A Divine Gate-Crasher at the Antique Car Show

Saturday morning: my usual routine–swim, town dump, dry cleaner, coffee–is brightened today by festivities on the lovely greensward that graces the center of our town, like so many others in New England. I don’t mean our greensward travels around to other towns, they have their own; ours stays right where it is.

“*sniff* I just love the smell of old money!”


The occasion? The annual antique car show, organized by the old codgers who only leave their estates to go to their summer homes in quaint towns on Cape Cod (where there are also antique car shows, so they don’t miss a beat) or to come to Town Meeting to vote against the bond issue for the new fire truck. The one we have is perfectly fine–it’s only forty years old!

You know how it is; you make your first ten million and you’re suddenly seized by the impulse–perhaps for the first time in your life–to give something back. To yourself! All that self-denial and delayed gratification gets to be tiresome after sixty or seventy years.

I pull into a parking space near town hall and survey the scene. There’s something for everybody here today. For descendants of families that came over on the Mayflower who’ve been lovingly maintaining the automotive heirloom with the single digit license plate issued to an ancestor by Cotton Mather when revenues from witch-burnings dried up, there’s a Stutz Bearcat. For those with more whimsical tastes, there are “woodies,” station wagons with real wood panels, not the fake kind. For the parvenus, les nouveau riche, there are Jaguar XKE’s from the ’60′s. It’s a car lover’s dream, even for a guy like me who thinks of cars as appliances on wheels.

“Hey you can’t park there!” I hear somebody yell, and I look up from my reverie.

“Why not?” I ask, all ingenuous flip-flopped boy with cheeks of tan.

“That space is for cars that are entered in the competition.”

I size the guy up. I figure him to be the scion of one of those old Boston Brahmin families whose name used to be part of some money management firm–White, Weld, Smith, Barney, Upham, Felton, Shore & Bladda-Bladda–but they got squeezed off the letterhead by a merger or an attempt at re-branding. I think I can take him.

“What makes you think I’m not going to enter?” I say with a cocky air.

It’s his turn to look me over, like a butterfly pinned to a specimen box. “A 2006 Pontiac Torrent?” he snorts. “Please–don’t make me laugh.”

I’m third from the bottom, right hand row.

He’s got me on a technicality. I check the program, and I see there’s no 21st Century Orphan Model division, so I’m going to have to fake it.

“This baby’s a classic,” I say, extending my arm in a gesture of display the way the models do at car shows. “V-6 or V-4, I forget. Plush polyester interior. Six CD-changer. It’s cherry.”

Car-show girl: Probably not cherry.

“Cherry? What’s that mean?” the guy asks. I guess he’s so old he’s forgotten some of the cool slang adolescent males have handed down since time immemorial.

“Virginal. Clean. Low-mileage, one-owner. It’s hymen’s never been penetrated.”

The guy snorts again–must be allergies–and points to the hatchback. “Then what are all those boxes and crates?”

“Those? Oh–those are for recycling.”

Another snort–I offer him a Kleenex but he declines. “What’s the point?” he asks, and I have to admit he’s got a point. When I first fed deposit bottles into one of those automatic recycling machines and heard them get crunched up into a million pieces, my childhood illusion that there was some big room where they washed the bottles and returned them to the vending machines was shattered, along with the bottles.

Your local recycling center: A great place to meet earthy babes!

“It’s sort of my religion,” I say.

“Religion? Please–religion is that over there” he says pointing to the Unitarian Universalist Church across the green where, as the old joke goes, the last time they heard the words “Jesus Christ” was when the janitor fell down the stairs.

“I disagree,” I say. “I’ve been recycling since 1972, on the South Side of Chicago. I moved on to the western suburbs of Boston, down the street from where Larry Bird lived. I graduated to the Town Dump in Wellesley, Mass.–to my knowledge, the only dump that’s ever been featured on the front page of The Wall Street Journal. And I just came back from our quaint little town dump–it’s not Wellesley, but it’s ours.”

“Why do you say it’s a religion?”

“Because I do it out of faith, with no demonstrable evidence that it has any actual effect on my life, just because it makes me feel–better.”

“But it doesn’t involve God.”

“It’s got Gaia, primordial earth goddess of ancient Greek religion.”

“She’s not the God.”

“Dude,” I say, draping my arm around his shoulder. “Monotheism is way overrated.”

“It is?”

“Sure it is. You want to have a little competiton among vendors in your godhead shopping. I went to your little church one time, when our kids were young.”

“What happened?”

“The sermon was ‘Why Timothy McVeigh is in Heaven Today.’”

He looked at me like I’d come to his daughter’s wedding with my shirt untucked. Which it was.

“Well, I’m . . . uh . . . sure there was some deeper meaning . . .”

“Bullhockey!” I snapped, unleashing the full force of my extensive vocabulary of non-obscene curse words at him. “You know your fellow parishioners–they’re out there every sunny Saturday with their anti-war/anti-nuke signs. You know they had a sermon of love for the 9/11 highjackers. And I’ll bet you dollars to donuts that tomorrow’s sermon will be “Why the Oklahoma Beheader Isn’t Such a Bad Guy.”

The look on his face appeared to concede that I might–just might–be right, even though I went to the wrong schools and grew up in the wrong part of the country and didn’t have a crocodile on my shirt.

“So you recommend . . .”

“Polytheism, jack. If you don’t like what your god’s puttin’ down, you can shop around. Try Gaia, or Shiva the Destroyer. You want a god who’s willing to kick some fuc–”

He cut me off–we still have a blasphemy law on the books here in Massachusetts.

Shiva, one kick-ass divinity.

“Okay, maybe I’ll give it a whirl. Say–are there any books I could read to sort of, you know, learn a little more about the vengeful gods they didn’t teach us about in Sunday School?”

“I’d start with H.L. Mencken’s ‘Treatise on the Gods.’ He compiled a catalog of more crazy-ass divinities than you can shake a stick at.”

The old guy seemed geniunely grateful. “Thanks,” he said, “thanks a lot.”

We shook hands and turned to part when he stopped me. “Say–you don’t really expect to win a prize up against all these old-money classics in mint condition, do you?”

“With my Lord and Master Zoroaster,” I said, “anything is possible.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Oh . . . My . . . God.”

US News to Add Female Leg, Armpit Hair to College Rankings

WASHINGTON, D.C.  Responding to criticism from elite institutions of higher learning, U.S. News & World Report today announced that it would include female leg and armpit hair as a factor in its annual ranking of the best American colleges.

“We have been rightfully chastised for focusing on trivial measures such as the number of books in a school’s library and student-faculty ratio,” said Robert Flanigan, managing editor of the newsweekly that has turned its ratings of colleges into a profitable sideline.  “You should probably know what the word ‘chastise’ means if you want to get into a good school,” he added.

“We’re #1!”


The decision placated faculty at several colleges that had refused to participate in the survey because of its focus on raw data over subjective indicators.  “There is no more accurate sign of a school’s academic rigor than the unwillingness of its female students to shave their legs and armpits,” said JoEllen Murada, First Deputy Assistant Vice Provost-Elect of Stanford University.  “After all, what does ‘placate’ mean?” she asked rhetorically; “(a) to soothe or mollify, (b) to remove scales from an object, such as a fish, or (c) an almond-flavored custard.”

“Anita, there’s either a mouse in your dress shield or you forgot to shave your pits.”


Mary Ellen Robinson, head of the American Association of University Women, said she was bemused by the magazine’s decision.  “Why isn’t there a comparable index for male students?” she asked, adding “‘bemused’ means I’m confused, not laughing.”

Flanigan responded that U.S. News would welcome input from female faculty and administrators but that standards applicable to one sex did not necessarily produce useful information when applied to the other.  “Poor hygiene in males appears to be independent of I.Q.,” he noted.  “If that’s one of your criteria, Harvard would be full of Bruins fans.”

Rush committee, I Felta Thi sorority


Schools where sororities are a prominent feature of campus life were caught off guard by the decision, and student leaders vowed to assist in the recruitment of women who could boost their colleges’ academic standing.  “I’m going to go out and beat the bushes to find some groaty girls to bring our average up,” said Cyndi Lynn Anthony, a Chi Omega at the University of Missouri.  “Just as soon as I finish plucking my eyebrows.”

The Cockroach Lawyer

Franz Kafka, author of The Metamorphosis, was also a lawyer.

One morning when the cockroach woke from troubled dreams, he found himself transformed in his bed into a horrible vermin—a lawyer.  He lay on his pajama-clad back, and if he lifted his head a little he could see that his belly, formerly brown and domed and divided by arches into stiff sections, was now flabby and white, like the underbelly of a trout.  The bedding was hardly able to cover it, and he had so little muscle tone he seemed ready to slide off any moment.

His many legs were now reduced to two pitifully thin appendages, with spindly calves and a furry line of demarcation where the hair ended and white ankles began, the follicles eradicated by the Gold Toe™ socks the members of his guild wore to work every day.

“What’s happened to me?” he thought.  It wasn’t a dream.  His room, a proper cockroach room in a Roach Motel, lay peacefully between its four familiar walls.  A collection of crumbs lay spread out in one corner, and above them hung a picture of his mother, who had been squashed by pair of Florsheim™ wingtips the week before.

The cockroach looked out the end of the motel at the countertop outside.  He thought of the day ahead, how he would have to read and revise text that would be applied, in screaming letters twenty-four points high, to the underside of a mop bucket.  “CAUTION,” it would say; “STICKING YOUR HEAD IN A BUCKET FILLED WITH LIQUID FOR EXTENDED PERIODS OF TIME CAN CAUSE DEATH OR SEVERE INJURY, INCLUDING BRAIN DAMAGE.”  It made him feel quite sad that some people were so stupid that they would misuse a bucket, hurt themselves, then be forced to hire a lawyer to get the settlement they deserved.  It made him even sadder that his job was to protect other people who would be sued by the stupid people who put their heads in the buckets.

“How about if I sleep a little bit longer and forget all this nonsense,” he thought, but that was something he was unable to do because he felt compelled to get up and go to work, and so he couldn’t lay around the house until the lights went out, then feast on cake crumbs and Cool Ranch Doritos™ he’d find along the baseboard.

“Oh, God,” he thought, “What a strenuous career it is that I’ve chosen! Arguing all day over money, day in and day out.  Doing business such as this is much more disagreeable than public relations, or event planning, or marketing, where one persuades consumers to buy things they do not need!”

On top of that there was the curse of partners meetings, when each cockroach in his turn must chirp loudly about his last deal or big case that he won, each tale containing the most ludicrous embellishments, all in an effort to outshine the others, to appear bigger than the cockroach he really was.  There were the business lunches, with bad and irregular food, contact with indifferent and artificial people to persuade them to hire you, none of whom you can ever get to know or become friendly with.  ”It can all go to Hell!” he said aloud.  He was startled by the sound of his voice, which had only chirped before.

He slid back into his former position. “Getting up early all the time and going to work,” he thought, “it makes you stupid. You sharpen your mind by narrowing it.”  Was it Edmund Burke who said that?  He couldn’t recall; after all, he’d been a cockroach when he went to sleep the night before, not a hideous and disgusting insect and a member in good standing of the highest court in his state of domicile.  Whatever “domicile” meant.

“Here’s your pumpkin spice latte–don’t come back soon!”

The clients, on the other hand, lived lives of luxury.  While he would sit at his desk all summer long, they would call from the beach or their second homes to order him to write out a contract for them, these gentlemen who made so much money and then complained about his bills!

I ought to just try that sometime, he thought to himself; just try ordering someone around for a change.  Not my wife, of course, and not my department head.  Maybe—I don’t know—the barista downstairs at Starbucks.  “Hey,” I’d say, “Can you pour out a little more sticky ‘Classic Syrup’ on the counter for me, instead of all the crappy third-world music collections and the self-glorifying CEO autobiography?”

Anybody more important than her, he’d get stomped right there on the spot. But who knows, he thought, maybe that would be the best thing for him.  If he didn’t have his wife and kids to think about he’d have given notice a long time ago.  He’d have gone up to the boss and told him just what he thought, tell him everything–”Let him know just what I feel!” he said to himself.  “He’d fall right off his desk!

It’s a funny sort of business to be sitting up there at your desk, talking down at your subordinates like they’re insects.  Well, there’s still some hope, he thought; once he got the money together to pay off his student loans–another five or six years he supposed–that’s what he would do.  That’s when he’d make the big change.

First of all, though, he had to get up because his train left at five.  For another day under the fluorescent lights, tapping away at a computer.  It would have been easier yesterday, when he was still a cockroach.

Before his metamorphosis, he had six limbs, and could type 180 words a minute with four of them.

At the Juvenile Bubonic Plague Telethon

Rahere, founder of St. Bartholomew’s Church and Hospital, was Henry I’s jester, and had a special talent for mimicry.

                                              Eleanor of Aquitaine, Alison Weir

It’s day three of the annual St. Swithin’s Day Juvenile Bubonic Plague Telethon, and frankly, I’m getting a little worried about Rahere, the Clown Prince of the Plague as the marketing department likes to brand him.  He’s been at it non-stop except for bathroom breaks for almost sixty hours–smiling, cracking jokes, thanking Catapult Workers Union Local #103 for their oversized check–and I think he’s on the verge of collapse.

He’s done so much over the years for the kids who suffer from JBP–”Rahere’s Kids” they call them.  Some sicko court jesters joke about it, but everyone knows they’re just jealous of Rahere’s brilliant career: the early nightclub act with Boccherini of Florence, who played the handsome straight-man lush to Rahere’s nutty buddy; the sold-out court dates before the crowned heads of Europe, bringing down the house with the funny faces and pitch-perfect impersonations of kings and their obsequious courtiers; and then, in the autumn of his years, critical recognition from the French for his films, derided in England, such as “Which Way to the Crusades?”  I tell you, the guy’s a virtual one-man medieval faire, and I don’t add that last “e” lightly.

My job as Rahere’s sidekick/straight man is to sit on the couch, make small talk, greet each guest, then slide down so that Rahere can relate one-on-one, as he does so well, with each lute-player or juggler or mime or damsel-ingenue-of-the-week being pushed by the studios.  You’ve got to keep people watching, which isn’t easy with the primitive state of broadcasting we’re stuck with.  Rahere tells a joke, I remember to laugh my easy, unforced, spontaneous chuckle, a monk writes down the set-up and the punch line, and scriveners make copies that are distributed to the far reaches of Henry’s kingdom by horse and carrier pigeon.  You can understand why some folks are a little slow on the uptake.

“He’s setting the house on fire tonight!”

But tell that to the network execs who try to cut back our hours every year.  We say fer Christ sake (oops–I’ll burn another decade in Purgatory for that one), it’s St. Swithin’s Day, everybody’s still at the beach!  Nobody’s going to watch re-runs of Everybody Loves Roland, or CSI: Edinburgh or Beach Jousting–we can sell advertising for you during the slow months!

We’re not like a lot of your fly-by-night disease-based charities.  Every pence we raise–net of production costs, travel, “appearance fees” we pay to superstar knights–goes directly to St. Bartholomew’s, where 90% of it ends up in the pockets of doctors so they can buy expensive horses and vacation homes on the English Channel.  The remaining 10% is spent on patient care for the kids or, if it gets there too late, to dignified mass cremations.

I don’t let Rahere out of my sight–he’s getting that glassy-eyed look he always has on day three when he’s just about burned out, right before his last appeal, the one to push us over last year’s grand total.  He waves me off as I start to help him downstage for his big finale–”Maketh Someone Happie”–a schmalzy tune, sure, but one that allows him to leave the stage without a dry eye or a full wallet in the house.

“You know,” he begins, “there’s something each one of you can do to help make the Dark Ages . . . just a little bit brighter,” he says, and after the lutes and the hautboys and sackbuts behind him begin to stir from the lower register, he sings:  “Maketh . . . someone happie.  Just maketh . . . someone happie–it isn’t hard to do-o-o-o!”

I look out at the cynical courtiers who surround the king.  They try, but they can’t hold back the tears, and pretty soon the waterworks have started.  Marie, the Queen, is bawling like a baby; Eubalus the Bastard is sniffling; William the Fat has buried his face in the second of his three chins.  Time for me to make my way up the aisles, rattling my little pewter mug.

I hold out the can to Ethelred the Cheap, a guy who’s been banned from Ye Olde Friars Club for always deducting the assize from his bill before computing his tip.

“Come on, Eth,” I say, turning the corners of my mouth down to make a sad little frowny face.  “Do it for the kids.”

Ethelred smiles a dung-eating grin, then removes a lousy French sou from his purse and drops it ceremoniously into my cup, as if he wants a freaking jousting field named after him for his piddling contribution.

“Thanketh you,” I say, heavy on the sarcasm, “Thanketh you verie much.  Your contribution of one (1) sou means that one (1) less flea-infested rodent will roam the streets of Rouen–and try saying that five times fast.”

“No problem,” he says with a little smirk as he looks around to see if Eleanor the Bodacious is watching.

I shake my head with ill-concealed contempt and start to move on when I feel a tug at my surplice.

“Excuse me.”  It’s Ethelred.


“Can I get a receipt . . . for my oppressive taxes?”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “The Spirit of Giving.”

One Marching Band a Conscientious Objector in Drum Arms Race

I Got More Dog Than You

          Somebody knocked on Gavin Bushnell’s door at three o’clock in the morning.  He opened it and there was Sidney Bechet, with his dog.  Sidney said “I heard that you had a dog that you said was more dog than my dog.”  He’s bringing his dog there, and he wants to see whose dog is more dog.

                                   Quoted in Jazz, America’s Music, Ken Burns, Geoffrey C. Ward

I don’t care how much dog you got,
I got more dog than you.
My dog’s too big for most parking lots,
and several municipal zoos.

My dog can go around the world twice,
While your dog programs his GPS device.

I don’t care how much dog you got,
I got more dog than you.

I don’t care how much dog you got,
I got more dog than you.
My dog’s bigger than your dog by a lot,
and not just by a few.

My dog can conjugate verbs in French
He can fix your foreign car with a crescent wrench.

I don’t care how much dog you got,
I got more dog than you.

I don’t care how much dog you got,
I got more dog than you.
Folks always say my dog’s real hot,
and quite good-lookin’ too.

When my dog travels, he goes first class,
Comes back to coach to kick your dog’s ass.

I don’t care how much dog you got,
I got more dog than you.

I don’t care how much dog you got,
I got more dog than you.
I’ve given it a lot of thought,
and I’m givin’ your dog what he’s due.

Your dog’s missing part of his ear,
I wonder if my dog hid it somewhere around here.

I don’t care how much dog you got,
I got more dog than you.

Out Walked Bud: The Manic Life and Obscure Death of Bud Powell

The Holy Trinity of bebop in the popular theology of jazz consists of Charlie Parker on alto sax, Dizzy Gillespie on trumpet and Thelonious Monk on piano, but jazz is a pagan art form and so admits of polytheism. Earl Rudolph “Bud” Powell is an alternate deity on the piano, a more troubled man but one who consistently produced music at a higher level of virtuosity than Monk, who made eccentricity of rhythm and melody his trademark and who sometimes seemed to be satisfied with mere cleverness.

Bud Powell


Where Monk was over-reliant on drugs to fuel his fancy, Powell came to his quirks as a result of external forces. When he was in his early twenties and a member of Cootie Williams’ orchestra, he was beaten on the head by police in a racially-motivated incident and he would spend a third of his life in mental institutions and hospitals dealing with the aftereffects. He underwent electroshock treatment at Creedmore Sanitarium to remedy the headaches and mental breakdowns he suffered from, and he was known even to musicians who admired him as erratic.

Charlie Parker said he wouldn’t work with Powell because the pianist was “even crazier than me.” Parker was, as a result of his fondness for marijuana and heroin, a booking agent’s nightmare, so his comment is no faint praise from a master of the missed date and late arrival.

Like the little girl with the curl in the middle of her forehead, when Bud was good he was very, very good, and when he was bad he was horrid. In 1951 he had been in the hospital for eighteen months but was released to record a trio date for Alfred Lion. Lion recounts that Powell disappeared at the beginning of the session–an act that would irritate even the most forgiving producer, with dollars budgeted for studio time burning away. Powell rushed back in two hours later, having worked out a song titled, aptly enough, “Un Poco Loco.” A session of factory-like productivity followed as he laid down three trio and two solo titles in rapid succession.

Thelonious Monk and Bud Powell in 1964


Powell was seven years younger than Monk but he was the first to become successful with a style that swept out the left-hand striding of the swing era in favor of “comping,” clusters of chords around which extended melodies by the right hand were twined, like flowers around a bass trellis. Monk would catch up with and surpass the younger man in the late 50’s, at which point he was recognized as the revolutionary and Powell became the ancien regime. Powell moved to Paris where an interview with a French journalist in a tuberculosis hospital revealed him to be a sharp but crotchety bopper at the age of forty. “I told you Al Haig,” Powell snaps when the writer forgetfully asks him a second time which contemporary pianists he admires.

By that point in his life Powell’s mind was so far gone that he couldn’t learn new material and so he was limited to sessions of standards such as those heard on Dexter Gordon’s “Our Man in Paris,” on which he subbed for Kenny Drew.

Bud returned to New York in 1964 and disappeared after playing in a few concerts. He died in obscurity two years later.

In addition to his high-speed recorded improvisations, however, he left behind a legacy of compositions that continue to challenge jazz musicians to this day. I came to Bud’s music through Clifford Brown’s Parisian Thoroughfare, an onomatopoeic rendition of a street scene of his adopted French hometown. I’m generally cool to program music–attempts to recreate scenes from life in tones–but this is an exception. From the opening bars that conjure up the peculiar sounds (to American ears) of European auto horns, the tune is as light as French pastry, as free and airy as a skirt blown by the wind down Les Rue des Martyrs.

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