Monday, July 19, 2021

The Right Thing To Do

Here in eastern Massachusetts, there’s no question we’ve been having more than our share of rainy weather this summer. The gardens are mostly loving it, the people not so much.


So, I’d been reading about the hot and dry weather they’ve been having out west, and wondering if there’s anything that I, just as a lone private citizen, could do to help out.


Then I hit on the idea of sending them some of our weather. I mean, we’ve got way more rain, they’ve got way less, so why not send them some? I always figure, if you don’t want to be part of the problem, try being part of the solution. You know, all that. Sharing is caring. 


So I went down to my local mail store and told them I wanted to overnight some our weather out west. The clerk was very helpful. She took out her tape measure, and got the height, the width, and the depth, and came up with some options. “Well, the cheapest is going to be the post office, but it might take a week or more to get there.” I said, “No, I want it there quicker than that, those people are really suffering.” So she said, “OK, your UPS next-day air is going to be your best bet,” and quoted a figure that was, in fact, a little more than I wanted to pay, but heck, I wanted to help folks living through a nasty drought, you know, not score a bargain, so I said, “OK, let’s do it!”


It was a real good feeling. But a couple days later, my shipment was returned to me. There was a terse note attached to the outside of the box. “Dear Do-Gooder: Thanks but no thanks. Here in the west, we are a self-sufficient people, hot and dry it’s true, but proud and resilient. When we want some of your elite eastern weather, we’ll ask you for it. With all due respect, kindly butt out.”


Well, that took me down a peg. I was just trying to help! But when I opened the box, I saw it was full of warm, sunny weather and blue skies. Their weather, see, because it had come from there.


I didn’t ask any questions. Later, I spent a nice afternoon out in the garden with the sunlight streaming down.

 

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Dreaming

Sweet dreams till sunbeams find you
Sweet dreams that leave all worries behind you
But in your dreams whatever they be
Dream a little dream of me.


I often hear characters in pop songs and in shows for the stage singing about their dreams. About how they yearn to turn their dreams into reality, if only, if only, and before it’s too late! Dreams of a better life, of romance, of finding themselves, of finding their true place in this crazy mixed-up world, yeah. Sometimes they’re daydreams and sometimes they’re nighttime beddy-bye dreams, and sometimes you’re not too sure. One thing’s certain: dreams seem roundly regarded as propitious, good, comforting, often thrilling, and helpful for pointing the way forward.

Happy talk, keep talkin’ happy talk,
Talk about things you’d like to do.
You got to have a dream,
If you don’t have a dream
How you gonna have a dream come true?


The way the story goes, if you can dream it, you can do it. To me, this is a fairy tale, but (or, therefore), audiences seem to enjoy these songs of tinsel and greasepaint, and so by this time we have many of them knocking around the old jukebox of the mind. Probably songwriters generally meant “envision” when they said “dream,” but “dream” fits the metre better and besides it has these mystical, dark-of-night overtones, inviting the notion that bright ideas and inspiration and even wisdom can come to us unbidden while we’re asleep and be applied to our waking life with a good chance of success.

I dream nightly, but almost never do I dream of anything I would like to see realized or replicated in real life, please no. My dreams are nonsensical, and they rattle me. As for any lessons they might impart, these tend to evaporate when I wake up, and a typical dream leaves little except a sour taste, a certain horror at what I’ve just witnessed, and sometimes, for a moment, the strong urge to patch things up between me and the people in my dream, as if it had been real: “I’m so sorry, I didn’t really mean to say such a thing . . . how can I make it up to you?”
 
I know why I dream and I know what the problem is. No matter how long and involved my dream seems to be, I’m convinced that I dream it all just within the few moments before the need to get up and pee becomes urgent enough to wake me up. It’s a pressure situation all right, and it causes me to have particularly rushed, complicated, pointless, distressing dreams, hurried housecleanings of the dark corners of the subconscious. But even while they’re going on, part of my mind tries to stand apart, tries over and over to make sense of what’s happening and explain the dream to itself.

Well. I happen to be a fan of railroads, especially old railroads, especially abandoned old railroads, where sometimes the bridges and tunnels and stations and freight houses have been left behind, slowly falling to pieces, and on certain days where the light is just right, you can stand on the old right-of-way and imagine the great engines thundering down the line, making the earth shake. And which is more poignant, more sweet/sour? The vision of the railroad in its heyday? Or the poignancy of the crumbled empire, the great scheme that’s come crashing down, the emptiness and the loss and the bitter wind that blows? So! Quite a few of my dreams end up involving railroads. In particular, for some reason, a frequent guest is the Central Massachusetts, one of the sweetest/sourest little rail lines that ever ran.

Here, now. Let’s imagine ourselves at Boston’s North Station in the 1950’s, as a shiny Boston and Maine Buddliner leaves for its nightly trip to Clinton, many miles to the west on the Central Mass. Ridership has been declining for years, and somehow it’s not surprising to see that the single car is as high and as wide as a regular one but shorter than a Nash Rambler, with room enough only for the driver, the conductor, and maybe four passengers. It slides out of the depot onto orange rails running down a blue cobblestone street (such history, such charm), and the cobbles are wet, glistening with silver suds, a sailor’s duds, a bag of spuds, them Crips and Bloods . . .

Steady, there. What better time than now to mow the lawn, wouldn’t you say? That would be relaxing, and would sure go a long way towards tidying this place up. Pull the cord and off we go! And so now I’m mowing the tall grass between the rails of the Central Mass., out in Sudbury or Hudson or somewhere, what a disgrace, they can’t even afford to maintain the ROW anymore. There’s a cool breeze but a blazing sun, and old sheds alongside the track, what’s in them, old hanging sliding doors faced with clapboards that have warped and sagged in the sun, and the paint, once a cheery red, has faded to a whisper of dirty pink. Yellowjackets furious in the dusty air. A signal can be seen up ahead, and it’s lit! It’s red up ahead, it’s always red up ahead, it doesn’t mean a train is coming, it means no train is ever coming. Red is the color of NO, of bankruptcy, of shame and failure and scandal! Beyond, a torn tornado is touching down on a concrete horizon and Tom Brady is there too, good ol’ Tom, so steady, so reassuring, rearing back with that football, about to let it fly, a calm gaze and an aw-shucks grin: “Don’t worry, Bub, I got you covered.” It’s my train now, my train (what train?). My train is full of butter, my train is full of asphalt, my train is full of musty old air and cobwebs, broken glass, scraps of paper, and, mainly, to be honest, nothing much at all. Nothing at all, just hot dusty air in each car, open it up and see, pick it up like Godzilla, shake it out like a Parcheesi shaker, out spills nothing.

My train now runs out along a very tall earthen embankment, high above a green valley in the countryside between two forgotten station stops. Up in the air my train makes its way, shakes its way, and blows its whistle and it sounds both like a whistle and a Fats Waller record, oh mercy! I’m on the train, up upon this mountain of earth, and I’m also down below it, looking up, it’s a picture postcard, a turn-of-the-century colorized postcard, soft pinks and yellows in the sky, and it is very sweet and stirring and what a cozy time we’re having and it’s my train, which would make me very old by now. What is this place? Where do I live? Where shall I live?

Steady, there. As it happens a house is for sale (it’s being auctioned, really) in Wayland, a nice town, a posh town. We arrive there on a perfectly fine, sunny morning to meet with the realtor, and at first things look OK. It’s a tall two-story, wood-frame single-family on a slight rise, almost completely surrounded by a monoculture of tall, leggy, straight-up white pines. It’s cooler underneath the pines and the light here is dim, the ground is soft with a carpet of fallen needles. Nee-dullsch. Above us the house shines in the sunlight, its gables and dormers (so many dormers) looking monumental, and, through the regimental stands of tree trunks, a bit surreal. We walk all the way around the house without coming nearer to it, as if assessing it in a virtual way.

Unsurprisingly, the property backs up to the Central Massachusetts (the cab of a rusty engine that is shuffling by can be seen just over the berm that obscures the rest of the train). Also, an old canal is back there too, parallel to the railroad. Dead trees lie in the stagnant water, rotting. Such history! Such charm! But now we come around to the front of the house where there’s a grand stone staircase leading up to the main entrance, and a woman is there, slumped on the steps, and something is very wrong, she is weeping, ranting, shouting (barking!) at someone, maybe  at us, though she seems not to see us (where’d the heck that realtor get to?). Maybe she’s a tenant? Or maybe she’s the soon-to-be former owner and is even now being evicted from her own property? She’s very upset! Her face is a rupture of angry tears and flushed skin and sticky-looking spittle, there’s something streaky red in it, ghastly; she is beyond using words and is just wailing, moaning, hawking, spluttering.

We back away and scurry around the side of the house and immediately forget the woman on the steps. Here, we begin to see why this house is being auctioned off. There are other buildings here, just beyond the property lines, and in the bright (harsh) (glaring) sunlight they show up excruciatingly well. Before us is a burned-out brick carriage house with pitted, once-fancy limestone pillars (where are the horses, where are the old jalopies, what’s become of them, what has happened here?). And over there are some squat industrial buildings, workshops-like, more recent perhaps, abandoned, sooty, disheveled, with ragged tar paper flapping, rubbish of every kind tangled up in the dead grass, overgrown brush, all thorns and burrs, and rusty barbed wire in loops and whorls, and crudely painted signs warning “Keep Out — Trespasing Prohibted.”

Who would ever buy this house, under any circumstances? Oh, and, by the way, what house? The wailing and shouting have stopped and I turn around and the house and the pine trees are gone and I am alone. But the railroad track remains, so suddenly I am walking (west) along it in a headwind. I walk for hours. I pass by scenes I recognize from picture books about old train lines, and I pass by scenes from no old train line ever. I come to the black mouth of a tunnel and it is late in the day now and I am shivering and hungry and except for the rail line I am lost. I can’t go back, and the wooded country rising steeply to my left and right is obscure in the dusk and appears to be wilderness, with a covering
of snow, lacking roads or trails or buildings or lamplight, so onward I go.

I am running now, stumbling and tripping. The ballast cuts my knees and hands. I can see a headlight coming (and you could certainly see this coming) behind me and the air shakes and the ground shakes and I am trapped and my legs have turned to noodles, there is nowhere to hide, nowhere I can climb to or crawl, it’s cold, hard, a choking smoke, a ruthless machinery, a cage of rats,
do it to Juliaaaaa a a  a   a     a
                                                    a
                                                     a
                                                   
   a
                                                  
    a                                                     
                                                     a     
 

                                                      a                                                                                                                                                                         
                                           
      — a-WAKE!

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

My Morning

Somewhere around 4:30, I wake up. Not for the first time ever, I mutter to myself, “darkest hour / just before dawn.”

As it happens, this is not a summer morning, when the donzerly light would already be leaking through and around the window shades. This morning, the bedroom is still drenched in darkness, as it will be for another hour or more.

I feel crummy. My head aches. My mouth tastes sour. Part of that has to do with needing to use the toilet, and there can be no putting that off.

I throw the covers to the side (so as not to get tangled up in them and fall), and roll to a sitting position on the edge of the bed. My feet look distant and ghostly. I rub my eyes with both sets of fingers, an activity the pandemic doctors warn you against. The air in the room is neither warm nor cold: a heat pump on the far wall fills the room with processed air that hovers around 63 degrees. We run the pump to keep the main thermostat from tripping and the furnace from coming on. Years ago, before the heat pumps, we would set the thermostat to 55, until winter really and truly arrived, saving cash with every shiver, but now we have a dog and he sleeps near us in his dog bed on the floor, and by no means and at no point will I tolerate the thought of him being be too cold, or too warm, for any length of time whatsoever.

I get to my feet and feel my way around the foot of the bed. It has a wooden frame (queen-size) in a vaguely country style. We bought it in the 80’s at Grover Cronin, now long gone, after deciding it was high time for a young(ish) married couple to trade in their old king-size mattress (which used to rest on the floor of our apartment) for something more grown-up and less needlessly roomy. I shuffle across the carpeted floor, careful not to trip over Rufus, who sometimes leaves his bed to curl up near the doorway, invisible, a dark puddle within a dark pool.

I do have trouble with my balance now, in the dark. Gripping door frames one by one, I carefully make my way past the top of the main stairway. I haven’t forgotten the morning when my dad, in his 80’s and still in his old house, lost his balance on just such an early-morning errand and tumbled to the bottom of the (uncarpeted, oak-tread) stairs. Ouch! My brother, who was living at their house at the time, called to tell me. My dad didn’t break so much as a tooth, but they took him to the hospital anyway, and parked him for several hours in that special place just off the ER, admitted but not admitted. I went to see him; he was on a hospital bed under a pile of warmed towels and hooked to a monitor. His face, which had acquired several purple blotches, was all I could see. He looked as if he’d been in a fight. Beneath the harsh hospital lighting, his teeth seemed yellower than usual. The first thing I recall saying to him was, “Have you had a look at yourself yet?”

Anyway. My morning.

Back from the ’throom and under the warm covers again. Rufus is rousing, thinking that it’s time for the Dawn Patrol, but it’s not, no, not yet. Ssh, Rufus! Ssssssh! It’s too early. Bed, Rufus. Bed.

I lie on my back waiting for sleep to return, feeling the weight of the bedspread and the comforter. Are we comforted yet? I try not to think about anything. Especially, I try not to invite thoughts about the day to come, but they traipse in sometimes and have a seat anyway. All right then, what does the day hold? What will I be doing? What am I looking forward to? What am I dreading?

Bits and pieces float through my mind. I notice how undisciplined my mind can be. Scraps of songs, scenes from movies, memories of past delights and disappointments, upsetting events from yesterday’s news, pictures of this and that and her and him.

I make an effort to bring up soothing images. Here I am once again visiting friends at the Rhode Island seashore in early spring, privileged to be up in the cupola of a rambling, turn-of-the-century woodframe house, looking out over the nearly treeless landscape where the old pasture lands, those that haven’t been turned into house lots, are greening up. Weathered pink granite ledges erupt from the earth here and there. It is a landscape as old as any in New England. Blur your eyesight a bit and you could be viewing what was left just after the last ice sheet departed.

Below, in the yard where the hammock and lawn chairs haven’t been put out yet, the warming sunlight and the biting wind are playing their timeless game of tag. In the distance is the little beach club, deserted, where yet more privileged people will come in July to toast themselves. Just beyond is the vast ocean, somewhere between its winter iron-gray and summer azure, the welcoming deep azure of leisure.

Or maybe I’m alongside the little rail line on the Cape that runs down to North Falmouth. It is a sunny summer day but the crowds are elsewhere. The line was built so that fertilizer dealers could get guano hauled out to market from Woods Hole. Pee-yew! But now it is part of the quaintness of the Cape, the fraying quaintness. Buzzards Bay is out beyond, the seagulls and the sailboats and the life-giving sea air, and the place where we’re staying for the night is comfortable and nearby.

Awake, again! Damn! It’s almost 6:30! Speaking of guano, the dog’s probably about ready to explode. Well, not on my watch!

W
Darfur
Dog fur
Mission accomplished
Well no, not yet


It’s still dark in the corners of the room. I flip on the hall light so I can find my warm socks and my jeans and a fleece to go over my t-shirt. The dog is up, tail wagging, wanting a good-morning hug and a chuckle under his chin and a brisk back rub from shoulders to rump. He vigorously shakes his head, and his dog tags jingle like the telephone ringing in “My Three Sons.” It’s for you! He gives off a rich aroma that was novel to me six years ago but is now part of daily life: my dog, and my home, and me, we all smell alike. I will follow this sunrise routine for more than 2,500 mornings to come. And I wonder what will happen after that, when Rufus is gone. I push both thoughts out of my mind.

Rufus is happy, happy to see Daddy up and moving, but he really wants to go out right now. Down the stairs he plunges, and turns left at the bottom: go sniff the sofa in the living room, go sniff the dog bed near the woodstove, see if anything’s changed overnight. A dog of routines. I follow down the stairs more slowly, my hand sliding along the railing as I descend into the murk. I don’t like darkness, have always feared it, imagining strange little noises behind me. I flip on the kitchen light, then the light in the mudroom where Rufus waits, bouncing from foot to foot. On the way, I grab my phone to check the temperature and conditions: will I need gloves, will I need boots, which coat to wear, will Rufus need his coat? I make sure I have poop bags in my pocket, and decide whether it’s dark enough to bring my phone for its flashlight, which will make it easier to locate the poop once it appears. Find a leash, attach it to his collar, unlock the door, open the door, open the storm door, and step outside.

Down three concrete steps, across the walk, and onto the front lawn, with Rufus pulling on the leash despite the many hours we’ve spent trying to train him out of the habit. Room for improvement there. Rufus is leading with his nose, obsessed with soaking up the vital scents and smells of the outdoor world, reading the terrain: who has been here, how long ago, how many, which way did they go? I can smell it too, but I don’t have his nose; to me, it is all just various kinds of rank.

But! Almost every morning it is beautiful outside. There are days when sleet-in-your-face or black-ice-on-the-driveway or cold wind or deep snow or pelting rain can make us both miserable, but I was surprised, early in my dogwalking days, to find that such mornings were comparatively rare. Today, the sun is just inching over the horizon, its first rays firing the tops of the tallest trees with amber light, while the sky in the west is a leaden blue-gray with an inner glow, an iridescence. My phone-camera stays in my pocket; it would never capture what I’m seeing.

I usually hum nonsense tunes over and over while Rufus sniffs around the yard, searching for just the very most exquisitely right spot to do his number 1.

Dab that polliwog
To and fro —
Moosilauke Moosilauke
Bing Bang Joe!


This day, for some reason, the prevailing theme is Peggy Lee’s “It’s a Good Day.” It gets into my head and won’t get out.

Yes, it’s a good day for singin’ a song
And it’s a good day for movin’ along
Yes, it’s a good day, how could anything be wrong
A good day from mornin’ till night


I coax Rufus to get down to “business,” but there are some things you just can’t rush. We move into the back yard, and I take a moment to look up at my house, this structure of uncertain durability, the mismatched angles of its roofs (main house, garage, sunroom), the stubby chimney. Not a handsome or especially well-constructed house, it has gotten us through another night and for that we will be grateful. Many others are not so lucky. This gets me thinking again, briefly, about privilege. Here live two grown-ups and their dog. A nice dog. There’s food in the fridge and oil in the tank. None of them works for pay. How do they do it? Does it matter? Is it anybody’s business but our own?

You can walk downtown in your birthday suit
I can see you walkin outta the Bank of America with a whole lotta loot
Ain’t nobody’s business but your own


Having finished his number 1, Rufus usually wants a longer walk, sometimes up the street to the old cemetery, before he is ready to assume the question-mark posture that indicates the time for number 2 has arrived. Before we got a dog, dealing with the doo was one of the things I least looked forward to. Squeamish! But I guess I passed that test. I’m a good dogwalker and a model citizen too. Except when it drops into a foot or more of snow, I always pick up after him. I step on the leash so he won’t wander away, swoop in with a bag (compostable, as if), scoop up the goods, and knot the bag, all in a few quick, clean motions that bespeak my years of practice. You’d have to say I’m pretty proud of this capability of mine. Back when I was working, there were things I got paid for that I wasn’t anywhere near as good at. And soon we are headed home, one of us feeling lighter and both of us feeling better.

‘Cause it’s a good day for payin’ your bills
And it’s a good day for curin’ your ills
So take a deep breath and throw away your pills
‘Cause it’s a good day from mornin’ till night


We come in through the back door. It’s beat-up and needed replacing a year ago, but that will have to wait. Anyway, I am always delighted that it’s warmer inside; it’s as easy as that to make me happy. I take off his coat, take off my coat and fleece and hat and gloves, find a towel if it was wet out, and dry his paws. After half a dozen years, he knows to offer his front paws to me for drying, one at a time. I tell him to “spin” and he turns 180 degrees so I can reach his back paws more easily. Then I unclip his leash, hang it up, and usher him into the kitchen with a set of gestures I use only at this time of day. “Let’s get you something good.” I fish out an especially tasty treat from the dog-treat cupboard and have him “sit,” though often he is already sitting by now. “Good boy! Now, go see Mama.” And off he trots, up the stairs and back to the bedroom.

There is a completeness and a rewarding simplicity to this morning routine that I know I will miss.

For a few minutes I have the kitchen to myself. It’s one of the first pleasant interludes of the day, pleasant because it is quiet and unhurried, and I have no deeds to do, no promises to keep. I turn on the heat under the tea kettle, having filled it the night before. I find yesterday’s tea leaves in the fridge, packed into a tea strainer, and set it atop a clean mug. I’ll get four or five cups of strong-enough black tea out of these leaves before putting them out in the compost heap. It used to be black coffee for me, two big cups at home and then two or three at the office, but no more. I knew one morning last spring that the time had come to stop with the coffee, and I did. Mostly.

Now it’s down the hatch with my daily medicine (Lisinopril for blood pressure, Simvastatin for cholesterol) and vitamins (B-12, a multivitamin, zinc). And some dried fruit (prunes, dates, apricots), part of my daily push for sufficient fiber.

I take my tea upstairs. Annie is awake but under the covers. I raise the shades if she hasn’t already done it. We lost our real shades when we replaced our windows two years ago; to be perfectly honest, our present shades are just a pair of dog blankets (very room-darkening) attached to the top of each frame with tacks. We roll them up from the bottom right corner and clamp them at the top with clothespins. Every morning, yes! Just like apartment living, in the years of cheap apartments way back when.

I flop onto the bed, prop myself up with extra pillows, and have a look out at the street and the neighbor’s big yard, or the woods between our shed and the old cemetery, depending on which window. Rufus often joins us, and for a while it’s just a cuddle-pile and there is nothing at all wrong with anything, nor could there ever be.

I pull up the weather on my phone and let Annie know what the day will be like, and how cold or warm it is right now, because she will soon be getting ready to take Rufus on his second outing, a longer walk on the nearby rail-trail. I tell her what it felt like outside, what birds or animals I heard or saw, whether the clouds are gathering or clearing. “How did you sleep?” “How did you sleep?” Sometimes we talk about the news, or what we have to do today, but not much; we don’t want to ruffle our own feathers.

Then she’s up and showering, and the day is underway. My morning begins to come apart, and also to gain momentum. Sometimes there’s a trip to the supermarket. Sometimes there’s an appointment. Some mornings I paint, or write. Sometimes there are tasks, like sweeping out the garage or filling the feeders. Sometimes it is boring, but in a good way. We are of an age where, although we would change some things (starting with the shades), we realize we have been lucky with this life. The dog is perhaps the luckiest, because it’s all the life he is ever going to know, and he is delighted with every minute of it.


************************************************

Addenda: more “music” for walking the dog at dawn.

Souza manna pooza and a
Souza manna poo —
Souza manna pooza, now
Whatcha gonna do?

Motoboat Jones gonna
Bolton egg down
With a whatzu, whatzu
Comin into town

Hello all the ticky tacky
Mama come and see —
Look at all the ticky tacky
Crawlin up a tree

Bailey got a bloviator
Ask about a chockablocker
Filibuster fascinator
Juvenator Joe

It’s a cup-chak
It’s a walla-walla-doo
Get yourself a hinney honey
That’s what I would do



And those are the clean ones.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

Mr. Sands — a character study

Not long ago, while looking for a new place to walk our dog, we wound up in neighboring Hopkinton on the Douglas Sands Memorial Trail, a half-mile rambling hike along a wooded ridge. The website described Sands as “a Hopkinton science teacher who was a natural raconteur and passionate observer of nature.” Unless there were two local science teachers with the same name and characteristics, this must have been the Mr. Sands I had in eighth grade in Wellesley. Did he teach in Hopkinton and then in Wellesley, or the other way around, or in other places as well? I don’t know.

I hadn’t thought about Mr. Sands in years, and wasn’t aware that he’d had a hiking trail named after him. As we climbed up through old glacial boulder fields now grown up in woods, I noticed that someone had built this meandering path with exceptional care. To shore it up, they had borrowed from the array of stones scattered all around, and provided rudimentary staircases here and there where it was steep. Someone outdoorsy and knowledgeable and thorough. Maybe it had been Doug Sands and some of his friends. That would have been like him.

Mr. Sands was my science teacher at Wellesley Junior High between 1963 and ’64. My brother Bob had him in 1960, and Ned would follow in 1966. In all, he would teach middle-school science in Wellesley for over 30 years. In his appearance, and in the enthusiastic, quirky manner in which he conducted his classes, he stood apart from other teachers I had, who by now have mostly blurred together in my memory.

In the classroom, especially just before and after class, he would be formal but friendly. But if you saw him out walking among the scurrying students in the crowded hallways between classes, towering over everyone, loping along with great long strides, his gaze fixed on some distant object, you learned not to say hi to him, because he would not acknowledge you at all.

Mr. Sands was a sight. Tall, thin, and bony, middle-aged when I had him, his face was narrow and weathered and the features within it – his chin, lips, nose, eyebrows, and ears, his teeth when he laughed which was often – were prominent and elongated. Horse teeth! He wore glasses with thick lenses; I remember that they reminded me of goggles. His gray hair stood almost straight up from his forehead, as if a blast of wind had once blown it up and back so hard that it had yet to recover. He had a deep, booming voice and an unpredictable manner; both tended to get your attention.

His was the most unusual and engaging class I ever had at that school, maybe any school. Mr. Sands threw out the rule book and he threw out the lesson plan. He must have had an overall design to his teaching but I was never aware of it.

One of the first things you’d notice was that the standard lab bench and teacher’s desk up front were a mess, and so were the bulletin boards. There was stuff everywhere: curios, keepsakes, bird’s nests, tiny skeletons, shells and stones from far and near, and amber bottles of who knew what. The stock terrarium was filled not with turtles or fish but what appeared to be mosses and mold, and litter. Halfway down the right-hand wall (the left-hand wall was all windows, north-facing) was a cork bulletin board with a white dish towel tacked to it, on which someone (Mrs. Sands? For there was a Mrs. Sands.) had spelled out in needlework, “Mr. Sands’ Crying Towel.” It was understood, tongue-in-cheek, that the crying towel was to be used after Mr. Sands handed back his corrected quizzes to the class. Such quizzes were frequent; he was trying to impart knowledge – were you getting it or not? (Some of the kids, disdaining science, resisted Mr. Sands, his efforts and his personality; I’m sure it puzzled him.) Across the bottom of the towel, in smaller letters: “It’s Your Own Fault.”)

At the back of the room, on the floor in a shallow carton, was something most of us had heard about before our first day: the classroom mascot, Mr. Sands’ Galapagos tortoise, which he’d named Albee, or Alby, or Albie. Albee was about the size of a toilet seat and rode to work each day on a pile of old newspapers in the back of Sands’ blue-violet Ford Fairlane convertible. Albee would sit in class quietly munching apples and gazing at the sights. No other teacher had a pet in their room, certainly not anything as exotic. Albee made you want to look up the Galapagos Islands in a book, without anyone telling you to do so. He also made kids (Albee’s groupies) want to sit in the back of the room, where they could keep an eye on him, and be interested in him. This tended to push the slower kids up towards the front, where Sands could keep an eye on them.

I never asked how or why Sands had acquired Albee. I’d heard rumors that he (Sands) had been in the Navy or the Seabees in World War II, and it is easy to imagine him stopping by the archipelago sometime during those years and taking a young tortoise on impulse. I can’t picture Albee in the classroom of today, with or without a pandemic. Individuals aren’t allowed to walk off with tortoises anymore, and a committee would have to be convened before it could be allowed into the school, and the Board of Health would probably get involved. All this would be well and good from the standpoint of preserving the tortoise species. But our classroom experience would have been significantly less rich without Albee, and I feel lucky that we were able to enjoy his presence. (I do wonder about Albee sometimes, wherever he is. He’s still a fairly young tortoise.)

Mr. Sands clearly liked his job. He liked to draw examples from what we could see around us. One day he pointed to a utility pole across the street, which had two gray cylindrical boxes attached to it up high, with wires running in and out. “Now, which one of you bright young people can tell me what those boxes are? Come on, now, somebody? You see them every day, aren’t you curious about them?” There were some who snickered (“Who cares?”), and some of us were embarassed to admit to ourselves that we took these devices for granted and had never wondered what they were. But scientists don’t take things for granted, and Mr. Sands strode out into the hallway where he seized a hapless student on his way down the hall with a bathroom pass and ushered him in. “Now, you look like a smart young man to me. You see those gray boxes up on the telephone pole? I’ll bet you can tell me what those are.” It made little difference that the student didn’t know either, because by now most of us did want to know. We wanted to know; a thing more rare than you’d think. They turned out to be transformers; their purpose was to reduce the power from the high-voltage lines to a level that wouldn’t “fry your mothers’ fridges.” He didn’t really say that, I read it somewhere; but he could have.

Another morning in the classroom: Mr. Sands was discussing the Moon. Everybody knew that the Earth rotated fully on its axis once a day; that’s what made a day a day. But how often did the Moon rotate, not just around the Earth but on its own? Did it rotate on its own? Someone offered the theory that there was a dark side to the Moon that nobody ever sees; the Moon always shows one face to us; therefore, it doesn’t rotate at all. At this, Mr. Sands asked me get up. (“Stand up, Robert,” he said, using my older brother’s name. When Ned had him three years later, Sands used to call him “David.”) He had me stand at the front and face the class, and keep on facing the class, with my arms out to the side at shoulder level so I could be seen better. “Let’s pretend that you’re the Moon and the rest of the class is the Earth.” Then he asked me to move sideways over to the window-wall, still facing the class, then to the rear wall (being careful not to trip over Albee), then to the fourth wall (“Keep your arms up, Robert, you’re drooping.”), then back to where I started. How many times had I turned? Like the Moon, I had turned once.

Today, NASA delights us with this information: “The Moon does spin on its axis, completing a rotation once every 27.3 days. Confusion is caused because it also takes the same period to orbit the Earth, so that it keeps the same side facing us.” I hear ya, guys, but I’m still baffled. I guess that’s one reason I didn’t go into the sciences.

Another morning in the classroom: Mr. Sands took the class on an imaginary trip to the Moon. (NASA’s own Moon missions were several years in the future.) He did this with every class, every year. Sometimes he did it for whole auditoriums. The room would be our spaceship, Mr. Sands would be the Captain. There, in the sky, is the Moon; what would you need to take along for such a journey? Sands positioned himself at the blackboard, chalk in hand, ready to write down our suggestions.

We had some: the Moon was far, we would need fuel. The moon was airless, we would need spacesuits. We thought and thought and threw out some more ideas, but of course we forgot a few things. “Is that it? Anything else? OK, then!” And he grasped the handle of a heavy, invisible door and drew it firmly shut: “Kah-LAAANG!!” followed by a burst of mad-scientist laughter. And so over the next 20 minutes, we were all on board with him (which was another remarkable thing in itself), flying to the Moon and back. While everyone was in on the joke, still we managed to absorb a few crucial facts about space, and rockets, and the inhospitable surface of the Moon, and the deviousness of our Captain, by getting killed off one row at a time because we had forgotten to bring – what? – food, or bottled air, or water, or radios, or weighted boots, or a parachute for our ship. By the time the ship got back to Earth, the only one left was our Captain. Truly a tragic outcome for the rest of the passengers! But then, there was always the crying towel.

At the end of the school day on Friday, November 22nd, after the principal had given us the bad news about President Kennedy over the P.A., I made my way down to Mr. Sands’ classroom. I must have thought I’d feel safer there. Nothing was said; he had left the door open for anyone who wanted to come inside. There was a radio on, reporting what little news there was at that point. After a while, Mrs. Sands appeared. They gave each other a quick hug and went back to listening to the news with somber expressions, each staring ahead blankly, trying to imagine, trying to understand, to see. Mrs. Sands looked . . . normal.

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Two Beaters: an exercise in writing about cars

In 1972, after I graduated from college, having realized that the Army was not about to draft me, I spent the summer driving a taxi (there’s some more car stories right there) and mailing out recordings of my voice to radio stations around the country that specialized in classical-music programming. It seemed logical. I had the voice for it and four years of classical radio experience. I had mastered many of the diffcult pronunciations in the genre (Mieczys┼éaw Horszowski comes to mind), and I was prepared to go anywhere to get work. I mailed tapes to stations in Albany, Chicago, New York, San Francisco, Boston (where I already was), Portland (Maine), Philadelphia, and more. Then I called up the program director at each station to ask for an interview and an audition. I hadn’t figured out yet that, for me to get hired, one of these places was going to need to have a vacancy, and it happened that turnover at such stations was low. Also, some of them were commercial, and would expect their announcers to work half of each day selling airtime; I had no background in sales. But as summer turned to fall, I caught a break with WFLN, located in a suburb of Philadelphia. They asked me to come down for an interview, can’t promise anything right now, but we’d like to meet you, how about four o’clock a week from Thursday?

I didn’t own a car so I arranged to borrow my mother’s old Datsun sedan. It was a clunker, a diminutive, rusty, dark-red box on wheels, four on the floor. Mom had been using it for years to get to work across town, which was about all it was good for, and she’d finally persuaded my dad to get her something better. So there it sat in the driveway, lightly leaking oil. Its prospects weren’t good but then neither were mine. At that point, we were made for each other.

Are there any journeys in life quite like the questing journeys of damn-fool twentysomethings, with a change of wrinkled clothes in a duffle bag and a few dollars in their wallet (and dimes for the pay phones), an old roadmap to go by, a few directions and names and phone numbers scribbled on scraps of paper? Your innocent teen years have come and gone, you’re out of the nest now but don’t quite know it yet. Your future awaits, a vast gulf, exciting and frightening, but somehow your great plan for your life all comes down to an ability to stay alert on the daunting drive down the interstate, and to get off at the right exit, and to neatly tie your necktie using the car’s tiny rearview mirror.

I had the interview at FLN and it was cordial but brief. They had no need “at present” for anyone new but, hey, Dave, thanks for coming down, and best of luck. Well, I already knew I was going to need it.

Would you have turned around then, and crawled all the way back up 95 to Boston? I would have, yes. I was the kind of guy who liked things that were safe, and known. But for reasons I don’t recall, I didn’t. Sometime before I’d left Boston, I had called my cousin Laura in Pittsburgh (my Uncle Ted’s youngest) to tell her that I was having an interview in Philly, and she had urged me to come on out to Pittsburgh when I was done, I could crash at the apartment with her and her roomies, why not? I took a long look at the map. Pittsburgh didn’t really seem that far from Philadelphia, not in the grand scheme of things. Home: I’d been prepared just now to leave home for good, for a new life in some other state. So, no. I would not go home, not yet. I gassed up and headed west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

It’s four and a half hours from city to city if you do the speed limit, which the Datsun didn’t. It was probably well past midnight when I arrived at Laura’s apartment in the Shadyside neighborhood. Shadyside was funky, diverse, a mix of students, poor and working-class people, artists and musicians, dreamers and schemers and down-and-outers, a good place to find a cheap apartment. My memories are blurry at this point. I probably stayed a couple of days; my bed was an old couch in the living room, which I shared with one of their cats, who was sick. One evening, I accompanied Laura and her friends to a neighborhood bar. The beer, in generously-sized frosty mugs by the platterful, just kept coming. A local rock band was playing, very loud. I remember its name, Ira Carrot. The lead singer was a short woman with a big voice and bright-red hair.

I was having a good time there in Pittsburgh but this wasn’t getting me work, so now it was time to head home and regroup. Before starting out, did I have the Datsun checked over by a service station? Did I fill the tires or check the oil or top up the coolant? Did I clean the windshield? No, I did not. Partly I didn’t because I didn’t want to know what a garage might find wrong; I lacked the cash to fix it. Partly I didn’t because cars were (and are) a mystery to me. I pictured myself popping the hood for the mechanic (if I could figure out how) and standing over the engine, trying to look cool and discerning as I stared at this bewildering jumble of grimy metal. No, I just pumped more gas into the car and headed north, aiming for Erie, then Buffalo, where I would pick up I-90 for Boston.

It’s a 660-mile trip, well over ten hours the way I drove. I didn’t know this at the time, but it wouldn’t have changed my plans, if my headful of whims and guesswork could properly be called plans. Somewhere between Buffalo and Rochester, dusk arrived, and with it, the beginnings of fatigue. The highway spooled out in front of me and behind, rising and falling and curving away and returning, the little engine drumming away (or was it now beginning to whine a little?). The wind from passing trucks pushed the Datsun around in its lane, and now everyone’s headlights came on, glaring through the back window, and sweeping over the windshield from the westbound lanes. As you may know, it’s a long journey across the state of New York, with few landmarks to take note of even during the daytime. For a time, I had the feeling that my car was standing still, and that the roadway and the sky and the fantastical landscapes of light and shadow to the left and right were in motion, rushing towards me and past me with an endless whoosing sound.

Somewhere around Syracuse I stopped at a service plaza for gas, and for some badly-needed coffee too, but I couldn’t find anyone selling it. This was when the restaurants at the rest stops were mostly sit-down, not take-out. Perhaps I was too tired to take in my surroundings, but I couldn’t even find a Coke machine. Finally I saw a little counter with apples on display, Red Delicious apples, local produce no doubt. I bought one and headed back out to the car, thinking that perhaps the activity of eating a crunchy apple would help keep me awake.

It wasn’t long before I felt fatigued again. I knew I was all alone and very far from home. My car and I were a tiny speck on a seemingly endless strip of tar, this merciless hard surface brushed with cold winds. I desperately needed rest. So I came up with a plan, whereby I would agree to close my eyes (while doing 55 or so) for about 20 seconds, then keep them open for 20 seconds, then close for 20, then open for 20, and in this way give my eyes a tiny break while I hurtled towards Albany and the Hudson River. It was not a terrific plan, but I had no other. The thought of barreling off the road or into the back of a truck while taking a catnap probably ensured that I remembered to open my eyes — wide! — every 20 seconds without fail. And as it turned out, it’s possible to drive some of the Thruway while asleep, just a little bit, though I don’t recommend it.

Past the Hudson and into the Berkshires, home was now only two hours away. As I climbed towards Blandford, I began to notice some hesitation in the Datsun’s forward motion, just now and again. I’d step on the gas to get up a hill, and the car would simply fail to accelerate, just sort of keep rolling ahead in a leisurely way, speed dropping steadily, until something under the hood kicked in, and it would leap forward. So now the Datsun was fatigued too, and I really couldn’t blame it, but we couldn’t quit now! I began to notice that when the car got sluggish-then-speedy like this, clouds of black smoke came out of the tailpipe, obscuring the headlights behind me for a bit. And then I noticed that the gas gauge dipped sharply toward “Empty” each time. So I was running out of gas too, and at a pretty fast rate. I gassed up in Ludlow and again at Charlton. Now I was out of money, no credit card, and of course there were no ATMs.

When I rolled into my parents’ driveway sometime after midnight, I was feeling many things — exhaustion, relief, happy to be home, sad that I was back to square one. And lucky, frankly; lucky to be alive, lucky that I hadn’t been stranded out in the Mohawk Valley somewhere. There was no good reason for my good fortune, none at all. If I thought about it, I couldn’t help feeling I was being saved for something, but I didn’t know what. I still don’t.

I have an idea that young people used to leave home on a train to find their fortune, or something like it. The whistle would blow, a high lonesome wail, and the engine would chug out of the station, the coaches click-clacking along behind, a great rhythmic clocklike sound that said, time is in motion now; you are already part of something else, you are being drawn away towards something bigger, and you are going, going away completely, right this minute, and leaving your old life behind. For us, for me anyway, it was a car instead, and I was behind the wheel of it, shifting the gears, in control of it. In control of my destiny, so to speak. Yes, I was being swept down the highway like a leaf on a stream, but I could make choices. I could start at A, and I could go to B, because I wanted to go there. Then I could choose to go on further, to C, or D, or E, wherever. And then I could run right back to A and start over again. I’m not sure whether one way of becoming yourself is better than the other.

One more story, about another car, another absorbing automotive experience. By this time, I was a father, picking up my 8-month-old from a home daycare in my town. The car was a beat-up sky-blue VW Rabbit with a sunroof that you couldn’t open; we’d bought the car at a gas station, because the price was right. So much to be gleaned from those sentences. New parents, both working but just getting by, their new son has to be jobbed out to daycare, their backup car is a shitbox that, as it turned out, shipped rainwater through the sunroof; when you hit the brake pedal, the stored-up water would come racing forward and pour down your neck.

I put Peter in his car seat and headed out on the two-mile trip home. Isn’t it pleasant, tooling along a leafy byway in your beater, just before something happens? I began to feel myself slowly sinking. I sat up straighter, but the sinking continued; my view out the windshield had become of the sky, not the road in front. I pulled over, and found that the floor of the car, long rusty here and there, had given way beneath the two back legs of the driver’s seat, and was now more than halfway to the road surface.

I remembered that trip back from Pittsburgh. Here I was again, no AAA, no cell phone, no money to pay a tow truck. I climbed back in, and managed to get home by sitting astride the emergency brake and working the clutch, brake, and gas pedal with just my left foot.

What kind of father was this, I ask you! I’ll tell you what kind. Yes, we got rid of that car soon enough, but not before I took a two-by-four that was a little longer than the hole in the floor was wide, wedged it in under the back legs of the driver’s seat, and got a couple more days’ use out of that Rabbit.

Remembering: an exercise in sticking to the facts

I remember watching the launch of one of the Mercury missions on TV. I was at home, with my mother and one of my brothers. It was an Atlas rocket, larger than the Redstone that launched Alan Shepard, but way smaller than the Saturns used for the Apollo missions. [If I weren’t trying to play by the rules, I would add that a mystique still clings to these early NASA names.] The clock ticked down and the rocket lifted off. With her eyes fastened on the screen, my mother began to recite the Lord’s Prayer aloud: “Our Father, who art in heaven . . .” I cringed and looked over at her. I wished she would stop.

I remember when Boston’s annual spring flower show was held at the Wonderland race track in Revere. I was 8 or 9. Dozens of garden clubs from the region had arranged their lush displays in the oval concourse beneath the grandstands whose undersides, concrete-gray and sloping down and away towards the darkened rear of the display space, made for a somber yet theatrical setting. It was a late-winter miracle: all of these mature trees and ponds with fountains and fully-flowering plants and lawns and shrubs arranged to look like real landscapes. People had tossed pennies into the fountains for good luck. It seemed that every display had received some sort of blue ribbon from the judges. In an adjoining hall, the commercial displays had set up (sellers of garden supplies, fudge, replacement windows, fences, easy chairs that would give you a back massage); here there was noise and bright light, smells of pizza and fried dough, a man playing a tinny electric organ for the entertainment of the crowd, and pigeons pecking at discarded popcorn on the asphalt walkways just outside.

I remember hiking up Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire with my father and my two brothers. My family did this more than once. On this occasion, a sunny summer day threatened to turn stormy as we reached the summit, and my father had us squeeze into an impromptu shelter among large boulders. We watched as a storm cloud ascended the mountainside towards us like a gray wave, and then the lights went out and it rained and blew like a hurricane for a few minutes, the temperature dropping sharply. My father surprised us by reaching into his pocket and taking out three Hershey bars, to save us: “Here, eat this!”

I remember our cat Sammy, short for Samantha. Sammy was our second and last family pet. The first had been a canary (named Sunny) who sang for a year or so then seemed to lose interest in being alive. The care and feeding of both fell to my mother, who could not have been thrilled with these extra chores. Sammy was on the small side, lively, grayish-brown with dark mackerel stripes, a common coloring. When it was time for her to be spayed, my parents took her to Dr. Zullo’s, and several days later brought her back home. But it was not the same cat. This one was skinny with a matted coat; that was to be expected. But it didn’t look very much like Sammy, and besides it was larger, and longer. That couldn’t have happened in four days at the vet. But my parents didn’t want to hear about it. After a while, we got used to this cat, and its dull personality, whatever its real name was.

I remember when, the February after the JFK assassination, during school vacation and just before the Beatles came along to lift us out of our collective gloom, my parents took me and Ned to the tip of Cape Cod. The days were clear and the winds were strong, visitors few. I was already railroad-crazy, and kept a lookout for remains of the old line to Provincetown, only recently abandoned with crossties still in place. There seemed to be about one motel open in Provincetown, and one restaurant (not counting the bars downtown with neon signs that said “Ladies Invited”). I don’t recall the name of the place, but it was on Shank Painter Road, which referred not to paint but to a rope or chain that secures a ship’s anchor when it’s not in use. An old fishing dory had been repurposed to form the bar. It was in fact a tavern with a small dining area, frequented by the fishermen, Portugese-Americans. Our well-scrubbed, out-of-place little cluster of a tourist family was the oddity of the evening. The next day, on our way back to Wellesley, my father drove us through Hyannisport. Here and there on street corners close to the “Kennedy Compound” stood enclosures for sentries, about the size of phone booths. My father pointed them out to us as we crawled past. There was a silence, then he mused, bitterly, “They got him anyway.”

I remember Thanksgiving at my grandmother’s winter home in Delmar, New York. Many of my relatives (on my father’s side) had gathered here for the holiday, but I was not in a good mood and the day didn’t go well for me. The first thing I noticed, on entering the house through the back or kitchen door, was the strong smell of cauliflower (ick) being steamed to death. The house had been owned by a hunter before my stepgrandfather bought it, and the hooks for hats and coats near the entry were actually deers’ hooves, mounted to the wall. In time, the turkey was carved up and we all sat down to dinner. I noticed that among the slices of turkey on my plate were tubes. Soft-looking and flexible, the color of “white meat,” they were short, and the diameter of drinking straws. Remnants of the turkey-processing process, no doubt. At that point, what appetite I still had vanished. My great-aunt, to my right, smelling as she always did of talcum powder, leaned over to ask whether I felt all right. That alerted the table, and before long I was taken upstairs to “lie down” in an unheated bedroom until I felt better. On a small table beside the bed was a Golden Book about whales. Featured in its pages was a graphic depicition of some killer whales ganging up on a larger toothed whale. They were especially determined to get at the big whale’s tongue.

I remember the offices of my father’s architectural practice, which were on the fifth floor of 120 Tremont Street in Boston, across from the Park Street Church. Years later, I would be reminded of the views across to the church and the Common beyond by Childe Hassam’s “At Dusk,” and the cityscapes of Edward Hopper.

I remember my orthodontist, Dr. Melvin Andell. I went to see him for years. I used to save up jokes to tell him and his assistant, for the interval after I had gotten into the chair but before he got down to business.

I remember a dental surgeon named Dr. Guralnick who, as directed by my orthodontist, cleared out a mix of baby teeth and adult teeth, numbering seven or so, to make room for the straightening of my front teeth. This was done in an office in a single appointment. They brought a black rubber mask up to my face with a gagging gaseous odor wafting from it, and I was out like a light. The visions I had while under anesthesia were vivid, bizarre, intensely colored, and vaguely disturbing, like “Pink Elephants on Parade” from “Dumbo.” When I came to, I didn’t know where I was or what I was doing there. In time, the gas and the blood I had swallowed made me sick, and things got kind of messy.

I remember a dental surgeon named Dr. Guralnick who, years later, took out my wisdom teeth. Could it have been the same guy? It was pretty much the same as before, except that it was in a hospital so they had me change into a johnnie first, and they used an IV drip to put me out: no bad smell, no disturbing visions. I was careful to take every bit of the Percodan they gave me afterwards. It was the first time in my life I had experienced the joy of being completely free from anxiety. The swelling gave me chipmunk-cheeks for a week.

I remember, on a road trip out West with college friends, the sudden change in central Oregon from the arid east to the lush and humid west.

I remember, as a college freshman in an oceanography seminar, going on a fishing trip in a part of Boston Harbor. The professor’s teaching aide was a grad student (let’s call him Jimmy) who had grown up in the North End, and together they thought it would be a good idea to get the six of us out into the field. It was. Jimmy knew a couple of old-time fishermen (Lou and Dirty Dick) who still operated a small trawler out of Pie Wharf on the waterfront, and would take us on a morning run down to Quincy Bay for flounder and see what happened. They did. After we’d steamed past Long Island, they put the net over the side, and in a while hauled it back in with a crane, lifting it clear of the water and suspending it, dripping and full of flapping fish, over the deck where we stood, admiring it. Someone reached in and pulled the string below the bag, and the fish cascaded to the deck. We were up to our thighs in fish. It was now our job to load them into the chests of ice on either side of the deck. We did a good job, for greenhorns. Jimmy put aside one of the fish, a large cod. Codfish were already rare in the harbor. He had us watch him while he gutted it and split it down the middle, pointing out to us where the cod fillets in the supermarket come from.

I remember Sputnik. The Russians had beaten us to space. My parents got us up around 3:00 on a clear moonless night so that we could go out into our back yard and watch Sputnik fly over. We looked straight up into the thick field of stars and the blackness around them until our eyes and necks ached, and then we saw it, a tiny pinpoint of light that was not a star, moving steadily across the sky.

I remember this mad racoon. It was about 4:00 on a summer afternoon, and I was walking down a quiet street in Newton, a suburb, a small city. The racoon walked out into the street from between two parked cars, glanced at me, and turned to walk in the same direction I was going. I thought, he’s not supposed to be out in the daytime, and he doesn’t seem to be afraid of me at all. I slowed my pace, but I was still gaining on him. After a minute, the racoon stopped, turned halfway in my direction, and gravely raised his right forepaw as if in warning. Then he continued down the street in an unhurried way. I took the next left and a long detour to get where I was going.

I remember Expo 67 in Montreal. Expo had booked my family into a comfortable, nothing-fancy apartment on the Rue Lajeunesse, handy to the Metro. The trains on the Metro were new and slick-looking and ran on rubber tires. The stations were clean and orderly. The exhibition grounds at Expo covered many acres, and it turned out to be an exhausting task to try to see everything. I remember especially the Habitat housing complex, the Saint Lawrence River busy with hovercraft, Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome, and, one evening, a very funny revue called, I think, “Hellzapoppin”; the special effects were modern but the heart and soul of the show belonged to old-time vaudeville.

I remember the four-minute meeting I had with Ben Bradlee, editor of the Washington Post, in his office. He was gruff, brusque . . . but who was I? A blip on his morning’s schedule. A son of one of his Harvard classmates (who he’d never known), in need of a job, and bearing a particularly thin resume. He knew what I wanted: a connection or two, someone I could call. He rattled off a couple of names, people well-placed in business or government. “You can say your father and I were at Harvard together . . .” I practically bowed and scraped on the way out the door. Then I went out and got a real job.

I remember taking and failing the monthly Civil Service typing test. I was no typist, but I needed work. I knew there was a chance I could get work in some branch of the government, and I had already scored well on the Civil Service written exam, but that wasn’t good enough. I needed a better-than-perfect score, either by being a veteran, or being from the South or West, or being related to a senator or something. None of these applied. But there was another way. You could pass the typing test, get hired as a lowly typist, and then proceed to climb the ladder from within, at the Smithsonian, or Voice of America, or Agriculture, or wherever. So I practiced my typing, trying to get both my speed and accuracy up. The test was given at 6:00 a.m. on a snowy weekday in January, in a classroom in an office building on the Virginia side of Key Bridge. There were perhaps 40 desks in the room, and there was a candidate at each one. Many of us had brought our own typewriters. The test was over in ten minutes. It was simple. They required a certain number of words per minute, and zero errors. The experience was so much fun that I took the test again in February, and failed again. Then I went out and got that real job. It didn’t require any typing. No . . . actually, it did, come to think of it.

I remember a little of my work as an announcer on WGMS in Washington. On Sunday evenings, about once a month, the station broadcast a live chamber-music concert from the Freer Gallery. The station sent an engineer down to the Freer to make sure the concert got on the air, but did not want the expense of sending an announcer too, relying instead on the studio announcer (me), back at the studio in Bethesda. But they did want the illusion, the “William Pierce effect,” the warm, reverential tones of a live announcer seeming to be inside the concert hall, welcoming you to the event and making introductory remarks in a hushed voice as the audience in the gallery chatted with one another and fussed with their printed programs. At the appropriate time, I flipped a switch and suddenly the concert hall was in my headphones, and also the voice of my engineer (Tony? Ace?), whispering cues into my ear. (“OK Dave, the pianist is coming up.”) And I would say to the listeners, “And now, Mr. Smith has appeared on stage, to begin tonight’s concert from the Freer Gallery with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 23, the “Appassionata.” Or whatever. I remember feeling like I was an important part of a cultural event, even if that part was just the tiniest bit phony.

I remember biking from Boston to New York City and back.

I remember biking with Annie from New Gloucester, Maine, near Freeport, to Quebec City.

I remember the years of infertility treatments we went through in our efforts to start a family.

I remember the long October day that concluded with us bringing Peter home.

I remember a rainy mid-morning in downtown Natick; I was standing in the entrance to the office building where I worked as an art director, taking a short break and hoping the fresh air would help me think my way out of some  of the graphics problems that were waiting for me back upstairs. Parked cars lined busy North Main Street on both sides. To my left, along came a pickup truck that slowed and then double-parked with the engine running, about 30 feet away; I couldn’t not see it. The passenger door opened and out came a woman in a shapeless brown raincoat. Something was wrong. She staggered to the curb, made her way with some difficulty across the sidewalk, then turned and propped herself up with her back to the facade of the building next door. I remember thinking, she can’t stand up by herself. On her head was a scrap of reddish-blond hair, no more kempt than a broom. She was neither young nor old. Her face was pale. She stared into the middle distance with an empty expression. Meanwhile the door of the pickup truck slammed shut; I saw two men inside, also neither young nor old. They were in a hurry to leave, it appeared. The tires squealed a bit as they pulled out into the travel lane. The driver was wearing a polo shirt; I don’t remember what the other one was wearing but they would have seemed just like . . . two regular guys, except it was the middle of a weekday morning and they weren’t at work and, it was suddenly apparent to me, they had just dropped off the prostitute they were done with. O little town of Natick! The driver turned his head for a moment and looked back. I remember thinking, he’s checking to make sure she’s still upright, and that nobody had noticed or was following them. It was a sneaky, bad-little-boy gesture: hey, no one saw us smash that window, right? Then he gunned it out of there. The woman stayed where she was, waiting, I supposed, for her ride. With shaking hands she lit a cigarette. And it was past time for me to get back to work.

I remember a lot of things I wish I could forget, and I wonder why that is, both the remembering and the wishing to forget. Sometimes I think that I don’t really want to forget these troubling things, and I wonder why that is, too. Maybe it’s because I grew up with the Bomb, which is still with us.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

How to Beat the Quarantine Blues

Where I live, if you want to take a trip to one of our neighboring states, you have to quarantine yourself for 14 days once you arrive. Recently my state added a new requirement. When you return (to your own home, mind you), you have to quarantine yourself for another 14 days. It’s all to help stop the spread of the virus, of course, but still. That’s a whole month of quarantining for a single trip to the mountains or seashore that maybe wasn’t all that much fun to begin with. Don’t you wish there was some way to make quarantine time pass more quickly? Well, now there is!

Introducing the QuarantineXpress™! It may look like an ordinary mummy-type sleeping bag, but just pop yourself into it (all the way, please), press a few brightly-colored buttons, and viola! Your two weeks of quarantine will zip by in the time it takes to make a tunafish sandwich. Think of the hours and days you’ll save! No more moping around the house waiting to get sick (or not), gazing out the window as your friends and neighbors go about their socially-distanced business, free as a bird.

Maybe you’re up for exploring a bit more deeply into the future. For that, we offer the available Out-and-Back™ feature, which lets you set the dial for up to six months ahead. Go on! Take a look around at the world of the future, and be back before anyone knows you’re gone. Who won the election? Is there a vaccine yet? Are Carl and Tina still a thing? Is the country at war with anybody new? How’s that going?

You might be asking, why only six months? Why not longer? We believe it’s fair to say there are certain risks involved in longer trips. For example, during product testing, a group of volunteers at our East Coast facility decided to try for 300 years out, reportedly to see if the pandemic might be over by that time. Unfortunately, they failed to return. It is thought that when they arrived in 2320, they found themselves at the bottom of the sea.