Black Angel’s initial flight

That's novelist Steven Hart (rear) during an event held at his Highland Park, N.J., store, Nighthawk Books, where a book-publication party will be held Thursday, July 14, marking the release of the first three books issued by Steve's Black Angel imprint.

Find your way to Highland Park, New Jersey, on Thursday, July 14, and you’ll find me at the publication party celebrating the publication of friend and colleague Steve Hart’s first novel, “We All Fall Down.”

Steve’s new small-press imprint is based at his used-book and films emproium Nighthawk Books on Raritan Avenue in Highland Park, where the publication party will be held from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. – with the added attraction (as if you needed more reason to attend than the opportunity to buy a signed copy of Steve’s novel) of music by the talented Matt DeBlass.

The new literary enterprise, called Black Angel Press (www.blackangelpress.com) is making its debut with three books: Steve’s novel “We All Fall Down” (which just got a thumb’s up in the book-review column of the New York Post); “Blips,” a collection of well-wrought poetry by John Marron; and “19th Nervous Breakdown: Making Human Connections in the Landscape of Commerce,” a provocative and entertaining book by Joseph Zitt, a work based on his experiences working for the Borders bookstore chain.

Take time to welcome this new literary enterprise — which, if all goes according to plan, will soon be publishing one (and maybe two )novellas by Nicholas DiGiovanni. It’s true! There’s even a very talented artist already working on ideas for the covers of planned editions of the novellas “Rip,” a modern-day tongue-in–cheek retelling of the Rip van Winkle story, and “The Dogs of Arroyo,” a spooky parable set in Puerto Rico complete with santeria gods who hold sway in the rain forest at night and are not happy that the island has become an economic colony of that big country to the north.

But that will be then and let’s get back to now: Thursday, July 14, from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Nighthawk Books in Highland Park, N.J. a party celebrating the release of the first three books by Black Angel Press. I’ll be there and I hope you’ll all try to be there too.

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The cultivation of grapes

You ask when I’m going to get around to writing about my visit to Concord.

You would think, when I finally did get around to it, that I’d write about visiting the graves of Thoreau, Emerson, Hawthorne and Louisa May and all the other Alcotts, all of whom sleep their endless sleep within the green lawns and wooded paths of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery, a few blocks from the village green.

The Thoreau family's plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord
The Thoreau family's plot at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Concord

Or maybe I’d write about staying at the venerable Colonial Inn, part of which was occupied for several years by his transcendental eminence Henry David and members of the Thoreau clan.

Concord's Colonial Inn
Concord's Colonial Inn

Perhaps I’d dwell a little on the pivotal events at Concord and Lexington which spawned a revolution.

You’d think I’d write about the delicate white flowers you photographed along the shore and the celestial light I saw shimmering on the holy waters of Walden.

Blossoms at Walden Pond
Blossoms at Walden Pond
Or, speaking of transcendence, maybe I’d write about thoughts that arose as I sat on a bench in downtown Concord and watched as transcendental tourists floated past like wispy wistful ghosts who whispered  of glowing and translucent love.
Downtown Concord
Downtown Concord

But I choose to speak of Concord and its grapes, which were first cultivated by Ephraim Wales Bull,  and whose grave at Sleepy Hollow gripes to the very end and beyond that he realized no gain from his carefully cultivated breed of grape – the real fortune was made by a man from New Jersey, name of Welch,  who took those grapes and turned them into jam and jelly.

And so on Bull’s headstone are etched these words:  “He sowed, others reaped.”

Ephraim Wales Bull and his Concord grapes
Ephraim Wales Bull and his Concord grapes

I did not know when I came home from kindergarten to the Mulford Garden projects in Yonkers, and waiting for me were a glass of milk and a peanut butter-and-jelly on Wonder Bread made for me every day by my mother, that my mother and I were connecting to and becoming as one with the transcendentalists as I sat and ate my sandwich.

As I sat on that park bench I was thinking about many things, including old Bull and his grapes, and how his hard work yielded fruit that did not bear fruit for himself, about the careful nurturing and pruning and guidance and patience – call it the labor of love – required to allow something to take root and spread its vines and provide sweetness and beauty.

As I sat on that park bench, I thought of an arbor I have in my own back yard. The grapes are, in fact, Concord grapes. Sometimes I’ve cut back the vines or cleared away weeds but mostly now I leave the vines to their own devices.

Some years, when the weather is not conducive to the growth of grapes, they shrivel into raisins on the vine. Other years, when the warmth and light are dealt in proper doses , the vines cascade down the arbor, and thousands of grapes threaten to pull down the old wooden posts with their weight, and birds built nests amid the vines on the top of the arbor, and the birds eat the sweet grapes, and deer come at night, and they reach to the higher realms of that arbor, and there’s plenty of grapes on the arbor for everyone.

As grapes grow so, too, can love grow, when storm clouds pass and the sun warms the vines right down to their roots, and sitting on that park bench,  I thought of Concord and Mr. Bull’s grapes, and I decided I just didn’t agree with that bitter viticulturist – I believe that those who take time to sow seeds, and let them take root, then nurture the vines, then wait patiently for the weather to freshen, these sowers will reap the sweetest fruits from the labors of their love.

You say potato…

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

A friend reports: “My first memory of death is having to kiss my dead grandfather’s forehead and thinking it was like a cold potato.”

My own first memory of death: My kindergarten teacher at P.S. 9 in Yonkers pointing to an empty desk in our classroom and telling us that the little girl who sat there had “gone to heaven.” I don’t remember the little girl’s name. This was more than forty years ago. But for some reason I have a memory of a somewhat chubby little girl with dark curly hair. And I remember hearing from my parents later, when I was older, that the little girl had died in a fire along with six other children and an invalid grandmother who was babysitting the brood when the blaze broke out. All of the children were buried together. I’ve seen their gravestone at a cemetery in Yonkers – seven little angels are carved upon the stone.

That dull and heavy thump of death

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

I was not a witness to our pet cat Tabitha’s vision of my dead grandmother. But I was there when our dog Patches had a premonition of her own death.

The poor mutt had been lethargic all day. She couldn’t even stand. But it was Thanksgiving Day, and a veterinarian could not be found, and so Patches lay quietly in her bed in a corner of the kitchen as our family enjoyed the Thanksgiving feast. After dinner we were all in the living room watching television – a variety show or a football game or an old movie, I don’t remember what – when suddenly, startlingly, there stood poor Patches, somehow back on her feet. But those legs attached to those feet quivered as Patches, so weak she could hardly walk, somehow managed to make her way to each member of our family, stopped in front of each of us, and looked at us sadly with her sad beagle eyes. Finally Patches reached my little brother Tom, her last stop, and summoning up one final burst of energy managed to climb up to my brother’s lap, managed to lift herself one more time to give my brother’s face a farewell lick – and then died with a sigh in my brother’s arms.

When I hear someone say it’s raining like cats and dogs I somehow twist that around in my mind and think of ghosts and weird premonitions, and dwell – although I know it is not good to dwell on such things – on the notion that there are things in the world that only dumb animals can see and know, and perhaps this is a good thing, and I think my poor brother felt this way too when Patches the Beagle died in his lap on Thanksgiving Day. When he realized that he had a dead dog in his lap, my brother’s instinct was to quickly push the dead dog off his lap, and I still remember that dull and heavy thump of death when Patches’ dead body fell to the floor.

Life is hell

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

My father was an upbeat kid. Second-generation Italian, son of immigrants, grew up during World War II listening dreamily to radio shows that transported him from his tiny tenement apartment in Yonkers to places around the world, dreamed big romantic dreams and believed they could come true. Wanted to be an architect!

By the time he was in his late thirties he was grossly overweight and knew his dreams were not coming true, and he somehow reached his fifties before his years of eating lots and lots of what’s bad for your health led to a massive heart attack and a 10-year gradual decline that ended when my father was found unconscious on the floor of his hospital room bathroom, slipped into an irreversible coma, then breathed his last breath just minutes after my family decided to take the doctor’s advice and end life support.

Did I mention that my father, somewhere along the line, decided – or figured out – that Earth was actually Purgatory?

I don’t know if this is what my young father envisioned, but here’s Gustave Dore’s illustration for Dante’s “Purgatorio,” titled “The Sinners Passing Through the Fire.”

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The Roman Catholic Church defines purgatory as a sort of holding cell – a place where sinners go to be purged of sin and are eventually allowed to enter heaven. It may not be an actual place – it may be more like a state of existence. And the real punishment and pain, at least this is the way I understood it when I was a kid, was in the knowledge that heaven was oh-so-close but yet so far, the overwhelming sorrow and frustration of not yet being able to gaze upon the face of God..

Here’s an interesting aside. We all think of Hell as a place where we burn for eternity, right? Why’s the Devil red? Because he’s got the worst sunburn ever, right? Wrong. St. Thomas Aquinas – pardon me, but I still haven’t completely freed myself from the chains of 14 years of Catholic School education – said flames are used only in Purgatory, as a cleansing device.

Go to Hell, and the torture is more varied, more creative: worms, horrible heat, ungodly thirst, horrid screams, eternal dismemberment, and…you get the idea.

But wait! It gets more confusing. I read somewhere that St. Augustine suspected that God, in all his glorious Economy, used the very same fires in Hell and Purgatory, but for different purposes.

Augustine and Aquinas both suggested, then, that Hell and Purgatory might be adjacent to each other. Sort of like driving through a bad neighborhood into one that’s even worse.

You know that one of Martin Luther’s biggest gripes was the sale and purchase of “indulgences,” which were – and are – specific amounts of “time off” granted to sinners sent to Purgatory. There are still prayer cards that specify how many days off their punishment may be granted to soul in Purgatory if the prayer prays this prayer for the unfortunate departed. The Catholic Church’s All Souls Day, two days after Halloween, is a day devoted entirely to prayers aimed at easing the pain of Purgatory.

Ever hear or read about the hell hole discovered by scientists – and kept secret until was revealed in an expose published in Weekly World News? Scientist drilling to study the earth’s deep core thought they heard noise coming up through the hole. When they lowered microphones into the hole, the scientists realized that the sounds were actually the awful anguished cries of souls burning in Hell! The scientists quickly filled in the hole, but not before a fiery figure rose from the hole and – well, basically, the fiery figure scared the crap out of the scientists and ordered them to cap the well.

My poor father just might have believed this to be true. If Earth is Purgatory then why can’t Hell be at the fiery core?

I browsed around the Internet and through some books and found capsule descriptions of what some Christian sects think about Heaven, Purgatory and Hell.

Some group called the Christadelphians – no, I hadn’t heard of them, either – believe that people who die “without hearing the Gospel” will simply remain dead, without consciousness for eternity.

Jehovah’s Witnesses – yes, I’d heard of them – believe there is no Hell. They believe that most people, except of course Jevovah’s witnesses, will just cease to exist when they die while the blessed, those who survive the final battle of Armageddon, will live on eternally in a paradise on Earth.

The Mormons believe there are different levels of Heaven. One is for couples married in the Mormon faith. Get this: Eventually such couples become a god and a goddess, and get to rule their own universe. (Either you’re frightened by the notion of, say, Mitt Romney or Donny Osmond as a god, or this belief almost makes you want to be a Mormon). The second level is for Christians who lived holy lives. After this it becomes a bit more confusing – an urban myth says the clues can found by going online and finding used copies of the Best of the Osmonds record album; playing the album backwards reveals hidden messages. But basically it comes down to this: Except for married Mormons and God-fearing but non-Mormon Christians, everyone else goes to some lesser level, with Hell at the very bottom rung – and place for adulterers and murderers and, well, you know, the usual group of heathens. The good news is that in the end, all is forgiven, or all are forgiven, and everyone will be resurrected; the only difference will be that the aforementioned folks at levels one and two will get to stay in the presidential suites at the Waldorf while the rest of get to stay forever at Motel 6.

You want gloomy? How about the Seventh-Day Adventists who don’t believe sinners spent eternity in Hell. They believe sinners stay in Hell until there’s nothing left of them to burn. Their premise is that God would not stoop so low as to indulge in torture. He’ll destroy sinners for eternity but he’ll get it over with quickly.

And then there’s some sect called the Unity School of Christianity, which takes Jesus at his word when he declares that “The Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” These folks believe Heaven resides inside us all, and that all we need to do is bring our bodies and minds and souls together in harmony with the divine. Likewise, they don’t believe Hell is an actual place, and forget about Purgatory, but they do think it’s not even necessary to die to go to Hell – it’s a state of mind, it’s mental and emotional anguish, it’s sorrow, it’s sadness, and maybe this was what my father meant all along but simply couldn’t express it in such terms.

Instead, he came to view life as a Purgatory to be endured until the blessed relief of Death.

My poor father…

Not accepting calls at this time

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

A strange phenomenon persists four years after my father’s death. It’s important to note that I never hated him and certainly loved the man, just instinctively because he was my father, and that as time went by I came to understand him more, see his weaknesses and failing for what they were – his humanity – and got along with well, as long a decent number of miles separated. If we’d lived together or near each other, if we saw each or spoke to each other too frequently, conflict would have been inevitable. But in the later years of my father’s life, as my children were born and grew and achieved one of their many milestones – or even when I had done something I thought he’d like to hear about – I’d often call my father to share some news, or brag about the kids, or – occasionally to borrow some money. So here’s the strange phenomenon. Sometimes something will happen that’s the sort of thing that would once have prompted a phone call to my father. And I’ll get this sudden impulse, this quick instinctive urge, this reflex, and just for a split-second I’ll think “I ought to call Dad.” Then the synapses will snap back into place and my brain will remind me that my father’s dead, that where ever he is they probably don’t have phones, or maybe they have phones but the numbers are unlisted, or maybe my father is simply not accepting calls at this time.

Lest we forget

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

How is it possible to forget when your own father died? I’m not talking about the day or the month. I’m talking about the year! I can never even remember what year it was when my father died! Thank God for Google and online newspaper archives. Here’s my father’s obituary, which was printed in his local daily newspaper:

DIGIOVANNI, NICK J. – Nick J. DiGiovanni, age 69, a lifetime resident of Yonkers, passed away September 24, 2002 at Sound Shore Medical Center, New Rochelle, NY. Mr. DiGiovanni was born in Yonkers, NY, on December 18, 1932 to the late Nicola and the late Luisa DiGiovanni. He served honorably in the US Air Force (1952-1956) and afterwards, was employed as a programmer for the Yonkers Board of Education. He is survived by his beloved wife…his devoted children…and his eight loving grandchildren…Wake to be held Friday, September 27, 2002 from 2-4 and 7-9 pm at SINATRA MEMORIAL HOME, INC, 601 Yonkers Avenue, Yonkers, NY. A Religious Service will be conducted at the Funeral Home Chapel at 1 pm on Saturday, September 28, 2002, followed by entombment at Ferncliff Cemetery, Hartsdale.

Do you believe in ghosts? Today I got this feeling, started thinking about my father and trying to remember when he died, and decided to google his obituary — and today is Sept. 24, which happens to be the sixth anniversary of my father’s death.