Half Moon

Here’s the opening of my novel HALF MOON. Forward-thinking publishers and editors please take note of the link in my FRIENDS category to Writers House, where agent extraordinaire Michele Rubin awaits your call!

CHAPTER ONE

Horror on the Hudson

The Hudson and the Palisades – more ancient than man – Rich in historic association – Aloof from the bustle of civilization – yet easily reached by the Alpine-Yonkers Ferry….
From a promotional brochure, circa 1940

This is my earliest memory:
It was 1958, and I was three years old, and I was living with my parents in an old apartment building on Warburton Avenue in Yonkers, New York. I recall very little about the building itself. I can’t tell you what it looked like from the outside. I don’t know the exact address. I don’t know what furniture my parents had, how many rooms there were in the apartment, how the rooms were configured, or even what floor we lived on, although I know we lived on the top floor.
I remember sitting near a window at night and looking south toward Manhattan. I could see the illuminated upper section of the Empire State Building, and the sparkling string of lights that defined the thick steel cables of the George Washington Bridge, and the blurred lines of yellowish headlights on the cars crossing the Hudson River.
Nearer to my vantage point, I could see the traffic on the river. There were a few small fishing boats, believe it or not — this was back in the days when people didn’t know that eating Hudson River fish would eventually kill you. There were barges, which were pulled by tugs, mostly carrying textiles to the carpet mill and finished products from the same mill. There were cruise ships that took tourists and city dwellers up the Hudson River to Tappan Zee and Bear Mountain and West Point.
And there was the ferry, which traveled from Yonkers to Alpine, a small town tucked beneath the Palisades cliffs in New Jersey. The other boats went north and south on the river; the ferry crossed the river, east to west and west to east, which fascinated me when I was five years old, so I asked my mother what kind of boat that was.
“It’s the Alpine ferry,” she said.
“What’s a ferry?”
“It’s a boat that takes people from one place to some other place.”
“Where do they go?”
“From Alpine to Yonkers and from Yonkers to Alpine.”
“Why?”
“What do you mean?”
“Why do they go on the ferry?”
“I don’t know. I guess they have some place to go.”
I thought about this for a while, watching the lights of the ferry as it crossed from Yonkers, and then I said, “Maybe they like riding on ferry boats.”
My mother smiled and kissed me on the forehead and said, “Maybe that’s what it is. Maybe they just like riding on ferry boats.”

Then she picked me up and danced around the room, which she often did when she and I were home by ourselves.
She liked to watch “American Bandstand,” which was broadcast every weekday afternoon from Philadelphia. Some song like the “The Stroll” would come on, and my pony-tailed mother would glide around the living room, with her young son in her arms, imagining she was one of the teen-aged Bandstand girls and not a woman in her late twenties who had a little boy and a husband.
`
Every night I sat in my perch, high above the Hudson, and watched the ferry on its voyage.
One night there was something different. The boat stopped halfway across the river; smoke began rising from the stern; then flames, first small but then streaming upward, lit the ferry in a way I’d never seen – with a pulsing, flickering orange glow, not the usual steady pale-yellow light of the strung electric bulbs.
I called my mother, and she came to the window and said, “My God, it’s on fire ”
We watched as smaller boats approached the ferry, and then we saw a stream of water arching from a smaller boat with a flashing red light, and my mother said, “It’s the fire boat,” which sent a tingle right through me. I could see quickly moving, shadowy forms, backlit by the flames.

I guess the wind was right, or the night was quiet, for I could hear the muffled sounds of men who were shouting urgent instructions and warnings, and of women and children who were screaming and crying. My mother also heard these sounds, and closed the window, and took me to my bed, and tucked me in, and talked about other things to take my mind off what I had seen.

Years later, I checked the microfilm library at the Yonkers Herald, and found the article published the day after the ferry fire:

HORROR ON THE HUDSON
Three Aboard Vessel Missing After Fire
Hundreds Rescued from Ferry Boat Blaze

The ferry fire did indeed take place in 1958, according to the newspaper article, which means I was, just as I thought, five years old when it happened.
This means the ferry fire took place thirteen years after the war-bonds rally in downtown Yonkers, sixteen years after the great water-tower flood on Nodine Hill, and a full thirty-one years after the death of my ancestor Thomas Crooks, who worked at the Alexander Smith carpet mill and had a strange and accurate premonition of his imminent death. This also means the ferry fire happened just four years before John F. Kennedy visited Yonkers in 1962 and more than forty years before I finally decided to tell this tale.

But if the ferry fire happened in 1958, before and after all of these events – if this is all true – why, when I remember that fire, do I see Thomas Crooks, dead for more than 30 years, and his true love Anna climbing over the boat’s side rail and swimming toward the shore in darkness lit by searchlights?
Why does the newspaper article report that “three missing people were identified as Thomas Crooks and Anna Baxter, both of Yonkers, and John Masefield, an immigrant mill worker,” when I know for a fact that Thomas was dead by then, while Anna lived for many more years? When I know for a fact that Masefield, soon after the death of Thomas Crooks, returned to his home to England, where he became a famous poet?
Why do I remember that the ferry had a sidewheel, like a Mississippi riverboat? Why do I recall dozens of people struggling to swim through burning debris and flaming oil afloat on the river? Why do I hear screams of agony? Why do I see the words “Henry Clay” embossed on the side of the burning boat?
And why does the newspaper article say nothing about the music?
Why does everyone – the people on shore, the surviving passengers and crew members, the rescuers – remember that music was playing during the fire?
But why does everyone remember hearing different music? My mother swore she heard “Sh-boom,” the 1950s doo-wop hit. Others remember hearing the thin and plaintiff strains of the old Protestant hymn, “Nearer My God to Thee,” while a few insist a band aboard the ferry was playing a Sousa march.
I myself remember hearing no music at all from the ferry itself, but I recall the somber beat of drums – played by an Indian who looked exactly like the famous jazz drummer Gene Krupa – and I clearly recall a group of high-school girls standing on the pier near the ferryboat slip and singing the Andrews Sisters song “Rum and Coca-Cola.”

And why, in my memory of that night, do I see the lights of the cars on the George Washington Bridge going forward, then stopping, then going backward, then going forward, then forward and backward again, like frames of a rewound movie?

CHAPTER TWO
1942: Hitler’s Face

Who can truly understand the mysteries of geology, the plates that shift, the stone that grinds and rubs, the delicate balance and the tension sprung that makes cliffs and mountains burst out of the earth, unleashes avalanches, forces open fissures, and sculpts hard stone into shadowed shapes? Who can truly solve the puzzle of plants, what grows where and what grows when, what roots grip and what roots rot, how dense the growth or how sparse?

Who can explain how and why, in early 1940, rocks tumbled, tree sprouted and moss bloomed, and the pilot of the Alpine-Yonkers ferry became the first to notice that the face of Adolph Hitler had appeared on the Palisades cliffs? The newly published brochure for the ferry hailed the Hudson as “the Rhine of America,” and now the madman of the Rhineland looked down upon the river.
A writer for the Yonkers Herald described what was promptly dubbed “Hitler’s Face,” suggesting that it took some imagination to see the face of the Third Reich’ leader in the tumbled rocks and vegetation on the face of the cliffs.
“On the other hand,” the writer said, “a careful study of the rock formation does indeed suggest the face of modern evil – even the thick band of dark moss above the `upper lip’ of the scowling countenance.”
“If nothing else,” the newspaperman concluded, “the sudden appearance of Hitler’s Face sneering down at our fair city from the cliffs across the river may serve as a constant and welcome reminder of the precious freedom we possess and the very real and sobering threat to freedom posed by the German despot and his Nazi henchmen.”

Less than two years later, America had joined the war against Hitler. The city’s industries switched to the manufacture of war supplies. The elevator factory made ball bearings for fighter planes. The carpet mill made parachutes and army uniforms. The sugar refinery produced C-rations. The Yonkers Herald printed on recycled paper, sent free newspapers to the city boys serving their country overseas, and published announcements of rationing and draft calls and blackouts.

My father, just a boy, did his part for the war effort. He memorized the silhouetted shapes of each and every Axis war plane, as well as the Allied aircraft, and early each evening, just before dark, he would walk up Park Hill, climb the stone steps to Van Cortlandt Avenue, scale the steep slope of Elm Street, and then ascend the wooden water tower at the peak of Nodine Hill. He would climb easily over the locked chain-link fence, then go up the 216 steps (he had counted) to the railed catwalk near the top of the tower.
Every night, for an hour, he would study the skies, watching for enemy aircraft, feeling a rush of excitement when a plane came into view and mild disappointment when the shadowed shape revealed itself to be not the vanguard of an attack on the city of Yonkers — with its important wartime industries and strategic location near the port of New York, and with its fiercely patriotic residents, many of whom thought the city fathers should send a demolition crew across the Hudson to dynamite Hitler’s Face, which would send a clear and strong message from the city of Yonkers to the city of Berlin.

One evening in April 1942, my young father was perched in his observation post when he spotted a plane moving quickly south in the direction of New York City, following the course of the Hudson River. The plane slowed down right near the ferry slip and descended until it was out of his sight.
As it happened, it was a small amphibious military plane that was returning four entertainers who lived in Yonkers – the drummer Gene Krupa, the singer Ella Fitzgerald, the comedian Sid Caesar and the actor Art Carney – from an appearance they had made in Albany, N.Y., to raise money for the USO.
But my young father did not recognize the plane and quickly decided that it carried German spies who were secretly landing under cover of darkness to sneak into Yonkers and commit acts of sabotage.
My father didn’t know what to do. He knew that he had to sound the alarm, and quickly, but he had never thought to carry a whistle or a horn to notify the authorities if an enemy plane passed overhead. Just then, he looked down and saw the Nodine Hill air raid warden, who was walking down the Elm Street hill, looking at each apartment house as he passed to make sure all unnecessary lights were turned off and blackout curtains were all pulled down.
My father shouted, but the warden did not hear him. So my father, acting on an impulse, began to pound his fist against a thin metal plate at the base of the wooden water tower. Rust dropped off the metal as he slammed his hand against the plate, making a loud, deep and hollow sound that reverberated like a gong.
Just as the air raid warden shouted “Hey, kid ” when he noticed the figure of the boy atop the tower, my father’s fist hit the sheet metal one more time – and a drop of water landed at his feet. It was dark, so my father didn’t notice the drop of water.
But then there was another drop, then another drop, then a thin but steady drip, and then my young father heard the water as it pinged against the steel walkway. The pinhole widened, slowly giving way to the irresistible weight and pressure of the million gallons of water stored in the 50-year-old wooden tank with a sheet-metal bottom that had been patched, but never replaced, because of wartime cuts in the city water department’s budget.
My father scampered down the 216 steps, intending to warn the air raid warden that Nazi infiltrators had landed on the shores of Yonkers. Just as he reached the bottom step and began to climb over the chain-link fence, there was a thunderous rumble. My father thought later that it sounded very much like Niagara Falls, which he heard about 15 years later when he and my mother honeymooned there and rode the Maid of the Mist beneath the Horseshoe Falls. The metal at the base of the tank gave way, the warden blew his whistle, my father scampered up a weeping willow tree, and the water erupted out of the tower.

This was the Great Flood of 1942. A great crest of water poured down Nodine Hill, following the paths of Oliver Avenue and Elm Street and Maple Street. The wall of water slammed against parked cars, overturning many of them, toppled wooden sheds, flooded basements and first-floor apartments, and knocked over the air raid warden, who tumbled two blocks, carried along by the rushing water until he managed to grab hold of a telephone pole and climbed up the metal footholds to escape the deluge. At the foot of Nodine Hill, low-lying streets were flooded three feet deep, and the next day’s Yonkers Herald carried photos of residents of the Getty Square area rowing boats on lower Palisades Avenue.

There was one death reported. An eight-year-old girl named Katie was in a rowboat with her father, stood up, slipped out of the boat, and sank into the murky water. Her father leaped out of the boat, desperately reached under the water, and finally felt his little girl’s foot. The desperate father pulled her out of the water, the newspaper reported, “but water had filled her lungs and she was not breathing…”
The father, his daughter cradled in his arms, splashed through the water and reached dry ground, then ran up the hill of Palisades Avenue to St. John’s Hospital, “but the doctors — despite the best efforts of a team led by the hospital’s chief of surgery, Dr. Charles A. Leale III — could not revive the drowned girl,” who was buried two days later at Oakland Cemetery.

In the commotion and chaos that followed the collapse of the Nodine Hill water tower, my father managed to slip away, cutting through backyards and climbing over fences, making his way to Van Cortlandt Avenue and back to Park Hill, where he went quickly to his room, turned on the radio, and listened to the latest episode of “Inner Sanctum.”
He didn’t tell anyone what had happened, even after he read that the little girl had died – probably because the little girl had died – and he kept his secret until the day he died.

There was much speculation that the water-tower collapse had been the work of German or Japanese saboteurs. The wooden tower was replaced with another tower made of steel, which was refilled with water pumped through hoses run from the Hudson River through Getty Square and up Nodine Hill.

And, sometime in late 1945, just months after Hitler died in his Berlin bunker, a rock slide obliterated Hitler’s Face.

For who can truly understand the mysteries of geology, the plates that shift, the stone that grinds and rubs, the delicate balance and the tension spring that makes cliffs and mountains burst from the earth, unleashes avalanches, forces open fissures, and sculpts hard stone into shadowy shapes?

CHAPTER THREE
1945: Buy Bonds

What with Hitler’s face peering down from the Palisades, so that every day the people of Yonkers had to do nothing more than look to the west to be unavoidably reminded of the great and horrible war still being waged in Europe and the Pacific against the forces of evil, and what with the great wave of patriotism that swept through the city in the aftermath of the great water-tower disaster which many suspected was the work of Axis infiltrators, Yonkers was a prime location for holding a rally to sell war bonds.
The mayor of Yonkers was named honorary chairman of a special committee to organize the bond rally, which was scheduled for April 1, 1945, to be held at Larkin Plaza in the downtown area a few blocks from the Getty Square business district, right near the post office, the ferry slip, the historic Phillipse Manor house and the Yonkers Herald building.

The day after the location and time of the event were announced in February of that year, the Herald ran a front-page article about it:
“Entertainers Gene Krupa, Ella Fitzgerald, Art Carney and Sid Caesar will appear at a bond rally to be held April 1 at Larkin Plaza, city officials and USO representatives announced yesterday.
“The goal for the event will be to sell $20,000 in war bonds, organizers said. Each of the entertainers, who are all city residents, will appear free-of-charge.”

My young mother, still in high school, read the next paragraph to her best friends, Lorraine and Charlotte: “And it says, `USO officials issued a special invitation to Yonkers residents to demonstrate their singing talents while helping the war effort. Tryouts will be held this Saturday for amateur performers, with one individual or ensemble selected to appear in the show.’’

“Don’t sit under the apple tree with anyone else but me,” my mother began to sing.
“Anyone else but me, anyone else but me,” the other girls sang.
“Pardon me, sir, is this the Chattanooga Choo-Choo?” my mother sang, and the other girls made whoo-whoo sounds like a train.
“Do you really think we can do it, Ginny?” Lorraine asked. “Get up in front of all those people?”
“Sure we can ” my mother replied.
So they decided to give it a try. All three were in the 11th grade at Yonkers Business High School, all three taking the secretarial course. Charlotte worked on Saturdays at Mimi’s, the fancy department store in Getty Square, Lorraine worked after school at Frost’s Bakery on North Broadway, and my mother worked Saturday afternoons as an usherette at the downtown RKO movie theater, where she would meet my father a year later, when they were both 17, when he would get a job there as an usher, and her would let her borrow his little flashlight when her own little flashlight went dead.

My mother and her friends were big fans of the Andrews Sisters, and most of their repertoire consisted of Andrews Sisters songs: “Rum and Coca-Cola” and “Accentuate the Positive” and “Beat Me Daddy, Eight to the Bar” were their best numbers. My mother and her friends also liked the softer ballads done by the three singing sisters: “I Can Dream, Can’t I?” and “I Wanna Be Loved” sometimes struck a chord, when the mood was right. But their favorite Andrews Sisters songs were the ones with the wild harmonies and the jive rhythms and clever wordplay, like “Pistol-Packing Mama” and “Is You Is or Is You Ain’t (My Baby?).”
They had started out by singing along with the songs on the radio; then my mother had gotten the idea of performing at the high school’s talent show. They had recruited a drummer and a trumpet player from the high school band; and Charlotte’s cousin, Al, who played the piano, had joined the group because he had a really bad crush on Lorraine, who reminded him of Betty Grable.

Ella Fitzgerald herself showed up at the USO show auditions held that Saturday. There were three sets of Mills Brothers impersonators, all of whom sang “Glow Worm.” There were Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra imitators. And there was a group of high school boys who wore cowboy outfits and performed a slightly off-key rendition of “Cool, Cool Water” by Roy Rogers and the Sons of the Pioneers.

My mother and her friends didn’t have a name for their group, which hadn’t even occurred to them until Ella Fitzgerald, who was standing at a microphone set up in a corner of the stage, asked them their name.
“We’re the Baxter Sisters,” my mother replied. “And we’d like all of you to help us help our boys overseas defeat Hitler and Tojo and Mussolini by buying War Bonds. We’re going to do a song by our favorite singer…Miss Ella Fitzgerald.”
The drummer hit the skins, the trumpet player started to blow, the piano player pounded the eighty-eights, and my mother began to sing “A Tisket, A Tasket,” Ella Fitzgerald’s biggest hit:

… A-tisket, a-tasket
A green-and-yellow basket
I bought a basket for my mommie
On the way I dropped it

The small gathering of amateur entertainers and city officials and USO representatives cheered wildly when Ella herself glided across the stage, head swaying and fingers snapping, and joined the Baxter Sisters in the final refrain:
Ella:
Was it red?
Baxter Sisters:
No, no, no, no.
Ella:
Was it brown?
Baxter Sisters:
No, no, no, no.
Ella:
Was it blue?
Baxter Sisters:
No, no, no, no.
Ella and Baxter Sisters together as the audience roared:
Just a little yellow basket.

A Yonkers Herald reporter had this to say in the next day’s paper:
“A singing group called the Baxter Sisters stole the show at yesterday’s talent tryouts for the upcoming war-bonds rally at Larkin Plaza. The three girls, all students at Yonkers Business High School, wowed the crowd – and Miss Ella Fitzgerald – with a finger-snapping, foot-tapping rendition of Miss Fitzgerald’s hit record, “A Tisket, A Tasket.”

April 1 arrived, and a crowd estimated by the Yonkers Police Department to be about 5,000 people gathered at Larkin Plaza for the big USO bond rally. Many had taken the train to Yonkers from New York. Several hundred had come over from New Jersey on the ferry Daisy from Alpine Dock to Peene’s Dock in Yonkers. And three people had walked down to Larkin Plaza from Park Hill: my father, who was there with his father, who had brought along his friend, Sam Berkowitz, who would someday become the grandfather of a little boy with dark curly hair and an oval face named Davy.

The Yonkers High School All-Star Band, made up of the most talented musicians from the city’s five high schools, opened the festivities with “The Star-Spangled Banner,” followed by the singing of the official Yonkers song, “which was technically named “By the Banks of the Beautiful Hudson” but was known to most people by the first few words of the song’s chorus:
“We love our lovely river, where e’er we chance to be…’’
After the band played, Mayor Chester Nodine, gave a lengthy speech in which he praised Yonkers residents for their contributions to the Allied war effort, predicted that one day Hitler’s face would crumble from the cliffs of the Palisades “on the day that our boys march into Berlin,” and thanked Ella Fitzgerald, Art Carney, Gene Krupa and Sid Caesar “for taking time from their busy schedules on Broadway and in Hollywood to help their home town help our boys win the war.
“And now, ladies and gentleman,” the mayor of Yonkers said, “it gives me great pleasure and it is a great honor for me to introduce Ella Fitzgerald and Gene Krupa – with two strangers they met this morning on a street corner in Getty Square ”

Krupa hit the snare drum and the cymbals and the bass drum simultaneously and, right on the downbeat, Ella began to sing:
I dropped it, I dropped it
Yes, on the way I dropped it
A little girlie picked it up
And took it to the market.

Krupa’s band – Sam Elridge on sax and Roy Donahue on trumpet – sailed off on a bebop riff, and two rubber-legged characters wearing funny wide-brimmed hats and baggy clothes, two crazy hipsters, jitterbugged out onto the stage. The crowd roared with laughter as Sid Caesar and Art Carney snapped their fingers and swung their hips and made believe they were playing the saxophone and trumpet, as Carney playfully pushed Krupa away from the drum set and imitated the drummer’s frenetic style, with dark hair flying over his forehead and arms moving so fast they blurred, and Caesar stepped to the microphone and did an affectionate parody of Ella’s scat style.

A-tisket, a-tasket
She took my yellow basket
And if she doesn’t bring it back
I think that I shall die.

Then Ella, Carney and Caesar left the stage, and Krupa’s band played a couple of their big hits, “Wire Brush Stomp” and “Blue Rhythm Fantasy,” then Ella sashayed back on stage, right in the middle of “Blue Rhythm,” and Krupa and his band switched effortlessly into Ella’s sultry version of “Making Believe It’s You.”
When she finished the song, the crowd roared for more, but Ella stepped to the mike and shouted, “And now, my favorite girls, from right here in Yonkers, the Baxter Sisters ”

My mother stepped forward and sang in a low, bluesy voice:
If you wanna hear my story
Then settle back and just sit tight
While I start reviewin’
The attitude of doing right.

Charlotte and Lorraine jumped in and the three Baxter Sisters sang the Andrews Sisters’ smash hit, “Accentuate the Positive,” with my mother singing the lead:
To illustrate my last remark
Jonah in the whale, Noah in the ark
What did they do just when everything looked so dark?
Man, they said, “We’d better accentuate the positive”
“Eliminate the negative”
“And latch on to the affirmative”
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between — no
Don’t mess with Mister In-Between

The Baxter Sisters were scheduled to do only one song, but the crowd was calling for an encore. My mother looked to the side of the stage and saw Ella and Krupa nodding their heads at her. My mother hesitated – but then Krupa and his band scooted back on stage, Ella ran out and stood beside the Baxter Sisters, making them a four-girl group, Krupa shouted, “Rum and Coca-Cola ” and my mother smiled and shimmied and belted out:
If you ever go down Trinidad
They make you feel so very glad
Calypso sing and make up rhyme
Guarantee you one real good fine time

Ella, Lorraine and Charlotte chimed in:
Drinking rum and Coca-Cola

Strangers danced with each other all around Larkin Plaza, swinging and jittering, and those who didn’t dance shouted out the chorus, “Rum and Coca-Cola ”

The crowd was still in a frenzy, cheering for the Baxter Sisters, when the song stopped and Ella called out to the crowd: “This young lady can really swing  We’re going to do one last song together ”
Ella whispered to my mother, “Do you know `Ferry Boat Serenade?” That was another big hit by the Andrew Sisters. Of course my mother knew “Ferry Boat Serenade.”
They took turns singing verses, singing without the band – except for Krupa, who gently brushed the snare as Ella and my mother sang a capella.

My mother:
I have never been aboard a steamer
I am just content to be a dreamer
Even if I could afford a steamer
I will take the ferry boat every time

Ella:
I love to ride the ferry
Where music is so merry
While boys and girls are dancing
While sweethearts are romancing

Ella and my mother together, with their arms around each others’ shoulders:
Happy, we cling together
Happy, we sing together
Happy, with the ferry boat serenade

My mother beamed as Ella hugged her. The other Baxter Sisters ran up to the front of the stage to take their bow. Krupa twirled his sticks, caught them in midair, rapped on his bass, and took his bow. Carney and Caesar stumbled out onto the stage and drew cheers and laughs as they leaned forward to take their bows – and tumbled forward and off the low stage.

And then the cheers and laughter and applause were interrupted by a shout: “The ferry is on fire ”

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Moonshadows

Speaking of moons…here are some good poems about the moon:

Moonlight slanting
through the bamboo grove;
a cuckoo crying.

Basho

——

THE HARVEST MOON

The flame-red moon, the harvest moon,
Rolls along the hills, gently bouncing,
A vast balloon,
Till it takes off, and sinks upward
To lie on the bottom of the sky, like a gold doubloon.
The harvest moon has come,
Booming softly through heaven, like a bassoon.
And the earth replies all night, like a deep drum.

So people can’t sleep,
So they go out where elms and oak trees keep
A kneeling vigil, in a religious hush.
The harvest moon has come!

And all the moonlit cows and all the sheep
Stare up at her petrified, while she swells
Filling heaven, as if red hot, and sailing
Closer and closer like the end of the world.

Till the gold fields of stiff wheat
Cry `We are ripe, reap us!’ and the rivers
Sweat from the melting hills.

Ted Hughes

——

THE SADNESS OF THE MOON

The Moon more indolently dreams to-night
Than a fair woman on her couch at rest,
Caressing, with a hand distraught and light,
Before she sleeps, the contour of her breast.

Upon her silken avalanche of down,
Dying she breathes a long and swooning sigh;
And watches the white visions past her flown,
Which rise like blossoms to the azure sky.

And when, at times, wrapped in her languor deep,
Earthward she lets a furtive tear-drop flow,
Some pious poet, enemy of sleep,

Takes in his hollow hand the tear of snow
Whence gleams of iris and of opal start,
And hides it from the Sun, deep in his heart.

Charles Baudelaire

——

HALF MOON IN A HIGH WIND

MONEY is nothing now, even if I had it,
O mooney moon, yellow half moon,
Up over the green pines and gray elms,
Up in the new blue.

Streel, streel,
White lacey mist sheets of cloud,
Streel in the blowing of the wind,
Streel over the blue-and-moon sky,
Yellow gold half moon. It is light
On the snow; it is dark on the snow,
Streel, O lacey thin sheets, up in the new blue.

Come down, stay there, move on.
I want you, I don’t, keep all.

There is no song to your singing.
I am hit deep, you drive far,
O mooney yellow half moon,
Steady, steady; or will you tip over?
Or will the wind and the streeling
Thin sheets only pass and move on
And leave you alone and lovely?
I want you, I don’t, come down,
Stay there, move on.
Money is nothing now, even if I had it.

Carl Sandburg

——

Finally, three moon poems by the greatest poet the world has ever known, the girl of my moon dreams, Emily Dickinson of Amherst:

The Moon was but a Chin of Gold
A Night or two ago —
And now she turns Her perfect Face
Upon the World below —

Her Forehead is of Amplest Blonde —
Her Cheek — a Beryl hewn —
Her Eye unto the Summer Dew
The likest I have known —

Her Lips of Amber never part —
But what must be the smile
Upon Her Friend she could confer
Were such Her Silver Will —

And what a privilege to be
But the remotest Star —
For Certainty She take Her Way
Beside Your Palace Door —

Her Bonnet is the Firmament —
The Universe — Her Shoe —
The Stars — the Trinkets at Her Belt —
Her Dimities — of Blue —

—–

I watched the Moon around the House
Until upon a Pane —
She stopped — a Traveller’s privilege — for Rest —
And there upon

I gazed — as at a stranger —
The Lady in the Town
Doth think no incivility
To lift her Glass — upon —

But never Stranger justified
The Curiosity
Like Mine — for not a Foot — nor Hand —
Nor Formula — had she —

But like a Head — a Guillotine
Slid carelessly away —
Did independent, Amber —
Sustain her in the sky —

Or like a Stemless Flower —
Upheld in rolling Air
By finer Gravitations —
Than bind Philosopher —

No Hunger — had she — nor an Inn —
Her Toilette — to suffice —
Nor Avocation — nor Concern
For little Mysteries

As harass us — like Life — and Death —
And Afterwards — or Nay —
But seemed engrossed to Absolute —
With shining — and the Sky —

The privilege to scrutinize
Was scarce upon my Eyes
When, with a Silver practise —
She vaulted out of Gaze —

And next — I met her on a Cloud —
Myself too far below
To follow her superior Road —
Or its advantage — Blue —

—-

The Road was lit with Moon and star —
The Trees were bright and still —
Descried I — by the distant Light
A Traveller on a Hill —
To magic Perpendiculars
Ascending, though Terrene —
Unknown his shimmering ultimate —
But he indorsed the sheen —

—-

Wait. Here’s what I think might be the most beautiful moon poem ever, written by Li Po, the 8th century Chinese poet, who it seems to me wrote more than his alloted number of poems about drinking wine but also wrote lots of poems about the sorrows of war and a lot of beautiful melancholy poems about the moon:

A bright moon rising above Tian Shan Mountain,
Lost in a vast ocean of clouds.
The long wind, across thousands upon thousands of miles,
Blows past the Jade-gate Pass.
The army of Han has gone down the Baiteng Road,
As the barbarian hordes probe at Qinghai Bay.
It is known that from the battlefield
Few ever live to return.
Men at Garrison look on the border scene,
Home thoughts deepen sorrow on their faces.
In the towered chambers tonight,
Ceaseless are the women’s sighs.

Li Po

Moonlight serenade

 

I have to work the next day so I’m driving all the way about five hours worth of driving all the way from Saratoga to home in western New Jersey and the whole way I’m guzzling bad rest-stop coffee and listening to Dylan CDs and counting the miles (New York City/100 miles!/Hooray!) and trying to keep my eyes open and watching the moonlight shining down over the Catskills and the moonlight gets my attention and I find myself thinking about all things moon-related like the word lunacy and the Rolling Stones song Moonlight Mile and the Wolfman movie that opens with that open book and the gothic writing that says something like “Even the man who is pure of heart/and says his prayers by night/may turn to a wolf when the wolfbane blooms/and the moon is full and bright.” And I’m thinking about songs that mention the moon like Paul Simon’s “Song About the Moon” and “Man in the Moon” and “Moonlight Serenade” and “Moonshadow” and “Moonshiner” and “Bad Moon Rising” and “Harvest Moon” and the song with the line line about carrying moonbeams in a jar and what are perhaps the two greatest moon songs ever — “Blue Moon” and “Moon River.” And I’m wishing I had the “Self-Portrait” CD with Dylan crooning “Blue Moon” and I’m thinking about my late father’s album collection from the mid-1960s and the albums he played over and over again on his h-fi and they included the movie soundtrack from Leonard Bernstein’s “West Side Story” and “People” by a young singer named Barbra Streisand and “Songs I Sing on the Jackie Gleason Show” by Frank “Crazy Guggenheim” Fontaine and “Moon River” in versions both by Mantovani and His Orchestra and by Andy Williams and a shaft of moonlight shining through the trees illuminates a deer as it grazes right along the New York State Thruway just as I see the exit sign for the Rip van Winkle Bridge across the Hudson and then of course I realized the highway and I were running parallel to the great Hudson River and I thought about how someone who had read the manuscript of my novel HALF MOON had asked me why I’d called it that and I said it began with the arrival of Hendrick Hudson’s ship Half Moon off the shores of my old hometown of Yonkers and that it ended with the narrator’s father and mother falling in love again and dancing high above the hills of Yonkers to the tune of “Moon River” beneath the light of a half-moon but that I couldn’t really answer the question but now as I drove down the Thruway after leaving Saratoga and actually passing through a neighboring town that’s actually called Half Moon, now I realized that a half-moon is halfway between nothing and everything, between the beginning and the end, between the neverending beginning and the neverending end, that the half-moon is the rising and falling and waxing and waning and the up and down and the dark side and bright side and so as the half-moon lit the way ahead I drove clear the rest of the way almost to New York the great and final city of America and wouldn’t you know that I began to hear the Symphony Sid show on the radio with all the latest bop as I crossed the border and pressed my foot to the pedal as the first faint glow of morning seeped up from the east and I accelerated westward toward home.

One more cup of coffee for the road…

Here’s an article from The New York Times about the closing of Le Figaro, the beat/folk/hipster landmark coffeehouse at the corner of Bleecker and MacDougal streets in Greenwich Village: http://cityroom.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/08/22/the-lost-village-mystique-of-le-figaro-cafe/index.html/partner/rssnyt/

Here’s a photo of the place:

I spent many an idle moment — and was idle for many a spent moment — at this place, at least until I decided that the Caffe Reggio up the street was somewhat cooler and cozier and a little less obviously touristy, and that Caffe Reggio was also more conveniently located across the street from my favorite bar, the Kettle of Fish, and a favorite hangout, Folk City, which was around the corner.

Anyway, Folk City’s gone. So’s the Kettle of Fish. So’s the Village Corner up the street, where this blind guy named Lance Hayward used to play piano and sing and drink TALL glasses of straight bourbon like he was drinking tall glasses of water.

Caffe Reggio, I’m happy to report, is still there on MacDougal Street:

 

And here’s a very important P.S.: I wrote recently about the death of Isaac Hayes. Well, in the movie “Shaft,” who do you think is the man that meets with a Mafia contact at none-other-than the Caffe Reggio? That’s right. Shaft. John Shaft. Can you dig it?!

Echo taps

This is the latest in a series of essays titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death”

I reminded a longtime friend that his father died at the place where my first child was born. The irony, of course, is evident – and the cold cruelty, too.

His response: a mournful riff on his father’s death:

“I remember the horrid summer of 1978…traveling every evening to the hospital to be with my father…Most visits lasted about one hour. Then two nights before he died I spent four hours at his bedside, him asking me to soak towels in cold water and place them on his forehead to help cool his fever, me doing so, crying, wailing out my confessions to him…I returned the following evening but he stopped me at the door, moaning ‘Please leave me…’ I protested but he insisted…The next morning….at dawn on my 24th birthday, he died…”

My own father died about twenty-five years later, and I wasn’t there. He’d been in the hospital for a while…the latest in a sporadic series of hospital stays that began when my father – severely obese, nearly triple his normal weight, had a massive heart attack when he was in his late fifties.

I’d gotten a phone call at work, either from my mother or my brother, telling me that my father had been found on the floor of his hospital room, unconscious. He had apparently gotten up in the middle of the night to use the bathroom. He’d had a stroke, and was in a coma from which there could be no waking.

Should I rush over to New York from New Jersey? My family said I shouldn’t bother – “He won’t even know you’re here, and I don’t think there’s much time,” my brother said _ in fact, my father’s doctors were recommending that he be disconnected from life support.

“Even if by some miracle to survived and came out of the coma, they say he has significant brain damage and would just be a vegetable,” my brother said. “I think we should do it.”

I told him I agreed, and then I waited, and I kept working – it was deadline day, appropriately enough, at the weekly newspaper when I was the editor. I closed my office door, focused on the tasks at hand, and waited for the phone call – soon to come, within a few hours, telling me that the machines had been unplugged, the circuits disconnected, the dreaded deed done, and that my father was now adrift, set free, gone but God knows where…

My friend’s story about his father’s death…my own story about my father’s death…it makes me think of Memorial Day ceremonies when one bugler plays taps and another bugler in the distance responds with echo taps.

 

 

Burning rubber

When I was in upstate New York last week, I heard Levon Helm and his entourage perform “This Wheel’s on Fire,” the Basement Tapes song written by none other than Helm’s late. lamented Bandmate Rick Danko and their pal Bob Dylan, who also performed in Saratoga last week.

The Dylan/Danko song includes these lines in its refrain: This wheel’s on fire,/Rolling down the road.

The King James version of the Book of Daniel includes these lines: I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

Dylan songs. Upstate New York. So  the wheels started turning and I decided to post (scroll down to the next entry or click on the FICTION category to the right) an excerpt called “Wheel of Fire” from my novel “Gloryville,” which also alludes to the Bible’s flaming wheel and is set along the Mohawk River in upstate New York about halfway between Woodstock and Saratoga.

Wheel of fire

This is an excerpt from my novel “Gloryville.” The narrator is the novel’s protagonist, who spends his time attending the funerals of strangers.

WHEEL OF FIRE

By Nicholas DiGiovanni

An obituary appeared in the Knickerbocker News in upstate New York. All it said was “Mr. Jacob Potter of Bedford Falls died yesterday. There will be no calling hours and no services, and burial will be private. Arrangements are by the Knickerbocker Home for Funerals, Amsterdam.” But the next day, another tiny notice was tucked into the obituary column: “Calling hours for Mr. Potter of Bedford Falls, who died two days ago, will held tonight from 7 to 8 p.m. at the Knickerbocker Home for Funerals, Amsterdam.”

I arrived at the funeral home right at 7 o’clock, and already there was a long line of people — every one of them smiling — waiting to get into the viewing. I got in line. While I waited, I heard laughing and shouting and what sounded like firecrackers exploding inside the funeral parlor. I did not know at the time what Jacob Potter had done to make so many people hate him. All I knew was that it most have been something terrible. Never had I ever heard so many words drenched with such venom and soaked in such bile. Never before had I heard so many oaths and obscenities uttered, and uttered with such pleasure and passion. Never had I seen so many spiteful sneers and devilish grins, so many men rubbing their hands together with glee, so many chortles and whispers and curses and oaths. Such happiness and enthusiasm at a funeral!

Potter lay there in a cardboard box. I donï”t mean a cheap pine coffin; I mean it was a cardboard box. There were flowers all around, with cards and notes attached, but the flowers were all wilted and rotting, mostly roses with shriveled petals and pin-sharp thorns. A photo of Potter had been placed on a small table — but someone had drawn a funny mustache on his face and someone else had drawn a big black X over the picture.

I discretely checked some of the cards and notes attached to the flower baskets. One of them said, `Rot in hell, Potter.” Another one said,”Good riddance, you bastard.” The third one said,”Rest in peace, you son of a bitch.” And the fourth one said,”Bon voyage, asshole.”

There had to be three hundred people — old and young, men and women — jammed into the funeral home. They were all laughing and pointing at Potter, shaking hands, patting each other on the back, clicking their heels, congratulating each other. A little boy with a water pistol kept squirting Potter’s head right between the eyes. Two men who worked for the Knickerbocker Home for Funerals were handing out noisemakers and wearing party hats. Women were blowing him kisses with mock affection and stopping in front of his coffin to curtsey with exaggerated elegance.

Then someone — a tall, lanky fellow with a slight stutter — got up and said: “Now it’s time for us to say our final farewell to Mr. Potter.”

This announcement was greeted with boos and groans.

“No, really, fellas, we’ve got to end this. I’ve got my car parked at a meter and, gee whiz, it’s gonna cost me another nickel if we don’t get this over quick. Besides, I know you’ve got more important things to do — like me,I’ve got to go down to the garage and get my oil changed!”

“Yeah, that’s right!” someone shouted. “Yeah, I’ve got to go return a movie at the video store!” Someone else shouted, “Yeah, me too, I’ve got an important appointment – with a tall cold beer down at the KnickerbockerBar!”

This last was greeted with gleeful shouts of “Here’s mud in your eye!” and “Cheers!” and “Bottom’s up!” and “Hey, Potter, wanna beer?”

“Okay fellows. Repeat after me on the count of three, ready? One…two…three…BURN IN HELL, POTTER!”

Everyone shouted in response: “BURN IN HELL, POTTER!”

One of the funeral-home attendants then stepped forward and said: “That concludes our service. Thank you all for coming and we wish you peace and comfort in your time of grief.”

This was greeted with wild applause and shouts of “Well done!” and “Good job!” and “This was worth waiting for!” and one last “Burn in hell, Potter!”

Then everyone rushed out of the funeral home and headed to the corner tavern referred to previously by one of the mirthful mourners.

I approached the casket and looked carefully at Jacob Potter. I donï’t know what I was looking for or what I expected to see. The numbers 666 tattooed on his forehead? Maybe that Potter’s face wasn’t really his face and that I’d tear off a rubber mask and find beneath the face of Adolph Hitler, who didn’t die in the bunker and didn’t flee secretly to Argentina but who instead had fled to the Greater Albany area? Maybe it was all just one big practical joke, and Potter wasn’t really dead and would spring up in his cardboard coffin and shout “Gotcha!” when I leaned over to listen for signs of life?

The funeral home attendants returned to the room and closed the lid on Potter’s flimsy coffin.

“Where are you taking him?” I asked.

“Who wants to know?” one of them replied. “What’s it to you?”

“I’m just curious. Where’s he being buried?”

“Potter’s Field, of course,” the other replied with a giggle.

“Either that, or the town dump,” the first attendant chimed in.

“What did he do wrong?” I asked. “Why did everybody hate him?”

This is what they told me:
Thirty years before his death, Jacob Potter, wealthy owner of an Amsterdam
carpet mill, had been looking for places to invest his money so he could avoid paying taxes and accumulate even more money.

One thing he did was invest money in a stock-car team that raced at the Fonda Speedway. Potter paid for a new car — a red 1969 Oldsmobile Cutlass with a powerful V-8 engine, which was emblazoned with decals that said POTTER’S CARPET MILLS and TEAM POTTER. He hired a top driver. He hired top mechanics. But the powerful car and highly-paid driver and well-compensated mechanics could not win a race — iin fact, Team Potter didn’t win a single race for two entire racing seasons. A headline in the racing circuit’s weekly newspaper blared: “LAUGHINGSTOCK OF THE STOCKS: TEAM POTTER”

Potter, reacted, of course, like a typical money-hungry businessman. He cut his losses. He replaced the top-rated, highly-paid driver with a mediocre and very stupid and inbred farm boy who was happy to get even a crappy salary as long as he could go vroom around the track in something faster than a tractor. Potter fired the mechanics and had the farm boy do the repair work himself. And he scrimped on maintenance and parts — including replacing the car’s expensive top-of-the-line tires with retreads purchased from an auto junkyard in Esperance.

One Saturday night, in front of a full house, Team Potter’s car was speeding around the final turn. The engine exploded — and just at that moment, the left front wheel broke off from the axle. The flames shooting from the engine set the rubber tire on fire.

The tire bounced down the track, hit the grandstand railing, went airborne, and rolled into a crowd of Cub Scouts who were on a day trip with their pack.

The wheel of fire, flames shooting out as it bounced and spun up through the grandstand, careened into the pack of Scouts — there’s a baker’s dozen in a Cub Scout pack, apparently, or at least there were in this pack. Six of them caught fire and were incinerated on the spot; six of them had their hair catch on fire but were otherwise unharmed, except that their hair never grew back and Fonda became famous — and even something of a tourist destination — for being the home of the famous Six Bald Cub Scouts; and one of the Scouts, the thirteenth, somehow avoided being scorched by the flames of the burning wheel but was left with treadmarks branded on his forehead.

The flaming wheel continued up the bleachers, bounced over the edge of the grandstand — and landed on a farm wagon filled to overflowing with bales of dry hay, which instantly burst into an inferno. The wagon had been left there by a farmer who had come to Fonda to sell his hay but had decided, just on a whim, to hitch his horse and wagon for an hour to watch the dirt-track races before selling the bales and then heading back to his farm.

The hay farmerï’s horse, of course, panicked, taking off at a fast trot down the main street of Fonda, trying in vain to run away from the roaring flames right behind it and panicking even more as the flames stayed right at its rump, occasionally sending out a finger of fire that singed the horse’s tail.

The faster the horse ran, the faster the wind fanned the flames and blew chunks of burning hay off the wagon — setting fire to a small wooden shed outside the racetrack, and also igniting a row of small wooden houses occupied, as it happened, by the last remaining members of the Mohawk nation.

The fire spread through the town, destroying the race track along with 153 cars in the parking lot, twenty-three homes, the Agway store, the John Deere dealership, and the offices of the Fonda Free Press newspaper, which that week managed to put out a special edition of the paper on the printing press at its rival across the Mohawk River, the Fultonville Gazette. The newspaper had extensive coverage — stories and photos — of the devastation, and also ran a front-page editorial suggesting that maybe it was “time for the cheaskate, penny-pinching taxpayers of the incorporated village of Fonda to fork out the money to pay for operation of a community fire company” and also urging the governor of New York and the president of the United States himself and “maybe even the United Nations, if possible” to “declare Fonda a disaster area” so funds could be made available to rebuild the devastated town and especially to reconstruct the racetrack, “hopefully in time for the opening of the next racing season.”

This was not to be, unfortunately. The Agway and John Deere stores neve reopened. Twenty-two residential taxpayers were killed in the fires ignited by Jacob’s wheel. While one bit of good fortune somehow steered the fire away from the adjacent fairgrounds, the loss of those other tax revenue left the good people of Fonda with nothing but survivor’s guilt; with the satisfaction of knowing that they had found it within themselves to tar and feather Jacob Potter and carry him out of town on a rail; and with the burned hulk of the Fonda Speedway, which was left standing as a sobering reminder that, as the Fonda newspaper editorialized in the next week’s edition, “life was unsafe at any speed,” that “you never know when your brakes might fail so enjoy the scenery as you drive along the highway of life,” and that “you should always make sure that you change the oil in your car’s engine every three thousand miles and also make sure that your tires have sufficient tread and are inflated to the weight recommended by the manufacturer.”

What became of the wheel of fire? When the burning hay wagon reached the Mohawk River, the horse stopped abruptly — some speculated that this was because the horse did not know how to swim; others suggested that the horse was simply thirsty after doing all that running; others, horse lovers, insisted that the horse was intelligent and had figured out that running was accomplishing nothing — and the resulting momentum sent the wheel of fire sailing and spinning into that dark and murky river, where it momentarily lit up the water and briefly sizzled in an oil slick, then sank with a hiss into the depths.