Dancing to the music of time


Here’s my latest essay for a book I’m working on for Blue Heron Book Works. The title is ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death,’ which was the actual headline on a 1920s newspaper article about the tragic death of young mill worker Thomas Crooks, 23, who was my great-uncle.

 

My father’s cousin Carlo and his wife Marie, it seemed to me, would have fit perfectly in a movie made by one of those great Italian movie directors.

Carlo, who came to America from his small mountain village in Chieti province when he was in his late teens or early 20s and was the nephew of my Italian grandmother, was dark and handsome, his hair nearly black and always slicked back with Vitalis or Brylcreem, his cheeks well-splashed with witch hazel, his smile friendly, his voice smooth but foreign. As for Marie, I remember her with a big smile, lighter complexion, heavy but alluring Italian accent, a mischievous twinkle in her eye, and a luxurious mane of long red hair.

It saddens me a bit, even now, to think that they’re both long gone, both passed on to that great Fellini set in the sky. They’re splashing in the Tivoli fountain. They’re cheek-to-cheek in a gondola gliding through the canals of Venice. They’re running arm-in-arm through the Piazza San Marco as flocks of pigeons flap skyward.

Or they’re where I remember them still – in their tiny apartment in south Yonkers, hosting some kind of party – maybe a child’s birthday. I’m seven or eight years old, there with my parents, and I’m sitting in a chair watching the adults dance.

Carlo puts on a record, takes Marie by the hand, and they swirl and laugh as Dean Martin sings “Volare, oh oh/Cantare, oh oh oh oh/Let’s fly way up to the clouds / Away from the maddening crowds…

Some people die but also don’t die. They live on in someone’s memory, the way Carlo and Marie abide on in mine, young and vibrant and beautiful, dancing happily to the music of a hard-drinking Hollywood paisan, dancing to the music of time.

Lonely hunter

 

Here’s my latest essay for a book I’m working on for Blue Heron Book Works. The title is ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death,’ which was the actual headline on a 1920s newspaper article about the tragic death of young mill worker Thomas Crooks, 23, who was my great-uncle.

—–

There’s a novel by Carson McCullers titled ‘The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.’ It’s one of those books — I own it, but I don’t think I’ve ever actually read it, or at least I don’t remember it. The point is that the title came to mind — even though I don’t know what the hell it means.

It came to mind because it has the word ‘lonely.’

Songs, too. The early Neil Young song about the lonely boy out on the weekend. That crappy song by Paul Anka. That great song by Roy Oribison. And, of course, Elvis, asking ‘Are You Lonesome Tonight?’

The answer. Yes, Elvis.

Dealing with my illness has been and continues to be very hard. The treatments are working, thankfully, but the regimen sometimes wipes me out, physically and, sometimes, emotionally.

Related problems (soon to be fixed) with my vocal cords and voice have left me pretty much unable to speak for nearly nine months — and cut off, in large part, from people.

And I’m not that kind of person.Let’s just say that I could never live the life of a hermit — unless someone was paying me a lot of money.

Part of it, too, is that many of my friends and family are scattered around the country. I do have many dear friends who live nearby and would gladly spend time with me.

But there’s also a sort of self-imposed exile. I just don’t want to intrude on their lives. What’s more, pretty much no one except my family and a few friends has seen me since I became ill  — and I don’t want them to see me until I’m better…and I look like me again.

Usually I’m fine. I go out for coffee, for groceries, for the Sunday newspaper. Sometimes I get in my car and park down by river. I watch the Yankees on YES and old movies on TCM. I read a lot. I’m working hard on my book. And I even just co-wrote a song with my singer-guitarist son.

But sometimes I feel sorry for myself and sometimes I even wallow in it.

So, when Elvis asks his question, usually the answer is ‘No, but thanks for asking.’

Other times, though, I honestly reply: ‘The heart is a lonely hunter…’

 

 

Speak, memory

Here’s my latest essay for a book I’m working on for Blue Heron Book Works. The title is ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death,’ which was the actual headline on a 1920s newspaper article about the tragic death of young mill worker Thomas Crooks, 23, who was my great-uncle.

 

I used to be able to speak. Some people, in fact, say that sometimes they couldn’t get me to shut up. They say this amiably — but it’s true. I love telling stories. I like to talk with people. I csn’t help myself.

But illness – a tumor, now shrunken and still shrinking, pressed against my vocal cords — did what friends and family and attempts at self-control couldn’t do.

I really haven’t been able to talk since January — eight months of sometimes being hoarse and gravelly, sometimes being barely able to whisper. Thirty-two weeks of living in an alien world of silent isolation. I rarely call people on the phone or answer their calls. When I try to order coffee at the drive-up speaker, the friendly folks at Dunkin’ Donuts have trouble understanding, then act like I’m some kind of invalid when I pull up at the window.
I can’t blame them. I sound awful — when you can even hear me.

But now the offending tumor has shrunk so much that I am able to undergo a relatively routine outpatient procedure to manipulate my vocal cords — and restoring my voice.
It’s scheduled for two weeks from today. I’ll be required to not talk for a day or two, and the throat doctor said it takes to a week for the procedure to take full effect.

After that? I’m ordering coffee. Then expect a phone call. You won’t be able to shut me up.

Sometimes you can’t help but cry…

Here’s my latest essay for a book project I’m working on for friend Bathsheba Monk’s Blue Heron Book Works. The working title is ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death,’ which was the actual headline on a 1920s newspaper article about the tragic death of young mill worker Thomas Crooks, 23, who was my great-uncle.

I’ve been avoiding mirrors and l look the other way when I pass a plate-glass window, lest I glimpse my reflection. But I just held up my iPhone and accidentally glimpsed a reflection of my puffed up face and bald head and watery eyes — and I cried. Not the loud sobbing kind of crying. Just tears, sudden and unexpected.

All in all, I’m actually feeling surprisingly well. I haven’t lost weight, I’m handling the very intense chemotherapy treatments, and the doctor keeps giving me good news about how well the treatments are working.

But I still worry about what the future holds. So far, so good. But what if something goes wrong again? Two unexpected health crises early on — my initial brain surgery and, one month later, a near-fatal loss of blood — have never escaped my mind.

And the side-effects, albeit relatively minor, are affecting me more and more, mostly emotionally. My feet and legs are swollen, which often makes it difficult to walk, especially walking up stairs. Just in the past couple of weeks, I’ve noticed that food has hardly any taste. My eyes keep watering –because my eyelashes are half-gone. Likewise, I haven’t had to shave for weeks. And I’ve been more or less unable to talk since February, which leaves me even more isolated and cut off from the world — although it looks like a throat specialist, and an out-patient procedure, will finally restore my (melodious) voice in just a few weeks!

So why am I being such a gloom merchant? Why am I succumbing to self-pity?

I’m extremely fortunate that my illness was caught while it was still treatable. Thankfully, my daughters, one in Brooklyn and the other in California, somehow knew that something was wrong with me, and twice got me to the ER just in time.

And I’ve never been blindly optimistic: I’ve faced difficulties before, and I’ve always faced them head-on — and I’m still here to talk about it!

So why was I so weepy tonight? I think part of is my nature. I’ve always tended toward melancholy. I once told a friend that I was optimistic about life, despite all the accumulated evidence to the contrary. And there’s still a part of me that vibrates like a tuning fork when Dylan sings ‘Everyone is wearing a disguise/to hide what they’ve got left behind their eyes.’

But I think it’s mostly that I’m not super-human. Throughout, I’ve been upbeat, and calm, and resolute. I’ve continued to be charming, and witty, and creative, and kind to kittens and puppies, and…the list goes on and on.

Yes, I’m fine now. The mood has passed.

But sometimes it!s just too goddamn much to deal with, and I’m overwhelmed by the reality of things. Sometimes  — not a lot, just sometimes — you just can’t help but cry.

Night bird, white bird

My first great love? I was 19 and she was 18, and we met at college in upstate western New York. There’s one perfect word for it: I was smitten. She had long dark hair, pale white skin which freckled in the summer, a wonderful smile, and a sweet New England accent that buckled my knees and was the result of what seemed to me an idyllic childhood in a small Massachusetts town near the New Hampshire border – where she lived with her parents and 11 siblings – 10 brothers, one sister. They all played hockey on their own pond. Summer nights, they hung out at some place called the DQ. They all had those accents. One of the brothers was a smart, eccentric friend I’d met the year before – he introduced this Yonkers boy to the music of Bob Dylan, Jeff Beck and Todd Rundgren, as well as the essays of C.S. Lewis.

The girl and I were certainly in love, but it was a fledging, first-time love — and it succumbed to the strains of youthful angst and inexperience. We were together about six months. When we split up, I was devastated. I’d lost my first and only true love.

I ended up taking a semester off from school, heading back to Yonkers, in order to lick my wounds, contemplate what had happened, and figure out what was next. I missed her terribly. We tried a couple of times to try to get back together, but it didn’t happen.

Going home to Yonkers was a bad mistake. I worked five nights a week, midnight to 8, as a security guard at an IBM office building in White Plains. Go ahead. Laugh. I did, indeed, look pretty funny in my guard uniform and my shiny badge. And of course I was in no position to protect any IBM computer guys from whatever it was they needed to be protected from.

But I WAS in a position to read a book per night for the entire six months of my service to the Gleason Security Agency, which was certainly the best part of working the midnight shift with no one around and a security’s guard’s key to the stockpiles of food in the executive dining room.

The other two nights of the week, though, I was lonely and miserable. And now I’m getting to the point:

My life was saved by a bird – Alison Steele, the Night Bird, late-night DJ on free-form WNEW-FM.

She always began her radio shows with a poem – usually something reflecting those times – hippie stuff like “The Prophet” or something by Rod McKuen.

And then there was the carefully chosen music, a certain genre that fit the “Night Bird” theme so perfectly, our generation’s version of “The Milkman’s Matinee,” songs of lonely late night: “Riders on the Storm,” “Moondance,” “Free Bird,” “Piano Man,” “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” and “Streets of London” by Ralph McTell all come to mind – and have stayed there in my memory.

Romantically and remarkably, my Girl from the North Country came back to me — and I to her — decades later, after fulfilling lives and marriages that had  turned topsy-turvy and sad.

Part Two was much better than Part One…this truly felt like a miracle…but miracles require three proofs, and maybe we had one or even two, but after about three years of bliss mixed with sorrow — and, again, conflicting expectations — our great love fled among the stars once more.

And so it’s the wee, wee hours, and the milkman’s making his lonely rounds, and I feel like hearing the soothing  sound of Alison Steele, the Night Bird, who’s telling me: “Come fly with me…

 

Man in the mirror

World of Wonders

Here’s my latest piece intended for an ongoing book project, a collection of essays on mortality and memory  titled ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death.’

I’m not talking about Michael Jackson’s song. I’m talking about me, and mirrors, and how I just can’t bear to look at myself these days. It’s like I’m looking into a funhouse mirror — except it!s no fun.

This is what I told a friend the other day:
‘I don’t look like me. My face is bloated and red. I had a nice full head of hair. It upsets me -I guess it reminds me that I’m sick… A lot of friends have said they want to meet for lunch or coffee, but I’ve said no, not now, and it’s mostly that I don’t want people to see me like this…so vain, right?

Her reply: First, she completely understood. Second, it was interesting because she’d…

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Man in the mirror

 

Here’s my latest piece intended for an ongoing book project, a collection of essays on mortality and memory  titled ‘Man Has Premonition of Own Death.’

I’m not talking about Michael Jackson’s song. I’m talking about me, and mirrors, and how I just can’t bear to look at myself these days. It’s like I’m looking into a funhouse mirror — except it!s no fun.

This is what I told a friend the other day:
‘I don’t look like me. My face is bloated and red. I had a nice full head of hair. It upsets me -I guess it reminds me that I’m sick… A lot of friends have said they want to meet for lunch or coffee, but I’ve said no, not now, and it’s mostly that I don’t want people to see me like this…so vain, right?

Her reply: First, she completely understood. Second, it was interesting because she’d read about the self-image issues faced by women in similar situations, but not about men feeling the same way. Third, she said ‘You look just fine.’

So, yes, that made me feel better. But vanity, thy name is Nick.

Guaranteed, then, if I suddenly encounter a mirror or reflection, I’m still going to cringe and cower like a B-movie vampire.