Archive for May, 2008

A Horn and Hardart Moment

To eat in a restaurant was an extraordinary and memorable event when I was growing up in the nineteen-forties. With my parents trying to get on their feet financially after my father’s illness, every penny of every spending decision was thoroughly weighed and gravely pondered. Eating out didn’t enter the equation. However, every July during my father’s vacation when the mill shut down for two weeks, the rules might be relaxed, just a little. On our way home from one of our day trips, a cruise down the Delaware River on the Wilson Line to Riverview Beach Park, we stopped on the sidewalk between Second and Third on Market Street.

In the orange light of a summer sunset, my younger brother and I watched as our parents became engaged in earnest discussion, sorting out the serious issues regarding the expenditure of the price of a restaurant meal for the four of us. My father’s argument for the celebratory moment finally prevailed over my mother’s worried doubts about any spending that wasn’t absolutely necessary. My brother and I were directed through a set of big metal and glass revolving doors into the chilly air-conditioned splendor of a Horn and Hardart Automat/Cafeteria restaurant.

Even now, after years of sophisticated and not-so-sophisticated eating out, I always get some a rush of excitement upon entering a restaurant. The idea of sitting down and ordering anything you want from a menu remains one my life’s joyous little luxuries, one I associate with those and happy occasions like our post Riverview Beach dinner at Horn and Hardart’s.

 “You can have whatever you want,” my mother told my brother and me. I stood with my brown bakelite tray resting on the chrome rails of the serving line, paralyzed by the range of choices. I froze and stammered “uh, uh, uh…”  My brother had begun ordering right at the start of the offerings. The server had already put two knockwursts, an order of fried bacon, baked beans, and cole slaw on my brother’s tray before my mother could intervene. “Mother of God! That’s it. You’ll never eat all that.” My brother looked stunned. He hadn’t understood the rules of fine dining. You could have anything you wanted. You couldn’t have everything. Continue reading ‘A Horn and Hardart Moment’

Homage to Julius Knipl

Several years ago, I attended a local college workshop titled “drawing and story-telling.” I was drawn, no pun, to the event because the visiting instructor was Ben Katchor, the creator of what Michael Chabon has called the last great American comic strip, “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.”

A decade or so before, I had stumbled upon Katchor’s strip featuring a real estate photographer, who despite always appearing with a camera case hanging around his neck, never seems to take a photograph. The weekly strip was appearing in a throw-away paper that I would pick up on my lunch hour. Rendered idiosyncratically in ink and ink washes, and set in a nameless city in an unstated year that could only be a long-lost New York City in an imagined nineteen forties, the flow of each cryptic episode is carried by a combination of omniscient narrative text boxes positioned above the dialogue balloons of the characters. And the characters, whose ethnicity, like their time and place also goes unnoted, could never be anything but Jewish. Katchor’s own context, as he put it, was a childhood spent in a Yiddish speaking household with communist parents.

The Wikipedia entry for the strip describes the title character as a “downtrodden schlep who wanders the streets taking pictures (I don’t know about that) and being sidetracked into surreal escapades. Strips often depict Knipl’s chance encounters with obscure, marginal businesses (e.g. a company that distributes newspaper weights to newsstands), eccentric hobbyists, and enigmatic details of the urban landscape. There is rarely continuity between the strips, and Knipl is the only recurring character.”

In an affectionate introduction the 1996 collection of the Julius Knipl Stories, Michael Chabon catches the gentle sadness of the Knipl project. Chabon writes that “Katchor carefully devises a seemingly endless series of regrets in the heart of Knipl, for things not only gone and rapidly disappearing, such as paper straws and television aerials, but also wholly imaginary: the Vitaloper, the Directory of the Alimentary Canal, and tapeworm sanctuaries.” My own favorites include: “public mustard fountains and the Stasis Day Parades.” And there’s Mr. Knipl’s daily paper, the “Eternal Edition of The Evening Combinator,” with headlines like “Nudist Colony Discovered in Synagogue” and ads for “Mortal Coil Mattresses.” Continue reading ‘Homage to Julius Knipl’

A Literal Fall From Grace

The photo to the left is the grade I call “the big one.” Two years ago, skating a longboard skateboard back up that deceptively mild slope, I miscalculated and found myself seriously manhandled by the surface of that otherwise benign looking street.

If you are careful, judicious and use some common sense, riding a longboard skateboard is not all that difficult. But those qualities could be considered absent in the very act of a person my age, a certified social-security recipient, even thinking of mounting a board. But so far, I’ve yet to fall while actually riding. All five of my inadvertent contacts with the paving have come while trying to skate the board, that is, pushing or kicking it forward along on flat ground, or on returning back up a hill.

In the process of skating or propelling the board, the slightest loss of concentration or loss of balance, and you are off the board and into a free fall. You fly and then you land. Unlike surfing or even snowboarding, when you land, it’s onto an unforgiving surface, blacktop or worse, concrete. To minimize the potentially catastrophic consequences inherent in such an occurrence, I take on the appearance of the Michelin Man; a foam-lined plastic helmet, hard-shell elbow and knee-pads and wrist guards. After my first two falls, both of which were backwards falls, I purchased a roller hockey girdle, that’s a pair of heavily padded long-legged, hi-rise pants complete with a tailbone-protecting strip of foam padding.

My last spill, the one that pretty much kept me from riding for almost two years, was a first, a fall forward, a pitch out over the front of the board as I was executing the third stride of a push back uphill. This was after a particularly graceful high-speed descent of what I define as a moderately steep and curving, deserted residential street. I sensed something not quite right with my second stride, a subtle awareness of an infinitesimal shift in balance, the realization of which came as I was well into my third thrust or stride. What was essentially a minutely minor flaw in technique escalated in a fraction of a millisecond into a major malfunction. My mind flashed a frantic “Mayday! Mayday.” Too late, too late for adjustments, too late to compensate, I was airborne. In a cliché of slow motion replay reels, I could see and understood precisely what was happening, but I was powerless to do anything but ride out the fall. Continue reading ‘A Literal Fall From Grace’

The Second Of Four Cities: Vienna

From the window of the tour bus between Budapest and Vienna, the Hungarian countryside had a vague strangeness to it. Open farmland broken by the occasional tree line, by distant red-roofed villages, the larger towns marked by dreary Soviet era concrete apartment blocks. The landscape itself seemed oddly different, the greens, just a bit grayed and muted.

Once across the border into Austria, the windmills appeared, hundreds and hundreds of gigantic hi-tech windmills, all facing east into the prevailing winds that blow from the not-so-distant steppes. It was once written of Vienna that Asia began on the Landstrasse, a street on the city’s eastern suburbs. Our guide told us that Austria is one of the world’s leaders in the production of wind driven electricity.

The hotel wasn’t ready for us, and we stopped for lunch, decent, at a large railroad station on the outskirts of the city. We were now on the Euro and the prices were at least comparable to those in the states. The first thing I picked up on was that the people generally were much better dressed than those in Hungary. Once in the city itself, the contrasts with Budapest were even sharper. No graffiti, no trash, and again a prosperous looking crowd. The cars were now large, almost as large as those in the states, many of them high-end Mercedes and BMWs, and most were relatively new.

With still a bit of time to kill, we walked the grounds of The Belvedere, the 18th century palace built by Prince Eugene of Savoy, a general from Italy who saved the Hapsburg empire from the Turks. Interestingly enough, one of Nazi Germany’s WW II heavy cruisers was named the Printz Eugen, in honor of the Italian who is Austria’s national hero. The magnificent Belvedere, built to rival Versailles, appears to be another case of  Hapsburgs trying to keep up with Bourbons. Continue reading ‘The Second Of Four Cities: Vienna’

Military History, Chapter Two, 1956

Barracks, Fort Chaffee, ArkanasasWhen you’ve found yourself standing in the light of revealed truth, every detail of that instant, every sight, sound, smell, what your were wearing, the weather, all of it, is yours forever. In the unlikeliest of settings, the cloud of life’s confusions can lift, if ever so slightly, but enough. And no matter the years, it will remain with you as if it had occurred this very morning.

Over a half-century ago, I stood as ordered, in the at-ease position, with two hundred of my fellow field artillery trainees, my hands atop each other at the base of my spine. I felt anything but at ease. Again, something had gone wrong or gone badly, and in the usual military way, we were, all of us, somehow guilty. The winter afternoon was raw and overcast. I was at an isolated army post in northwestern Arkansas. I was eighteen years old. 

On a low wall in front of us, flanked by his senior NCOs, stood our battery commander, an officer, unapproachable, to us almost a god. A tough guy, not as young as me, but young, a no-nonsense second lieutenant, roaring at us, telling us what “a sorry bunch of assholes” he believed us to be. It was damp and cold, and we had been outside all day doing the repetitive, mind-numbing gun drills known to us as the “cannoneer boogie.” During noon chow, which we ate from metal mess kits while standing beside the guns, it began raining and it rained just long enough to add an asterisk to our misery. I had begun to forget what it was like to be outdoors without the big mud-caked, metal-buckled rubber overshoes that covered my combat boots.

Lieutenant Olson had a slight speech impediment, but most of us knew instinctively that it was something to stay away from. Lieutenant Olson cultivated an image that he was nobody to fuck with. The few barracks room Elmer Fudd imitations drew more anxieties than laughs. I had decided to take Lieutenant Olson at his word. The rumors and stories about our fearsome, but less than esteemed, leader had begun churning from our first days on post as artillery gun-crew trainees. Continue reading ‘Military History, Chapter Two, 1956’