Read My Lips, or Simply Refer to the Sub-Titles

A friend of mine—a composer—has been shopping an opera around for some time without success.  I can’t understand why nobody’s buying; it’s based on the life of Arthur Inman, a creepy hypochondriac who spent most of his life in a darkened room in Boston’s Back Bay and hired people to come talk to him.  He recorded these conversations in a 155 volume diary, and had sex with some of his working-class female interlocutors.  If that heartwarming story doesn’t scream “Broadway Bound!” I don’t know what does.

I was commiserating with my friend last weekend when he told me that he had enhanced the DVD that he sends to potential producers.  “I added subtitles,” he said.

“In what language?” I asked.


“But,” I asked, a bit confused, “isn’t the opera in English?”

Well, yes, he said, but having subtitles makes it easier to understand.  So much of operatic singing is vocal virtuosity that distorts the sense of what is being said.

“We just stepped on each other’s TO-OOES!”


To say that I had a “Eureka” moment—a lightbulb over the head epiphany—would not be an exaggeration.  “So there are people who will add English subtitles to ordinary, everyday English?” I asked.

“For a price,” he replied, a bit ruefully.  “It’s not cheap.”

“Gimme a ballpark.”

“More than a teeth-cleaning, less than a car.  Depends on how long your libretto is.”

“I don’t speak Italian, but let’s keep my private parts out of this.”

“I mean the text, the words . . . “

“Oh, right.”

Calvin Coolidge:  “You lose.”


In my life and work I try to follow the taciturn example of Calvin Coolidge, who famously replied “You lose” to a reporter who told the President he had bet his editor he could get ”Silent Cal” to say three words.  If I could keep a firm grip on the faucet from which flowed the life-giving waters of conversation, perhaps I could afford a sub-titleist for my family.

Not that kind of Titleist.


“Give me the guy’s number,” I said with barely-repressed excitement as I recalled the many misunderstandings I’ve had with my wife over the years due to saying the wrong thing, or the right thing under the wrong circumstances.  “This will be the best money I’ve ever spent.”

“Why did he say I have nicer in-laws than him?”


I rang the guy up and he reviewed his various payment options: a la carte one-off subtitles for especially tense events such as extended family get-togethers; weekly and monthly retainers during particularly stressful periods such as the November to December holidays; or an annual ”Platinum Club” for the most creditworthy customers.

“I’ll take the a la carte plan.   I’ve got my wife’s birthday next week, then the in-laws visit,” I said.

“Okay,” he said, “but I wouldn’t skimp if I were you.”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s the misunderstandings before the in-laws arrive that are usually the problem.”

I considered that assertion for a moment, and ended by agreeing with him.  “You’re right,” I said.  “It’s the eye-rolling, the exasperated sighs that I can’t hold in when my wife tells me that I have to get dressed up to have dinner in my own home.  That’s what gets me in trouble.”

“You got it pal.  So you want to go with a month’s worth?”

“That oughta do it.”

“I can’t believe you called my mother a gerontomatriarch.  She is not a dinosaur!”


He showed up the next night for dinner, and I sat him down at the end of the table.

“Aren’t you going to introduce me to your friend?” my wife asked.

“He’s not a friend, really, he’s Lowell Buntrock, a sub-titleist.”

“What’s that?”

“He’s going to translate into English what we say to each other from now until your folks leave.”

“But we already talk in English,” my son said.  Easy for him to say.  He just grunts.

“We do and we don’t,” I said as I cocked my head knowingly, which I do whenever I’m about to dispense a little mature advice for my son to ignore.  “We talk—but do we really communicate?”

“That means he thinks you’re lying about that empty bottle of Smirnoff’s Green Apple vodka he found in the driveway,” Buntrock said.

“See—he’s already helping out!” I said to my wife with satisfaction.

“I suppose that’s better than trying to drag a little conversation out of you after a day at the office,” she said.

“That means she wants to talk about curtains,” Buntrock translated.

“I thought as much!” I said as I glanced from him to her.  “What’s the point of even opening my mouth with you?”

“To give her a chance to catch her breath,” Buntrock interjected.  This guy was a real pro.

“I’m not sure I like this idea,” my wife said as she looked askance at Buntrock.

“That means she doesn’t like your idea,” the sub-titleist said.

Father really doesn’t know best.


“You know, there’s something to be said for subtlety, and shading the truth just a bit,” my wife said.  “I think it would be hard to live with brutal honesty 365 days a year.”

“That means she bought another throw pillow she doesn’t want to tell you about,” Buntrock said.  “And it’s 366 in a leap year.”

You could have cut the tension with one of those dull but fancy cheese knives women buy each other when they run out of gift ideas.

“Could you, uh, turn it down maybe a notch?” I asked Buntrock.

“It’s your money, pal,” he said with a resigned shake of his head, “but that’s like asking a kick return specialist to go at half speed.”

I looked at my wife, who looked back with a cold expression on her face.  “Maybe we’ll . . . uh . . . just write this off to experience, okay?” I said to Buntrock.

“You forfeit the balance,” he said as he got up to go.

“That’s okay,” I said, hoping to worm my back into my wife’s affections.  “I really do enjoy getting together with my in-laws.”

“That means he . . . ” Buntrock began, but I cut him off.

“That means that, like Alice Roosevelt Longworth, my motto is ‘If you can’t say anything nice, come sit by me.’”


Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Boston Baroques.”

For One Lit Mag, What’s Between the Words is Most Important

MT. HOLYOKE, Mass. Pamela Wykoff is under pressure, and it shows in the furrows on her forehead as she races to meet a deadline for the winter issue of Punc, the only literary journal devoted exclusively to “transgressive punctuation.” “Punc attempts to free writers from the dead hand of punctuation rules,” she says with a grim determination that seems excessive for a bunch of little dots and curlicues. “I don’t like to be hemmed in by inverted commas–it triggers my claustrophobia.”

If you quote me, please don’t fence me in with inverted commas.

Wykoff exhales a sigh of satisfaction as she selects the final piece for publication, a poem in which a semicolon appears boldly out of place at the beginning of a line. “Editors say they want to be surprised by poetry,” she says, “then they take out the blue pencil if you put a # in the middle of a verb.”

The transgressive punctuation movement has gained adherents among a growing number of poets as young as nine, who chafe under hidebound rules that punctuation nerds, emboldened by such books as “Eats, Shoots & Leaves: A Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation,” seek to perpetuate. “Why exactly should I put a comma after the last word in a quote,” says third-grade poetess Amy Louise Nilburn as she looks over this reporter’s shoulder to make sure he is not punctuating his transcription of her remarks, “and why should I use quotation marks at all?”

Collision of words at punc poetry reading

Wykoff herself is a poet who places random punctuation marks–a virgule, a left parenthesis–“any where I damn well please,” she says. When this reporter points out that writers have rebelled in the past without forsaking punctuation as a helpful tool to guide the reader’s eye, she scoffs. “And where the hell did that get them?” she asks. “Nothing but a bigger printer’s bill on their self-published chapbooks for the question marks and periods.”

“Get the defibrillator–a man was just crushed by a semi-colon that fell off the top shelf.”

Industry sources confirm that punctuation drives up the cost of high-quality avant-garde literature, but insist upon it out of concern for readers’ safety. “Without punctuation, words tend to run off the page like quicksilver,” says Curtis Bascomb of Absurdist Poets Discount Supply House in Newton, Mass. “I saw a young girl scarred for life because some punc poet didn’t use a period at the end of a line the other night. You might as well drive around naked without a seatbelt wearing a babushka.”

Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

On Having a Non-Affair With a Flamboyant Minor Dada Poetess

Poet William Carlos Williams had “a non-affair with the flamboyant minor-Dadaist poet Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.”

The New York Times Book Review

Elsa, you must not take it amiss
if I do not succumb to your fervent kiss;
I have a wife I’ve cheated on before
So it’s not because I’m true to the missus.


It’s just that—well, I don’t know how to put this—
With a Dadaist poet a non-affair is the height of erotic bliss.
The way you Dadas turn everything ceiling to floor
If we are to love, a mile is as good as a miss is.

The Baroness, gettin’ jiggy with it.

Another impediment, although you I’m lovin’—
I’ve counted your syllables—and you have a dozen!
If we were to marry, my friends I would bore
Introducing “my wife, Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven.”

So let’s keep it chaste, between you and me,
For minor Dada-ettes forever free should be.
Oh, I forgot, one absurd thing more—
My hat rack adores your other bee’s knee.

With Arthur Rimbaud at the Chamber of Commerce

French poet Arthur Rimbaud wrote most of his well-known works as a teenager, then abandoned poetry for a mercantile career.

                                              Poetry Magazine



It’s 11:45 and I’m standing outside Rimbaud’s Hardware, waiting for my friend Art to break away so we can head over to the Chamber of Commerce lunch at the Bothwell Hotel.  Art is listening to a customer complain about a lawn sprinkler he bought the week before–apparently the guy can’t figure out how to change the flow from one side to the other without getting soaked.

“Easiest thing to do is just turn off the hose for a second,” Art is saying to the man, an old duffer in one of those “scrambled-egg” hats worn by captains of U.S. Navy vessels and–for reasons that have never been clear to me–retirees.

When all else fails, read the owner’s manual.


“You think that will work?” the old man is saying to Art, who’s trying–but not too hard–to break away for lunch.  That’s Art for you–he’s got a cardboard sign in his little office that says “The customer is always right.”

“Try it and see,” Art says as he pats the man on the arm and starts towards the door.  “If it doesn’t work, you bring it back in here for a full refund.  If you’ve got the original packaging and the product is not damaged and you pay a $5 re-shelving fee,” he adds facetiously.

“If it ain’t right–we’ll fix it!  For a price.”


“I will, I will,” the man says.  I think he’s a little hard of hearing.

“Hey there!” Art says as he sees me lingering outside his door.  “Let’s skedaddle–I don’t want to be late.”

It’s amazing the transformation that has been wrought in the former decadent poete maudite since he turned twenty-one and his old man told him the gravy train was coming to a screeching halt.  I guess he looked at himself in the mirror one morning and realized that if he wanted to eat three square meals a day, poetry wasn’t the line of business for him.

Cool black light basement rec room!


He came back to Charleville where we grew up and threw himself into the family business with a gusto that surprised a lot of people who remembered him hanging around the Dog ‘n Suds leaning against the cherry T-Bird his grandmother bought him when he turned sixteen, or smoking pot beneath the purple glow of black lights in basements occupied by loser friends of ours who were living with their parents while they tried to put off adulthood.

He had in fact turned into a much sought-after inspirational speaker for fraternal society lunch meetings.  One week the Rotary, next the Optimists, then the Lions Club, the Moose, the Elks, and so on.  He did it all without pay, too.  He said he wanted to give back to the community, since the warm bath of affection that our small town offered a well-meaning but prodigal son who returned to the fold had saved him from a life of absinthe, bad art and boring poetry slams.  “I found the celebrities of modern painting and poetry ridiculous,” he said, shaking his head ruefully when we first got together for a pitcher of beer shortly after he returned from the big city.

Rimbaud hangin’ with his homeys.


“One single true word–COME BACK,” he said in explanation of his homecoming, inadvertently revealing the poor math skills that made it necessary for him to hire a full-time bookkeeper.

His parents forgave him all the money he’d blown in his bohemian youth, but his dad said he’d have to start at the very bottom of the Rimbaud’s Hardware corporate org chart and work his way up.  He got the message, stopped wasting his time driving around town every night, put his nose to the grindstone and shoulder to the wheel–and he hasn’t looked back since!  “Idle youth, enslaved to everything!” he had groaned one night after having one too many Busch Light beers.  “By being too sensitive I have wasted my life!”

We make our way into the hotel and see a few Chamber members chewing the fat.  There’s Hiram Muller, State Farm insurance agent; Bob Dunn, who owns the new AMF Bowladrome on the western edge of town; and C.J. Turner, the Chevy-Buick-GMC dealer.

“Hey Art!” Turner yells as he swivels his double chin around when he spies us out of the corner of his eye.  “You preachin’ a sermon today?”

“You will always be a hyena!” Rimbaud laughs as he claps Turner on the shoulder before shaking hands all around.  I have to admit, he’s got the gift of gab that a small businessman needs to succeed in a world dominated by big chain stores.

We take the elevator up to the second floor and see a bunch of members milling around, making small talk.  Since Art’s on the program today he’s supposed to sit up at the dais, while I take a seat at a table with Hiram and Bob and C.J.

As always, we start the meeting with a prayer, led to my surprise by Art himself.  Although he’d been one of the first of our teenage gang to go atheist, he had a religious experience, a sort of St. Paul knocked on his ass on the road to Damascus deal.  He was coming out of Hersch’s Quik Liquor on South 65 one night with a suitcase of Bud Light on his shoulder when he slipped on a ballpoint pen somebody had dropped in the parking lot, fell backwards and hit his head–hard–on the concrete.

“Life is the farce we are all forced to endure,” he had said groggily as we took the steps we had learned for our Boy Scouts First Aid merit badge, elevating his feet, covering him with a beach towel and not moving him until we were sure he was okay.  From that point on, Art had an ethereal quality about him.  I think he’d had a near-death experience, and he understood in a way that nobody else in our little circle of friends did that there is another, better world waiting for us after we pass through this vale of tears.

Art begins the invocation, his eyes downcast and his hands clasped together, “Only divine love bestows the keys of knowledge.”  He continues in this vein–humble and genuine–and his sentiments are echoed by a simple “Amen” by all present when he’s done.

Then, as you might expect with this gang, it’s business.  The president welcomes everybody, including some new members–Ted Fhlegm who’s opened up an auto parts store on east 50–and a few guests, such as the sons of some members who have skipped school to see a highlights film of the Kansas City Chiefs that is introduced by a guy from the front office who tries, without much success, to sell season tickets to a room full of guys who’d rather spend their Sunday afternoons snoring on the den couch.

It’s Art’s turn now, and he sits quietly as the president introduces him, saying we’ve all known him since he was a boy and a man and noting his growing reputation as an inspirational speaker.  The crowd applauds politely but warmly, Art says thanks for the kind words, and puts the crowd at ease from the get-go with some self-deprecatory humor.  “What am I doing here?” he asks, and the crowd laughs, thinking of him as a French version of Vice Admiral James Stockdale, H. Ross Perot’s running mate in his 1992 bid to become the first independent candidate to become President of the United States.

James “What am I doing here?” Stockdale


“I’ve just noticed that my mind is asleep,” he says, continuing in the vein of humility he’s struck, and the assembled burghers lean back in their seat, digesting their lunch of Salisbury steak, steamed carrots and mashed potatoes.  If Art had any after-dinner mints, the crowd would be eating them out of his hand.

“What a life!” Art begins, turning serious as he begins the tale of his transformation from dissolute poet to successful businessman.  “As I descended into impassable rivers I no longer felt guided by the ferrymen,” he says, recounting his bouts with writer’s block, depression, dry flaky skin and existential torment.  “Misfortune was my god.”

You could hear a toothpick drop, and when Clell Furnell, the local John Deere dealer fumbles his, a few heads turn to shush him.  “I shed more tears than God could ever have required,” Art says somberly.  I notice a glint of a moistness in more than one hard-nosed businessman’s eyes.

“I’m intact, and I don’t give a damn,” Art says by way of peroration.  “A thousand dreams within me softly burn.”  The room is hanging on his every word, and he leaves them with one final thought:  “The only unbearable thing–is that nothing is unbearable.  We know how to give our whole lives every day.”

With that, he is done, and there is a moment of calm before a thunderous storm of applause breaks out.

“That was great,” C.J. says to me as he pounds his beefy hands together.

“I know–isn’t he terrific?” Hiram adds.  “A hell of a lot better than that guy who gave that talk about long-term care insurance.”

“What’s amazing to me,” I say, leaning into the table so the others can hear me over the crowd’s adulation, “is that this is the same guy who wrote ‘Then you’ll feel your cheek scratched . . . a little kiss, like a crazy spider, will run round your neck.’”

The others look at me like I’m crazy.  Bob Dunn arches his left eyebrow skyward in skepticism, then pops the question that the others are probably asking themselves at the same time.  “Are you sure about that?” he asks dubiously.  “I thought that was Dr. Norman Vincent Peale.”


All quotes after the “skedaddle” one guaranteed verbatim Rimbaud.  Available in Kindle format on as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”

Youth Is Not Wasted on the Young

There once was a man of an uncertain age
Who felt his life slipping, that he’d turned a page,
So he dumped the Mrs. and gave her some dough,
And set off to find self, where’er it might gough.
He tried Grecian Formula to blacken his locks,
Wore slim-fitting sweaters, bought new argyle socks.
A little red sports car was of course required
And a personal trainer was quickily hired.

His friends and companions, they noticed the change
And more than one came soon to think he was strange.
His vocab was sprinkled with “awesome” and “skeevy,”
He watched Jersey Shore on his new high-def TV.
He’d buy rounds of drinks at a bar that had ferns
He studied the ways of the young, and he lerned.
He found you have friends if you freely spend money–
Folks hark to your talk, and think your jokes funny.

Once he was settled in his brand new skin
He looked round himself, and he took it all in.
He’d mastered the art of playing the dandy
And now it was time for some major arm candy.
He took up with a bleach-blonde aerobics instructor,
He briefily wooed her, then brieflier fucked her.
She found him too fast, “like a bleeping Niagara.”
She told him to get lots of full-strength Viagra.

One word to the wizened was more than enough–
He went to the drug store and purchased the stuff,
And when next the lovebirds climbed into the sack
He was like his old self at the beast with two backs.
He huffed and he puffed through the first time, then twice,
He recalled all he’d read of Hugh Hefner’s advice.
He would have been golden, except for one fact,
He lay back and suffered a mass heart attack.

Moral: If it’s not one thing, it’s another.

Of Those Who Hum While Playing Piano

In classical, there’s Glenn Gould,
In jazz, there’s Keith Jarrett–
I wish both of you would get schooled–
Cut it out, I can’t bear it!


The way you hum along
as you play,
to each song–
it doesn’t make my day.


And now I find, on a live recording,
Oscar Peterson does it too!
It’s like an audio water boarding,
I can’t wait until it’s through.


The only guy who ever pulled this stuff off
was Slam Stewart, and he played the bass.
He’d hum as he bowed (I’m inconsistent you scoff).
Like a weed, he was a flower growing out of place.


But the piano?  That’s a different story.
You’re obscuring the keyboard’s various glories
With your hemming and hawing
and grunting and groaning,
like a lumber mill sawing,
or a bitch wolf in heat, moaning.
So if I had my druthers, I’d kindly request,
Not “As Time Goes By,” but “Just give it a rest.”


One Late-Starting Writer Finds He Has Some Catching Up to Do

REVERE, Mass.  The Bronze Banana has been a fixture in this gritty town north of Boston for a long time, as college boys, bachelor parties and aficionados of female flesh have for nearly two decades frequented its velour-flocked rooms for titillation and, in special “VIP suites,” sometimes more.  “We cater to the man with discriminating tastes,” says Arnold “Mickey” Scandore as he makes a desultory pass at wiping down the bar.  “They come in here ’cause they aren’t satisfied.”  And why, he is asked, aren’t they satisfied.  “Cuz they can’t get nothin’ at home,” Scandore says as he dries a glass with a commercial dish towel that has seen better days.


But along with a rather motley crew of aging lechers and young horn dogs there is one man who seems out of place; Tom Spreknecht, a well-dressed man in his sixties who looks like he stepped out of brochure for an upscale retirement community or even a Brooks Brothers catalog, with his preppy checked shirt, shawl collared-sweater, oyster-grey chinos and boat shoes.  “I’m celebrating,” Spreknecht says when this reporter asks him what a nice guy like him is doing in a place like this, and indeed the former executive of a glue-gun company has already purchased a round of drinks and is liberally inserting dollar bills into the thong straps of the exotic dancers who are the bar’s main attractions.

Spreknecht is an example of a senior citizen embarking on a second career once his Social Security checks begin to arrive in the mail and the income thrown off by his retirement savings allow him to quit his well-paying job and pursue a career he abandoned in his mid-twenties.  “I always wanted to be a writer,” he says, “but I sat down after college, my pencils lined up by my pad–and nothing came.”

So the sandy-haired former curling champion settled down to a long career in business, from which he only recently retired after he applied for, and won, a $2,000 grant from the Second Chance Foundation, which funds the long-abandoned dreams of senior citizens, to pick up where he left off with youthful writer’s block.


“I think it’s important that people not treat themselves as piggy banks, saving up for a day they may never see,” he says as a young woman known only as “Brandi” runs her finger around his clear plastic hearing aid.  “If I’d waited until I was 80 but died when I was 75, I think it would have been too late.”

Other regulars, made more convivial by the free flow of draft beer, seem to agree.  “No way should you not try to fulfill your personality,” says Rocco Gianotti, the self-proclaimed “Mayor” of the Bronze Banana on the strength of his long-time patronage of the place, whose only food offerings are microwave-heated “submarine” sandwiches and chips from a vending machine.  “If he hadn’t gotten that grant, I wouldn’t be drinking my fifth Bud Light here tonight.”

Curious as to the link between his decision to dedicate himself to the writer’s craft and the seedy bar where he has chosen to hold his festivities, I ask whether Spreknecht is planning on writing a cops ‘n robbers novel in the style of George V. Higgins, or perhaps a private eye tale along the lines of Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser for Hire” series, both examples of noir fiction set in Boston.  “Actually no,” he says with a self-effacing look on his face.  “I was thinking of a historical novel set in the Age of Chivalry.”

Be chivalrous and buy her a drink.


Then why, Gianotti asks, did he choose The Bronze Banana, instead of a more refined bar in Cambridge, where the faux-medieval buildings of Harvard University predominate.

“You can’t get a lap dance in Cambridge,” Spreknecht says as he walks off with Brandi to a private room, “and the $5 pitchers of beer here are a bargain.”

Create a free website or blog at
The Esquire Theme.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 3,209 other followers