Flash flood

I’ve always greatly admired the prose of Joseph Conrad. He wrote in an adopted language, making more of it than most native speakers. Last Saturday had me identifying with one of his characters, Captain MacWhirr in the novel Typhoon. Both of us were to find ourselves completely out of our depth.

The day began with such sun and promise that I couldn’t stay inside, not even for breakfast, which I took out to the gazebo. The birds racketed enthusiastically, puzzled to see me at so early an hour. I threaded my way through tangles of garden hose on the deck, trying not to spill coffee, orange juice, or the sinfully intense apricot preserves on my toast. I started the fountain and settled in with the difficult Saturday crossword while I waited for Luke to arrive and set everything to rights in the garden.

Luke’s primary task for the day was to power wash the north siding which periodically takes on a mossy and unattractive aspect. His agility would be the envy of a circus troupe. There was a greenish patch above the sloping back porch roof so hard to reach that I told him to ignore it. Instead, he lugged the power washer up a ladder, schlepped it onto the roof as casually as one might flip a coin, leapt after it and didn’t descend until he had me assure him the siding was spotless.

Before he left, he blew away the million spinners shed by the maple tree. They had almost obliterated the deck and the driveway. The place was now ready for company – not that company is currently ready for the place (save for Tim who is well schooled in keeping a pandemic distance).

When Luke was gone, I drove to Rob’s deli for the region’s best steaks and potato salad. Tim would be here tomorrow for a belated birthday meal. There’d been flash flood warnings, but that was Chicago weather, far away, and here the sky was clear and bursting with sunlight. Whatever would or wouldn’t come, I had time.

On the way back, the sky darkened, and a storm began. Like Captain MacWhirr, I thought, “What of that? I’ve ridden through my share of storms.” Neither one of us had the imagination to grasp what was in store.

I was almost home and turned off Calumet onto Fisher for the last short leg of my trip. Suddenly – instantly, I was driving through several feet of water – not inches but feet. Waves were spuming up over the car.  I could see little in front of me and nothing to either side. I slowed but didn’t dare stop or pull over. The edges of the street sloped even deeper. I knew if Dimitrios stalled out, I’d be trapped, unable to open the door.

I kept slowly plowing up the middle of the street. To my relief, there was little traffic ahead of me. Rain and hail thudded furiously on the roof. The high water continued up to Ridge and beyond. I had only a few blocks to go, but Forest runs down from Ridge, and the water was higher still. My sight lines were so dark and blurry I feared I’d be unable to pick out my house. I’d almost gone past it when I caught a glimpse of the rounded arch on my front porch. It served me well that no two houses on Forest are alike.

My driveway is raised and so I had only about eight inches of water to slog through after I deposited poor Dimitrios to dry out in the garage. I patted his sleek black shell, grateful that the little guy had gotten us home in one soggy piece. I looked toward the yard. There was no yard. Not a blade of grass. Just lake.

Inside, of course there was water all over the basement despite two efficient sump pumps. They’d simply been overwhelmed by the speed and ferocity of the storm. So had I. In a moment, I’d step into the kitchen and raid the freezer for a slug of Bombay Sapphire. But for now, I just stood in the hallway, dripping and feeling my heart pound. I thought of Conrad’s final sentence describing the Captain’s experience.

“I think he got out of it very well for such a stupid man.”

Spring will be a little late this year

I have become an overstuffed pack of memories. They spill out and, in my enforced leisure, I have the time and the inclination to pick them up and hold them to the light, twisting them this way and that to examine each irregular facet.

One such recollection was triggered by recent events. It was a song, and the far away events surrounding it. It kept me awake but so pleasantly that I couldn’t mind. The song is quite lovely, both in lyric and melody, thanks to Frank Loesser. It was a favorite of mine and my father’s. He’d play it, and I’d chirp along, struggling to negotiate the leaps and dips of the tune.

“Spring will be a little late this year

a little late arriving in my lonely world over here.”

It’s a heady ballad and, should you check it out, I recommend Ella Fitzgerald’s version. She does it simply and beautifully. The song was written for a movie, Christmas Holiday.

Christmas Holiday Movie Poster

I remember seeing it with my parents on a Sunday in the fall of 1944. It had opened in July, I believe at the glamorous RKO Palace, but in those days, pictures played for weeks and weeks downtown, and it took several months more for them to trickle down to a neighborhood theater like the little Rhodes on west 79th Street.

That’s where we were going, Mom and Dad with me squeezed in between them in the front seat of the deep turquoise Buick we had all through the war. Who was minding baby Steve I couldn’t say. With a title like Christmas Holiday and a cast of Deanna Durbin and Gene Kelly, this must have seemed to my father like perfect family fare. He was soon to be disabused of such notions. We all were.

I loved the Rhodes because it meant a malted milk and butter cookies at the Joy ice cream parlor next door. And then, when we’d bought the tickets, just inside the lobby were those cement squares with footprints and signatures of movie stars like Ann Sheridan. At seven, they were exciting to me, and as always, I hung back and delayed our entrance until I had planted my feet inside the shoe prints of Jeffrey Lynn, or John Garfield. I suppose I thought they would bring me luck. I’m still here, so maybe they did.

In the mid 40’s, Universal had one of my favorite logos, lustrous mirrored letters circling round the world. I settled in to see Christmas trees and snow. Somerset Maugham had other ideas. The movie was based on his tale of homosexuality, prostitution and murder. The title is brutally ironic. Even when run through Hollywood’s censorial laundromat, the story remains dark, sinister, and Oedipal.  Usually a lovable hoofer, Gene Kelly is instead a psychopathic killer. Sweet, cheery Deanna Durbin is now an embittered, depressed dance hall “hostess.” And then there is Gale Sondergaard as the creepy mother-in-law from somewhere south of Purgatory.

When the song arrives, instead of being highlighted, it’s tossed off quickly and casually. Durbin’s character has been around, seen it all, and phones it in to get it over with. This is quite a stretch for Durbin and she’s really good at it. Clearly, she hoped to take her career in a new direction, but audiences didn’t know what to make of it. What my dad made of it I never did find out. This was one of the few times he and I didn’t discuss a movie to pieces on the ride home.

The song had been running through my head during weeks of miserable weather.

“Where is our April of old?

For you have left me, and winter continues cold.”

Would it ever be warm enough to buy anything to set out on the deck for a trace of color and cheer?

But then it was, and thanks to Lois and her roomy Hyundai, I found my masked self at Elzinga’s nursery, filling carts with geraniums of white, scarlet, pink, and violet, with begonias of peach and apricot, with daisies of orange and crimson, scaviolas of deepest blue, and the exotic, paint spattered petunia called “Midnight Sky.”

That night, there was a frost warning, but with the help of my neighbor, Terry, I schlepped everything into the garage.

Since then, there has been an actual primavera. Spring was late, but it came.

And on my left . .

I wake at one or two in the morning and have to fight to stay in bed. I don’t always win. On losing nights, I slip into flip flops and pad upstairs to the study and my computer. Then, when I’m not playing minesweeper or solitaire, or looking for Danny Callahan‘s edifying posts on “The Chiseler,” I search for episodes of What’s My Line on YouTube.

In my teens, I watched it on Sunday nights with my family. Everybody did. It was almost as popular as Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town . Celebrities of all stripes were eager to be the next “mystery guest,” for which the panel was blindfolded. Several generations of Kingsmills were glued to the nine inch black and white tube to see if the cast could identify hog callers, dynamiters, and Eleanor Roosevelt.

Hundreds of these shows are available, and while the earliest are not as sparkling as it soon became, I find it interesting to watch it grow into the well oiled machine that ran for decades. At first, for example, everyone smoked – cigarettes, sometimes in holders, or even cigars. The initial episodes resemble a tobacco convention. Contestants, or challengers as they were called, had to submit to “reasonable” requests such as touching their toes or showing the labels on their outfits as they met the panel. That moronic convention didn’t last long.

Creators Mark Goodson and Bill Todman were, at the time, undisputed kings of tv quiz shows. They realized pretty fast that what they had – or could get if they tended it carefully – was something rare, a show of considerable sophistication that would still play well with mass audiences. The key elements would be the panel and the moderator. Their choice for the latter was a stroke of brilliance: White House and foreign correspondent John Daley.

Daley was simultaneously urbane and endearing. He could have been the love child of Noel Coward and Tom Hanks, crisp and proper, yet eminently huggable. It was Daley who broke the news of President Roosevelt’s death to the nation. I was eight at the time, but I knew that something solemnly awful had happened. Daley was friends with FDR and his tribute the following day (I heard it again recently) was both eloquent and heartbreaking.

Panelists came and went on What’s My Line, but three came and stayed. When the chaff was winnowed out, what remained were a trio of warm, witty New Yorkers, a columnist, an actress, and a publisher. They seemed to be, should have been, and perhaps were, fast friends. Week after week, year after year, they certainly gave a convincing impression of it. In doing so, they forged the crucial family nucleus of the show.

Arlene Francis, Bennett Cerf, Dorothy Kilgallen & John Daley

Dorothy Kilgallen was there from the very first episode, and she was Broadway personified. A compelling journalist, she was the sharpest tool in anybody’s shed. Watching her petite, amusing sleuthery can be painful if I let my thoughts drift to what lay ahead for her. I try not to. There is considerable evidence that she was murdered to prevent her publishing a story tying the assassination of JFK to Jack Ruby and the mob.

Arlene Francis was an engaging actress whose early career found her menaced (and crucified!) by Bela Lugosi in Murders in the Rue Morgue. She was also part of Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater group. Her strong suit, however, was the irrepressible good humor and friendliness she radiated. It’s on display in a late career movie, The Thrill of it AllOn one episode of WML? she takes the hand of a contestant frozen rigid with nerves and can be heard to murmur, “Loosen up, fella. You’re gonna have fun.”

Random House exec Bennett Cerf struck audiences as similarly agreeable. One of the most successful publishers of his era, his anthologies saw me through the dark days of several Alaskan winters.

What keeps me going back to these ancient and sometimes fuzzy kinescopes? So many things. They’re still great fun. There’s a marvelous time capsule quality to the changing vogues of new look dresses and mile high teased hairdos. And has there ever been a New Yorkier progam? The four of them not only knew each other well, they knew everybody popping in town to hawk their latest book, movie, play or concert (or UN appearance, for heaven’s sake!). I confess to the shallow vicarious pleasures of watching a world where the talented and notable rub shoulders, dine and party with each other. One night, Bennett Cerf disqualified himself because he recognized the voices of Rodgers and Hammerstein. He’d had supper with them the night before.

But what really gets me out of bed and draws me back to What’s My Line more than any of that is our lost capacity for civility. There has never been, and sadly may never be again, a program on which people are as unfailingly gracious, kind and polite to each other. And in the darkest hours before the Coronavirus dawn, these ghostly memories of  oh, niceness and respect have become my drug of choice.

So good night Dorothy, good night Arlene, good night Bennett, and good night John, until we meet again.

The gathering of the forest clan

Some days (and nights), I feel like a ghost rattling through the haunted rooms of this house. It was once so full of people and talk and laughter. That was when John was well enough to entertain, and before I lost – whatever it took to do so on my own. Now, with only me roaming about, the place is quiet and spectral. Fortunately, thanks to Mickey’s creative genius, and John’s and my lifelong accumulation of peculiar and decorative stuff, my castle, though haunted, is anything but grim.

Still, it is oh so very quiet. Needless to say, I was cheered no end Sunday when Tim called and asked if I wanted to walk. I was outside at the time, snapping pictures of sun splashed tulips and azaleas. I walk almost every day, but it had been ages since I’d walked with somebody.

We kept our distance but were close enough to talk. Somewhat ahead, in figure hugging workout togs, was a pretty girl exercising her dog and raising Tim’s spirits. The day was warm and bright, and it was good as John would say, “beyond the telling of it,” to have a conversation without having to phone it in.

I was grateful for the company, unaware of the social windfall about to come my way when we got back. Up strolled Scott and Tony, both masked. Tony’s was down around his neck, understandably. If you have a face like Tony’s, it’s a shame to cover it up unless you must.

While we stood chatting, Ken and Susan approached from the opposite direction. When Ken’s ebullience threatened to bring him too close to one of us, Susan would call out, “Ken, keep your distance!” I suggested we all invest in six foot poles. Across the street, Terry was mowing his lawn. We told him to keep it down because we wanted (needed) to talk. He shut it off and joined the conversation. Someone Susan knew was walking his sad eyed dog and stopped to add to the group.

There was much indeed to catch up on. If our quarantine is ever lifted, Ken, Susan and Tony will appear in a local production of the Young Frankenstein musical. We all agreed that Ken would be a most excellent monster. To prove the point, he stomped about and grunted a bit of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”

Further gossip revealed that James and Anthony, the young gay couple across the alley have put their house up for sale and bought a farm in Lowell where they plan to raise chickens and goats. This was dismal news indeed. I for one would put up with chickens, goats and whatever other livestock the boys fancy to keep such cuties in Munster. Perhaps there’s still time. I must check our ordinances on llamas.

We all stood around, gabbing and smiling for the longest time. None of us wanted to end it. I least of all, who would disappear inside when it was over to skulk about the solitary corridors of the Double K Ranch.

I’ll not complain. For almost two hours, there was sun and company.

Sleepytime Gal

There was always music in our house – until there wasn’t. When I was eight, my parents divorced, we moved out, the piano was sold, and the music stopped. But up until then, hardly a day went by without the little bungalow ringing with song. I wish my brother had been born sooner. I’d have liked him to remember Dad at that piano – and the singing. Sometimes our mother would join in. She loved “Deep Purple,” “Japanese Sandman,” and “Don’t Bring Lulu.”

I don’t exaggerate to say that Dad could have played professionally. He was that good. He read music, of course, (the piano bench overflowed with sheet music), but he could play by ear and knew how and when to toss in a tasteful flourish or boogie things up.

They paid for piano lessons, but, to my eternal regret, I was too young to appreciate them, and didn’t stick with it. Actually, I believe I was sent home in disgrace when my teacher discovered I’d been cutting pictures out of my lesson book, rendering some of the exercises unplayable. What a comfort it would be, in these days of isolation, to sit down and pick out a tune. How blessed Steve is in that respect, with any of his thousand guitars in hand.

What I did appreciate was Dad’s talent, and I loved to sit beside him, turning pages as he spun out “Stardust,” “Paper Doll, or “Sleepytime Gal.” In a way, I learned to read on sheet music, memorizing as fast as I could to be able to sing along.

Sleepytime gal, you’re turning night into days.

Sleepytime gal. you’ve danced the hours away.”

Sleep doesn’t come as easily to me these days as it did then, but lately, I’ve found an aide to my slumbers, a sort of sleepytime gal of my own. Her name is Rosemary Clooney. Hers was always an expressive voice, one of my favorites, especially on dreamy ballads like “Hey There,” “Mixed Emotions,” and her incomparable rendition of “Tenderly.” I regretted the wildly popular but inane and jangly novelties forced on her by Mitch Miller, and as I learned later, so did she.

I met her once, with John, in Cincinatti. John was indulging me with a trip to a movie poster convention and he had found a refurbished art deco hotel (I wish I could remember the name of it), whose bar was a hangout for musicians. One night, Clooney walked in. John was crazy about her but too shy to approach until I egged him on. She was very gracious to him, and I know it was the highlight of his trip.

Quite recently, thanks to Danny Callahan, I’ve discovered what is surely her most beautiful album, called, most appropriately, Love.

Rosemary Clooney’s “Love” album cover

It’s done after the height of her ’50’s pop fame, in collaboration with Frank Sinatra’s frequent arranger, Nelson Riddle. At the time, Clooney and Riddle were deep in an affair, and it shows. His scoring caresses her voice, and she breathes into each lyric a sensual intimacy that is achingly, breathtakingly personal.

This isn’t primarily an album of standards, though there are a few: “Someone to Watch over Me,” “More than you Know.” Mainly, Clooney has chosen personal favorites, out of the way gems like “Invitation” and “I wish it So.” Each is delivered with such thoughtful attention to phrasing and articulation that it’s as though she fears a single misjudged syllable will shatter the spell she is weaving.

And what a spell it is. The best way I can describe its effect on me is that it’s as if a falling angel were whispering torrid lullabies in my ear. I lie in bed, savoring each word, but can’t seem to get past more than four tracks before my lids close in a deep and luscious sleep.

Before each silvery star fades out of sight,

Please give me one little kiss, then let us whisper goodnight.”

I can hear Dad’s voice on the next line, though sometimes he’d just whistle it.

“It’s gettin’ late and dear, your pillow’s waitin’.

Goodnight all.

Harold Lang

These are strange times. You never know whom or what you’re going to wake up thinking about. This morning – actually about 4:00 a,m. – for me it was Harold Lang.

If it’s possible to have an aural crush on someone, I did, at about thirteen. I’d never seen Lang, not even a picture, but that year his voice was splashed all over two of the best selling LPs: Kiss me Kate and Pal Joey. There was just something inexplicably seductive about that voice. It was the kind you get when you’ve a bit of a cold and start to sing in the shower. You wish it could stay that way because then you could have a recording career.

Lang’s voice was well suited to the roles he was getting on Broadway, bad boys, heels with charm to burn. And it was perfect for the slangy, whiz-bang lyrics of Lorenz Hart in such tunes as “You Mustn’t Kick it Around” and “Plant you now, dig you Later.” Like the characters he played, this was a voice smooth as syrup, with an astringent aftertaste, caressing, teasing, and brash. It was a voice freighted with frankly naughty implications, and it made the adolescent me sit up and take notice.

Then, I began to see pictures of Lang, handsome and playful. The result was a full blown crush. Many of these photos caught him in mid air.

Harold Lang

He’d  started as a dancer with the Ballet Russe and was spotted by Jerome Robbins who cast him as a sailor in “Fancy Free,” the forerunner of On the Town. Lang was born to wear sailor suits, and to leap about in them, being a spectacularly athletic dancer, a kind of human jumping jack.

His agility and vocal chops recommended him to Cole Porter for the role of Bill who “can’t behave” in Kiss me Kate. Lang was a prankster, and perhaps a jerk, neither of which endeared him to Porter. In rehearsals, he took to stuffing his Shakespearean tights with obscene padding. Porter is reported to have grumbled, “If that cod piece grows any bigger, he’s fired.” He wasn’t fired.

Perhaps more than any other dancer, his athleticism evoked Gene Kelly, and he inherited a part created on stage by Kelly, the calculating womanizer, Pal Joey. At first, there was just a studio recording of the show, but what a recording, with Lang singing opposite the original Vera, Vivienne Segal. Its sales led to a sizzling revival of the play. It outran its predecessor. Perhaps New York was warming to louses. Lang continued to work in the theater, but his greatest successes were behind him. Eventually, he found admiration and acclaim as a teacher of dance.

Since he had popped back into my head so vividly and unexpectedly, I decided to reward myself for getting out of bed by googling him. I found, among other things, a video of his appearance on the Red Skelton Show. It was an eye opener. He does the “I Could Write a Book” number from Pal Joey. His swagger and self amusement are evident at once. He sings to Cindy Robbins, and though she appears ready to swoon, there isn’t much chemistry from his direction. Maybe that was reserved for lovers like Gore Vidal. There are also a group of little girls, just the sort with which Kelly could engage so charmingly. The tots are given short shrift as Lang speeds toward a dazzling display of gymnastic choreography: leaps that soar, Olympic grade flips and bounces that – well, bounce.

That was as close as I’d come to seeing him live. Just as well. I’d have made a stammering fool of myself asking for an autograph. But that’s how it is with ancient crushes.

Easter surprises

Easter was the culmination of the religious year when I was growing up. I took it all so seriously that I think I got on my relatives’ nerves – the ones who weren’t amused by my dramatic piety. I must have been especially exasperating on Good Friday afternoons, when I kept strict silence during the approximate hours of the crucifixion and expected my elders to do likewise. If my grandmother or my aunts got on the telephone, I’d shoot them a withering glower of disapproval (the only time during the entire year that I’d dare do so). After all, If I could keep away from the record player . . .

The next day, I’d make the rounds of all the neighborhood churches, with classmates, or my brother, or both, stopping at each one to admire and critique the gloom of statues shrouded in purple. We’d light a candle and say a prayer. It was what the good (and not so good) sisters said we were supposed to do. In those days, I did everything I was supposed to (though I allowed for some wiggle room on chores). I don’t think I had an ounce of rebellion in me.

I’d get on my bike and pedal first to St. Brides, St. Michael, and St. Mary Magdalene because they were the closest. Then, I’d venture further out to Our Lady of Peace and St. Phillip Neri. I’d come back with my head swimming with the smell of incense, ready to color some eggs. We’d boil them, and when they’d cooled, make a blotchy, blurry mess of dying them unless we could settle on a single hue. We almost never could. Sometimes, my grandmother would let us make taffy. I can remember kneading and stretching it out forever with buttery fingers. On Holy Saturday, her kitchen was always a happy place to be.

Sunday, of course, there was High Mass, for which I’d be given a new shirt and tie. Reprobates who’d only attend once a year showed up, making the communion lines extra long. Having fasted, we’d be ravenous when we got home, happy to tear into my grandmother’s french toast and paunhaus. After breakfast, our Easter baskets would appear, full of green and purple shredding, a couple of eggs, corn candy, jelly beans, bullseyes, a chocolate bunny, and my favorite, Mary Janes. Some years, there’d be a small toy, like one of those puzzles where you try to roll a tiny ball into the right hole. But they could have saved money and skipped all of that stuff, So long as there was some colored cellophane, I’d amuse myself no end, as if I’d been stoned.

That was long ago, most of it merely a memory. I can’t be that boy anymore. Some things cling though. I no longer go to mass, but this Friday, when I pulled a piece of steak from the freezer, it just seemed wrong. I put it back and sauteed a bit of tilapia. I held a mental conversation with Christ, telling him how much I honored him for his philosophy of love, generosity, and forgiveness. That, and his humility, wisdom, and common sense. However far I’ve fallen away from the church itself, it’s impossible for me not to admire its prophet.

I expected nothing of this cloistered Easter, but awoke in a good mood to see so much sun. I decided to dress for the occasion, even if no one were to see me. I put on a dress shirt of intense aqua and topped it with a sweater of big blocks of pastel: cream, gray, tan, and powder blue. Then I set out before breakfast for a solo Easter parade.

Often, I can complete my rounds without seeing another soul, but this Sunday it was as if no one could bear to be inside a moment longer. Not a block passed without several pairs of adults, mostly with children, all keeping their distance, but cheerfully calling out to me, “Happy Easter!” Just when I decided I’d gone far enough, one couple advised me that the Easter Bunny was to be found halfway up the next street. Well! I certainly wasn’t going to miss that.

On I trudged, and there he was (she as it turned out), big as life.

Cars would pull up and pause as EB waved silently to excited children. I walked out on the grassy island in the middle of Hohman Avenue and yelled, “May I take your picture, Miss Bunny?” No reply, just a promising jiggle of the large basket in her paw. “I’ve always wanted to meet you,” I continued, but the creature wouldn’t break character – just as it should be.

From there on, all the way home, I alerted all I passed to the opportunity of meeting the celebrated rabbit. It didn’t matter whether they had kids or not, everybody thanked me eagerly and set off to find it. Pandemics can do that to you, it seems.

My second Easter surprise came when my angelic sister-in-law called to say that she and my brother were driving out from Lincolnwood to drop off a veritable feast. Normally, she’d be hosting the meal at their place, and she didn’t want me sitting home alone, grumping at my lot. She set the whole thing on my steps, complete with heating instructions.

There were deviled eggs, ham, baked beans, cole slaw, sweet potatoes with hazel nuts, crispy au gratin potatoes, biscuits and lemon cakes. She hadn’t omitted a thing.

Johnnie and Steve stood there, halfway down the walk from me, tantalizingly just out of reach. We waved and took pictures.

I was so happy to see them and so unhappy not to be able to hug them. It was the very definition of mixed emotions. Yet, she had managed it. Against all odds, and however briefly, we were sharing Easter together. And it wasn’t on Zoom.