Archive for April, 2008

The First of Four Cities: Budapest

When we found out that we’d be flying to Europe on Czech Airlines, my wife remarked that she wasn’t aware the Czech’s had an airplane. In reality, it’s a good-sized and crisply run operation.

We flew into Prague and transferred to Budapest. Forty plus years of East-Bloc incompetence have left a mark on what we saw of Hungary. Almost two decades after the fall of the Communism, the Hungarians still have some catching up to do. 

If you listen closely enough to tour guides, you can catch some inadvertent revelations. In Spain last year, on a tour of Madrid, the guide continuously referred to the Civil War era Nationalists as the “fascists.” In Budapest, our moonlighting school-teacher guide made several references to the distasteful extravagances and flashy Mercedes’of the new rich, free-market capitalists, wistfully recalling a more egalitarian Hungary. 

Our introduction to the city was a well-conducted, guided boat tour on the Danube, which on that day and in that city was anything but blue. Budapest, despite the slovenly maintenance of public spaces, graffiti and uncollected trash, has a lively flair in a beautiful setting. The really old buildings, mostly 18th century, combine with the turn of the century (19th to 20th) streets to create the effect of a mildly sinister 1940s Carol Reed movie set. There’s a bouyant café culture, pre-war trams and an ornate subway system as old almost as those of New York and London. 

A friend of a friend, a Hungarian émigré historian, recommended a Budapest restaurant named Gundel, and on our last night in town, we did it. The place has been in business since 1896 and works hard to replicate the dining experience of those times. I felt like Ralph Kramden imitating a Hapsburg Count. Our evening at Gundel was one of the most elegant outings I’ve ever experienced; garden dining, exquisite service, over-the top food and a Hungarian string ensemble complete with a cimbalom (the Hungarian version of a  hammered dulcimer). It was also among the more expensive restaurants in Hungary. The tab matched anything a trendy Manhattan joint could have laid down. It was our extravagant gesture of the trip, and worth the price. And as we left the restaurant, a major fireworks show began in the park just across the street. We watched from under the trees and across moonlit water.

Continue reading ‘The First of Four Cities: Budapest’

Heart Attack Hockey

Last night – Flyers 3, Canadiens 2 

Look for an upcoming National Institute of Health study concluding that people who do not watch playoff hockey live on average seven-point-eight years longer than those who do watch. Last night’s Game Three of the NHL’s Eastern conference semi-finals was one for the defibrillators. 

That the Philadelphia Flyers, last season’s worst team in a thirty-team league, are in the playoffs, let alone leading two games to one in the second round, and are doing so against the Eastern Conference season leader, the Montreal Canadiens, is as improbable as it is incredible. 

As a Surgeon General might put it: Watching Game Four tomorrow night at seven could be hazardous to your health. 

Go Flyers!     

My All-Time Top Ten Albums

No Bruce, no Beatles, no Stones, no apologies.

The list was originally compiled for a local non-commercial radio station event. It reflects strictly personal choices rather than significance. It may not be a true Desert Island Discography, but in a pinch, it would do for me.

1. Rumors – Fleetwood Mac

Why not? A great album whose very success assured the end of any possibility of music as a vehicle for change. I recently pitched it to a twenty-one-year old music freak who rolled his eyes at the prospect of actually having to listen to it. A week later he called and used the word “amazing” about it.

2. Hotel California – The Eagles

The same critique as Rumors. Go a couple of years without hearing anything from it (probably impossible if you ever got to shopping malls or own an FM radio) listen with fresh ears and test your reactions to it.

3. Wildflowers – Tom Petty

A so-called solo work, but a Heartbreakers’ album all the same, and the best thing old Tom’s ever done.

4. AJA – Steely Dan

A pinnacle for the band, filled with pop masterpieces,

5. Sweet Baby James – James Taylor

A never to be repeated tour de force covering an dazzling range of musical styles.

6. Reading, Writing and Arithmetic – The Sundays 

A one-off classic that set the bar for alternative pop. 

7. Slow Train coming – Bob Dylan

A much maligned Dylan effort, but the one that made a believer of me.

8. Being There – Wilco

A redefinition of pop-rock.

9. Songs For A Blue Guitar – Red House Painters

Don’t believe it? Listen to Kozelek’s cover of The Cars, “All Mixed Up.”

10. But Seriously Folks – Joe Walsh

A discarded musical jewel awaiting rediscovery. 


A Five-Dollar History Lesson

In 1957, I came home from the army with a meaningless and rather unattractive five-dollar tattoo on my upper left arm. 

Until recently, the presence of visibly tattooed body parts indicated at least a less than privileged social origin. It’s difficult to imagine any greater measure of changing norms than the present craze for tattoos among young people, male and female, across the entire population. When I arrived home, “inked,” as it’s said today, some, but not many of my peers had tattoos. Currently, the number of tattoos per capita on any American college or university campus probably exceeds that of any state prison or merchant freighter in the nineteen-fifties. 

 Twenty years later, after fifteen years on shift work, and finally a college degree, I found myself elevated, some might say, to a corporate middle-management position. At my first management retreat, I casually accepted an invitation to go for a swim. As I moved among at least a hundred of my shirtless peers in and around the hotel swimming pool, it began to dawn on me that I was the only guy present with visible ink on his body. Today that would not the case, neither the tattoos nor the all-male business gathering. 

When my father first saw my tattoo, I got a gently negative reaction, one I mistakenly took to be rooted in his disdain for my embrace such a permanent low status signifier. That wasn’t it at all. Despite being second-generation Irish-American on my father’s side, a little further back on my mother’s, I had only the most superficial awareness of the realities of Irish history. 

My father, one of five brothers, had been warned by his mother against ever allowing himself to be tattooed. My Irish-born and raised grandmother had instructed her sons against the practice, not because it might impede social mobility or because she found it aesthetically unattractive. A tattoo was unadvisable, she told my father and his brothers, “because, if you’re on the run, they can identify you.” 

That single sentence, related to me over fifty years ago, told me more about the reality of Irish history and the relationship of the “mere Irish” to authority than any courses taken, books read or any amount of delving into the myths of so-called Celtic culture. The lingering, second-class citizenship of my relatively recent ancestors placed them always at a grave disadvantage vis-à-vis the forces of law and order in their own country. In the place where my grandmother grew up, still under foreign occupation, the likelihood of almost any young Irish Catholic male being “on the run” was neither unthinkable nor improbable.

Other than in the residual police state in the northeast corner of Ireland, such cautions would no longer seem to apply, and would certainly not be relevant to the upwardly mobile American descendants of the immigrant Irish.  And yet, my grandmother’s cautionary advice about tattoos might begin to explain the roots of my own enduring and  visceral skepticism toward all forms of authority.  


A Member Of The Club, 1951, Part One


The Incarnation Catholic Club lay behind metal grilled windows and took up most of the basement of the parish elementary school building. On warm afternoons, the sounds of clicking billiard balls, the smells of cigar and cigarette smoke, and occasionally, raucous voices would drift out into the schoolyard, hinting at a mysterious and exclusive adult male domain. We’d peer down through the grillwork trying to get a better look into the fabulous place we weren’t yet allowed to enter. The qualifications for admission to and membership in the club were rigorous. You had to be out of eighth grade and able to pay dues of twenty-five cents a month. 

A rite of passage followed each year’s eighth-grade boys graduation from the Incarnation school, a parade of thirteen-year-old boys into the club to apply for membership. From the entry door, a dark, narrow, high-ceilinged corridor led into the clubroom. An open refreshment concession, “the cage,” steel meshed so that it could be locked up at night, was presided over by the club’s manager, Lefty Huber. To initiates like us, Lefty was a remote, intimidating figure. A wiry, taciturn, unsmiling, no-nonsense man; his weathered face spoke of hard miles. Lefty was not married and his personal life was as remote as his personality. Among adults, the mention of Lefty Huber’s name usually brought the comment that the manager of the Incarnation Catholic Club was not himself a Catholic. You could smoke in the club. You could buy cigarettes, twenty-two cents a pack. You could buy candy, ice cream and sodas. Milk shakes, real milk shakes made with hand-dipped ice cream, were twenty-five cents. 

In front of the cage on a floor raised above the adjoining basketball court were four pool tables available at a dime an hour. Two derelict bowling alleys paralleled the basketball court. The club’s basketball program had spawned a neighborhood legend, Tommy Gola from Third and Lindley, who went on to the NBA. Gola had been coached by Lefty Huber and had developed a unique flat shot attributed to his years of playing under the low-ceilinged court at the Incarnation Catholic Club. Continue reading ‘A Member Of The Club, 1951, Part One’

The Fool On The Hill

That’s me in the corner. That’s me on the summit of Vermont’s Stratton Mountain mugging for the camera. That’s me not wearing a helmet.

Hey I was snowboarding and cool snowboarders don’t do anything that looks dorky or gorpy. I had consciously chosen to ride that day sans helmet No big deal. The next day with a helmet on, I, switched over to skis, the day’s highlight being a non-stop, high speed descent of a Black Diamond slope under the gondola. 

Back on the board the following day, I reluctantly, at my wife’s urgings, went back to wearing my helmet. On my third run of the day, a snowboarding repeat of my skiing the expert run from the top, I lost a heel edge on a particularly steep drop-off and went down hard, very hard, striking the back of my head on the hard pack ice beneath the inch of so of new powder. 

Even with the protection of the helmet, the impact from the fall left me momentarily dazed. I got back up, shook off the slight mental fog, finished that run and the rest of the day. Mid-afternoon of the next day, the muscles, tendons and all the stuff in my neck and in my abdomen began to seize up. By evening I could barely move my body without pain and audible wincing. 

For almost two weeks following my Stratton spill, I suffered what people rear-ended in an auto collision would call whiplash, nothing disabling, but uncomfortable enough and lasting long enough to put some manners on me. 

What was learned from this? Never again will I go out on a mountain to ski or snowboard without a helmet. I joked with friends that without my padded plastic lid, I might have been talking concussion a la the Flyers Simon Gagne. Not so, one friend said, “you might not be talking at all, a la Sonny Bono.

W. G. Sebald

A decade or more ago when I first came across the reviews of W. G. Sebald’s (1944 – 2001), “The Emigrants,” the book seemed precisely the kind of writing I’d instinctively take a pass on; plotless obscurantism, the smell of academia, slow, heavy-going introspective stuff. As an unreconstructed literalist, I thought, “nah, not for me.”

In 2004, The New Yorker published Sebald’s essay on postwar Germany’s literary and collective blocking-out of the Allied bombing campaign that destroyed so many German cities. A month later, the magazine ran his address, “An Attempt At Restitution: A Memory of a German City” presented at a literary event in Stuttgart. Both pieces were unlike any interpretations I’d read on the Second World War. I was impressed.

A few years later, in the Musuem shop of Manhattan’s Neue Museum, I came across a selection of Sebald paperbacks. After just a moment or two of browsing “The Emigrants,” I purchased the book. “The Emigrants,” like a gateway drug, led me quickly to the rest of Sebald’s translated works. I read them one after another, tripping as it were on the slow, sad and beautiful meanderings of his writing.

Just last week, randomly Googling, I punched in “Sebald” and discovered a wonderful blog site “Vertigo: Collecting And Reading W. G. Sebald,” the work of a gifted and passionate fan, Terry Pitts. The site,, I quickly realized is like a black hole, swallowing up hour upon hour to the detriment of my other responsibilities. In plunging into the pleasures of things Sebald, I realized that despite it being just a few years since reading most of his work, I had almost totally forgotten the specifics of the books. What I do remember vividly is the experience of the reading itself, of being carried along on the drifting flow of his words, of his reflections and his thinking. Reading his stuff has been compared to finding yourself on a very slow train moving through a misty and tragic dreamscape of twentieth century European history.

I’ve gathered all my remaining Sebald paperbacks. I’ve ordered several volumes of interviews and commenteries on his writing, and just as soon as I’ve exhausted the archived postings on Terry Pitts’ “Vertigo” site, I’ll indulge myself with a leisurely project, an unhurried rereading of each of Sebald’s books.

Rice Krispie Madeleines

Slicing a banana for my morning cereal triggered a “Madeleine” experience, one that took me back to a childhood breakfast of Kellogg’s Rice Krispies in milk and sugar, topped with banana slices. I returned to a moment in my mother’s kitchen, a summer morning in 1947 or 1948. The mental tableau created by my remembrance of that concoction past was further enhanced by a remembered scent of honeysuckle and the feel of sunlit warmth coming in through an open screen door. Until now, I’d resisted trying to define the root of the bittersweet emotion, the sweet sadness that accompanied the vivid specificity of that lost moment. I’ve now come to believe that the poignancy of this six-decade flashback lies in a long unacknowledged recognition, not just of the warm innocence of that moment, but in an aching adult desire, a yearning to go back and start over, to try to make everything right again.

Military History, Chapter One, 1955


Trainee Processing Center, Fort Jackson, SC, October 1955.

Author far right. 

To an adolescent mind, the conditions of the moment can appear eternal and immutable. In 1955, at the age of eighteen, my limited powers of reasoning had me convinced that going into the Army was my only redemptive option, the only viable escape from what I thought was the irrevocable mess I had made of my life. College wasn’t remotely plausible; I’d barely been able to finish high school, and without a single marketable job skill, I faced the awful prospect of sticking around to stack shelves and run a check-out register at the local A & P store. Another consideration, of no small import to me, was the notion that I would cut a rather dashing figure in uniform.

Much too early on a chilly October morning with my father at the wheel, me in the front seat and my mother in back, we left for Broad and Erie Avenues, The Buery Building, home of Selective Service Local Board one-forty-four. My father had taken the morning off to deliver me over to the United States Army. There were no tears on anyone’s part. My life and designs for living were a mystery to my parents, and more so to myself. What was going on that morning had unfolded in a seemingly natural, if unspoken, logical process.

At the draft board, I was given a subway token and told to report to a place named The Schuylkill Arsenal in downtown Philadelphia. I jokingly passed the token to my father as he drove us into town. Saying our goodbyes at the curb, I promised to write home as soon as I was settled.

Among the mix of civilian workers and uniformed service people, it was just another day at the Schuylkill Arsenal, just one more batch of inductees to be processed and sent on their way. Folding myself into the growing crowd of young guys, some not so young, I did my best to appear careless and nonchalant, killing time through an uneventful morning. Just before noon, we were handed meal vouchers and directed to the cafeteria for lunch. Having rarely eaten in restaurants, the idea of eating all I wanted in a grown-up cafeteria seemed a nice touch.

More hanging around until late afternoon when we were gathered into a flag-draped auditorium for roll call, and then the ritual of swearing in. While waiting for the officiating officer, a fat Marine Corps sergeant began polling of the crowd, “how many Marines here?” A few hands went up. “How many Navy?” When he asked about Air Force enlistees, he threw in his dig. “I suppose the Air Force is still considered a branch of the armed forces.” The remaining three-dozen of so of us were for the Army. An Army Lieutenant Colonel, who looked like one of the prick lay teachers at my high school, entered the room and the sergeant shouted “Attention.” We all went through the motions of what we felt was a military response. “Gentlemen, raise your right hands… When it was done, we had sworn away our legal status and rights as civilians and had become members of the armed forces of the United States. Like so many unthinking young men had done for millennia before us, we had taken the King’s Shilling.

Continue reading ‘Military History, Chapter One, 1955’