Willie Dixon . . . and Me

Worcester, Massachusetts is not even a byway, much less a highway, of the blues. Mississippi’s Highway 61, Memphis’s Beale Street, Chicago’s Stony Island Avenue, home of the Burning Spear–those public ways will take you to the blues, but not the streets of New England’s second-largest city.

Image result for isiah thomas
Isiah Thomas: “Who me? I wasn’t even born then!”

Worcester is better known for Isaiah Thomas (the colonial printer, not the basketball player), Bob Cousy (the basketball player, not the colonial printer) and not one but two members of The Algonquin Roundtable of literary wits, Robert Benchley and S.N. Behrman. Take that Hartford!

Isaiah Thomas: You can tell them apart by the extra “a”.

I have written elsewhere about my chance musical encounter with Mississippi Fred McDowell, but on the South Side of Chicago, where I played with that bottleneck guitarist, you’re surprised if you don’t run into a blues legend. In Worcester, you are more likely to see a Kilgore Rangerette than a member of the seminal group of musicians associated with Chicago’s Chess Studios, where the urban blues and r&b sound was forged.

Kilgore Rangerette (not shown actual size)

Worcester is better known as the place where a group of white British blues imitators–the Rolling Stones–dropped in to a club called Sir Morgan’s Cove to warm up for their 1981 American tour. These days, more people probably know about that surprise gig than anything S.N. Behrman ever wrote. Hell, more people claim to have been there (I wasn’t) than know who S.N. Behrman was.

Chess Records, 2120 South Michigan Avenue, Chicago

But it was in Worcester that I stumbled into a club one night with a friend to find Dixon, playing stand-up bass, leading a group of Chicago musicians that included Carey Bell, a blues harp player who never got the acclaim he deserved.

Image result for rolling stones sir morgan's cove
The Rolling Stones, Sir Morgan’s Cove, Worcester, Mass. I know the guy who took this picture if you’d like to buy a copy.

I’d seen Bell play when I lived in Chicago, but not Dixon, who was a patriarch of the blues. Gods do not answer letters, John Updike wrote of Ted Williams, nor do they play neighborhood gigs. Dixon’s relationship with the white owners of Chess Records was strained, however, and the friction stemmed from Dixon’s discovery in the 70’s, when his health was beginning to fail, of how much value he’d brought to the record label, and how little of it he’d received. Dixon consequently spent a good deal of time in his later years–the 70’s and 80’s–on the road, trying to support himself.

Carey Bell

The list of Willie’s compositions reads like a 60’s and 70’s hit parade; Back Door Man (covered by The Doors), Hoochie Coochie Man (The Allman Brothers, Steppenwolf, Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix), I Ain’t Superstitious (The Yardbirds, The Grateful Dead), I Just Want to Make Love to You (The Animals, The Kinks, The Yardbirds), Little Red Rooster (The Rolling Stones) and Spoonful (Cream, Canned Heat, Ten Years After).

Willie Dixon

In short, Dixon was a Cole Porter and Gershwin Brothers of the blues, rolled into one. He even looked the part, as he was (to paraphrase a line from one of his songs) built for comfort and not for speed. Or to borrow the title from another song of his, he was literally 300 Pounds of Joy.

The crowd that night was small, which was good for Willie’s constitution, since he didn’t have to sing out over a noisy room, but bad for business, as the group was no doubt playing for a share of the gate receipts. At the end of their set, Willie asked if anybody in the audience wanted to jam.

There are certain opportunities that come your way but once in life. The tide in the affairs of the blues, as Shakespeare’s Brutus might have put it, was at the flood, and I took it.

I introduced myself as a former resident of the South Side of Chicago, and it was old home week. I told Willie I’d learned to play harmonica there, and Carey Bell offered me his.

Taking a harmonica from Carey Bell to jam is like being handed a violin by Itzhak Perlman in front of an orchestra. You need to remind yourself that you’re not going to do any better than him, so don’t get fancy. I don’t remember what we played, but my roommate told me afterwards that I didn’t totally embarrass myself. That’s how guys express their enthusiasm.

That experience links me to harmonica history in a very tactile manner: Bell no doubt swapped harps with James Cotton, who no doubt used Little Walter Jacobs’ instrument, so my lips can trace a lineage back to the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament of the Blues Harmonica.  In case we ever kiss.

Years later I discovered a curious fact about Dixon.  He spent a year in jail not for the usual type of offense committed by a bluesman–assault with a knife or a gun, or selling drugs.  He refused to be inducted into the armed forces in 1941, saying “I was a conscientious objector, and wasn’t gonna fight for anybody,” and was arrested by U.S. Army officers right off the stage of The Pink Poodle bar in Chicago.  Dixon’s refusal was based on racial grounds, which he cited in his defense at trial:  “I told them I didn’t feel I had to go because of the conditions that existed among my people.”

Willie’s leg had to be amputated due to diabetes in the 80’s, and he died in 1992. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame posthumously in 1994, years after many of the white groups who made their names and fortunes singing his songs.

With the Federal Reserve, at the Saturday Matinee

The Federal Reserve will run advertisements in movie theaters urging consumers to use credit cards wisely during the holiday shopping season.

Bloomberg News

Everybody makes a big deal outta Black Friday and Cyber Monday, but it’s the Saturday in between that’s more important to America’s economists. I mean home economists, like my mom.

Because the Saturday after Thanksgiving is the day when moms have had enough of family togetherness and send kids like me and my friends Bobby Rouchka and Tony Scaduto to the movies before we drive them crazy running around the house. More kids go to matinees on that day than any other all year long! That’s why the Bureau of Labor Statistics calls it Red Licorice Saturday.

“We’ve had a lovely time the past two days. Now go to a movie fer Christ sake, would ya?”

So me and Tony and Bobby got dropped off at the MetroWest MegaPlex 16 by our moms, who then made a bee-line over to The Rat Pack Grille on Route 9 for Cosmopolitans or somethin’.

“Whadda you wanta see?” Tony asked.

“I wanna see ‘The Peanuts Movie,” Bobby said. I should tell you that Bobby is kind of a goody-goody. He’s won first prize for the highest grade in Catechism–a plastic statue of the Virgin Mary–for three years running. He volunteers to stay after school to wash the blackboards and bang erasers together.

“No way,” Tony says. “We at least gotta go for a PG-13. Sumpin’ like ‘Mockingjay, Part 2.’”

“I think that would be a venial sin,” Bobby says. You could almost see him praying inwardly: ‘Dear God in heaven, please forgive me if I am exposed to impure thoughts whilst watching Jennifer Lawrence’s knockers.”

Rated Go-Directly-to-Hell, Do-Not-Pass-Purgatory by the Catholic Legion of Decency

“You make the call,” Tony says to me.

I make a show of doin’ eenie-meenie-minie-mo but you can always massage the end–“My mother told me to choose the very last one to wash a dirty dish ra-ag”–to land on the one you want. “‘Mockingjay’ it is,” I say, and we buy our tickets and go in.

After loading up on over-priced candy, soft drinks and popcorn we take our seats in Theatre 13 and just in time too, ’cause the lights are already going down. We sit through the obligatory self-promotional folderol–MetroWest MegaPlex, Your Best Family Entertainment Value! Ha–not at $5.50 for a box of Jujubes.

Then comes the Courteous Filmgoer Guide–no talking, no feet on the seats, please remove hats, turn off cell phones. To quote Tiffany Ducharme, hottest girl in our sixth grade class–”as if” on that last one!

“I wanna see the previews,” Tony says, and I’m with him. You can usually see a lotta skin in the 45-second trailers for the adult films, unless they’re all weepy chick flicks. You know the kind–a woman’s husband drowns or cheats on her in the first reel and there’s a hopeful, redemptive conclusion in the third reel. When you walk out all the damp Kleenex tissues on the floor stick to your sneakers.

“We just have the fire marshall’s instructions,” I say to him, counseling patience. After being told not to smoke and where the exits are, we’re ready for an afternoon of fun when on comes–Ben Bernanke, former chairman of the Federal Reserve System? There must be some kinda mistake!

“. . . and then Ronnie the Repo Man hooked a log chain up to the car and whoosh! It was gone!”

“Hello boys and girls,” the bearded economist intones warmly.

“What da hell is this?” Scaduto screams along with about a hundred other pre-pubescent boys.

“You know, the holiday shopping season is a lot of fun for kids, but when January comes around, mommies and daddies have to figure out a way to pay for all those wonderful toys,” Bernanke continues.

“I thought toys came from Santa,” a little girl behind us says, obviously troubled.

“Tell your parents to use credit cards wisely,” Bernanke drones on. No wonder Congress used to get mad when he came to talk to them–he’s boring!

“Pay your bills on time, and stay below the maximum credit limit,” Bernanke says with a look that has turned serious.

“I ain’t gonna stand for this,” Tony says, and begins the age-old chant that has rattled many a projectionist since Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, hit the silver screen.

“We-wanna-show,” Tony says, and others around us join in. “We-wanna-show, WE-WANNA-SHOW, WE-WANNA-SHOW!”

After a while it’s real loud, like a scene from those old prison movies when the inmates have finally had enough of the sadistic guards and the crappy food and start banging their tin cups on the bars of their cells yelling “LOUSY-*BLEEPING*-STINKING-SCREWS! LOUSY-*BLEEPING*-STINKING SCREWS!”

But unlike in the movies, our uprising has no effect on the bearded man on the screen. Barring some kind of Riot in Cell Block #9, the Federal Reserve isn’t going to back down on its mission to curb the out-of-control consumer spending that resulted in our current economic crisis which  produced a new Consumer Financial Protection Agency that–horror of horrors!–ate into the Fed’s jurisdiction.

“We can’t let them do this to us!” Scaduto says, standing up and turning around to address the kids–it’s an unlikely leadership role for a guy who repeated third grade. “If we let the Fed play a larger role in the realm of consumer credit,” he says, his voice trembling with outrage, “that means fewer toys at Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanzaa or what have you. I don’t know about youse guys, but I’m not gonna wait until the black helicopters land on my front lawn to take my Xbox 360 away from me!”

Tony’s been so successful whipping the kids into a frenzy that management has to act, and who should step out of the wings but Janet Yellen!

“Everybody please quiet down!” she says calmly but firmly, and the tide turns against our little mutiny, if only for a moment.

“You guys better listen or you’re gonna get in trouble,” Bobby says. Nice kid, but a real suck-up. He wants to go to heaven when he dies, but I’d rather be with my friends.

“The Federal Reserve has bought and paid for these announcements as a public service,” Yellen begins. “If you kids ask for too much this December, next year you might not get anything for your birthdays!”

We begin to compute the marginal costs and present value of future toys in our heads, using a dynamic model that takes into account stochastic variables and the possible decline of the dollar against the Chinese Yuan.

“She may have a point,” I say to Tony. “If we Americans don’t increase our savings rate, we’ll eventually become a debtor nation beset by runaway inflation while . . .”

Before I can finish, I feel the slender hand of Bobby Rouchka on my shoulder as he hoists himself up and stands on his seat.

“People have declaimed against luxury for two thousand years, in verse and in prose,” he shouts, and everyone in the theatre is stunned into silence. “And . . .” he continues, his voice lower now, and pregnant with meaning, “people have always delighted in it!”

“I don’t think you made that up, young man,” Yellen says, her eyes narrowed into skeptical little slits.

Voltaire: “This tricked-out jacket was a loss leader at Target!”

“I never said I did,” he snaps back at her. “It’s from Voltaire, who was a pretty smart guy.”

For once, the class weenie has come through. I look at Scaduto, and he looks back at me, a glint of mischief in his eyes.

“You know what to do, right?” he says, as he empties his Milk Duds into his pocket.

“Ab-so-lutely,” I say, as I do the same with my Black Crows. We place one end of the empty boxes in our mouths, and begin to razz the first female chairman of the Fed.  Soon the other kids have followed our lead, and Yellen is drowned out by the sound of a hundred candy-box farts!

“Stop it!” she says, covering her ears. We relent for a moment, allowing her to speak. “Perhaps the Fed hasn’t provided consumers with sufficient notice in advance of this year’s holiday shopping season, but what do you propose to do about the problem,” she asks, fixing her gaze on the newly-rebellious Rouchka.

Keynes: “That’s right, Bobby!”

“Kick it down the road to our grandchildren,” he suggests, his voice a model of dispassionate cynicism. “Just like Keynes said–in the long run, we’re all dead!”

Available in Kindle format as part of the collection “Our Friends the Fed” on amazon.com

A Letter

It was the Friday after Thanksgiving and the football team had gathered to check in their equipment at the stadium. The atmosphere was a mixture of chagrin and relief; the team had lost the last game of the season and finished 5 and 5, no great shakes, but at least all the hard work was over. There hadn’t been that many seniors on the team—only five—so that was some kind of excuse. There had been six sophomores who saw a lot of action on offense or defense, and a couple of others who played on special teams, so the coaches were optimistic about the future and in a good mood.

Joe was one of the seniors, and the only one who hadn’t earned a letter at the start of the season. He was a bit undersized, but there were smaller kids who were better than him. He was fast enough—technically he was a halfback and defensive back—but he didn’t seem to make good use of his speed. He tended to run in a straight line, as if he were a chalk mark on the coach’s blackboard, and so when a hole closed or never opened he went nowhere, and on defense, he’d run right at a guy who’d put a move on him and be gone.

He’d done everything they’d asked all four years he’d played, but he was still on the junior varsity the year before. He got a dinky junior varsity patch that he put on his right breast, but on his left all he had was a letter for speech and debate. From a distance they all looked the same, and so Joe would pal around with the other four seniors and hope that their reflected glory would shine a little status on him.

He thought he’d built up a fair amount of goodwill with the coaching staff, then the school had gone and fired the head coach from the year before and replaced him with somebody from a junior college in Kansas. It was the man’s first head coaching job—he was apparently an offensive genius—but it meant that Joe had to start over and show the new man what a hard worker he was even if he wasn’t that good.

The coach had laid down the law the first day of practice, August 15th. He’d handed out a mimeographed sheet telling you what the rules were; everybody had to get a crew cut, coats and ties on game day, no alcohol, no smoking, and an eleven o’clock curfew. There was to be an honor system—if you saw one of your teammates break the rules you had to turn him in. And you had to run a six-minute mile with your equipment on—after practice. You had to keep trying until you could do it.

Joe had accomplished the feat the first day—he’d been in training all summer long—but the coach barely noticed it. He just made a check next to Joe’s name on his clipboard and yelled at the others who came in behind him.

It had continued like that the whole season. Joe was on the scout team, but he was never called upon to play the part of the other team’s number one back; when the head coach stepped in to demonstrate something, he was always directing his instruction towards the first team. Joe might have been just a cog in the machine, his dad told him, but machines still needed every one of their cogs. Hang in there, he’d said; hard work is the one thing that’s always rewarded in this world.

You had to play twenty quarters—half the season–to get a letter; Joe didn’t know if the assistant coaches kept close track, but he knew he had been in nineteen. There were three quarters—two of them mopping up–against a weaker team the first game, and he’d allowed himself to get his hopes up. Then there were three non-conference games that he got into for two quarters each on the kick-off team. He figured if the team played halfway decent ball he’d get at least two quarters a game the rest of the way, once when they kicked off at halftime or the beginning of the game, a second time when they scored. By the end of the fourth week he had nine quarters.

The fifth week the conference schedule began, and the coaches began to pit one player against another for playing time to see who was tougher. They had “hamburger” drills halfway through practice every day; one-on-one challenges to see which kid would drive the other back, no “cupping” around because there were tackling dummies on either side so you had nowhere to run. Joe didn’t see what that had to do with his position; he was a back, not a lineman.

Some of the younger backs were sturdier, more compact than Joe, who was wiry. He’d tried everything to put on weight, drinking milk shakes and supplements, but then he’d run it off trying to stay in shape. He told himself it was better to be lighter and quicker and in good shape when August rolled around than to be heavier and puke up your guts the first week.

And so when it came his turn for the hamburger drill he got pushed around, and would grow frustrated that a bunch of sophomores were gaining on him, then passing him on the depth chart. He couldn’t believe the coaches would put some younger kid into a conference game that counted against a good team, he who’d been working so hard for so long.

So at the halfway point in the season he had eleven quarters, then he only got into two quarters the next three games, then only one quarter the last two games–that was nineteen. He figured they’d round up, or cut him some slack because he was a senior. It was no skin off their nose whether they gave out one more letter, he figured.

He sat on the bench next to his locker and fiddled with his stuff, waiting for the head coach to come out of his office so he could say goodbye and thank you, maybe talk to him for a second. His dad had told him that was important, that was something you’d learn in life; to make a connection with people, look them in the eye, make a good impression so they’d remember you when the time came to make an important decision. Joe knew his dad was talking about adult things like raises and promotions, but there wasn’t anything more important to him in the world right now than getting a football letter.

He saw the coach emerge from his office with Don, one of the sophomores, a little water bug of a kid with acne and glasses who didn’t look much like a football player, but who played with a reckless abandon that scared Joe a bit, and the defensive coach named Skip.

“Love to hit, love to hit, love to HIT!” Skip was saying as he put his arm around Don and clapped him on the shoulder. The head coach shook Don’s hand and said “You’re gonna be the first kid lined up outside the gate the first day of practice next summer, aren’t ya?”

“I’m gonna sleep outside the night before,” Don said with a big smile on his face. He shook Skip’s hand and walked off looking down at a piece of paper the head coach had given him, and the two coaches watched him go with obvious appreciation of a fine piece of football flesh.

“Coach?” Joe said softly and then, when he saw the two men talking to each other, “Coach?” a little more firmly.

“Huh? Oh, hi Joe. What can I do for you?”

“I . . . uh . . . just wanted to say thank you and I . . . uh . . . enjoyed playing under you, even if it was only this year.” He stuck out his hand and, after the coach looked down, they shook.

“Well, thanks, Joe, nice of you to say that. I came in not knowing anybody and it’s nice to hear I had some impact on people.”

“No, really, it was a great year even though we coulda done a little better, I think you’ve got a nucleus here for next year’s team.”

Skip interrupted to say “I’m gonna go to the equipment room to start taking inventory.”

“Okay,” the head coach said. “I’ll be in the office for awhile.”

The head coach turned and started to walk away as Joe spoke, after swallowing a little.


The coach didn’t hear him at first, so he spoke again.


“Yeah? Oh, sorry, I thought we were through here.”

“I was wondering . . .”


“I was wondering whether I was going to get a letter.” Joe looked straight ahead at the coach, but he felt the eyes of the players behind him trained on his back.

“A letter?”

“Right. I’m a . . . senior, and I think I got into enough quarters to get a letter.”

“Well, Joe, I don’t know what being a senior has to do with it. It’s not a perfect attendance award. You get a letter in football for accomplishing something, not just showing up. You have to get into the games and knock somebody on their butt.”

Joe inhaled, even though his lungs already felt full. “I think I had enough quarters, coach . . .”

“I don’t think so Joe. I’m pretty good at arithmetic. Even if you did, hell, son, you have to make a difference out there on the field.”

The room had grown quiet as the man and the boy spoke. “Coach, I tried to make a difference every time I got into a game.”

“This is a good lesson for you,” the coach said, then turned to face the boys sitting on the benches that ringed the room, “and for all of you boys. This is a life lesson for you all, right here. Don’t ever confuse effort with results—got it?”

Joe couldn’t see the boys behind him but he could feel them exhale, as if relieved that they were being spared as another was sacrificed.

“Before you got here . . .” Joe began, but the coach cut him off.

“It doesn’t matter what happened before I got here, son,” the coach said with a half-measure of empathy in his voice. “The only thing that matters is what I think because I’m the head coach now. If you can understand that, you can understand why I can’t just hand out football letters like they’re penny candy. That wouldn’t be fair to the other kids who came out and worked just as hard as you—maybe harder–but who got better than you, see?”

Joe looked down and said “I see,” and then “thanks.”

“No problem. Hey, good luck in college next year wherever you go, okay?”

“Okay,” Joe said.

The coach stepped into his office and Joe walked over to the bench and stuffed his gym bag with the few items of equipment that were his to keep; his mouth guard and his jockstrap and an extra pair of socks he kept in his locker.

He knew all the other boys in the room to call them by their first names, but he said nothing to them as he walked out.

Don’t Throw Out Those Thanksgiving Leftovers

Tired of staring at lumps of starch in your refrigerator left over from Thanksgiving dinner? Don’t throw them away! Here are six great recipes that will turn Turkey Day rejects into December treats!

Stuffing Puppies: Roll stuffing into 3″ balls, sprinkle with flour and paprika. Heat oil in skillet and brown. Place in freezer until solid. Remove at Christmas time and hurl at carollers.

Get off my property!

Turkey Hokey Pokey: This “comfort food” is great and easy to make! Melt 1/4 cup butter, add 1/2 cup flour and whisk. Add 1/4 cup sherry, 1 cup cream, 2 2/3 cup chicken broth, 1 cup grated Parmesan cheese, 3 cup chopped turkey and 1/2 lb. mushrooms-salt and pepper to taste. Place 10 oz. cooked spaghetti in baking dish and top with mixture. Put your right foot in, take your right foot out. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes.

“Tastes kinda gritty to me.”

Mashed Potato Mortar: Add 1 cup gypsum, 1 cup sand and a dash of allspice to two quarts leftover mashed potatoes. Using a trowel, spread between gaps in exterior brick walls and allow to dry. Garnish with parsley.

Turkey Piazza: Strip dark meat from drumsticks and thighs. Spread with linseed oil and flatten with a meat mallet. Spread generously over patio. Flatten with a sod roller and coat with extra virgin olive oil. Children on “boogie boards” should wear helmets while sliding across the finished surface.

Cranberry Shells: Add two packages Knox’s Unflavored Gelatin to cranberry sauce and stuff back into cans. When mixture congeals, stuff down barrel of howitzer and fire. Caution: May be considered a violation of Geneva Convention in some upscale neighborhoods.

“Cranberries incoming!”

Turkey Terza Rima: Add mayonnaise to turkey scraps. Mold mixture into three-line stanzas using a progressive rhyme scheme such as a-b-a, b-c-b, etc. Submit to high-toned literary quarterly along with a self-addressed, stamped envelope and wait. When rejection letter is received, launch cranberry shells and stuffing puppies at editor. Repeat until satisfied.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Take My Advice–I Wasn’t Using it Anyway.”

Our Philosophical Gang

After hearing Paul Tillich mention Aristotle in a lecture, Delmore Schwartz went up to him and belligerently said “Listen, I’ve been studying Aristotle since I was a child–nobody can tell me anything about Aristotle.”

Delmore Schwartz: The Life of an American Poet, James Atlas

our gang

We was playin’ marbles, me and Delmore and Eddie Wilson.  Delmore had a big hog roller he was shootin’, and he kept aimin’ for the prize of my collection: a green and blue cat’s eye, it looked just like Brenda Thomason’s right eye, except hers is brown and blue.  It was as close as I could get to having her for my very own, there was so many guys who was creamin’ in their jeans about her.

So it woulda crushed me if Delmore had won it.  I was nervous as a long-tailed cat in a room full of rockin’ chairs, to use a pseudo down-homey expression like I was some kind of future Dan Rather or somethin’.

And then–tragedy struck.  He hit it, dead on, and sent it flyin’ out of the circle.  It was his by rights under the 1956 International Convention on the Rules of Marble-Shootin’–unless I could think of some exception, or some overriding philosophical principle under which his claim was like totally bogus.

And then it occurred to me:  Now is the perfect time to invoke David Hume, the great Scottish philosopher.  God I loved the guy!  He was the author of several pithy phrases I liked to insert into heated discussions of baseball cards and other important topics.  “Dogmatic slumbers,” “fell stillborn from the press”–the guy was a laugh riot!

David Hume


So I cleared my throat to announce my intention to challenge him.  “Excuse me,” I said as Delmore reached for my prize marble.


“You aren’t suggesting that your marble caused my marble to leave the ring, are you?”

“You better believe it, you stupid doody-head!” Delmore snapped.

“That’s funny, because as David Hume pointed out in A Treatise of Human Nature, and subsequently re-cast in An Enquiry concerning Human Understanding, we have only a weak understanding of causality.  When billiard ball A hits billiard ball B and billiard ball B moves, are we certain that A caused B to move?”

“Of course we are, you dingbat!”

“I think not,” I continued, as calmly and rationally as I could in the face of Delmore’s rage.  “Hume taught us that we are not reasonably justified in making inductive inferences . . .”

“Listen,” Delmore snapped.  “I’ve been studying David Hume since I was in diapers.  Nobody can tell me anything about David Hume.”


It was Friday night, time for the weekly sock-hop at Mel Ott Junior High School, and all of us guys was getting spiffed up.  I had on my two-tone loafers, Lionel Trilling had on his two-tone jacket, Wallace Stevens had on his two-tone pleated slacks.  Delmore Schwartz was the only one of our gang who hadn’t bought into the whole two-tone craze that was sweeping boys’ clothing at the time.  He was trying to harmonize the apparent duality between poetry and philosophy, the nut!

sock hop

All of us started gettin’ nervous when we saw the girls walk into the gym.  I don’t know what it is–the most confident seventh-grader in the world can get all knock-kneed when the women arrive in the flesh, no matter how tough he talks when he’s takin’ his last puff on his cigarette outside.

“I don’t know how to talk to girls,” Trilling said, disconsolate.  This was the guy who could draw fine distinctions between the sincere and the genuine, and even he’s tongue-tied at school dances!

“Just ask her what her favorite song is,” Delmore said, and rather dismissively I might add.

“What if she don’t have one?” Stevens asked.  His ice cream was dripping on his pants, but I didn’t say nothin’.  He says he’s the emperor of ice cream, and I’m a mere commoner.

“Every girl has one,” Delmore said.

“Although it’s possible,” I mused aloud, “that at some point as humans continue to procreate–assuming some of the babies are girls–that girls will exist who don’t have a favorite song.”

“Why’s that?” Trilling asked.

“Because you got a possibility of an infinite number of girls, whereas Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz postulated that there was only a finite number of songs in the world.”



“Why is that?” Stevens asked.

“I dunno, somethin’ to do with monads or somethin’,” I said, shrugging my shoulders.  “If you read his . . .”

That was all Delmore could take.  He’d been simmering like a pot of potatoes, ready to boil over at the first misstatement of a fundamental principle.

“Baloney,” he snapped.

“Oh yeah?” I said.  I’d had enough of the boy genius.

“Yeah!” he said.

“How do you know?” I asked, and believe me I meant it rhetorically ’cause I didn’t think he had anything to back it up.

“How do I know?” Delmore said, then laughed a mirthless laugh–if that’s even possible.  “I was studying Leibniz before you took the training wheels off your bike, you mook.  Nobody can tell me anything about Leibniz.”


Karl Shapiro gave me the nod of the head, which was our signal to simultaneously ask to be excused to go to the boys’ room–me, Karl and Delmore Schwartz.  Mrs. Cooper said our bladders must be synchronized, since we always had to “go” at the same time.

We beat it down to the end of the hall, checked under the stalls, then Karl spoke.

“What’s so bleepin’ important?” Delmore asked, although I have scrubbed his language to protect the innocence of any young children who may be reading it on something called the internet many years hence.

“I really screwed up,” Karl said.

“What–what did you do?” I asked.

“I told Mary Alice Fogarty I loved her.”

Delmore and I groaned like we’d been hit in the solar plexus by Rocky Marciano.

J.L. Austin


“What’d you do a stupid thing like that for?” I asked.

“I wanted to feel her up,” Karl said.

Delmore looked around with that distracted air he got whenever he was about to receive a divine inspiration.  “This may not be fatal,” he said after a while as he stroked his chin.

“Nuh-uh,” I said with certainty.  “If you tell a girl you love her, you gotta take her to the Sweetheart Dance in February.

“No fair,” Karl said.  “She didn’t even let me put my hand on her sweater.”

“You can wriggle out of this,” Delmore said.  “‘I love you’ isn’t a performative utterance, it’s merely an expression of an emotional state.  Now, when you say ‘I do’ at a wedding–that’s final.”

While I respected Delmore’s towering intellect, I thought he was just plain wrong for once.  “I disagree,” I said.  “If you examine Austin’s ‘How to Do Things With Words’ carefully, you’ll see that he contemplates a wide range of apparently innocent statements that may commit us to consequences enforced by culture and not just logic.  ‘Trailing clouds of etymology’ and all that.”

Delmore looked at me with a withering gaze.  “Really?  So you’ve been brushing up on your philosophy of language, have you?”

“Yes,” I said, and I was about to elaborate but he cut me off.

“Listen, you dink.  I was studying Austin when you were riding a rocking horse.  Nobody can tell me anything about Austin.”

The Burning of the Covered Bridge

There was a covered bridge south of town, the last of its kind.
for miles around. It made us special, it was something we could
point to; quaint and charming, a link to the past, a place
where a farmer, taking an uncovered load of grain to market
caught in the rain, could stop his horses and wait it out.
Kids would wonder what the fuss was all about, until they

covered bridge

discovered it was like going through a house in the middle
of the road; you were home before you got home, it was shady
and cool in the heat of a summer day. Of course, something
as plain and useless—and lovely–could not be allowed
to stand. From time to time there were plans to modernize the
road, in which case the bridge would have to go, it wasn’t

strong enough or wide enough for modern demands. Or the
truckers would complain it wasn’t high enough, they had to go
miles out of their way because of it, losing precious time.
It had to go, they said, but it costs money to tear things down,
and there is no money to tear things down when there are
things to be built—miles of road, and schools, and other bridges.

covered bridge1

And so it was left to the vandals to destroy it. Heedless, wanton
boys: The Greek, and Wade, and Tony. One of them must have done
They liked to drink out that way, and Wade liked to start fires.
He would go to the Home for Wayward Boys because of it, do
some time for burning down a man’s shed. What harm
is there in burning down something that’s worthless he said?

I’m sure one of them did it, but I can’t say who. The Greek was
always one to set others up, he thought it was great fun. Nothing
made him laugh so hard as seeing somebody else made the fall guy.
As for Tony, with his mod clothes and long hair that flipped up at
the ends, it could have been him; he liked to brag about adventures.

covered bridge2

The bridge sat there, fallen into disuse, as traffic found easier, safer
ways to get to town. It would only slow you down, so why bother?
Go out on the highway, or through the neighborhoods if you had to,
the truck drivers said. There was nothing there for picknickers
except for the white trash who’d go there on Fourth of July because
you could barbecue, drink beer and set off fireworks there,

something you couldn’t do at any other park in town. One year a
stray bottle rocket hit a boy in the eye; he lived, although to hear
him cry, you’d have thought he was going to die. He was blind
from then on, and they put a glass eye in his socket. Nobody knew
who shot it off, so nobody paid for it or went to jail.
It was one more reason to stay away.

covered bridge3

It was the fall when it happened, after one of the football games. I
think we’d lost again to one of the bigger towns, there was nothing
to celebrate, and neither Tony nor The Greek cared about
the team or school spirit or anything like that. Wade’s dad
had played college football, and Wade was fast and
slippery like his old man, but he quit the team. I don’t think he cared.

The bridge was in unincorporated land, it took a while for the fire
trucks to get there, and by the time they did it was gone. It had
been a homely brown, but now it was black charcoal with grey
trim, as if the fire were still smoldering after it had died. There
was no money to save the bridge, no sense that building it back
up again would matter. It’s gone now, which is why I tell this tale.


From “Town Folk & Country People.”

President Declares National Day of Leftovers

WASHINGTON, D.C.  Frustrated by Congressional inaction, President Barack Obama today issued an executive order declaring today a National Day of Leftovers, including a dish prepared by his mother-in-law that he pushed around on his plate yesterday but did not finish.

“It was good, I was just . . . full.”


“Our enemies abroad deserve to eat this stuff,” said Obama’s prepared text.  “We are going to wrap it up and send it to them along with 1,500 additional troops.”

Obama’s daughters also refused to eat the mysterious dish, saying it smelled of onions and tuna.  The President will place the remains in an unmarked chafing dish at the Tomb of the Unknown Casserole in Arlington, Virginia.

President Obama placing leftovers at Tomb of the Unknown Casserole


The President typically “pardons” two National Thanksgiving Turkeys but  declined to do so this year for fear that he would be accused of being soft on crime by Republicans.  “These two turkeys were responsible for identity theft, carjacking and intimidating a witness,” said U.S. Attorney Karl May.  “They will be deep-fried and served as Popcorn Chicken at a KFC franchise in Washington.”

The first American leftovers were a by-product of the Thanksgiving celebration held in Plymouth, Massachusetts, in 1621.  Uneaten butternut squash and jellied cranberries were given to members of the Wampanoag tribe as they left the feast, touching off a bloody two-year conflict that claimed the lives of nearly a hundred people and depressed retail sales during the first Christmas shopping period.

“You’d better eat some–we brought that stuffing with us from England!”

The children of the Plymouth Colony were especially grateful to Squanto, a Native American and former British slave, who taught them to bury fish to fertilize corn fields.  “If you hide the food you don’t like,” he told them, “you don’t have to eat it.”

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