The House We Lived In

In this 10 minute 1945 Public Service Announcement, Frankie is enlisted to school a gang of nascent Bowery Bigots on the keynote of the American Experiment.

By 1945 the world had been hammered flat and smeared with offal. Our guys, our kids, had sprinted up beaches and into a spirit-breaking enfilade of artillery and machine-gun fire, ducked behind the toppled smoldering ruins of smashed European capitals, crept in abject, piss-yourself terror through cratered S. Pacific jungles, and fallen screaming from skies pockmarked with flak. Our Flying Fortresses were riveted together by our wives and girlfriends. It was a time. Kids from farms and towns and cities were hastily trained and awoke to find themselves running through flame. Major players of the period included Judy Garland, Erwin Rommel, Greer Garson, Tojo, Audie Murphy, Fred Astaire. All that instructive madness has long-since been shellacked in numbing amber. That WWII really happened, and just day before yesterday, is completely batshit, but not so’s you’d notice. Our public schools, per the contract, have sufficiently pasteurized the subject to transfigure it into lecture pablum delivered half-heartedly at a chalkboard, the dazed descendants of our once and future crusaders struggling to stay awake for the telling, doodling in their notebooks as the Normandy Invasion is sleepily explicated in the minutes before recess and the excited iPhone-comparing ritual.

WWII was also a refiner’s fire that resulted in the inadvertent shedding of Our National Shyness and lifted us to the largely unpopular pinnacle of power on Earth, to the utter chagrin of most, including our present allies. William Manchester, in his haunting and poetic memoir Goodbye Darkness, writes painfully and movingly of the way his terrified final wartime ascent up the blasted slope of Okinawa’s Sugar Loaf Hill is entangled inextricably with his own elegiac farewell to a U.S. he’d known as a kid, and which somehow the War put to bed for good.

Needless to say, all that fighting and confusion bred a jingoism here at home that spread like a toxic rash. Sinatra, 4F’d out of war service by dint of his forceps-torn eardrum and thus often greeted in his performances of the time by flying vegetables and invective, was advised to perform in an ameliorating Public Service Announcement wherein he schools a gang of Jew-hating bowery boys on the finer points of the American Mission Statement. It’s a scripted, otherwise exalting soliloquy on inclusivity and the Brotherhood of Man in which Frank yet manages to villify ‘Japs’ , setting them aside for the moment from the aforementioned Brotherhood and lauding them instead as targets of our airborne ire. It’s as sloppy a hymn to Freedom as one expects from a lumbering, puppy-crushing Lenny like the U.S. and our beloved blue-eyed bipolar jackass and National Symbol. Frank. A name and, from sea to shining sea, our collective adjective. I am powerfully endeared to the idea of the United States as a well-meaning, often murderous moron. Some of my friends blanch at this. Understandably.

I’ve always said that the penultimate wordless portrait of the USA is Gene Kelly’s swinging, choreography-free spin with the umbrella in Singin’ in the Rain. This flawed Sinatra PSA is of a like species. The picture above links to the vid. It’s a handful.


Bob and Chipper are Lost in Time

Aloha and Bob Goodbye Party, Ramey AFB
Aloha and Bob Goodbye Party, Ramey AFB, Puerto Rico, 1958

So what happens is, I go to see Aloha now and she is pottering around the darkened lamplit room a little, where before I could always hear the tv roaring from behind her closed door; Alex Trebek politely grilling a threesome about a Terry Southern screenplay, or a bridge somewhere, or a nursery rhyme based on a gruesome 14th century pandemic (you know the one). When she answers the door now the room is quiet behind her, and her demeanor is a skeptical amusement that wonders aloud ‘Do I know you?’ with one eye squinting theatrically and the other laughing disarmingly. It’s as if she knows she is in an untenable position and helpless to address the fact coherently. She settles on a mild exasperation, and I have the sense her presentational collapse going forward will have this exasperation as its hood ornament, and not the howling fear I couldn’t bear to witness and would be, I know, incapable of ameliorating.

“Do I know you?” It’s the new greeting, but I’m sure not the last iteration of what was once “Hi, Jeff!” or “Well, come on in!” There will be a new greeting, maybe this year? Maybe next? That one will startle me, signal the ringing down of a curtain. For now my mother is still aware she ought to know my context and is mildly embarrassed not to be able to pinpoint my coordinates in her newish darkling world. But this world doesn’t seem newish to her. It is now as it’s always been.

“I would hope you know me. Your son?” Then a comic game-show flourish. “Jeff?”

“Well,” with the bemused and slightly frightened smile, not at any danger I present, but at the growing sense that I’m a deeply felt companion in another milieu and that she has lost that map somehow. She knows this loss. I see that she knows it. It’s terrible, as pacific and becalmed and even content as the elderly (hate that word) often seem to be, this walk down this corridor in the last rags of cognition is a cruel final affront before the sun really gets to setting in earnest on a life which is frankly almost all the way behind her now and which, when she can be made to recall it, is experienced in dreamlike tatters and scraps. What is this neural failure, oh, and why? All those many many many minutes, simmering down into this nonsense, reducing into mush? Really?

Let’s hurriedly move on, launch straight into a mediating schtick. When Aloha laughs, she laughs long and hard and I pride myself on that. For those seconds she is 35, maybe 40 years old. Unchanged! Her laughter is completely unchanged. The laughter doesn’t know anything but the moment, aglow and coherent. It’s 1966. Everything dreary and confused falls away. My sister is in her upstairs bedroom in Cheyenne, in our Air Force base quarters. # 98? Phone number 53608. The Mamas and the Papas are warbling ecstatically from behind 17 year-old Jill’s closed door, the sparklingly majestic descending chorus of ‘Go Where You Wanna Go’ already enchanting my curious ear and setting me up for a lifetime of adoration, of many things. My brother Bill has brought a friend home from Texas A&M and they’re goofing around in their maroon Aggies sweatshirts and military haircuts and they’re picking me up and they’re laughing and terrifying me and I clutch uselessly at their shoulders and pretend to laugh, too. Aloha is sitting cross-legged on the living room floor in capri pants, taking it all in, looking up at Bill with delight, a scotch-and-water on the carpet beside her, a Benson&Hedges lodged very organically between the first and second fingers of her right hand.

“I think you forget a lot; where you’ve been, what you’ve done, sometimes even who you are.”

“Oh, yes!” she agrees, emphatically, but without any sense of emergency. She’s relieved to hear her temporary little predicament given voice.

My dad’s handsome photograph, the wedding portrait of he and Aloha, 1942, which we paid to have fashionably computer-painted onto artist’s canvas, hangs above her tv set in the perpetual dusk of her apartment. A portrait of a ghost, and as haunting, his dimpled smile as present and as seemingly on the very perch of hilarity as it ever was in our kitchen or back patio, the last chapter of chummy grins before his own fading denouement in my converted old teen bedroom with poster tape still on the walls in browning triangles. Dad in that period would quietly watch whatever sport blurted onto the tube, and he could barely walk across a room, and none of us wanted to sit with him despite his weakened and half-hearted and constant requests for tv-watching companionship – as he had never really wanted to sit with us or engage with us, roaming pleasantly into and out of the rooms and across the lawns, and straight through my own variously-colored years in a vague plumb line, a benign and amusing and unaffected distant uncle. Why didn’t I sit with him? etc. What I wouldn’t give. etc etc

He’d been a living sparkler once, before my era – camping with my older brother and sister and wrestling with the family dog, Chipper, on the black and white lawn of the home movie my mom is always surprised to watch, and which I could wholly recreate with pencil and paper if given a few days. Chipper, lost to time when he wandered out of the Ohio motel room they’d booked for my young aunt’s cancer funeral several months before I was born. Chipper, the famous Wing Golden Era family pet, seems to break my old mother’s heart anew every time his fate comes up. She is haltingly amazed and aghast at being the only sibling yet alive, stunned twice a week by her mother’s death by car crash in a small town in Wyoming in 1961, grandpa asleep-at-the-wheel-then-suddenly-waking-but-too-late, Aloha’s own running outside into the hurricane in Puerto Rico, tipsy, the other revelers waving in syrupy panic from behind the picture window – come back in the house! Bob was waving, too. We laugh. He didn’t come out to save you mom, he just waved! Too funny. I can make that moment really very funny. Aloha receives with confused quietude and very occasional flashes of revelation and laughter news of her former life. But when she is made to recall Chipper’s languid, unhurried walk to a nearby copse of motel trees, never ever ever to be seen again – she grows very quiet, very quiet. Why did she turn her head away? How can a single moment wreak such havoc? That’s what moments are for, in part. Chipper is lost in time. A door opens on a little coal furnace of deep sorrow. Strange what captures us. 

It’s almost all of a piece now, though. Aloha loved and lived, and yet does so. But her weekends with Bob at the Officers Clubs, from Florida to Libya? Back there somewhere, if anywhere at all. Might as well not have happened at all. Really. So what’s the use? What’s the use of it? Anyone? And that guy up there on the wall in his uniform and cap, what’s that about? She looks up at the canvas studiously, as one would take in a painting in a museum, and she turns to me smiling and embarrassed.

“Who is that guy, again?”

what the Zanti Misfits have taught us

Zanti Misfits_redundant

don’t be so pleased with your little mouth, cross-eyed Zanti Misfit

*for Paulie, with whom I discussed the redundancy of the term ‘Zanti Misfits’ one evening in Phoenix 100 years ago.*

On December 30, 1963, Bruce Dern, all hooded eyes and upturned nose and unshaven bank-robber jaw, drives carelessly into a restricted area in the middle of a desert. His reward for this otherwise mild bout of trespassing will be an entymological bitch-slap to end them all. In the car with him is his silent, odd-looking, angular, hideously chain-smoking moll, an actress name Olive Deering who is scarier by several orders than the alien nemesis they will soon encounter.

Bruce and Olive and Zantis Soon

Baby, you as scary as a big ol’ ant….baby?

Dern has just robbed a bank. He is fleeing by car the scene of his most recent lapse in judgment. But as he is rocketing through the desert something catches his eye, a glint of silver descending through the sky like an inept drawing. It comes to rest on a hilltop and there goes the neighborhood. Dern has to investigate. He leaves the car to shamble up the side of one of those loose-rocked hills that little spaceships tend to land on with some regularity, and whose gravelly gradient makes for useful horror-slipping as our B actors try without success to flee the various repulsive meanies that pursue them. Dern quizzically approaches the silver conical spaceship, a little door pops open and out marches a not terribly threatening army of ants the size of prairie dogs, each with a little nose and strange little cupie doll lips one might be tempted to kiss if they weren’t affixed to ant heads.  The invaders step out onto conquered earth in a stop-action goose step that makes them appear very easy to escape, but startled Dern slips down the hill and is knocked unconscious. He awakens to find a Zanti with Drew Barrymore lips strolling up his forearm, which insectoid sashay inexplicably kills him. It develops the Zantis are themselves criminals from the planet…wait for it…Zanti. It’s that same ill-conceived sci-fi t.v. convention that gives us Vulcans from the planet Vulcan; a strangely ubiquitous bit of screwy extraterrestrial nomenclature that would have people of this planet called ‘Earths’.

Ant Problem Spoils Army Luncheon

Ant Problem Spoils Army Luncheon

By previous arrangement we had agreed to accept the landing of the ship in a Death Valley-like location and to provide the passengers a desert cordon in perpetuity. We probably also told them this g*d forsaken baked hill in the middle of desert nowhere was a popular beauty spot here on Earth, keeping Hawaii and La Jolla secret.  “Secure for us your most beauteous place for exile, Earths!” Okay, you dumb ants. Here are the coordinates. Happy landings! At any rate Dern screws the whole agreement up and the affronted Zantis, feeling pretty good for having killed him just by walking on his arm, take off in their little ship and land atop the U.S. Army’s flyblown command post/Zanti Welcome Wagon in a nearby tumbleweed-choked desert ghost town. The diminutive and ill-advisedly cocky ‘invaders’ exit their ship, rappel haughtily down the side of the clapboard army building and begin a slow, twitchy march in the direction of heavily armed men in khaki who waste no time dispensing with the uppity space ants with pistols and grenades and clubs and, yeah, shoe leather. It’s not much of a fight, and indicates the Zanti criminal element did not do its homework before choosing this particular planet to terrorize. One or two men in khaki, probably aspiring stage actors in 1963 who, like Dern, thought they would sidle into Hollywood history via this hastily executed teleplay, are ‘attacked’ by Zantis and run screaming around the room. One unfortunate soldier has a Zanti climb under his uniform and seems to go to sleep on the floor. Even a jug-eared 7 year-old sitting cross-legged in his flannel pajamas could see the foolishness in this.

When the Zantis are vanquished we learn they were sent here deliberately by their overseers to be killed by the bloodthirsty humans, as executions of even the most hardened criminals are illegal on the awkwardly named planet Zanti. So this was a sort of extraordinary rendition. We must suppose that the passengers on the doomed Zanti penal ship selected for this expensive route to the Death Chamber were chosen based on the delicacy of their beautiful little mouths, which on the unfortunate planet Zanti are considered to increase the sense of facial Zanti menace. We know the opposite is true.

What are the takeaways from The Zanti Misfits?

1. If an ant is as big as a field rodent and has a human countenance, it is likely a thug from space.

2. Don’t simply step on a bug when you can shoot it or blow it up or laboriously beat it to death with an army-issue baton.

3. Don’t make deals with government officials from other planets concerning their jailbirds. If the Zantis had been armored grizzlies or acid spewing giant starfish or face-hugging trachea enthusiasts we’d’ve been really screwed.

4. If you agree to having a plastic ant placed on your arm and screaming for the camera you may be nominated for an Oscar one day.

There is also a valuable lesson here about cultural relativism, as one man’s horrific goggle-eyed bug from space is another man’s DMV misstep from the stars. Back on Zanti the ineptly produced teleplay thrills the little ones in their Zanti exo-pajamas, but there the episode is called ‘The Great Parole Board Fuckup’, and is used to frighten the kids into cleaning their Zanti rooms and not falling in with the badass Zantis at school.

defecatory mayhem and spirit beings

gods, hear me

I was standing in a public restroom, frankly, whistling ‘Mrs. Robinson’ through my teeth while self-consciously dispensing a repurposed cup of recent Earl Grey. Without warning or preamble there issued from a closed stall at the other end of the room an amazing basso profundo blast whose endurance and brief series of modulations almost mimicked primitive speech. In the echo chamber of the lavishly tiled room the sound reverberated like the report from an elephant gun. I stopped my tinkly winkly in momentary shock, heard a sharp intake of breath followed by a muted sigh of what sounded like surrendered frustration. This closeted unfortunate had hoped to mute Gideon’s Trumpet and so be surreptitiously about his business. He would deliver the flowers then slink out of the little booth when his peeled ears told him the coast was clear. We all know that at any given, panicked moment, I Am The Only Human In The World Who Defecates. We are at pains to keep this weakness a secret. ‘If the others find out I crap it’s all over!’ etc.

The brief rolling echo subsided and I silently commiserated. Those among us brave enough to void our solids in public restrooms are a nervy lot, and count on a certain element of stealth and a kind of secrecy to see us through the ordeal. The horror is of course only partly cultural. Animals in the wild are most helpless when hunched backwards over their processed steak tartar and the predator is programmed to strike when the prey is prone this way. It is physically very difficult to run and defecate at the same time, your Indian Fry Bread Incident at the Arizona State Fair notwithstanding. Nature knows this and many of our brethren in Darwinian steerage are overwhelmed and consumed while themselves in the process of unpacking their own recent meal. This is an aspect of the Circle of Life that Disney won’t likely ask Ms. Dion to describe in song.

I continued my tinkly winkly and hoped to assuage and screen my fellow human’s distress with a concealing bit of water music and some mercy-flushing. I would lay down a bit of urinal white noise that would put this desperate and already humiliated shitter at his ease. I reached for the silver handle, so like the sphincter-taunting joystick of a damnable airplane, and another sudden and prolonged blast roared out of the closed stall. It was literally extraordinary. This one sounded like an angry vole trying, with desperate tooth and claw, to free itself from a snare that had captured it about the neck. For about 20 seconds the strangling vole clawed and howled, louder, louder! Let him go, for God’s sake! When this soundscape ended it did not do so with a bang, but petered out into a long, whistling, defeated Cminor chord; the vole’s death song. The sound was positively inhuman, and it broke the spirit of the musician who loosed it.

“God I’m so embarrassed!” he yelled from behind his closed booth door, surrendering everything.

A miracle! Part of me wanted to rush to the stall, flatten my palms against the gunmetal and hiss “We’re all in this together!” “We’re only human!” or maybe “I also crap!” But I didn’t. His outcry, though – what a wonder. An oath to heaven from a momentarily enlightened little animal in deepest space. Why are we so terrified! At the end of all this crapping-in-secret, kissing our sleeping kids’ heads when they’ve become too leggy and self-aware to allow it during waking hours, watching in delicious awe as our spouses grow older, taking our parents’ hands for the last time, making heat behind locked doors, awkward and strangely thrilling periods of onanism (as the Bible says, ‘Jacob I loved, but Onan I really really loved’) and bouts of weird grief and looking backward; what do we have? We have it all. We have it all right now. Why can’t we know it? The present tense is for fools and glory. Why be bashful? Why self-edit? There’s no time. When a guy jumps out of frame by yelling out how revolted and shamed he is by the yowling of his own ass, he is beatified.

Gas. On our one family trip to the local planetarium years ago, the lights went down, the sonorous recorded voice began to yammer, the ceiling miraculously became a night sky. The stars began slowly to wheel and in the awed hush my adorable toddler turned to me and said in his loud girlish voice, “DID SOMEBODY MAKE A POPPET?”

Chance of Mist

our beloved betaan

My cubicle colleague calls out
“I have a cat story for you”.
She rounds the corner into my little fabric-covered veal pen
and starts in.
There is an old cat on her cul-de-sac,
statuesque and stubborn.
In the wee hours it is causing her patio motion sensor light
to blare into the dark.
Suddenly my eyes inappropriately mist.
One day I shall be old and infirm and confined to my bed.
The memory of this idiot anecdote will come to me,
limned in platinum, as will an unbearable synaptic snapshot
of the dull carpet of this office, the gay laughter of my office mates,
the stink of burned coffee and the numb deciduous trees
right outside that dust-streaked window
shivering in sunlight,
My colleague sees my eyes watering and recoils.
Walks back to her ergonomically pristine computer chair.
Surely this is the carpal tunnel of love.

Words and Music

I'm alive and special!

He exits the bus with a jingle in his jangle, feels vibrantly the dawning of the new day. 7:29am and all is momentarily right with the world. He is wearing his worn leather jacket and nice fitting corduroys and feels all eyes on him. He is magnetic this morning, unstoppably attractive and filled to the brim with energy; the simple and indefatigable energy that is the humming singularity at the swirling, fiery, galactic heart of love and creation. He is overcome, as happens often and without warning, by the batshit crazy knowledge that the human animal is a screwy diamond in the cosmos, an unlikely miracle of math and happenstance. He is sufficiently overcome to want to represent. He lopes jauntily in the direction of his office building on the university campus, surrounded by the ant-farm largesse of the fabulous, hope-filled students on their lovely bicycles and skateboards, swarming to and fro, even at this hour, in their exalting search for knowledge and truth and goodness in this crazy-quilt world. In a spasm of ecstatic joie! he swings his pliable lunchbox on its nylon strap; Mary Tyler Moore strutting with newfound, purse-hurling confidence down the thronged boulevards of Minneapolis. When he joyously swings his strapped lunchbox full circle the unzipped top flap opens obligingly and two Pyrex®  bowls somersault lazily out and up into the chill morning air, red plastic lids lifting, contents arcing outward in a lumpen clotted Dali stream of soup and Yellow No. 5-painted faux egg product and liberated soy crumbs and a much-washed clear plastic fork. The saddened bowls describe a painfully grand parabola and drop like slow-motion deadweights, shattering grotesquely in a wet beige cloud of bargain canned crap onto the previously beloved sidewalk in front of his building. Students stop their pedaling, straddling their bikes to glare in astonishment. In the utter stillness that descends like a smothering blanket he realizes with horror that he is wearing corduroy.

Side Wise

A Man Alone_A City No Longer In Ruins

Riding sidways on the bus (that is, seating yourself so that your view is out the side windows and not forward), you face head-on what you are really only supposed to see peripherally. The pencil and autocad-pushing ladies and gents who lovingly concoct our cities, towns, villages, and even our gated, gilded class-battlements, don’t typically account for the passenger perspective that looks at their handiwork askance, so to speak.

Alleyways and natty neighborhood cinder block walls (those that separate, as effectively as a sheet of paper might, lush green back lawns from gusty exhaust-fogged thoroughfares), side streets and jarring undeveloped meadows that threaten to disrupt the urban dream immersion; these elements stare fleetingly in at you through fist-streaked bus windows, an enormous book out there; cityscape as the fanning pages of a book. The designers and urban planners lay everything very carefully out in order that our helpless headlong motion through the civic space is informed by soothing symmetries, the glossy whizzing by of visually linear shapes and objects, a bleary and satisfied projection forward into the fabric-covered heart of the vanishing point. Viewed from the side, though, the city takes on a wholesome new persona undisguised by all this design fretting, and you see the byways and side streets and middle-distant, starthistle-choked parcels that describe an accident in happy, infinite freefall. As it should be.

Later the bus pivots stiffly to the left and climbs a little hill on approach to the university. The morning sun, humping itself over the self-same ocean for the estimated 2.2 trillionth time, laying down upon the undulating water its painterly and overdone stripe of gold, pours in through 30 feet of Metro Transit District window and you close your bespectacled eyes to receive it. Ellipsis here.