When I was a kid in the third grade at St. Phillip’s school, my father decided I should take piano lessons.  The basis for this was my recent obsession with this new singer on the pop horizon by the name of Elvis Presley.  He sounded like nobody I had ever heard before, or, rather, like everybody I had ever heard before at once.  He played guitar, although as little as possible, so I wanted a guitar, too.  My father, sensible beyond all reason, thought I would be a better musician if I learned to play the piano first, and then branched out from there.  He either didn’t notice or didn’t care that what I really wanted was to be a rock and roll star, wriggling and hooting my way to popularity and fame; in my child’s mind the two were indistinguishable.  If musicianship was a requirement of that, I was happy to go along, but to a point.  Elvis, as I said, played his guitar as little as possible, leaving musicianship to the musicians in his band.  Never mind, Dad wanted me to take piano lessons.  He had played violin before the war, and loved music, but had abandoned it, along with much else of beauty, after the war spat him back out.  He didn’t understand Presley and rock music, except to acknowledge their financial potential.  “The more they wiggle, the more money they make,” he used to say.

It was his own fault, in a way.  He worked at RCA record division, at the plant that pressed the vinyl into music.  As a perk, the company let him take home six albums every couple of months, his preference.  He had no preference.  As a result, the take-homes were random, everything from Stravinski to Homer and Jethro, and whatever lay between.  In those  days, RCA pressed the records for a lot of smaller companies too, so the range was wide as the world.

At the same time, the radio music scene in my city was the epitome of eclecticism.  In a single hour on the same show, you could hear Mario Lanza, Hank Snow, the Platters, and Elvis.  I had no idea until much later on that you were supposed to pick a genre and ditch the others.  I made no artistic distinction between  Ezio Pinza and Elvis.  But I knew the other kids at school and around the neighborhood were crazy for the latter, and not the former.

It didn’t hurt that Elvis had this rebel persona.  Suffocating in my staunchly religious family, I immediately identified.  When my father told me I was going to take piano lessons, like it or not, my dreams came crashing down.

First, he had effectively coopted my ambition, spun it around until it was unrecognizable, and made it his own.  I couldn’t imagine anything less rebellious than piano lessons at St. Phillip’s.  I thought I knew the terms of that, and I didn’t like them.

My friend Wayne was the only guy I knew who was doing that.  Every day at 3:00, the rest of us would line up to leave the school and enter the free world; I would see Wayne trudging across the playground to the convent to take his lessons, always after school, and, it was darkly rumored, sometimes on the weekend as well.

The convent!  The actual lair of the creatures whose lives were dedicated to stripping the joy from ours!  Who knew what torments Wayne endured there?  Many years later, he told me it wasn’t at all bad.  I’m still not sure I believe him.

I knew what had to be done.  I resisted with all my might, and discovered that my father had given me the very thing I thought he was stripping away: an opportunity to Be a Rebel.  I marshalled every argument I could think of, mostly involving how much time would be lost from my other studies (in the third grade!), or how I would have to be late for dinner a lot, a cardinal sin in our house.  I stomped and put on magnificent silences, I exiled myself to my room.  In the end, against all expectation, I prevailed.  He gave up.

I was on cloud nine.  I got my guitar eventually, and hacked away at it.  By that time I was into folk music, and regarded music lessons of any sort as too gentrifying for my tastes.  My tempo was ragged, and I was king of the 13 bar blues.  I discovered jazz about that time as well, and predictably played guitar less and less as I realized how abysmally incompetent I was compared to the musicians I admired.  I made a hash of it, like most things.

The only abiding result of all of that was a growing regret that I had talked my father out of those piano lessons.

Well, this year, I finally gave in, bought a piano, a beautiful Yamaha P-115 electronic keyboard capable of pretending to be a dozen other instruments as well.  I started online lessons, the excellent Playground series created by Quincy Jones.  So I sit at the keyboard, practicing, getting a little better, a little more musical every day.  And as I sit there, I notice a little voice in the back of my head:

“Michael, sit up straight!”

If you won’t go to the convent, it seems the convent will come to you.


Snow.  That’s what we called it, snow.  No polar vortex, no bomb cyclone, no Winter Storm Fred or anything like that.  Snow.  If it got so thick you couldn’t see past your outstretched hand, it was a blizzard; that was about the extent of our parsing of winter weather.

But wait, you say, people are suffering losses, some are even dying.  That’s true, and it’s just as lamentable now as it was before the storm of jargon came spewing out of weather centers.  I daresay the casualties were worse back then, in the mid 20th century, before forced air gas heating, heat pumps, whole house generators and hyper-insulated houses.  There were only two realistic choices: coal or oil, and both systems worked on the principle of convection.  Worse, if a winter turned out to be especially long or cold, you could run out of either, and be hard put to get more of it in a reasonable time.  People froze.  It was winter.

But for every downside there’s an upside.  The snow was a cash cow for us kids.  We’d go trundling up and down the street shoveling sidewalks for a buck a pop.  We would have charged more for driveways, but there were no such things in my neighborhood, just alleys covered with soot from the ubiquitous trash fires.  My eyes still glaze over in nostalgia whenever I smell garbage burning.

On a good snow day, you could end up with ten or fifteen bucks in your pocket by noon, a small fortune for a ten or twelve year old kid in the 1950s, and still have time to spend the rest of the day sledding down a steep hill into traffic.  I never made that much; I felt rich as soon as I hit five bucks, and went about finding ways to spend it.  But that was me.  I also collected coins in specially made books with slots for each year back to the Upper Paleolithic, but I never filled one.  I spent that, too, as soon as enough money to buy something accumulated.

We’d also have fun “skitching” rides on the perennially unplowed streets.  That involved sneaking low behind a car at an intersection, grabbing the bumper, and getting pulled along, sliding on the packed snow.  Even getting caught was fun.  We’d pelt the furious driver with snowballs and run away.

There was one time, though, that a cop caught us putting snowballs into a mailbox.  He informed us solemnly that he was letting us go, but that tampering with the mail was a federal crime, and he couldn’t vouch for what the FBI might want to do.

I had nightmares about J. Edgar Hoover for a week after that.

A rear-view mirror is still a mirror

People say all the time that they have no regrets.  Me, I’m practically defined by them; a man with no regrets is a man with no imagination, as far as I’m concerned, and I say that all too often for people around me, I suspect.  Still, I confess I’m mystified by people who essentially admit they can’t think of anything in their past that could have gone better had they made a different decision.  Equally, I fail to understand the virtue of still being the same person you were 40 or 50 years ago.  As Muhammad Ali said, someone who has the same opinions at age 50 as they had at age 20 has wasted 30 years of life.

Maybe that’s why, now that I’m old, I have this strange compulsion to revisit my life, to retrace my steps.  I’m drawn to places, both actual and conceptual, I passed through on my way here, to physically visit them, to stand in my own footsteps to see — what?

It’s not at all clear what it is I’m looking for, certainly not a glimpse of myself as I was then; that’s a vision that’s all too clear.  Nor is it primarily an attempt to reconstruct what I was thinking, to re-find or redefine whatever it was I thought I was doing, although that would certainly be interesting.  I’m not looking for redemption, or even a rationale.

Part of it is to correct the unconscious revisions I have made to my own history.  I’m sure you’ve had the experience of reconnecting, after many years, with an old friend or acquaintance, only to find that there are at least two contradictory versions of some common experience.  These things are seldom resolved, though.  We generally each come away wondering how the other person could have gotten the memory so wrong and yet be so sure.  It needs a new term to describe these common events.  How about “memoroid?”  I think that has enough innuendo hanging from it to serve the purpose.

No doubt what I’m looking for is a lot closer to hand and a lot easier to get at than a precisely calibrated reconstruction of the past.  See, I don’t think you can have a realistic assessment of who you are without a clear picture of who you were.

That gets both more and less difficult as you get older.


Hard times for Mr. Softee

A couple of weeks ago, I saw an obituary for Les Waas, who, among other things, wrote the Mr. Softee jingle (it has lyrics; who knew?).

Of course, that sent me spinning ass over elbows into nostalgia. The Mr. Softee truck, with its Pavlovian jingle, was a staple of summer where I lived. I doubt that truck could make more than five miles a day at the rate it had to stop and minister to neighborhood kids, some of them well over the age of majority. I can just smell it. I can feel again the greasy sweat evaporating as I sit in a shady spot somewhere to eat my cone. It was a snack and air conditioning rolled into one. Actual AC was a thing reserved for theaters, and just the fancy downtown ones at that, where movies could cost as much as seventy-five cents for a single feature. We didn’t often get the benefit of that. Cooling off mostly involved sitting very still and hoping for a breeze.

When I was growing up in the 1950s, all kinds of merchants and craftspeople peddled their wares on neighborhood streets, mostly during the warmer months. Come June, there was the slow-rolling truck of the strawberry man, and his chant “strawBERRY, STRAWberry,” and if it weren’t for the siren song of Mr. Softee, that might well have been the most welcome sound of summer. Not far behind him was the vegetable man, as slow or slower, truck packed with stuff pulled from the ground that morning, scales dangling noisily from a home-made rack. And milk trucks, two or three competing varieties; we “took” Roberts, and thought Borden’s was inferior, and of course the opposite was true of the Borden’s loyalists. You kept a sort-of-insulated box on your porch, and every day you filled out a form telling the milkman what to leave. And he did. Years later, when my mother’s health deteriorated, the Roberts man would actually bring in her order and put it into the fridge for her.

It wasn’t just food, either. The knife sharpener rolled down the street once a week or so, and he would also sharpen your lawn mower blades. I’m talking about reel mowers, powered by whomever was pushing them. Sporadically, some gypsies would come along selling whatever, and kids, myself among them, joined the parade, mowing lawns for a buck a pop; in winter we switched to snow shoveling, same rate. A buck could buy you a coke, a burger, and a new baseball, on the rare occasions we ran completely out of baseballs found in the park, their leather covers half off. Duct tape fixed nearly everything.

People flogging brushes, cosmetics, encyclopedias, vacuum cleaners, and god knows what all would regularly come to your door.  The mail came twice a day, six days a week. I still remember the air of shocked disbelief, almost betrayal, when the Post Office announced that Saturday mail would be cut to just one delivery. It is ironic that today, under pressure from Amazon, stuff gets delivered seven days a week, as many times as it takes to get it done, usually by the Post Office.

Well, it’s about this point in this kind of essay where you probably expect me to go on about how much more simple those times were. They weren’t. We were.

The truth is, much of that time was awful. Racism was not only the rule, but was unquestioned; black people were still getting lynched periodically. Police did exactly as they pleased, and politicians routinely stole elections, and everybody knew it, and nobody did anything about it. Anti-Semitism was considered only sensible. Nativism and religious prejudice were everywhere. My family was Catholic, and we were immigrants to boot. I will always remember the morning when I was eight or nine, when a canvasser for the Republican party came to the door, and before my mother could say anything, started on a spiel about how superior the party was, because it had no Jews, Catholics, or foreigners in it. My mother explained, in her thick accent, that we were two out of three. All of that sank in slowly, over a period of years.

My mother asked me one day, when I was in high school, why I was so surly all the time, when I used to be so cheerful. Why, indeed.

The Golden Age of anything, they say, is when you were young. Ignorance didn’t hurt, either.


The sky, like a summer smile, is smudged with clouds, and the unwarm spring air baffles the jacket I grabbed on my way out of the house. I turn a corner, and there he is, walking towards me, eyes big with recognition. A few paces back, a woman in her fifties trails behind. It’s his mother, I know.

I see him often on my walks through the broad sides of the town, lying on the sidewalk, or sprawled against a curb, gazing at the meaning of things, his mother nearby but unobtrusive, though his age is at least sixteen. His discourse is with the wind, the texture of concrete, the colors of an oil slick.

Today, he sees me.

“Richard, Richard, Richard!” he shouts in an explosion of joy.

“It’s Mike,” I say. “You got it right last time, John.”

“Mike, Mike, Mike!” He extends his hand to shake. I take it. Like the sidewalk, it is surprisingly rough. A dark cloud scuds past, revealing the sun that was there all along.

We part, each of us with spring in his step.


 Von's Bookstore has grown beyond comprehension.

Von’s Bookstore has grown beyond comprehension.

A few weeks ago, I visited West Lafayette, Indiana, where I went to Purdue for, um, well, quite a while.  I hadn’t seen the place for nearly 20 years, and it was a nostalgia trip for me.  Of course, I was well aware that Purdue had grown and metastasized enormously since then, but I hoped I would still find some recognizable haunts.  As it turned out, just getting to it through the maze-like slalom of road construction was a challenge, but I met it and prevailed without recognizing a single intervening intersection, and parked my car on a side street in front of a brick apartment building where a house a friend had lived in had stood.

Purdue was different, to say the least.  New buildings were everywhere.  On a corner near the old armory where once stood the Black and Gold Grille, affectionately know by countless generations  as the Barf and Gag, there was an imposing brick structure with a limestone façade.  In the campus center, parking lots had been converted to park-like malls by dumping great lumps of dirt at intervals and planting trees and grass thereon.  The old mall that I knew, lined with the oldest buildings (Purdue Hall, the Recitation Building, Stanley Coulter Annex), was now crisscrossed by concrete paths.  Students had long, long since begun to ignore the orders to stay off the grass, barked by senior ROTC watchdogs.  In fact, the ROTC itself had become declassee by the late 60s, after my first lovely and eternally-enshrined-in-memory two-year academic debacle forced me to take a hiatus.  Incredibly, lining the mall at the North end were temporary stalls selling everything from beets to baklava.  It was a farmer’s market, which I discovered happened every first Thursday.  The old admins would have paled at the sacrilege.

Everywhere there were crowds of young people being shepherded around by guides, only slightly older, but invested with all the wisdom conferred by an entire year or two as students.  It must have been orientation day, or week.  The guides held books, umbrellas, whatever came to hand, high in the air, the better to be followed, as they barked their well-rehearsed comments on the sights about them.  They looked for all the world like tour guides in any of the great European cities.

The old Student Union was still there, proud and hale, impervious to the modernizations thrust upon it.  In spite of everything, it felt oddly familiar, perhaps because of the couches in the long commons on the second floor, where students and faculty still dozed obliviously.  A small room at the East entrance, which had held a stereo system and a library of classical music (a refuge I availed myself of more than occasionally), was now a Welcome Center, manned, or, I should say, peopled, by three smiling young women.  They listened patiently as I explained how often I had sat there listening to Bruch or Scriabin, indelible smiles imperviously aglow.  They no doubt wondered what kind of music those bands played.  The only hint of a crack in their relentless cheerfulness was after I told them that the old couches in the commons were still doubtless rich with my DNA from my having collapsed so often there in a drunken swoon.  I left after having a greasy burger in the East room of the Sweet Shop, the only recognizable piece remaining of that venerable institution.  How often had we languished in delicious despair in those booths!

But to get to V-Mart, which, after all, is the title of this reverie.  In the little village area East of campus (now a rather large tumor) much stays the same, though much has changed.  The University Bookstore still hugs the corner, and Follett’s University Empire is nearby, but across the street next to the venerable Harry’s Chocolate Shop, Deac’s is gone, but that’s fine.  It’s space has been taken over by Von’s Shops, a phenomenon wholly of my personal era at Purdue.

In 1965 or 66, I heard that an English grad student, despairing of finding much worth reading at the existing bookstores, had opened a small one, selling books out of the living room of the house he was renting.  I decided to check it out.  It was – I hate to use the word, but it’s appropriate – awesome.  Not awesome like  the new bacon cheeseburger at MacGreasy’s, but awesome like a forest glade, or the sea in autumn.  Yes, all that, in the living room of a rented house.

There was nowhere to look in that room without seeing books, books upon books, in every cranny, on ledges; no horizontal surface was spared.  In no time I had gathered an armful of books, and walked up to the table by the door where Jon Von (he surely has a longer name, but no one seems to know it) sat collecting money.  I had one minor problem: I was broke.

“Can I get these on credit?” I asked.

“I’m sorry, no,” said Jon, “we only do that for regular customers.”

I stood, deflated for a moment, then ventured, “Can I be a regular customer?”  It was meant only half seriously, as a joke, but Jon said, “Sure!” and made out an IOU on the spot.  That was it, I was addicted, and remained a loyal customer from that moment on.

Later, after a hiatus of five years, I went back to school at Purdue, and discovered that  Von’s had moved up in the world, and occupied a tiny storefront, the leftmost shop in the photo, just like a real bookstore.  I went in, and was instantly relieved to find the same critical mass of reading material, now much enlarged thanks to the greater accommodations, but otherwise unchanged in spirit.  Jon still ran the place, now with an associate, Jim, whose surname I unfortunately can’t bring to mind.  Jon remembered me, and I immediately resumed my tab.

I have to say a few words about that tab.  It was, in my mind, a lifeline, a connection to a universe of literature I would probably never have encountered otherwise.  Von’s was, and still is, the kind of bookstore where it’s best to go in with nothing in particular in mind, and wander about aimlessly.  You will invariably leave with some books, most by authors you had never heard of before.  It was in just such a way I discovered Milan Kundera, Italo Calvino, Kobo Abe, Chinua Achebe, and a long list of others.  I cherished that tab.  I paid on it regularly, but always left a charge of something under $50, just to maintain a connection, even long after I graduated and left for good, coming back increasingly rarely.  I finally paid it off in full (I think!) when it became clear that the gaps were getting too long to maintain the fiction that I was a regular.  I don’t know what Jon thought of this curious habit.  It must have been at least annoying to a small businessman like him, but he never said anything, and it was on my own initiative that I paid it off, out of a sense of guilt that I was taking advantage of a generous person.

Over the years, the store grew.  By and by, the space next door was annexed for a record shop, the second of Von’s Shops, and we started joking about V-Mart when a K-Mart down on the levee went out of business.  Little did we know.  Von’s Shops eventually expanded into the entire block, selling records, beads, T shirts, and all manner of odd merchandise.

But the corner remains the bookstore, no different, and apparently immortal.  I went in on my recent visit, and was delighted to see that not only was the mass of books still lining shelves so close that you have to move sideways between them in places, but beyond all expectation, Jim was still there, behind the same unchanged counter piled with paper.  Stranger still, he looked much the same, unaged except for perhaps a touch of transparency.  I wondered if he had a painting tucked away in an attic.  I said hello, and so did he, looking at me expectantly, as if I had just been there the day before, and had some request, perhaps a book I wanted to order.  We talked; I asked about Jon.  Yes, he still worked the counter, Jim informed me, a bit incredulously, I thought, at the idea that he wouldn’t, but he was at lunch at the moment.  I looked around the shelves, and left with five new books, which seemed to have attached themselves to me in much the same way burrs do on hikes in the countryside.

I briefly considered putting them on my tab, which I am convinced still exists, on a 3X5 card in a file box still gathering dust somewhere.  In the end, I paid up, and took my treasures across the street to the Vienna Coffee Shop.  Things do change, even the apparently immutable.

The making of a curmudgeon

I have often thought that I’m regarded by my friends with a mixture of disbelief, alarm, and chagrin. I seem inexorably drawn to insert my opinion into any and all discussions I stumble upon. I mean well, but I’m afraid I offend too often and too blithely. I don’t regret my propensity to skepticism, but I often regret having offended someone I respect.

I don’t think this is a learned response. As early as the first grade, I got into trouble with the nuns at my school for spreading the word around the playground that there was no Santa Claus. I was dumbfounded. Hadn’t they been teaching us just that day what a terrible thing it is to lie? Apparently, some of my classmates had gone to them in tears, asking if it was true. I imagine the nuns consoled them, “There, there, of course there is a Santa, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise!”

I knew better; I had the news on the highest authority: my older brothers. Is it any wonder I started questioning everything else the nuns told me?

I’m a born outsider, literally. I was born in a refugee camp, and have never felt completely in my element, and I suppose this is a major factor in the way I relate to other people. It gives me a kind of distance that encourages my behavior.

To make matters worse, my father was an engineer by training, and a scientist by temperament. Instead of golf or bowling, he relaxed by reading science fiction and doing math problems. The first requisite of science is skepticism, and I learned it well. Too well.

He was also a deeply religious man, a Catholic who gathered the family around the radio to listen to and pray the rosary at the regularly appointed hours on Catholic radio. Naturally, when I got old enough to enter my normal rebellious years, I jumped on this contradiction in his example.

I did 12 years in parochial schools.  Once, in my sophomore year, I flunked religion class, for the sin of asking too strenuously how the Holy Trinity wasn’t just semantic trickery.  A certain native pig-headedness embroiders my skepticism, it seems.  My father was mortified.  He told me that he would rather I flunked everything else, but aced religion.  I briefly considered testing this theory, before coming to my senses; I had no desire to be sent off to a monastery.

Apparently, there were two rules:

  • Question everything
  • Accept Catholic dogma blindly

I could have chosen either of them to avoid the contradiction. For a number of reasons, I went with the first. Dogma is surrounded by walls; walls invariably yield to skepticism. And so, to this day, I am cursed with this compulsion to question everything. That’s not to say I don’t have my own blind spots, my contradictions; I would tell you what they are, but, of course, I don’t know, and wouldn’t recognize them if they jumped up and bit me on the nether regions.

Fortunately for me, my friends generally do not hesitate to help me out.