince was out hunting.  By which I mean, the prince was out riding with professional hunters whose job it was to make the prince look like he knew how to hunt.  Never one to waste an opportunity, the girl decided to use this alone-time to try and find her father.  And so it was that she gave her ladies-in-waiting the slip, and made her way to the Royal Department of Human Resources.

“Can I help you?” asked the large, disinterested black lady behind the desk.

“Wait a second,” said the girl, with a hint of confusion.  “Aren’t you a bit early for this trope?”

“Girl, who you callin’ a trope?” said the large black lady sassily.

“I’m sorry,” said the girl hastily.  “I didn’t mean anything by that.”

“Mmmhmm,” hummed the black lady.  “Typical.  White girl walks in here like she own the place, throwin’ around fancy white people words like ‘trope.’  Meanwhile, I’m stuck behind this desk, butsin’ my ass for the man, sunrise to sunset.  Shiiiit.”

“Look, I said I was sorry,” pleaded the girl.  “But, I mean, I am engaged to the prince.”

“Uh-huh, and I’m Malcolm X.”

“Who?”

“Never mind, child.”  And the sassy black lady smiled a half-sweet, half-condescending smile.  “Now what can I do for her royal highness.”

“Well, I’m not a royal highness yet.  We’re only engaged.”  The sassy black lady shook her head.

“Girl, there’s a nail shop down the street.  Go buy a clou.”

“I’m sorry?”  The girl was totally lost.

“Honey, that’s a bilingual pun.  Didn’t they teach you French in fancy white people school?”

“I never went to school,” said the girl, blushing with shame.

“You know, I have a PhD back in my country,” mumbled the sassy black lady.  “Fine, what can I do for you today?”

“I’m looking for my father,” said the girl proudly.  “He’s a woodsman, in the king’s service.”

“Oh, well you’re in luck!  We only have one of those in the whole kingdom!  Why, that must be your father!”

“What a relief!” cried the girl.  “Where can I find him?”

“Honey,” said SBL, shaking her head, “were you born yesterday?”

“I’m sixteen, going on seventeen,” said the girl proudly.  SBL facepalmed.

“Look, child, there’s a great many woodsmen in the king’s service.  If you want me to find your father, you’re gonna have to give me some information.  For starters, what’s his name?”  The girl thought about this for a moment.

Father,” she said confidently.  “His name is father.”

“So lemme get this straight,” moaned SBL.  “You’re looking for a woodsman in the king’s service, by the name of father?”

“That’s right,” said the girl.  “Can you tell me where to find him?”

“Lemme ask you something, child.  You gotta name?”

“Sylvana,” said Sylvana.

“Right.  So, in other words, your name ain’t daughter.  What I’m sayin’ to you is, your father probably has his own name too.  And it probably ain’t father.  You feel me?”

“I haven’t even touched you,” said the girl, slightly horrified.

“It’s a figure of – oh, never mind.”  And the sassy black lady looked out the window.  Or rather, where the window would have been, if there had been a window.  The Royal Department of Human Resources was underfunded, so windows simply weren’t in the budget.

“Look, can you help me or not?” asked the girl, unable to hide her frustration.

“Oh, sure.  Tell you what, how about I just print out a list of all the woodsmen in the king’s service.  And you can just go down the list until you find your daddy.  How does that sound?”

“That would be amazing!” cried the girl.  “Thank you so much!”

“OK, so I’m just gonna ask you to have a seat and wait patiently until they invent moveable type.  I mean, it’s first come-first serve, so you’ll have to wait while we then knock out a couple thousand Gutenberg Bibles.  But you’re next in line after that.  You should have your list in time for the Reformation.”

“But I don’t care about the Reformation, whatever that is – “

“Whatever that will be, you mean – “

“Whatever whatever!” cried the girl.  I just want to find my father.  And as she said this, she slumped down into a chair and started to sob.  This, it seems, melted the sassiness of the token black lady’s heart.  Whereupon did she take pity on the girl.  And so it was that she wrote out, by hand, a list of all the woodsmen in the king’s service.  And when she’d finished, she handed it to the girl.

“Here you go, child,” she said sweetly.  “Now, will there be anything else?”

“Yeah, one thing, actually,” said the girl under a furrowed brow.

“And what’s that?” asked SBL.

“Can you teach me how to read?

“Oh, child.”

————————————-

End Part I.  Tune in next time for the conclusion of this very silly fairy tale.

 

 

De Dracula

De Dracula1

So, thanks to hurricane whatever-the-fuck-we’re-calling-this-one, I’m stuck inside trying to write this post without my trusty pipe. On the other hand, this weather allows to me say honestly, if not well-writtenly, that it was a dark and stormy night. In any case, trying to write this post pipeless, as it were, may be somewhat fitting. After all, did Professor Van Helsing smoke a pipe? Did Jonathan Harker? Or Dr. Seward? Or any of the other characters who kept a journal in Bram Stoker’s vampirepic?2

But let me take a step back. What the hell am I on about anyway? If the title of this piece is any indication, I mean to talk about Dracula. But which Dracula? Stoker’s book, yes. And also the Lugosi picture. OK, actually, just those two. And really mostly the former.

Another step back. Years ago, when I was but a boy, I read some sort of abridged version of Dracula, meant for children.3 It scared the hell out of me. Didn’t sleep for days. Or rather nights, as, not being a vampire, I generally didn’t sleep days.4 The point is, I didn’t exactly take to horror-fiction as a young’n. And I didn’t much go in for horror films as I got older.

That all changed, however, when last fall, while in a used book shop in Philadelphia, I picked up a copy of Jules Verne’s Le Château des Carpathes.5 Now, mind you, it wasn’t properly horror or gothic; nothing supernatural. It’s JV, after all. There’s a scientific reason for everything. However, it was dark. And it took place in the mountains of Transylvania. And I was hooked.

All of a sudden, I wanted more “darkness,” whatever that meant. So next I grabbed a copy of Gaston Leroux’s Le Fantôme de l’Opéra. After that, Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein. While in Santa Fe last month, I picked up an H.P. Lovecraft paperback, though I haven’t started it yet. Because, at the moment, I’m working through Bram Stoker’s Dracula.6

Funny thing about Dracula though, I can put it down.7 By that I mean, the prose is just stilted enough, just 19th century enough, just affected enough, that it can be a bit tiring at times. And yet this very thing that so often makes the book feel like a chore – the language – is that which I found most interesting about it.

You see, the English that Stoker uses is hanging out in a really interesting place-time. It straddles the border of Victorian and modern. You can see our language in transition here, and it’s downright fascinating. I’ve been noticing this all along, but somewhere around chapter 19, it occurred to me that I might want to knock this post together, and so I started taking notes. Now, obviously, the bulk of my notes are going to come from chapter 19 and onwards. But I hope there’s enough meat there to make my points.

I’m going to pass over the “old,” that is to say, the Victorian. There’s no point in putting any of that down. If you’ve read Dickens or, gods help you, Austen, there will be no surprises there. What I want to focus on for the moment is the “new” English; the English that’s ready to break out into the 20th century.

For example, I’ve run across a number of idioms that would be nearly familiar to anybody reading today. And yet, they’re not quite the same. A few examples:

  • “Dog’s-eared” (of a book; opp. “dog-eared”; ch.19)
  • “Of the first water” (of magnitude; opp. “of the first order”; ch.20)
  • “Keep touch of” (to stay current with; opp. “keep a hold of”; ch.20)
  • “These times” (of current affairs; opp. “these days”; ch.20)
  • “At all events” (resumptive; opp. “in any event”; ch.21)

Now to be fair, Stoker is an Irishman writing (for these phrases, at least) English characters. Still, to see these idioms developing is quite interesting.

Then there are the “Americanisms.” I found two turns of phrase which the author, through his various narrators, identifies as being uniquely American. Yet, these two phrases are well known to us all today. I think we should expect to find them in any part of the English speaking world:

  • To “take no chances” (ch.19 & earlier)
  • “A story”, as in a news story (ch.20)

The former is interesting to me in that it is so commonplace nowadays, that needing to mark it out as American caught me off guard. The need to do so would seem to indicate that in 1897, the year of publication, the phrase was hardly known in England. As for the latter, well, the same is mostly true. Except, I remember using the term “story” to describe a news piece with a non-native speaker and being surprised when the word caught her by surprise. Though she was able to understand it from context easily enough, she’d never heard it before. And so perhaps on some level, even now, that word could fairly be marked out for extra explanation.

So much for idiom. But Stoker also plays with dialect. There are four dialects in particular which I think warrant at least a look-see. One is of course Van Helsing’s speech; but this I shall leave to the last. Then there is the working-class cockney; the mariner’s lingo; and the (I think bucolic?) dialect of the zookeeper.

The latter three are fascinating insofar as I take them to be fairly faithful renderings of the actual speech of real people (or a real class of people, at any rate) with which Stoker must have had at least some first-hand experience.

Tackling the most difficult of these first, the old mariner’s dialect was barely decipherable. To give but one example, what the hell can this possibly mean?

“I must gang ageenwards home now, miss. My granddaughter doesn’t like to be kept waitin’ when the tea is ready, for it takes me time to crammle aboon the grees, for there be a many of ‘em; an’, miss, I lack belly-timbers sairly by the clock.” (ch.6)

Well, the first sentence isn’t too bad. “Gang” is obviously some version of “go” and “ageenwards” seems to be an adverbial use of ‘again’; though ‘again’ is itself an adverb. Obviously, the granddaughter has made tea and doesn’t like to be kept waiting; clear enough. But “crammle aboon the grees?” No idea. Presumably this refers to physical obstacles he must pass on his way home. I take “crammle” to be some sort of verb of moving; “aboon” as a variant of “upon” and “the grees” as perhaps “the grass” or “the green.” And yet, noting that “there be many of ‘em” throws some shadow of doubt over those conclusions. “Belly-timbers” I take to mean strength, whether physical or spiritual. “Sairly” I wager is adverbial both by the ‘-ly’ ending and its placement in the sentence. “By the clock” must also be adverbial, though I can only guess at its meaning. Taking them together (and with context), I gather that at this late hour, he is weakened by drunkenness, and so expects his journey home to be arduous due in part to the landscape.

I may have got that mostly right or mostly wrong. In the grand scheme of reading the book, it doesn’t really matter. But that’s the amount of thought I needed to put in to try and make sense of just those two sentences. My other choice would have been to simply disregard it. So now, perhaps, you can see what I mean when I say it can be, at times, a tiring text. And yet fascinating.

But the fascination works on two levels here. The first is simply to a reader who is interested in language. Working though that in the way that I have outlined above is, for me, fun; no matter how tiring. But it is also meta-fascinating. By which I mean, it is fascinating outside of the context of the story. It is fascinating as a representation of the way in which a certain group of people at a certain time actually spoke; and, I suspect, no longer speak. What a window into a world that was!8

Likewise for the speech of the Zookeeper, which occurs in the context of a newspaper “story” in chapter 11. Here now, the language is much easier to follow. But I excerpt a more challenging passage:

“My opinion is this: that ‘ere wolf is a-‘idin’ of, somewheres. The gard’ner wot didn’t remember said he was a-gallpoin’ northward faster than a horse could go; but I don’t believe him, for, yer see, sir, wolves don’t gallop, no more nor dogs does; they not bein’ built that way. Wolves is fine things in a story-book, and I dessay when they gets in packs and does be chivyin’ somethin’ that’s more afeared than they is they can make a devil of a noise and chop it up, whatever it is.”

So as I said, this bit is much easier to understand. And yet there’s all sorts of neat things going on here which are meant to represent a certain style of speech. Some of it is accent, as with the elision of initial “h” (e.g. ‘idin’) or the contraction of “dare say” into “dessay.” Some of it is grammatical construction, as with “no more nor dogs does” for “no more than dogs do.” As a guide for all this, I took an example of “rustic” British English from Monty Python; the Flying Sheep sketch. I don’t know if this is a good, or even remotely close, guide, but it served well enough. In any case, the point is, it is one more representation of a certain style of speech. And though it can be tiring to read it at length, it is nevertheless highly interesting on its own merits.

Next we come to the working-class cockney of late 19th century London. Now, I don’t pretend to be an expert on cockney, not by any stretch. But I’m familiar enough with it to at least be able to read it with far less difficulty than the two foregoing dialects. An example, from chapter 20:

“Well, guv’nor, I forgits the nubmer, but it was only a few doors from a big white church or somethink of the kind, not long built. It was a dusty old ‘ouse, too, though nothin’ to the dustiness of the ‘ouse we tooked the bloomin’ boxes from.”

As I said, easy enough. One can easily read through the misconjugated “forgits” or “tooked,” just as easily as one can read through the mispronounced “’ouse” and “somethink.” What really caught my attention here is, for all the effort Stoker puts into capturing the ‘sound’ of these dialects, is how “th” does not become “f.” What I mean is, in modern cockney, we would expect words like “somethink” and “nothin’” to be pronounced as “somefin’” and “nofin’”. Do Stoker’s spellings mean that the “th” to “f” transition hadn’t happened as of 1897? If so, what an unexpected look into the street-talk of a bygone era!9

Having thus dealt with the mariner, the zookeeper and Mr. Cockney, I have only to treat with the speech of the revered Dr. Van Helsing. But as his speech is, I find, of a different order, and as I have now exhausted the e-cigarette, which I purchased as a substitute for my much-beloved pipe, I think I must here pause and take up again when I have the means to write further…

…And now I have the means. It’s a bit colder out than I’d have liked, but at least the storm has passed and I can work outside again with my pipe (and some main10 fine tobacco wot I purchased not long ago in Colorado). And so, whither Van Helsing?

Stoker has Van Helsing speak in a sort of broken “non-native” English for lack of a better word. This seems to manifest itself almost entirely by means of odd grammatical constructions and wrong idioms, but never by accent. In reading this, I did not take it as an accurate representation of the way an actual Dutchman might speak the language but simply as a way to mark his speech out as “other.” My suspicion is that as opposed to cockney, for example, Stoker perhaps didn’t have an actual Dutchman to model the speech on. That said, his rendering is not without linguistic intelligence.

For example, he often has VH assign male gender to inanimate objects; something that we do not regularly do in English. I don’t know much about Dutch, other than that it is Germanic and fairly close to today’s High German. But if you’ve ever spoken to speakers of gendered languages whose English is far from perfect, you will probably have noticed this phenomenon. So in that regard, I think it was a clever device on Stoker’s part. And yet perhaps not clever enough. For he only ever has VH assign the masculine gender, at least as far as I noticed. And so one example which stood out to me was when VH refers to blood as ‘he.’ I noticed this in particular,11 because in Greek as well as German, blood is neutral, not masculine.12

I’ll move on from this bit rather quickly. I don’t think there’s much to be gained here from putting down examples of his odd turns of phrase or grammatical mistakes other than to say that they are constant. And while interesting on some level, and even fun at times, it is also tiring at length. And as Van Helsing has quite a bit of dialogue, it is tiring often.

One last thought on VH’s speech. All of his dialogue is recorded in the journal entries of other characters, save for his memoranda in the last chapter or two. And here, I think it is an interesting conceit to suggest that the other characters went to the trouble of putting down VH’s language exactly as they heard it, rather than paraphrasing it into their own English; and that furthermore each character – Seward and both Harkers – interpreted his speech identically. But, that is, apparently, what they did.

A couple of other things regarding the language were of interest to me. One is the use of foreign language in set phrases. This is done primarily (if not exclusively) by VH, who throws around the odd bit of French and Latin, and even one (really rather wrong) Greek quote of Archimedes.13 But I thought this was kind of cool, as it shows the breadth of Stoker’s learning. He even shows he knows a bit of German in the first couple of chapters.

Another point of interest was hyphenation. It is fairly common in English that when new compound words are introduced, they often start out hyphenated, before the hyphen is eventually lost. And so, here, in 1897 we see “To-morrow” as the preferred spelling. And yet, in chapter 20, he refers to “chopsticks.” I was first of all surprised to see this word in so comparatively old a text (though that may simply speak to my ignorance); but doubly so to see it compounded without hyphen.

Next, there were some old words and phrases which were not unfamiliar per se, but which, by their usage seemed strange to me. In chapter 19, I came across the phrases, “in an indexy sort of way” and “helping his fads.” From context I could glean the sense of them, but these were usages which I had not seen before, and which, presumably have since died out.

Another example was the apparent use of “earnest” as a noun. I give here a portion of the sentence: “…when I had promised to pay for his information and given him an earnest.”14 I considered whether this was perhaps a typographical error15 and should have read “in earnest,” which of course is a common collocation. But reading it over two or three times, I took it as it was16 and interpreted it as something like “a substantial enough offering to demonstrate one’s sincerity.”

Finally, there was the note written by the barely literate laborer. This was cool, as it showcased in microcosm Stoker’s attention to phonetics. The little note simply read: “Sam Bloxam, Korkrans, 4, Poters Cort, Bartel Street, Walworth. Arsk for the depite.”17 I didn’t feel too bad when I read down the page and saw that good Jonathan Harker had as much trouble with this as I did. It should have read: “Sam Bloxam, Corcoran’s [a lodging-house (another hyphenation!)], 4 Potter’s Court, Bartel Street, Walworth. Ask for the deputy.”

So much for the language. Two other observations and I shall wrap this up. It occurred to me that Stoker’s Renfield and Tolkien’s Gollum are of a type. Both are misshapen creatures – Renfield mentally, Gollum physically and mentally. Both ostensibly serve higher masters. Renfield with Dracula, Gollum with the Ring. Both have a taste for live animals – Renfield for flies and spiders, Gollum for fish. Both spend most of the story as ostensible bad guys, but both end up serving the heroes in the end (though in fairness, Renfield less integrally than Gollum). And both, for all their misdeeds, ultimately show themselves to have a shred of decency in them that makes them worth saving; or at least, worth trying to save. For both end up dead in the end. Not being an English Lit major, I was left wondering if these two are mere manifestations of a larger trope in our collective literary history. But the parallels were striking to me. And as a “so great fan of Tolkien,” as Van Helsing might say, it was an interesting way to read the character.

The last point of interest I will mention in this post concerns class. I found a striking similarity in the way Stoker writes the London working class and the way Orwell writes the Proles in 1984. Both seem to be below the radar of respectability, so to speak. Neither class seems worth writing about as “real people,” if I can say that. They both seem to operate outside the vision or understanding of the main characters, in whose worldview we the readers exist. Their entire function seems to be to drink when they are not working and to pay next to no attention to the dangers of the “real world,” whether that be the political machine of Orwell’s book or the threats of the Transylvanian Count in Stoker’s. And, for that matter, the world in which they inhabit seems as foreign a land to Harker and his band, as the inner city of the Proles seems to Winston, however much he might be intrigued by it. I may be off base with this, but I’ve always felt that a bit strange and un-American, if I can say. As if it is in someway a reflection of the striated class society that we as Americans rejected in the 18th century.18 That’s how they both read to me, in any case.

Well, it’s nearly 3:30 and I am cold. So I think I shall end here. All this to say, in the end, that I found Dracula to be a fun read, though not an easy one. Yet, it is the difficulties that made the text far more interesting to me than it otherwise might have been. You can find many flaws with this book, if you’re so inclined. But one if its virtues, to me at least, is as a window into the English language of 1897.

Oh, but I did mention in the beginning of this post that I would say something about the famous movie too, didn’t I? Well, I guess I lost track of that. But I’ll close with this. The absolute best line of the movie comes when Renfield19 first meets Dracula in his castle. There is an awkward silence as both men hear the howling of wolves outside. And then Lugosi/Dracula says, in the most badass way imaginable, and with that killer accent, “Listen to them. Children of the Night. What music they make.” And, you guys, it’s in the book! That actual amazing kick-ass line is in the freakin’ book! And when I read that, I nearly jumped out of my chair and did finger-pistols in the air.

But the second most badass line in the movie? Well. To be honest, I might screw it up. A while back, I was trying to locate a free streaming version of the film online. But the only one I could find was a German overdub. But, needing to practice my German, and figuring that this movie could only be more evil and badass in that language, that’s what I watched. And re-watched. And watched again. Anyway, in the caste, Dracula offers Renfield some wine. And Renfield is all, “aren’t you gonna have any?” To which the Count replies, “Ich trinke keinen Tropf…Wein.”20 Oh man, so fucking evil! Gives you chills, I swear. But alas. That one’s not in the book.

  1. “De” takes the ablative, so you know the last “a” is long. #Latin Dracula, btw, means “little dragon” in Latin.  Also, this is as good a place as any to note that, to the handful of people that actually read this blog, you will probably find this post quite boring. #fairwarning []
  2. That portmanteau seemed cooler in my head. []
  3. Or, more likely, “young adults.” Because I’m pretty sure children should not be reading about vampires. I mean, even German fairy tales don’t deal with vampires. And there you can find a happy ending wherein the wicked stepmother is executed by being sealed into a barrel of boiling oil…which also has poisonous vipers in it. I’m not even kidding. (And if you prefer an English rendering, you can find one here). []
  4. Naps notwithstanding. []
  5. The Carpathian Castle []
  6. At the moment at which I started this post, anyway. I actually finished the book this afternoon. []
  7. Yup, you read that right. []
  8. And if it be, in any way, a window into a world that still exists, how much more fascinating!? []
  9. Pity my children, if I ever have them, that they might one day have to endure reading books with me in this way… []
  10. In several of the cockney passages, I noticed the use of the word “main” to mean “very” or “rather” (ch.20). []
  11. Though before I started taking notes, and so I cannot cite an example. []
  12. αἷμα in Greek (haima, whence hemoglobin, for example) and Blut in German. []
  13. And yet, there is some further indication that Stoker was at least peripherally familiar with Greek. In chapter 20, he uses the word aërial, spelled thusly with the umlaut. This is indeed reflective of the word’s Greek origin (ἀήρ aer, whence our air). The umlaut shows that in Greek the ae were not blended into a diphthong but that the letters were distinct vowels. We probably wouldn’t spell the word this way today, and indeed my spellchecker here tried to remove the umlaut.  This conclusion is also furthered by his invention (which Seward claims as his own, at any rate) of the adjective “zoöphageous” to describe the “life devouring” Renfield; the umlaut again signifying the difference (lost in English) between the Greek omega and omicron. []
  14. Ch.20 []
  15. It is here worth noting that all references and quotations are taken from the 2007 Sigent Classics edition. []
  16. We should always prefer the lectio difficilior. #nerdspeak []
  17. Ch.20 []
  18. And indeed, Lord Godalming frequently uses his rank and privilege to get away with things that “regular” folks could never do. In contrast, I kinda love how the one American in the book – Quincey Morris – routinely refers to His Lordship not just by his first name, but even by a nickname: simply “Art.” Because Americans think titles are bullshit. []
  19. Though in the book it is Harker. []
  20. I don’t drink…wine. []

You Can’t Take Me Anywhere

You Can’t Take me Anywhere

If you’ve read the title of this piece as though it were being shouted by an angry protester who had just been politely handcuffed by understanding police officer who, despite any personal misgivings, must, in the course of his duty to the city which he serves, lead the aforementioned protester away from the scene of the aforementioned protest to the cozy surrounds of an only-now-mentioned police station, well, I’m afraid you’ve read it all wrong.

For you see, “You can’t take me anywhere” is something that I say after I’ve said something rude, foolish, offensive, salacious or e) all of the above. I say it, you see, to save my friends the trouble. That would be: The trouble of shaking their heads and saying apologetically to the person I’ve just offended or hit on or, more likely, offended while hitting on, “I’m so sorry. We can’t take him anywhere.”1

Last night I was at a birthday party for a friend. Patrick Stewart – the Patrick Stewart – was also there. But more on that later. By way of Introduction,2 I should like to make clear my purpose for this post. Namely, I wish to commit to writing an impression of last night’s party. And the reason that I say ‘impression’ and not ‘recounting’ is that among many truths, I will also write several untruths which I think will make for a better, albeit less accurate, story. And I do not mean to make clear which is which.3

I’ve been friends with L for something like six years now.4 In the course of those six years, I’ve always enjoyed going to her birthday parties, which are generally set in Brooklyn beer gardens. And because I don’t know how to talk to people my own age, I tend to spend the better part of these parties shamelessly hitting on one or other of her very pretty friends. Not coincidentally, these parties tend to provide me with ample opportunities to say, “I’m so sorry. They can’t take me anywhere.”

This year, however, was slightly different. For this year, every one of L’s very pretty friends was of the beboyfriended variety, of which Berlin was such a blasted cornucopia. And so it was that I had to find other ways to amuse myself, and in the process, offend others. I give here an example.

We were all seated at a long wooden bench in this particular and peculiar5 beer garden. And at the end of the bench nearest me there sat a blonde girl. Now, as I am about to describe her in somewhat unflattering terms, and as she is a friend of L, I daren’t give her name. In fact, I leave it to you the reader to decide if she was even blonde.6 In any case, let’s say she was blonde. She was not, however, fat. Yet neither was she skinny. She was just sort of stout and not particularly beshaped of womanhood. Not that she was man-shaped, for she was not. She was just sort of shape-less.

Normally I would not mention these things as they have no bearing on who she is as a person. But as I found that I didn’t particularly care for who she was as a person, I have allowed Honesty to be a bit brutal as opposed for the silence so strongly argued for by Tact. But of course I didn’t know this when she first sat down. What I did notice was that her face was somewhat pleasant; or at least could be if she could be bothered to smile. And so I was deciding if this was something I could work with – and indeed, how many drinks ‘working with it’ would require – when I noticed her necklace.

From her necklace was strung a golden coin, which from where I was sitting looked for all the world like a gold-plated quarter. “I like your necklace,” I said. R, another friend of 6+ years and a seasoned veteran of L’s birthday parties was sitting beside her and cringed, expecting the worst. “Thanks,” said the blonde girl, withholding anything like a smile and therefore anything like a pleasant face. Well, I thought, this isn’t going to end well. Nevertheless, I shall have to blunder on, never considering the alternative, which would had have been simply to shut up. “Yeah, I think that’s really clever how you carry around an emergency quarter in case you run out of change at the Laundromat.” To which she anti-smiled, further depleasanting her face. R closed her eyes and shook her head.

“I’m so sorry. They can’t take me anywhere,” I would have said if she had so much as up-turned one corner of one lip. “Hi, I’m Dave,” I said instead. “Nice to meet you,” I definitely did not add. Whereupon I allowed Awkward Silence to have its say. Then, when Awkward Silence had done its bit: “Sooo, I’m gonna go talk to other people now,” which is exactly what I did, leaving poor R to either clean up that mess or pretend she didn’t know me.

L and I have an awkward relationship. It’s not that we don’t like each other. In fact, we’re quite fond of each other. It’s just that we’re both sort of awkward people. And rather than simply accepting that and moving past it, we tend to get caught up in it, often remarking how awkward we are together. However, these days, we tend to remark how less awkward we are now than we used to be. And having thusly remarked, her boyfriend asked if we thought we would ever stop talking about how awkward we are. To which we responded in unison, “But we’re doing so well!.”

And so it was that I apologized once more. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I’d go talk to those people,” I said gesturing towards the end of the table whereat sat the blonde girl, “but the blonde girl already hates me.” L wasn’t so much puzzled by this as curious. “Uh-oh, Dave. What did you do?” “Me?” I asked plaintively, summoning my most earnest of Earnest Faces. “I didn’t do anything. She just doesn’t have a sense of humor.”

“I absolutely have a sense of humor,” argued the blonde girl, summoning her most indignant of Indignant Faces, which I nearly confused for her resting unpleasant face. “Then may I suggest,” I offered helpfully, “that you take it in for a tune-up. It’s clearly faulty.” It was only then that I realized that the previous indignant face was not her Most Indignant Face, but rather the one with which I was now confronted. Awkward Silence had something to say about this as well, and he said it rather loudly. So loudly, in fact, that he had the last word on the matter.

There was another girl at the party, however, who did have a sense of humor.7 I shall refer to her as J1, as there happened to be two J’s there that night. In any case, the reason I know she had a sense of humor is because she would smile quietly to herself at some or other of the ridiculous things I would say. Not because they were terribly funny, mind you, but because she seemed to understand that I was just being silly. She was in on the joke, so to speak.

Now, J1 did not have a particularly pleasant resting face either. However, her face was quite pleasant when she could be bothered to smile. No, I shouldn’t say that. It was no bother at all for her to smile, which is, I think, the point. Neither was she shapeless. She was, in point of fact, perfectly woman-shaped. Though not so woman-shaped that the words “child bearing” came easily to mind. None of this matters, however, as she was there with her boyfriend. Let’s call him J1+1. And it was to J1+1 that I got stuck talking about Japan.

Now, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. J1+1 was a perfectly lovely fellow. He was nice, travelled and curious about the world. It’s just that, from where I was sitting, he was really quite boring. And as I was sitting directly across from him, I feel like I was in a good position to make that assessment.

And as we talked about Japan, which he had visited four years ago, he told me nothing about that country’s creepy youth-fetish or their advanced toilet technology. He did tell me that his cousin was stationed there with the Marines, that Tokyo is spotless and that it’s hard to score drugs because of the Yakuza, who control the drugs.

I thought it was going to be an interesting conversation, but it just wasn’t. And I really wanted to get out of it. But I couldn’t find a way out. He was just so bloody nice, you understand. So I just had to smile and pretend to be interested. And yet, so boring was this conversation that even Awkward Silence – whom I can usually count on – stood well clear of it. However, they say that all good things must come to an end. And while this conversation clearly was not a good thing, it at least had the decency to finally act like one.

There was another girl at the party. This was L’s boyfriend’s roommate, or LBfR. LBfR was a very petite, very pretty South American girl sporting a pixie cut, a vibrant personality and a fully functioning sense of humor. She was also sitting at the next table over. This geography allowed me to speak quietly with L’s boyfriend on the subject. “So,” I said in a way that I can only imagine looked sketchy to anybody happened to observe it. “I was thinking of trying out the other table. But before I do…your roommate…she has a boyfriend?” His response came in the form not of words but of laughter. Then he turned to L and repeated my query. Whereupon she also laughed. “Yes,” he said with actual words. “She has a boyfriend.”

“Then she’s dead to me,” I said, slumping my shoulders. “And I don’t care if she lives or dies.” But realizing that that might have sounded a bit cruel, I added the following, “And considering that she’s probably going to do both of those things, why get worked up about it.” And rather than be offended by this, L’s boyfriend laughed and remarked that he appreciated my ‘philosophy.’ He’s a good lad, that L’s boyfriend. And I decided that I was quite comfortable where I was.8

Now, I realize that the better part of this post has been taken up with complaints. But in fact, there were plenty of good things that passed in the course of the party. For instance, did I mention that Patrick Stewart – the Patrick Stewart – was there? At first we weren’t sure, because we could only see the back of his head. But LBfR got suspicious when she glimpsed his profile. Whereupon did somebody light upon the idea of googling his wife, as we could see his companion’s face well enough. And sure enough it was him; it were they. So first we got all excited. Then we decided to mind our own business. Because New Yorkers respect other people’s privacy; and we definitely don’t get star struck. But between getting excited and minding our own business I obviously had to tweet about it.9

Fast forward to later in the evening when I decided that I’d just about had enough of this no-smoking-in-the-garden nonsense. And so I decided to go out front have a pipe on the sidewalk, like the social outcast I was being made felt to be. Believe it or not, I was quite literally the only person having a smoke. I was, in point of fact, the only person out there at all. Which was fine. A few moments of silence would do me well. Except, that’s exactly when Patrick Stewart and his wife decided to leave. And they walked right past me. Be cool, I bethought myself. The man moved to Brooklyn not to be bothered, so don’t bloody bother him!

But Fate had something else in mind. Because just as they stepped through the door, I exhaled a cloud of fragrant pipe tobacco smoke. His wife kept walking, but Patrick Stewart stopped, and he sniffed the air. He turned and looked at me. I froze. I mean, I wasn’t moving in the first place, so you couldn’t really tell that I had just now frozen. But I had. He looked at me.

“That smells wonderful,” he said in a voice that was usually quoting Shakespeare when it wasn’t busy commanding the starship godsdamned Enterprise. “Thanks,” I said confidently as I pulled the pipe from my lips and held it as coolly as James Dean ever held a cigarette; a move which I knew this arch-thespian would respect. Then he squinted his eyes and began to speak in the same dulcet tones that made even the omnipotent Q go weak in the knees.

“You know,” he said in that way that only Patrick fucking Stewart can say you know. “You know,” he said. “My grandfather used to smoke a pipe.” And he drew out the first syllable of ‘grandfather’ with Hamletion pondarence. “When I was a boy, in England, my grandfather used to sit me on his knee and tell me stories. And all the while, he’d smoke a pipe.” And he smile a smile so bright it was nothing short of an endorsement for solar power. “A pipe much as you are smoking now, I dare say.” I nodded. But I didn’t say anything. What words could be worthy of such a moment? So I took another puff of my pipe and graced him with a fragrant cloud of Proustian reminiscence. And as the scent of it reached his mighty Roman nose, he smiled once more. “I don’t have any grandchildren,” I nearly said.

But I didn’t say anything at all. I never know what to say when people say such things to me. And they do indeed say such things to me. More times than I can count, I’ve stood out front of a bar, smoking my pipe, only to have some girl come up to me and remark, “Oh, my grandfather smoked a pipe!” To which I normally respond, “Yes, but nobody wants to sleep with their grandfather.” At which point such girls have demonstrated a marked tendency to back slowly away from me.

Look, I’m not saying it’s a good response. But at least it’s something. Yet, clearly, this was not something I could say to SirPatStew. Instead, I smiled and nodded. Then, against all my better judgment, I spoke. “What a lovely story. And you tell it so well.” I could see that he was beginning to regret having ever spoken to me. I began to look about for a shovel. Had I found one, I would have dug myself a whole, climbed into it and died forthwith for shame. But there weren’t any shovels, and so I had to keep going. “I don’t mean to keep you,” I said politely. “And your wife looks more than ready to be on her way. So. Umm. Make it so!” Damn the shovels, this is America! Surely there must be a gun nearby with which to mercifully shoot myself.

But his wife was a real doll. Taking in equal measures his confusion and my desperate embarrassment, she linked her arm in his and led him mercifully away. For his part, he was thankful for the rescue. As for her, she nodded pleasantly at me, surely being used to this sort of thing. “Nice to meet you,” she nearly said. “Good luck with Blunt Talk,” I nearly called after them. And then he was gone. At warp speed, as it were.10

Now, I want you to go back six paragraphs and find the sentence that ends with “…fragrant pipe tobacco smoke.” Have you found it? Good. Here I must report that not a single thing after that sentence is true. It didn’t happen. None of it. But. OMG, you guys, how cool would it be if it did?? Here’s what really happened.

As I was out smoking my pipe, being entirely alone on that sidewalk, Patrick Stewart and his wife left the bar. They walked right past me. And they kept on walking. They walked a few doors down, presumably so as not to be hanging out outside the bar where weirdoes like me might bother them. There they paused and stood for a moment, in silence.

Then his wife spoke. “I think I hear [live] music. Want to go check it out?” And then I heard him. “Noo,” he said thoughtfully, though perhaps a bit fatigued, in that beautiful voice. “But you go on.” And she did. She went on. She popped back inside to check it out. And so for what was probably a whole actual minute, for every one of those immutable sixty seconds, Patrick Stewart and David Starr were the only two people on Douglas Street between 3rd and 4th in Brooklyn, New York. And there we stood, separated by a mere fifty or so feet.

And I puffed my pipe, desperately hoping that he would saunter over and tell me how nice it smelled and how when he was a boy in England his grandfather used to sit him on his knee and tell him stories, all the while smoking a pipe, much like mine. Of course he didn’t do any such thing. He stayed exactly where he was, minding his own business, not wishing to be bothered. And in his solitude, he was probably balancing the dual thoughts of wishing his wife would just be ready to go home because he was tired, but also loving the shit out of her for her joie de vivre. In short, he was being a human fucking being; a man, just like anybody else.

And yet, I noticed that there were only three of us out there now. There was me, Patrick Stewart, and Awkward Silence. So I had to think fast. “Hey, Mister Stewart! Good luck with Blunt Talk,” is what I absolutely did not say. And I was so proud of myself for all the other things I did not say besides. It was then that his wife reemerged from the bar, unsatisfied with the musical offerings. And so it was that they walked off into the warm, muggy, disgusting, humid, but quite literally benighted11 Brooklyn night.

Alone now on the sidewalk,12 I finished what was left of my pipe. And I was proud of myself. The man had come out for a nice night and nobody had bothered him. And when we were alone together on the sidewalk, I didn’t bother him either. And maybe that’s why he moved to Brooklyn. So he could be somewhere where people would respect his privacy. Because say what you will about New Yorkers, we definitely do not get star struck.

Right. Back to the party. It was a lovely time. I haven’t seen L & R since well before I left for Berlin and I was absolutely delighted to see them again. What’s more, I quite like L’s boyfriend. He works in theatre, does lighting. I used to do that. We both love bad puns and history and deadpan humor. So we get on great and always have some good laughs.

Then there’s R’s boyfriend. Also a lovely guy. And he too has a beard. Except I could have sworn his beard was much bigger the last time I saw him. But I didn’t want to say anything about it. You see, I was quite literally terrified. I was afraid that if I said, “Hey, wasn’t your beard much bigger last time?” R would cringe and say, “Dave…that was not this guy…that was the last guy…also, you ruin everything.” But it was the same guy, he had just had a trim. And what’s more, he bought me a beer.13

Another thing that made the night great was that A was down from Connecticut. A, along with L & R is somebody I’ve known for more than six years now. And more than the other two, there’s history between us. What I mean is, there are things which could have – and still could – complicate our present friendship. And yet, our friendship is entirely uncomplicated, and I can not express how much I love her for that. Anyway, she was there, and I was just so happy to see her and catch up with her.

I also want to say this about A. She is deceptively brilliant. I know that sounds like a backhanded compliment, but I don’t mean it so. I’ll try again. A has got a very colloquial way of speaking. It’s very down to earth and extraordinarily unpretentious. And it’s not that you don’t think she’s a bright kid when you talk to her. You very quickly realize that the lights are on. It’s just that you would never think, “Wow, this dame has a brain on her.”

Then the other day, she writes this email. It was part of a chain between me and her and L & R, and also K. And, my friends, what an email. It was beautifully written. It was insightful. And, not to put too fine a point on it, it was brilliant. And she always does this, A does. She always says or does something that makes you go, “Oh, right. A is fucking brilliant. How do I ever forget that?” And that is something I really admire about her. She is entirely confident. She has zero fucks to give, whether you think she’s smart or not. I wish I had that. I can’t seem to not tell people how I was reading Jules Verne, in French, because you should always read things in the original. Or how I did my Master’s in Ancient Greek. Or how Kafka is really great, but man, that is some difficult German, and did I mention I know some German? I can learn a lot from that girl, is what I’m trying to say.

I realize, as I’m trying to wrap this up, that I’ve said a bit about L and about A, but very little about R, even though she’s been a presence through this post. And as I’m coming to the end of this, I’m beginning to realize that this as much a tribute to my friends as anything else. So I beg your indulgence as I take the time to say something about her as well.

R is an interesting character. It would not be an exaggeration to say that she didn’t much like me when we first met. Indeed, she didn’t much like me for the first few years that we knew each other. But somewhere along the line, she “figured me out;” and those would be her words for it, I think. But she’s smart and funny, to say nothing of pretty, and she did “figure me out.” And now we really are friends.

Which is quite a thing, really. Because, for reasons that I won’t get into, it would have been very easy for her to walk away from me at one point and forget she ever met me. (The same is true for L, by the way). But she never did. And that speaks to the kind of person she is. And now I count her among my true friends; and her me, I think. And that is something of which I am always conscious, and for which I am always thankful.

And so here, finally, at long last, enfin, endlich, I must close. I can’t pretend that I’m happy to be back here and not still in Berlin. But I am very happy that I got to spend L’s birthday with her, that I got to see L…and R, and A.   I’m happy that I got to hang out in the same beer garden as Patrick Stewart and pretend to meet him when we were the only two people on the street. But most of all, I’m happy for the friends I have.   As I sit here unemployed, in a place I don’t particularly wish to be, I’m proud to say that I have people such as these to call my friends. Happy birthday, L.

  1. Having re-read these first two paragraphs, I can’t help but feel that there are a lot of commas – and a lot of words between those commas – that are just not terribly important. And so I’m considering color-coding the important clauses for ease of reading. German might consider trying this as well. []
  2. As opposed to the first two paragraphs, which were by way of Prologue. []
  3. Except for one. []
  4. I am going to call her L to protect her privacy. And also because I’m currently fighting my way through Kafka’s Das Schloß (The Castle), wherein the protagonist is known only as “K.” And since, as it seems to me, we are both dealing in the absurd, it seems like a good example to follow. []
  5. Peculiar because it was a non-smoking beer garden, despite being, as beer gardens tend to be, entirely out-of-doors. #ThanksBloomberg. []
  6. She was. #orwasshe []
  7. Or a sense of humor which was not faulty, if you’re inclined to take the blonde girl’s side. []
  8. Or as comfortable as I could be in that wretched humidity and deprived of the pleasures of tobacco. []
  9. For the record, the tweet read: “You guys, I am in the same garden as Patrick Stewart and I am being so cool about it. #nerdboner” []
  10. Really, David? []
  11. Sir Patrick Stewart, after all. []
  12. For presumably Awkward Silence had by now gone back inside. []
  13. I realize this doesn’t add much to the story. But it was a part of the night. And more importantly, I’m a big fan of R, so I wanted to make sure I said something nice about her boo. And what’s nicer than buying me a beer? []

Two of the Best Things

Two of the Best Things
(Part I of II)

When I was in Berlin, people would sometimes ask me what I missed about New York. To which I would usually respond, “Bridges and hockey.” Because New York has the best bridges. Everybody knows that. The Brooklyn, Manhattan, Williamsburg, 59th Street1, Triboro2, GW, Verrazano and so on. And it’s not just the bridges themselves, which are majestic and wonderful and powerful. It’s the ridiculous views you get when you stand on them. It’s the peace and quiet you get when you’re stumbling home over one at five in the morning.

One of my favorite sunrises ever was when I was coming home over the Williamsburg after a long night out in Brooklyn. I met these two fellows who were out doing some photography. I asked them if they had gotten up early just to shoot the sunrise from the bridge. They said they had. We chatted for a bit, making friends in that way you can only do at that time of day. Or night. Then we went our separate ways. “Good night,” I said. “Good morning,” they said. Beautiful.

So much for bridges.3 But hockey. Now that’s not really a New York City thing per se. I’ve never actually even played in the city. I mean, how do you trek your goalie gear anywhere without a car? And more to the point, where do you keep that stinky stuff in a tiny apartment? So I only ever played on the Island. But close enough. And when people asked me what I missed, well, I missed playing hockey.

I played tonight. What a beautiful game. First, just the sounds. Skates cutting the ice, stick on puck, puck on glass. And best of all, puck on pads. I say that because I am a goalie. And man, that position will do your head in.

–Interpolation: I started this post last Thursday, after that night’s game. But I only got this far. Partly because it was very late. And partly because I was too sober to get anything flowing, which was far the more powerful of the two reasons. When I was doing my Berlin Diary posts, I would typically go through a bottle of wine per post. Which was easy to do, not only because they took several hours from start to finish, but because you could just pop down to the Späti for a four-Euro bottle. Anyway, all to say I’m struggling to get this done on one-to-two beers. It may not be my best work.

Anyway, goaltending. It’ll do your head in. It’s a pretty lonely position. You’re not really afforded the luxury of making mistakes. Anybody else makes a mistake, and the game carries on. You fuck up and the puck’s in the back of your net. Or Lady Luck bailed you out. So there’s that pressure.

But there’s another pressure as well. In many ways, the quality of the game hinges on your play. What I mean is, if you suck and pucks are going past you left and right, you’ll notice that the guys begin to feel like the game isn’t very serious. And when they start to feel that way, they start to play that way. There’s a loss of intensity and a loss of effort. Conversely, if you’re standing on your head, you’ll see guys on the other team busting their asses to try and beat you any way they can. And you’ll see the guys on your own team giving everything they’ve got to support you.

So you always want to give the guys a good game. Perhaps even more-so under the circumstances in which I play. The circumstance being this: I play for free with a group of guys who pay to play. I play for free because they need a netminder. And so while I get on well with them, they’re not my ‘friends’ per se. I don’t hang out with them outside of hockey. At most, I’ll have a beer in the locker room after a game. But that’s really it. So my one function is to show up, stand between the pipes and stop the puck. If I can’t do that, I’m not much use to them.

If I’m lucky, I get to play once a week. I don’t get to practice in between. As a result, I tend to get better as the session (usually about three months long) goes on. The games are my practice. Which means I’m usually more of a head-case in the early weeks.

Playing goal requires a certain degree of mental discipline and even-keel-edness that I realistically probably don’t have in great abundance. I played my first game back from Berlin two weeks ago, after a three month hiatus, and I was a nervous wreck. I spent most of the game praying that the puck would stay in the other end and basically being terrified anytime it came near me. As you can guess, I didn’t play very well. And as my parents will tell you, I came home in a very sour mood.

Last week, however, I played quite well, for whatever reason. And it’s a totally different feeling. Instead of dreading the puck, I wanted it. And I didn’t just want it, I wanted it off the stick of the best player on the ice. I wanted the best shots and the most challenging plays. I felt like I could stop anything and I wanted to prove it. It’s godsdamned exhilarating. And whereas two weeks ago I was counting down the minutes until the game would be over, last week I left wondering why we couldn’t play a fourth period.

It’s hard to figure out why you can play well one night and shit the next, or vice-versa. Best I can tell, it comes down to two things. One is just dumb luck. Last week, very early in the game I made a nifty stop on a bang-bang play. That sort of thing ups your confidence in a hurry. You make a save like that and you realize, “Oh yeah, I fucking know how to play this game. Bring it on!” Whereas had I failed to make that stop, it’s very easy to start thinking, “Ugh, it’s gonna be one of those nights.”4

The other thing it comes down to, for me at least, is technique. As with any position in any sport, there is a science and an art to goaltending. On the science side, we’re talking about skating, positioning, how you hold your body, reading the play, situational awareness, and other such things. These things are more or less constant for any goaltender. By which I mean, we all need to know how to do them correctly and skillfully.

As for art, that is a question of style. And one of the things that is difficult for me is that my personal style is a bit old-fashioned and no longer particularly in vogue. In and of itself, that would be fine. What makes it difficult is that I can’t turn on the TV and watch others play as an aide to myself. These days, most goalies play what’s known as a “butterfly” style. This means that on almost all shots, they will drop to their knees and splay their legs to take away the low ice, where most shots are likely to come. Many goalies have great success with this style, and when you’re over six-feet tall, you still have plenty of body left to cover the upper part of the net.

I, however, am five-foot-six. When I butterfly, my legs aren’t long enough to take away a great deal of low ice, and I don’t have much upper body left to cover the high parts of the net. So I play a sort of standup-butterfly hybrid. Now, Martin Brodeur played this way, and he was one of the best ever. So there’s precedent for its success. But everywhere you look, you see butterfly goalies. And when that’s all you see, it’s an easy trap to fall into, to start playing that way too.

Well, two weeks ago, I was butterflying all over the place. And what happened? Low shots were sneaking past me into the corners and high shots were sailing over my shoulders. Last week, however, I was able to play my game, my style. And that’s what I need to do to be successful. And I was successful. I stood up for the high shots and I was catching them in the shoulder. I stayed on my feet for the low shots that were coming square to me and only went down when I had to.

When I’m playing, I somehow need to keep all this in my mind. And at the same time, it needs to be subconscious. Or unconscious. You don’t have time to think to yourself, “OK, this shot is high, so stay on your feet.” All you can do is react. But after the play, you need to be your own coach. You need to be aware of why you were able to make a save or why you failed to. You need to tell yourself what adjustments you need to make next time. But then you have to be able to push all that out of your mind when the play comes near you again and just trust your reflexes and your instincts and hope you’ve internalized your own lessons.

And then sometimes luck and technique converge. Some of my favorite saves come when I never even see the puck. For example, I know a guy has the puck up by the blue line. But I can’t see it, because there are a couple of bodies between us; maybe guys from my team or my opponents’. You see him wind up to take a slap shot, but you still don’t see the puck itself. Then it hits you in the leg or the arm and bounces safely to the corner. And you never saw it. Well, that’s luck to some extent. But it also means that your positioning was spot on. You did everything right based on your read of the play and you made the save. That’s not about reflexes or skill, that’s just being technically sound. It means your doing the little things right. And that is somehow very gratifying.

OK, so I got a bit into the weeds there. But I wanted to give some sort of accurate impression of what it’s like for me to be out there. In any case, playing goal can be nerve-wracking and mentally taxing. But when I play well, it’s just so much damned fun. And after last week’s game, I floated home on Cloud 9. I’m supposed to play again on Thursday, and I can’t fucking wait. But you’re only as good as the game your presently playing. So come Thursday, last week’s game is out the window and it starts all over again. And no matter how nerve-wracking that’s going to be, I know one thing for certain. Whenever I get back to Berlin, I am going to miss playing hockey.

  1. With all due respect to hizzonner, Mr. Koch. []
  2. ‘Triboro’ is such a uniquely New York name, and I’ll never call it by any other. []
  3. Not really. I mean, I could go on for a while about the bridges. []
  4. This is where the mental discipline and even-keel-edness comes in. The best goalies will be able to give up an early goal and then forget about it. It’s a lot harder than it sounds. At least for me. []

Ἐπιτάφιοϲ – Epitaph

Ἐπιτάφιοϲ
(Epitaph)

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον ὃϲ μάλα πολλὰ / πλάγχθη…

These immortal words mark the beginning of Homer’s epic Odyssey. This work is many things: cornerstone of western literature; repository and echo of a once rich oral tradition; institutional memory of a war lingering in the mists of time. But for me, these words mark the beginning of something far more important. They are prelude to a friendship. I begin to sing:

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον, ὃϲ μἀλα πολλὰ / πλάγχθη…

“I’m sorry, Dave. But I have to stop you there.” Uh-oh. Had I already made a mistake? I thought I was nailing it. I looked at him, awaiting his critique. “Why don’t you take your hat off?” Right. The Old Man with old-fashioned sensibilities didn’t like it when I wore my hat indoors. We’d been down this road before. This time, however, I’d come prepared.

“But,” I said proudly, backed by Olympian precedent and divine authority, “Hermes wore a hat.” He looked at me, possibly surprised at my challenge.

“Yes,” he said slowly, in his regal, stentorian1 voice. “But.” Pregnant pause for dramatic effect. “Hermes was a rascal!” I had to laugh. First of all, who uses the word ‘rascal’ anymore?2  But more than that, did I really I think I was going to slip one past the Old Man?

With a reluctant sigh, I removed my flat-cap and placed it on a small table beside my θρόνοϲ.3  I begin again. This time, I make it through the first ten lines of the poem, all from memory and without interruption. This is how we began each session of the Homeric Reading Group.

The Old Man would refer to this as a warm up. It was a way to get into the spirit of things, as well as a way to shake off a week’s worth of rust. But it was more than that also. It was, as it has ever been and as it remains, an invocation to the Muses. Andra moi ennepe, mousa, polytropon. ‘Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many ways…’

Look, let’s be honest. You can sit down and read Greek and not give a toss for the old gods. But you don’t read Homer the way you read Thucydides. Or, for that matter, Dostoyevsky or Dickens or Fitzgerald. If you do, you’re missing the point. It’s like reading Shakespeare in an armchair. Sure, it’s great. But you’ve got to hear it. You’ve got to feel it. So yeah, when you call upon the Muse, it’s not a mere formality. You are, in a very real way, asking for her help. And if she smiles upon you, if she inspires4 you, you might just bring this 2500+ year old text back to life.

“Dave, you wanna get brunch on Saturday?”
“Can’t. Got my Reading Group.”
“What reading group?”
“Oh. I read Greek with a couple of old guys on Saturday mornings.”
“Whatever.”

You see, I rarely had to explain myself. Generally, nobody was interested. And it was an easy thing to chalk up to ‘Dave is into his Greek shit.’ But for five years, September to May, that is how I spent my Saturday mornings. Which is not say that I never showed up hung-over. It’s not to say that I never went there on two hours sleep and possibly still half drunk. And yeah, more than once, I left a very pretty, very naked girl asleep in my bed to go read Greek with a couple of old-timers.

It was a treasure. And I knew it was a treasure at the time. Where else in the world, I reasoned, did this exist? Where else did the godsdamned master of all things Homer himself welcome you into his living room and delight in teaching you everything he knew? He was eighty-something when I met him, and I knew then that this thing had an expiration date.   So you make the sacrifices and you say thank you for the opportunity.

Now he’s gone. Now I sleep as late as I damn well please on Saturdays. And I’m poorer for it. The funny thing is, he wasn’t an easy guy to get close to. Even at the end, you never forgot that he was the professor and you were the student. Which isn’t to say he didn’t let me in. He did, but in his own way. We didn’t have the sort of relationship where we might go and get a drink now and again.5

It was a treasure. And I knew it was a treasure at the time. During the first couple of years, I knew, actuarially, that time was going to run out on our little reading group. Of course I would have missed it. I would have missed the intellectual exchange. I would have missed learning at the foot of a master. But in those early days, it was all so academic. And yet, somewhere along the line, he became my friend.

Friend. We throw the word around quite casually. We have friends on the Facebook.   We have friends at work. We have all manner of “friends.” We have old friends and new friends. We have dear friends and casual friends. We have friends we drink with and work with, just as we have – if we are lucky – friends we may bare our souls to, friends who bear us up through the hard times and with whom we celebrate the good. The Old Man was, I think, none of these things. His friendship was, and remains, different, unique. And I fucking miss him. Gods, I fucking miss him.

Stephen G. Daitz. That was his name. It does him a disservice to refer to him as The Old Man. He had a name and he worked damned hard to have it mean something. Among students and fans6 he was known simply as ‘Daitz.’ Colleagues, friends closer than I, and family, called him Stephen. But to me, he was simply Daitz.

But I never called him “Daitz,” not to his face. He worked damned hard to have his name mean something. He was the master. And so I always ever addressed him as ‘Professor Daitz.’ I think this speaks for itself, but I want to provide an analogy, which, if it means nothing to others, means something to me. Derek Jeter was a superstar in baseball and a prince of the City. But to this day, he only ever addresses his first manager, Joe Torre, as “Mr T.” It’s like that.

It wasn’t all sunshine and roses. Sometimes Daitz straight-up annoyed the shit out of me. I’d be reading a passage, and in my mind, I’m killing it. I’ve got my haughty Agamemnon voice on, I’m waving my imperious left hand. I’m fucking Olivier over here, in ancient Greek. And he’d cut me off, mid line. Why? I didn’t quite nail the vowel quantity on some-or-other omicron.

C’mon, man! I’d scream in my head. I’m killing this! Tell me about the omicron when I’m done! I’d clench my teeth and take a deep breath. And then I’d cool down. He’s not wrong, I’d say to myself. How about you just get it fucking right? You’re giving him reasons to stop you. Get it fucking right. He demanded perfection. And the better you got, the more he wanted. Well, why shouldn’t he?

On some level, he was preparing you to go out into the world as a master of the craft. He knew – or, at least, he certainly hoped – that one day you’d take what he had taught you and that you would teach it to the next generation in turn. And if the day ever came when you’d say to some future student, “I learned from Stephen G. Fucking Daitz,” that student had better not hear an ill-formed omicron.

The funny thing is, the man had the patience of a saint. If he cut me off to correct a mistake that I never should have made in the first place, I was the one who was annoyed. He never was. That was the beauty of the man. His only concern was, ‘Do you love Homer?’ If the answer was yes, then nothing else mattered. You made a mistake? Fine, we’ll fix it. I’m just glad you’re here. That said, fix it.

Regrettably, I learned more about Homer from him than I did about patience. When I showed up in the waning winter of 2009, I knew nothing about how to read Homer aloud. Pitch accents, liaison, corrpetion – it was all just academic. But he sat with me, and taught me, and suffered through my period of ignorance. At some point, I mastered these things, and others besides. At some point, we could sit and read Homer together, veteran scholars.

But every now and again, a new student would show up. And I would be annoyed. Great, this rookie – who, let’s be honest, probably isn’t going stick around for more than a month anyway – is going to slow us down, I’d think selfishly. But Daitz wasn’t bothered. He was thrilled, in fact. And I had to sit there, in irritated silence, as he extended every bit of patience to the new kid as he extended to me, years ago.

He loved having new students. He loved teaching. But there were days when it was just the two of us. And at the end of those sessions, he would say something about how nice it was to just sit and be able to read Homer.7  Implied, but unsaid, was the idea that I’d come far enough. It wasn’t a classroom anymore. It was just two people who knew their shit and were rocking it.

One of things I liked most about these one-on-ones is that I got to hear Daitz read. He almost never read in bigger groups. That was part of his persona as “The Professor.” It was also a demonstration of his humility and his patience. He knew that for every line he might read, that was one less line for the aspiring student. But when it was just the two of us, we would trade off parts. And when it was his turn, I would just close my eyes and listen.

The funny thing is, I didn’t always agree with his interpretations. He read Hera, for instance, as a nattering, cuckold of a wife who didn’t so much argue with Zeus, her brother/husband,8 as cluck at him. To me that seemed dated. I preferred to read Hera as a headstrong and independent woman, straining against Zeus’ paternalism and chaffing at the ultimate futility of facing off against the king of the gods.

And get this: He loved it. After we’d both read a bit of Hera, he’d lay his book down in his lap and smile. “Well, Dave,” came the patrician basso,9 “You see now the beauty of Homer and the freedom that comes with being able to read Him properly. You and I have very different interpretations of what Hera is like.” (And I’m paraphrasing here). “No two people will read Him the same way. When Horowitz plays Beethoven, he doesn’t sound like Rubenstein. But it is always Beethoven underneath. And so it is with Homer.” When you could take the text and make it your own, that’s when he was most proud of you.

But if he gave you wide latitude in interpreting the, shall we say, ‘personality’ of the text, he was much more rigid in his grammatical analyses.   And if I should disagree with his reading, like as not, I’d simply keep my mouth shut. Usually it wasn’t worth the argument. At least from my point of view.

Although, as I got more comfortable, I would sometimes offer up my alternate textual analysis, just to have it on record, as it were. But very rarely would I argue over it. You’d have better luck moving mighty Ajax off the stern of a Danaan warship than you’d have moving the Old Man off his analysis.

Not everybody felt this way, however. Certainly not Nat. Now, this piece is about Daitz, my relationship with him and what he meant to me. I’m not sure it’s my place to be mentioning others by name. But I read with Daitz every Saturday, September to May, for five years. And in all that time, Nat was the other constant. We were the core of the group, at least in my time there. There were others, but invariably they lost interest, or moved away, or had other commitments.

Nat is an expert teacher of Latin and Greek and a bit of a renaissance man. But he knows his Greek, no two ways about it. And he had no problem going back and forth with the Old Man. For me, it got old fast, since neither of them would give any ground. But like the old Achaian warrior facing off against a Trojan of equal stature on the plains of Skamander, they seemed to delight in the contest. You could learn a lot listening to the two of them go at it. You could also, if you were a bit hungover, doze off in mild aggravation.

But as I said, every now and then, I would offer up my own reading of the text. For the first few years, I could tell he didn’t take my analyses particularly seriously. But towards the end, he would at least entertain my ideas. I’d like to think it was because I simply got better at Greek. But maybe it was a respect thing. I honestly don’t know.

In any case, I felt a sense of great achievement when, one day, I put forth a grammatical interpretation which was at variance with his own and he responded by saying, “Well, Dave, that’s very interesting.” Then he paused and rolled it around in his head a bit more. “Still, I think the accepted reading is as I have just said.” I don’t think I ever once changed his mind. But I’d got him to take me seriously. I had arrived.

When you meet somebody and he is already an old man, it is difficult to imagine him as anything else. But I remember two things, which called to mind an image of the younger man.

Once, after our session, I was talking politics with his wife. I don’t know what the age gap was between the two, but it was not insignificant. In any case, as we chatted, Daitz stood off to the side, leaning with his hands behind his back against a counter. I’m going to struggle to capture this here. But I could see them when they were younger. I could see his wife in heated political discourse, holding a salon with her contemporaries while the older professor sat by in regal silence, confident in his years and his intellect. He had no need to justify himself, no need to say something clever to show how smart he was. That was for younger folk. His eyes were closed, but there was pride on his face, pride that this brilliant woman was his wife. And all I could think was, “damn, they must have been a sight to see, back in the day.”

I said there were two things. The other was sex. His old age and his patrician bearing could easily mislead you into thinking that he was some kind of prude. He most certainly was not. Homer touches every aspect of life, and he’s not shy about sex. Well, neither was the Old Man. If Homer was talking about sex, then so were we. Sometimes it was just funny.10  But when Daitz spoke about sex, he was letting you know that he wasn’t always an old-timer.

And then there was the advice. He only ever gave me one piece of advice in this department, but he gave it freely and more than once. Surprisingly, perhaps, it had nothing to do with Homer. It issued instead from one of his other passions: French.11  One day, when I’d got there early and we were waiting for the others to show up, I casually remarked that I had lately embarked upon learning the Gallic tongue. He was, of course, delighted.

“Well, Dave,” he began. “Perhaps you can find a nice French girl to assist you in your studies. And I’ll give you a bit of advice, which was given to me when I was studying in Paris.12  Couchez avec ton dictionnaire. It means, go to bed with your dictionary. Since that day, I have dutifully endeavored to follow this advice. I will not have it said about me that I fail to take my studies seriously.

It was a strange thing to see Daitz out in the wild. He always seemed a bit bewildered when he’d show up for an academic conference, as he very often did. I’d learn after he died that he was suffering from dementia. Yet you’d never know it sitting with him in his living room, reading Greek. With the blind bard leading the way, and with the Muse bearing him up from behind, he was in full control.

It hit me hard when, on the way out the door one day towards the end, his wife pulled us (Nat and me) aside. She had tears in her eyes. She was thanking us for what we had given him. She told us that the way he was with us, he wasn’t normally like that anymore. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp it. She was saying that listening to him read with us, he sounded like he did twenty years ago.

She was thanking us. I wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her. You’re thanking us? I wanted to say. We should be thanking him! For all he’s given us, we should be thanking him. I don’t remember what I actually said, but I’m sure it failed the moment.

Failing the moment. That’s what I did. And when I had second chance, I did it again.

It was only this year that he started to slow down. It was February, or March maybe, when he began to make the sort of mistakes that he never used to make. It was hard to watch. Then one day, he excused himself from walking us to the door. He always walked us to the door. He was old-fashioned like that. But one day, he just couldn’t get out of the chair anymore. He was the old king, too tired to move off his throne. It was old Nestor on his θρόνοϲ at sandy Pylos. The shadows were lengthening, as Nat so eloquently put it at the memorial service.

And in the midst of this, I left. I didn’t leave out of fear or shame or sorrow. I left to do something of which I knew he would approve. I left to study French. The opportunity arose whereby I could volunteer at the office of a French school, and in exchange, I would get to take an 11 week course for free.13  The catch was, the only time I could volunteer was on Saturday mornings, in direct conflict with the Homeric Reading Group.

I put it to him that I was going on a sort of sabbatical. “But hey, you love French,” I said. “And when I get back, maybe we can speak some French together. That’s not so bad, eh?” In my heart, I knew we would never get to speak French together. But I had convinced myself otherwise.

The Old Man knew better. “Well, Dave,” he said proudly. “I’m sorry to see you go. You were a pillar of the group.” Past tense.14  He knew I wasn’t coming back. Or, not to put too fine a point on it, he knew he wouldn’t be there for me to come back to. My own response was weak.

“Aww, hey. It’s only eleven weeks. I’ll be back in the Fall. And then we can speak French together!” I don’t remember his response now, but he probably just nodded. Even at that stage of things, he was above this kind of bullshit. I didn’t feel good when I left that day, I can tell you that.

There was going to be a surprise birthday party. Eighty-eight; not a bad run by any stretch. But the game was called on account of rain. He just wasn’t up to it. And this is where I fucked up, the first time. Nat, I’m told, managed to get up there one last time. Nat managed to visit him at bedside and read one last bit of Homer with the Master. Nat, presumably, got to say goodbye.

I put it off. I tried calling a couple of times, to see if I could come up. But I got the voicemail, and I didn’t leave a message. “I’ll call back tomorrow,” I told myself. The thing about tomorrow, it never comes. And so, one day your friend asks you if you want to grab a drink after work. Sure, why not. Another day, you’re just tired and you want to go home. The next day you have French class. And on it goes.

Now, I’ll be honest. I didn’t know just how bad it was. You always think there’ll be time. And then one day you get the call. When I saw the name in my phone, I knew instantly. My heart sank like a rock. Mimi, his wife, was pretty composed. It was a Saturday. He’d checked out on Thursday. So a few days had passed. She said she’d been trying to get ahold me. I’d received no emails. It was a helluva time for miscommunication.

She asked me if I’d been away, been in France or something. It was inexplicable to her – to both of them, I have to assume – that I could have been in town and yet not present. I felt like such an asshole. It’s a vulgar way to put it. But I felt pretty damned vulgar. I still do.

Anyway, she invited me to come up to the apartment and pick through his books. He had made it very clear that he wanted me and Nat (and one other regular) to have a chance to claim what we wanted before the rest of the lot was donated to the CUNY Classics Department. I felt a rush of pride, which was almost instantly drowned under a wave of shame.

Filed under ‘M’ for ‘macabre,’ I’d imagined this day long ago. I’ve said how from the beginning I knew that this thing had an expiration date. And when years before I’d laid eyes upon his ancient and well-worn Autenrieth – his Homeric dictionary of choice – I’d dared to think that it would be pretty cool if, one day, it should somehow fall to me. Well, that day had arrived, and I felt sick for having ever conceived of it.

But there I was, in his living room, staring at his empty chair. It didn’t seem real. Surely he’d come shuffling into the room any minute now, just as he’d always done. Mais hélas! Not this time. Instead, I was led into his study cum library. I’d never been in there before. His desk was just as he’d left it. And there on his desk, exactly where it ought to be, was the Autenrieth. I opened it. On the inside cover were scrawled the words “ἐκ τῶν βιβλίων [from the library of] Stephen G. Daitz, 1/24/48.” I asked if I could have it. “Take whatever you want, Dave,” was the answer.

It was the most precious of the lot. I snagged some other volumes, which were important to me insofar as they pertain to my own areas of interest and study. A two volume commentary on Herodotos; a complete Sophokles, three volumes, French edition; a gorgeous little tome dating to 1716, the poems of Anacreon and Sappho,15 also a French edition; a copy of Euripides’ Helen, margins filled with his own notes; and of course, a copy of his own edition of a Euripides palimpsest, which has its own wonderful story behind it.16  But the Autenrieth, that was a treasure. The master’s very own dictionary.17

That was in June. In September, a memorial service was held. There would be speeches by Mimi and other family members, as well as by Nat and a few colleagues. They were all wonderful.

Mimi held it together pretty well. The only time she got choked up is when she mentioned Nat and me by name. She said we’d given him “a reason to live” in the last years. It was a beautiful thing to say. But all I could feel was guilt. Maybe I had given him a reason to live, in some small way. But when the end came, I wasn’t there. I took and took and took from him. And yeah, he gave with both hands. But when he couldn’t give anymore, I wasn’t there. Epic fucking fail.

Nat, in his speech, also mentioned me by name. “I could see the shadows lengthening,” he said, “when he gave Dave Starr and I a piece of pentelic marble from the Athenian quarry.”18  Even now, that piece of marble rests upon my bookshelf, at the end of a long line of Greek texts.

In any case, if you’re counting, that’s two name checks; one from his wife and one from his longest tenured student. That’s all you need to know about the difference between how others saw me and how I saw myself. And all I can say for that is, I was pretty fucking happy that only a handful of people in that crowded room actually knew who Dave Starr was.

At the end, Mimi announced that if anybody wanted to come up and say a few words, they were free to do so. A few did. I was not among them. For one, I didn’t know what I would have said. For another, I’m a shy, awkward sonofabitch. I looked left and I looked right. To get up there, I’d have had to climb over several people. I looked around the room. These people, many of them advanced in age, had been sitting for quite a while now. Did they really want to hear one more student say what had already been said, and likely better said? I stayed in my seat.

Afterwards, I found Mimi. A hug and a kiss on the cheek. “It was a beautiful service,” I said. “I thought you were going to say something,” she said. And there it was. I fucked up again. I’d been given a second chance to say goodbye. I’d been given a second chance to be there at the end. This time, I was there and I still managed to not show up.

And so I’ve written this. It’s the best I can do to say goodbye. And it’s not enough. I watched two fat fastballs go by, and now I’m down two strikes. Well, I’m not going down with the bat on my shoulder. I’ve got to say something, Professor Daitz, even if you’ll never hear it.

Stephen Daitz has given me a gift. It is a gift that I will carry with me until the end of my days, and one which, if I am lucky, I will be able to give in my own turn. For a long time, I thought that the gift was academic. He taught me how to read Homer, and I’ll be reading Homer till the day I die. But that was not the gift. Homer was just the vehicle.

The real gift was Hope. Hope that the song never stops. Hope that even in the Twilight Years, when the body fails and the mind decays, there is still love. Hope that even when you fuck up, the good outweighs the bad. Only you can abandon Hope. Hope never abandons you. That is what I learned from Stephen Daitz.

I’ll never truly know what the Old Man thought of me. But he left a clue. Of all his books, there was one in particular that he demanded I receive. Even in my absence, he did not lose faith in me. Dave must have this book, he decreed. And so I have it.

It is his own working text of the Odyssey, books I-VI. The printed text is a solid column of hexameters, running down the center of the page. But on either side, he had diligently scrawled in pencil his own notes, his own thoughts. He had carefully marked every single verb, noting the tense. He had made notes on the vocabulary. He’d made more scholarly notes, connecting one bit of text to another. His notes begin with the very first line of the Odyssey:

Ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦϲα, πολύτροπον, ὃϲ μάλα πολλὰ

And they continue down every page, all the way ‘til the last. But they stop at the top of the last page. He never finished. It was, in all probability, the very last thing he ever labored upon. And he wanted me to have it.

I had failed him in the end, and he looked straight past it. He saw only the bearded kid, full of bad puns and with a taste for French, who showed up every Saturday, September to May, for five years. Whenever I wonder what I meant to him, and I often do, the answer is there in those pages.

The Old Man left his mark on me in another, more quotidian, way. I don’t fancy myself a writer. To do so, without a paycheck, is both obnoxious and pretentious. Nevertheless, I do write. Sometimes, I think, it’s the only thing that keeps me sane. All the same, I’m not much of a writer. How can you be, when you read hardly any English?19

But still I write. ‘What I have in my heart must out,’20 Beethoven once wrote. And so it is with me, albeit on a plane far below those old masters. Beethoven, after all, wrote 16 string quartets, nevermind breaking the mold on the symphony. Nevermind perfecting the piano sonata to the point where you have to wonder – or at least I wonder – why anyone who came after him even bothered to try.21

But I digress. What I mean to say is, simply, that I write. And when I do, Daitz is always looking over my shoulder. I pay especial care now to the tense of each and every verb. Simple past. Imperfect. Pluperfect. I didn’t used to care. But I do now. He showed me just how much can be conveyed by the mere tense of a verb.

And so, say what you will about my writing. But in every sentence there is a verb. And each one has a thought behind it. Maybe I think Homer fudged on his verbs here and there. But Daitz didn’t think so. What he really meant was, you don’t ever have to put down anything you don’t mean. There’s always a way to say exactly what you want. You just have to find it.

And so at last I come to the end. I come to say goodbye. It is a late goodbye and it is, I’m afraid, all too hollow. But then, I was never any good at goodbyes. I have a hard time letting go. And yet, in a way, it’s not goodbye. He’s still with me. He’s with me when I write. And he’ll be with me the next time I try to speak – haltingly, flirtatiously – with the next French girl. And he’ll be with me each and every time I open up a page of Homer and begin to read.

I like to think now that Daitz has gone to the Elysian Fields, the land of heroes, where there is no death, only immortality. Akhilleus died, as we all must. But his deeds live on in song. Without the song, there is no hero. The song lives through me now, and my voice was given to me by Stephen G. Daitz. To the extent that the fallen heroes still walk among us, so does he.

I have not read any Homer since he died. I could not. But it is time now. It is time to start the song again. Goodbye, my friend. Thank you and goodbye. The song goes on…

  1. “Stentorian – very loud and powerful in sound,” so dictionary.com. The Old Man used to love pointing out that Στέντωρ (Stentor), from whose name this wonderful adjective derives, appears but a single time in all of Homer (Il.5.785-6). []
  2. Answer: A man in his mid-eighties. []
  3. Θρόνοϲ (thronos), whence is derived the word ‘throne.’ In Homeric Greek, a thronos was a chair with arms, as opposed to a diphros (δίφροϲ), which was more of a stool. I mention this not because I think the average reader will find it interesting, but because it is a distinction over which we in the Homeric Reading Group expended a fair amount of discussion. In Homer, you see, every word is important. []
  4. The Old Man often enjoyed pointing out that the word inspire derives from the Latin inspirare, which literally means “to breath into.” Thus, it is as if the Muse breathes the song into your lungs. []
  5. But then again, maybe we did. I’m a shy, awkward sonofabitch, and interpersonal relationships have always been difficult for me. So now I get to wonder if he ever would have been down for the odd extracurricular glass of wine. Apparently, I’d later learn, he was quite the oenophile. ((Which we should better spell oinophile, since it’s clearly a Greek word; but don’t get me started…) []
  6. He absolutely had fans []
  7. The instinct is to fall back upon that colloquialism, “mano a mano.” But if you ever said that in front of him, he would (pedantically) make sure you knew that it meant ‘hand to hand’ and not ‘man to man.’ []
  8. Eww. []
  9. He always began his comments to me with, “Well, Dave…” []
  10. I remember one time, for instance, when we were discussing the significance of a particular prepositional prefix to a sex-verb. The prefix was ὑπο- (hypo-), which generally means ‘under.’ In any case, he was explaining that this little prefix almost certainly described the position of one of the participants, and what this might say about the rôles of men and women in the bedroom and the broader implications for relations between the sexes in Ancient Greece. It was, shall we say, an interesting conversation to be having with an octogenarian at 11am on a Saturday. []
  11. He was, it turns out, quite the Francophile. Naturally, he studied at the Sorbonne. Of course he did, because he was a fucking genius. In fact, I learned after his death, that he raised his children to speak French at home. []
  12. In Paris. His ego had no need of bragging that he wasn’t just in Paris, he was at the fucking Sorbonne. []
  13. Regular price: north of $600. []
  14. During the last year or so, he’d grown increasingly enamored with Homer’s use of verb tenses. In his opinion, the Poet deliberately chose the tense of each and every verb, thereby to give a specific color or flavor to any given scene. Nat and I were less convinced of this. But for him, in Homer, no word was errant, nothing out of place. So when he spoke of my being a pillar of the group in the past tense, he damn well meant it. []
  15. Je l’adore! []
  16. There’s no space for it here, but the short version is, he went through hell and high water to get his hands on the original manuscript, held in a then Jordanian controlled area of Jerusalem. And when you see photos of that manuscript, you can only wonder at the skills that were required to make anything out of it. []
  17. When I got it home, I immediately began to leaf through it. To my amazement – but not surprise – I found that he had made his own notes in the margins. But more than that, he had made emendations to several of the entries. To put it another way, the man had corrected the fucking dictionary. Needless to say, his Autenrieth now lives on my own desk. And that, at least, I think he’d be happy about. A dictionary belongs on a desk, ready to be used, not collecting dust in some library. []
  18. Again, I paraphrase. For any Hellenists that might read this, I’d say, see Thucydides 1.22 on trying to get down, to the best of your ability, unrecorded speeches. For the uninitiated, just understand that I’m trying to capture as best I can the words that were said. But the phrase “lengthening shadows” was used. []
  19. When I was in grad school, I used to joke that whenever I’d eventually graduate, I’d get back to reading books in English. Only I kind of haven’t. Le Roman de Tristan & Iseult. Kinder- und Hausmärchen, von den Brüder Grimm.   Le Tour du Monde en 80 jours, par Jules Verne. (The Romance of Tristan & Iseult ; The stories of the Brothers Grimm ; Around the World in 80 Days, by Jules Verne). []
  20. Ach es dünkte mir unmöglich, die Welt eher zu verlassen, bis ich das alles hervorgebracht, wozu ich mich aufgelegt fühlte. Literally, “Oh, it seemed to me impossible to leave the world, until I had brought forth all that I felt within me.” From his Heiligenstädter Testament. []
  21. It seems fitting here to make special mention of Beethoven. For me, Beethoven was always the greatest. He was rock before rock, metal before metal. But nobody was ever sadder than Beethoven, and nobody ever more elated. Beethoven, more than anyone in the history of music, could throw you up against a wall, kick in you in the balls, punch through your chest and grab hold of our heart, and be divinely fucking sublime about it. After Daitz died, Mimi showed me a portrait of Beethoven, which hung on the wall outside his study. Beethoven, she said, was his favorite. I never knew. I would have loved to talk about Beethoven with him. []

Mooooooose!

I read in the paper this morning that Mike Mussina is on this year’s ballot for the baseball Hall of Fame.  I really liked Mike Mussina.  I liked that he was smart.  I liked that he was low key.  I liked watching the guy pitch.  He was a very good pitcher in his day.  Maybe a great one.  Maybe even a Hall of Fame one.  I kind of don’t care.1

What I want to do instead, is take a brief walk down memory lane.  And by memory lane, I mean, I’m going to give carte blanche to my imperfect memory.  I’m not going to look up any stats or box scores or anything else like that.2  Essentially, I’m going to put metaphorical pen to proverbial paper and just reminisce for a bit.  And since nobody really reads this thing, I don’t think I need to apologize for that.

My earliest memory of Mike Mussina is of an old man in a hospital bed.  No wait, let me back up.  Moose (which was his nickname) was a big deal pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles in the 90’s.  Or so I learned after the fact.  This is the part where I admit that I checked out of baseball after the strike, and only came back towards the end of the ’98 season, when the Yankees did that whole ’98 Yankees thing.3  All this to say, I wasn’t really aware of the guy until the Yanks picked him up as a free agent before the 2001 season.4  This was the same year (if I’ve got the year right) that the Yanks decided to kick Tino Martinez’ golden glove5 to the curb in favor of Jason Giambi, who promptly forgot how to hit for average.6  Point being, the Yanks were making some big changes after losing a simultaneously uplifting and heartbreaking World Series to the Diamondbacks of Arizona.  Enter Mike Mussina, stage left.  Or through the bullpen door actually.  So, enter Mike Mussina, stage door left-center, I guess.

My earliest memory of Mike Mussina is of an old man in a hospital bed.  I was visiting my dad in the hospital, who was in on some or other heart business.  And in the next bed, behind the curtain, there was an old man.  Now here’s where things get a bit fuzzy.  In my mind, he’s laying in bed, with a transistor radio on, listening to the Mets.  He obviously wasn’t though, because the Yanks had only just signed Moose, and so it was clearly the offseason.  In any case, it’s more romantic if he’s listening to the Mets game.  So that’s what he’s doing.  And his son is there, visiting.  And the son asks his father what he thinks of the Mussina singing.  And the old man says – and this is the party I actually remember vividly – the old man says, “Damned Hessian.”  He called him a Hessian!  As in the German mercenaries who signed up to fight for the British during the Revolution.  The guys whose only loyalty was to the dollar.7

Well, needless to say, no Yankee fan would ever characterize a free agent signee as a Hessian.  This is why I assume he was listening to a Mets game.  But really what I assumed was, that this old gentleman had to be a Brooklyn Dodgers fan.  One of the proud, old few.  One of the survivors.  One of those who is accorded instant respect for having survived the greatest non-genocide related loss of the 20th century.  And I imagined this fellow as an old Carthaginian, wandering the streets of Rome.  And the Romans giving him wide passage and great respect, for his loss as much as his pride.  And knowing all the while that the dude had seen some shit.  The sort of shit they were never going to see.  Whether it was Jackie Robinson stealing home or Hannibal marshalling his troops.  Whether it was the burning of Carthage or the demolition of Ebbets Field.  The man comes with instant respect.  And this man was calling Mussina a Hessian.  Not because he hates Mussina.  But because he hates the Roman Yankees.  That was my first memory of the man they called Moose.

But let me turn now to the good stuff.  The baseball memories.  And as I try to arrange my memories, I start to notice how fact begets memory begets myth.  And so what follows will be mostly myth, somewhat less memory, and hardly fact at all.  But there’s a kernel of truth in here somewhere.

The myth of Mike Mussina is a myth of heroic failure.  In his first year, Moose got the least run support of any pitcher on the staff.  I want to say that there was an early game against Kansas City or Minnesota or some other team the Yankees are never supposed to lose to.  And Moose goes out there and pitches eight innings, strikes out nine guys and loses 2-1.  Most of his starts went like that that year.8  But these kinds of games set the stage for the truly epic titanomachies he would enter into with the best pitcher in baseball, one Pedro Martinez.  Who just happened to pitch for the arch-nemesis Boston Red Sox.

For a couple of years there, it felt like Moose and Pedro would get matched up something on the order of ten times a summer.  And let me tell you, those were some incredible pitcher’s duels.  Those two would go out and match zeros all afternoon long.9  Pedro would strike out the side and Moose would come back and do the same.  It got to the point where the matchups became highly anticipated gladiatorial events.  Now Moose was always classy about this.  When reporters would ask him what it’s like to match up against the great Pedro Martinez, he would invariably say something like, “I’m not pitching against Pedro.  I’m pitching against the Red Sox batters.”  It’s the sort of thing Derek Jeter would say if Derek Jeter was a pitcher.10  So you had to respect that.

But as I say, these were truly epic pitching duels.  If memory serves, and it clearly does not, those two would go out there and toss 13 scoreless innings at a clip, only to win or lose 1-0 on some play that was clearly not their fault.  In actuality, more often than not, they’d both be gone by the seventh, leaving a scoreless game to be given away by lesser arms out of the bullpen.  But it sure felt like they would regularly take shutouts into extra innings.  In the end, the details don’t really matter.  It was the feeling of it.  The excitement of watching two expert craftsman ply their trade.  It was the drama of watching two heroic warriors hold back the onslaught of the other side’s awful firepower.  It was Ajax holding back the Trojans from Achaean ships.  It was Hector defending the walls of Troy.  It was baseball.

However, Mike Mussina’s greatest triumph in pinstripes came during game seven of the 2003 ALCS.  Against Boston.  Against Pedro.  It had to.  People remember a lot of things about this game.  And with good reason.  A lot of amazing things happened in this game.  There was Grady Little leaving Pedro in too long.  There was Jorge Posada hitting that big double.  There was Pedro finally leaving the game and taking Grady’s job with him.  There was Mariano Rivera pitching, like, literally twenty-three scoreless innings in relief.  There was, of course, the Aaron Boone home run in the bottom of the whatever, off Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball, his trot around the bases and into Yankee immortality forever etched in the minds of those who witnessed it.  But there was Moose also.

Roger Clemens started the game for the Yanks.  And for whatever reason, he came out in the early innings.  And by ‘for whatever reason,’ I mean he was awful.  So he was awful ‘for whatever reason.’  But his awfulness is what brought him out of the game early.  With the bases loaded.  And no outs.11  Well, who do you turn to in do-or-die game seven when it’s only the third or so inning and the bases are loaded?  You can’t bring in Rivera, because you’re saving him for later, when he’s going to need to pitch, like, literally twenty-three innings of scoreless relief.  Well, if you’re Joe Torre, you turned to Mike Mussina.  A guy who probably had never pitched so much as one out of relief in his professional career.12  And what does Mussina do?  Well, he does that thing in his windup where he bends low at the waist and looks behind him to check the runners.  Then he does that thing where retires the side and gets your team out of the biggest jam of the year.13  Then you do that thing where you just stare at the TV in disbelief at what you just witnessed.  And when you finally put it all together, you jump and yell and high-five the guys you’re with.  And you immediately start talking about how you’ve never seen anything like that, and how you’re going to be talking about this for years to come, and ohmigod, they still need to figure out how to hit Pedro…

But that was the day when I realized I could root for Mike Mussina.  It was the day I realized this guy was fit to wear the pinstripes.  Not in that Andy Pettitte way, mind you.  Because nobody’s Andy Pettitte.  But in the long line of free agents that came through the Bronx in that decade, he was one of two guys who you felt like deserved to be Yankees.  The other, of course, was Hideki Matsui.  The rest were, let’s face it, a bunch of Hessians.

Two other memories of Moose deserve mention.  One was the time he took a perfect game14 into the 9th inning at Fenway, only to have Carl Everett ruin it at the last possible moment.  I wanted that one for him so badly.  Moose could never find his way to twenty wins in a season.  He always seemed to get the short end against Pedro.  He had that lousy run support.  Man, I really wanted him to get that game.  But no, the Red Sox ruined it.  Like they ruin everything.  And of course, I was watching that game in my friend’s dorm room at college.  My friend who happened to be the biggest Red Sox fan I knew.  Yeah, that stung.  But it was still a great game by the Moose.  That’s just how the Baseball Gods work sometimes.  They’re a capricious lot.

The other memory comes at the very end.  His last start in his last season.  Which was, I’m almost certain, also the last season at the Old House.15  And in this, his last start, Moose finally got his 20th win.  First time.  Last time.  It was poetic.  But it was sliver-age poetry.  It wasn’t Virgil.  It was one of those guys who came after Virgil that nobody really cares about except people who are totally into Latin poetry.  But it was still poetry and it was great.  And the whole Stadium was chanting “Moooooose!!!”  We were all happy for the guy.  How could you not be?  He’d given us so many great years of pitching.  So many great stories.  And in the end, that’s what baseball is about.  It’s about the story.  And if Mike Mussina’s story turns out not to be a Hall of Fame story, it’s still a story worth telling.  And retelling.

  1. I don’t care because the standards by which some people are allowed into the hall and others kept out defies any kind of logic.  Ty Cobb, racist, is in.  Pete Rose, gambler, is not.  Barry Bonds, homerun king and juicer is out.  Old rich white dudes who kept black men out of the majors for decades are in.  So I’m not particularly invested in whether or not ol’ Moose finds his way to Cooperstown one day. []
  2. I did, however, look up how to spell ‘Mussina.’  #journalisticintegrity []
  3. ’98 Yanks: Res ipsa loquitur. []
  4. I think.  As I said, I’m not fact checking dates. []
  5. Though he somehow never won a Gold Glove, because, I assume, all people who vote on this award are assholes.  I defy you to show me a more logical, lucid and well reasoned alternative. []
  6. And so, after a lifetime of Mattingly and Tino playing first base, I got to watch this guy stumble around the bag with ten thumbs and two left feet. []
  7. Or Pound Sterling, or whatever the Brits were paying their mercenaries in in the 18th century.  (Also not researched for this piece, world currencies of the 18th century.) []
  8. I think.  Probably one of them was at least.  Probably more than one.  Because every pitcher is going to have a night like that.  Well, not every pitcher.  I don’t think Denny Neagle ever had a game like that for the Yanks.  I mean, that guy was just awful.  Him and his stupid train-whistle gag.  Ugh.  The point is, it must have happened at least a couple of times in order for me to feel like it happened all the time. []
  9. Because in the myth version of this story, every time these two matched up, it was a day game.  Because everybody knows all the best baseball happens during the day.  Or nearly.  On more which later. []
  10. Which I’m sure he could have been.  Because Derek Jeter can do anything he wants.  For evidence of this, see the life of Derek Jeter.  That’s not a book title.  I mean, just look at the guy’s life. []
  11. Or maybe one out. []
  12. If you’re Joe Girardi, you look this up in your Magic Binder.  But this was in the days before Magic Binders. []
  13. Not to be confused with the biggest disaster of the year, which was starting Jeff Weaver in a World Series game.  Or any game, really. []
  14. Or possibly just a no-hitter, but either way, it was a big deal. []
  15. And if it wasn’t, it should have been. []

GEMINI

Castor Master of Horses & Pollux of the Fighting Fists

 

One of my favorite things about Homer is when you read something on the page, something thousands of years old, and then it shows up in real life.  For example, just last week I was reading about Helen and Priam hanging out on the parapets of Troy.  And then, lo and behold, my brother has a telescope.  Who’s with me?

You see, my brother just turned thirty.1  Now apart from being a rather talented musician and a really good music teacher, he is also totally into astronomy.2  None of which has anything to do with him being thirty, except that as a function of celebrating, we3 were over at his apartment for dessert.  And after they had enjoyed their ice cream cake and I had enjoyed my Jack Daniels4 he decided to set up the ‘scope for some amateur astronomy.

Now you’d think you wouldn’t be able to see much of a night sky in New York City.  And you’d be right.  But there are ways around this.5  In any case, he’s got this fancy electronic mount which can track celestial bodies.6  But in order to get it working, he’s got to first align it to a known entity.  In this case, the mounts on-board computer suggested the star called Pollux.  Now my brother just sort of looked up and pointed in a general direction, because he knows about this stuff.  But it took me a second to find it.  But I did find it.  Right next to its twin, Castor.

Well now he was talking my language.7  So I said, “Oh! Kastor and Polydeuces!,” using the proper Greek names.  He mumbled some sort of agreement while he fiddled with his instrument.8  “The Dioskoroi,” I said.  He nodded that nod which means, “fine smarty-pants, whatever.”  “Dude,” I persisted.  “The Dioskoroi.  Kastor and Polydeuces.  The brothers of Helen of Troy.”  Nothing.  “Well?,” I asked.  “What do you call the constellation then.  He answered in a tone that implied the answer was obvious: “Gemini.”9

 

οἱ δ᾽ ὡϲ οὖν Ἑλένην ἐπὶ πύργον ἰουϲαν…
Ὥϲ ἄρ᾽ ἔφαν, Πρίαμοϲ δ᾽ Ἑλένην ἐκαλέϲϲατο φωνῆι…

And they saw Helen moving upon the tower…and after they had spoken amongst themselves, Priam called to her… (Iliad, 3.154, 161)

 

So there stood two figures upon one of the towers of windy Troy, looking out upon the field of battle.  And to Priam, there were many glorious figures to behold, though he knew none of them by name.  But to Helen, each one was known, each had his own attributes which made him wondrous and unique.  And each time Priam would point to one, and ask, “who is that?,” Helen would name him and say some words about him.  The stars of the Greek army.  There was her husband, whom she’d left, Menelaos.  There was his brother, the mighty king of men, Agamemnon.  Crafty Odysseus, stout Aias and the Kretan Idomeneus.  But as they surveyed the field, two were conspicuous to Helen by their absence.

 

δοιὼ δ᾽ οὐ δύναμι ἰδέειν κοϲμήτορε λαῶν
Κάϲτορά θ᾽ ἱππόδαμον καὶ πὺξ ἀγαθὸν Πολθδευκεα
αὐτοκασιγνήτω, τώ μοι μία γείνατο μήτηρ.
ἢ οὐχ ἑϲπέϲθεν Λακεδαίμονοϲ ἐξ ἐρατεινηῆϲ,
ἢ δεύρω μὲν ἕποντο νέεϲ᾽ ἔνι ποντοπόροιϲι,
νῦν αὖτ᾽ οὐκ ἐθέλουϲι μάχην καταδύμεναι ἀνδρῶν,
αἴϲχεα δειδιότεϲ καὶ ὀνείδεα πόλλ᾽ ἅ μοί εϲτιν.

But I am not able to see the two captains, said Helen,
Kastor, master of horses and the fist-fighter Polydeuces
my own two brothers, who were born to my own mother.
Either they did follow the others from lovely Lakedaimon
or else they came here in their seafaring ships,
but now do not wish to come down to the battlefield
fearing the shame and the many reproaches they will have on my account.
(Iliad, 3.236-42)

 

So there I was, clueless but in awe.  Pointing now to one bright star, now to another, asking its name.  And there was my brother, knowing all of them.  Three thousand years ago, two figures stood upon a parapet of a great city, surveying a field of stars, gazing at them in awe.  One teaching the other about them.  And here we were, upon the 28th floor balcony in a great city, doing very much the same.  But though faithless Helen could find all but her two brothers, there, conspicuous before us, were those very twins.

And connecting these two tales was blind Homer, who never saw a single star, and yet knew them all.

  1. Happy Birthday! []
  2. Follow him on Twitter @UrbanAstroNYC.  And check out his blogue at UrbanAstro.org []
  3. The family []
  4. I’m lactose intolerant. []
  5. Check out this article (pp.44-9) he wrote on the subject. []
  6. And possibly naked neighbors.  If they move slowly enough. []
  7. Ancient Greek. []
  8. Minds out of the gutter, people! []
  9. Bloody Romans. []

FAREWELL, MISTER MAYOR

There is knowledge that predates memory.  There are things that you learn, and so things that you know, before you remember actually learning anything at all.  This woman is Mommy.  That man is Daddy.  The sky is blue.  Ed Koch is the mayor.  These things were just facts.  Incontrovertible, wonderful little facts.

I should back up.  I was born in Brooklyn and lived there until I was about six years old.  My friends with whom I went to High School1 like to give me a hard time about this.  They like to tell me I didn’t live there long enough to get to say “I’m from Brooklyn” in any kind of serious way.  But they’re really very wrong about this.

I remember when subway cars were covered in graffiti.  I remember those little metal handles that I couldn’t reach on the bus instead of the metal bars that transverse the coaches of today.  I remember walking over the bridge with my mom into Sheepshead Bay.  I remember the teenagers walking down the street with giant boomboxes slung over one shoulder.  I also remember that mugging was a think that really happened and that we never went to Coney Island because that’s where drugs were sold, and whatever drugs were, they were bad.  Most important of all, perhaps, I knew people who believed it was a cardinal sin to like the Yankees because once upon a time they were Dodger fans.2

My friends, on the other hand, were from the suburbs.  They came from towns that probably didn’t even have mayors, or if they did have mayors, children certainly didn’t know their names.  But I knew who my mayor was.  He was Ed Koch.  And he was a big deal, even to a kid.

Why was he a big deal to a kid?  I honestly don’t know.  In my own head, I have a memory of him being on Sesame Street once.  I’d swear on my best bottle of scotch that this is true, but I did a (brief) Google search tonight and could find nothing to corroborate this memory.  Still, if it is true, then he was trading in some pretty high valued child-currency.  So that’s one thing, at least.

For another, from the perspective of a Jewish kid, he looked and sounded and acted (through child-eyes at least) like somebody who would be your favorite uncle.  In fact, somebody you’d prefer to be an uncle over some of your actual uncles.  Beyond this, it gets fuzzy.  He was a presence, and no there’s doubt about that.  He was as much a part of the city as those graffiti covered subways and Delmar’s pizza and rainbow cookies.  Although when you’re a kid, you don’t think of these things as being a part of the city, but simply as being a part of life.

Keep in mind, Ed Koch was the mayor every single day of my life, from the day I was born until the day we left Brooklyn.  And I think he was still mayor when we moved back to New York two years later, though this time to Long Island.  In fact, he must have been, because I remember David Dinkens running for mayor and thinking it would be great if the black man won.3  So maybe this not only starts to get at why Ed Koch was an important character in the background of my childhood, but why to this day he has remained one of my favorite public figures.

We have a funny way of romanticizing things from our childhood.  Most things that we take for granted as children tend to take on a sort of warm glow as we get older.  The crenellated brickwork around neighbors front yards that I used to walk on, where the space between the bricks was just big enough to fit my little feet in, for example.  We had a pool in the backyard, which I barely remember.  But I remember the bricks.  And I remember Ed Koch.

Fast forward to 2009.  I discovered a program called Road to City Hall on NY1.4  And to my infinite delight, I discovered that Mayor Koch had a weekly segment where he sat with retired senator Al D’Amato.5  The two of them would shoot the political breeze for ten or fifteen minutes.  They would crack wise but they would speak wisely underneath it all.  The segment, by the way, was called Wise Guys.6

And do you know what?  I still loved this guy.  This wasn’t about nostalgia anymore.  Here was the real Ed Koch, in the flesh.  There are lots of words you can use to describe hizzoner, but the two words that fit best – and I think he’d agree – are “New” and “Yorker.”  Yes, he had the attitude.  And yes, he had the wonderful accent.  But there was more to it than that.

I once heard somebody describe New Yorkers this way: People in other parts of the country are nice without being kind, but New Yorkers are kind without being nice.  That was Ed Koch, I think.  He didn’t pull punches.  He didn’t sugar coat.  He damn well never told people what they wanted to hear.  But there was a kindness underneath this.  He loved politics.  He loved New York.  And he loved its people.  This last bit, I think is the most important.

I remember I met Governor Pataki once, at a museum function.  When I shook his hand, he looked right past me and his handshake was so weak I wondered how he ever got a job in his life.  I never got to meet Ed Koch.  But he was famous for being out on the streets, throwing his “How’m I doin’?” line at his fellow citizens.

“How’m I doin’?”  That’s something that stuck with my parents, I can tell you that.  Years after his mayoralty, if the name Ed Koch ever came up, my parents would look at each other and say, “Hey! How’m I doin’?!”  I’m sure there are people who think this was shtick.  But emperor Bloomberg, who supposedly rides the train to work,7 you don’t see him asking regular joes how they’re doing.  And Rudy?  “America’s Mayor”?  Fuggedaboutit.

Today’s New York is a bit sterile.  I’m not saying it’s worse.  It’s probably a better city to live in today than it was back then, by most measurable standards.8  And yet, it feels like it’s lost some of its soul, some of its grit, some of that edge that New Yorkers fancy themselves as being proud of.

To that end, I think Ed Koch reminds us – reminds me, anyway – of a city that doesn’t exist anymore.  A city that had CB’s and the Ramones.  A city without surveillance cameras.  A city that had xxx shops in Times Square instead of Disneyland.  But also a city with hookers and muggings and drug deals and a real AIDS problem.  Sometimes I want that city back, and sometimes I think that’s an insane idea.  But I’ll tell you this, I want that mayor back.

I want to say Ed Koch was one of a kind.  In a lot of ways that’s true.  You better believe there was only ever one Ed Koch.  But it’s also not true.  Because he was really just a regular New Yorker.  An exceptional New Yorker, to be sure, but a regular New Yorker all the same.  And there were lots of people just like him.  I don’t think we’ll ever see the likes of Ed Koch again, as much because he really was one of a kind as because, well, they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.

Farewell, Mister Mayor.  Rest in Peace.  Ya did great.

  1. On Long Island. []
  2. A point which probably deserves a post of its very own. []
  3. Paging Dr. King; Idealistic child, line 1. []
  4. It’s properly called “Inside City Hall,” but they change the name during the run-up to elections, and this is when I happened to find it. []
  5. Who I’m pretty sure is more crooked than a dog’s hind leg, but who is also endlessly charming. []
  6. Perfection. []
  7. I say “supposedly” because I’ve never seen it.  Never even met anyone who’s seen it.  But that’s his story and he sticks to it. []
  8. If you have the money.  But then, I suppose that’s always been true. []

The Joys of Radio

One of the more beautiful things about childhood is the way we use our imaginations.  We imagine anything anywhere and at any time.  It may look like we’re just stacking up pillows, but to us, it’s a fortress.  To grownups, they’re just a pile of blocks, but we know it’s a castle, and we know who lives there.  GI Joe doesn’t fight on the living room floor, he’s out in the desert or in the mountains or the beaches, defending America against COBRA (and possibly Zombies).  My parents were only vaguely aware that Normandy – Omaha beach, to be specific – had somehow come to occupy an entire room of our house.  It was, I should note, made quite clear to them however, that they were not to disturb the little green army men if they cared at all about a free Europe.1

But as we grow up and stop playing with toys, we leave these sorts of imagineered worlds behind.  Not entirely, of course.  I think that we like movies because they take us someplace else, and books too.  I also happen to think this has a large part to do with what’s behind the trending interest in the topos known as the “Zombie Apokalypse.”  I think people like to imagine themselves in a lawless broken down world.  How would they survive?  What would they do?  Are they up to the challenge?  For our parents it was the Wild West.  For us, I suppose it’s Zombies.

Movies, books, Apokalypseis Nekroplaneton2 are all fine vehicles for the adult imagination.  But for me, there is something particularly special about radio.  And more particularly, listening to ballgame or a hockey game on the radio.

Listening to a game on the radio is not really something that one can do casually, or sporadically.  Certainly that’s fine if all you want to do is catch up on the score, or have the game on in the background.  Now television is great because you can see what’s happening.  You can see how far the centerfielder had to run to make that amazing catch.  You can see the split save the goalie just made.  And there’s much to be said for that.  But your limited by where the cameras are.  You’re limited by what the director chooses to put up on the screen.

Oh but radio!  You can imagine all of it.  You can put yourself right in the front row.  Better yet, you can put yourself on the field.  You can be right there on the ice.  You can be the catcher, seeing that fastball whistling in at you, 95 miles per hour.  You can stand at shortstop and watch your centerfielder fly like superman.  You can be the defenseman trailing the play, and see the look of heartbreaking astonishment on your winger’s face as the goalie impossibly robs him.

You have to work for it.  It’s not easy.  You’ve got to take the time to shut out the rest of the world.  To close your eyes and listen.  I mean really listen.  When you watch a game on TV you’re only peripherally aware of the sounds of the game.  But when you close your eyes and listen to the radio, you can here the breeze, really hear the chatter in the stands.  The crack of the bat isn’t some dull noise that accompanies a picture anymore.  You anticipate it.  You hold your breath, your ears prick up…pop or crack?  That sound tells you what happened before the announcer does.  You can hear the sound of steel cutting into ice, boards rattling, stick on puck.  There’s a whole orchestra playing behind that ballet of a hockey game.  The music tells a story.

Baseball is a game that’s made for radio.  Baseball is always the same.  Players are exceptional.  They make exceptional plays.  But the game is always the same.  The batter always gets three strikes.  He always stands 60 feet 6 inches from the pitcher.  You can see it without having to see it.  Not that the visual doesn’t have value.  The poise of Mariano Rivera.  The way David Ortiz towers over the plate like a volcano waiting to erupt.  Jose Reyes going first to third.  These are sights to behold, surely.  But in the moment, they’re abstractions.  The Mick could hit the ball for miles.  Jackie would have people on the edge of their seats, just waiting, waiting for  him to steal second.  It’s all happened before, and it will happen again.  So in baseball it’s all about the moment.  And radio allows you to transport yourself right inside that moment.  All you have to do is close your eyes, listen…and imagine.

And of course there are the announcers.  Some are better than others, of course, and some are head-scratchingly banal.  But you listen to them day in and day out, and you begin to form a relationship.  You know their mannerisms, you know how they think, you can almost anticipate what they’ll say next.  In a strange way, they become your friends.  You know them.  Last summer, I bought the MLB app for my iPhone.  I made it a habit of listening to at least a few innings of every game on the opposing teams broadcast.  It’s like being invited over to somebody’s home, somebody you don’t know that well, but somebody who loves the game like you love the game.  And you spend time with them.  You get their perspective, get to know what they think about certain players, how they read certain situations.  And then I’ll switch back to the home broadcast, and it’s like coming home for the late innings, opening some beers with a good friend.

Hockey, admittedly, is much harder on the radio.  In baseball, you know where all 9 men are at any time.  In hockey, without your eyes, you know where the goalies are, and maybe the puck carrier.  You have to fill in the rest with your knowledge of the game.  But it still works.  And man is it exciting!  A good hockey game has a pace.  It has its own rhythm.  And a good play-by-play man will capture that rhythm with his voice.  You feel the rise and fall, and you hear the crowd behind it all.  On a lazy summer Sunday, I can put a ball game on and easily drift off to sleep for a few innings.  But hockey?  Forget it.  My heart is up in my throat.

This winter I’ve been developing a new and perhaps somewhat unique relationship with hockey on the radio.  I am a die-hard Islander fan.3 As such, I’ve been listening to their radio broadcasts for years; especially in the last two years when I could no longer watch them on television.  But this year, as part of my ongoing effort to learn French, I’ve taken to live-streaming the Montréal Canadien broadcasts.  And although the Islanders will always be my one true love, because I’ve spent so much time listening to them (and reading about them), le CH have sort of become m’équipe adoptive.

At first, I was completely lost.  But with each passing period, I am able to pick out a little bit more.  And while I often don’t know exactly what’s going on, I can at least follow the play pretty well.  Doing so, however, ties in all of what I said above.  I listen to the sounds of the crowd, the sounds of the skaters, the sticks, anything that will give me a little more information about what’s going on.  And over it all, the rhythm of the call rides like a wave, catching it all up together.  In my mind’s eye, the picture may be a little grainy, and definitely fuzzy around the edges, but it’s still hockey and I can feel the rhythm of the game and I can imagine what’s happening.

And here too I’m developing a relationship with the announcers.  The excitable rapid-fire play-by-play man, who speaks with precision and enunciates clearly.  The slower, more monotone color man, whose conversational banter is almost impossible for me to grasp.  But how he felt about the Habs’ defenseman taking a penalty in the closing minutes with his team down a goal was perfectly clear in any language.

Maybe this isn’t for everybody.  Maybe some people need to see the game.  Maybe we don’t all have the patience or the attention span anymore to put everything aside for even an hour, to just sit, eyes closed, and listen.  And imagine.  But I urge everybody to give it a try.  You might be surprised by the places you’ll take yourself.

  1. I was perhaps a bit precocious. []
  2. The technical term I’ve logodaidalicized for such an event: lit: Apocalypse of the Wandering Dead []
  3. And I’ve been dying a hard death with that team pretty much every year since 1994. []