Archive for June, 2014

FRIENDS IN LOW PLACES

Sunday, June 29th, 2014

John led Friday night. The first time I heard him speak was a decade ago. Different room, same building. Same thoughtful message.

I like John. I like the vast majority of those I’ve met “in the rooms”. Not all, of course. There are, to be sure, the same jerks one finds in the real world. We avoid them though— like we would errant “earth people”.

Parked pensively, warmed by his story of recovery, it was hard not to feel the dynamic—still shared after all these years —- of the men I’ve met in the trenches…each of us (in our own way) living second acts.

This was the best group (if you’d call it that) …the best “organization” (but hardly that), that I’d ever been part of. As the stats show, for me at least, it’s been (to coin the phrase of my father’s friend Nathan Detroit) “The oldest established permanent floating crap game in Cleveland”).

I’m really NOT an organization man. I survived the army, barely…stumbled through two years as an employee, barely…and for the thrust of my career have been self (if not gainfully) employed. Other than my drill sergeant in Fort Polk, a putz I once officed with, and the ex-wife, no one ever got to tell me to shine my shoes.

Rules I can follow, but not always structure.

The fifties found me in the Boy Scouts. Mrs. Markowitz was our den mother and we got these patches.   From empty metal band aid boxes we crafted cigarette cases for our still-smoking parents.  I hated scouting with the passion that others (but not me) hated Hebrew School.  Thank God Little League came and my father had his priorities in order.  I went AWOL, traded uniforms.  And fuck the merit badge, by the way.

There were groups of my youth, of course:

—The Excels in grade six. (Disbanded when Bruce Schwartz’s mother called Rowland, complaining we’d excluded her son).
—R.E.N. at Greenview. (French for “rouge et noir”, reference to our red/black banlon uniforms). This died too. Perhaps Snyder remembers.
…and…
—Shiloh A.Z.A. Male arm of B’Nai B’Brith Youth, national’d granted us a charter and advisor; Bobby was voted Aleph Gadol; this died too. They pulled our credentials, we were told, for our excessive hazing. (I’m sure Groovy recalls).

And there was the club of my first adulthood: the Knights Of Pythias.

—Conventional wisdom has it that Past Chancellor Al Bogart brought me in The Lodge. Not so. Truth be known it was the most private of my social circle, one Stuart William Fenton, that sponsored my entrance. Co-signed by Ermine, my application went through in ’75 and in November that year we were …brothers. It was a special mix, that crowd. An amalgam of men all ages, founded by an act of Congress on the precepts of charity, friendship and benevolence, it (for the most part), honored them.

A common thread runs, though, from the Cub Scouts through Knights. In each group, with all the friends I had—from Bobby to Stuart to Alan to Mark — I felt “less than”. Was I good enough? Or sharp enough? Was I OK? My friends did not measure, but I did. I knew that they liked me, but was I OK? OK enough?

That all changed in recovery.

From my first meeting in ’97 through the conclave last night, I’ve never NOT felt a part of. Not better than…not worse than. One of.

It’s bizarre, frankly. Coming from different worlds, telling different stories, melding. Common ground? We’ve all shot ourselves in the foot one way or another. We’ve all been kicked in the ass, one way or another. We all were our own worst enemy, one way or another.

And now we’re each trying to grow, one way or another.

That’s why, perhaps, as I walked into that church the other night and saw my friend John I felt grateful. I know his story, you see. And he knows mine. Over time we’ve shared how we’ve tripped, stumbled, fallen, and risen.

I don’t worry anymore if I’m OK.

I’m standing.

YESTERDAY’S GONE

Monday, June 23rd, 2014

10 AM Chagrin and Richmond Roads. The sun is shining.

Graveside, quietly, I studied worn faces on the family of my youth. This unveiling, this final goodbye to Uncle Bob, portended more. It was, I suspected, our first goodbyes to each other.

So many lifetimes have passed since the Bogarts of Bayard and the Hoffmans of East Silsby felt like one. Five decades: times diffused by divorce, death, distance and (dare I say dollars?) had left marks. Or had they?

I was tearing this morning.

—After greeting faces of yore … ‘though refreshed by renewal … as the rabbi from the shul we’d cut our teeth on spoke…. I was tearing. Eyeing my cousins it was hard not to picture, even now, that Chanukah Bonnie elbowed me out to light the first candle, those Seders I was NEVER the youngest…the picnic Gary ran bases backward. (Do they remember? It mattered not. My brother does).

So I introduced Carrie to the few she’d not met, said Kaddish with the throng I well knew, and placed a rock on the stone of a man who loved me more (I’m sure) than he liked me, but did not forsake family.

And I left.

 5 PM Wilson Mills and SOM Center Roads. The sun is shining.

Dinner for Helen’s 100th wasn’t so much a celebration as an acknowledgement.  This lady — the only living blood who’s known me longer than Harold — never celebrates; ‘ just not in her DNA. Our aunt, rather, in the course of her lifetime, has trudged from quiet young maiden to mid-aged “old maid” to a rigid yet fragile fossil— completely bypassing a term as curmudgeon. She is gentle now, age eroding her edge.

I preferred a booth; Margie thought a table. Aunt Helen didn’t care, demanding only that H sit on both sides of her.

It was a hollow hour— small talk in vogue.

We used to walk a tightrope with our aunt. Play it safe, we would, fear governing our comment.

But she’s lost her “game”, so it seems. And it’s no longer fun. So seldom does she leap on our phrases…so rarely does she hurl verbal venom…that the thrill is gone, and conversing is no longer a competition.

She’s morphed, I submit, into a nice, little old lady.

I miss my aunt.

I crave—yeah, I yearn for that trademark inflexibility, that immutable illogic to the logic she spewed when she played in her prime.

Gingerly we guided her to the car after dinner.

“No steps” I assured her, as she tepidly walked.
“No steps?” she asked again.
“No steps.”

We drove home peacefully, the four of us. Leesa slept, Carrie spoke, Helen listened, and I thought.

What I miss most it occurred, is that I miss my youth.

10 PM and at home.  Pitch dark outside, with the sun still shining.

TONIGHT’S WORST PERSONS

Thursday, June 19th, 2014

Dead Dad,

Recall how you resented Art Modell for the way he treated Paul Brown? For that matter, remember the dirty looks you gave when radio played rock singers re-doing old standards? (The Browns’ owner was a “carpetbagger”, you said…and when you heard Bobby Rydell singing “Mammy”? How many times did you point out “He couldn’t shine Al Jolson’s shoes?).

Hold that thought.

You know: the guys in recovery have taught me to let go of resentments. Even justified ones, they advise, hurt only me–inhibit my peace of mind, if you will. (I’ve come to see, Pop, that they’re right. I get that there’s no benefit in playing Victim. F ‘em, I now figure. To use your expression, Dad…by exorcising these few dipshits from my life, well…it’s… “addition by subtraction”.

Perhaps that’s why I like Olbermann’s show so much. You may not get it in heaven, Dad. After all, it’s only on ESPN2. Still, the best segment on TV is his nightly five minutes unabashedly identifying who he terms are that day’s “Worst Persons In The Sports World.’

You really need to watch it, Dad. Give me the five minutes. (As you would tell me: “Have I ever given you a bum steer”). You could TiVo it to save time. And if you don’t know how, Dad, ask Uncle Phil for help. After all, he sold furniture. Then you could fast/foward to the part where the sign ‘WORSTS” displays, and play from there. What you’ll hear first is his disclaimer: “First the miscreants, losers and riffraff, the unwashed and the unloved. Don’t take it completely seriously. I don’t mean it completely literally. We just call them the WORST PERSONS IN THE WORLD!”

I’m hoping you tune in dad, so here’s a taste. And NO. Don’t worry, I’m not not feelng sorry for myself, but I want you to watch the show. You’ll love it…(like I did ‘”Maverick” which I saw at your urging). So…here it is…a belated Father’s Day gift to you, designed to cover the nearly three decades since you left:

THE WORST PERSONS IN YOUR OLDER SON’S WORLD (1985-2014)

— So….

First the miscreants, losers and riffraff, the unwashed and the unloved. Don’t take it completely seriously. I don’t mean it completely literally. We just call them the WORST PERSONS IN THE WORLD!

The Bronze goes to (and no real names, of course), John Smith, a former friend of mine I used to lunch with frequently. This goes back to the early Y2K’s when a lady I’d been dating some time, in a moment of unnecessary candor,told me she’d recently…shall we say “been intimate” with my friend. Much to her chagrin, I called him out on it immediately and of course he denied it. Later that day, bolting into my office he theatened me. (I took that as an admission and exorcised both of them).

The Silver goes to John Doe, another former running buddy. Alas, this friend of a lifetime… he, the only one of Bayard days to discard our joint history when I went through divorce… I’m thinking you’ll find particularly egregious since through decades not only was I steadfast, but way/back/when you and Mom would bug me to include him in things. Even in college …and YES, even when adult. This hurt Dad, seeing as our families go back (and forward).

BUT TONITE MY DEAR FATHER, THE GOLD GOES TO MR. ED! Yeah, that’s right, Mom’s third. You know, the one who once left her in a hospital on the eve of Pesach and went to Baltimore. Yeah, that one. You were gone a decade by then Dad; she filed for divorce, but then (you know her: afraid to live alone), she dismissed it. Years later the clown pulled more crap and she filed again – - – from the nursing home. Dropped that too, she did, telling us demurely that she “wanted to die a married woman”. You should have seen me when I confronted him, Dad — right at Menorah Park. Threw him out of her room, I did. H cringed and Margie looked away but boy did it feel like I was spiking the ball in the endzone!

—And no, you never met him, Dad. Never will. He’s not heading where you are, where Mom is. No, he’s heading south, Dad, because…Mr. Ed, yes— MR. ED …is the last 29 years’ WORST PERSON IN THE WORLD!

All my love, Bruce

THE GREATEST GENERATION

Sunday, June 15th, 2014

       “…Here’s to the fathers – lift up the glasses .
       Here’s to the glory still to be.
       Here’s to the battle, whatever it’s for,
       To ask the best of ourselves, then give much more…”

My angle on Father’s Day has altered with time.

Once, as a kid in the decade before Dad and Grandpa Irv wanted to castrate each other, it meant an afternoon where Dad, H and I would wear our matching collared Florida sport shirts. White they were (with a blue outline of the state over the left breast…mine still hangs in my closet). Grandma Cele brought them north one spring after her winter on Collins Avenue. Ah, but that was the 50’s.

By the 60’s life got real. Cousin Rita, (sister of the All-World softballer), married Mel on the first Father’s Day post our parents’ divorce. Touch and go for a while, but we saw our father, saw the ceremony, and saw no bloodshed.

In the 70’s, of course, I myself fathered. By decade’s end it would be a boy, a girl, and a third in the green room.

Then — in the blink of an eye—thirty years passed!

It’s harder to father than to mother. Maternal instinct? I get that. PATERNAL INSTINCT? Not so much. I cherish then, the wisdom, warmth and memories of the many fathers I’ve met, observed, or even in only a passing way interacted with over time. Through the lens of my lifetime, while I didn’t catch their inner worlds, so many have touched me, or taught me…or just made me smile.

So here’s to just SOME of the men I still picture … to the flashes of warmth that their names always image… to the winners.

Andre, “Sam” and “Uncle Miltie”, Messrs. Snyder, Wieder and Fenton. One night Bob’s Dad rushed me to my mother’s right after I bloodied the white interior of their garage; countless times Al’s father’d schlep downstairs to move his blue/black van just so Wied and I could play 1/on/1. (Why did Alan always make me be Ledgemont?)….and Stuart’s dad, Mr. Fenton (nee Feinstein), whom I knew first, last, longest, and best. That man loved me, and the feeling was mutual.

To Mr. Glassman (who took us to the New York Spaghetti House before an Indians opener and Mr. Baskin, who showed me his poetry….

And one of my earliest of giants, Mr. Lomaz.  Ralph called me “Al’s kid” on Bayard, and I wasn’t quite sure this big man knew by name.  Then years (and wives) later for both he and my Dad I got a call to come see him in his new office on Tyler Boulevard in Mentor; he wanted throw me some business.  “You have a brother too?” he asked.  Family stats he might forget, but friendship—never.

To the fathers I saw only through Little League: Like Mr. Wendel, who drafted me at 10, Mr. Racila (Ray made it at 9), who stood down the foul line, and Mr. Capretta, who sat near the backstop. Fixtures, they were, beaming proudly. (I’m certain their sons still remember).

And Mr. Mandel. And Mr. Herzog. When his dad passed Bruce spoke of his “always being there”. Harold was. ‘Still picture him at White Sox games and Boobus Bowls…saying little, seeing all. Alan’s Dad? Did Herzog ever make “the Majors”? It matters not. What I do cherish is his father on the sidelines for football and always giving me that warm nod from his prime seat at Corky’s.

Life’s second act brought more heroes.  College came for my kids and they never looked back. Columbus, Boston, New York, Chicago—-never to return. By then, Jersey’d gone south and my next decades filled with theater, recovery, and more. On stage I saw fathers set examples for sons, and likewise in the rooms. Heartened was I by the constancy of it all.

Six months ago Norm died. Maybe 7. And still, when this man of flash, this dynamo that hushed rooms by his entrance finally left stage, it was the precedent he’d set that his sons spoke to most. “He urged us to help others,” said one. “To do it quietly,” spoke another. I loved my cousin Norm…perhaps…just perhaps because he reminded me of my father: another sweet soul.

So I love Father’s Day, and I salute those I’ve mentioned. And I love being a father; it’s the gift that keeps giving. Do I miss my dad, some 29 years later. In a way. Is he with me? Still. Every day.

He set the bar high, as did his comrades. There WERE The Greatest Generation.

       “…Here’s to the heroes – those who move mountains.
       Here’s to the miracles they make us see.
       Here’s to all fathers – here’s to all people
       Here’s to the winners all of us can be…..”

(F. Sinatra , adapted)

 

SHE HAD ME AT HELLO

Friday, June 13th, 2014

Having just pulled in the Deerfield driveway, Carrie and I debated over which side to park on. Stace and Jace, we figured, would pull up shortly. (Our dialogue was shorter but no less trivial that colloquies I so relish with my brother).

SUDDENLY though, the garage door lifted and, idling on pavement we watched a sprite-like figure emerge from the shadows.

“Lucy!” I shouted, through the driver’s side window, “It’s your Pappy!”

Quizzical look on her face, stepping slowly, she peered out through sunlight.

“Pappy!”

— And then, in a jaunt made for cinema…somewhat of a cross between Shirley Temple bounding toward Bill Robinson and Yogi Berra leaping into the grasp of Don Larsen after the perfect game— Lucy Hannah Bohrer sprung right to my arms.

It was 6pm Friday, Chicago time. Game. Set. Match.

Funny thing how things work. I’d been stranded last January — winter blizzards and all. Grounded in the Windy City, with no way out. Frustrating as it was though, it meant quality time with Lucy. Hours of Mickey and Pluto and Dora and….guess what? I savored those moments.

Moments.

What IS life if not steadfast paddling interrupted by … moments?

When she was no more, say, than Lucy’s age, Stacy hid in the cage housing Rocky. No sheltie, however, was our daughter, and what we now recall as hours of her carted up like a dog were probably just minutes…or moments.

We had time before the Bohrers came home and Yes, we embraced it. Sprawled on the floor, building with Legos, three toddlers were we. Luce made plastic ice cream cones and I slurped mine loudly. Very loudly. Jerry Lewis loudly. “Isn’t Pappy funny?” Carr asked.

Oh, I got the easy laugh of course. (I’m so good with two-year olds). But even that ran its course. I mean: how long do you really think I can lick fake ice cream, grimace, feign dripping, and still keep a little girl’s attention?

“Look, it’s Minnie!”, cried Carrie, pulling the coloring book from her bag. And Lucy devoured it. (More than the pictures, in fact—the Jewish leprechaun readily identifying the alphabet’s letters. Impressed with the “Q” was I as we bought ten more minutes).

It was that kind of weekend: nothing exciting but everything memorable.

So we dined on a rooftop near railroad tracks…and…and YES I know this sounds trivial…but o’er the roar of the trains —from across the patio — the kid sighted a girl from her school. Unimportant, of course—but to a grandpa: worth noting.

I wasn’t a father — back in the ‘80’s — carrying pics of his kids. Not my thing. Not that I wasn’t proud of course. I just figured EVERYONE has kids and EVERYONE thinks theirs are so cute. (So brandish mine I never did…and please, I’d beg inwardly: don’t show me yours).

Ah, but grandkids are different.

So I post when Lucy makes funny faces—
And I boast when she bounces to music—
And I kvell when she dances on cue.

We ate dinner at home Saturday … had breakfast at Eggsperience Sunday…and shared timeless moments. (Did I tell you it was at the downtown Eggsperience that they first told me they were having Lucy?).

And then we left town. Stace gave directions to pick up the free way…and…not unlike the girl from the ‘80’s in the cage with the pet …well—let’s just say the S in GPS does not stand for Stacy.

But we did find our way.
And we drove home at peace.
And with smiles.

—To paddle through life … in between precious moments.

100 YEARS

Saturday, June 7th, 2014

‘Can’t remember her being young, but I know she was. Our father assured us of this long before he died…young. Nor frankly, do I picture her smiling —even then. But she does, you know, when the stars align. Let’s just say she was and is unique—one of a kind— and, as Maynard Newman, one she terms “almost a relative” has often remarked (when speaking of the lady’s….. let’s just call them nuances): “You fellas are sitting on a goldmine!”

People laugh when he says that, of course. Still, the longer we live the more we sense that what he dubs our goldmine is a treasure.

— And today our treasure’s 100 —-

       “…She was 15 for a moment
      Caught in between 10 and 20…”

Easy it couldn’t have been for a shy, immigrant girl in a still overtly anti-Semitic America. Imagine further having a Torah reader father with old-world thoughts of women and growing up in The Depression with nary a sibling ‘til puberty. Not the perfect storm and my guess is our aunt’s twenties weren’t roaring.

“…She was 22 for a moment
And she felt better than ever…”

How could they be? High school ended and with it her education. FDR urged his New Deal but for the female half of the populace it was still Raw Deal: No need for college, she was told. Just nurse, type or teach and keep smiling…

       “…She was 33 for a moment
       And 45 for a moment…”

When (I wonder) did her frown become default mode?

       “…Time passin’ by
       Chasing the years of her life…”

The journey was challenging, especially for a shy, moderate-looking woman in Eisenhower’s world. By the time her maverick brother had kids she was entrenched in her thirties, eyeing a future uncoupled — learning all too well that no matter how dutiful a daughter she was … no matter her intellect…no matter her self-sufficiency…the masses viewed her as damaged goods.

       “…Half time goes by
       Suddenly she’s wise
       Another blink of an eye
       67 is gone
       The sun is getting high…”

To her sixties she’d work. Uptown in a record store, downtown at a magazine—walking, busing — retiring only in lieu of learning the electric typewriter…

And then to her seventies, when her brother would die. Eleven years her junior, he would wake up dead and she would age. Overnight.

She hit her eighties, to be sure, with her mom still around. This too would pass— and with it, so too would her last embers of spirit.

If you ask me, that’s when she began to mail it in.

And the rest is history: living history. The grin that had never quite been a smile became even rarer. Friends she’d known and relatives she’d clung to were withering like autumn leaves, dropping like flies, evaporating…

A modest world was getting smaller. Forever gone were the days with Ma and Pa… the nights at Severence Hall. Forever lost was the agile body playing piano and fading yet was the fertile mind that didn’t rest.

        “…She’s 99 for a moment
        And trying just for a moment
        Just dreaming —
       Counting the ways to where she was….”

Staring out her window today, endlessly, our aunt is a Twentieth Century Fox embracing nineteenth century values in the new millennium. She listens to opera, hums to the symphonies and worries for family.

And at 100, valiantly, she looks to the future.

       “And there’s never a wish better than this
       When you celebrate the hundred years you live….”

(With apologies to Five For Fighting, as adapted)

ODE TO BILLIE JO

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2014

       “…It was the third of June, another sleepy, dusty delta day…”

Rarely do I look to the summer of ‘67 and wax nostalgic. Glancing back though through the prism of time, I see footprints in my path that summer, of steps I’d yet to journey.

The strains of Bobby Gentry dominated CKLW that June as, two weeks from Brush High, I started college. My muted urge to write for television melded with our dad’s unquenched desire to step up his game (he was living in Inkster, Michigan then) and before you could say Duffy Daugherty there I was at East Lansing.

(Ed. Note 1: My father’d announced one day that indeed, M.S.U. had “the number one radio and TV school in the mid-west”. Who was I to question it? It wasn’t like you could google it. If my Al Bogart said it was, it was.  Sort of like when Mr. Fenton stating his scar came from an elephant stepping on his stomach or when Mr. Hendricks spoke of wrestling alligators. These were our fathers.).

(Ed. Note 2, and this only in hindsight: I can’t imagine what went through our mother’s mind back then. Her ex had used mirrors to pay child support but had miraculously committed to pay out-of-state tuition to get me up north. Not to mention the minds of her brother or my Grandpa Irv. The family tree’d restructured post-divorce, with branches gravely splintered. In Ewing terms, Uncle Bob was J.R., Grandpa Irv was the rancher Clayton Farlow— and both eyed our dad as Cliff Barnes. Perhaps it was a blessing our Mom had only one good ear?).

I hated M.S.U., but played it well. Living in a four-man suite, I had but three friends.   (On all of campus).  High school pals from Farmington Hills, they’d told me the only way they could get in was to start in summer.  I remember how each feared the draft).

It was an epoch of perseverance not enjoyment — a time frame for growth drowned out by my groaning. We got along though…me for the first time out-numbered by Christians…and them them (discreetly searching for my horns).

We’d play gin on the weekdays and none of us studied. They’d drive home on weekends and me?  I’d be solo. Often my Dad would come up … or bus me to him. I had no social life—nothing to miss on campus—and truth be known, it was what I wanted. H was up July 4…and one weekend, when I knew the team had big games in Cleveland, I Greyhounded home.

(Ed. Note 3: Low point of low points. Donning orange and black tee shirts, the Cleveland boys were Waxman Plumbing Supply then. This was arguably before I learned to bleed singles, but imagine my angst when after 5+ road hours and my Dad schlepping me to Woodhilll, Wido sat me that Sunday. What I couldn’t see then but well see now is that he HAD a regular catcher. Duh.).

It was that kind of summer.

Stuey and Bobby came out once. Donnie and Pinky stopped. That was my social life. I did get straight A’s, but remember this was summer quarter — not the primest of talent pools…and they graded on the curve).

Once, when The Temptations were at Leo’s Casino, I wanted to come in, but my father killed it. “Your full-time job is being a student now,” he admonished.

And so it was: the summer of ’67. July came and went and August bled slowly. Homesick I was as back home they were.

—And the break between quarters assuaged nothing. The boys were readying, each of them, for what Fenton termed “real college—not YOUR summer detention”. Wied, Fisch and Stu would be rooming at Drackett;  “Desert Flower”‘d be down the hall. No dorm for Bobby (of course) as he’d stay on Iuka and no life for Raisin who sought married housing.   Ermine?  He headed to Ada as Kraut entered Oxford, moping all the way with Vicki in Cleveland and Joel in Wisconsin).

Ebbing, I was, as I bussed back west. It was not yet autumn but returning for Fall my heart wasn’t in it. “Outside”, as Smokey sang I was “…masquerading and inside, my hope was fading…”.

I called my father the Saturday night of my first weekend back. I was done with East Lansing and craving Columbus. He would be up in the morning he said, (and he was). We talked and we talked that Sunday — his only concern being my  student deferment.

I look back now, through life’s rear view mirror. It’s funny how things play out.

Was he right to let me bail like that? Would another father have made me gut it out? Accept responsibility? (After all, tuition was paid).

Maybe so.

I do know this though: It is the summer that comes back instantly when oldies stations play Bobby Gentry, and a summer I’d sooner forget.  Ah…but it is the summer also, that because one beautiful man not only listened but heard, I never felt like jumping off the Tallahatchie Bridge.