Apache Dance With a Fellow Commuter

It is 7:20 p.m., time for the last train from South Station to the western suburbs of Boston. My point of embarcation, a once-proud civic landmark, is despite its grandiose re-christening as the Michael S. Dukakis Transportation Center, a scene of degraded desolation. Over there, a homeless man mumbles to himself. Here, a familiar street person approaches me to compliment me on my suit–a boxy chalk-striped number. “You lookin’ sharp, guv’nor–nothing like charcoal grey,” he says. I wonder where he acquired his unerring sense of style as I give him my usual lagniappe, a single dollar bill.

Image result for south station boston

The train is not here, but I know it has not departed or even arrived yet as I recognize familiar faces from my back-and-forth commute; the money manager whom I once recognized on vacation in Florida, his wife hectoring him because she’s “not really an outdoors person”; the woman who wheezes like a pigeon on the morning train; the bore who talks of nothing but golf, his face transported as if this mundane pastime is a cult of divine madness. “I taped the Masters and I’m going to watch it again this weekend,” he says to an acquaintance who appears to tolerate him, perhaps from a desire to do business. “I’m not sure I caught the rhythm of the final round.” I’ll tell you what the rhythm was, pal; 4/4, at a largo tempo.

And then I see her. A tall–taller than me–dark-haired woman, with an aloof expression. I’ve noticed her before, and I know that she has no ring on the third finger of her left hand; she has a daughter, however, who sometimes greets her at the suburban station where I catch my train. A divorcee, no doubt, but not a gay one; she is world-weary, bitter. Life has not been kind to her, but still–she is beautiful with a tragic I-coulda-had-a-V8 air of regret, missed chances, lost opportunities about her.

Image result for quebrada wellesley
Quebrada Bakery, Wellesley, Mass.:  To have coffee here is to live dangerously.

 

I know that she is a bad woman. I have seen her leave her car all day at Quebrada, the shop where I get my coffee every morning, even though the parking is limited to one hour, for customers only! She works out at my health club, and I have seen her take calls in areas that are not designated for cell phone use. On a number of occasions she has spread her purse, her briefcase and shopping bags out on a train seat designed for three passengers without a trace of shame. She is–I know it–the woman who could complete me.

Because it is late, we cannot avoid each other’s eyes the way we usually do as members of a floating mass of sullen commuters, each intent upon the pedestrian tasks that lay ahead in the morning, or withdrawn, the miserable day behind them at night. I gaze into her eyes. She sees, but does not acknowledge me. I move closer.

Image result for apache dance

The essence of the Apache dance is to balance the savagery of early twentieth-century Parisian street urchins with the aplomb of a prima ballerina. We–if she accepts my unspoken invitation–will join in a danse dangereux that can result in injury, even death–as we throw each other into the little red chairs and tables that surround Au Bon Pain, the “fast casual” bakery and cafe chain whose illegal alien baristas dream of some day working at Starbucks, where they will be surrounded by “world” music that drove them batty on AM radio in their native countries.

She lowers her eyelids–I take this as a silent command to commence. I take her right hand in my left, clasp her around the waist, and begin.

We dance in a circle at first, affected expressions of contempt and indifference on our faces. We who live by our wits, knowledge workers sending pdf documents by attachment! What do ordinary mortals understand of our lives, and yet these tasks–they are so advanced, so fraught with danger if we get an email address wrong!

The apache dance traditionally takes the form of a highly-stylized argument between a pimp and his prostitute, but–taking our cue from wacked-out poet and Mussolini admirer Ezra Pound–we transform the genre into something entirely new.

I spin my partner into a glass bakery shelf stuffed with croissants, brioches and cloches, the last-named items apparently stocked in error as a result of a typo in a purchase order. “Do you want me to wear a croissant,” my unknown companion says, spitting the words at me with barely-repressed fury, “or would you like to eat my cloche?

“Yes I think I’d like that,” I say, a malicious sneer forming on my lips.

“Would you like a napkin to wipe the sneer off your face?” the trainee at the counter asks innocently. She cannot imagine the wild torrents of passion that consume us, she who naively suggests that I might like the “Manager’s Special” every morning when all I want is a large mocha, no whipped.

Non, mon petite armoire,” I say, lapsing into the high school French that I perfected to the level of a B+. “It is better that you laissez nous tranquille, s’il vous plait.

“We don’t have the s’il vous plait anymore,” she says. “They substituted a chicken Caesar wrap and cup of soup for it.”

She speaks but we do not hear. I am whirling my unknown paramour towards the McDonald’s, which has recently returned coffee-flavored milk shakes to its menu.

Image result for coffee milk shake mcdonalds
Shlurp!

 

I can tell that I have exhausted my lover. She leans back on the counter, her pupils rolling back into her eyelids, her hair matted from perspiration. She is no longer une guerriere–a warrior. She has succumbed at last to the superior force of my masculinity.

“Can I help who’s next?” the woman at the counter with the thick glasses says.

“I’m next,” my lover says, looking backwards up into the brightly-colored menu over head. “I’ll have two crispy chicken Snack Wraps and a medium Diet Coke.”

“You want honey mustard, ranch or chipotle barbecue sauce on that?”

“Chip-O-tul,” she says, incorrectly. “I want something . . . hot.”

“It’s chee-POHT-lay,” I say, as gently as I can, reaching for my wallet, and then to the woman behind the counter, “Make it snappy–we’ve got a train to catch.”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection Boston Baroques.

Living for You

She was as ironic as me, which I thought was great.  We’d get going, and it would be like one of those Marvelous Marvin Hagler, Thomas “Hit Man” Hearns fights.  If you were trying to judge it, you couldn’t even keep score.  I’d say something I didn’t mean, then she’d say something she didn’t mean, and on and on until one of us came up dry and would be forced to take exception to something the other had said, to take it seriously.  It was like doing the dozens, except we weren’t trying to insult each other, we were just trying to prove we were more sarcastic than each other.  I was in love.

We would end up sort of laughing, sort of exhausted.  It was the good kind of exhaustion, like you figured old married couples felt when they’d had a great time together and were in for the night—just riffing on each other because your mate was the source of your greatest joy in life.  I figured people like that, they didn’t need stimulation–they didn’t need movies or TV or going out to dinner because they had each other.  I wanted to marry her.

It was about that time that she told me she was moving back to Louisville, back to what her life had been before we met.  She said there was something back there she needed to finish, something she’d run away from; that she’d decided she’d been a coward and had to go back and face it and fix it.  I knew she was talking about another guy—she didn’t have to tell me—but she did anyway, and then we just let it drop.  I didn’t need all the details.  I’d been through that before—the boy you left behind you before you ventured out into the world, then when you got nervous or scared about putting down roots a thousand miles away, all the familiar things started to look better.

Fine, I said.  What could I say?  She said she didn’t want her kids to grow up talking like people in Boston—“I hod ta loff,” she said, thinking I’d think that was funny.  Any other time it might have been, but I just said “They don’t have to talk that way, it’s who they grow up around that matters,” but I didn’t feel like getting into it.  Christ—who said anything about having babies?

Any chance you’ll ever come back? I asked, and she said “Sure, yeah,” in that off-hand manner that she had.  Some people found it irritating, but it was part of her attraction for me.  Maybe I like challenges, not the women people would introduce me to who you could see had things figured out.  They’d tell you about their jobs, what kind of work they did, how many hours they put in and so on.  If you got involved with them, just a few steps and you’d fall over a cliff into adulthood, which I didn’t want, not yet.

So we arranged for one last date, the night before she was going to leave.  We’d go into Harvard Square, have dinner, then go see some jazz.  I figured I’d show her what she’d be missing back in Kentucky—make it all very poignant.  I was rubbing it in a little, but I was bitter.

Dinner was pretty matter of fact.  We didn’t have much left to say to each other.  She just had one glass of wine–it wasn’t like other nights where she’d get going, get a couple drinks in her, then go into character as her parody of a Southern belle.  That always cracked me up, but she was nice enough not to act too happy our last night together.  I hope it was in part for my sake, and not just because she had to make her flight the next day.

When we got to the club we got a table against the wall with a clear sight line.  It was spring and I think a lot of the students had already left for the year.  It was Stan Getz playing with some sidemen, not my favorite necessarily, like I was trying to introduce her to the greatest living tenor sax or something, but I figured it would be enjoyable.  I wanted her to have a good time so she’d feel bad about it later, after she was a thousand miles away.

At the table to our left was a girl with long brown hair and a young guy with a beard and glasses.  He had a cassette tape recorder out on the table but the manager saw it and said he couldn’t make a recording.  He said he was a reporter, as if that made a difference, but finally he gave up and just took out a pad of paper and a felt-tip pen and the manager went away.

The club wasn’t so noisy that you couldn’t have a conversation, and I guess I was hoping for one last shot with her.  I don’t know what I would have said to make her change her mind, but I figured if I was going to do it, I had to do it now.  I’d seen her apartment when I picked her up, and everything she had was already in boxes.  She’d sold her couch and her bed and all she had left was a sleeping bag on the floor.  It wouldn’t have been conducive to anything but a “Best of luck.”

I thought maybe if I told her I loved her—which I did—it might have made a difference.  That’s the problem with being ironic all the time.  You never get close to the important stuff, you’re always going at it from an angle.  Maybe the guy in Kentucky had said he loved her and scared her away back when she wasn’t ready for it.  Maybe she was ready for it now and I’d just waited too long.

Getz opened up with a fast number and the guy started taking notes.  I saw him reach down into his backpack where he’d put the tape recorder and I heard something click.  Great—my lover’s plea was going to be recorded for posterity.  I leaned a little closer to her, but she turned around to watch the music.  I was about to say something when the guy tapped me on the shoulder with his pen.

“Excuse me,” he said.  “Do you know the name of this song?”

I wanted to act annoyed, which I was, but I couldn’t stop myself. “It’s ‘I Want to Be Happy,’” I said with a look that was an attempt to express my supreme condescension.  You’re the critic, I said to myself—aren’t you supposed to know this stuff?

“Thanks,” the guy said and scribbled in his notebook.

She had turned around when I spoke, thinking I was talking to her.  I just smiled and she gave me a little smile back.  It wasn’t quite a “We’ll always have this night” smile, more like a “He’s good” smile.

Everybody applauded when Getz finished his solo and it got quieter as the bass player took his turn.  I tried to scoot my chair around closer to her, but I was hemmed in on the right by another couple, and I didn’t want to get any closer to the working press.  I put my hands in the middle of the table hoping that when the song was over she’d turn around and we could sort of play pinky pals at least.

The guy was scribbling away on my left, probably coming up with some killer figures of speech that nobody but people like me would read the next day, if that.  His girl was turned around, her hand under her chin.  She looked to me like she was really experiencing it, taking it all in.  She didn’t need to be cool—she had innocent eyes—and he was probably going to Explain it All to her later, since he was the expert.

The song ended and everybody clapped, the critic a little too loud if you ask me.  He wanted to show everybody that they may have enjoyed it, but he appreciated it.  Since there were guys in the audience old enough to have seen Getz when they were the kid’s age, I don’t think he heard anything anybody else didn’t.

She turned around and said “That was good.”  I was glad—it seemed she’d finally dropped her guard, so I just said “Yeah,” as plain as I could.  Maybe there would have been some hope for us if we hadn’t been who we were when we first met.  Maybe if we’d met someplace else, or if we’d gone to the same college and had known each other better.  I didn’t know.  She put her hand on mine without even looking down at the table.  We squeezed and it was like being back in eighth grade.  Funny how stuff like that can be pretty intense if you’ve got no other prospects.

The music started up again and she turned around to watch, which was fine.  I didn’t want to sit there like stupid lovebirds all night, I just wanted things to end on the right note.  I didn’t know how I was going to get in touch with her after she left.  I figured I’d ask for her address and send her a suitably facetious postcard at some point.  We’d done that when we were separated before; she’d pick out something really tacky, like women riding on the backs of alligators in Florida, and write something clever on the back.  That’s what I’d do—so it wouldn’t be like I was afraid for her new/old boyfriend to see what I’d written.  We’d be just good friends, keeping in touch in a really light vein.  If he got mad about it maybe she’d see he wasn’t such a prize after all.

I sipped at my beer and watched her profile.  She wasn’t a precious little thing, she was a woman who wouldn’t end up spending her life consumed by decorating and bullshit like that.  I used to take her to Red Sox games and she’d keep score as well as me.  That was a hell of a lot better than the woman I dated just before her, who would bring needlepoint to the game.  Hell, I even took her to a closed-circuit fight one time, Hagler and Sugar Ray Leonard.  Me and another guy.  Our dates were like the only women in the place other than the ones working the concession stands.

No, she was it.  Only twenty-six, and I knew what I wanted out of life was sitting across the table for me.  She’s only twenty-three, I thought to myself, and she’s going to make the biggest mistake of our goddamned lives.

She clapped at Getz’s solo—the most enthusiasm she’d shown for anything in a long time as best as I could recall—and the other players took turns until it was time for them to wrap it up together.  Everybody applauded when it was over and she turned around again, her face full of happiness.  Why didn’t I do this a long time ago, I said to myself, then remembered she hadn’t been very easy to pin down.  We were always going somewhere in a group, never alone, and when I’d ask her out she’d always say “I’ll ask my roommate if she wants to come.”

“This is great,” she said.  No irony, no sarcasm.

“Yeah,” I said.  “I thought you’d like it.”

I was thinking better than “20-20 Vision and I’m Walkin’ Round Blind,” an old country string-band tune she’d break into sometimes out of the blue when we were just walking down the street, just to prove how back-woodsy she was.

“We could have made something for ourselves—out here,” I said before I thought better to stop myself.

She looked down and took my hand again and said “I know.”  Then “I’m sorry.”

I couldn’t say anything at first, and the band started playing again, a slow ballad.  “You were just being you,” I said, squeezing her had a little tighter.  “I guess I wouldn’t want you to be anybody else.”

“Thanks,” she said.

“You wouldn’t ever do that anyway,” I said, and we both laughed, but it came out sounding funny because we both had stuff in our throats.  I wanted to lean over the table and kiss her then but she turned around to watch again, and our only connection was her right hand to my left.  It was okay, though, because I was crying, and I didn’t want her to see.  I took a cocktail napkin in my right hand and was wiping my eyes when I felt another tap on my shoulder.

“Excuse me again,” the writer said.  “What’s the name of this song?”

“It’s ‘Living for You’ by Billie Holiday,” I said, then realized I was wrong—that’s just the first line.  It’s “Easy Living,” but I didn’t correct myself.  I didn’t want to talk, and I didn’t care if he got it wrong.

The Old Curmudgeon Gets Some Protein in His Music

Summer is here–the spring rains have finally ended in Boston–and you can see people opening up to the season, like flowers. And then there’s my partner, the Old Curmudgeon, who makes do with his usual all-weather grumpy demeanor.

“Hey there, Bink,” I call to him as he approaches the elevator bank. He has a look of exasperated relief on his face, if such a thing is possible. “Enjoying the first breath of summer?”


Bink

 

“No,” Bink snaps. “The damn kids just got home from college. Sarah’s become a vegan and Todd listens to that damn ‘rap’ music all the time.”

“Kids,” I say, commiserating with him. “You can’t live with ‘em, but you can live without ‘em.”


Sarah, the vegan convert: Has to pass a place twice to make a shadow.

 

“You know, some of those rap songs are disgusting,” Bink grumbles. “I think I heard one of those guys say mother-you-know-what.”

“Sort of like classical Greek tragedy.”

“What?”

“Oedipus Rex–by Sophocles.”

“Hmph. I took mostly business courses. Anyway, I’m worried about ‘em both. Sarah’s thin as a rail, and Todd says he wants to be a ‘DJ.’  What the hell kind of job is that for a Presbyterian male?”

The elevator door opened, and we got on along with a crowd of others. As so often happens, the close confinement of the car acted as a stimulus to my brain, like the isolation booths on ’50′s game shows.

“You know, I think you could kill two birds with one stone if you just got more protein out of your music,” I say to Bink. He looks at me as if I’m daft–and I’m not going to argue with him.

“What do you mean?” he asks with a quizzical look on his face, his head cocked to one side like a parakeet.

“Well, maybe if you played songs with a little meat in them, Todd would abandon the monotony of rap and Sarah would come back to the carnivore fold.”

“I don’t know any songs about meat,” Bink says.

“Well, there’s ‘Hey Pete, Let’s Eat More Meat’ by Dizzy Gillespie,” I say. “Probably converted more vegans than any other song in the history of Western Civilization, but I don’t know if it’s raunchy enough for Todd.”


Diz Lives!

 

“Yes, the boy’s obsessed with,” here Bink stops to look around at the other passengers, then continues in a softer voice, “what I guess the rappers call ‘booty.’”

“Well, there’s ‘It Ain’t the Meat It’s the Motion’ by The Swallows,” I suggest helpfully.


The Swallows

 

“Maria Muldaur recorded it too,” a frizzy-haired fifty-something woman behind us says.

“Righto,” I say, “but The Swallows were first.”

“Sounds rather–risque,” Bink says. He once found a set of French postcards in his father’s underwear drawer, and ever since has assumed that all Frenchmen are hopeless debauchees.


Naughty!

 

“Well, it’s the sort of song that can bring a family together,” I say. “Mom, dad, sis, junior–everyone gets a kick out of it.”

“But those songs are expressions of men’s fantasies,” the frizzy-haired woman says. “How about ‘I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll’?”

“By Butterbeans & Susie?” a bike messenger with stringy hair asks. I’m gratified to see that I’ve enhanced Boston’s often cramped sense of civic engagement by inspiring such a lively discussion among total strangers, except for me and Bink, who are each strange in our own way.


Butterbeans & Susie

 

“Yes,” the woman replies.

“I don’t know,” Bink says. “All these songs sound vaguely–disreputable.”

I catch his drift. Jazz, R&B, black novelty acts–it’s all music from the ”wrong side of the tracks.”

“You’re right, Bink,” I say. “What you need is music that’s so well-established and esteemed it’s approved by the federal government of the U-S of A.”


Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton

 

“Yes,” Bink says, his gaze fixed on a point in the middle distance. “I want something that’s as safe as a U.S. Treasury bill–like John Philip Sousa.”

“So I suggest the unexpurgated version of ’Winin’ Boy’ by Jelly Roll Morton,” I say. ”It’s on a Library of Congress recording!”

“How’s that go?” Bink asks.

“Like this,” I reply. A young man in the back takes the iPod buds out of his ears as I begin to sing.

A nickel’s worth of beefsteak, a dime’s worth of lard.
A nickel’s worth of beefsteak, a dime’s worth of lard.
I’m gonna salivate your pussy ’til my peter gets hard.

The car is quiet. We have those little silent TV screens in our elevators, so I figure everyone’s looking at the Red Sox score.


Library of Congress

 

“That’s really in the Library of Congress?” Bink asks, incredulous.

“Yep–your tax dollars at work. When you think of all the crap that our taxes pay for, it’s good to know that every now and then we get some value for our money.”

The car glides to a stop at Bink’s floor, and he steps off into the lobby.

“Well, uh, thanks for the suggestions,” he says. “You know, whenever we have these little talks I always end up feeling . . . “

“Better?” I say as he hesitates.

“No–depressed.”

Zoot Sims on the Booze Cruise

As I recall, he got top billing, as was
his due, which meant you had to wait
through somebody else’s set to hear him.

On the way out of the harbor, with some
people there just for the night in the
ocean air, and the booze, of course,

there was some jostling for place, but
it was nothing more than you would
encounter on a city pavement at lunch hour,

and it accomplished zilch; there were
several hours to go and by that time,
those who had come for the dating and the mating

would be sloshed out of their minds, resting
against the wooden benches like distraught
mourners at a funeral, waiting for the death

of tomorrow’s hangover. Then you could
make your move, and hear one of the great
tenors of his time, when those who didn’t

know what they had bought tickets for
had given up. I came down from the upper
deck and found standing room behind the

band, a perfect view of the man I’d first heard
on an EP of The Four Brothers of Woody Herman’s
band and wondered—what kind of mother names

her kid Zoot? He had the unknowing and the
cognoscenti in the bell of his horn, his warm tone
taking the chill off the early summer eve.

And down front I saw a mirror image of myself,
but a little hipper; tapping his foot, a carefully-
chosen baseball cap on his head, while I was

still in a business suit. He was more self-conscious of
his attire on a night where time had warped,
and it was an evening before he and I had been born.

Nazi Muff-Diving: It Could’ve Happened Here

With summer comes beach reading, and a by-product of the season’s lower intellectual standards is that one’s literary risk-reward ratio expands exponentially, the way pole vaulting records were shattered by quantum leaps when athletes abandoned aluminum for fiberglass. Pick a mildewed paperback off a bookshelf in a vacation house–one that you’d be ashamed to check out of your local library for fear it would be cited in a future Senate confirmation hearing–and you can be transported to realms of schlock that previously lay beyond your poor powers of comprehension.

Thus it is with Ken Follett’s “Eye of the Needle.” Originally published as “Storm Island,” “Eye of the Needle” is a counterfactual tale, a story that asks the question “what if” about a historical event, imagining what might have happened if the proximate link in the chain leading up to it were altered. Here’s how Follett himself describes the thesis on which he built the plot:


German U Boat

 

It is 1944 and weeks before D-Day. The Allies are disguising their invasion plans with a phoney (sic) armada of ships and planes. Their plan would be scuppered if an enemy agent found out…

and then, Hitler’s prize agent, “The Needle,” does just that. Hunted by MI5, he leads a murderous trail across Britain to a waiting U-Boat. But he hasn’t planned for a storm-battered island, and the remarkable young woman who lives there.

It’s enough to set you off and running, like a starter’s pistol at the beginning of a footrace. But the important thing to note is that it’s based largely on fact; the Allies did indeed disguise the D-Day invasion by sending legions of British vacationers to Normandy Beach, outfitting their children with inflatable squeaky frog inner-tubes. Surely, thought the Nazis, the Allies won’t attack here, now that the mothers have unwrapped the tinned meat sandwiches and the fathers have lost their car keys.


Allied decoy

 

Follett’s masterwork is marbled with a number of other historically-correct elements that lend it an air of verisimilitude, and which leave the reader, as he finally puts the book down late at night, shaking his head at what might have been. “My God,” you say to yourself, “but for a simple twist of fate, the women of America would have been in hopeless thrall to legions of Nazi cunnilinguists.”


President and Treasurer of your local Parent-Teacher Organization?

 

It’s right there on page 226, the infamous Gestapo muff-diving scene, as famous in its genre of mindless beach-reading as the green light at the end of the dock in The Great Gatsby, the madeleines in A La Recherche du Temps Perdu, Hawthorne’s scarlet letter. Again, I quote at length, or as much length as I am permitted by this site’s Terms of Service and my involuntary aesthetic gag reflex:

He slipped down the bed, between her thighs. (. . .) Surely he doesn’t want to kiss me there. He did. And he did more than kiss.

Suffice it to say that Follett’s “remarkable young woman” is “paralyzed by shock” at the hitherto-unknown worlds of pleasure that her German tonguemeister introduces her to.


Elite Nazi Blitzentonguen Corps

 

Which raises the question: Suppose the Nazis had won World War II. Yes, the bright light of democracy would have been snuffed out, millions of “undesirables”–-Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Masons (!) and Poles–would have been consigned to certain death in concentration camps, and single men across America would have been subject to humiliation in scenes such as this:


“Pass the Pepperidge Farms Weiner Schnitzel-Flavored Goldfish!”

 

SINGLE MAN: Hi–can I buy you a drink?

SINGLE WOMAN: Are you a member in good standing of the National Socialist German Workers Party, better known as the Nazis?

SINGLE MAN: Well, uh, no, but . . .

SINGLE WOMAN: (To “wingwoman” friend) Look–isn’t that Josef Goebbels, Jr. over there?

The possibility is one with more than a passing interest to me, since I live on the East Coast, and German U-boats were believed to have patrolled the waters of the Atlantic until V-E Day. Say the Nazis had won World War II in 1945; I was born in 1951, and moved to Massachusetts two decades later. Had the Allies gone down to defeat, by the time I got here Nazi subjugation of American women would have been complete. The upshot for me? No dates, no mate, no heirs to carry on my name or DNA.

One imagines the final steps to Nazi dominance with horror, aboard a German submarine, V or C class, as it patrols the beaches between Cape Cod and the North Shore of Boston:

Aboard the Marlene Dietrich:

VICE ADMIRAL HEINRICH VON TIECHLER: What’s shakin’?

FIRST MATE: The Yankee women seem to have sacrificed greatly to the Allies’ cause. There is not a healthy set of gams to be seen on the beach!

VICE ADMIRAL: We are north of Boston, where the women lose their muscle tone playing bridge, making stupid jokes about how they like to go into Boston to get “scrod.” Let us turn to the south.

(. . .)

FIRST MATE: We are off Revere Beach.

VICE ADMIRAL: Keep going–Mussolini has dibs on the Italians.

(. . .)

FIRST MATE: We approach Cape Cod.

VICE ADMIRAL: Check the Infidelity Meter.

FIRST MATE: Conditions are favorable–I’m showing high concentrations of discarded limes with traces of gin in the water.

VICE ADMIRAL: Dive, man, dive!

Raymond Carver, Poet of the Short Story

Today is the 79th anniversary of Raymond Carver’s birth.  Carver, who died at the age of 50 in 1988, was a writer who produced poems that were like short stories, and short stories that read like poems.  He probably didn’t lengthen his time on earth by the heavy drinking that he indulged in until the last decade of his life, when he seemed to find peace.

Carver grew up in a working-class home in Washington; his father was an alcoholic mill worker, his mother sometimes a waitress and retail clerk.  He was married in 1957 at the age of 19 to a 16-year-old girl.  They had a daughter six months later and a son the next year.  Carver worked as a janitor, sawmill laborer, library assistant and delivery man.  His wife worked as a waitress, teacher, salesperson and administrative assistant.

As a boy he had been an avid reader of Mickey Spillane mysteries and outdoors magazines.  He became interested in writing in his twenties and began to take creative writing courses; he eventually received a bachelor’s degree from Humboldt State College in California.  With a degree, he was hired as a textbook editor, the first job he’d ever had that allowed him to work with words; he was fired after three years as his writing style was understandably unsuited to the genre of the science textbook.

Carver’s writing didn’t appear in print until he was in his thirties, and then under the humble auspices of a college literary club.  Carver’s first short story collection, Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?, was published in 1976, when he was thirty-eight.  It struck many readers as spare and unfinished, like the interior of the hunting and fishing cabins he had spent much time in over the years.  Some critics stuck the “minimalist” label on him, but there is some dispute as to whether the style was truly his, or imposed upon him by Gordon Lish, his editor at the time.  After a bit of a struggle over copyright, the stories collected in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love have been re-published in their original, unedited form, so that readers can see where Carver would have gone without the bit and bridle of Lish’s editing.


Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher

I heard Carver read once before he died, in 1981 when What We Talk About was first published.  He had an unimposing presence, better suited to the many low-wage jobs he’d held over the years than the mantle of literary lion, compared to Hemingway and Chekhov, that he assumed at the end of his life.  He had a faint voice and autographed copies of his second collection without ceremony, as if he were still somewhat surprised to find that, after all the years of scuffling, he’d produced something that a roomful of admirers at the other end of the continent in Boston would turn out for.

In an interview, Carver was once asked how he found time and the will to write during his years of obscurity, when he had to work long hours to make ends meet.  His response was that he would take scraps of paper and a pencil with him wherever he went, and would use every spare moment–waiting for his wash in a laundromat was one example he gave–to write something, if only the thoughts running through his head, or an inchoate idea for a short story he was trying to shape.

Carver is buried in Port Angeles, Washington.  Two poems are inscribed on his head stone, Gravy and the following, Late Fragment:

And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
I did.
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.

One Lawyer Gives Back By Helping Those More Fortunate Than Himself

NEEDHAM, Mass.  It’s Thursday night in this mixed-income suburb of Boston, and the sight of cars lining a quiet residential street indicates to a casual observer that there’s a cocktail party in progress in one of the town’s newer, more upscale homes.  “That’s where the need is greatest,” says lawyer Bob Pliateck, as he takes care to make sure he has enough business cards in the breast pocket of his plaid sport coat.  “A lot of guys will do their pro bono work in the cool comfort of their air-conditioned offices, but not me.  I ‘take it to the streets,'” he says, making air quotes to indicate that he is using hip, youthful slang.


Nicest house on the street.

Once he’s been greeted by the hostess at the door, he begins to circulate among the guests, who are resplendent in colorful outfits that only a week before would have been viewed as “rushing the season” of spring, which in New England generally lasts only a day or two before giving way to summer.  “I do most of my pro bono work at cocktail parties,” Pliateck says with a grim shake of his head at the array of potential problems he’s likely to encounter tonight.  “The unmet legal needs here–house closings, estate plans–are so overwhelming it’s really a scandal the way the legal profession turns a blind eye to the problems of the upper middle class.”

Under a Massachusetts rule, lawyers in this state must provide twenty-five hours of legal aid annually to people of limited means, or pay a fee ranging from $250 to 1% of their annual taxable income to organizations that provide such services.  “I could just write the check,” Pliateck says.  “But that would be the easy, more expensive way out.”


“Don’t turn around–here comes that guy Pliateck.”

 

So the sole practitioner walks the mean streets of leafy-green suburbs like this, looking for those more fortunate than himself who nonetheless, in traditional cheap Yankee style, refuse to pay high hourly rates for downtown Boston lawyers.  “It’s my calling, the way Mother Teresa ministered to the lepers in Calcutta,” he says of his selfish quest for billable hours.


“A thousand dollars for a simple estate plan?  You can go shit in your hat, pal.”

 

Bar officials say Pliateck’s quixotic pursuit of the slightly over-privileged puts him in compliance with the mandatory public service requirement, but just barely.  “Perhaps we should re-word the Rule,” says bar counsel Everett Winthrop III.   “Technically everybody south of the Bill Gates-Warren Buffett level is ‘of limited means,’ but Bob’s a lawyer–he saw a loophole and drove right through it.”


*Boring lawyer.  Must  . . . stifle . . . yawn*

 

Pliateck has heard the complaint before, but says he will not be deterred by small-minded critics who he suspects are simply envious of the way he “does well by doing good.”  “It’s sour grapes,” he says.  “Those guys are just jealous they didn’t come up with the idea first.”