Wanted: skywriter

I’m not in the habit of rating these blogs for audience suitability, but in this instance, I’ll make an exception. It’s rated PD (pretty depressing).

You don’t see skywriters anymore. I don’t. Haven’t in years. Is it a pollution issue? Perhaps too few potential customers would look up from their phones to make it worthwhile. I was crazy about them as a kid, and there’d be one every couple of weeks or so.. I’d stand there with my dad, gawking up at the sky, fidgety to see what the next letter would be. Dad always knew.

It seemed a dashing profession, but though skywriters fascinated me, I had no illusions about becoming one. I knew I’d be dreadful at it, all that twisting and turning to get the letters right. And even if somehow I managed to control the plane, there was no eraser in case you made a mistake.

In 1942, when I turned five, my father was so proud I had learned to read that he gave me a very grown-up and expensive present (this is not a digression, by the way). It was a beautifully bound and embossed three volume set of the New Collier Century Dictionary. Its only drawback, for me, was a two page spread of detailed, realistic color illustrations of the worlds most venomous serpents. It scared the daylights out of me, and I dropped the book each time those pages reared their multiple heads at me. I resigned myself to learning only two thirds of all the words in the world, but I kept forgetting in which volume my tormentors resided.

I have the set still. It has a place of honor in the bedroom case where our most handsomely bound books are kept. It looks like new, unless you open the covers to the first, originally blank, pages. There, you will see my shameful secret. I had not only learned to read, I had learned to write and draw. Volume I sports fashion designs for paper dolls, a picture hat and an evening gown complete with tabs. Volume II contains the beginning of an original story, “Mickey, the bad Monkey.” But it’s Volume III that displays my most infamous and elaborate desecration, a jet fighter pilot skywriter. His message, in huge lettering (cartouched in a heart) reads, “Hello, Polly! I love you!” For extra pizazz, my five-year-old imagination has him writing not with smoke but bullets. Even the heart.

Needless to say, when my father discovered the disgraceful misuse I had made of his gift, I was spoken to seriously. Not sharply, but seriously. Why had I done it? “I didn’t have any paper,” was my abysmal reply. This being my father and not some other fellow’s, the next few days saw the arrival of several tablets and a sketch pad.

Which brings me to my need for a skywriter. I need one to blazon across the heavens “John Kruzan has passed away. ” Even now, I can’t bring myself to use the d word. Just when I thought that, surely, everyone knew, some neighbors whom I hadn’t seen in quite a while asked cheerfully, “How’s John?” I got a double dose, with “Where’s John?” for they were in different parts of their yard. These are good people. They meant well. They were miserable when I flinched and they realized the situation. No one was to blame. It just happens. I guess it will happen a few more times, only a few if I’m lucky.

How is he? Where is he? These are questions I ask myself on a daily basis. I don’t yet have answers that give me peace. Perhaps I never will. To be asked this innocently by acquaintances, is an ambush with no harm behind it. There’s no way to prepare for it, and you don’t know it’s coming. I make an effort to regain my composure quickly and put them at ease, smile if I can manage it. But for a few brief seconds it’s like, oh, I don’t know, like a surprise volley of arrows raining down as you scale the castle wall. Every time. Maybe that was the last time. I hope so. But just in case, where can I find a skywriter?

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Ann, and the night and the music

I love going to concerts with Ann. Our tastes don’t overlap on everything, but when it comes to classical music, we are almost always of one mind. She knew I’d enjoy what Millennium Park was offering last night, two of my favorite composers, Prokofiev and Vaughan Williams, and one who, if not exactly comfort food for the ear, is always interesting, Charles Ives.

After a particularly good supper at the Park Grille (Ahi tuna just waived at the pan, wasabi, bok choi, spinach salad and a rhubarb cobbler), we filed through concert  security, a recent, necessary, but sad development. I opened the zippered case containing the angled, wooden support Mickey made for my back. The guard examined it in puzzlement, but decided it couldn’t make much of a weapon and asked no questions.

We found seats at the rear, but changed them to escape the children whizzing back and forth, ignored by their parents. We changed a second time because the tent over the sound booth obstructed our view of the stage. The third time looked like the charm, great sight lines and no rambunctious kiddies. As it turned out, we should have stuck with the whiz kids. A strange fellow sat by himself behind us. As the orchestra entered, he startled us with fierce, loud, raspy, animal-like howls and hoots of enthusiasm which continued until the music commenced. He gave jungle worthy encores at the conclusion of each piece. When well meaning neophytes, unfamiliar with the works, or with symphonic etiquette, began to applaud between movements, the strange man grew stranger, roaring the admonishment, “Whaddya doing? Ya don’t applaud now!” It was as though Miss Manners had morphed into a savage lioness on steroids. The applause ceased at once, and silence reigned save for a scattering of terrified whimpers.

Back on earth, the sunset gilded the skyscrapers, a caressing breeze rippled through the balmy air, and the music was sublime. Prokofiev’s Synfonia Concertante is really a gorgeous cello concerto, rapturously realized by Pablo Ferrandez. Ives’ The Unanswered Question and Vaughan Williams 4th Symphony were also well suited to the pleasures of a summer night. The park lent time and space for contemplation, and, as my gaze drifted from couple to couple, I felt a pang of envy, even jealousy for those who still had partners. Then, I found myself wondering if anyone’s eyes had fallen on Ann and me, assuming we were an idyllic, white haired married couple, perhaps envying us, never realizing we were dear old friends who would return to our separate homes, alone at the end of the night.

The last notes sounded, and our strange man was on his feet, frightening us once more with guttural growls and whoops, exhorting us to “Give it up for this f***ing incredible orchestra!” He knew what he had heard, and had gotten more out of it than most. We walked out a few steps behind him, and as the crowd spilled out toward the Bean and those stellar skyscrapers stretching toward the moon, I wondered what he was heading home to, and hoped there’d be someone waiting for him.

” . . . a turkey that you know will fold”

It doesn’t much matter what we’re up to when I get together with Carol and Dean. Whatever the pretext, I know there’ll be stimulating discourse, lots of nonsense, and barrels of laughs. I’ve known Carol much longer than her husband. She and I go back to about 1952 when we took Mr. Carroll’s journalism class and joined the staff of the South Shore High School newspaper, the Trademaster. Carol had a crush on Mr. Carroll, and I had a crush on Carol. She was cute as a button, smart as a whip (she’d cringe at the cliches in which I’ve just dressed her), and she could make me laugh. Even better, I could make her laugh. And so it has gone ever since.

This morning, Lois and I set off to meet this merry pair at the Mity Nice Grill in Water Tower Place. The food was, if anything, even better than usual. Lois and Dean ordered succulent chicken pot pies, I had a turkey club with chips so crisp they snapped at the touch of a tooth. Carol had a huge mound of something green. It looked unarguably healthy, certainly for cattle, and probably for humans as well.

I don’t know if it were something I said, but midway through our meal, my three companions rose as one to seek the restrooms. Our waiter zoomed over and lunged for our plates, “You guys are all through, right?” “No!!!” I exclaimed, prepared to defend our still ample feast with my body. Since we had tickets for the theater, we were entitled to two free desserts. We decided to split a light, lemony angel food cake and a heavyweight sundae with glazed almonds and butterscotch sauce. I tingled with anticipation, but by the time they were put before us, our server, perhaps wary of another outburst from me, had slowed to a crawl, and curtain time neared. It was decided, not by me I can assure you, to offer them to a family at the next table. I felt at one with wretched Tantalus as I saw our sweets untimely ripped from my grasp.

Still, I entered Lookingglass theater with high hopes. The place was a favorite with John and me. Their stagecraft is legendary, particularly with myth and fantasy. Their Jason and the Argonauts and Arabian Nights are among my fondest theatrical experiences. So, 20,000 Leagues Under the Seas seemed like a natural for this troupe. The house darkened, and I mouthed my accustomed, “Don’t be scared,” to John, wherever he is. A deep offstage voice commanded us authoritatively to turn off our cell phones.

That, to our collective dismay, was the last decent line reading, the last scrap of actual drama to take place. What we were given instead was talk, talk, talk, and more talk. And then some more. We were anesthetized by an ocean of exposition that did, indeed, put us 20,000 leagues under. In mere minutes, I had fallen completely asleep and pitched forward. Lois poked me awake, lest I injure myself or start snoring. Soon I was out again. More poking. I looked blearily at the woman to my left. She was fast asleep. I didn’t poke her because we hadn’t been introduced. Also, I knew she was far better off in her happy slumberous state. I envied her, for as Lois continued to poke, I’d unglue my eyelids resentfully and think, “Dear God, they’re still at it.”

To turn Jules Verne’s robust, thrilling tale into into a soggy bore takes some doing, but they dood it. Oh, they came waggling at us with some fish things on sticks, like bloated Mrs. Paul’s, and I’m told told the attack of the giant squid in act two livened things up, but it would have taken an attack by a real giant squid to scare this cast to life. Of course, we didn’t make it to the second act. The lights came up and I didn’t see Dean. The most astute critic among us, he had quietly gone home. The rest of followed his sterling example.

Fairness demands, I suppose, that I mention the reviews were generally favorable, saying things like, “Summer fun for the whole family.” Perhaps, but only if they change the marquee to read “NAPTIME!”

Kay

I’m a godfather. Not an awfully good one. I haven’t fostered my godchild’s religious development as godfathers are supposed to do (I think that’s in the by-laws of godfathery). Kay could be a pagan, or a Wicca, for all I’ve done to prevent it. Then, there was the ill-fated Christmas when little Kay and her sister, Mary came over. I was baby-sitting the demonic offspring of friends. Young Lucifer chose the moment of their arrival to play with an electric plug as I went to let them in. I should have dragged him up the stairs with me, since he had already displayed a morbid fascination with anything I warned him against. He survived, but the girls’ evening began with ten solid minutes of his shrieking.

Earlier, I had been wrapping gifts. I am an excellent gift wrapper. Whatever dismay my recipients experience once they see what’s inside, my packages don’t disappoint. Their corners are taut and tidy, unlike my bed. Too bad the army didn’t have me wrap gifts, instead of trying to bounce quarters on my limp blankets. But I digress. I had made smart, crisp work of Mary’s present, when Lucifer begged to wrap Kay’s. I said no. He demanded. I said no. He began to wail like a banshee. I said yes. The result, unsurprisingly, was a slatternly mess of crumpled wrapping wound with miles of tape. I compounded the offense by letting him address the tag in his maniacal scrawl better suited to a ransom note. Kay was not amused.

Sometimes, my behavior was even less exemplary. My coming out left me so unsure of how my friends and family would react that rather than risk their disapproval, I kept my distance. When I resurfaced, I remember Kay, then in her teens saying, as I was leaving her parents’ dinner table, “So, is this it then for another ten years?”

But that was one of the million things I love about her, the directness, slicing through . . well, whatever needs to be sliced through at the moment. Something in that challenge she flung at me made it impossible for me ever to stay away again for long. I choose to think that was her intention. Since then, we’ve become fast and faster friends. She has married, raised two splendiferous daughters, and taught a generation of band students what joy there can be in making music together.

Still, she makes time for me, for us, just the two of us, as she did today. She brought tasty snacks, but I had stocked up as well. I like to feed her, for she is always enviably thin. Today, I stuffed her with potato salad, salami, cherry pie and ice cream. No use. She’ll still be sleek tomorrow. We talked and caught up for hours, leaving few relatives uncritiqued. I paraded her around the garden, snapping her everywhere as if it were a fashion shoot.

All too soon, she was gone, but she had come to me, unbidden, on her last week of freedom, all the way from Naperville. I didn’t even have to make her an offer she couldn’t refuse.

The Ray

Hope springs eternal, though not, when it comes to movies, blind, giddy optimism. I’m grateful if, once a month or so, there’s a film worth sitting through. Lately, there’ve been several. Sicario: Day of the Soldado had me on the edge of my seat, and Ant Man and the Wasp had me falling out of it with its engaging nuttiness. Michael Pena’s truth serum routine, and the sight of a gigantic Paul Rudd trying to use his car as a scooter were as funny as anything I’ve seen onscreen in eons, (though the eons in question haven’t been exactly riotous).

Then last night, I braved the Lollapalooza crowds to see RBG, the stirring documentary about Ruth Bader Ginsberg, at the Gene Siskel Center. In a time of deep political cowardice, it was encouraging beyond measure to observe the extent of the difference Ginsberg has made, and the odds against which she has made it. My young cousin recently posted that she would like to be a “badass with grace.” I can think of no finer role model in that respect than RBG.

So, three flics in a month that I felt like seeing, what an embarrassment of riches. Here comes some codger talk, but when I was a kid, there were a possible twenty-five or so, not in a month, but a week. Every week. That’s not counting the first run movies playing at the ten ornate palaces in the Loop, a different one showing at each theater. No, they were reserved for the most special of occasions. I’m just talking about what was available to me in my neighborhood.

In 1945, which I think of as my golden year of movies, to distract me from the upheavals in the wake of their divorce, my parents indulged my ravenous cinematic cravings, and made a regular patron of me. Prior to that, money had been tight, and going to the show was a sometime thing. Actually, money was now likely tighter than ever for them, but they were bent on pleasing me, so off I went with one or the other, or best of all because of the false hope it gave me, both of them.

The Avalon and the Jeffery were the first places movies appeared, about eight weeks after their downtown runs. Then they would filter down through the Hamilton, the Shore, the Rhodes, the Highland, the Commercial and the Grove, all easily reachable by a short drive or streetcar ride. These were the double feature houses playing current shows. BUT, and this was a terrific but, there were also two small theaters playing TRIPLE features of older movies. And if that weren’t enough to drive my eight-year-old self crazy with choices, these little retro houses changed the bill three times a week! Between the two of them, they offered eighteen vintage films every week.

These were the Chelten and the Ray, but it’s the Ray, of which I write tonight because it holds one of my most cherished memories of my dad. One night, he told me we were going to the movies. I leaped up like a dog waiting for his leash and asked which one. “You’ll decide,” he said. As our Buick pulled away, I realized we hadn’t brought a newspaper for the listings. “We won’t need it.” He was being mysterious, and I loved it. He pulled the car up outside the Chelten, leaned over and pushed my door open. “Go take a look.” I saw what was on the marquee, but wasn’t familiar with the titles so I ran over to scrutinize the posters and stills. I considered them carefully before going back to the car. “What do you think, Shorty?” I told him they looked okay.

“Get in the car.”

“Aren’t we going?” This was more mystery than I cared for. Had I done something wrong? Had I taken too much time?

“You don’t want to make a hasty decision,” he said as we drove away. Next, we arrived at the Shore. Same thing. I got out and perused the big posters and smaller lobby cards for the clues they could provide to the evening’s possible delights. I adored these ads, and there had never seemed to be enough time to study them as I was being whisked into or out of a theater. Tonight, however, I could stare and stare.

I went back to the car and leaned in.

“Better?”

“They look pretty good.”

“Get in the car.” And off we went to the Ray. By this time, if he hadn’t already been my dad, I would have adopted him.

The Ray was at 75th and Exchange. It had lovely big orange neon deco letters flashing R-A-Y. My mother sometimes called it the Windsor Park, which had been its name when she was a girl. I got out to begin my inspection. A soft rain was starting. I didn’t care, but it was getting late, and I didn’t want Dad to have to drive anywhere else. He would have. He really would have. But I needed to spare him. Mr. Lucky looked good, and it was an RKO picture, so I’d get to see the beeping tower.

“Let’s go here.”

Mr. Lucky was good indeed. Cary Grant and Laraine Day looked better in black and white  than anybody I was ever likely to meet in color. They just glistened, and there was a swell song running through it, Something to Remember You By. I had dawdled so long deciding where we should go, that we didn’t get to see all three movies. I hoped we would, but at the end credits of Mr. Lucky, the house lights came on in a startling, unwelcome, blaze. The employees of the Ray were ready to go home, even if I were not. I had never seen the place so brightly lit. Small movie houses are at there best in the dark. I did notice though, as I moped up the aisle behind my dad, that the walls of the Ray sported circular clocks showing what time it was in all different places around the world, like Buenos Aires.

My dad was smiling when we got to the car. Did he realize he’d given me one of the best nights I’d ever have in my whole life?

 

Felix

Has there ever been a happier name for a little boy? Felix, the male counterpart of Felicity, “the fortunate ones.” April is a wizard with kid names, and she was back for a visit yesterday with her entourage: Felix is six, and Archer is four. At six, like Felix, I was in first grade, 1943, smack in the middle of World War II. My parents were still together, and I was happy enough except for mortal fear of losing another crayola. I had lost my blue, and, ashamed to ask the nun for another, I faked it with purple. When we held up our papers, sister complimented me on staying nicely within the lines, but said I should press harder. I didn’t dare. Funny, in those days, I just couldn’t ask for things. Felix would have asked.

Then too, there were the dreaded mass marches to the bathroom, where we boys were expected to pee on command at a trough like some troupe of urinary Rockettes. Not for me, thank you very much. I wonder if that’s still the drill. Other than that, six was pretty good. I could read; Mom had seen to that, training me on grocery packages, and sister was always showering me with holy cards. I must have been creepily well behaved.

Back to Felix. When we first met, a few years ago, he didn’t have much to say, but made it count. His dad, Steffan, had him on his knee and was trying to draw him out.

“What does the cow say?”

“Moo.”

“What does the duck say?”

“Quack.”

“What does Felix say?”

“Please, and thank you.”

My jaw dropped open, and I thought, “This kid’s a winner.” At six, he doesn’t disappoint, though he has considerably more to say, especially about his screen games. That episode was less of a chat than a dissertation.

April had told Lois the she wanted to bring the boys by for tea, which left me flummoxed. What the heck is tea for little boys? I stocked up on chips, pretzel rods and cookies. I knew I had chosen wisely when Felix sampled a cookie and asked if he could have more than one. Wanting him to feel at home, I said, “No more than ten.” Solemnly and silently, he counted out ten. I took his beverage order, offering lemonade, root beer, milk, water . . . ” He wanted Sprite. I hadn’t mentioned it; it’s not a favorite of mine, but, ha ha, I had it.

Am I forgetting Archer? No, but that haughty boy spurned and disdained my soiree, preferring to slumber, in the exact same position, not moving a hair, for almost two hours. Never has there been a less restless child.

Felix politely let his elders prattle amongst themselves for most of the afternoon, racking up prodigious scores on his screen games. When it was time to part, and his mother encouraged him to shake my hand, he threw his arms around me for a vigorous hug, then, in a return to decorum, pushed me away and thrust out his hand to be shaken.

Except for those raised by wolves, I find the unvarnished intensity and enthusiasms of children quite endearing. At its best, it’s like pure oxygen. Why, I could have listened to Felix lecture us on the niceties of gaming strategy for at least another two minutes.

 

 

 

The right stuff

It’s just stuff. I know that. Good health and good friends are all, or most of, what’s really important. Sometimes though, the right stuff can really cheer a person up. The stuff in question is a set of garden furniture, four white wicker chairs with navy blue cushions, surrounding a matching square umbrella table with a hammered glass top. The chairs swivel, for ease of getting up and down, and there are rectangular lombar pillows of navy blue and white. Yesterday, they took up residence in the gazebo.

What they replaced was a set about twenty-seven years old that owed us nothing, was still comfortable, and, despite a missing button or two, or a loosened strap, likely has more years in it. In its time, it supported the backs and posteriors of hundreds of guests at our Labor Day and Summer solstice parties and more intimate gatherings, including breakfasts for John and me and whoever might have slept over the night before. Seated upon that set, we toasted engagements, renewed friendships, signed contracts, planned the renovation of the house with Mickey, fed workmen, rehashed parties in the dark when the last guest had finally said goodnight, dreamed, and generally laughed ourselves silly.

A set full of memories then, and hard to part with, but it was time. I’d spoken of replacing it so often that my sister-in-law grew tired of hearing about it, steered me to the computer, and said, “Free shipping on Amazon.” Three days later, the table arrived, unharmed but in a box that had been torn open. The next day, the chairs showed up, intact, but in a box that was caved in and splitting at all seams. The embarrassed Fed-Ex man assured me he wasn’t the mugger. Free shipping indeed. “Free-for-all” seems more apt.

Saturday, the incomparable Adam assembled it all with the speed of the Flash, and carried the old set to the garage where it awaits pickup by friends whom I hope will have years to create their own happy memories with, and on it.

Now, I open the bedroom drapes in the morning and peer down through half opened eyes at the gazebo’s new, blue tenants. The lombar pillows are perhaps a bit fussy for my taste, a sort of checkerboard where the dark squares are flowers. Simple stripes would have suited me just fine, but Johnnie loves them, they do pop against the navy cushions, and they are not disagreeable. I thud downstairs, make coffee, go outside and settle in on all the blue. I swivel to the right. I swivel to the left. It cheers me up. Why do I need cheering? Five days ago, I woke up feeling as though a horse had kicked me in the behind. No explanation. I had an uncle who used to say that I would benefit greatly from just such a kick, one of the good, swift variety. Finding no hoof-prints on the bedroom carpet, I hold my uncle responsible, from the great beyond. Perhaps he didn’t care for his treatment in Safe Inside. In any case, it was four days before I could sit down comfortably, and it was on the new chairs.

I know it’s just stuff, but it’s the right stuff at the right time. Come on over and find out for yourself.