Friday, May 27, 2016

Euchre Uber Alles

Recently wrote about the oddity of Montrose having a jukebox on the lawn. It's actually funny to think about everything Montrose-related. Like the tadpole stuff in the water and Euchre, which seems a very random game to have adopted, Gretchen. And just the worst food! Cotton candy and popcorn and hot dogs and Coke. You would spend the entire day there eating... And then be STARVING for dinner. I have never been so hungry in my life as coming home from Montrose.

For some reason we felt it necessary to do everything. You'd driven all that way...  So, for example, I dived off the high dive. The scariest thing in the world. Obviously played tennis on all of the courts. There were courts up high, and courts down below. In the winter, for a time, they put a bubble over the upper courts. This was when tennis was booming.

My best memories, though, are lying on the lawn by the jukebox and playing cards by the baby pool with Gretchen.

Don't tell your friends about the two of us...

Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Year of the Cat

Only alluding for forty years seems like an increasingly poor strategy.

In tenth grade, when we were fourteen or fifteen, Charlie died. I was the most stoic of the bunch -- and the one who never let it go.  

Initially my mother picked me up after swim team, in "November dinnertime darkness" was how I put it. Among many things that break my heart, she said, heading up Garman hill, something like, "Charlie and his dad didn't come back." (From a fishing trip in Michigan.)  And I didn't respond well.

Through some confusion, Firestone High School let a substitute teacher announce to an English class that C was dead, and then Carolyn found me in study hall and we were by definition hysterical, racing into the teachers' parking lot crying and laughing.

There was no attempt at school counseling, and sad to say useless parents. "You just seemed to want to be left alone."

Yes, I did. I wanted you as far away from everything that mattered to me as... really, there couldn't have been anything more grave, and I wanted your hands off. You had left me alone since four or five, you'd never inquired about my cuts and bruises, you'd never done anything that parents do except love me. And I was easy. 

About Charlie: Handsome, great hair. Mom says she always thought that he was too pretty, which is funny, because I think that people thought that of me. He looked like all of us, which was slender with a big sweep of 70s brown hair and some freckles and... brown eyes? I don't remember thinking any of us were so good looking; just that all of us were better looking.

Charlie misspoke, said "I don't matter" one time, mixing up I don't care and it doesn't matter. That'll break your heart. But he also wasn't particularly nice. He picked favorites, caused rifts, reacted badly to any kind of literary overture. But always went for guys like me and Steve and Pat who were literary.

So much of what you do from 6th to 10th grade is listen to music, and Charlie learned guitar. Today I hate a good 50% of what we listened to (I can't bear Elton John or Kiss or Queen or a bunch of guitar bands I've forgotten the name of.) I resent it. I think about being downstairs in the den by Charlie's bedroom, in the Reymann's modern house... A house made of cedar, I think, with cut-your-hands rough stucco walls inside, and many levels off a siloed staircase, all on a hillside just beneath the railroad tracks, overlooking Lafayette. Belleau Wood. I could be making these words up. 

My parents were vaguely appalled by Charlie's house. (Anytime they disapproved of something it was vaguely, silently for the most part, and yet we always knew.) They thought that cars were dumb and that Akronites were ridiculously snobbish about a not particularly fancy town. They saw no reason to join a country club, not being golfers, and rightly judged the tennis courts at Montrose to be far superior to those at Fairlawn Swim and Tennis. Dad found a place to sail and Mom joined League of Women Voters. Dad took anyone who wanted to ski every single weekend.

I was fond of Charlie's house, weird as it was. There was a loft in the silo above his parents'  room that I particularly liked, where we listened to A Wizard, A True Star over and over. At  Charlie's  house, as at my house, there were rarely parents around. Were they all out dancing? At a secret parents club?

There are a bunch of songs that I associate with Charlie. One, Baby I Love Your Way, is unlistenable to me. (When they played it in Reality Bites I almost left the theater.) All of Frampton Comes Alive is off limits. Todd Rundgren, as mentioned. Daniel by Elton John -- the only tolerable Elton John song and it makes me think of Charlie and Steve Wise, who is another story.

And The Year of the Cat. It was a big radio hit but for some reason I think Charlie's sister Liz introduced it to us. It made me think about how DRAMATIC life could be, which is appealing at fourteen. Well, always appealing, until you figure out that the drama in your life is just going to always fucking hurt.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Madison Avenue

It’s a little souvenir

of a terrible year

I was already off track

No one really lives
on Madison Avenue

No one spends money
at D'Agostino or buys grilled cheese
behind Eliot Spitzer

No one has a fancy bike stolen
and refuses to believe
looks around for weeks

I will grow older for not having
had to carry that
piece of shit  up stairs

In July a French girl
knocked on the door

Below me, below my
nearly nonexistent apartment
there was gas in the air

Messing around with matches
and a pilot light
we could have
gone to hell

But no

On my shin
six years later
a crocodile scar

The ugliest thing
you ever saw

There weren’t always lovely
French girls downstairs

There were dogs in distress

And I guess I’d take a scar for that

I guess I did

I’ve got the worst
goddamn scar on my leg
from being kicked in a corner
at the top of a staircase
on Madison Avenue

Where no one ever lived

Saturday, March 26, 2016


I watch a ludicrous number of sports on TV for a ridiculous number of hours a gruesome number of days a year.

Numbers! Watch sports even occasionally and you'll be overwhelmed by numbers. Quarterback ratings, on-base percentages, triple-doubles... And everything in tennis, my true love, corresponds with a statistic many of which fly in the face of the reality of the match.

(Btw, I am watching the Miami Open pre-game show as I write this. Tennis Channel is killing it!)

Anyway, I figure I could profitably cut my sports watching in half and apply that time to reading, writing and arithmetic (or perhaps two out of three). Here is how that might look:

Football 70% reduction. Well, I should really give up on football entirely. The concussion problem is real and the league is corrupt and Goodell is a Trump-worthy villain and the two biggest quarterback stars of the past decade are liars. But when fall comes around and there is a close game in a packed bar on a crisp, sunny day, it taps into a lifetime of cozy feelings that fight reason. So for now I'll just watch the home team. I do like that Kirk Cousins... This will leave dozens and dozens of hours for Proust.

Baseball No reduction. The nice thing about baseball is that it's ideal for multi-tasking. I CAN actually read while watching baseball; the sounds of the game, learned over a lifetime, inform you when to look up. You'll almost never miss a home run or a double play or even a steal. And you can put down that book when Scherzer is five innings into another no-hitter. I love baseball and see no reason to adjust my habits here.

Basketball 65% reduction, already in effect. Last year was the first year I watched an entire season of pro ball, and I didn't get what the journos were saying about the lead-up to April. This year I do: There is no reason to watch regular-season basketball. Wait until the playoffs, which go on for months anyway. I'll be watching every Cavs game and maybe a few others. But really it's all about the Cavs. (Oh, and this year I gave up March Madness too. If Georgetown ever makes a serious run again, I'll opt back in.) Result: Several blog posts, several poems, return to a journal.

Golf No reduction. I take a lot of guff for this, but I love watching the majors. This too can be accomplished with a book in hand, and in any case it's only the weekend rounds that really engage. P.S. I have been on a golf course once in my life and remember nothing about it except that I didn't know what I was doing. Proof that you don't need to have played a sport to understand its difficulty, to appreciate the superhuman talent of the athletes, to get into the drama of a close finish/playoff.

Soccer is an every-four-year activity for me. I couldn't love World Cup more and couldn't be less interested in day-to-day league play. Hockey I am immune to. Boxing is only to be watched live, on someone else's
(Remy Martin's) dime. The Olympics well, all bets are off.

And now Tennis 30% reduction, no promises. I think that I could probably give up every tournament between the Australian Open and Indian Wells without too much damage to my equilibrium. And eventually I do grow weary with the long clay court season. But the North American summer hard court season is the most happy-making sporting stretch in the world. Okay, I probably don't have to watch quite so many first- and second-round matches at EVERY tournament. It's just that tennis is the only sport I actually play and the one I really understand inside-out and I probably have seen all Top 100 men and Top 100 women in action... There's just too much water under the bridge to bail out now. And you never know. Perhaps there's still a broadcasting career in my future.

I should get on that. I'm good with numbers.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Provincetown (I Can Be Your Buddy)

On a night like this, you can’t rush away.

Shep flew into Boston and killed some hours at the art museum by the ferry. It was a good show of photographers, so he spent more time than usual with it. Nan Goldin, with whom he’d played pool, and some other folks that Nadia knew, being from Cambridge. Then lunch by the boat, with wine. He shared his table with this woman from St. Louis or Kansas City, some place he’d never been, got a little bit drunk and then boarded. Boston Harbor was amazing to pull out of, gorgeous. He had a beer or two and smoked some cigarettes and listened to his music.

Darling, there’s a big park up ahead

Eventually the city was gone and there was just sun and sea spray and… It was loud and Shep put on his earphones and listened to The Clientele. George says he has lost his way in this world.

We ferried into Provincetown in the mid-afternoon and Nadia met me at the dock. She had a place for me to stay up Commercial Street.  It was a carriage house down at the art gallery end of things. The big famous author of Provincetown lived across the street. We went there for weirdly stiff cocktails and then Nadia left to perform.

I have no idea what happened for the next few hours. Presumably Shep took a shower in an unfamiliar place and got good looking again. And went to a show, or a couple of shows. That was the August of the girls who did circus tricks. There was silliness at that one bar that looked like every house I lived in growing up, Maplewood and Akron. Like a gin and tonic in a salty room. And then Provincetown closed.

So the deal is that you go and have a slice of pizza with the rest of town. And it’s lovely. It’s a street party and there are these cute Irish kids managing the pizza distribution and you are starving for that pizza and looking around at guys, at midnight. It had been a very long day and Shep was sort of exhaustedly reeling at the side of the road when he saw Leo. They started laughing at each other immediately.

Shep said you look like you are from Argentina and Leo said Shep looked like he was from Germany. And that became their schtick: “Argentina.” “Germany.” Shep had a long crew cut and was sunburned from the boat, so… Leo was baked from a summer in Provincetown, with olive skin anyway. And light blue eyes.

Cell phones weren’t something that anybody had yet, hence the plan to meet the next night.

The usual thing in Provincetown, having gone to bed absurdly early, is to wake up and find a cup of coffee and get on your bike and pick up a sandwich and ride over to the place where everybody chains them, then walk across the flatlands to the dunes. Well, it’s all I ever did. Maybe other people drove. Lesbians with children used a parking lot. Up over the dunes to the beach, a bit of sand and then sharp rocks. Unless you are me, you probably don’t even go in the ocean. Nadia and her guys would walk up and down the shore passing out flyers for their show.

Everybody was funny, I guess. I’d told Leo I would meet him at some place at 11:00 that night. He was a waiter. A big Russian financial genius working as a waiter. Leave it to me to find that kind of guy. On the beach, everyone was funnier than me. My jokes did not come off.

That night, more shows, all funny, and there was something involving an after-hours piano bar and he was supposed to come and I was at loose ends. And then he came. With his fucking beautiful petulant Russian attitude.

The thing was that he came, and we held hands and laughed. I took him back to the carriage house and… 
I think I’m such a sweetheart. What if I’m a brute?

Leo was well gone by morning, Shep foggy. Nadia and a bunch of guys came by and grabbed him and drove him to Truro, to a clear water hole in the middle of the woods. There was a snake. But the water was lovely. Somehow in the middle of the afternoon he said something about Leo and it turned out that Russian was famous. He had a boyfriend back in New York, it was said. He was part of some non-specific Russo-Boston Mafia, it was said. Shep was still wondering what he may or may not have done the night before.

Between the snake and the hangover, Shep was feeling slightly negative.Wholly negative. Back at the carriage house, this is a funny thing, he didn't notice what Leo had done. He was very unhappy and he just chose to go get Provincetown drunk. Life is not good when you find out the handsomest funniest man you ever met has another boyfriend. Presumably handsome and funny.

Anyway, vacation, so more Provincetown theater. I was on my bike, I keep forgetting to mention my bike. I knew that Leo was waiting tables and I did a pretty ineffectual job of the night and I was walking up Commercial Street early wheeling it, forgoing pizza or after a slice, who's to say? And, as happens, a guy was sitting on a fence.

Shep was walking his bike up the road and this guy went, “Hey?” A cute boy with a big smile and legs that didn't exactly work. He was on a kind of wrought iron fence at the edge of a property. He was very sunny for 1:00 a.m.

“I know how to do stuff.”

“I bet you do.”

He’d positioned himself beside the road and he was pitching me.

“I’m not good at walking, but…”

For all his faults, Shep had a tenderness for guys who had ambulatory challenges. And folks with bad teeth. And people on the corner of 14th Street, passing out flyers.

I’m not an asshole so I helped him up the hill and apologized for being otherwise smitten.

I walked in with nothing

The next morning, Leo came to the house. He brought some kind of breakfast and pointed out the flowers from the day before. And Shep said I heard that you had a boyfriend. It was a rainy day. No, first it was a sunny day. He must have cared a bit about me, because he’d arranged some flowers in a way that I was suppose to see.

So we went swimming in the bay.

He took me back to his place and made a more elaborate breakfast. He told me about leaving the pattern of flowers for me that I hadn’t picked up. I didn’t tell him about the guy on the fence. He was still a bit embarrassed about how… masculine I was. And I’m not like that. I just thought he was so beautiful. So Argentinean.

Leo made breakfast and I asked him about the boyfriend and he said no. So I fell in love. I damn well vetted the situation. I didn’t just… interrogate him.  He lived on top of a garage and it was a rainy day. We watched Miss Congeniality and I wrote him a college essay.  Around four or five we went to the market and got oysters. And met Nadia’s parents for a drink.

You know when you’re newly in love with somebody, not truly in control, and you go out for a drink? Nadia’s parents must have thought I was nuts. Her mom did anyway.

Back home, Leo stabbed the shit out of his hand trying to open an oyster.

When I was a kid we stayed in Hyannis. You could stamp on the sand and the oysters would shoot up. We took a bus into Provincetown and went up in the tower. And made spin art.

Shep thought that Leo was as beautiful as that. Sort of dark skin and… Every once in a while, on a street car in New Orleans, on AMTRAK, in a plane or some other mode of transportation, Shep fell in love with the concept of love… His problem was that he didn’t ever like specific boys that much. Having determined that he preferred them generally, he was a failure at the specific. He would often rather kiss a girl. And Provincetown was good for that. With acrobats.

On Horatio Street, at his most lonely, he had these long drawn-out situations with guys, mostly guys that were Nadia’s best friends. T built shelves for him an D hung out on his bed talking about books – good books  too. And they were both fantastic-looking men and he couldn’t wait for them to leave so that he could write about it.

There was another guy at Scott’s parties on Christopher Street who was even more beautiful and clearly didn’t care for him. One time, Gay Pride, Nadia gave him mushrooms and while he didn’t really feel anything psychedelic he made a pass and Tom Jones just scowled at him like, “you’re out of your league.” Which made him laugh.


But Shep digresses. I would have loved Leo if he hadn't already loved somebody else who apparently looked like me. ("Handsome in a WASPy sort of way.") What do I have to offer? I have nothing but allegiance. I can take the ferry and I can be your pal. Nobody is jumping at that opportunity, but…

I can be your buddy.

About England - Part Two - London

As good as my memory is, I don't really remember when I went back to England. For the sake of convenience (for the sake of this blog) I am going to say it was with The Macallan in 1998. A long time from 1984. I flew first via Heathrow to Aberdeen, where a cab picked me up for the hour and a half drive to Speyside. My driver was a talkative motherly woman with a dry wit. All Scots have a dry wit. She spent most of the ride telling me that she did not believe Monica Lewinsky. All Europeans love Bill Clinton.

On not much sleep I arrived at The Macallan manor house and was immediately served a whisky. It was 11:00 in the morning there and five or six for me, so... This was followed by lunch with much wine and (seriously) haggis. It was a gourmet kind of haggis and I like weird food anyway, so that was fine. A day then learning about whisky-making and salmon. The guy who ran the salmon place was very handsome and charming and it turned out my companion for the evening. At the Craigellachie Inn (since gotten much fancier) we sampled other single malts and had a fantastic steak dinner. The next morning I had an astonishing hangover a clear-headed outright headache and gueule de bois... Thank God for the steaming bath. (Still no showers in Great Britain!)

I flew back to London that night, remember having a Barr's soda from the vending machine at the airport (not good, like Vernor's) and went immediately to a Macallan dinner at one of the trendiest restaurants in town. Perhaps in Chelsea. I think that one of the most glamorous moments in my life was walking into that restaurant, directly from the airport, in an Armani suit. Heads may literally have turned.

They'd put us up in this ultra-twee small hotel in Kensington. A couple of blocks from Harrod's. My primary memory of that place other than how tiny my room was and how extremely plaid is that you could not make it in or out of the lobby without somebody saying "Mr. Barr..." Barr by the way is a Scottish name but the English say it terribly. It drove me crazy how they said my name and even more this insistence on identifying me as I walked in and out.

I probably knew where I was ultimately headed, which was to the bars in Soho to meet young men who might want to come back to a terrible twee hotel. Oh and I had formal tea there with the client, which was just not something I am inclined to appreciate. Formal tea is not my thing. Tea is not my thing. Formality is not my thing. Social occasions in which spirits are not involved... not my thing.

There was an event, there were meetings... and whenever they were over I was on Old Compton Street as fast as I could get there. I met this Cockney kid who was great and who spent a couple of nights teaching me rhyming slang. On Sunday he helped carry my luggage to the cab as I departed to a chorus of (slightly aghast) "Mr. Barrs."

Stay tuned for Part Three...

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

About England - Part One - Mortimer

In 1984, my parents gave me the graduation present I wanted:  money for Europe. On some (by today's terms) ridiculously small sum I planned to see all of it. England to France to Italy, at least. First stop, Angleterre, as it ever was on the grand tour. I went with a girlfriend from Georgetown who happened to hail from a particular strain of casual East Coast snobbery that, without realizing, I was pretty much done with prior to Heathrow.

So, jet-lagged, through London to Reading. There was perhaps a buggy that picked us up and took us to  Mortimer, where we lodged with the Earl's son and his ever-so-plucky-let's-grab-gooseberries-from-the-garden wife Rachel. (I'm not naming a real name in this account except for Rachel's.) Over two weeks, we went to Ascot and Henley and (my doing) Wimbledon. So veddy veddy much casual snobbery. We went to lunch at a country estate and were served cold fish in a stark dining room, then walked the grounds. Literally, it was announced: Now we will walk the grounds. (Thank God there was wine at lunch.) Afterwards, on the ride home, all Rachel could talk about was "that awful man," and all I could think was the obvious: "Then why did you have two American kids on the biggest vacation of their lives give up an afternoon for him?"

At Ascot, this fellow in his seventies tried to make courteous small talk with me and I smilingly kept saying that I was so sorry but I just couldn't quite catch his meaning. And he kept smilingly insisting that I could. He would say it again and I would smile and shake my head. He would say it again, perhaps louder this time, and I would shrug my shoulders smile and shake my head. I had not taken Northern English in college.

In related news, because Wimbledon was on Rachel was compelled to mention Virginia Wade's "awful accent." Virginia Wade, whose autograph I had from ballboy days, whom I found so beautiful in an English way. To publicly say that you find an accent repellent... Aren't we taught that the British have superhuman manners, whatever they may be thinking? Well Rachel was a true son of an Earl's fishwife in Shetland sweaters -- never going to deign to dress up to be liked, never going to change the shoddy carpeting or fix the heating in the unimpressive manor house so that her guests might be comfortable, always going to think herself practical and chipper in an Emma Thompson sort of way. And always going to be calling people "awful."

I loathed her.

Her husband, on the other hand, just wanted to play tennis (which I accommodated, every night, losing before dinner, it was bright until ten) and laugh. I said I'd only say one name but what the hell his name was Hugo. Which is a very nice name.

After dinner I was bored; I'm not sure why everyone let me alone at 9pm to drink Nescafe and watch Wimbledon on TV; I'm not sure where everyone went. I did manage to find the Scotch to add to my coffee, and watched tennis until the late-arriving dark. Every morning I'd have an infuriating bath (in so many ways, England was still in the sixties) and then head to the train station with A, who had a real agenda for us that involved palaces and architecture and stuff. Stuff I'd like now, but at the time all I wanted to do was go to London. Even London was no great shakes; there was the Hard Rock Cafe and Sloane Square and Kings Road and Oxford Street fluorescent clothes and that was pretty much it.

We went to A's perfectly beautiful Farmington friend's place in Knightsbridge for cocktails, her bluff Capitalist father proclaiming loudly how impossible the English were. (The friend was beautiful and so was the apartment, so I won't fix the sentence.) Me, a sudden convert to bluff Capitalists vs. Rachel, the most negative woman I'd met since my college roommate's mother, who once walked through Dumbarton Oaks saying over and over again, "Can you even think how much work this was?" Yeah, that's the way to approach a glorious bit of floral imagination. Think about how much trouble it'd be to replicate behind your Baltimore Colonial.

Forgive me: I had a beautiful, sunny mother who would have laughed off bad fish luncheons and side-eyed pretension reflexively, and delighted in Dumbarton Oaks. (If I hadn't been pushing folks over the fence and then tumbling down the hill after Peter...)

Anyway, I enjoyed that cocktail party, drank too much with all the rest of them and then we went to one of those members only "clubs" that the English think are cool. Okay, Annabel's! It was fascinatingly awful, small seats around minuscule tables and Middle Eastern men and women with pearls down their backs. I must have been wearing my khaki Brooks Brothers suit, which got a real workout in England, or they wouldn't have let me in. God I hope someone else paid for the drinks.

Henley was the last straw. The way it works is that you hang out in a Thames-side tent that is home to a school. We, for some reason that escapes me, were in the Princeton tent. A's beautiful blonde friend from Knightsbridge, probably. We'll call her Annabel, though I ended up respecting her whole Daisy Miller thing more than A's sad pretension. It was fun to root for the sculls, and there was plenty of Pimm's. To this day I like Pimm's, despite its association with those two weeks. Was it only two weeks? But in the midst of the cheering and the spirits, A and I got into an argument about... I guess my demeanor. "You've been unhappy since we got to England." "I haven't; I just didn't feel that well at first." My God what an English reply! And a cowardly one, but no matter: she was insistent. Still I refused to bite. "Come on, the Princeton Eight..."

I knew even then that I had no space between politeness and fury.

She brought up Blenheim and Bath, which were fairly destroyed by her knowingness (Jesus, even about cheese), but not Oxford. Because I had loved Oxford, I'd fallen in love with Oxford at sight, despite the fact that her mother was named after one of the colleges. The ludicrousness. Here is the thing: Barrs and Sampsons and Crocketts and Campbells and Shepherds might give you three names, but NONE of them will be the name of a famous Oxford college. Only a Cleveland crank manufacturer would be so gauche. And that was A's family in Sneden's Landing.

I'm not the hardest nut to crack so eventually I allowed her contention. I lost my cool, said the tree to the woodpecker, and it may have gone something like this: "Yes, you are correct. It has been a miserable trip. I don't care for the S's, particularly that awful awful awful Rachel, and I don't care for you over here."

We divorced at that moment, didn't speak to each other on the train back to Mortimer, nor for the next couple of days, and I ended up in London and then on the boat to France tout seul.