Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Year-End Top Ten


2015 Top Ten List
Everybody else is doing it, so why can't I?

10  Toyota 

For the beauty of Bluetooth and the ostensible "freedom." (I could drive up 95 to see you; I just choose not to. I am a little bit scared and very bored by highways.)

09  Salice Salentino

Surpassingly fun to say and excellent to drink. Seriously, seek it out, even at Trader Joe's. From the boot.

08  Gilmore Girls

I may be personally responsible for its revival; I have that kind of power. In any case, it got me through last winter.

07  Hannah Cohen

Apparently I have yet to convince one person on earth to listen to her. But there's still time, 2016 is weeks away.

06  Facebook

The freelancer's frenemy. I can't quit you.

05  San Francisco

Well, that was an unusual vacation. It felt like I was airlifted out of winter. 70+ degree weather, odd job interviews, and I covered the waterfront. I covered the Haight and the Castro and the Mission and Hayes Valley too. But mostly the waterfront. On bike, by foot... I climbed hills and sat outside and drank a lot of wine. Eventually to Marin and then Napa. Along the way, I forgot that I was 52. And a guy named Robert.

04  Alexandria

Old Town, Del Ray, Seminary Road. All these (fifty) years later, this is still where I feel most at home. Relaxed, engaged, warm, comical. Too bad it's unaffordable. On Monday they found this in a Fairfax park, breaking my heart. That picture at the top is where I first lived, in a small house on Pitt Street with rats.

03  Tennis

This year playing edges watching for the first time in a long time. (Thanks, Earle.) I am now the proud owner of a one-handed backhand. Twitter became important, particularly because of Martina and (of all people) Brad Gilbert. Very much hoping that all hell breaks loose on the ATP and WTA next year. I'll continue with my cheer: "Come on, Roger!"

02  Comedy

I don't have to set the stage:  It was an awful, awful year. So thank god for Key & Peele, Amy Schumer, Jimmy Fallon, Seth Meyers, Jennifer Lawrence, Tina Fey, The Onion and PARKS & RECREATION.

01  Writing

I actually made most of my money this year in the filthy, filthy trade of words on paper. And I revived this here corpse. And I wrote some poems. And fiddled with my epic short story, "Paddle Tennis." And scribbled down a couple of ideas for novels, plays, screenplays. And...

Thirty years ago, I thought I'd be a writer. I got sidetracked.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Merriman Road: Running Away

When we moved in it was already my sixth house, and maybe the ugliest of all. It never occurred to me that I'd stay there. It never occurred to my mother, either. At that point we were on a pace of a new home every 1.5 years.

There were maps in the basement that showed our pretty (ugly) Victorian farmhouse was the only one on Merriman Road between us and Stan Hywet. But all of our friends were sure we'd move down the street, closer to it -- or at least next to Pat or Steve. Judie Bigelow had space reserved for the inevitable Barr tennis court. Looking back on it, and this just occurred to me, I believe she may have been in collusion with my mother.

But Dad thwarted this. Perhaps his commute was better where we were. I drove it recently and was surprised how far away Goodyear was.

Maybe he was mad by then. If I'd been Dad at that age there are very few reasons you could have dragged me away from that peculiar house with all its porches. (Eventually, for the record, Goodyear bought the house and sent him to Brussels. There ended the Barrs.) There was a whitewashed basement where I had a chemistry set and the laundry was done and there were very many subterranean rooms, one designated for wine.

I lived in the maid's quarters. Coming from Maplewood (Susan) I was told that I'd be living there, the laundry chute in my room. (In Maplewood, I had three rooms to myself on the third floor.) My dad put the barrel of a shotgun underneath my mattress and pulled it out at 5am on Saturdays; everyone threw underwear down through the slot in my floor. Pat will affirm this, and Charlie would. Woody and Mark will confirm that it was a too small house with my brothers right next door. Who only Woody liked.

The creaky back staircase was mine, though. I talked on it with the red wall phone coiled from the kitchen and crept down it for about ten years, Dad protesting, especially when I talked to Mark. With him and Woody, Linda, Eve, Susan, Missy, Betsy, Doug, Rachel, Pam, Robin, Dana, Eric, Libby, Gibby, Brett, Bill, Jill, Tamra, John, Pat, Toni, Gretchen. Fred. Steve. Charlie. Suzanne Spiller. Walt. Traci and Jay.
For such a nice boy, all I ever did was run away.

Friday, November 27, 2015


One year I lived in San Francisco. For the summer, with a couple, girls, on the steep hillside above the Castro. At first, in the morning, I worked for Chevron, then had my afternoons free to play tennis and go to the gym. That is all I did, by daylight. I spent four to six hours getting exercise, and no one thought that was unusual.

Sometimes I went to the gym twice, often played tennis twice, and no one thought that was unusual.

To this day, I can tell you where lies every public tennis court in the Castro and Noe Valley and Buena Vista and Cole Valley and Hayes Valley and the Mission. If I go as a tourist I care less about anything anybody else cares about and more about re-locating hidden tennis courts on Twin Peaks.

It was uncharacteristically beautiful that year; the fog burned off by noon or one, when I escaped BIG OIL and Metroed back up Market Street. I was so in shape that people stopped me on Castro to comment on my calves. You'd be surprised how quickly you brush that off at 32.

We listened to this album incessantly. And then Alanis Morrisette. Sometimes in the late afternoon I would go to the bars in the Castro; for some reason, almost never at night. I was so early to bed and early to rise. I didn't meet a lot of guys to care about, but when I did they were all listening to the same music. Oh, and Radiohead. But if you spent the night in another guy's bed, he would play Sarah Mclachlan for you at one or two a.m., again with coffee in bed the next day, unselfconsciously.

One guy, a very handsome guy, asked me to dinner. He MADE me dinner. He was courting me. But he started talking to me about his forays into the "leather lifestyle" and I left before the pasta was cooked. He couldn't understand my lack of understanding, and I guess I can't understand it now myself.

But it did save us some time, my cutting losses.

That year I was doing something else; I was writing screenplays. Not like you and I are always writing screenplays, but writing them with a professional promise, the best agent in LA, so everything I was doing was temporary. I was glancing out the window at the abrupt vertical hillside while you made dinner anyway.

Friday, November 20, 2015

That Makes a Thief

Lost & Found

Let me love you
in an empty townhouse
on Fairfax Street

Let me laugh at you
sweating twilights
in Glover Park

Across splintery floors
and blankets of yard

Gin and Tonics
dry Martinis
hair slicked back

I lived by the canal
and got my hair cut there
was followed everywhere

Except to school

In the brightest light of summer
the steps to campus
in Mississippi shadows

When I got dinner
the bright-eyed fellow
couldn’t do the math

I had barely six dollars for
ham and cheese, turned out
he had much less than that

I only needed a sandwich and
wouldn’t have minded losing
50 cents

Some grumbling from the back
got him trembling, made him forget
or not realize

That 90 minus 63
will not matter, ever
beyond Georgetown

Meanwhile, back at the Papermill
there were accusatory messages:
to whomever stole my Tab…

Well, I stole your Tab!

I was poor and I was thirsty
and had less than perfect respect

That makes a thief

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

It's the chocolate, it is the chocolate on the tooth

One time I dated this guy who lived in Brooklyn, beyond most pales ca. 1989. His best friend had a neat party trick: He could imitate Cocteau Twins. Elizabeth Fraser's mesmerizing nonsense baby talk, which is still currency in these parts.

I first heard Cocteau Twins at Life Cafe of the terrible Mexican and undeniable cool in 1986. It was late for me to come to them, but I immediately bought cassettes at Tower Records and caught up on Avenue B. Treasure. The Pink Opaque. Pearly Dew Drops. Pandora.

And she is innocent! She is the Spangle Maker!




The extra-innings pitcher
has just the look of
traintrack houses
in Knoxville

Of early-evening Asheville parties
on a porch slung over the river
as heavy slanting sunshine
combusts into night

Mouth dipping at both ends
hair dripping from his cap
words spit like fastballs between
pulls of smoke and slugs of beer

Nine scattered round
the old Amana, the oilcan table
the game on the radio
from Pittsburgh or Atlanta

Five of us rolling up
with fresh lines of sunburn
tracing yesterday’s crew cuts
beer cans glancing off our shins

Rollie Fingers all wound up
glaring down at Lonnie, swearing
get your ass up to the store, still
hours away from the serious threats

Tilting back the crackled street
tall trees waving to the left
hedges swaying to the right
gas station dead ahead

Just supplies, Lon says squarely
as the screen door jangles
into filthy fans and flypaper
red Coke cooler, candy rack

Hughie winks at Len as
Sam bags Schlitz and Salems
pork rinds and Red Hots, relays
to Ken who doesn’t talk barely

Riverside the white clouds
scud across the sky as
smoke rushes down throats
and beer foams from the can

Clouds swirling
smoke curling
fenders knocking
mouths dripping at both ends

And then with a shout branching
bumping roots slapping
branches brushing gnats
pumping bends panting

Finally breaking through
to scour hands at the spigot
sliding only slightly late into home
beside the corner cupboard

Nannie bows her head and says
Dear Lord, thank you for bringing
all of us together here, and what
on earth has happened to your ear?

Well, most days you were happy
at the Oak Ridge Country Club
in the nicest house in Bluefield
atop the sledding hill

But what a relief
to follow strangers into woods
to stand in shadows listening
to everything alive

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Pretty Pretty

Pretty is such a loaded word when you are a boy. But I'd go back there in a second.

In the '70s, I did get mistaken for a girl, though my mom has always said my friend Charlie was prettier than me. Pat was "cute." It was an era of androgyny without our really knowing it. Center-parted hair and beads around the neck, and no one's face was fully formed. We all had very shiny long brown hair.

I rather lurched into viability.

There weren't graded paths to it.

This is a candid shot of two hungover people in a dive bar in New Haven some time in the eighties.

Folks commented on my looks, my perceived Midwestern skin. (Whatever it is, it ain't from Ohio. I will cop to Kentucky.) I got told to model so many times that it actually became irritating (because I was too short, so couldn't make a dime), I got asked who cut my hair on Wisconsin Avenue, I got voted best looking in an unofficial poll of the class of 1984, I got photographed by a famous photographer on 57th Street (I threw away my copy because I looked too damn pretty), I got talked to at telephone booths, harassed on the subway, I got cruised by JFK Jr. at the Citibank on Christopher Street, I got followed like a girl.

I got interviewed for a documentary on what it was like to be good looking. They asked me if it had presented advantages.

And I said, "Not enough."

Monday, November 2, 2015

If They Don't, Use a Match


Robert's Apartment:16 Jane Street between Greenwich Avenue and West 4th Street/Eighth Avenue, Buzzer #19 outside, Buzzer #3D inside; Apartment 3D, fourth floor from lobby on right side of building

Linens: Bed linens and towels are in the front closet, closest to bathroom.There is space for your clothes in this closet, also a little hanging space in the main room closet. The laundry bag is in the main room closet.  There are more sheets and pillow cases in the bag if you need them. Take laundry around the corner on Eighth Avenue between Jane and Horatio Streets (right side). Drop it off and they do the laundry. 

Gas and Electric: The oven burners light automatically (if they don't, you can use a match). If you vacuum, you must turn off the air conditioner or you risk blowing a fuse.

Phone: The phone number, as you know, is 212-255-2268. To check voicemail at home, dial 366-5055, enter the password 57868, follow instructions. To check voicemail from outside, dial 366-5055, enter #212-255-2268, enter the password 57868, follow instructions.

Internet: To access the internet, turn on the computer. After it has completely booted up, double-click on the “Shortcut to bway.net” icon. Click on the “connect” button. It will dial up automatically. Then double-click on the “Internet Explorer” icon. You will have an online screen.

Stereo and TV: For the stereo, such as it is, hit the JVC amplifier button on the upper left side. Put a CD in the portable CD player and hit the play button. The volume control is on the upper right side. For the TV, use the “Electronics” remote the one that isn’t the Sony or Panasonic remote.  This changes the channel.  To adjust the volume, use the Sony remote. To use the VCR, use the Panasonic remote.

Bicycle: The tires need air.  You can fill them at the corner of Sixth Avenue and 15th Street bicycle shop.  There is no lock I just use it for recreation (hah).

Friday, October 16, 2015

Stronger Than Pride


I won't pretend that I intend to stop living.

You look back at what you were playing on your boom box and some of it seems more decent than the rest. I was pretty keen on Sade, despite my cool intentions, on Avenue B and then on 10th Street at Seventh Avenue.  That apartment with the skylights and the smell of saltwater, that peculiar place at the center of not-desirable New York City.  There was a crackhouse in the garage across the street (before it became a Gourmet Garage).  There was a homeless lady who lived in an INDENTATION.  There was an old-school gay guy charging too much as a barber downstairs, cowboy boots and dyed blonde hair. There was a lampshade shop that I just cannot explain.

Julius was on the corner, Three Lives across the street, acclaimed authors and porn stars winking at me with abandon as they raced by.

Everyone on deadline.

I'd go up to the roof with Cammie, Lisa, Dirk and tricks. For Sade, tar-beach sunbathing and Pimm's. This was a big song that summer, me running hard downtown to the WTC and riding a steamy subway uptown to Cafe Luxembourg. Somewhere along the way I developed a crush on this guy, Mark, who was enamored of my Bohemian (cough cough) way of life.  He would drop by the bar and, as you do, enroll at Columbia.

I still really really love you
love is stronger than pride

Monday, October 12, 2015

Hotel Motel Holiday Inn

I stayed here once, rather unhappy, but the view was truly stellar

I have always been a fool for hotels. Hotels in the abstract, hotels as an idea of an exciting life, hotels just to be away, the anonymity of random Ritz-Carltons in Pasadena and the gravity of the iconic Ritz on the Place Vendôme.  These are all places that figure large in my memory:

The Waldorf, where we were expelled onto a December sidewalk in our pajamas, Nixon coming. Wrapped in furs by Waldorf women and captured on the eleven-o'clock news.

The Boar's Head Inn, site of the annual Barr Kid Pro-Am Diving Competition in a cloistered swimming pool.

Carr's in Gatlinburg with the ever-present temptation to sneak into an elaborate lagoon-style pool next door, featuring a slide through a tunnel in a stage-set rocky cliff.

The Hotel de Nevers Luxembourg, where I lived the entire summer of 1984 for $7 a night, plus an additional 8 FF ($1) to prends une douche, washing my clothes with Woolite in a small sink until I met Agnès,whose mother insisted on doing my laundry in Velizy. Now that's a fun true sentence. Here is another: She ironed my Brooks Brothers boxer shorts. And people say the French aren't friendly...

Chateau Marmont, where I went for business within a week of my father's death, ordered room service club sandwiches and slept extensively. My room was at the back, facing the hill, and was oh so quiet. When I hear the word "peaceful" I always think of the Chateau Marmont.

In the era of the boutique hotel, roughly 1998 to today, I've stayed in a converted office building on the Passeig de Gràcia, a converted water tower in Cologne, a converted something-or-other in East Berlin, a windowless room like a train car in Rome, a nearly windowless room with a whole lotta Phillipe Starck fabric in Paris, One Aldwych in London with the incredibly loud, ostensibly ecological plumbing, and that nice little Hotel Indigo in Asheville with the fantastic view of the mountains and the Grove Park Inn, calling to me like a siren.

Tomorrow I start a new gig writing for Kimpton Hotels, and can't help but feel that my whole life has led me here, to this moment of punching pillows, sniffing soaps and fumbling for fresh ways to communicate the buzzing nature of a well conceived lobby.

I can't wait to dive in.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Purple Noon: Damn It, Matthew!

Just last week I made a lot of people who were not predisposed to love it watch The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Eventually they were rapt, because it is such a very good old-fashioned movie, in all its unsubtlety.

The chief asset of the film and the story as constructed is simple:  Tom Ripley is gay.

That's not strikingly clear in the Patricia Highsmith novel and is only tantalizing in (the brilliant in its own way) Purple Noon.  But here Tom is gay and the story is so much the better for it. You'd assume that Anthony Minghella (doing his best work) and Matt Damon (doing his best work) worked it out together.  But maybe not.

Damon's on a run that seems aimed at proving his ostensible liberal middle class Boston boy personality is a charm offensive shielding dumbass jock attitudes about race and sexuality circa 2015.


Monday, September 14, 2015

If Weathermen Were Better

It’s so beautiful I can’t think.  Only walking and looking and listening to music make sense, and yet not enough sense to convey what is happening in Alexandria now.  If weathermen were better, I’d plan my year around a single day like this and use it perfectly. I’d hire a personal chef to serve me espresso and sublime scrambled eggs in the shade of a tree and I’d read something droll there.  Droll and old-fashioned and spirit-lifting: the opposite of the news.

I would play tennis, and my forehand would hit the corners and I would barely break a sweat.

I’d meet you for lunch at that French place in Georgetown I just read about, and then we’d walk by the water.  No, much better than that: We’d drive up to Great Falls, Maryland side, and I would do something I haven’t done since I was 25: jump off a cliff into the Potomac.  You should jump too.

My chef is also my driver, and he’ll take us anywhere we want to go.  We should want to go to Annapolis or Middleburg, but we don’t.  We should want to look at art but we don’t.  (For one thing, there’s no such thing as indoors today.)  Instead I want to show you a couple of places that haven’t changed since 1982.  I can’t show you Mr. Henry’s or Au Pied de Cochon, but I can buy you a drink at Martin’s – outdoor table, please.  I can show you Dumbarton Oaks and Meridian Hill and the route I used to run along Rock Creek Parkway, with a loop through the zoo. 

I can show you the marina where Dad kept his boat and I played in the caterpillar tree.

But I’m not thinking big enough.  My chef/driver is a class-A sailor and ready to take us on a dusk sprint past monuments.  I’ve got two bottles of wine, a tremendously expensive Chablis and a $12 bottle of Salice Salentino.  France and Italy past the Kennedy Center and Lauinger Library, where it used to be that the best view was in the smoking lounge that was blown off, so to speak, for the benches by the reading room.  We looked inward rather than outwards at the wider world; we weren't yet 21.

There was always an end of summer day like this in Washington, and always an end of summer day like this in New York.  One of these days fell on the eleventh, when my friend Michou called from Amsterdam, waking me up and telling me to turn on the TV.  For three or four or five days, all the days were as beautiful as this, but I had to show identification to come back to my apartment on Jane Street.

If, by chance, I had wandered away to the river or met a friend for a glass of wine or taken a a German guy who couldn’t get back home to Nora’s show at Fez.

Good lord, Robert:  Stop writing!  Go out!  Or just keep the door flung open.