Songs of Ourselves

I’m pleased to report that Blue Heron Book Works has just published a new anthology, “Songs of Ourselves,” which features a variety of personal writings works by 24 different contributors  — including a collection of essays by me on death, mortality and bygone lives remembered.

My contribution is gleaned from a larger book project, still in the works, titled “Man Has Premonition of Own Death,” a title inspired by a 1920s-vintage newspaper headline describing the death of one my ancestors, 23-year-old Thomas Crooks — my great-uncle on my mother’s side.

Young Thomas had met his fiancée for a picnic lunch, and was returning to his job at the old Alexander Smith carpet mill in Yonkers, New York, my old hometown.  According the newspaper account, “As he was returning to work, he turned to her and said, ‘I am going in. But I shall be carried out.’ ” Within a half-hour, my ancestor had “fallen” into a vat of acid used to cure the fibers used in the carpets. He died soon after at a local hospital in the arm’s of his devastated mother — my maternal great-grandmother.

Two of the essays I contributed to “Songs of Ourselves” contemplate the awful fate of poor Thomas Crooks.

Sounds kind of gloomy for holiday reading? Not really. My contributions to the anthology aren’t grim. They’re sometimes melancholy, sometimes thoughtful, sometimes nostalgic, and mostly a celebration of life — and the fact that I wish it didn’t have to end.  I think it’s a perfect reading material for sitting in a comfortable chair — by a crackling fire, perhaps, or sitting near a window as snowflakes swirl and the winter winds whirl — and thinking long, long thoughts of a long, cold winter night…

And that’s just my contribution! “Songs of Ourselves” features an impressive array of works by 23 other very talented writers representing a variety of voices and experiences that would impress even the good gray “Songs of Myself” bard himself!

Here’s how to order the book from Amazon:




“Wild Thing,” Yonkers, and Angelina’s uncle….

I thought I knew every bit of trivia there was to know about my old hometown of Yonkers, New York. Beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti was born there. So was Ella Fitzgerald. So was Steven Tyler of Aerosmith. Son of Sam lived there. So did the great jazz drummer Gene Krupa.

But holy friggin’ God — I had no idea that Chip Taylor, the guy who wrote “Wild Thing,” grew up in my old neighborhood, off Lockwood Avenue near the Saw Mill River Parkway! What’s more, I didn’t know that he also wrote the great song “Angel of the Morning,” which was a big hit in the late 1960s for Merrilee Rush and the Turnabouts!

OK, I knew that Angelina Jolie’s father, the actor Jon Voight, grew up in Yonkers. But I had no clue that Jon Voight is Chip Taylor’s brother, and that they grew up on Ball Avenue — about 15 years before moved to that neighborhood with my parents — just a few blocks from where my mother still lives and where I lived from age 11 until I went off to college.

I’m stunned. Learning this today….well, it just made everything grooooooovy!

Here’s Merrilee Rush singing “Angel of the Morning:”

Here are The Troggs doing “Wild Thing:”

Here’s Jimi Hendrix doing “Wild Thing:”

And here’s Chip Taylor himself doing a song he wrote, titled “Yonkers, NY,” in which he refers to several landmarks and touchstones of my childhood and adolescence in that city — including the old Getty Square business district (where my parents met, at age 15, at a movie theater where my young father was working as an usher); the Herald Statesman newspaper (which I delivered for about four years when I was a paperboy) and Roosevelt High (where I graduated — and did my first creative writing, in Mrs. Diven’s creative writing class for the literary magazine Reflections).


Hard times

It may be that the economy’s on the upswing, but New York City’s homeless people might argue with that analysis. So, too, might the folks I encounter nearly daily in central New Jersey.

As my son and I walked along Canal Street and up Second Avenue in lower Manhattan, a few days ago, we saw more homeless people than I remember seeing in NYC for a while, including a young couple camped out on a sidewalk in late morning, the girl sleeping on a pile of blankets while her companion stayed awake and kept watch.

Next day, early in the morning, at a park along the Raritan River in central New Jersey, I saw what has become a familiar sight: three homeless men, wearing all of their clothing (including winter parkas in 80 degree weather, as they left a small, wooded nature preserve in Highland Park where they apparently spend the night and then headed toward a long-established encampment along the riverside in the shadow of the New Brunswick-Highland Park bridge.

I believe that many of us these days are so distracted by our own lives and other issues — that the problem of poverty, both urban and rural, has faded from our view. There’s a feeling, I think, even among well-meaning and caring people, that food pantries and government programs and volunteerism have got the problem under control. But, just walk around Manhattan these days, just visit rural Virginia as I did last fall, and drive around the old section of my old hometown of Yonkers, New York, and it’s clear that as the rich are getting so much richer, the poor are getting so much poorer.

Here’s Woody singing his “Hobo’s Lullaby” —

Here’s Dylan, singing Stephen Foster’s “Hard Times” —

And here’s John Prine, singing his classic song about being invisible and lonely, “Hello In There” —

“Rip”-fest at Tiffany’s!

The refurbished and recently-reopened Tiffany Reading Room in Irvington, N.Y., where I'll be reading excerpts from my novella "Rip" on Saturday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m.

The refurbished and recently-reopened Tiffany Reading Room in Irvington, N.Y., where I’ll be reading excerpts from my novella “Rip” on Saturday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m.

It won’t be “Breakfast at Tiffany’s,” but I just might be tempted to play or sing “Moon River,” which was featured in that film’s soundtrack and was one of my young father’s favorite songs back in the early 1960s.

That’s because I’ll be reading from my novella “Rip” and signing copies afterward on Saturday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m., in Irvington, N.Y., on the shores of my own life’s river, the beautiful Hudson, which became embedded in my heart and soul when I was a boy growing up a few miles downtstream from Irvington in Yonkers, N.Y.

I’m pleased to be reading in Irvington, for several reasons.

One, it’s the hometown of my friend Phil, whose family owned and operated the village pharmacy.

Second, the village is just south of Tarrytown, setting of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” and is — of course — named after Washington Irving.
So I’ll be reading excerpts from a parody of “Rip Van Winkle” right in the heart of Irving country!

Third, and perhaps best of all, while my appearance in being hosted by Irvington’s public library, I’ll actually be reading in Irvington’s town hall in the beautifully refurbished and recently reopened Tiffany Reading Room.

The great room was in disrepair and was being used for storage until a local fund-raising campaign raised the tens of thousands of dollars needed to restore the room to its former glory — looking very much the way it looked a century ago when it was designed and furnished by Louis Comfort Tiffany with funding from none other than the daughter of Jay Gould!

So try to make it to Irvington-on-Hudson on Saturday, Jan. 12, at 2 p.m. The Irvington Village Hall is located at 85 Main Street, just down the hill from Route 9. Admission is free. Inspiration is by Washington Irving. Parody of “Rip Van Winkle” is by Nicholas DiGiovanni. Set design is by Louis Comfort Tiffany!

Here’s a link to a recent New York Times article about the Tiffany Reading Room’s history and restoration:

Diamonds for Christmas

It was the Christmas when I was six years old, and when a boy is six years old it seems like Christmas will never come, and when it comes there seems no way it will bring with it snow, and if there is no snow, then where will Santa land his sleigh and team?

But that particular year, on the eve of that particular Christmas, the sky was filled with clouds, and the air was crisp and cold, the kind of crisp and cold that made my breath appear as a cloud before my face and so my young father said it was so cold that our words might freeze in mid-air if we dared to speak even the words “Merry” and “Christmas.”

Quietly we walked home from the store where my father had bought a quart of egg nog and Christmas cookies — and quietly we walked up the metal stairs of unit number 12 in that three-story brick apartment block in a public-housing complex called Mulford Gardens off St. Joseph’s Avenue in my old hometown of Yonkers, New York.

A building at Mulford Gardens
A building at Mulford Gardens

And when we entered our apartment, there was my Grandpa Nash! He was my mother’s father and he was really old — he would have been about sixty-nine years old at the time. Grandpa Nash smoked cigars. He liked to eat liverwurst and limburger cheese. He liked to watch boxing bouts on TV. He listened to old 78 rpm records by Crosby and Jolson and the Great Caruso. He wore long camel-hair dress coats and always wore a fedora. His wife — my mother’s mother — had died fifteen years before. When my Grandpa Nash came to visit, he always gave me and my sister a dollar bill and a bag of M&M candies. I loved my Grandpa Nash.

Around 7 o’clock, reluctantly, I went to bed. Around 9 o’clock, almost unbearably excited about the imminent arrival of Christmas, I fell alsleep, albeit with great difficulty and after at least one gentle scolding from my mother as she caught me peeking out of my bedroom door to see if Santa had visited.

I awoke at about five o’clock that Christmas morning. It was still dark. I walked out to the living room. The tree’s colored lights were still lit — I’d implored my mother to leave the lights turned on, so Santa would be able to find our house.

Yes! Piles of presents were under the tree. I looked out the window — and it had snowed! On Christmas morning! In fact it had snowed so much that my parents had convinced my Grandpa Nash to spend the night — and there he was, snoring on the couch!

Colorful tree lights lighting the dark room. A foot of snow outside and frost on the windows. Grandpa Nash sleeping on the couch.

And a Cape Canaveral spaceport set up at the foot of the Christmas tree — for me!

cape canaveral

I’d hoped against hope that Santa would leave me a Cape Canaveral Missile Base. My mother had warned me that lots of little boys hoped to get one and that Santa’s elves might not have been able to make enough…But there it was! Spaceport buildings! Miniature astronauts! Miniature Scientists! Flying saucers! Launching rigs! Fuel tanks! A four-stage rocket! Missiles propelled by springs and rubber bands!

A perfect day had become even more perfect. And then, as the Christmas turkey’s scent mingled with the perfume of the Christmas tree and my father’s Old Spice aftershave and the acrid woody aroma of my Grandpa Nash’s cigar, my mother bundled me up in a heavy coat and a hood and black rubber boots and mittens, and sent me outside to “get some fresh air.”

I stepped off the front door landing and down into snow that came up to my thigh! The air was cold but crisp like North Pole air.

Then my father came out to pull me on my sled, and as my father ran and pulled me on the sled, we left a mist of snow in our wake, and sunbeams shone through the cold white spray, and thousands of diamonds floated behind me on that perfect Christmas morn.

Homeless for Christmas

How does it feel to be without a home? To be on your own? Like a complete unknown? It probably feels something like what these people must feel, these people who are living in a tent alongside the Raritan River in New Brunswick, New Jersey, on a wooded embankment in the shadow of Route 18.

I first spotted the tent about a week ago — it’s blue, quonset-style, probably meant to fit two people. Today I saw a man walk out of the tent and sit down on a rock. Last week I think I saw three people walk out of the tent and up a tramped-down trail leading to the highway — perhaps they were heading to a nearby food pantry across the road.

Are there fewer homeless people than there were a decade or so ago? I doubt it. The economy’s worse, jobs are fewer, welfare benefits have been cut, and the poor and needy are poorer and more needy.

When I was living recently in Lowell, Massachusetts, I was struck by how many homeless people walked the streets or nodded off in downtown doorways, smacked out on crack. They were everywhere, night and day, pushing shopping carts containing  their earthly possessions, gathering bottles and cans to redeem for cash at recycling depots, congregating outside a nearby shelter, and poking through restaurant dumpsters looking for food. They were  thin, lost, beaten down, often drugged or drunk, wearing layers of second-hand clothing, their sad eyes fixed straight ahead or downcast, oblivious to my gaze.

In New Jersey, I think, the homeless are less ubiquitous.  I’ll sometimes see homeless people on the streets of New Brunswick. Now, of course, I know of the tent-dwellers, and I know that for years there has been a rude encampment of homeless people who live a little farther up the river, on the eastern shore near the bridge that carries the old Lincoln Highway over the Raritan, and I’ve seen other homeless who congregate in a tunnel beneath the approach to that same bridge.

On a cold day in Manhattan last week, a homeless man peeked out through an opening in plastic sheets he had tied to a fence to create a rough lean-to on the sidewalk near the Flatiron Building.

And when I drive around the old, poorer sections of Yonkers, New York, the part of the city where I grew up , everywhere I look in my old neighbhorhoods, I see poverty and fear and blank looks in bloodshot eyes.

I guess the idea of home — having one, not having one — is more on my mind as Christmas nears. I’ve many warm memories of Christmases past in places I’ve called home — and of the Christmas that dwells in my dreams and rests safely in the haven of my heart.

And so I am thinking now of a rude manger, and of a brilliant star, and of that blue tent pitched by the riverside in the shadow of the highway. May the highway’s hum give way to silent night. May the brightest star shine upon that blue tent and those who dwell within it. May that star’s light be a soft healing light. May those without a home tonight be safe and warm. May they sleep in heavenly peace.

Lost in Yonkers

Getty Square in Yonkers, New York
Getty Square in Yonkers, New York

I love my childhood home — Yonkers, N.Y., a gritty industrial city on the banks of the lower Hudson River, where I lived from age 3 through the end of my college years. I’ve still got family there.

I’ve many fond memories of the place. Every time I visit, including last week, I take time to drive through my old neighborhoods in South Yonkers: Seminary Hill, where I lived in the now-razed Mulford Gardens public housing complex; Park Hill, the old Italian neighborhood, where I went to school and where my father grew up; Nodine Hill, which had many Eastern European families when I lived there; and Getty Square, where I spent many boyhood hours at the main branch of the Yonkers Public Library and  fondly remember shopping at the three department/variety stores at the heart of that old business district, Green’s, Grant’s and Woolworth’s.

Getty Square and the neighborhoods have seen better days. There’s a lot of crime and poverty. Much of the housing is rundown and dilapidated.  It wasn’t an affluent place when I lived there years ago. And it’s less affluent now.

The ethnic and racial make-up of South Yonkers had changed, too. Both Park Hill and Nodine HIll now have populations that are mostly Latino, the latest in wave in the waves of immigrants who have come to seek a better life in America — just like my Italian grandparents when they left their impoverished and isolated village of Scerni in the province of Chieti.

Deep racial and ethnic divisions in my old city resulted several decades ago in traumatic battles in federal court over housing and school desegregation and equality. Sadly, as I was reminded again recently, those racial and ethnic divisions — and the accompanying ignorance and hatred — still remain.

A few years ago, I discovered a Facebook page called South Yonkers Photos, which featured great old photos of my old stomping grounds — now-defunct movie theaters and stores, old buses I rode so frequently, buildings now fallen victim to the wrecking ball…great stuff…I don’t know who created and runs the site, but I’ve loved visiting the page and looking at the vintage images of bygone days in a city that, in a certain sense, no longer exists.

Recently, a photo of a school play at St. Mary’s School prompted a comment from someone who remembered taking part in those school plays — including one in which some pupils were painted in blackface and performed an Al Jolson number, and then had to work home through Getty Square while still wearing that offensive makeup.

Another “friend” of the Facebook site then opined (I paraphrase) that it was a good thing that back in those days African-Americans were still referred to not as black people but as “colored.” To which she added: “LOL!”

Then,  a few days ago, the proprietor of the Facebook site posted a photo of thousands of Latino people, probably Mexican, celebrating Cinco de Mayo. The caption described the festivities as taking place in Getty Square.

The clear implication was that this was a commentary on the notion that Spanish-speaking immigrants have “taken over” or “overrun” or even “ruined” our beloved, old, used-to-be-mostly-white city of Yonkers.

I posted a comment on this thinly-veiled racism, calling it insensitive at best, bigoted at worst.

The only response: The same woman who posted the commented about “colored” people replied with a sarcastic slur written in pidgin Italian!

When I checked back a few hours later to see whether the unidentified person behind “South Yonkers Photos” on Facebook had perhaps risen to the occasion, had maybe taken a stand on the side of tolerance and against racial and ethnic hate, what did I find?

I found that I’d been “unfriended” — blocked from access to the Facebook page.

Here’s a quote for these small-minded people to ponder as they seethe and stew and angrily snipe at anyone who doesn’t look like them or speak like them or believe like them. It’s the greatest commandment, the most golden of rules: “Love one another.”