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” —

Hard rain (October 1962)

I was a very little boy but I sensed something big was going on. My father had rushed home early from work. Now he was sitting in front of our black-and-white TV as the president — Kennedy — delivered an address on what we now refer to as the Cuban Missile Crisis.

This happened fifty years ago, in October 1962.

Spy plane photographs had revealed the presence of Soviet missiles — missiles capable of being armed with nuclear warheads — in Cuba, a stone’s throw from Florida and within range of American cities in the South and Northeast.

This was at the height of that war of nerves and ideologies called the Cold War.

The U.S. demanded that the Soviet Union remove the missiles. The Russians refused. We were on the brink of nuclear war.  Kennedy and his advisers, history tells us, believed it might take a miracle to forestall Armageddon.

My father — and 150 million other Americans — sensed this.  I could sense his concern — and his fear.

Fifty years later, the whole thing now seems so distant and unreal: the air of crisis, the talk of fallout shelters, the naval blockade, the standoff, the wait…and the Soviet Union backing down. Fifty years later, we know now about the back-channel communications, the military men who wanted to bomb Cuba, the clever (and lucky) diplomatic and strategic ploys.

I think of the line from young Bob Dylan’s “Masters of War,” when he sings about the “fear to bring children into the world” and his awful and beautiful song “Hard Rain,” inspired by the Cuban missile crisis.

Fifty years later, I remember my 29-year-old father — just 29! — and the worry I saw in his eyes when he looked away from President Kennedy’s flickering image on the TV and looked at my mother and me, when the reality of men’s folly made it clear that life’s fragile light could flicker and fade in just the few moments it would take for someone to give the order to flip the terrible switch.

Sweet joy

Just in case you missed the news…The most beautiful baby girl in the world was born July 24 to my daughter Laura and her husband Harold. Here’s Abigail Rose:

Here’s what William Blake had to say about it:

Pretty joy! Sweet joy, but two days old.

Sweet Joy I call thee: Thou dost smile,

I sing the while; Sweet joy befall thee!

And Bob Dylan chimed in:

May you build a ladder to the stars

And climb on every rung

May you stay forever young

Watching the river flow

I warmed up for the celebration of Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday by attending a great show — Blondes on “Blonde on Blonde” — presented last Saturday as part of the Concerts at the Crossing series held in Titusville, N.J., near Washington Crossing, where, yes indeed, Washington crossed the Delaware and invaded Trenton.

I know…we should have let the British keep Trenton. But I lived there with my parents right after I was born. My young father was serving in the Air Force, stationed at Fort Dix. So if Washington hadn’t crossed the Delaware and routed the Hessians, I’d be speaking with a British accent and…

I know.,.I’m drifting too far from the shore…Here’s a video of one of the “Blondes on Blonde on Blonde performers,” Sloan Wainwright, singing “Meet Me in the Morning” from “Blood on the Tracks” —

On the actual Bobday — Tuesday, May 24 — I sat by the banks of the Raritan River in New Jersey, reading a poem by Allen Ginsberg of Paterson, N.J., .listening to “Things Have Changed” by His Bobness…and watching and listening as an Orthodox Jew with a cantor’s voice stood alone at the riverside, first with his hands on his hips and then with his arms opened wide to the sky. The man chanted and sang a tune I did not recognize and words I did not understand, and he looked out over the holy river, and it was a confluence of Jewish poems and prayers, a meeting of the orthodox and the avant-garde, as the cantor and I sat and watched the river flow on Robert Zimmerman/Bob Dylan’s 70th birthday,

Here’s the song I was listening to, sung by the birthday boy himself:

And here’s Joe Cocker and Eric Clapton watching the river flow…


Whiteout. Blizzards of regret. Drifting thoughts. Snowed in by sorrow. Thin ice.

No need for any more wintry words…they won’t stoke the warming fire…they won’t quell the howling wind….

See that she has a coat so warm….Dylan and Cash…eloquently…sounds that come from deep within a heart where persistent embers flicker with the remnant spark of love…

Like the morning sun you come and like the wind you go…

Got some things to talk about, here beside the rising tide…

The title of this post — of course! — is from the song “Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead.

Let me take you down ’cause I’m going to…
I’ve been staying recently in my old hometown of Yonkers, N.Y.

A time to mourn…
One morning a few weeks ago I acted on an impulse and visited my father’s grave — more specifically his pullout drawer high up in the marble wall of a creepy mausoleum in Hartsdale, N.Y.

To everything there is a season…

The depraved piped-in organ music and the sickly funeral-home smell of flowers got me thinking about my own funeral plans.

Little trip to heaven…
Basically I have no plans. I do know I’d like to be cremated. I do know I don’t want a funeral.

Imagine all the people….
I think I’d like my friends and family to gather for an informal nondenominational memorial celebration.

May you stay…forever young…
I’d like my younger daughter to read one of her poems. I’d like my son to play something on his guitar. I’d like my older daughter to choose and read some samples of my own writing.

No need for greed…no hunger….
I’d like donations to me made in my memory of anti-hunger groups, peace groups or literacy groups.

And…most important of all perhaps…

May your song always be sung…

I’d like there to be a really good sound system set up
to play these songs (in no particular order):
“Uncle John’s Band” by the Grateful Dead
“Strawberry Fields Forever” by The Beatles
“Little Trip to Heaven” by Tom Waits
A Bach cantata
“Forever Young” by Bob Dylan
“Turn Turn Turn” by Pete Seeger
“Amazing Grace” (no bagpipes, please!)
and, of course, “Imagine” by John Lennon

Someone who’s more than dear to me wants her final farewell to include Eva Cassidy’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World…”

My poor father requested “Ave Maria.”

So many other songs would be appropriate and meaningful and sprung from the heart. So maybe I’ll add a few more songs and someone can burn a CD…it would make a nice departing gift for everyone in the studio audience to take home — and take to heart.