SANDCASTLE MOTEL (August 23, 2020): When I was nine years old our family drove together to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. I had never seen the ocean before so I was excited to encounter it for the first time. The trip took several hours since the modern bridge across the Chesapeake Bay hadn't yet been built, so at one point we were completely stopped for about 45 minutes waiting for the police to let our side pass. One family near us nonchalantly turned off their automobile's ignition, took out a box from their trunk, and set up a volleyball net complete with chalk boundaries. Within several minutes there was a full-fledged beach-volleyball game on the side of the road. Obviously these folks knew what was going on and were well-prepared for the delay. I envied everyone else in the world who planned for the future since our family always decided everything at the last minute and had no idea what would happen next—a lesson which greatly influenced my future approach to life.
When we arrived we checked into a place called the Sandcastle Motel. It was odd to look up this place on Google Maps and discover that it still exists, because viewing it on the internet forces me to reconcile my personal childhood memories with the undeniable reality of its current existence. At that time it seemed to be a magical place with its own swimming pool, a real restaurant in the lobby that included French fries and ketchup with all entrees, and which was within walking distance of the ocean. I had remembered it to be surrounded by the most unusual stores selling exotic items, which today I would probably dismiss as being tacky tourist souvenirs.
On the very first day, even before unpacking our suitcases, we changed into our swimsuits and headed for the water. As it was a June evening around 7:30 p.m, the sun was nearly setting. Though I had just turned nine years old the previous month I already had several years' worth of swimming lessons which started when I was five and which included complicated strokes and dives. I was able to swim in the deepest water in the Colonial Village Swim Club without fear and I had an expert badge that I earned there. I had heard on the radio during our trip that a hurricane was not far offshore and had caused the waves to be about twice as high as usual, but that seemed to be irrelevant. I jumped in and began swimming away from the shore. After about one minute I encountered my first-ever wave about twice my height which was just like the ones I saw each week on Hawaii Five-O. I was eager to see how my body would react, and quickly found out: as it crested the wave rudely pushed salty water into my mouth and then slammed me backward toward the shore. I ended up thoroughly coated with sand, including some which went into my mouth along with the saltwater, and some which was flung into my eyes and which stung. A few seconds later I was stung again on my left foot, this time by a jellyfish. It felt unfair that such a fate never seemed to happen with the folks on TV.
Fortunately I was not intimidated so I tried several more times and got the hang of learning how to get beyond the cresting waves so I could ride them. I would have done even more but the sun began setting so my Dad told us all to go back to the boardwalk. This was an even more magical sight: planks of wood constructed so people could walk or bicycle along almost effortlessly. Suddenly I saw two people riding the same bicycle, something I had no idea existed. It is the image I remember most from the entire one-week vacation.
BANANAS (June 9, 2020): When I was eleven years old our family was visiting West Dennis in Cape Cod for one week within walking distance of the beach. After going out to dinner one evening, a bit later than usual, my younger sister and brother became cranky. For the first time I could remember, my parents took them back to the cottage where we were staying and put them to bed without asking me to do likewise. Once my siblings were clearly asleep my parents took me out to see the final show at the local movie theater. I was honored to be treated as a grownup and was curious as to the recently-released movie they had chosen: "Bananas" by Woody Allen. I had never heard of this director. As the movie began with Woody bored to tears in his corporate office I was entranced by his humor and sensibility and the way he treated life as a sort of cosmic joke. The basic premise was that, thoroughly disgusted with his meaningless job, he decided to start a revolution in a small Central American country. Some of the humor which my parents found amusing simply confused me at that age, but having watched Howard Cosell endless times on sports channels I was delighted to see him being hilariously parodied. I looked over at my parents and I realized that they had no idea who Howard Cosell was; it was perhaps the first time I understood that there would be many aspects of life which I would understand better than they ever could. After this movie I made sure to find out everything about Woody Allen that was possible to discover. Perhaps subconsciously he encouraged me to eventually move to New York City.
When we returned home my sister and brother were still sleeping, oblivious to everything which had happened. I was tired: being accustomed to going to sleep at ten p.m. I wasn't used to staying up until one in the morning. Early the next day when my sister made the amazing discovery of a huge horseshoe crab in the stream by our cottage I was barely awake enough to register what was occurring. When I ventured outdoors I literally tripped over the black Labrador retriever which was owned by the adjacent cottage; by an odd coincidence we ended up adopting a similar-looking dog a couple of months after this visit who lived with us for thirteen years. I fell asleep at the table when we went out to lunch and had to be awakened by my amused brother in the middle of dessert. I made sure not to mention "Bananas" for the rest of the trip; I don't think my sister or brother ever discovered that they had missed out on seeing a movie since otherwise they would have both screamed and cried for at least an hour. It was a time for quick life lessons: within less than 24 hours I had learned about Woody Allen, that my parents were fallible, the major pitfall in staying up late, and how to keep a secret from my siblings.
THE END OF A CORPORATE ERA (December 4, 2019): When I moved from my hometown of Baltimore to New York City I was fortunate to land a position with NYNEX, one of the "Baby Bells" which was spun off from AT&T as a result of federal government deregulation. The job was especially worthwhile for over six years in 1985-1992 as I worked on everything from splitting the Boston area code into two to optimizing the Yellow Pages layout (does anyone use the Yellow Pages any more?). I had knowledgeable colleagues, state-of-the-art technology, and moderate travel complete with the kind of camaraderie one associates with the "good old days." Several of us would often have lunch together at one of our favorite Tribeca sandwich places on Fridays and even share a beer or two. Unfortunately the reality of the modern world of corporate consolidation and restructuring reached our little corner of the universe.
I was put on a special team with the specific purpose of locating and resolving the "whitespace bug" which had bedeviled people for over two years by sporadically inserting unwanted spaces into the telephone directories. After three weeks spent mostly learning how the system worked, I figured out the cause of this dastardly defect. I was excited and wanted to be sure that our boss, an easygoing fellow we called Stash, would find out directly from me, so I initially didn't tell anyone else on the team. I was sure that Stash would be skeptical until he saw my proposed fix for himself, so I went up to him and whispered so no one could overhear me, "I have very good news for you." He immediately whispered back, "I have very bad news for you." I laughed and told Stash, "Seriously, you won't believe this: I found the cause and the solution to the whitespace bug." He responded even more quietly, "That's wonderful and I'll check it out ASAP, but we're all going to be fired next week." I was going to laugh a second time until I saw the grave expression on his face and knew that Stash was serious. Only those at the top management levels including Stash were aware of an ongoing massive shake-up that was occurring as the company currently known as Verizon was undertaking a massive revision of its entire workforce across several states which would result in twenty-four thousand people losing their jobs within weeks. Our tightly-knit group which took six years to build was completely dissolved and "redeployed" within six days.
Because of my work history I wasn't laid off immediately but was given a job installing a computerized security system at all three New York airports, beginning at Newark before progressing to JFK and finally LaGuardia Airport. My temporary supervisor from Florida who hadn't even heard of NYNEX a month earlier didn't like me for reasons which were unclear and tried to make my tasks as unpleasant as possible. I cheerfully did whatever was asked at each airport. Finally, at LaGuardia, he asked me to carry large cardboard boxes from one part of the airport to another which was always done by a maintenance crew, perhaps hoping that I would quit in disgust so he wouldn't have to honor a strict severance agreement I had created with the assistance of a family attorney. When I moved the boxes without complaining he realized that the jig was up and he told me I was being terminated with full severance. The head of the airport quietly observed these interactions and was amazed both at my actually carrying huge (fortunately empty) boxes as well as my being told it was my last day with NYNEX. After my supervisor left for the day the airport chief graciously invited me to dinner at a special VIP airport lounge where we discussed the past and future of the airport and corporate America. It remains one of the most fascinating business conversations I have ever had. I thanked the chief for taking the time to console and respect me and finally we wished each other well with our future careers. Appropriately I recently encountered by chance a former co-worker at one of the local airports; we talked for hours about those days and how the world has changed.
SURVIVING THE DEATH CAFE (August 7, 2019): A few years ago my wife told me about a nearby event called a "Death Cafe." I was instinctively leery of anything with such an ominous-sounding name, but she seemed enthusiastic about being able to promote her hospice book there so I decided to try it out. Even though it was already evening, it was considerably warmer and more humid than the average summer day. The event was on Park Street in Montclair in a fairly upscale neighborhood, so I wasn't too concerned about a lack of amenities. Unfortunately, my original fears proved to be justified as the meeting was on the top floor of a house in what would be called an attic in a less swanky town--and which had no air conditioning. One of the primary topics of discussion was whether assisted suicide should be legalized in New Jersey, but I was distracted from concentrating on that matter. The temperature in that packed single room was near 120 degrees with almost zero ventilation, so I tuned out whatever weighty issues were being discussed and quietly lay on the floor. I looked up to a majestic vaulted ceiling with outsized musical notes, and realized to my surprise that it was the beginning of the song: "You must remember this, a kiss is still a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh." I remembered that Herman Hupfeld, the composer of this catchy tune featured in Casablanca, had lived in Montclair. I had no idea that I would ever be in his attic, or why he never had air conditioning installed. I concluded soon afterward that I didn't want to remain in the house, so I went outdoors to walk around the back yard. The old construction hadn't been modernized, and as it was getting dark, I didn't realize that there were some sharp black iron pipes located in unexpected places. I banged my head against one of them and soon began bleeding profusely. Not knowing what to do, I remembered that in the uncomfortable attic were several tubs of ice cubes for the drinks, so I went back to put ice on my skull. When I walked in several people screamed when they saw me: blood was pouring out of my head down my body and looked much worse than it actually was. Fortunately more than one physician was present; two of them poured water over the wound and applied ice with towels, and within a short while the flow had mostly subsided. When they saw that I was recovering, a few people remarked that it would have been ironic to have an actual death at the Death Cafe. My wife never got the opportunity to mention her book to the other attendees. I had mostly blocked this experience from my mind until I heard on the radio that assisted suicide just became legal in New Jersey a few days ago, when I immediately recalled the details of that sweltering evening. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.
WOMAN DRIVER OR NOT? (May 14, 2019): A few days ago my wife, my uncle, and I were returning from Baltimore where we had visited my Dad. Shortly after we entered the New Jersey Turnpike, my wife who was driving noticed peculiar behavior by the automobile directly in front of us: whenever we slowed down, it slowed also; when my wife increased her speed so did they. The driver also stayed precisely in the center of the lane. After this continued for a few miles my wife said to us, "The person directly ahead is a strange driver who makes me nervous. What can I do?" I told her, "Get into the passing lane. After you're in front of them by several car lengths go back into the right lane." My wife followed my suggestion without arguing, itself a surprising occurrence, and I couldn't resist remarking to my uncle that it must be a female driver who was in front of us. My uncle immediately agreed, but my wife protested our conclusion and insisted that it was surely a man. Since my uncle and I were both on the right side of the car, with me in the back seat, we naturally had to find out because if my wife was right we would hear about it for the rest of the trip, whereas if my uncle and I were correct then we would smirk and tease her about it all year long. Either way major bragging rights were at stake. As we passed them my uncle and I gazed carefully into the other car to get all the juicy details; after about ten or twelve seconds of staring we were both too stunned to say anything so we just looked at each other. My wife was baffled by our silence and needled us, "So? Why aren't either of you saying anything? It couldn't have been a woman since you two would have been yelling like wild boars by now. How old was the guy?" After another silence my uncle finally responded in a bewildered voice, "There was no one in the front section of the car, only in the back seat. It must be one of those self-driving vehicles." At first my wife was sure we were colluding to get out of losing a bet, but finally we convinced her. It made sense since no human driver would adjust their speed based upon the person immediately behind them. The car also remained stubbornly in the same lane regardless of what was going on, constantly adjusting its speed while remaining exactly in the center of the lane. We concluded by agreeing that the future is closer than we realize.
BITTERSWEET REUNIONS (October 18, 2018): In May 2008 my wife and I visited Zürich and stayed at a bed-and-breakfast place which had excellent reviews on the internet. It was operated by a mother and daughter and featured some fascinating guests, some of whom were there for several months or longer including a German woman who had been studying primates' behavior for couple of years. The daughter Fabienne, whose fiancé was frequently present, had studied classical voice and was a member of several choirs. I learned about her music background sufficiently in advance so I could practice some of her favorite tunes on the piano before the trip, including the two "Queen of the Night" arias from Mozart's Magic Flute. I was somewhat surprised that Fabienne wasn't familiar with 20th-century American musicals, and fortunately I had brought lots of extra sheet music so we could rehearse tunes from West Side Story, South Pacific, and My Fair Lady. We practiced to see which songs from both Europe and the U.S. sounded best as duets and then gave a performance for the entire household. For awhile after the trip all of us stayed in touch, but as the years passed we lost contact. When a return trip to Zürich was planned for September 2018, I figured it would be easy to find Fabienne and her family on the internet but one lead after another turned into a dead end. Finally I sent an old-fashioned letter which was received a few days later by Fabienne's mother and was quickly followed by an email to me from Fabienne. She and her fiancé had married and were no longer living at her mother's place which had been transformed into hosting only long-term residents. We all got together again as Fabienne prepared a delicious local specialty which I had never tried before: raclette, in which a certain variety of cheese is placed into a portable heated metal container to be melted and then poured over baked potatoes--adorned with tiny pickles and accompanied by Swiss white wine. The next day I attended one of her choir rehearsals in a neighborhood church; since I began sight-singing as a kid I am fairly competent at singing something which I am seeing for the first time but the music was more challenging than I had expected and I wasn't accustomed to following instructions in Swiss German. The choir director and the other participants seemed truly dedicated and competent, and almost all of them had jobs which were entirely outside the music field. One oddity of Zürich is that when the bells mark the hour in many churches, they don't stop after three or four chimes but continue for a few dozen loud bongs. When this incessant tintinnabulation occurred--twice!--during our rehearsal, our fearless director continued uninterrupted, defiantly undeterred by the loud repeated interruption.
During the same Zürich visit in May 2008 my wife and I walked into an authentic-looking Chinese restaurant on Langstrasse, in a neighborhood which back in 2008 was still a bit rough around the edges and which like today features numerous immigrants among its population. At the back of the restaurant was a brightly-dressed fellow sporting several gold chains, who was in stunning contrast to the typical men's outfit of a white or dully-colored shirt with a sports jacket and zero jewelry. He greeted us warmly and turned out to be a well-known gospel singer named Richard who was originally from Arkansas but had been living nearby for a few decades. In his quirky way he had made Zürich his permanent home and was fully adapted to its lifestyle. Besides trading music CDs we chatted about life in the U.S. versus Europe and the challenges of surviving anywhere as a musician; several Swiss banks sponsored a number of his performances in and outside of the country. I kept in touch with Richard on social media over the past decade so I figured we would more or less pick up where we had left off, but we discovered that seeing each other face-to-face led to an unexpected familiarity and encouraged us to discuss many events from our personal lives which we didn't usually mention to others. A one-hour breakfast turned into a meal which lasted well into the afternoon. After our long encounter, my wife and I walked with him to the train station and by another odd quirk of fate someone at a gas station along the way recognized Richard and shouted out to him. The fellow turned out to be a friend who like ourselves had not seen Richard for several years.
Without consciously realizing it, most people either visit any given place only once or else very often, but not something in between. Now I think I know why, since it becomes emotionally complicated when you get to know someone well and then you don't see them for a long time. It is surprising how little some things change, including a person's core personality, and yet it is unsettling to observe the signs of aging and the psychological effects of several cumulative years of living. For many people, their only experience with this phenomenon is those school reunions which occur every five years and which by an odd coincidence will feature our 40-year high-school class gathering next month. Of course that is somewhat different since I grew up with and lived near many of my high-school buddies for years in a row, whereas those I care about in Zürich were only seen for one week per decade. Perhaps the moral of this story is that you can go home again--or anywhere else--but both you and your home will not be what you had expected.
HEAD COMPUTER OPERATOR (April 25, 2018): When I was in my freshman year at Johns Hopkins in September 1978 we had two minicomputers on campus: a PDP-11 exclusively for the engineering department and a DEC-10 which was shared by the entire university. Sometimes more than one hundred people would be using the computer simultaneously. The system was set up to create the illusion that each person had his or her own computing device, but this was an intentional deception; in those days minicomputers used a method called timesharing where each person would get several milliseconds of usage within any given second of time. Without the need for modern graphics processing and other time-consuming tasks which exist today, activities like word processing and writing computer programs were undemanding enough to allow this illusion to be maintained most of the time. The computer was located in a huge room with reel-to-reel tape machines, flashing lights of many kinds, and other devices which became obsolete a few decades ago. The computer couldn't run on its own; it was essential to have someone supervising the vast apparatus to take care of all kinds of problems which would arise from paper getting jammed, a piece of equipment malfunctioning or overheating, or someone trying to cheat the system by getting more than his or her share of milliseconds via various devious methods--most of which I learned but avoided the temptation of overusing. Since there was a high demand for the computer and it ran continuously at all hours, there were three separate shifts of computer operators: 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., 4 p.m. to midnight, and midnight to 8 a.m. I got to know most of the people in charge of the computer on all of those shifts, but by far my favorite fellow was the one in charge of the graveyard shift named Michael.
Michael--we all learned never to say Mike in his presence--was from one of Baltimore's several dilapidated ghetto neighborhoods. Somehow he had been able, mostly from teaching himself and being incredibly persistent, to attend Baltimore Polytechnic Institute which was and remains the best public school in the city, and thereafter to continue his education. The university wasn't as openly diverse in those days as it is currently, but they agreed to hire him for the midnight to 8 a.m. shift as the head computer operator. Partly that was because no one else was sufficiently qualified, but in those days it was relatively uncommon to find a young black person in such a position of responsibility. He had learned to speak in an upper-class manner when he wanted to, but when he and I got together he loved to use some ghetto phrases and I played along. Because of his required physical presence in the computer room he wasn't usually allowed to take typical breaks for food, so I learned which places were open late where he would give me money to purchase some of his favorite carry-out meals. On rare occasions, his white supervisor would stop by, partly to see how the computer room was functioning, and Michael would be allowed to leave the computer room for a half hour or an hour. When that happened I sometimes drove him to a completely different part of the city where at 2 a.m. a surprising number of people knew him. If the supervisor arrived shortly after midnight then we almost always walked over to Tugboat Annie's, our favorite local spot where Michael had invented a clever albeit vulgar phrase for each of the items on the menu (none which is suitable for a family publication). The owners knew both of us from our frequenting of that restaurant throughout the time we were living in Baltimore, so often we received extra free goodies and we made sure to leave generous tips. Sometimes his friends would be skeptical of my red-haired Jewish presence at first until they got to know me. Michael almost always had a few books in the computer room since the university was paying for his education where he crammed in as many classes as possible while continuing to work forty hours per week. Finally, when I was almost set to graduate, Michael received a special scholarship where the remainder of his education would be paid for while he only had to work part-time for the university until he received his bachelor's degree. He was more ambitious, intelligent, and focused than I was, so hopefully he ended up with some impressive accomplishments. Unfortunately I lost touch with Michael when I moved away from Baltimore so I don't know the rest of his story.
MIDDAY TENNIS ANYONE? (December 3, 2017): I learned to play tennis when I was nine years old. My parents decided that nice Jewish boys like myself should get some physical exercise, so they signed me up for lessons at Baltimore's Jewish Community Center. The nearest tennis courts were a few blocks away from the JCC near the corner of Glen Avenue and Merville Avenue--ironically a short walk from an elaborate annual Christmas display featuring model trains in a firehouse. For all I know, they still give lessons there today. I did gain some confidence in playing the game, and by June I was eager to teach my friends. School was just ending, and pretty soon we had a group of four people who were all set for doubles. The main problem was that in the hot, humid Baltimore summers, the only reasonable time to play was either in the early morning or else in the evening. None of us was sufficiently inspired to consistently wake up early during our summer vacations, so we decided to try for getting together in the late afternoon before we had to go home for supper. However, there was a major obstacle: the only tennis courts within walking distance at Sudbrook Junior High School were very popular with the "old folks" (in their 20s and above) who wanted to play each other there after they were done with their daytime jobs. The courts maintained an unfair rule where those over 18 years of old had precedence, so we ended up watching their antics for a few days which wasn't very exciting. We got together and faced reality: the only time we could consistently use the tennis courts was from the late morning through the mid-afternoon when the temperature would often be above 90. We got adjusted to it, and brought our dog Sheba along with us; being a black Labrador mutt she far preferred snow to the heat but she would lie contentedly in a shady spot just outside the boundary of the courts and would appropriately bark at any stranger who tried to get too close. We would often persist for three or four hours and we had to remember to bring pitchers of water and iced tea with us as though we were on a desert hike. We took breaks between sets in order not to become exhausted. From time to time we would play Canadian doubles (two vs. one) when we had only three instead of four people, and we invented something we called "Mexican triples" (three vs. two) when we had five people altogether and we didn't want to leave anyone out. Our midday contests surprisingly continued for several consecutive summers until high school when we became more involved with summer jobs and other activities. Then we got together again a few years later with a few new people when we were in our early 20s; we would drive to nighttime courts brightly flooded with artificial light. Whenever the lights suddenly went out just before midnight, usually during an especially close point, we headed to our favorite informal restaurants including Gampy's afterward. Our modified summertime ritual continued until I finally left Baltimore at the age of 25 and found myself in Brooklyn where the few courts nearby were inevitably crowded, so unfortunately I got out of the habit of playing. For the past two decades I have been jogging past some tennis courts about a mile from my house triggering memories of my youth. Perhaps I should try playing the game again. Tennis, anyone?
BARROW LODGE'S TELEPHONE GAME (September 17, 2017): During the summer of 1966 our family went to an amazing mom-pop-and-son resort in the Poconos called Barrow Lodge. You can still purchase postcards of the place on eBay; it operated continuously for two decades and would have continued except that the federal government forced the owners to sell due to eminent domain in order to supposedly construct a dam which was never built--the property remains unused over five decades later. Each day we began by singing the official upbeat camp song, after which the adults and children would split up for the rest of the day until we finally rejoined our parents back in our cabins during sunset. This required Rick Barrow and the counselors to have a full slate of activities for us over a period of about twelve hours which was obviously challenging. One day we were asked to line up, oldest to youngest, in a glass building which was also used as a hothouse. Rick Barrow himself, whom I much later reconnected with at his radio station, told the oldest camper in line, "Mary had a little lamb; her fleece was white as snow. Everywhere that Mary went, her lamb was sure to go." Obviously this wasn't a particularly original phrase, but all of us excitedly watched as this message was passed from one camper to the next, all the way down the line. After about a dozen minutes, Rick asked the one on the end--a little girl less than four years old--what she had to tell us. She gingerly walked forward a few steps in her tiny pink dress, looked around nervously, glanced up briefly at the high glass ceiling, and then very loudly proclaimed, "Lamb!" The reaction was priceless: those like myself near the front of the line mostly laughed out loud, while the youngest ones near the opposite end looked at each other puzzlingly as to why this obviously correct broadcast was greeted in such derisive fashion. I haven't played this game since then, but I am careful to make sure that I don't rely on others to convey my message since I know it will become distorted without those making the biggest changes having any appreciation for what they have done.
FUFU IN TOKYO (July 10, 2017): I visited Tokyo in October-November 1987. By reading usually-reliable guidebooks, I had familiarized myself with various neighborhoods before my visit, but I had no idea where to eat any of my meals. Later in my trip I made the fortuitous discovery that several of the residents at my inexpensive ryokan were from Ghana and had been hired to do construction on the high floors of skyscrapers. I thus learned about the joys of fufu--a central communally-shared mound of potato where we took turns taking scoops and dipping it into one of several "sauces" which were arrayed around the potato mound--containing vegetables, fish, and various local items which my Ghanaian neighbors had prepared to approximate what they had remembered from their home towns. They eventually taught me how to prepare part of the meal.
On the first night I wandered around and a helpful fellow who spoke surprisingly good English told me he was in the city on a business trip and was glad to help me. Figuring that an American would want to be in America-town, we proceeded to Tokyo's two most American neighborhoods of Hiroo and Roppongi. I wasn't really excited about eating at an American-style restaurant but I kept my misgivings to myself. As it turned out, the proprietor refused to serve us for reasons which I couldn't understand. I crossed my chopsticks on the bowl before we left, which is supposed to be a sign of displeasure. I don't know if it was recognized or not; both my dining companion and the proprietor laughed heartily instead of appearing to be offended. We ended up eating at a small ramen shop which was very much like the one featured in the movie Tampopo. This fellow gave me excellent directions and recommendations which I treasured for the remainder of my visit; he had to ride a train for a few hours to return to his home town where he ran a company making specialized food for gifts that was started by his great-great-grandfather and had been passed down through the generations.
On the following day I had no idea where to go for lunch, when I saw a sign in English proclaiming all-you-can-eat pizza for a fixed price. It sounded like an unusual bargain, so I decided to try it. Some of the flavors on the pizza were unfamiliar; it took me awhile to translate some of the Japanese words and wasn't expecting to be served pizza with jalapeño, tuna, kiwi, or sweet potato which later became more common in the United States. Nevertheless, I kept coming back for more and noticed that I was eating several times more than most diners--partly because I hadn't eaten a full meal in about two days. One older fellow came up to my table after I sat down for the tenth or twelfth time and remarked, "I think they're losing money on you" in perfect English. It turned out that he was a missionary who had lived in Japan during the Allied (primarily U.S.) occupation in the late 1940s and early 1950s and who told me stories about the now-prosperous city when it sometimes had barely enough food and periodic blackouts. The missionary showed me a newspaper which mentioned the crash in the U.S. stock market, and then he proudly told me, "That won't happen to me. I have all of my money in local real estate which only goes up." This fellow was surprised when he discovered that I was Jewish and asked why I was visiting Japan instead of Israel. Each time I was set to respond to one of his questions, he would give me a new piece of advice and tried to plan my next few years in Tokyo, concluding that I would actually stay much longer than I had intended. After getting a few more slices of pizza and deciding that I was finally full, I said goodbye to this unusually helpful fellow and never saw him again.
ALI'S LONDON SURPRISE (May 11, 2017): In early 1992 I obtained a job working with a talented computer programmer named Tom. He was a joy to deal with because of his intellect and since he was easygoing if you treated him with respect--which unfortunately our supervisor repeatedly failed to do. I worked on a product called Teletrac 2 owned by Dow Jones, and part of my job involved handling customer complaints literally from all over the world. There was an official company representative for each region who would collect, arrange, and report all problems to me via telephone once per week. Making international calls was considerably more expensive than it is today. In order to minimize the frequency of such contacts, the head of the European complaints division in London named Ali--originally from Turkey--would deal with most of the customers directly while I spoke with him about all of his collected troubles at precisely 10 o'clock a.m. each Tuesday morning, New York (actually Jersey City) time. Ali would become very animated on the telephone, and I almost felt as though I could see his arms waving and his head bobbing rapidly up and down as he often became frustrated in trying to describe the details of some of the more complex problems. About once a month he would become exasperated with my attempt to recreate the issue, and would sigh, "If only you could be here, I could easily demonstrate it in person. Why can't you fly to London?"
For completely non-work reasons, I visited London during February 1993 and decided to play a trick on Ali. When it was time for our Tuesday meeting--which in London was in the afternoon at 3 p.m.--I telephoned him from a pay phone booth across the street from the London office. As usual, he lamented about the difficulty of explaining certain snags on the telephone, when I responded, "Don't worry. This time I'll see you in person. Just give me five minutes." I entered the building and in those days of lax security I was soon at his office where the door was shut. I knocked and when he opened the door I responded, "Here I am, as promised." He stared at me and uttered absolutely nothing for about fifteen seconds. Then he launched into an incredible tirade built of a year's worth of frustrations. We ended up staying after almost everyone had left, and I got permission to report the hours as time worked to help pay for the trip. After that, Ali wasn't quite the same; he didn't become nearly as vociferous in the future partly out of fear that I might magically materialize and keep him at work until after 9 p.m. a second time. Instead, he would force himself to calm down and resignedly admit, "You don't have to actually see me personally. That's really not necessary. Let's try another way of approaching it."
KID STUFF (March 3, 2017): When I was in elementary school, I usually got together with my friends after classes were done for the day. We loved to play whiffleball in our back yard as long as the weather was okay; if most of the snow had melted on a day in January or February then that was good enough for us, and anything warmer was even better. The state of the grass clearly revealed how frequently we played, with long-established brown patches where we set up the pitcher's mound, home plate, and first base, and smaller grass-free areas at the lesser-used second- and third-base areas. The boundaries of the field were flexible, since balls tended to be hit backward, sideways, on the roof, and frequently into neighbors' yards which we used as though they were our own. My parents got complaints especially when it would sometimes get dark and naturally we hated to stop in the middle of an inning or when the game was tied. So we would continue, with a fielder sometimes bumping into a neighbor chasing after the ball in their yard in the unlit darkness. From time to time, even in the bright daylight, we tripped over various natural and man-made obstacles. This would occasionally lead to injuries, usually no more than scrapes and bruises, but once I had my only broken bone when I got a leg caught in a fence retrieving a foul ball as I landed awkwardly on top of my right arm. With a cast which I had to wear for six weeks, I slowly learned to write left-handed, and I can still remember my disappointment when the doctor removed it only to put on a different cast for an extra month.
There were some interesting pitfalls to our game. My sister, 2-1/2 years younger than me, was wild about a local Baltimore television program named "Kid Stuff." It began with a video of young children simultaneously releasing brightly-colored balloons into the air, which was my sister's favorite part of the show. It was followed by a few minutes in a large room with children enjoying finger painting, cutting out colored paper, and similar creative activities. The show ran for only five minutes, and began at exactly 4:25 p.m. Monday through Friday, just before The Flintstones. My sister would be upset for the rest of the day if she missed even a few seconds of it and would wail loudly enough to be clearly heard by our next-door neighbors, so I had to make sure to keep careful track of the time. I usually had to leave the whiffleball game in the middle of an inning and get someone to pinch hit, pinch run, or otherwise replace me while I made sure to find my sister and remind her not to miss her show. Often she would also be playing with friends and could be found almost anywhere near the house or the school diagonally across the street and sometimes in a completely unexpected place, so this could be a time-consuming task. My sister knew how to turn on the television and switch the channel to her program, but she didn't wear a watch and strongly preferred that I take full responsibility for ensuring that she saw the show each weekday. Even when my friends weren't visiting, or when we were playing board or card games instead of whiffleball, I had the family responsibility of tracking down my sister for our daily ritual. This continued for two or three years until she finally declared one day that she was a big girl and didn't have to "always" see it. I noticed that she would still watch "Kid Stuff" a few times a month for a while, but eventually it stopped being important and she became involved with completely different activities. When I asked my sister about it the other day, she told me her clearest memory was running as fast as she could to the house and downstairs into the den to catch her favorite program usually within a minute before it started.
VOTE MARK MAYER (December 21, 2016): When I was in seventh grade, our social-studies teacher decided to teach us and all of her other classes an important lesson in the U.S. political system. She designated two student candidates to compete in a mock election; each of those created a mimeographed handout indicating their positions on various issues which we had one week to study. A week later, all of our classes combined to meet together in the huge Sudbrook auditorium with a capacity of over a thousand people to hear speeches by each of the two candidates and to count our secret written ballots afterward. It was unusual to meet anywhere other than our usual classroom or to see our friends from other classes during the school day, so there was a lot of extra chatter and the teacher kept having to tell us to shut up. Each of the candidates delivered his or her prepared script, describing their campaign platform and what they promised to do when elected. The oratories were not exactly professional, and we had to keep from falling asleep with the inconsistent rambling, dull topic, and generally amateurish atmosphere. Suddenly, after the second candidate made her pitch, a loud voice was heard in one corner of the auditorium: "Mark Mayer! Make him the write-in winner. Vote for Mark Mayer, that's M-a-r-k M-a-y-e-r." The teacher had a lengthy journey to reach the place where this student was seated. As she was about to determine who was responsible and to reprimand him, another voice was heard from the opposite side of the auditorium proclaiming, "We need Mark Mayer. Ignore the other two and cast a write-in vote for Mark Mayer. It's your civic duty." The teacher was confused, not sure if she should continue with her pursuit of the original heckler or whether she should hunt down the second offender. Then, from way up in the balcony came the voice, "Vote Mark Mayer. He's the only one right for today's society. Don't delay, cast your write-in vote for Mark Mayer today." During the next several minutes, eight or nine students made similar loud pleas, always from parts of the auditorium where the teacher couldn't make a timely interruption.
We voted, and not surprisingly, Mark Mayer was the landslide victor. The teacher had completely lost control of the room by that point, but restored some order by asking Mark Mayer himself to approach the lectern and deliver his acceptance speech. Since he had no prepared text, he was flummoxed and sheepishly meandered to the stage, but amazingly had enough guts and raw ability to give a far better impromptu presentation than the two "real" candidates had done. We applauded raucously, and shouted "Mark Mayer" over and over again until the teacher forced all of us to return to our regular classrooms until our lunch break. I just spoke with Mark Mayer the day before yesterday, and he told me that the teacher called him privately into her office because she believed he had orchestrated the hilarious distraction. However, he convinced her that he was totally innocent, and she believed it since he was always one of the goody-goody students who didn't concoct stunts like that. We later discovered that the culprits were the usual group of class clowns and a few extras who thought it would be a real coup to upstage the carefully prepared lesson. They secretly stayed after school a couple of days earlier to figure out when they would interrupt and exactly where they would sit in the auditorium. It worked out even more ridiculously than they had expected, with the teacher being repeatedly surprised and confused; whenever she was set to punish one student, another one distracted her with his or her loudly broadcast plea. In the end, I suppose we did learn something about the U.S. political process and how it can easily become chaotic and unpredictable.
I'LL TAKE THE BRONX (November 13, 2016): When I was growing up, our family would travel twice each year to visit my father's father who lived by Pelham Parkway and Williamsbridge Road in the Bronx. My Dad was the driver and I was the navigator; we would follow a familiar route of crowded highways to an unglamorous but consistently reliable and inexpensive place called the Andrea Motel (which still exists today) adjacent to the Cross Bronx Expressway, where all of us would stay in a single large room for several days. We would drive over to my grandfather's apartment; he was on the top floor of a six-floor brick housing project constructed shortly after World War II. Even today, I can recall the smell and atmosphere of his place--a combination of Eastern European Jewish food, a stack of Yiddish newspapers, dishes and silverware which had been made decades earlier, and my aging grandfather himself who was thrilled to see us and mostly loved to tell personal stories about the "good old days" before "everything started changing." I found out later that he had led a complicated life from growing up in a border town named Brest-Litovsk where his father made and sold flour from grains, and where he emigrated in 1910 at the age of 20 to the United States to avoid being drafted into the Russian army. Naturally he was soon drafted into the U.S. Army and served in World War I before working most of his life as a subway conductor on the D train. I got to know the local playground, filled with graffiti about the New York Mets and Jets and some less savory topics, and even became streetwise at a young age with the occasional homeless person, drug addict, juvenile delinquent, and a cross-section of Bronx characters which were entirely different from the relatively sheltered existence in my insular middle-class Baltimore neighborhood.
One day in my sixth-grade history class back in Baltimore, our teacher asked if any of us had been to New York City. I responded that I visited every year which surprised her and the class. She asked me to describe one of my trips, and when I tried my best to portray an accurate portrait, she kept correcting me to intersperse frequently-heard media stereotypes like enormously tall buildings, tourists, taxis, theater, and late-night cafes. I explained that perhaps part of Manhattan might be like that, but Pelham Parkway was entirely different. She refused to believe that my grandfather's building had only six floors and that the kids there were a lot like the ones back home except they rooted for the Mets instead of the Orioles and tended to interrupt more often and more confidently. I explained that the local eating spot was an ancient-looking diner with all green walls and tables which closed even earlier than the ones in Baltimore and had odd menu items like blintzes, potato pancakes, borscht, and pea soup; the waitresses seemed almost as old as my grandfather. The teacher's retort was about the Automat where you paid coins and had your food delivered by a machine. The class looked back and forth between us, totally amazed and confused, trying to figure out which fantastic-sounding tale was true and who was inventing impossible stories.
KINDERGARTEN STUDENTS LEND TO U.S. GOVERNMENT (November 7, 2016): When I was in kindergarten and first grade, there was a weekly exercise to encourage us to save money. We were each required to figure out a way of bringing in a quarter once a week to add to a kind of savings account. I remember that it was challenging to invent a way to get a quarter one way or another, sometimes by doing work around the house, and it was even more difficult not to spend it on something like candy or all kinds of other tempting goodies. Somehow, over the course of the school year, these eventually added up to one hundred quarters, which were then used to purchase a fifty-dollar U.S. savings bond with an initial face value of twenty-five dollars. Like the quarters, these bonds couldn't be spent immediately; we had to wait a half year for them to be redeemable which seemed like an eternity. We were encouraged not to cash in the bonds even when we were finally permitted to do so, in order for them to accumulate interest over a period of years. This was emotionally tough, but eventually I became adjusted to the idea of having money which was growing but which I wouldn't actually spend until some unknown time in the future. I continued to track the interest schedule for years, figuring out how much the savings bonds were worth as I was growing up. As a kid, I had no idea what I would actually do with the money--I had several alternative plans, but kept changing my mind about every month. As time continued to pass, these bonds surpassed their face values and kept growing. Many students spent these immediately, being unable to resist getting a bicycle or something else which they could actually use. Many other students weren't even able to save up enough in the first place, either literally being unable to afford to spare quarters or, much more often, not having the discipline or psychological ability to give up something known in the present for something ambiguous in the future. More than half the class never purchased a single savings bond.
For whatever reasons, after my family moved to a different school district, the new school didn't belong to this U.S. government program, so for several years I didn't purchase any new bonds and held onto the old ones. The next time I received any of these savings bonds was when I received a surprisingly high number of them for my Bar Mitzvah. Nowadays, you almost never hear about anyone giving someone a U.S. government bond as a present. All of these including the original ones continued to accumulate interest, until finally I cashed them in gradually while I was in college, each time to avoid having to borrow money. I redeemed the final one just after my twenty-first birthday, shortly before I found a summer job between my junior and senior years which for the first time paid me more than my total expenses. From this summer job, and once again resisting the temptation to buy lots of new clothing or to move out of my one-room attic apartment, I was able to accumulate over one thousand dollars in the summer of 1981--which my Dad then tricked me into putting mostly into an IRA account so I once again had nearly all of my money in something which I couldn't actually spend until I was at least 59-1/2. I diligently put as much into this and similar accounts as I legally could for the past 35 years, thus rarely having more than a small amount of money that was available to spend. Once I had set up my initial retirement account, I made my first investment in something which fluctuated in value. If it hadn't been for the first savings bond I began with as a five-year-old, everything might have been different afterward.
SWELTERING BENNINGTON (September 11, 2016): I have always been a huge fan of music performed on instruments which had been popular a few hundred years ago. There aren't many people who can perform some of them including the baroque trumpet and the theorbo, but they have a unique sound when a competent ensemble is recreating a composition by Palestrina or debuting a new work from a modern composer using old instruments. At least since the 1990s, this festival occurred each July in Bennington, Vermont on the campus of Bennington College. Besides the music, I loved visiting several covered bridges, buying food at nearby farmers' markets, taking my car to a gas station where they cleaned my windshield and otherwise behaved as in the Great Depression, and walking through classic historic districts and the burial place of Robert Frost. Bennington College kept their rental costs low, so the public could attend all of these concerts for free. It was an ideal arrangement, with one tiny negative detail--the college refused to provide air conditioning in its performance halls including the main auditorium. The musicians repeatedly asked for window units, portable units, or whatever else could be provided due to the lack of central air conditioning, but were always met with the response that their rents were low and the school hadn't had air conditioning since its founding so it wasn't about to tamper with tradition.
Whether due to global warming or just bad luck, the summers became increasingly hot near the beginning of the 21st century. The Amherst Music Festival had to gradually accommodate visitors--giving out free bottles of water, keeping the doors open at all times, reducing the indoor lighting intensity, and providing dozens of portable fans scattered throughout the performance areas. These all helped a little, but each year seemed to be more oppressively hot and humid than the one before. Finally, in their last year, the temperature approached one hundred. During a production of an opera by Handel, the performers visibly sweated in their elaborate period costumes and the floor had to be repeatedly mopped in between scenes. Many musicians had to clean sweat off their instruments during brief breaks in their playing. During the final act in a packed auditorium, the conductor was forced to take an extra long break before the final scene to give the musicians sufficient time to recover and to prepare themselves for a particularly intense musical and dancing sequence. When the performers took their bows, there was a loud clunking sound and a wild scramble--not from the musicians or the performers, but from the audience where someone had fainted onto the hardwood floor. I guess that was the last straw, since the following year the festival was relocated to Connecticut College in a much less scenic part of New England (although with a bit of its own history) and where the tickets cost twenty dollars per performance instead of being free of charge. During the first year of this festival, the modern central air conditioning was so overpowering that I had to bring a sweater to each concert.
BOX TREE CLASSICS (August 1, 2016): In the late 1980s, I played the piano Tuesday and Thursday evenings at the Box Tree Restaurant on East 49th Street in Manhattan. It was one of the few places in the city where classical music was welcomed, and there was a special alcove on the second floor where the sound of the piano could be heard throughout the restaurant. There were some interesting perks to this job, including being paid in cash, and having my choice of meals each night at no extra charge. I soon developed my favorite food preparations which the chef abbreviated to a single word when I arrived, such as "spinach" or "dill." I got to know the waiters and waitresses and bus boys best; we would often chat whenever I stopped for a brief break. The maitre d', who was a rather fussy and particular fellow, usually told me the kinds of music he preferred, with the implication that if I were to perform something not on his list then it wouldn't bode well for my job security. Naturally I couldn't help being mischievous, and would periodically interpose something which I was certain he hadn't heard before including several of my own compositions. One day I decided to play a few songs from Scott Joplin's little-known opera "Treemonisha," and I was surprised when the maitre d' specifically complimented me on "Aunt Dinah Has Blowed De Horn." He insisted on my telling him the composer, but I intentionally kept it a secret. I also favored some of the lesser-known George Gershwin, Maurice Ravel, and Claude Debussy tunes, being a huge fan of music from the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of my all-time favorites is "Kitten on the Keys" by Zez Confrey, which a fellow living in a basement apartment next door to me in my home town of Baltimore would request whenever he would catch me entering my house.
Some of the diners got to know me well, and would ask to hear the same tunes each time--usually a movement from a symphony or piano concerto which would present an interesting challenge without an orchestra being handy. One solution was to play "A Fifth of Beethoven" by Walter Murphy, based upon the first movement of the fifth symphony. I had memorized this piece during my junior year of high school when performing it made me extremely popular with my classmates. Upon hearing it, the maitre d' would comment that he didn't realize Beethoven had invented disco. "Moonlight Sonata" was requested so frequently that I almost always substituted something else like "Songs Without Words" excerpts by Mendelssohn or "Scenes from Childhood" by Schumann. The customers knew what I was doing but were mostly happy anyway, as was the maitre d' since these selections were near the top of his list. One snowy day in January, there was a drastic change in management and nearly all of us were soon terminated--not necessarily to the benefit of the restaurant which subsequently received some infamously scathing reviews. To console myself, I walked to the nearby library, found a copy of Market Wizards by Jack D. Schwager, and began a very different career.
QUARRY TO SWIM CLUB TO MOSQUE (June 17, 2016): When I was a kid, I used to have a summer membership each year to two different swimming pools. The one where my family and many of my friends belonged was called Colonial Village, and featured a moderate-sized swimming pool with a diving board. My sister liked to try all kinds of fancy diving moves, while my brother would swim laps incessantly, oblivious to whatever else was going on around him. My favorite activity after some deep-water swimming was to go to the snack bar which featured Cohen's Coddies for 15 cents apiece--a chunk of fresh lightly fried fish between two Saltine crackers with optional spicy mustard to put on top. I later met Mr. Cohen who made these codfish paddies for decades, but that is another story which I have already described in previous reminiscences. I also belonged to a second swim club called Milford Mill which was much larger. In addition to the usual outdoor pool, there was an indoor pool which was ideal for frequent Baltimore rainy days, and since the club had formerly been a commercial quarry, it had been cleverly converted into a "big quarry" and a "small quarry" for swimmers. The big quarry had something like a zip line where you could go a long distance from the top into the water, along with a few islands and some very deep water. The small quarry was mostly for younger or much older swimmers who didn't want to be constantly distracted by the zip lines and some aggressive swimmers. The atmosphere at Milford Mill Swim Club wasn't nearly as genteel as it was at Colonial Village, with some rough kids and occasional juvenile delinquents. The club was featured in several movies including John Waters' Cry Baby and Barry Levinson's Liberty Heights. Not surprisingly, both of those directors were born in Baltimore.
I was playing tag with a few friends when I decided to try a contrarian strategy. It seemed logical to hide in the big quarry with its huge size and frequent distractions, but eventually my bright red hair would be noticed even from a long distance and I would soon be tagged by one of the faster swimmers. One day, I decided to go to the regular outdoor pool. Even though it was much smaller than either quarry, it sometimes became incredibly crowded with lots of kids and toy stuffed animals. I hid in the shallow water so that my hair was surrounded by a crowd of people just wading and not going anywhere, which made it almost impossible to see me unless you were a foot or so away. As a result, the other kids kept finding each other, but I remained undiscovered for more than a hour which was some kind of record in our group that stood for several weeks until someone hid in the bushes at the edge of the property (which we concluded was cheating). Unfortunately, time hasn't been kind to the Milford Mill Swim Club; it wasn't properly maintained in recent years and was eventually purchased by a mosque. The imam's living quarters were severely damaged last October in a fire set by kids of the same age as I had been when I used to swim there, between 11 and 13 years old.
AMADEO'S ASSISTANT (May 20, 2016): In the mid-1990s, I had a job with a company called ILX Systems which was run like an extended family. As part of my work, I sometimes walked or took the subway to train clients in using the ILX Workstation to help them accomplish more, partly because it would encourage them to get their colleagues to also order workstations to increase the company's monthly profit. I mostly visited users who were within walking distance in downtown Manhattan, and one day I was given the assignment of assisting a few people on the American Stock Exchange. The people I met there seemed to be repeatedly distracted by their co-workers, telephone calls, and being frequently alerted about trades for several securities for which they were making a market. Somehow they were still able to concentrate on what I was saying. It was impossible for me to find any of the people with whom I was meeting; someone who worked for the American Stock Exchange spent the entire day escorting visitors to those with whom they were scheduled to get together--not just for security, but primarily because it would have been impossible to find anyone without help. It was like being in a complex rat's maze, with passageways going in odd directions and with computers crowded everywhere to create numerous and almost random narrow passages. One area opened unexpectedly into a huge, ancient room where I could see the original ceiling and walls from when the building was first constructed. There were people running all around, making it necessary to constantly step aside to get out of their way. Just before I reached the exit, I turned around to take one final look at this unique building, and a fellow asked me, "Do you want to know what we really do around here?" I wasn't sure how to answer, so he told me, "Come over here and I'll show you."
This fellow introduced himself: "Call me Amadeo. Everyone does." He took me behind one of the specialists' desks, where the exchange had an arrangement with well-capitalized organizations which had the obligation to always set a bid and ask price for various securities. Unlike most of the other specialists, this fellow wasn't part of a corporation; he was a self-made man who had been doing this for decades and was about to retire. His name was Amadeo, and he patiently took me through his daily routine. "See that ticker up there?" he pointed to where prices were being reported as soon as anything traded. "I'm the one in charge of that security. Here, you can see the bid and ask prices. I'm going to outbid this fellow by one sixteenth, so I'll be the highest bidder and I'll pick up the next market sell order." He did so, and then said, "Now watch the same spot on the ticker. You'll see my trade going through for a thousand shares." Once that happened, he waited briefly while watching one monitor intently, and then told me, "Someone just hit my bid. Now, I'm going to sell those shares, so I'm placing an order one sixteenth below the current ask price. Then I'll just wait to be filled." Perhaps ten to fifteen seconds later, he suddenly announced, "There it is. Sold for a total profit of three eighths, four hundred and six hundred which equals one thousand. Where else can you make three-hundred seventy-five dollars a couple times a minute?" I was privileged to see this fellow at the end of his career, eager to show me how he had become so adept at his business. At one point, someone nearby shouted, "Joe needs us to take a hundred thousand XYZ. Who wants to buy some?" Amadeo immediately yelled, "I'm good for fifteen thousand." A few other specialists shouted that they would purchase five or ten thousand shares apiece, and pretty soon this fellow had found enough buyers to cover the entire sale. Amadeo patiently showed me a list of the securities he was trading, and asked me which one he should slightly outbid or underbid to make the next trade and why I would prefer that one over the others. "I can sell first and buy back second, instead of first buying and then selling. It works either way." He also showed me how much he was paying in commissions on each trade along with a constant stream of details, and then he would quiz me to see if I understood everything. I learned more in about a half hour than I did in the rest of my career combined about how experienced market makers do their job. I remember other exchange workers watching us astonished; apparently he had never selected anyone to be his apprentice before. Amadeo, if you are still around, thank you very much for that amazing lesson which has served me incredibly well throughout my career.
TWO LOVELY BLACK EYES (April 20, 2016): With a socialist running for U.S. President, I am reminded of the years I had lived in New York City in the mid-1980s. My favorite theater was called Theater for the New City on 10th Street and 1st Avenue, and I still go to shows there just about every year. In those days, I would sometimes attend two or three performances per month, so I got to know the actors quite well. One older fellow, who looked remarkably like Ray Walston of "My Favorite Martian" fame, told me to return on a particular Saturday night because they would be having a bunch of old British socialists getting together for a sing-along. I thought he was kidding, but when I arrived he began to lead an entire large room of mostly expatriates from the U.K. in one classic British empire song after another. He dressed appropriately in a sequence of hilarious uniforms and hats including one which made him look like a South African general from around 1900. Periodically, he would make a toast "to the Queen" and everyone would reply after him, "To the Queen!" I almost felt as though I had been magically transported several decades back to London in the period between the two World Wars. My favorite song was entitled "Two Lovely Black Eyes" and it was the only one where I memorized both the catchy tune and the clever lyrics. I returned for a few years thereafter, as this was an annual event, and looked forward each time to singing loudly along with my favorite British drinking hall song.
A few weeks ago, I was visiting a friend named Kurt from Europe who was playing a CD of his favorite Italian arias sung by Luciano Pavarotti. Kurt just listened to them quietly until finally he recognized his favorite tune, "Vieni Sul Mar," which encouraged him to belt out his best bass voice along with the CD. As I listened, I said to myself, "Wait a minute. That's the same tune as 'Two Lovely Black Eyes,' but with unfamiliar words. Pavarotti must have stolen it." I looked up this song on the internet and it claimed to be either an ancient Russian ballad using different lyrics, or else it was allegedly Brazilian and was entitled "O Minas Gerais"--sung at all official events in that part of Brazil. Apparently no one wants to admit that they might have borrowed this centuries-old song from anyone else. I did a more intensive investigation, but it remains unclear where the tune actually originated. I guess everyone wants to claim ownership of anything which is so popular.
FOREVER RADIO (January 26, 2016): When I was a kid, I used to love to listen to baseball games on the radio. I got into this habit from my mother's father, who would take me to several Orioles' games each year at Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, and who would almost always be listening to the game and to any other sporting event if he wasn't there in person. I had a favorite transistor radio, which still works today, which I would put under my pillow and listen to especially during West Coast games which often didn't end until after 1 a.m. when I would be fast asleep. Even after I began to wake up at 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. to deliver newspapers, I continued this habit. In recent years, even with all of the latest technology, I still purchase transistor radios. My favorite modern model is the Sony ICF-S10MK2. The radio is literally indestructible. When I had the first one, I would sometimes drop it until the battery holder literally didn't fit, and even then the batteries have stayed obediently within their slots even without the outer encasing shell. One day the radio stopped playing, so I put it into the trash. When I went to put the garbage outdoors, I heard music coming from the trash can; it was the radio which had revived itself. It still plays today. Another radio of the same model stopped working last weekend, and then started again two days later. The mechanism which shows you which station you are tuned to broke on one of them and you can see something which looks like a red rubber band sticking out, but you can still tune it by guessing roughly where you are on the dial--the sound is just as clear as before. The worst problem I have had with a few of these is that the volume control can deteriorate to the point where you can't play it softly. Not a single one of these has permanently stopped functioning. Another valuable feature is that you can put horrible expired batteries into it, and it will still run until eventually it sounds choppy and you know it's time to replace them with less used batteries which I had discarded from some device like the cable TV remote which is much snootier and only runs well on new ones. Exactly how this particular transistor radio is able to be repeatedly reincarnated is a mystery, but I accept it rather than questioning the process. Both AM and FM stations usually come in clearly, although the radio antenna will tend to break off unexpectedly after a few months. Several times, one of these radios began to break apart into two pieces, but I just gently pushed them back together into place. I have a shelf where I keep all of these which I have bought through the years. I can often be found carrying one when I am jogging, walking, or otherwise traveling from one place to another. Perhaps other owners of this radio don't have the patience to realize its magical powers, so it has become more difficult to find in recent years and--with fewer vendors from which to purchase it--the price has increased from ten dollars around the turn of the century to roughly eighteen dollars today. If you like buying items from the world's best-known online store where they don't care about making a profit as long as their stock price is high (a.k.a. Amazon), it is available there. Luckily I still have one unopened in its original package from the "good old days" as a backup in case I get tired of reusing one of the old workhorses. In some ways, this radio is like the Model A Ford from the 1930s--it will keep running forever if you just keep it around and don't give up on it. Now I just have to wait a month for spring training to begin.
SEE YOU IN CUBA (November 24, 2015): In my previous reminiscence I mentioned visiting Iceland with my brother Dan in 2001, and how by the strangest coincidence of my absentmindedly bringing the wrong passport to the airport we fortunately ended up avoiding returning to the United States on September 11. When we were finally on a flight from Reykjavik to New York, the U.S. closed its airspace and we were forced to land with several other Icelandair flights full of passengers in Montreal. The immigration procedure is to go through United States customs while still in Canada, instead of after returning to the U.S. as is the case when visiting most other countries. In those days, as it was until very recently, it was illegal for most Americans to visit Cuba, so many would sneak in by first flying to a Canadian or a Mexican city and then taking a nonstop flight from there to Havana. The Cuban government knew that they shouldn't stamp U.S. passports because if an American were discovered to have visited Cuba then he or she was typically fined about ten thousand dollars with larger penalties for repeat violations. So Cuba would give U.S. visitors a driver's-license-sized piece of cardboard called a Cuban identity card which would be stamped when entering and leaving that country. This card was supposed to be discarded after departing from Cuba, but many Americans would end up keeping it in their wallets as a souvenir of their adventure. This often proved to be a very expensive souvenir indeed, because when they attempted to re-enter via Canada or Mexico they would sometimes end up getting searched in order to find the Cuban identity card as indisputable proof of an illegal visit. I believe that a U.S. government agency paid bonuses to customs inspectors who discovered such identity cards.
There were certain profiles of people who would be searched much more frequently than other passengers because it was considered more likely that they would have visited Cuba: two guys traveling together; anyone who wore straw hats and brightly colored shirts; anyone who attempted to board a U.S.-bound flight shortly after another flight had arrived from Havana; anyone who traveled at certain times of the year when it was popular to tour Cuba; and perhaps anyone who didn't look as though attending a Canadian hockey game was a likely reason for a visit. By coincidence, my brother and I fit all of the above criteria, so when we were in the airport in Montreal, Dan and I were pulled aside by two U.S. customs inspectors. Instead of asking me to open my luggage, then asked me to take out my wallet, which immediately alerted me to what was going on since I had read books about this topic. "We didn't go to Cuba in case that was what you were thinking about," I foolishly remarked. Naturally, this encouraged one fellow to literally take out each credit card, license, shopper's discount card, library card, and every single bill in my wallet--and then to repeat the process, just to be sure that he didn't miss the Cuban identity card. During this time, I kept making sarcastic remarks about how they should be searching for real criminals and what a beautiful place Cuba must be for them to be so diligent in picking through my wallet. Finally, they let us go without examining my brother's wallet or our luggage, so I figured that must be the end of it. Which it was, for awhile, until I went abroad a year later and was detained upon returning by customs inspectors for more than a half hour while being interrogated with personal questions about the "purpose of my visit" before being allowed to enter. I assumed that this was some odd new process implemented after 9/11 and that I was simply misfortunate in being randomly selected for the extra intense screening, but then it happened on each of the next few occasions when I returned to the United States--including once when I entered via automobile near Niagara Falls from a visit to friends in Ontario. Finally, when it happened one more time when flying back to the U.S. and the person questioning me seemed to be much more understanding than most of them had been, I asked him if there was a reason that I kept being stopped. "Yes. I can't give you details, but you have been on a certain list since September 2001 which requires us to detain you each time you re-enter the country. I apologize for any inconvenience this has caused you." "Can I get my name removed from this list?" I asked, finally realizing that it wasn't just a sequence of random searches. "Here is a form you can fill out and mail to Homeland Security. I can't guarantee what will happen." After returning home, I carefully completed the lengthy questionnaire and mailed it. Several months later, I received a letter from the Department of Homeland Security which informed me that they couldn't tell me whom they contacted or what they discovered, but my name was removed from the list. Since then, I haven't had any problems when coming back to the United States. A few morals of this story include the following: 1) it is sound advice not to talk back to officials who may have the power to exact unexpected revenge; 2) there is a way sometimes to resolve issues if you can calmly identify them; and 3) even if you're not paranoid it doesn't mean that you aren't being watched one way or another.
INVALID PASSPORT (November 11, 2015): Near the end of the summer in 2001, my brother Dan and I were set to fly from New York City to Iceland. Just as we were about to board the airplane, a burly fellow blocked me from entering. "Is everything okay?" I inquired, puzzled as to what could be causing a problem. "Yes, you don't have a valid passport," the official declared, "so we can't allow you to go to Iceland." "I am sure that it hasn't expired and there shouldn't be any other difficulties, so please tell me what is wrong." "Certainly. The photo looks nothing like you and the names don't match either." I looked at my passport and to my surprise I realized that I had grabbed it without checking it--and it was my wife's instead of my own. Chagrined, I explained that there wasn't nearly enough time to return home and back again in time for the flight. "In that case, you'll have to go tomorrow at the same time and return one day later, so you won't be coming back on September 11," the official declared in a tone which made it clear that arguing was pointless. What did it matter if we were returning on September 11, 2001 anyhow? Surely the following day wouldn't be much different. In those days before modern instant messaging, I found a special machine which accepted money for making long-distance telephone calls. I put in a ten-dollar bill--and nothing happened other than the machine happily swallowing it up without giving me any minutes to make my call. Fortunately, the person in charge of its maintenance was there by coincidence a few minutes later, found my bill stuck in the machine, and let me try again a second time which succeeded. Our good luck continued when the people with whom we were staying allowed us to adjust our scheduled visit forward by one day on both ends. As it turned out, it would have impossible to return to any airport in the United States on September 11, and our September 12 flight for the same reason ended up being postponed until the 13th--which was almost postponed yet again. I had to literally drag my brother out of a swimming pool in the Reykjavik suburbs in order to barely arrive in time to board the last van heading to Iceland's main airport that day, where several reporters were interviewing people about the tragic events of that week. On September 11 itself, Dan and I had a rare opportunity to attend special religious services that evening in honor of the victims of the terrorist attack; these were held simultaneously in every house of worship in Iceland. I vividly remember our lighting candles as others around us were also doing--most of whom had never visited the United States. In addition to my foolishness in bringing the wrong passport for the flight departing the U.S., there was an even thornier problem with immigration officials when we attempted to return to the United States which I will talk about in my next reminiscence.
LET IT SNOW, MOM (October 23, 2015): My Mom was raised in Rochester, New York, which BestPlaces.net describes as averaging 86 inches of snow each year. Some of the white stuff has already fallen there this autumn. According to my mother, the plows would routinely pile up this snow in whatever manner would interfere as little as possible with daily activity, and people would go about their usual business. When she was fifteen years old, my Mom moved to Baltimore and was excited about seeing her new high school--Forest Park--on the very next day. When she arrived at the school, however, the doors were locked and no one was there. Thoroughly baffled, my Mom concluded that she must have gotten the starting time wrong or perhaps there was a special Maryland holiday which didn't exist "up north." She returned home to tell her parents, and they were convinced that she was just afraid to go or was making up a tale. So my grandfather telephoned the school, and was puzzled when no one answered. Finally he contacted the mother of someone in my Mom's class who stated matter-of-factly, "Didn't you see the snow outside this morning? There must be four or five inches of it already and it's still coming down." "Sure, I saw it when I woke up," my grandfather responded. What does that have to do with the school being closed?" The person on the other end gasped briefly, paused for several seconds, and finally continued: "Maybe it's different where you come from, hon, but a couple of inches is enough to close everything down around here, not just the schools. I'll bet your street hasn't been plowed yet, and before you go shopping you might want to call ahead so you won't be disappointed. Talk with you soon." After my grandfather hung up the phone, all three of them laughed uproariously. Imagine closing school because of snow! What a truly crazy city they had moved to. Then they laughed some more. My Mom passed away last month and on the day of her funeral the schools in Baltimore City and Baltimore County closed two hours early because of excessive heat. My Mom would have loved to tell about that also. I don't usually include links in my reminiscences, but you can click on my Mom's obituary here from the Baltimore Sunpapers which was brilliantly written by their senior writer Fred Rasmussen.
LIVE ON BROADWAY (September 25, 2015): When I was at college, I improved my grades by getting to know the smartest students in each of the classes. One fellow was especially knowledgeable about mathematics, so we ended up working together on numerous school projects. He had grown up in a relatively insular neighborhood in Baltimore where it was considered unusual to go "all the way downtown" to buy clothing or to attend a play or concert. I decided to surprise him by inviting him to visit New York City which he knew only from television and movies. I intentionally selected non-touristy activities so he could see what the city was really like. I wasn't nearly as familiar with New York in those days as I am now, but I knew enough to take him to see part of Brooklyn, and especially to go to restaurants with cuisines which he hadn't tried before including one upscale place which had just been opened by the People's Republic of China. He had never been to a Broadway show, so I got tickets near the front center for a Saturday matinee performance of the musical "Nine." I was familiar with the show's dialogue, so I was surprised to discover that many of the actors and actresses decided to have fun that afternoon and improvised many new lines. They ended up trying to outdo each other with how outrageously they could invent creative dialogue. At one point, the female lead addressed me directly to ask, "Who are you, and where are you from?" Completely startled, I responded, and the back-and-forth patter continued for a few minutes before she resumed with the actual show. My friend barely blinked an eye, telling me afterward that he thought it was a typical part of a Broadway performance to have a dialogue with someone on stage. He ended up enjoying the trip immensely, although I noticed that he didn't return for several more years so perhaps he was more overwhelmed by our experience than I had realized at the time.
KADDISH FOR A DEAD DOG (August 4, 2015): Since it is the middle of the summer, perhaps a relevant reminiscence would be recalling my worst summer camp experiences. I went to a huge variety of these kinds of places, starting at a local religious camp when I was not yet in kindergarten, and ending with what turned out to be my favorite place called the Walden School--which I enjoyed so much that I return each year as I did during the past week. Now, back to the horrors of pre-Walden camps. Camp counselors are usually adept in getting along with all kinds of people and are mostly great with kids, but a few of them take this kind of job to be in charge of whomever they can boss around. I remember one camp where two counselors disagreed vehemently about which one had the more athletic kids in his bunk. Unable to decide conclusively merely by bragging, they decided to settle the issue by putting us through a series of grueling drills. Such activities included racing uncleaned rowboats without oars but with plenty of rotted leaves and bird droppings (I'm not bad at paddling, I found out), carrying a load of bulky, sharp rocks across a huge sunny field riddled with yellowjackets (like bees, but they tend to sting much more frequently), seeing how fast we could run through a busy parking lot with our shoes untied and quite a bit of traffic passing through, and--best of all--challenging us to sneak the farthest into the girls' section before getting caught. Our consolation prize at the end of that day was receiving an orange dreamsicle at the end for being on the winning side; oddly enough, this image remains sharp in my mind decades later. At one allegedly religious camp, we watched a decidedly secular close-up video of someone dissecting a live frog; this permanently steered me away from a medical career. On a similar theme, we encountered the skeleton of a dead dog on the same hike where we ran out of water in our canteens. This time, our counselor actually came through by begging a local store for a bag of ice which he didn't have money to pay for; we quickly melted it and drank the whole thing out of a single large collective plastic bag shared by the dozen of us. On the positive side, the more creative counselors tended to be less sadistic and we had a chance to make all kinds of cool stuff to bring home. Ah, the good old days.
LAST JEW IN ROTTERDAM (June 29, 2015): When I began high school, there was an assembly which we were compelled to attend which featured a married couple from Holland who had barely escaped being deported to the concentration camps by the Nazis. They were rescued by Americans, and performed a catchy original tune about American jeeps saving their lives. Afterward, I went to talk with them, and found out that they had the same last name as a pair of lively twin boys who were in my class and who were their kids. The parents found out that I was a competent pianist, and I discovered that they had started their own church about one mile from the house where I was living with my parents. They wanted someone to play piano for their Sunday morning services, so we quickly reached an agreement and I began the following week. It was a lot of fun, since the pastor had a terrific sense of humor. On one song, he would play guitar while I was performing on piano, and then we would quickly switch instruments for the second verse and back again for the third verse as if nothing unusual had happened. After services, there would often be a special collection of Dutch food with which I wasn't familiar at first but soon came to enjoy more than most American cuisine. At lunch, I met some unique people in the congregation who came from all over the world. After lunch we would sometimes go back to their main house adjacent to the church and perform music together for a few hours. As with everything in life, I thought this might continue forever, but sadly at one of these performances the church committee took a vote and decided 13-12 that they wanted a different pastor. Forced out of the church which they had started three decades earlier, their lives changed dramatically and I never saw them again--except of course in Facebook photos where the past goes on forever. Even more sadly, one of their twin boys in my high school class died of cancer a few years ago. I sometimes get together with the other twin brother and his older sister who love to relive the good old days. Even though the last church performance was 36 years ago, I can still vividly remember the details of the building and the faces and the mood, and even the taste of the homemade Dutch lunches.
GHANAIANS ON TOKYO SKYSCRAPERS (May 26, 2015): In October and November 1987, I spent some time in Tokyo and had an opportunity to experience their unusually extended period of prosperity shortly before it ended. Not wanting to pay too much for a place to stay, I was lucky to find an affordable inn called "Ijinkan" which in Japanese means foreign-people's house. Of all the people staying at the inn, really a small private house, I was the only one who wasn't working and who was visiting for a relatively short time. It is almost always much more interesting to be with people who are required to learn about the local culture because they have become part of it through their employment. At Ijinkan, which was centrally located although a somewhat longer than average walk to public trains and the "chikatetsu" (the Tokyo subway), there were six people from Ghana. The Japanese trust the Ghanaians to do skyscraper construction, so all of the people there routinely worked on the outsides of buildings many stories high. They taught me how to eat fufu, beginning with a potato or tuber which would be mashed in the center of a huge tray, encircled by several bowls. Each of these was filled with a different "sauce" such as vegetables, fish, legumes, and other choices, often accompanied by a kind of spicy liquid. We would eat communally, all sharing the same central tray, by grabbing a piece of the fufu and dipping it into one of the surrounding bowls. I learned how to prepare a few of the sauces and experimented with my own variations which they would laugh about whenever I got too creative. Fortunately, besides their native language of Hausa, they spoke fluent English with a lilting accent. They never got tired of asking me about life in America and dreamed about visiting there, especially New York City. I got along best with a fellow named Kwality. We would explore many of the neighborhoods of Tokyo together. With my bright red hair and beard and elevated height compared to most Japanese people, and his even taller and coal-colored features, lots of people stared at us. Sometimes older folks would walk up to us and touch us to be certain that we were real.
VOTE TUCKY HELLER (April 14, 2015): My personal participation in the U.S. political process dates back to 1976. In that year, Jimmy Carter's brother Chip addressed our completely filled high school auditorium, explaining how the U.S. would be a better place if his brother were elected. I was rather unimpressed by his rambling and overly patriotic speech which left lots of issues unaddressed, but unfortunately there was no forum for asking questions. Later the same year, I became involved in helping the campaign manager for a local candidate named Tucky Heller. The campaign manager and I knew each other well because he was a teacher at the high school which I attended. In the contest, there were nine people competing to fill three open seats. My first job in the campaign was to go around the county putting bright blue signs on lawns, which involved stapling the signs to posts and pounding the posts into the dirt. I was chosen mainly because I was the youngest and among the strongest volunteers in the campaign--and perhaps more importantly because I was eager and unlikely to complain about the hot and humid working conditions with almost no breaks. By the end of one full day of doing this, I was completely exhausted from the physical effort. My favorite part of the contest was when I was recruited to hand out literature to all voters on election day at the school across the street from my house endorsing Heller's candidacy. This was a lot of fun, especially since many friends and neighbors recognized me when they were heading into the school to vote so I had a chance to chat with lots of people. By law, I had to remain a certain distance away from the school's entrance at all times, and was occasionally asked to move several feet back by one of several supporters of Heller's opponents. The next day, I was delighted to discover that Tucky Heller wound up in first place among everyone who had voted at that school. Unfortunately, she didn't fare as well in the rest of the county and ended in fifth place overall. Since only the top three finishers were the victors, she missed out. I guess there weren't enough volunteers in the campaign to put up signs and to assist at all of the many other schools. I have never again become as actively involved in politics as I had been at the age of sixteen.
I AM THE EGG MAN (March 22, 2015): When I was a kid in Baltimore during the 1960s, we had all kinds of food delivered to us by people who specialized in particular items. My Dad used to go to work very early with the carpool, so usually it was my Mom who answered the door when they rang. The egg man always tried to get my mother to buy brown eggs or something unusual, but she would rarely vary from her favorite one dozen large. The same was true with the milkman; I used to peek at wonderful-looking ice cream and other goodies, but My mom usually bought exactly one gallon of whole milk and nothing else. The fellow who brought kosher meat had the greatest variety, and it took my Mom the longest time to decide. Often she and my Dad would get into arguments later about what they should have gotten instead, or why the lamb chops had become so expensive, or whether the supplier had changed for the chicken. Less frequently, a fellow would walk around with a cart selling fresh fruits and vegetables; with his darker skin and unusual accent, it was almost as though he had arrived from a different world. There was another fellow--none of these were women--who would bring all kinds of household goods like brooms, washcloths, and sponges; I would usually already have left for school by the time he arrived, so I mostly heard about him second hand. I took all of this for granted, until quickly all of them somehow disappeared within a year or two. Along with our neighbors, we ended up getting almost all of these from a supermarket located about 1-1/2 miles away. I was puzzled why the world had changed and what had happened to all the people whom we used to see every week for many years, telling variations of the same jokes which I got to know by heart and swapping stories about our families. Many years later, When I was on the back streets of Istanbul, I saw a fellow strutting slowly down the street holding a cart laden with fruits and vegetables, singing an unfamiliar tune. One woman opened her fourth-story window: the man stopped and she rapidly lowered a bucket on a rope with a stack of money. The vendor took the cash, put bunches of bright-colored goodies in the basket, and then the woman carefully raised the bucket using the rope back up to her window. With the transaction complete, the man leisurely continued his stroll while resuming his strange song. In my mind I was eight years old again, watching and listening to the egg man hawking his brown and blue delicacies.
ISTANBUL CHISELER (February 24, 2015): In the spring of 2002 I visited Istanbul for 1-1/2 weeks. It's a fascinating city which everyone should see at least once. Turkey had gone through a financial crisis in 2001, so its currency had plummeted to more than one million to the U.S. dollar. The fluctuations remained dramatic and gyrated wildly in real time, so it made it challenging to exchange money. One day, instead of going to the local bank where they seemed to take about a half hour and required all kinds of paperwork, I found a branch located a few blocks away in Sultanahmet where they were much more organized, where no paperwork was required other than briefly flashing a passport, and where the rates were more favorable--at least officially. I noticed that of all the money changers, one woman was incredibly efficient and there was a huge line waiting for her which moved many times faster than all of the other lines. Intrigued, I stood in that line and observed what was happening ahead of me. Because the exchange rate of the Turkish lira was changing so rapidly, the business only posted a new rate after it had recently changed by roughly a half percent to one percent in either direction. Occasionally the rate would jump by two or three percent either way. Watching carefully, I noticed something which completely fascinated me. The woman would take the money from the American, British, German, Japanese, or other foreign tourist, and would quickly enter the current rate in her official computer database. She would then do some paperwork or otherwise bide her time for a few seconds until the rate changed, at which point she would immediately complete the transaction. If the rate moved in her favor, she used the original rate at the time the tourist deposited his or her money with her. If the rate moved against her, then she would enter the new rate on her computer. She'd point out to the customer that the rate had changed, and therefore the customer would have to accept the "new official rate." Since she didn't enter the new figures whenever the change was in her favor--which on average happened half the time--she pocketed the entire difference for herself. With about fifteen people ahead of me in line, I became an expert in her approach and computed how much money she was making from this clever form of arbitrage: at least fifty U.S. dollars per hour and closer to one hundred dollars during busy volatile periods, which was probably many times her official salary and likely put her total compensation on a par with the bank president. When I arrived to change several hundred dollars into Turkish lira, I put down my money. As she had done before, she waited for the next tick; when it moved against her by more than one percent, she pointed out the new rate. Having learned her tricks, I told her that since she had accepted my money at the rate posted at that time, she was legally bound to abide by it. As she hesitated, I pointed out what I had observed while waiting in line, and commented that her supervisor might be very interested in knowing more about her amazingly profitable method. She understood my implication and quickly gave me the original rate which saved me about five dollars. This wasn't my only experience that day with local workers enhancing their official salaries; one taxicab driver a few hours later tried to fool me into believing that I had given him hundred-thousand-lira notes instead of the actual million-lira bills which I had used to pay him. Fortunately, someone else had warned me about this scam in advance, so I had separated my money in a way where the sub-million denominations were in a separate, more easily accessible wallet which I hadn't used to pay him. The fellow was baffled when I showed him what I had done, and I even quizzed him to see if he knew the names of the people on these bills which I had taken time to memorize. In the end, he missed out on the moderately generous tip which I usually like to give when I'm traveling. I looked for some sort of policeman but of course none was to be found nearby. I'm just guessing, but the cab driver probably learned his scheming while plying his trade near the center of the tourist trade and couldn't resist continuing it since it yielded him almost twice as much money as a more honest approach. Possibly these two events happening nearly simultaneously was a mere coincidence, or perhaps an unexpected crisis encourages some to capitalize upon morally dubious opportunities which often arise during periods of confusion. As an interesting footnote, not long afterward when the U.S. dollar was fluctuating rapidly versus the euro--although not nearly as crazily as the Turkish lira had done--another woman tried almost the identical scam at a bank in Venice. She was stunned that I could figure out what she was doing since there were only two people ahead of me--just enough to observe her method and to recall what had happened in Istanbul. My father was with me at the time, and he was startled to see her give me several additional coins after I insisted upon it. My Dad asked me, "How did you figure out so fast that she tried to cheat you?" I told my Dad: "Two years ago I would have been easily fooled, but if you live long enough eventually you learn a few things. As Yogi Berra supposedly said, 'you can observe a lot just by watching.'"
TIMESHARING (February 8, 2015): When I was at the Johns Hopkins University in the late 1970s and early 1980s, there was a room where almost everyone went in order to share the same minicomputer (Maryland 110, for those who are familiar with the school). There were perhaps fifty to one hundred teachers and students throughout the campus simultaneously connected to a DEC-10 minicomputer; each person had the illusion that he or she was exclusively using the machine, whereas it was actually a timesharing method where each user would get perhaps one hundredth of a second of usage out of each second of real time. Such was the state of computers in those days, before each person had his own machine and more than a decade before the internet would become a dominating force of technology. The main problem for the administration was in allocating time on this computer; their approach was to allot each person exactly two hours per day. Once that quota was exceeded, you had to leave your seat and let the next person take over. It was absolute bedlam on Tuesday afternoons and evenings, because a popular introductory computer class inevitably had their homework assignments due on Wednesday mornings. In order to clear out the rush of students so I could do my own work, I assisted the beginners with their programming assignments--thus teaching me to quickly find bugs in computer programs which remains a useful skill even though I'm not very talented at designing such programs from scratch. By around 10 or 11 p.m., it was finally possible to get some real work done. If there was a lot of homework assigned to me on any particular day, which was (and still is) unfortunately rather common at this institution, I would be reluctant to leave at 2 a.m. when the guards would come in to force us to leave until 7 a.m. the following morning. Several of my fellow students and myself learned all kinds of tricks for stalling the guards into waiting longer before kicking us out, such as getting them interested in a video game or bribing them with their favorite food and drink. After several weeks, we knew exactly who could be persuaded with Tugboat Annie's french fries or by being invited to compete in one of the earliest person vs. person video combat games. I routinely carried around chocolates of one kind or another, a habit which I have continued until the present time. It's amazing to think about how different it is today where most students can't remember the internet not existing and there almost doesn't exist a computer which is shared by many simultaneously.
NEW YORK TIMES COMICS? (December 1, 2014): When I was a kid growing up in Baltimore, our family would frequently visit the Bronx where my father's father lived, in order to spend time with him. While we were driving along the New Jersey Turnpike, I naturally became curious about the city on the other side of the Hudson River. What was Manhattan really like, anyway? I didn't find out for many years, until one fine day in 1971 when my Mom decided to have all of us get on the subway at Pelham Parkway in the Bronx and take it to midtown. The ride itself was an unexpected delight of people of all kinds getting on and off. I wondered what would happen when all the seats were taken; I got my answer when people were forced to stand and to hold onto the railings. The ride seemed to last forever, until finally many people crowded out at the same stop. We took an entertaining tour of the NBC studios at Rockefeller Center, watching as the workers put together television programs. I wondered how they could coordinate everything so precisely to avoid any obvious breaks between each of the presentations. Back outside, the smell of roasting chestnuts encouraged me to get Dad to buy a bag of them for me, although they tasted very different from what I had expected: oddly nutty and chewy and not at all like peanuts. I was surprised how many people were walking around--where we lived in Baltimore it was common to drive even to travel one block. I remember looking up at the Empire State Building nearby, and then on one street gazing all the way downtown and noticing an even taller building which I didn't recognize. "That's the World Trade Center," my Dad said. "Is that the building which keeps getting taller each time we visit Grandpa?" I asked. "Yes, that's it. I think they're finally done constructing it." Finally, when it was time to return to the Bronx, my sister asked my Dad to buy the New York Times which was very thick, so it must have been a Sunday. After she looked through it, my sister started crying. "What's wrong?" my Mom asked her. "Someone stole the comics!" my sister wailed. My Mom complained to the newspaper vendor and discovered that the venerable Times, in spite of its heft, doesn't have any comic strips. To my amazement, the vendor gave her the comic section from another newspaper at no charge. Just about everything I thought I knew about New York City changed on that day.
INSPIRED BY RIVKIN (October 6, 2014): When I was at high school in Baltimore, I was fortunate to have some unusually talented and dedicated teachers. One of them, Robert Rivkin, received awards for leading classes in French and Latin. I hadn't elected either of these, but one day my friend Jay Martin who was in the advanced French class was reading a book with an unusual cover. "What is that, Jay?" I asked him. "Oh, that's a play by a fellow named Ionesco. Mr. Rivkin is going to take us on a field trip to see it on stage." "In English?" "No, in the original French. It will be performed in Washington, D.C." I was impressed that a teacher would be so dedicated to his students that he would notice that an unusual event was occurring about 1-1/2 hours away from our school, and would take the effort to prepare them for it and to arrange what must have been complicated logistics in organizing the trip. I didn't know French, but I looked up the author and discovered that he was part of a group of writers known collectively as the "Theater of the Absurd." I became so fascinated by this topic that I read a few dozen more and wrote my own play in this style for my senior project. When the same French class later studied the opera "Carmen," Mr. Rivkin sent one of his best students to our English class to teach it to us, so that we could have a combined field trip to attend a performance in downtown Philadelphia.
About forty of us took the two-hour bus ride--it was the first time most of us had traveled so far together. One usually shy student unexpectedly began telling a story, and then someone else embellished it, and pretty soon we invented some hilarious tales which I wish I had written down. I had attended opera performances in Baltimore, but something about being in an "exotic" place made it seem special, plus I was surrounded by people whom I had mostly known since I was seven years old. Afterward, we went together to a spacious Greek restaurant which featured a troupe of dancers performing on one side of the room. After I enjoyed moussaka and tzatziki for the first time, all of us got up one by one and joined the troupe, including Mr. Rivkin himself, trying our best to imitate the style of the professionals. Mr. Rivkin even initiated a few dances of his own--we found out later that he had lived in Greece as part of a bridge-playing European tour (yes, the card game). Some of the other customers thought we were part of the planned show and eagerly threw one-dollar bills at the feet of the most talented improvisational dancers in our class. 37 years later, Mr. Rivkin is still teaching languages, and I'll finally have the opportunity to watch him lead a Latin class next week. Perhaps we can go to an interesting Greek restaurant afterward.
BARROW LODGE PIANIST (September 19, 2014): I'm always fascinated when I meet people who have seen me before. Sometimes I'll run across someone who remembers me from a conference where I spoke a few years back, or from having been in one of my classes at school. We'll often share memories of teachers that we knew or what happened with unique folks from the "good old days". Recently, a potential subscriber contacted me because he had read one of my reminiscences from 2007 about Barrow Lodge, a summer camp I attended with my parents and my younger sister (and my younger brother too, although he was inside my mother's clearly pregnant belly at the time) a few weeks before starting first grade. This fellow, somewhat older than myself, claimed that he had gone to Barrow Lodge the same year and remembered seeing me there along with my younger sister. This seemed rather far-fetched, so I asked him what he recalled about me. "Each morning, you'd be sitting by the piano before breakfast, playing a song from a Broadway musical, and your sister would be right next to you singing along." This comment completely stunned me, because I was certain that no one but my parents would have remembered such precise details from way back in 1966--and perhaps even my parents have forgotten them. When I arrived at Barrow Lodge, I immediately explored the entire grounds as kids love to do. I was so excited to see a piano, tuned reasonably well, that I would rush to get there each morning before anyone else could beat me to it. When I was a kid, my favorite piano sheet music at home included the songs from "My Fair Lady" and "South Pacific"; at the age of six I felt most competent performing those tunes from memory in front of strangers. My sister, at that time only 3-1/2 years old, didn't want to be left out. She learned some of the easier words and music from the same songs, sat next to me on the piano bench, and eagerly joined in as much as possible. This fellow claims to have some old photographs of Barrow Lodge, so it would be a thrill to see what the place used to look like either with or without me in the images. Meanwhile, if you remember me from way back when, or even from a few years ago, please send me an email and let me know about it.
COOL DAD (August 12, 2014): Usually we think of the younger generation as being more "hip" and "with it", but there can be exceptions. In 1970, my Dad surprised me by purchasing a book entitled New York Times Great Songs of the Sixties. I scanned excitedly through the tunes and recognized many of them, but one by the Beatles was unfamiliar. Being pretty good at sight-reading, I began tentatively singing "Hey Jude". My Dad stared at me and blurted, "You really don't know it? Let me sing it for you," and proceeded to give a rousing rendition right there in the car. I wasn't accustomed to my father being such an energetic performer, and I was embarrassed not to know it. Over the next year, I ended up hearing "Hey Jude" on the radio dozens of times, and I quickly learned to play it by heart on the piano. My Dad is still ahead of me when it comes to pop culture; earlier today he decided that he wanted to be able to make a telephone call from his iPad instead of having to walk over to his land line, so he found an appropriate "app", downloaded it, and called me. I've done some interesting things in my lifetime including feeding emus in Australia and watching a centuries-old corn worship ceremony in an Ecuadorian village, and I even remember seeing one of the original Apple computers in the 1970s, but I have yet to download an "app". One of these days, perhaps. Someone once told me that Betamax had been made obsolete by VHS, which puzzled me since I hadn't personally used either one, and now both of these have long since gone into oblivion. My ignorance of television shows is even more glaring, but on the other hand I can describe in excruciating detail most of the episodes of "Columbo" and "Northern Exposure". Most things in life either interest me intensely or else not at all.
WELCOME TO TOKYO (July 9, 2014): In October-November 1987, I was fortunate to be able to visit Tokyo during the final years of Japan's stock-market and real-estate bubble. On my first day, I was confused by jet lag and naturally puzzled by being in a completely different part of the world for the first time. Fortunately, a fellow who was able to speak English offered to help me. After assisting me in locating the traditional Japanese inn which I had booked in advance by old-fashioned snail mail, and arranging everything with the owner, he took me to what he assumed would be my favorite part of the city--which was Hiroo, a sort of "little America" something like the Chinatowns you find in many parts of the world. When we emerged in this particular Tokyo district, I laughed aloud at all the English-language signs and recognized many of the eating establishments as being well-known U.S. chain restaurants. My new friend asked me what I was laughing at; I tried to explain the incongruity of seeing a copy of an American neighborhood which was superficially accurate, but obviously foreign in so many ways which were difficult to quickly enumerate. I apologized for not being able to properly explain why I was repeatedly giggling. This helpful fellow accompanied me to one upscale restaurant, where in spite of the English-language menu and a clearly conscious attempt to copy the atmosphere of a similarly named place in the United States, there were numerous signs of local culture. The employees still said "Irasshaimase (welcome)" as each person entered; the wait staff would bow before greeting any customer personally; and the dishes included distinctly non-American features such as small sour plums next to each bowl of rice and chopsticks instead of American utensils. One American custom persisted in this particular place, which was a maddeningly slow level of service. My friend ended up arguing with the manager about this problem and we were asked to leave; before I could protest or do anything, he paid for both of us with no tip (another non-American touch) and suggested that we go somewhere else. I had read in a book about Japan that crossing your chopsticks before you depart any building signals that you're displeased, so before we left the restaurant, I took the pair of chopsticks at the top of my rice bowl and put them in the shape of the letter X. My friend laughed hilariously at what I had done; when I asked him to explain what was so humorous, he had the same difficulty I had experienced an hour earlier in explaining the cultural incongruities. We ended up leaving little America and taking the subway to a totally unpretentious and delicious Cambodian-style restaurant in a more traditional part of the city; afterward, my friend ended up walking me all the way back to my inn to make sure I didn't get lost in the dark amidst the confusing Tokyo street signs. In spite of my ignorance, I spent a fascinating two weeks and hope to return one day.
WHO'S AFRAID OF A REAL LIVE WOLF? (June 6, 2014): In 2006 my wife and I had the privilege of visiting a small town named Hope, Alaska, which was one of the original gold-rush towns in that state at the end of the 1800s. We were there for a few days in the middle of September, which is not a popular time for tourists and featured beautiful autumn colors--almost all yellows, without the reds and oranges that I'm used to seeing on the East Coast. The main exception was the bright red fireweed which seemed to grow wild everywhere. There were several signs on front lawns because of the upcoming election, some of which promoted a candidate for governor I never heard of named Sarah Palin. We went inside a tiny restaurant; after we sat down, all of the people at the other tables grabbed their chairs and placed them around our table, figuring that we must be much more interesting than whatever they had previously been chatting about. We were soon barraged by friendly questions. "Where are you from?" they inquired. "We live in a small town in New Jersey with a population of about 40 thousand people." One woman laughed and said, "A small town around here is Sunrise where we moved a few years ago. Because there are five of us, the population increased by one third." One fellow started a business showing summer tourists how to pan for gold. I decided to walk around by myself early the next morning in the oldest part of town; when I looked back I thought I saw a wolf following me. I figured that wasn't possible, so I kept walking, and the wolf continued to track me. He didn't get any closer than about 25 feet, but he didn't get farther away either. I turned several corners and kept changing my route, figuring that he'd give up sooner or later, but he stayed the same distance behind me for about ten minutes. I finally walked past where I saw one older man relaxing outside on his porch and told him, "You won't believe this, but the wolf behind me has been keeping pace with me everywhere I go." He chuckled loudly and told me, "That old wolf has been following quite a few tourists around here for eight or nine years. He's completely harmless, but one time a grizzly bear came into town and he scared it away, so we make sure he has plenty to eat. Don't worry; after another fifteen minutes he'll give up." That's exactly what happened, almost to the minute; he turned away indifferently and trotted down the street to an unknown destination. The wolf had served as my personal escort in that quirky town. At the post office, the woman in charge chatted with each person who came in, asking surprisingly personal questions about their families, friends, and upcoming plans; there was also a bulletin board posted with a variety of handwritten notes addressed to other residents who would pick them up as part of their daily routine. Although the town had a strong internet connection and the usual modern amenities, the attitude and habits of the people in Hope perhaps hadn't changed very much since 1899.
HUMPHREY BEATS NIXON (May 20, 2014): One of my earliest memories related to politics was the Presidential election of 1968. As the date approached for the November event, there was a lively discussion at school about who would win. Some of my third-grade friends and I decided to do an internal poll to see what most students thought about Humphrey vs. Nixon. There were about thirty people about my age who favored Hubert Humphrey, the Democrat. Only one blue-blooded fellow whose name ended in III, who could trace his family back to the Mayflower or some such ship, and who lived in one of the 19th-century mansions in the historic district on the other side of the main road openly wanted the Republicans to prevail. To me, it seemed like a lopsided contest. After all, wasn't my elementary school representative of the nation as a whole? Obviously it wasn't, since Nixon was declared the winner in a relatively close contest. At first, I was baffled--could there really be millions of people like our upper-crust schoolmate? Was it possible that some students lied about their choices? Several years later, I read an article which analyzed the same election. A number of university professors were asked about their preferences and most responded that they preferred Humphrey. However, a follow-up interview and some kind of analysis using eye measurements showed that many professors weren't telling the truth--they actually preferred Nixon, but didn't want to admit it openly for fear of being labeled too conservative by their colleagues or for unknown other reasons.
JACK RODNEY (April 30, 2014): In January 1992, I met Jack Rodney for the very first time in his adopted city of Seattle. In those days, he and his wife Robin were living in a modest house in a marginal neighborhood since that was all they could afford. My wife and I noticed that one side of the house next to the bathroom had undergone some recent construction efforts. I asked Jack about it, and he told us that while he was taking a shower one morning the bathroom wall on that side of the house collapsed--leaving him naked where the whole neighborhood could see him. Like all of Jack's tales which I would hear over the decades, they were a combination of reality and just enough exaggeration that the line remained blurred between truth and fiction. During our one-week visit, Jack took us on an extensive walking tour of the city from his point of view, being sure to inject political commentary, aesthetic criticism, and comparisons to his travels to other parts of the United States as we strolled through his favorite neighborhoods. Jack published several books about his personal experiences, created videos, composed songs, drew posters, and otherwise utilized his talents in numerous ways. Some of my favorite conversations in recent years happened when Jack was riding his bicycle to get into better shape; he called me from his cell phone to chat for as much as an hour at a time to encourage him to keep going while we were talking. He loved to comment on the people he met along the way, to describe the views in the distance, and to discuss the creative projects next on his agenda. Jack especially loved riding or walking along the waterfront anywhere in the world; during his annual treks to New York City and New Jersey, I would seek out those places which I thought he would most enjoy exploring with me. After several years battling cancer, Jack passed away less than a month ago. I'm going to miss those cheerful and colorful telephone calls with Jack telling me about all the amazing events he was witnessing during his bicycle journeys.
PINCH HITTING FOR MOSES (April 3, 2014): I know a couple who are very devout believers in their faith. Since we are old friends, we like to attend any religious events where they are active participants. Several years ago we participated in a special occasion in New York City where the wife was singing along with a large choir as an important feature of the service. We made sure to arrive early, so she could see us clearly in the pews near the front. Most of the congregation were dressed conservatively and behaved more decorously than most audiences do at a symphony hall performance. At one point during the ceremony, I decided to look around at the lavish sculptures, carvings, and stained-glass windows which must have cost millions of dollars. My eyes at first passed quickly over a particular statue, which was a part of a historical tableau illustrating the Noah story in the book of Genesis. When I gazed at it more intently, I realized that what was probably intended to appear like an ancient cave dweller carrying a club for hunting animals looked amazingly like a baseball player at bat in the major leagues, complete with a hat which was similar to a baseball cap and a perfect Derek Jeter stance at the "plate". As the choir transitioned to a quiet passage, I had to strain to stop from laughing under my breath, which drew the attention of a close friend of mine seated on my right whom I have known for decades. He whispered to me, "Is something funny?" I pointed to the statue and asked him, "What does that look like to you?" At first he saw the caveman, and then finally he realized what I was talking about and started giggling. The husband of the singer who was directly in front of me, and the most avid baseball fan of all of us who hates to miss a single inning of any Yankees' game, became distracted by our antics. His normally dour personality manifested itself as he turned directly around and openly scolded me for disrupting the service. I couldn't resist quietly telling him, "Look over there at the sculpture in the farthest left corner." He scanned the tableau, puzzled as to why we were so excited by it. I paused and then stated calmly, "This guy pinch hit for Moses in the bottom of the eighth." After a few seconds, he broke out in loud hysterical laughter for perhaps the only time in his existence, immediately drawing a sharp disapproving frown from his wife on stage who was concentrating on delivering her alto passage. She must have thought that the three of us were total idiots, which no doubt was exactly what we were at that moment.
ST. LOUIS BLUES (February 18, 2014): Until I was about fifteen years old, I used to get sick surprisingly often. I would get each disease just before there was a vaccine for it: rubella, the mumps, chicken pox, and just about everything else. In 1970, I broke my arm on my birthday chasing after a Wiffle ball and getting my leg stuck in a wooden fence. When the doctor took off the cast after seven weeks, he told me I had to wear another cast for five more weeks. After my arm finally healed, I was able to go on a family vacation from Baltimore to St. Louis. We flew on Allegheny Airlines, probably because it was cheap; the plane stopped in Cleveland and Indianapolis and Chicago along the way, and I threw up when we finally arrived in St. Louis. I quickly recovered from the nausea, but the very next day I developed a severe flu and could barely walk. Fortunately, my uncle whom I was visiting had a fascinating chess book written by some American guy I never heard of named Bobby Fischer. I also learned how to use a Japanese abacus and became surprisingly adept with it. I finally recovered the day we were set to fly back home--fortunately, my Dad decided to switch us to a nonstop flight on TWA which in those days had by far the best service of all the airlines. I still remember the excellent meal we were served; perhaps I was grateful for the first food I could really appreciate since the flu kept me from tasting anything for a week. All I saw of St. Louis was whatever was visible through the car window to and from the airport, which I barely remember, and I haven't returned since. A year later I learned a song on the piano called the St. Louis Blues.
MORE LOESSER (January 12, 2014): When I was in my senior year of high school, we had open auditions for a performance of "Guys and Dolls"--one of the greatest American musicals ever written. I was selected as the piano player, which gave me the opportunity to learn some incredibly creative music and to appreciate the challenges of performing with an orchestra, and which no doubt inspired my own composing. Staying after school three or four days per week to rehearse was loads of fun; we would take breaks for dinner at local inexpensive restaurants where all of us in the cast and crew had an opportunity to really find out the good and not-so-good points about each other. I didn't realize until decades later how much I was influenced by the friendships I made there and the lessons of life I learned. We started with nothing, and by the time we were ready to perform our first show we had created as a team a tightly-knit, top-notch accomplishment. I still keep in touch with many of the people, including the musical director who tolerated our impatience and inexperience and taught us how to achieve excellence and to do better than we ever thought we could. Thank you, John McLaughlin! I was fortunate to have dinner with him a couple of months ago. At a recent high-school reunion, a few of us from the show started singing some of the tunes together from memory, and arranged to do a public performance. I often joke to friends that I ended up becoming Sky Masterson, since investing is obviously a lot like gambling and I married a woman in the ministry. Several years ago I had an opportunity to hear a recording of the songs from the musical, performed by composer Frank Loesser, in the original form in which they had existed about a year before "Guys and Dolls" was completed. It was fascinating to realize how he later modified them in order to ingeniously fit the show's mood and pacing. Recently I have been writing more music than I have done for many years, so perhaps I'll finally create my own musical.
PRICE'S DAIRY (December 13, 2013): I had a childhood friend named Brett Boal who had a lot in common with me--we both enjoyed learning and writing music, we hung out with the same crowd at school, we loved hiking in the woods, and we wanted to eat ice cream as often as we could. We disagreed about our favorite flavor: he wanted butter pecan, whereas I had a strong preference for coffee. Since my parents didn't allow me to drink coffee even though they made it frequently, it was a sort of forbidden pleasure, so I made sure to have as much coffee ice cream, coffee-flavored candies, and anything with the name mocha. Our favorite place for ice cream was called Price's Dairy on Liberty Road in Baltimore, where we always encountered several of our classmates around 11 a.m. on a Sunday morning. Especially if it was a humid summer day, as it often is in Baltimore, Price's had some of the most reliable air conditioning in town back in the 1960s, so it was a very popular choice. Sometimes we would have to wait fifteen or twenty minutes to get a table, but we didn't mind leaning against the wall, making faces at our classmates, inventing ridiculous comments to distract the people working in the restaurant, and otherwise bothering as many people as possible. Besides ice cream, they also had milkshakes, and "Cohen's Coddies" which I talked about in a previous reminiscence--little codfish cakes on saltines with mustard. Brett's favorite activity was telling everyone else what incredibly amazing things he had done during the past week, both real and imagined. For example, he played cornerback on several pickup football teams, and one of his favorite accomplishments to brag about was not allowing any wide receivers to catch a pass during the past week as long as he was covering them. As boys of seven, eight, or nine years old, most of our conversations were "debates" about whether it would be better to be run over by a dozen 18-wheelers or to be bit by ten thousand fire ants. It was only much later that I learned that, oddly, the girls in our class didn't discuss these important matters--we were still too young back then to think about girls being anything other than a nuisance. When you're a kid, you believe that anything wonderful must last forever, so it was a rude shock when Price's Dairy closed and was soon replaced by a McDonald's. Apparently the owners were getting older and were offered a price (pun not necessarily intended) they couldn't refuse, so they sold out. Since then, I haven't found another ice cream cafe that has generated so many fond memories, although one little cafe in Manhattan comes close.
PAHL'S FARM (October 15, 2013): When I was a kid, I grew up in the city, and at the age of 7-1/2 we moved to the suburbs. There was still a single farm in our neighborhood which survived in its original state, called Pahl's Farm, located across the street from the junior high school. When I was a kid, it took me about ten minutes to walk to the farm's main stand where they had a small parking lot and many of my friends and neighbors would congregate to share the latest gossip. Two or three times each week, I would go there--at first with my parents, and later sometimes on my own, usually returning with fresh eggs and whatever fruits and vegetables had recently been picked. Unlike the supermarket, I learned to appreciate the fact that certain choices would only be available for a few weeks of the year. If I missed them, I'd have to wait for next year--a lesson which I later learned to apply to the financial markets in waiting patiently for the best opportunities and seizing them because they might not come along again for many more months. The family who ran the farm were brilliant businesspeople; when housing prices began to surge and the land was worth much more as part of a future suburban development than as a farm, they began to sell off some of it and established their own business as consultants to other farmers--explaining to them how they could maximize their gains when dealing with builders interested in buying their properties. They also learned to maximize the use of farmers' markets to cut out the middleman, and became proficient in internet marketing to maximize their promotional efforts. When the housing bubble reached full flower in 2005, Pahl's Farm sold off a huge cornfield and some of their other prime farmland because they received such absurd prices for doing so. They kept a tiny area including some greenhouses so they could continue to operate as a farm, as amazingly they have continued to do until the present. Throughout the decades, I'll bet that their profit margins have consistently been higher than the other developers in the same neighborhood, because they acted when it was most prudent to do so rather than when it was most expedient.
HORSING AROUND (September 16, 2013): In October 1971, my parents decided to take our family to spend the entire day visiting several thoroughbred horse farms north of Baltimore. I had never been to a horse farm before, so I had no idea what to expect. Of course, many places which raise thoroughbreds are not open to the public, so in those pre-internet days my parents had to make several telephone calls and to send away for brochures to arrive in the mail. My sister loved horses, so she hoped there would be pony rides for kids or demonstrations of horses performing on the steeplechase. However, the tours were designed primarily as a sort of sales pitch for the owners to sell some of their horses or to find investors to bankroll additional purchases, but my parents didn't realize this in advance. I remember one place talking about owning "part of a horse", and my Mom kept teasing my Dad about which part that would be. Both of them quickly discovered that they didn't have the kind of money which was appropriate for this kind of speculation. My brother, several years younger than me and thoroughly bored by the proceedings, explored the messiest and oddest smelling parts of the stables in an ongoing quest to become as muddy as possible without causing my parents to become absolutely angry. My sister was repeatedly disappointed that no one offered to take her for a gallop or even to have a chance to groom the horses. In the afternoon, my attention was riveted by the final World Series game between the hometown Orioles and the Pittsburgh Pirates. I had brought my favorite transistor radio with me so that I could listen to game seven, which became increasingly disappointing as it became clear that the Pirates would prevail. By the time the sun was setting and it was no longer practical to visit several remaining places on our list, each of us had all decided for completely different reasons that there while there were many activities we enjoyed in our lives, visiting horse farms wasn't one of them.
MORNING EDITION (August 18, 2013): When I was 24 years old, a neighbor told me about a new restaurant which had opened in the Butchers' Hill section of Baltimore. It was just two blocks' walk from one of my favorite parks in the city, Patterson Park, which contained a pagoda built at Baltimore's highest elevation in 1891 and was designed by a local architect named Charles Latrobe. My girlfriend and I decided to go there one morning before work--the restaurant was called the "Morning Edition" and had quirky menu items including the "Morning Sun" (also the name of Baltimore's daily newspaper), the "Winnie", and some creatively personalized staples including oatmeal, omelettes, and pancakes. The prices were about the same as it would have cost us to make them at home--in other words, ridiculously cheap. Along one exposed brick wall was mounted the entire inside of a grand piano. It was incredibly state-of-the-art in the early 1980s, and just as charmingly retro in the current century. Through early 1985, my girlfriend and I continued to patronize the place several times per month, and often we were the only people eating there. Finally, I decided to let my landlord in on the secret. This may not sound like a big deal, but he was the restaurant critic for the Morning Sun. When he wrote about the place a few weeks later, it suddenly became the latest hot spot. During the next several months, the prices approximately doubled, although they were still reasonable. I wondered whether I had done the right thing, but I also wanted the place to succeed. In recent years, I have frequented an excellent bed and breakfast place called "Blue Door on Baltimore" which is within walking distance of the Morning Edition, so I was able to continue eating at this restaurant from time to time whenever I was in town to visit my parents and friends. Last month, the owners decided that three decades was sufficient and they served their final meals. Unfortunately, I wasn't around when they made a last-minute announcement about their closing, so I didn't have a chance to say goodbye. I would have especially wanted to say a few words to a certain long-time waiter who loved to tell stories about the "good old days" and who was always incredibly entertaining. Now the Morning Edition belongs to the ages along with other Baltimore favorites including Pappy's and Gampy's.
LAST-MINUTE GAMELAN (July 4, 2013): Shortly after graduating from college, I was visiting a high school friend in Chicago. We were walking around the campus of the University of Chicago and heard some unusual music coming from one of buildings. We walked inside and quickly located the source of these sounds, which seemed from a distance to be a combination of xylophones and metallic bells. In a large room, there were numerous odd-looking instruments being played by a total of about fifteen people. The two of us just stood and watched for several minutes until they stopped and began discussing how they could perform the previous section with a different emphasis. The musicians noticed us standing there, so I inquired, "Have you invented a new kind of music?" The leader of the group responded, "We have rebuilt a few of these instruments, but their designs go back centuries; most of them were brought over here from Indonesia. We're a gamelan orchestra and we're rehearsing for a concert next weekend. A few of our members couldn't attend, so if you can read music maybe you'd like to play the panyacah at the end of the second row." The instrument was a keyboard which fortunately didn't have too many different keys, so I decided to give it a try. The most challenging aspect of performing, besides being in synchronization with the other musicians, was a key difference in philosophy. When you're accustomed to playing an instrument like the piano, with which I had many years of practice, you're always looking forward to the next set of notes. With a gamelan, once you hit an instrument with a mallet, you have to dampen it at the same instant that you're striking the next note. Thus, you have to keep psychologically looking backward to the previous intonation in addition to planning ahead to the future ones. This was almost impossible to accomplish at first, but after about an hour or so I began to get the hang of it. The director invited me to return for the performance itself, but unfortunately I had a return flight home a few days before the scheduled concert. Since then, I have been fortunate to attend a few live recitals of this unusual orchestral style of music, but I haven't had the opportunity to participate in it. If you watch accomplished gamelan performers live or on YouTube, you will see that they appear to effortlessly dampen and strike--sometimes quite rapidly--but it's much more difficult than it appears to be.
1979'S LAST BASEBALL GAME (May 27, 2013): In October 1979 I decided to attend all four home games of the World Series. In those days, the Baltimore Orioles played in Memorial Stadium, an old-fashioned arena where tickets were cheap even if you adjust for the change in the inflation rate, and where some of the seats were marked on the tickets as "obstructed view" because they hadn't yet figured out how to build state-of-the-art modern architecture; many fans were partially blocked from the action by thick concrete poles. I was able to get tickets to three out of four: Jim Palmer was incredibly popular especially with the ladies, so the game where he was scheduled to pitch was sold out far in advance. The Orioles led the Series 3-1, but the Pirates won two in a row so it came down to the seventh game. I had bought seven tickets altogether for the final contest which cost me twelve dollars apiece. The seats were all together out in right field, almost in the first row near the fence. I'll always remember the Orioles being down by one run in the bottom of the eighth inning, bases loaded, two outs, three balls, two strikes, with the O's best hitter Eddie Murray at bat against the Pittsburgh Pirates' top relief pitcher, string-bean Kent Tekulve. The ball was hard hit and came very close to where we were sitting. It was about to clear the fence as a home run, or to hit off the very top of it, when a Pirates' fielder put up his glove and caught it for the final out. The top of the next inning seemed to grind on for over an hour. Other than Murray's heartbreaking fly ball, my strongest memories were of everything but the game itself: parking more than a mile away from the stadium and walking with my family and friends as we chatted with strangers along the way; wondering after the game what the vendors would do with all those unsold banners which stated "Orioles World Champions 1979"; the peanut vendor who appeared almost every inning and loved to toss the bags through the air for his customers to catch; the rowdy Pirates' family who sat just behind us and kept rooting for the wrong team throughout the entire game. Years later, I was at a wedding where the bride, groom, best man, and many other people were blind. I described my emotions in the bottom of the eighth inning to the best man during the reception. After I finished telling my story, he asked me, "Didn't the Pirates get two more runs in the top of the ninth?"
NEOPOLITAN WHOLE WHEAT (May 3, 2013): In my previous reminiscence, I talked about living in the section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn near the intersection of Lorimer and Powers Streets, where many of my fellow residents in the 1980s were from Naples and its nearby Italian towns. There was an excellent bakery just around the corner, with its property diagonally adjacent to the house where I was renting the top floor. They made excellent Italian bread every day except Sundays, with whole-wheat loaves available on Wednesday and Saturday mornings. I made sure to buy at least two of these each Wednesday, one of which I would take to the office to share with my co-workers for lunch. The only drawback to making whole wheat bread is that for reasons which I don't understand, it required the use of an ancient coal-fired oven. It might seem charming if seen in a movie like Moonstruck, but waking up each Wednesday and Saturday morning around 5 a.m. to the sound of coal being shoveled into the oven was irritating, and reminded me most of chalk being dragged across a blackboard. It was especially loud whenever the weather was warm enough to keep the windows open but it wasn't hot enough to keep the air conditioner running. After deliberating for a few weeks about what action to take, I obtained the telephone number of the bakery. I wrote down a carefully constructed script and waited until 5 a.m. one Wednesday morning when the coal shoveling had just begun. Speaking with my best phony Napolitano accent, I explained in what I hoped was convincingly broken English that our family loved to eat their bread but the kids couldn't sleep with the noise--so could they please start the oven an hour later? Fortunately, the bakery immediately complied with my request. The next Wednesday, the fellow who sold the bread mentioned that someone in the neighborhood had complained, so their whole-wheat loaves which used to be available as early as 6 a.m. wouldn't be ready until seven o'clock. I tried to pretend that the whole incident was a surprise to me.
NAPOLI IN BROOKLYN (April 8, 2013): From 1986 through 1988, I lived in the Italian section of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, near the corner of Powers and Lorimer Streets. The owner had planned to rent the apartment to an Italian couple, but on the day when their advertisement appeared in the New York Times, it was icy and most people didn't want to venture outside, so I had the first chance to take it which I did immediately. Most of those who had settled in this area were from the part of Italy near Naples (Napoli). The neighborhood was a fascinating throwback to life a century earlier. Around the corner on Lorimer Street was a bakery where they continued to use coal-fired ovens to make bread; their only concession to "modern times" was baking whole-wheat loaves each Wednesday and Saturday morning. I used to take a loaf to work each Wednesday, because my colleagues loved to use the bread to make sandwiches or for a snack. There was a cafe on Graham Avenue which still exists today, called Fortunato Brothers, where most of the "regulars" spoke in Italian. They served thick coffee served with sweets, with gelato available in the warmer months. Except for one corner by the front window, there were no women present; there was an unwritten custom that only men were expected to sit in certain areas and talk about life in the old country. Sometimes the men would vociferously argue to the point where actual fighting threatened to break out. I slowly learned enough Italian to be able to communicate in simple terms, and of course I also became familiar with some popular curses which I didn't dare to repeat. There was a neighborhood restaurant on Lorimer Street called Milo's which also apparently still exists, with beers costing fifty cents apiece. The patrons at the other tables would ask me all kinds of questions as soon as I sat down, treating me as a part of their extended family. The head chef at Milo was a quiet fellow who loved to hear compliments about his food, although the person really in charge of the place was Milo's wife--a tiny woman with very definite ideas about life; their daughter was the waitress. When I would walk down the "side streets" in the evenings, the people who lived there would put folding chairs right in the center of the sidewalk, as though these were extensions of their living rooms. The most surprising thing about this neighborhood was that if you wanted to return to the late twentieth century, you could enter the subway "L line" on Lorimer Street and you'd be on 14th Street in Manhattan in ten minutes.
BALLOON ASCENSION (March 11, 2013): When I was a kid in the 1960s, the local school called Bedford Elementary had barely changed their traditions from the Great Depression and from earlier customs established during the nineteenth century. We had a spring festival each April when most of the trees were flowering. For two months prior to the event, each of us would walk around the neighborhood and sell tickets for 50 cents apiece--worth about five dollars in today's money--in order to raise funds for numerous after-school programs. The students who sold the most tickets would get special recognition and certain privileges. Each ticket would be filled out with the name of the person, their phone number, and their address; obviously there was no email or cell phone at that time (and not even any calculators). On the day of the fair, each ticket was attached to a balloon, and a few thousand of these balloons of many colors would be filled with helium and released simultaneously as the local reporters would cover the event for the newspaper and WBAL-TV. The most popular snack was a peppermint stick stuck into a lemon, which apparently dates back before 1900 in some parts of Baltimore. We had other games of chance where you would typically pay a dime per game and each winner would get a unique prize. At the age of six, my sister won a purple cow with a head that would bobble up and down, which she still has after all these years. Sometimes the school would get telephone calls or letters a month or more after the balloon ascension from those who had found the balloons and their tickets which had instructions to either write or call a particular telephone number. These letters arrived from many different states as far away as Ohio; in those days, few people responded by telephone because a relatively brief long-distance call of that kind cost about twenty current-day dollars. The vice principal of the school had a map of the U.S. posted in the hallway, and would put a pin into each spot from which a communication was received. The spring fair was an opportunity for new neighbors to introduce themselves to long-time residents and for students to see their teachers and administrators in a more relaxed setting. I wonder how many places in the world still have these kinds of annual celebrations.
MRS. H (February 18, 2013): At the age of five, my Dad tried to teach me to play the piano. After a year or so, he got tired of the effort, especially since he couldn't play it himself, although he understood the rudiments of reading music and knew enough to help me to begin sight-reading the scores of "My Fair Lady" and "South Pacific". Sight-reading is a skill where you play a piece for the very first time and try to reproduce it exactly as it's written. When I was six, I auditioned at Peabody music school in Baltimore, where the person in charge of deciding whether I was accepted or not was a young woman named Lynn Hebden. "Mrs. H" realized that I was a bit nervous, but she could also tell that I liked to show off, so she started by asking me a few silly musical jokes so I would feel more comfortable during the audition. In addition to asking me to play some songs which I had prepared in advance, Mrs. H gave me a piece to sight-read. I did very well until the final note, which I discovered later was intentionally impossible to read to see how potential students would react to confusion. She also had me look away from the piano and guess which notes she was playing; my Dad had done that since I was about three years old, so I surprised her by getting almost all of those questions right. I guess I did okay overall, because I soon began taking piano lessons. A few years later, Mrs. H taught me music theory and creativity as part of a new course of study called "Musicianship" which was connected with an amazing summer music composition camp known as the Walden School. Many years later, I gave a modest donation to Peabody and Mrs. H invited me to have dinner where she could personally thank me. I haven't seen Lynn Hebden for several years and discovered sadly that she passed away last week. I'm sorry that I didn't have a chance to personally perform a few of my compositions for her which she would have enjoyed.
EMBASSIES INTERNATIONAL (January 29, 2013): When I was in high school, I was fortunate to obtain a job as the secretary of an unusual and highly profitable company run by a friend of the family and located just one block from our house. The company was called Embassies International, Ltd., and served as a middleman to foreign embassies which were interested in buying anything from the United States. There was a huge order of crude oil by the Republic of Swaziland during the late 1970s, which was celebrated by a party at that country's embassy in Georgetown. The CEO of the company invited me and my girlfriend to attend the festivities, which were lavish and featured many of Swaziland's top citizens wearing the traditional robes of that nation. I dressed in my best suit--really, my only suit in those days--and picked up my girlfriend to drive her to the event about 1-1/2 hours away from our Baltimore neighborhood. When we arrived, we were overwhelmed by being surrounded by people of such different backgrounds who went out of their way to make us feel welcome. As we were sipping fine wine and enjoying unusual food I had never seen before, I began to realize that there was a life far beyond what I had known growing up in a middle-class neighborhood with relatively predictable career opportunities. Because it is so difficult to find parking in Georgetown, I finally located one area which to this day remains my secret spot whenever I visit. Walking back several blocks from the embassy to the car after it had turned dark, my girlfriend and I marveled at the dazzling way the houses shone on the streets and wondered if we would ever be able to afford such luxury and get to know such illustrious people.
COLLEGE RETIREMENT ACCOUNT (January 3, 2013): In 1981, between my junior and senior years at college, I had a summer job which paid $7.50 per hour--a wonderful wage at that time. I used some of the money to pay for rent, food, and clothing, and was designing plans for the rest of it. At the beginning of the next calendar year, I was visiting my parents and showed my Dad the forms I needed to complete my taxes. "Here, let me take care of that for you," he offered, which was surprising since I had been doing my own income taxes for a few years. "Sure, Dad," I told him, "go right ahead." He finished more quickly than I could have done, and his penmanship was as usual precise and easily readable. I glanced at the bottom line, and was surprised that I wasn't getting the refund I had expected--and actually had to pay the IRS some money. "Hey, are you sure you computed this correctly?" I asked. "Of course," my Dad insisted, "I've been doing this since long before you were born." I looked carefully at the entire federal form, and noticed an odd line about an IRA contribution. "Dad, what is this IRA thing? Have they invented a new tax?" "No, just the opposite. This allows you to save money on your taxes by reducing your income. More importantly, putting your money into a retirement account will teach you important discipline which I didn't learn until it was too late." "What is a retirement account, and what does this mean?" My Dad patiently responded, "You should go to the library downtown [the main branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore] and investigate a new law which was just passed last year. You can save money for your retirement, and you can defer your taxes until you withdraw it later in your life." "How much later--five years or so?" "No, when you're 59-1/2 or older." "Are you kidding?" "No, that's the rule, unless you want to pay various penalties." "How should I invest the money?" "That's for you to choose," my Dad chuckled, "you're going to have to do the hard work of making a decision." After many hours of research and contacting people and listening to financial programs on the radio, I eventually settled on the T. Rowe Price New Income Fund, a fund of top-rated U.S. corporate bonds which still exists and which at that time was yielding 17.1%. It was my first contrarian investment. My Dad's intervention enabled an important early step on my road to becoming a money manager.
FRONT-END ALIGNMENT (December 20, 2012): When I was in high school and college, I used to drive a "classic" 1969 Ford Falcon. I had to get a front-end alignment once every few months, and I had to add a quart of oil about twice per month. In those days, I figured that this was typical maintenance for an automobile which had been driven for more than 100 thousand miles. When I was finally able to afford a less-old Corolla, I was stunned to discover that I didn't have to add quarts, and that I actually had to change the oil periodically because it would deteriorate. I was also surprised when the local maintenance guy didn't recommend the "usual" front-end alignment. Many years later, when I was talking with an expert on automobiles from that era, I mentioned the '69 Falcon and he immediately responded: "The alignment is always going out of whack and you have to keep giving it more oil." I was surprised that he knew the exact details. He was thoroughly amused when I told him that until I was in my mid-20s, I believed that all old clunkers had the same defects. While I was jogging a few months ago, I saw a car just a few blocks from my house which looked almost exactly like the one I used to drive more than three decades ago--it was even rusted in many of the same places. I'm tempted to knock on the house nearby and talk awhile about the "good old days", but so far I haven't done so.
WJHU BROADCASTER (December 16, 2012): When I was a freshman at college, my roommate had a sign which said "WJHU--On Air, Keep Out". I asked him what it meant, and he told me that he had stolen it from the student radio station. I didn't even know that Johns Hopkins had a real radio station, so I asked him where it was located--it was in the basement of one of the buildings I went to every day, but hadn't bothered to investigate thoroughly. I went to WJHU the next day, discreetly returned the sign, and spoke with several of the people working there including the station manager who admired my speaking voice and asked if I wanted to audition as the nighttime sports broadcaster. It wasn't very glamorous like the main daily half-hour newscast at 5:30--which I would eventually co-anchor two years later--but after some testing I was given the chance to put together my own five-minute sports summary, mostly regarding baseball and the "O's", which I delivered at midnight. Other than some humorous remarks about my Baltimore accent, they loved it and pretty soon I was broadcasting the sports news several times per week at 11 p.m. and at midnight. After my very first broadcast, I remained in the studio to see what would happen next. The disc jockey immediately played a song I had never heard before entitled "The Train", written by Suzzy Roche of the three-sister group "The Roches" from their album of the same name. To this day, I always associate the two events together: this song, which I soon learned to sing and to accompany myself with on the guitar, and my first time live on the radio. A few days ago, I was fortunate to see Suzzy performing with her sister Maggie in Manhattan. The very last song they played was "The Train". After the concert, there was an opportunity to walk onstage and speak with the performers, so I told Suzzy the story about my first radio broadcast and how it was followed by hearing her song for the first time. She wrote down my tale to talk about in a future concert.
GEORGIAN PEACH ON FLATBUSH (November 26, 2012): In 1984 I had a girlfriend from south Georgia who decided to move to south Brooklyn near Kings Plaza. One humid summer weekday in the early evening, we decided to drive south on Flatbush Avenue across the toll bridge to the ocean. We saw a sign advertising "Breezy Point", but the person at the gate told us it was for private residents only, so we headed the opposite way and turned at the first opportunity. It was a place called Fort Tilden--and to our great surprise there was almost no one there. We found out later that most people preferred to go to popular Riis Park or farther east along the Rockaways. One or two signs warned against swimming, but we couldn't understand why there would be any serious problem or danger. We waded into the ocean and kept going until we had to swim--the only people around us who dared to venture into the water. We were soon joined by one bold teenage couple. There were no lifeguards nearby, so probably it was a bit risky in case we got swept away by the tides, but the waves were relatively calm and unusually warm. We felt as though we had the entire Atlantic Ocean to ourselves, and we stayed until the sun began to set. For the next several weeks we often returned, and even on the weekends there weren't many people on the beach. During the winter, my friend got cold and homesick and decided to return to south Georgia, and I haven't seen her or Fort Tilden since then. During the recent news about Hurricane Sandy, there was a lot of talk about Breezy Point which suffered severe damage and a raging fire that destroyed many homes. I finally found some photos including shots of Fort Tilden which not surprisingly was also significantly damaged. Whenever they get the place fixed up, I plan to return with my bathing suit and a few friends. I have been to many ocean beaches, but this one in New York City was the most placid and deserted.
A MENU SUGGESTION (November 15, 2012): When I was visiting Istanbul with my wife, her father, and my father-in-law's fiancée in 2002, I noticed an Indian restaurant which reminded me very much of those back in New Jersey. (I have never been to India, so I can't tell you what they're like in that country.) The interior furnishings were delightful, and we were seated in a private nook between two main floors. I looked at the drink menu, and saw that we had a choice of various teas, along with apple lassi, orange lassi, and banana lassi. From my New Jersey experience, I knew that "lassi" is a classic Indian drink made from yogurt, fruit, and ice, sometimes spiced with sugar, cardamom, cloves, nutmeg, and/or cinnamon. When our waiter arrived, each of us chose one of the lassis. When he was about to leave to return to the kitchen, I called our waiter back briefly with this encouraging remark: "Please tell the chef that I have a suggestion for his menu which I think will make this restaurant more profitable." Within a few minutes, he returned with the head chef and the chef's chief assistant, as they were both curious to discover my idea. "Here's my recommendation," I explained, "you have apple, banana, and orange lassis on your menu, and I'm sure they're all popular. However, you'll probably sell even more drinks if you offer your patrons a fourth choice: mango lassi. Perhaps both of you are from India, and you remember that drink from when you were growing up." This produced an immediate hearty laugh from all three of them, which I didn't understand until the assistant chef responded: "We love your suggestion, and we'll make you a deal. You tell us where to buy the mangos--anywhere within a hundred kilometers or so--and we promise to add mango lassi to the menu." I was stunned, realizing that I hadn't considered the possibility that there were no mangos in or near Istanbul. Whether this remains true today is a fascinating question.
PROVIDENTIAL (November 7, 2012): My wife and I celebrated our honeymoon in Providence, Rhode Island, with side trips to Newport and Block Island by boat. Providence probably doesn't sound like the classic exotic destination, but we had recently returned from Marrakesh and were looking for a less challenging vacation. There were still some Portuguese fishermen who went out in the early morning to make their catch, and returned as I went out for my daily jog. The late eighteenth century architecture is charming, and we were treated wonderfully by the couple who were the host and hostess at our bed and breakfast. We didn't tell them that we were on our honeymoon, but they went out of their way to be welcoming and helpful. They even picked us up at the ferry when it arrived although we hadn't requested it and didn't know that they would be there. The woman baked a full plate of homemade chocolate-chip cookies just for us. Near the end of our visit, we discovered that the couple who ran the bed and breakfast were having marriage problems, and were trying their best to keep everything going. Five years later, my wife and I decided to return to Providence. We drove up to the bed and breakfast, and it had completely changed. The only way I could be absolutely sure that it was the correct address, other than my memory, was the fact that its front steps were far more worn than those of its neighbors. We knocked on the door and a woman we hadn't seen before opened it. She knew the entire history of the house, and told us that she had purchased it a few months after our honeymoon when the couple who ran the bed and breakfast split up. We practically begged her for the new address of the woman who had been especially kind to us, but the new owner had promised to honor the previous owner's privacy so we couldn't get it. We gave the new owner our contact information and told her to please give it to the previous occupants, but we haven't heard from any of them. By an interesting coincidence, we seem to run into quite a few people who at one time or another resided in Providence--far more than those who lived in my home town of Baltimore.
STORM WIMPS (October 29, 2012): This week's storm reminds me of one which happened two decades ago in December 1992. At that time, I was living in Hoboken, New Jersey and was working in Jersey City. Since the towns are next to each other, I could have walked back and forth, but I was generally lazy and took the PATH train which was cheap and direct. On that fateful Friday, when I arrived at the train station, I was told that "because of the storm" there were no trains running. I said to myself, "Wow, they're a bunch of real wimps around here. It's barely drizzling," and proceeded to walk to work. I was surprised to find a lengthy row of automobiles backed up on Observer Highway and thought after a little reflection, gee, maybe it really is raining a wee bit harder than usual. When I arrived on Marin Boulevard where I made a left turn to go to Jersey City, I was stunned to see an actual wave moving toward me, as though I were wading along the Atlantic Ocean. The water came up to my knees and soaked my socks and shoes. You would think that this would be enough to coax me back to my one-room apartment sublet, but I plodded on. In Jersey City, there were cars abandoned in the middle of intersections and water which would have gone above my waist if I had continued on my planned path--so I took an alternate route on a parallel street. When I arrived at Harborside, I had to hold tight to a pole for a half minute because the wind was whipping fiercely against me; the gusts exceeded 70 miles per hour (about 115 kph) and caused the Exchange Place revolving doors to spin around and around. When I made it inside the building where I work, I realized that almost no one was there except for a few people who lived a block or two away. The company arranged for a special van to bring each of us personally back to where we lived; the driver couldn't believe I had walked all the way from Hoboken. It would end up being several days before the water fully receded and transportation returned to normal. Unlike the current situation, the storm was barely anticipated in advance and its severity came as a huge surprise.
MEMORIAL STADIUM (October 15, 2012): When I was in college, I lived in a one-room attic apartment which included a ladder going to the roof. It was on 33rd Street between Calvert and Guilford, a few blocks' walk from Johns Hopkins and about twice that distance from Memorial Stadium. This old Baltimore arena was the predecessor to Camden Yards, and featured the characteristics of many old-fashioned ballparks in those decades: numerous seats where views were obstructed by large supporting poles; antiquated displays without slow-motion replay; inefficient methods for entering and leaving the stadium; and a complete lack of sophisticated marketing and advertising techniques. In other words, it was a wonderful place to watch a baseball game. They didn't have fancy ways of encouraging the fans; about the only artificial sound you would hear would be an approximation of an old-fashioned military trumpet playing "charge". From my roof I would listen to the game on the radio, and when I heard the "charge" on my radio, I would turn the radio down temporarily to hear it coming from the stadium itself along with the crowd yelling "Charge!" On Monday evenings, they sold upper-reserve tickets for just three dollars, so I would often go with friends to the games and cheer on the team in person. The Orioles always had excellent teams managed by Earl Weaver in those years. The very year I left Baltimore, the team rapidly deteriorated and didn't truly revive until this year when they recreated some of the old magic in their new ballpark.
In 2002, I was visiting my sister who lived on the top floor of her building. She had a staircase which went to the roof, so I walked outside. It had a view of the Golden Gate Bridge and the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. I heard the sound of distant cheering and shouting, and discovered that clearly visible in the distance was the ballpark where the Giants were hosting the World Series. Suddenly, I heard the "charge"--much more muted than I remembered it from my youth in Baltimore, but my sister lived farther away from the stadium. I was immediately reminded of the time I was twenty years old, sitting on my old roof on 33rd Street, turning down the radio so I could hear everything live. I didn't realize it at the time, but I had been listening to the high point of the Series for the Giants, who were ahead but later lost the game and the championship. Perhaps they needed me to stay on the roof a bit longer, rooting for their team.
1977 COMPUTER PROGRAMMING (September 26, 2012): In today's world, it's hard to imagine that in 1977 there was only a single computer in all of the Baltimore County public schools. I was excited to be able to take a new introductory course taught by my favorite math teacher which involved learning to program in Fortran. In addition to having just one computer, there were only two keypunch machines--and both of those were located in the same huge room as the computer. So we had to mark our Hollerith punch cards using black Sharpie markers, and of course if we made one mistake while filling out a card, we would have to throw it out and redo the entire card. Several of the students in the class had seen science fiction shows like "Lost in Space" and "Star Wars" and were expecting something like talking robots, and had difficulty with the course material. Their solution was to carefully track the straight A students and to see what happened with those students' card decks once the geniuses were done with their homework assignments. One friend of mine positioned himself strategically near a trash can hidden from view of the instructor. As soon as an A student would toss out his or her set of punched cards into that trash can, my friend would discreetly rescue it and reuse the deck with a few minor changes to make it seem like his original work. His main problem was acting quickly enough, since a few other struggling classmates learned the same trick and would race him to the trash can.
The fellow who ran the computer lab had a strange personality of equal parts geek, obsessive compulsive, and enraged. His pet peeve was when a student mistakenly caused the paper in the printer to surge out wildly because of specifying one line per page--one of the easily-made mistakes of Fortran programming. He instituted a penalty in which anyone who used the printer that way had to stay for an extra hour to help him clean up the computer lab. Each day we were there, one or two students would be stuck with this undesirable janitorial task. I always chuckled whenever I saw the paper spewing rapidly out of the printer, causing the fellow in charge to scream at the top of his lungs, proclaiming that we were the most incompetent computer programmers in history.
There was a bus which took us to and from the school with the computer once every two weeks during the classroom time itself. However, we had several homework assignments which required more work near the computer itself, and since many of us didn't have drivers' licenses or automobiles, we needed carpools to go to and from the computer center. This always led to an interesting dilemma in which we had one car to take six or seven students. In the end, we all crammed in and somehow made it there and back. It's amazing to think how many millions of times more powerful the tiniest smart phone is today when compared with that old mainframe.
COMMON SECOND LANGUAGE (September 10, 2012): I periodically travel to meet with subscribers, usually at a restaurant for a meal. Last year, I was in Paris to meet one fellow who had been receiving my daily updates for several years. However, I didn't realize that he put my updates in Google Translate or a similar software program which converted them into a choppy form of French. When we met, it was immediately obvious that he couldn't speak English--and I can't speak French. He brought along two young people, a man and a woman, who were to serve as his translators. The only problem was that these two folks were attracted to each other and were delighted to be able to spend so much time together; they spent the entire dinner flirting and translating almost nothing. After struggling for several minutes, I was able to discover from a fortunate chance remark by the female translator that my subscriber had lived for several years in Buenos Aires. Realizing a resolution to our dilemma, I began speaking in my best schoolbook Spanish which I had learned for five years in junior high and high school, but hadn't studied since then. The subscriber and I ended up both speaking our favorite second language--not competently, but usually well enough to understand most of what the other was attempting to communicate. It was an interesting challenge to discuss the financial markets, current politics, and the latest sports news in a language other than English for two hours, with some humorous misunderstandings throughout.
EOH YEAH HON (August 23, 2012): During my freshman year at Johns Hopkins, I decided to audition for the college radio station. They had me put together a five-minute sports report based upon the UPI headlines which were continuously grinding on an old-fashioned machine which used a lengthy spool of cheap beige-colored paper. I practiced my delivery, and when they liked what they heard, they assigned me to begin the same day for the midnight newscast. When I was done, I asked the people still lingering around the station at that hour, "So, what did you think?" "Well," the station manager responded, "your writing was excellent and your delivery was consistent and clear. However, there's just one problem." "what's that?" I wondered out loud. "Let's just say that everyone out there who can pick up the WJHU signal can tell that you were born and raised in Baltimore," he quipped, and everyone else in the room started laughing. I hadn't even thought about it when I was growing up, but I was in a radio station in Baltimore surrounded by people who were from somewhere else and who were thoroughly amused by my accent. Until I was in high school and began to appreciate regional speech variations, I thought everyone said "eh-oh kay, hon" when accepting a request to do something.
I began the painful process of listening each day to the news broadcasts of Ann Taylor, who was then a young broadcaster with a nearly perfect method of speaking and almost no detectable regional accent. I think she just retired last year after decades in the business. It took time, but within a few months my co-workers and the station manager were very impressed with my "progress", and gradually promoted me. By my junior year I was co-anchoring the main 5:30 p.m. daily newscast, and was training other freshmen for the midnight shift. A few years after graduation, I moved to New Jersey and now when I visit Baltimore I have to catch up with the latest changes: a new restaurant or an unexpectedly renovated neighborhood. I appreciate the career opportunities that became available to me from having developed a more polished form of communication, but whenever I hear a born-and-bred Baltimorean, especially in some of the more insular neighborhoods like Highlandtown with their very sharp local accent--something like Cockney would sound to a Londoner--I sometimes regret having lost my original form of speech.
GRATEFUL DEAD 8-TRACK (July 15, 2012): When I was in my first year at Johns Hopkins, I was paired in the freshman dorms with a rather unique roommate who was a huge fan of the Grateful Dead. I had a top-notch eight-track player which was still a pretty big deal in the late 1970s, and he never tired of playing "American Beauty" over and over again. Because of the way an eight-track player works, when it gets to the end of an album it starts over again from the beginning, and keeps on going indefinitely. I am sure that I fell asleep dozens of times listening to "Box of Rain" or "Ripple" or "Truckin'", until one or the other of us would awake around two or three o'clock and shut it off. For this and numerous other reasons, I decided to find my own apartment off campus for my sophomore year. I finally located the ideal place: an attic on the third floor of an old Baltimore rowhouse within a seven-minute walk of the campus. There was a married couple living on the second floor, and one day I noticed a letter in their mailbox with a recognizable font and colors. They were Grateful Dead fans, so I bought them the "American Beauty" record album. They loved it, and often played it far into the night. If I thought I had escaped from listening to those songs again at 1 a.m., I was badly mistaken. At least the volume was lower since it was coming from the floor below me. I bought the same record for myself, but I couldn't bring myself to open it.
A few years later, I had graduated from college and was living nearby in downtown Baltimore. My girlfriend was looking through my albums one night and picked one out. "I've always been a big fan of theirs, but I haven't heard any of these songs since college. They almost never play them on the radio. Look, you haven't even tried this one out." For the next year or two, I would often listen well past midnight to "Box of Rain" and the others. Nowadays, if I dare to go to YouTube and select a Grateful Dead song--even an unusual version covered by "Adelle the Great" on ukulele--my wife will immediately run over and complain as she's a sort of an anti-fan of the group. Now I mostly hear the music in the back of my mind, triggering long-ago memories of studying for exams and remembering people I haven't seen for three decades.
TOKYO FAMILY (July 8, 2012): I visited Tokyo in October-November 1987. Although I had prepared for the trip by studying Japanese for a year and reviewing several maps of the city, it's almost impossible for a non-resident to not get lost every five or ten minutes. Unlike most Western cities, Tokyo doesn't have a grid pattern: to save space for much-needed residential buildings in a city with a huge population and earthquake codes which forbid high-rise apartments in most areas, the houses are crammed together with tiny alleys between them. The numbering system is sometimes chronological rather than navigational, and most streets have no names. Even with a modern GPS it's quite challenging. On the evening of Monday, November 3, I was visiting a jazz club in a unique Japanese neighborhood in Shinjuku and lost track of the time. I went to the subway, which I was finally beginning to understand, but I had just missed the last "chikatetsu" of the day. Nearby was the national railroad, which was still running for another half hour, so I caught the final train back toward my neighborhood. It was amazing how many people were drunk, several of whom wanted to tell me their life stories in badly broken English. I finally got out at the stop which seemed to be closest to the inn where I was staying, although I wasn't sure how to get there. While I was looking at a map, a formally-dressed businessman asked me in slightly accented but otherwise fluent English, "Can I assist you with finding your way?"
I told this fellow where I wanted to go, and he pointed out the best route. Fortunately, it went past the subway stop which was most familiar to me, and I thanked him. Before we departed, he said, "I don't meet many Americans. Let's have a beer at a nearby pub." It was a little after 1:00 a.m. and I was tired, but I decided it would be an unusual opportunity to experience some of the local culture. Surprisingly, the pub was nearly full of people, which seemed odd for a Monday night. "Is it always this crowded?" I asked him. He told me his name, and informed me that the next day was a holiday called Culture Day so many of his co-workers were "partying on". He insisted on treating me to one dark beer after another, and finally around 3:30 a.m. I limped out and walked back to the inn. I wasn't even sure if I would be able to enter, since there was an ongoing debate at the inn about whether or not to lock the front door at 2:00 a.m. because of some recent burglaries in the area which were rare for Tokyo in those days. Fortunately, the non-locking contingent had won, at least for that day. The next morning, I remembered that this fellow had invited me to meet his wife and young son for lunch, so we met in beautiful Rikugien Garden and spent several hours together getting to understand each other. It helped that he and his wife were both fluent in English, since they could see that my Japanese was terrible. I wanted to ask some personal questions, such as whether the man's wife was accustomed to her husband arriving home late, but I decided to be tactful since they were so kind and generously didn't allow me to pay for anything. At the end of the day, they bought me a locally made hand fan in the historic neighborhood of Asakusa, near Kaminarimon (Thunder Gate). I can still recall the taste of the anko (Japanese red bean paste) which the family bought from a street vendor in the same neighborhood.
PAPPY'S MAKES YOU HAPPY (May 31, 2012): When I was growing up in Baltimore, our family's favorite restaurant by far was a local chain called Pappy's. Instead of offering pitchers of root beer like every other place, they called it "birch beer" and served it in "schooners". Each Pappy's had a player piano with working piano rolls from the 1920s. My sister, brother, and I loved to watch our pizzas and sandwiches being made behind the glass partition where you could see the chefs at work; we were always looking for clues to determine whether they were making the actual food which would be served at our table. I especially remember when we visited the Outer Banks of North Carolina for one week where the temperature was in the high 90s every single day. We returned to Baltimore on a cool evening with the temperature around 66. We drove to our favorite Pappy's, parked as close as possible to the entrance, and rushed in as though it were January. In those days, we thought the restaurant would continue forever, but in the 1980s the owner decided to close the popular franchise. I still sometimes quote their motto: Pappy's will make you happy. In my mind I can still see the red-and-white patterned tablecloths and their logo of a smiling chef holding up a freshly cooked pizza.
DEATH OF A SALESMAN (May 16, 2012): In 1997, the book Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil was published. It described a highly unusual murder case in Savannah, Georgia which encouraged many to visit that fascinating city--including my wife and myself. We flew to Charleston where we planned to spend a few days in that charming Southern town before continuing the trip by automobile. I had rented a subcompact car at an unusually low rate and was curious about whether we would be encouraged to upgrade for a higher price. Sure enough, almost as soon as we arrived at the auto rental counter, the agent told us: "You can upgrade to a premium deluxe vehicle for just twelve dollars per day." I explained that I was happy with our choice, but he insisted: "Just consider how you will feel driving the finest car in our lot, a 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme". I thanked him for offering us the opportunity, but refused it again. "Let's make it just ten dollars per day more." This was reduced to eight and then five, both of which I politely refused. Being forced to surrender, he proudly proclaimed: "At no extra charge, you fine folks are about to experience the best of what General Motors has to offer." We finally walked into the area where all of the cars were parked--to discover that every single one of the two dozen vehicles present was a 1997 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme.
On our first day in Savannah we signed up for a horse carriage tour of its famous squares. Our carriage driver stopped by the Hilton to pick up a man who at first appeared to be homeless, but who began to converse with us in a fashion which proved that he couldn't be judged solely by his unkempt hairdo and carelessly casual clothing. I finally asked him: "Do you live on the west coast?" This persuaded him to admit that he was Tracey Walter--a Hollywood actor who played the philosopher mechanic in Repo Man and has appeared in dozens of other roles.
GAMPY'S (April 15, 2012): When I was a teenager in Baltimore, my friends and I liked to hang out at local places where we would run into each other frequently, and where we could share a ride in case one of our old cars broke down or ran out of gas. Once in awhile, however, especially on the weekends, we sometimes liked to drive all the way downtown to a place which was formally called the Great American Melting Pot, but which was commonly nicknamed "Gampy's". In those days when Baltimore restaurants generally closed around 9 or 10 p.m., it was one of the rare places which was open until 1 a.m. and which served their full menu after midnight. They had some classic dishes, such as stuffed eggplant, and it seemed as though the prices never changed. Not all of their stories were happy ones: the Baltimore Sun had a front-page story about a murder there very early one morning in the late 1970s. Throughout college, I continued to go to Gampy's whenever I wanted to get away from the immediate Hopkins environment, and I soon found myself eating there several times per week when I got a job after graduation which sometimes required me to work until almost midnight. There were some months when I ate at Gampy's more often than I ate at home. After moving to New Jersey, it became my default restaurant whenever I returned to Baltimore to visit my family and friends, and it was like going back into the 1970s again. About a decade ago, either my taste buds became more discerning or the food deteriorated, or perhaps both. One day in 2006, my wife and I were staying at a bed and breakfast within walking distance of the place. We walked over to Gampy's for dinner, but it was dark and looked deserted. "It's closed forever," someone shouted from across the street. I couldn't imagine it, but I checked around the next day and alas it was true: Gampy's was no more. Since then, a few places have come and gone at 904 North Charles Street, but they haven't been able to improve upon its quirky atmosphere.
BUS-TRAIN TO OTAVALO (March 4, 2012): On July 17, 1996, my wife and I flew from JFK to Quito, Ecuador to spend a couple of weeks exploring that fascinating country. The next morning at breakfast at our hotel, everyone was talking about a flight which had left JFK at almost exactly the same time bound for Paris, which unfortunately exploded due to what was later concluded to be an engine problem. I didn't know until two weeks later that my favorite music teacher, David Hogan, had been on that fatal flight. In another odd coincidence, our hotel in Quito was perched on the side of what I thought was a tall mountain. "It's not a mountain, it's a volcano called Pichincha", explained the innkeeper. "Really?" I puzzled. "Is it active?" "Actually, it is," she responded, "but it hasn't exploded since 1660, so you don't have anything to worry about." I wondered to myself whether this confidence was the same as investors had in emerging markets like Korea at that time, just before they experienced some of their worst losses in history. A little more than two years later, I opened the newspaper on my way to Manhattan and the front headline was this: "Volcano in Ecuador stuns local residents by exploding for the first time in centuries . . . ." along with a photo of municipal workers trying to clean up volcanic ash which had swept across parts of the city. One fascinating part of the trip was traveling along an old railroad line from Otavalo to Ibarra. Having no train to use on the track, a Bluebird bus from the United States was adapted to fit the purpose, and ran smoothly during the entire trip. Local dogs loved to bark at the bus-train at every step of the journey. Looking on the internet a few minutes ago, I see that this "train" service has been suspended indefinitely, so it will have to remain a fond memory.
TONY (February 14, 2012): Since I moved to the New York City area in 1985, I have been consistently visiting two pushcart vendors each week; for years we have known each other's names and intimate details about our private lives. One fellow named Sean has been selling fruit and vegetables at the same place since the late 1980s; next to him is Tony from the Greek island of Karpathos, who has been at the same spot offering knishes and hot dogs since 1981. Last month, I was buying some persimmons, oranges, and eggplants from Sean when Tony walked over and stepped behind Sean's cart as though he were Sean's assistant. "Hey, what are you doing at my stand," joked Sean. "Don't you have any customers of your own?" "I'm helping Steve pick out the two best eggplants out of all the ones you have for sale. Being from Greece, I know more about eggplant than you ever will, and I want to be sure Steve gets only top quality instead of some of the junk you offer." "Hey, watch it", retorted Sean, "all of my stuff is the best." Through the years, people have helped me with all kinds of tasks, but I have never had someone serving as my designated eggplant shopper, painstakingly picking out the two best out of a hundred eggplants. Sean told me later that it was the first time he saw Tony do something like that in all the years he knew him, so I'm flattered that Tony took the time to help me. The dish of sautéed eggplant in olive oil I enjoyed that evening was excellent, so kudos to both the seller and the picker.
REMEMBERING AL EISENBERG (January 30, 2012): When I was 18 years old and a freshman at college, I decided to look for a job to earn some money and gain some experience. I went to the university's career counseling center, where in those pre-internet days they handed me a thick folder with local employment listings seeking Johns Hopkins students and stating the desired qualifications. One description stood out from the rest: "Enthusiastic student wanted to run errands, meet with clients at country clubs and elsewhere, and be a chauffeur. Tennis experience ideal; a clean driver's record is essential. Periodic trips will be taken to New York City and Washington, D.C." Intrigued, I contacted the fellow, who was a wealthy businessman named Al Eisenberg. He had made several films, some of which are cataloged in the Library of Congress, and took numerous photographs of me while he was interviewing me for the job. He told me later that he wanted to see how I would handle unexpectedly being in the limelight. I soon discovered that Al was eccentric in many ways: he wanted me to film him playing tennis with his friends, and he had a Japanese girlfriend living with him named Etsuko-san who was 32 years younger than himself. Besides doing more driving in one month than I had previously done in an entire year, I was introduced to many wealthy and famous people as a teenager and overcame my natural shyness to be comfortable and confident in their presence. I also learned the critical importance of introducing myself to literally everyone, including the people working in the mailroom and the ball boys and girls on the tennis courts, since they might end up helping me in unexpected ways. Some of those personal connections later proved to be invaluable in establishing my career. Al and I would sometimes go running in Central Park, and he played tennis until he was ninety. Decades after I had stopped being his employee, he and Etsuko-san continued to invite me to dinners and social events where I was frequently introduced to their fascinating colleagues. I also learned about Al's charitable activities and sometimes participated in deciding which ones were the most worthy of receiving his donations. Al passed away in 2010 at the age of 94. In addition to a small monetary gift, Etsuko-san gave me his favorite winter coat which I wear proudly.
BAR MITZVAH MYSTERY (January 9, 2012): In the months leading up to my thirteenth birthday, I was excited about preparing for my Bar Mitzvah. During the final days, our house was overflowing with relatives visiting from around the United States and Canada. It was a hectic time in which I wasn't getting enough sleep, while worrying about whether I was sufficiently prepared, and loving every minute from talking and being with so many people whom I rarely had a chance to see. When the actual day arrived, I was in a daze and barely knew what I was doing most of the time, although fortunately I was able to concentrate during the most critical moments. After a week had passed and the excitement had died down, and it was back to normal life again, I began the task of preparing thank-you cards for those who had given me checks and gifts. I was careful to write each letter individually based upon the kind of present I had received. Most were delighted with my notes, but several people began to discreetly ask me or my parents if I had perhaps forgotten about them. They wanted to know: why hadn't I cashed their checks? I was puzzled about this, and carefully went through all of the boxes to make sure that I hadn't overlooked something buried somewhere. I was convinced that nothing was misplaced.
In those days, I rarely dressed up for anything unless it was a special occasion. A half year after my Bar Mitzvah, I won a classical piano competition and was selected to perform at a formal recital in Leakin Hall at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore. I took out my best suit--really my only formal one in those days--which I hadn't worn during the intervening months. I thought it didn't fit right, and that perhaps I was outgrowing it. I looked in the mirror and one side appeared to be oddly bulky. I turned the suit upside down, which caused about seven or eight envelopes to plummet to the floor. I had forgotten that in the excitement of my Bar Mitzvah day, I had stuffed these into my inside coat pocket. Naturally, each one contained a card and a check. After the recital was over, I had to face the embarrassing task of contacting several confused gift-givers to explain sheepishly what had occurred. To this day, whenever I put on a formal jacket, I instinctively check the inside pocket to see if there are any goodies lurking within.
ONE EXCUSE TOO MANY (December 20, 2011): When I was at college in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I drove an old Ford which used to burn about a quart of oil each week. There was no long-term parking on campus which was both free and legal, so I repeatedly took chances with violating the various parking restrictions. I often barely dodged the school's traffic police, but about once every two months I would get a ticket. When I would receive such a violation, I had the choice of either paying the fine--which I refused to do--or to give an explanation as to why I had broken the rules. I took this as a challenge to my writing ability and my creative talents, and invented a completely different excuse on each occasion. I was encouraged by my very first effort, which succeeded, and continued to have each ticket forgiven for one reason or another. In other words, they were buying my almost laughable explanations for my errant behavior. Finally, with just one month before graduation, I received a notification in my mailbox: "Ticket challenge denied. Must appear in person at Garland Hall basement." I was stunned that, just as I was almost done with my college years and my necessity to keep dodging the law, fate had finally caught up with me. With no choice but to follow their command, I dressed in my only interview suit and showed up as requested. I asked what was wrong with my explanation as to why I had parked illegally--the real reason being that I had spent far too much time at an event with cheap jazz and free snacks and was a few hours over the limit. The young woman in charge of handling the fines responded, "Your challenge was intelligently written and we were going to forgive your ticket. But before we did so, we looked into your file." They took out a folder in which--to my amazement--they had saved every single one of the excuses I had mailed them during my four years at the university. "Look at these. We figured that anyone can be excused once or twice, but we've already let you go about twenty times and you must know that you haven't paid us even once. So we got together and discussed your case during lunch, and we concluded that just to be fair you have to pay us this time--in cash. The only reason you've gotten away with it so far is because you write so much better than the other students." Seeing that I had reached a dead end, I took out twelve bucks and left it on the table, and made a final remark. "Before I go, I hope you have all been thoroughly entertained by my explanations. You probably won't encounter another student like me for awhile. If it's okay with you, I'd like to save these past excuses for my personal files. Maybe I'll even write a story about it someday." As a postscript, when I was invited to lecture at Johns Hopkins in 2009, I went to Garland Hall and the same woman was in charge. She didn't recognize me at first, but then she said, "Don't tell me you've gotten another parking ticket. If so, you'll have to pay it immediately."
MY FIRST COMPUTER (November 30, 2011): When I was six years old, I attended my first "Family Day" at Westinghouse where my father ended up working for more than 38 years. I had never seen a computer before, and had no idea what they were except as they were portrayed in my favorite television series, "Lost in Space". So when they had a modern one on display for visitors to use, I took a close look at it. The machine took up almost an entire huge room, with flashing red lights and spinning tapes and all kinds of other parts which I found to be puzzling but exciting. I kept waiting for it to talk with me in a deep robot-like voice, but it just stood its ground and functioned quietly. Since this was the "good old days", there was no speaker or monitor; the only way the computer could communicate with the outside world was via an old-fashioned printer where it would write a question on an endlessly spooling roll of rough off-white paper and wait for me to type a response. I sat down in a chair which was set up in front of the printer, and answered a series of questions about my health, my date of birth, whether I ate certain kinds of foods and exercised, and other personal data. I was curious to know what it was going to do with all of this information. After a pause, the computer informed me of the exact date of my death, including the day of the week! I turned around quickly to my father, who was watching the entire interaction, and asked him, "How does it know for sure?" Dad told me, "Even computers can't use magic. It's just making an educated guess and could be wrong." I still remember how bitterly that disillusioned me about technology. I don't think I've recovered yet.
AUTOMATED FORESIGHT (November 17, 2011): When I was sixteen, I was having great difficulty deciding which career to pursue. I didn't have that many role models, and I wanted to find something which I would really enjoy. I spoke with my parents about it, and my father found a special counseling program at the Jewish organization B'nai B'rith. When I arrived, I met with a fellow who was at least 80 years old, and who reminded me a little of my father's father. He told me: "I probably look ancient to you, but I have an amazing modern machine next door." I thought he was joking, but he led me into the adjacent room and there was actually a computer--obviously not like the kind you see today, since it took up almost the entire space. "We got this second hand since it would have cost a fortune to buy new, but it works. You won't believe this: here's a completely automated questionnaire with all multiple choice. Once you complete it, the computer will tell you your future." I was quite skeptical, but I thoughtfully spent 1-1/2 hours answering the questions. When I was done, the computer listed my top three career choices: 1) investment counselor; 2) financial newsletter writer; 3) tax accountant.
I went back to the old fellow in charge and showed him the results. "I never heard of these careers before, except for being an accountant which my dad told me was boring. What are they?" I asked him, more anxious than ever about having to pursue something I didn't know about. "Don't worry," he told me, "I don't actually listen to the computer. What you are going to be is an electrical engineer." "An engineer? How did you come up with that based upon this survey?" "Survey, shmurvey. I have a friend who's the Dean of the School of Engineering at Johns Hopkins. If you apply for Early Decision (meaning that you have to commit to going if you're accepted in the autumn of your senior year), you're in." The old fellow seemed odd, but he was true to his word: he told his friend the Dean about me, and I was accepted for Early Decision at Johns Hopkins in what became the Whiting School of Engineering. It took me one semester to realize that I wasn't cut out to be an engineer, and another 25 years to discover that, of course, the computer was right after all on each of its three choices. Perhaps our fate is completely predetermined.
MARGINALLY SUSPICIOUS (October 18, 2011): When I was in my senior year of high school, I took an introductory computer course which included a class bus trip to the only school in Baltimore County which had a computer--an IBM 1130. If we couldn't complete our homework in time, we had to arrange for carpools to go there after school. It was therefore a major adjustment when I went to Johns Hopkins in 1978 and there was a real mini-computer called a DEC-10 made by Digital Equipment Corporation. All of the students and professors shared the single computer using "dumb" terminals, most of which were located in a single large room. For the first time, I learned that there was such a thing as a word processing program, a very early predecessor to today's Microsoft Word. I learned it so well that I began teaching it to several other students. I completed my first-ever school assignment with that program, an essay for a class on philosophical aesthetics. One day, I noticed that everyone but myself had received their papers back, graded by the professor. After class, the professor called me aside and told me that he found something suspicious about my paper which he wanted me to explain before he would grade it: the right margins were all evenly aligned. He implied that I must have purchased the paper from one of those shady companies where you send money and someone professionally writes one for you. I said to him, "Follow me and I'll surprise you." I took him to the room with the computer terminals and introduced him to the word processing program, demonstrating that I could align the right margins, or change the font, or--what stunned him the most--I could take a sentence or even an entire paragraph from one page and move it to another page. Like most professors who were not in the computer science department, he was completely unaware that such technology existed. The next morning, I saw him logging in and showing the program to another humanities professor--who gave a demo to another professor in the afternoon. In my own quiet way, during my freshman year, I started a mini software revolution.
WINNING BERMUDA'S RUNNING RACE (August 8, 2011): The first time my wife and I went to Bermuda, we were surprised to find that it is not legal to rent a car because it would make the roads too crowded for the locals. You either have to travel everywhere by taxis, which can be difficult to find, or you can use the excellent local bus and ferry system. Since our bed and breakfast was a short walk from a ferry stop, we bought a weekly pass and enjoyed mostly traveling by boat. One time, however, we needed to go in a direction where there were no ferries, so we decided to walk for about 45 minutes. Knowing the situation, some local people offer rides to tourists as a courtesy. One friendly fellow named Johnny Hawker pulled off to the side of the road and offered to drive us wherever we wanted to go. We got to enjoy his company so much that we ended up meeting his whole family and treating them to dinner. On the way back from the restaurant, we made a wrong turn and suddenly found ourselves on what would normally be one of the busiest roads in Bermuda, according to our driver--but was completely deserted at rush hour. We finally figured out that there was a 10K running race going on. We had somehow managed to elude the race organizers and had snuck onto the course. We zipped past hundreds of runners who were puzzled by our presence; some of them thought we were an official pace vehicle. We opened the windows and began to shout out encouragement to several runners, such as "Keep on chugging!" and "You're doing great!" Eventually, a race organizer stopped us, no doubt to tell us we had to find a way quickly out of the designated zone. Before he had a chance to say anything, I asked him cheerfully, "How are we doing? We've passed lots of people and we think we have a great chance to win this thing." The fellow laughed and let us continue on our way until we finally reached our destination.
ERNEST CASSUTTO (July 26, 2011): When I was a teenager, I was hired to play keyboard for a local church each Sunday morning. The pastor was a warm, wonderful man named Ernest H. Cassutto. He led the congregation from his guitar in a rousing chorus on several songs, and was always incredibly enthusiastic about life in general. He loved to play jokes on the congregation, such as when he would signal to me in the middle of a certain song which we had prearranged in advance: I would take his guitar and he would sit at the keyboard and we would continue as though nothing had changed; then we would switch back again before the song was over. He was delighted that I could learn new music quickly, and often played a private joke on me by giving me the sheet music for a new song right in the middle of a service with no time to rehearse it with him. He would wink at me and say quietly, "I know you can handle it." In those days when Baltimore was mostly segregated economically, racially, and religiously, his congregation was an amazing blend of many different kinds of people. Pastor Cassutto usually invited me into his home for a delicious kosher lunch after each service. It wasn't until an entire year had passed when I discovered from the local newspaper that he was one of the last surviving Jews of Rotterdam during the Holocaust and was miraculously rescued from the Nazis just before he would have been killed. I was completely oblivious to the reality of church politics, and was stunned when one day the church board voted with the slimmest possible majority to have him removed as pastor. We stayed in touch for several more years, and he never lost his excited, all-embracing outlook toward the world until he passed away in 1985.
FRANK LLOYD WRIGHT'S PIANO (July 1, 2011): In January 2011, I visited Scottsdale, Arizona. The main purpose of the trip was to meet subscribers--one fellow in particular who writes his own highly informative newsletter cleverly called "The Middle End"--and to see how the collapse of the real-estate bubble had hit that part of the country particularly hard. While I was there, some friends and I visited Taliesin West where Frank Lloyd Wright had lived during the final decades of his life. At one point our large tour group entered a room with a grand piano, where the tour guide looked at me and stated, "You look like a pianist. Can you please perform for us?" I was surprised, and then launched into my favorite Chopin Nocturne, Opus 9 Number 3. The impromptu recital went much better than expected--probably because I didn't have time to get nervous. The rest of the tour group was certain that we had arranged everything in advance. One of the features of the tour was seeing how Wright had arranged a special conference room which he used in order to get new architectural commissions. He designed this room so that if he stood in a certain place, he could overhear conversations in other parts of the room where potential clients thought they were speaking privately. He could then modify his approach accordingly. Wright built the room so that he could subtly adjust the light according to the mood he wanted to create, and also to permit his wife--who doubled as his business manager--to enter and leave as necessary without being noticed. He even arranged the room so that when the sun was setting, it would create a dramatic interplay of shadows just as he was preparing his closing sales pitch.
OUTER BANKS MISADVENTURES (June 5, 2011): In 1975, our family decided to take a vacation in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Literally as soon as we arrived, my dad trapped our Plymouth Fury III in the sand, requiring the assistance of several neighbors to help dig us it out. Among other highlights of the trip included our automobile truly breaking down one afternoon, leaving my sister, my brother, and I to spend several hours at the Bodie Lighthouse while the car was being repaired. My sister and brother watched the same introductory video several dozen times. This didn't appeal to me, so I spent the afternoon gazing at an aquarium where a crab was trying repeatedly to devour a terribly sick fish which was swimming upside down. Finally, after my brother and sister had joined me, the crab achieved her task and we all cheered. One evening, we went to see a reenactment of the lost colony of Roanoke, which was no longer lost a few years later when it was discovered by some archaeologists and reported in National Geographic.
My parents had heard from allegedly well-informed individuals that we should visit an island to the south called Okracoke. This involved having to drive our car onto a special and somewhat costly ferry from the mainland. We did so, and when we arrived on Okracoke, there were wild horses running around. This thrilled me and my siblings, but was not what my parents had hoped for. Perhaps they expected some kind of upscale version of Disneyland, or a luxury resort, or something else. We drove for 14 miles along the entire length of the island, which had more wild horses, a lot of wildlife and huge trees, and no habitation. At the southern tip of the island were numerous tents and two restaurants: a fancy one and one which was clearly intended for the local working-class inhabitants. For whatever reason, my parents decided that we should eat at the more modest establishment, which my dad nicknamed "Okracoke's Finest Greasy Spoon". After we were seated, I was fascinated to overhear the conversation at the next rambunctious table, which sounded like English but wasn't any dialect with which I was familiar. A couple of decades later, I discovered that this island had one of the last remaining outposts of descendants who were still speaking a form of Elizabethan English. My parents were unaware of my linguistic observation, being primarily obsessed with whether our entrees were sufficiently cooked and whether the mushrooms in the soup were canned or fresh. I thought that our Okracoke visit was the most memorable part of our entire vacation, with the possible exception of visiting Kill Devil Hills where the Wright Brothers had made their historic first flight, but my mother declared on the 14-mile drive back to the ferry that "this was the biggest waste of time since aunt so-and-so took me on a trip to some long-forgotten town a few decades earlier". I immediately wished we could see that town also.
DAD'S ACCURATE PREMONITION (May 18, 2011): Near the end of 1974, when I was in ninth grade, my father called me into his home office. He loved to sit in an old wooden chair, to spread out all of his papers in a certain way, and to show me whatever he was working on. On top of his desk were about two dozen pamphlets of various kinds. "Can you tell what these are?" he asked me. I read carefully through one of the pamphlets, which was an eight-page summary of the financial markets with perhaps thirty charts of various "aggressive growth funds". All of the funds had lost at least one third of their value in less than two years, with some of them down by more than half; these losses were highlighted in boldface. "Do you want me to guess whether these funds will go up or down in 1975?" I inquired. "No, although your opinion on that topic would also be interesting. I'm going to help your Mom cook dinner. While I'm doing that, I'd like you to read through these carefully, and when you're done, let me know what you think." I spent about an hour comparing about fifteen financial newsletters of various kinds, and then I went to see my Dad who was ready to serve dinner. "Did you reach any conclusions?" he inquired. I told him, "Yes, I have. Even after reading all of these opinions, I don't know whether gold or the S&P 500 is going to go up or down, or what those aggressive growth funds are going to do. But it's obvious that most of these people need help with their writing. Even at the age of fourteen, I could edit all of these and make them sound much more professional and convincing." My dad looked me directly in the eye and replied: "It's a career that you should seriously consider, and it's probably more financially rewarding than being a professional musician or a fiction writer." "I don't know, Dad," I responded, "how do these people advertise their existence?" He thought for a moment and finally commented, "That's a good question, but you have several years to find the answer." As it turned out, I had more than several years, since it was almost 22 years later when I began my financial blog and more than 31 years before I started my daily subscription service. Father knew best, even if it took me a few decades to realize it.
STEALING A MIDDLE-AGES SCOTTISH LOGO (April 24, 2011): Last week I visited the Bolton Hill neighborhood in Baltimore where I used to live. I was walking by one house with its classic marble steps, which were being cleaned in a fashion I had never seen before: using some kind of modern contraption instead of the traditional scrub brush. The husband of the woman doing the cleaning told me: "My wife is really cheating, since she knows she should be down on her knees doing it the old-fashioned way." Just then a fellow walked by to see what was going on. I told him, "I used to live in the neighborhood," and gave him my former address from the 1980s. He responded: "I live in that house now." We talked for awhile about how he had fixed the place up, and the beautiful stained glass, and the enclosed back garden, and some other unique features including a few former notable residents. He finally said to me, "Let me have your business card, and I'll arrange for you to see what it looks like these days." When I gave it to him, he gasped and showed me a pendant which he carried in his pocket. He excitedly exclaimed: "Look closely at my family's Scottish crest, which dates back to around 1300. Notice the brown fishes all swimming to the right, and one white fish swimming to the left. [My logo has several brown horses running to the right, and one white horse running to the left.] The surrouding Scottish motto can be translated as "he who goes against the consensus achieves the greatest prosperity". I couldn't believe what I was seeing, but had to admit that besides our sharing the same address in different decades, our philosophies were startlingly similar. It was also an unusual coincidence that we encountered each other at the same place and at the same time. Would you call this a Black Swan event, or was it inevitable?
RUDE JAPANESE? (April 4, 2011): In October and November 1987, I spent two wonderful weeks in Tokyo. One morning I took the subway to a sushi restaurant in Nihonbashi, the traditional business center of the city. It was about 11:15 a.m., and there were surprisingly few people in a carryout place which had a reputation for having among the best-prepared lunch dishes in the financial district. The owner spoke with me, partly in his poor English and partly with my poor Japanese, and we ended up chatting for more than a half hour. Suddenly, he told me in clear English: "You should leave the restaurant now." I was puzzled why he would suddenly behave so brusquely after we had such an intimate conversation about our personal lives. Disappointed, I went ahead and took his advice. Within a minute of my walking out, a huge crowd of people suddenly emerged, pushing and elbowing their way into the restaurant. Puzzled, I asked someone nearby who from his mannerisms appeared to be an American expatriate who was fully familiar with the local scene. "Everyone around here hates to take a break from work for lunch unless everyone else is also taking a break at the same time. People don't even like to take a vacation unless their co-workers are all taking vacations the same week. So exactly at twelve noon or a few minutes afterward, when the head boss in any office gets up from his desk to go to lunch, a thousand lower-ranking co-workers will follow his lead and do likewise. The restaurants all suddenly get crowded simultaneously and everyone tries to be first in line. Hopefully the owner was kind enough to warn you in advance so you didn't get trampled." I responded, "Indeed, he did exactly that, although I thought foolishly that he was being rude rather than being considerate." I ended up returning to the same sushi place several times during my stay, and was smart enough to remember to leave on my own each time in advance of the noon crush.
FIRST-EVER RESTAURANT CUSTOMERS (March 7, 2011): In the early 1980s, I went to visit a good friend from high school who was attending the University of Chicago. We were exploring a part of the city which was far from the university, and stumbled upon an Indian grocery. I spent most of my time perusing the unusual array of spices and foods, and then my eyes noticed a collection of cassette tapes. "These are only 1.50 or two dollars," the proprietor told me, "maybe you would like to try this collection of ghazals, which are love songs." I bought a tape entitled "Main Aur Meri Tanhai" featuring Jagjit and Chitra Singh; the store owner explained that it was one of the best-selling song collections which had come out very recently and was extremely popular in India. As we were about to leave, he told us: "We are just starting a brand-new restaurant in the space next door. Perhaps you two would like to be my first customers for lunch." We looked into the adjacent room and saw a rickety old refrigerator laboring away in the corner; a few spare tables; no decor; and walls which hadn't been touched in many years. Nonetheless, we decided to give it a try. He recommended that we start with mango lassis, and took a fresh mango from the grocery into the small cooking area in order to prepare them. The entire meal took a long time since everything had to be similarly carried by hand from one room to the other, with no assistants. It was excellent and we were delighted to receive constant personal attention. We ended up coming back two more times that week, and enjoyed an entirely different combination of dishes each time. For whatever reason, we ended up not returning until January 1990. We were amazed to see the exact same space, except the grocery had become part of the newly expanded restaurant--complete with white tablecloths, a completely full dining area even during a relatively early hour for dinner, and a small line of people waiting for tables. The headwaiter asked if we wanted to put our names down for reservations, and then looked at us more closely. "Weren't you here a long time ago?" he inquired. "Yes, we were your very first customers." "Ah, the mango lassi and the tape of ghazals!" he laughed. How he had remembered those details I don't know. We received extra special service that evening, and made sure to go back there several times during my next few visits to Chicago. Meanwhile, I have memorized my favorite song on the tape, "Hum Bhi Sharabi", and perform it sometimes at special events.
HAUGHTY PRINCESS (February 21, 2011): (I have had to leave out a few details in order to protect the privacy of the individuals involved.) Several years ago, I had traveled to a different part of the world. I stayed at a bed and breakfast which was run by an artistic woman. On the day I arrived, my hostess was scheduled to have a nighttime opening of her latest creations at an art gallery in town, and invited me to attend. I slept for several hours in advance of the event, and when I arrived I was lively and outgoing. This was fortunate, since a planned cocktail party continued for several hours beyond the scheduled time. After being introduced by the artist to several of her friends, a woman approached me and began to speak with me in Spanish. I was a bit puzzled by her choice, but since several languages were being spoken all around me with people switching effortlessly back and forth, I figured that I'd try my best to remember my five years of junior-high and high-school Spanish. After several minutes of initially struggling, I was able to converse more competently than I had expected. We ended up carrying on a lengthy discussion, which eventually turned to a sort of question-and-answer quiz about a particular country, which by pure chance I had been required to write about when I was in eighth or ninth grade. She seemed surprised at my complete ignorance of some facts, and my precise detail about others. We ended up chatting for about two hours altogether--after which she told me in slightly accented English, "I'm impressed. Of course I can speak your native language fluently, but I wanted to test you out. Since I'm the Princess of _________ , I'm entitled to act a bit royally now and then." She left me her business card containing a local address and quickly departed. I turned to my bed-and-breakfast hostess and told her what had happened, and asked if I had been played for a fool. "I can tell you that she really is the Princess of ________ . I met her through the friend of a friend, who told me to invite her to this event, and to promise not to let anyone know who she was or that she would be here." The next day, I stopped by the Princess' local office, but was told that she "suddenly had to leave for ________ and doesn't know when she'll be back". I never saw the Princess again.
CENTREVILLE (January 31, 2011): Several years ago, my sister and I were both visiting our parents in Baltimore at the same time. She wanted to visit a small quaint town on the Eastern Shore called Centreville. After driving and chatting while crossing the scenic Bay Bridge, we soon arrived in town and walked on the old, uneven brick sidewalks. We stopped in the local library, where they were having a book sale. I looked at a few of them, expecting the usual Stephen King paperbacks, Readers' Digest Condensed Books, and so on, and was stunned to find some real rarities. I told my sister, "Let's go across the street first to the general store." She asked me, "Don't you want to buy some of these books?" I responded, "Sure, but let's do that first." In the store, I saw that they had special bags of local pecans for six dollars, so I bought one and a few other unique items which could not have come from anyplace else. Then we went back to the book store and picked out some amazing stuff like a beautiful old photo book of London during the Blitz. When it was time to pay for the large collection I had accumulated, the librarian said to us: "Are you brother and sister?" "Yes," I remarked in surprise, "how did you know? Most people say we don't look at all alike." "You don't, but it's the way you act with each other. I see that you patronize our local businesses, so I'm going to give you everything at half price."
EYEING PANAMA TO MIAMI (January 19, 2011): In 2003, my wife and I decided to visit Panama. From the capital city, you can take a relaxing, inexpensive, slow boat ride to the island of Taboga, where you can watch the ships leaving the Panama Canal while enjoying the birds and other tropical scenery. While we were on the boat, we met a fellow who traveled around the world selling eyeglasses, and who had some amazing stories which were more than enough to last us during the entire hour to the island, and during the hour return trip. I gave him a CD of my original music as a parting gift. A few years later, my wife and I were in Miami and I heard someone shout my name from a distance. I approached the source of the voice, and looked at this fellow while he just stood there and smiled. "Do you remember me?" he teased. I responded by asking him if he was still selling eyeglasses, when he realized that I knew who he was and where we had met before. "Have you ever had this happen to you, where you see someone again whom you never thought you'd encounter?", I asked him. He told me, "Yes, it happens all the time. I've seen one guy five times in five different cities; I think he believes I'm stalking him."
SHRINKING (December 19, 2010): About a decade ago, I purchased so many shirts that I ended up with a large surplus, so I stopped buying them altogether. Earlier this month, I visited Florida, and due to a mysterious cause my suitcase literally burned sometime between check-in in Philadelphia and pick-up at Tampa's baggage claim. Since every single one of my shirts and pants had been destroyed, I knew I'd have to go shopping for new clothes. I went to a well-known store with several brands of men's clothing. The new pants fit exactly as they have always done, but I was frustrated when I discovered that all of the size large shirts were far too spacious to even remotely fit. I hadn't worn anything of size medium since I was a sophomore in high school, but needing something to wear I decided to try one of them as a last resort. Amazingly, every single brand I tried fit perfectly, so I ended up buying six new medium shirts. Not being in the clothing industry, my theory is that as Americans have become increasingly obese in recent years, manufacturers are adjusting by making more generous shirts for each size. As people who wear large gain weight, they continue to buy bigger large shirts; those who are medium keep buying bigger medium shirts. Everyone stays happy, fooling themselves into believing that they're just as slim as ever. Either that, or I've actually been shrinking rapidly, and will soon be able to audition as a munchkin in a sequel to the Wizard of Oz.
SONNY (November 28, 2010): When I was living in Baltimore, I didn't like driving in the snow, which often melted into slippery ice. In those days, I lived downtown and had a job in Hunt Valley, so on snowy days I would take a bus which fortunately stopped just down the street from the industrial-automation company where I worked. The bus only ran once an hour, so if I chose to take mass transit to work, the return bus ride always left at the same time and I soon became familiar with some of the regular passengers. The very first time I was on my return trip, I sat next to a grizzled old fellow with a mischievous smile in a window seat near the back who told me his name was Sonny, and who loved to tell stories about how Baltimore used to be "back when it was a real city and the working guy had a chance". I was startled when Sonny showed me a can of beer hidden deep inside his bag, and offered to share it with me. Knowing it must have been illegal to drink on a city bus, but wanting to be friendly, I gulped down a few sips of National Premium, which Sonny assured me was "still the best brew in Baltimore". Although the bus commute took about twice as much time as when I drove, since we made so many stops, I looked forward each winter to seeing Sonny and listening to his tales of the "good old days". In August 1985, I moved to New York City and that was the last I saw of him. In my mind, I imagine Sonny offering National Premium beer to some other young fellow who was fortunate enough to ride next to him on the Hunt Valley local.
HOMELESS IN MANHATTAN (October 31, 2010): In the 1980s, I was very fond of the "Travel" section of the Sunday New York Times, which unfortunately has since badly deteriorated in quality. I would often read only that section and ignore the remainder of the newspaper. In the more sophisticated sections of Manhattan, one could find as many as a dozen discarded Sunday papers in any street-corner wastebasket. One Sunday morning in 1989, I went jogging and didn't leave myself enough time to take a shower afterward before leaving to meet a few friends. I headed out in my clothes from the previous day, with my hair unbrushed and not having been cut for several weeks. Being in a rush, I took less time than usual to arrange myself, so my belt was asymmetric, my shoelaces were lopsided, and my clothes were more badly mismatched than I had realized. It was quite hot and humid, so I began to sweat as I walked quickly in the westernmost part of Greenwich Village, with its cobblestone streets and expensive row houses. I realized that my hair had become so stringy that I had difficulty keeping it out of my eyes, while my shirt was hanging out of my trousers and looking sloppy. I decided that before I would enter the meeting place with my buddies, I would go into a restaurant restroom and spend several minutes making myself more presentable. I spotted an ideal place for that purpose, but before entering, I noticed out of the corner of my eye that the Sunday New York Times "Travel" section was conveniently located on the top of a wastebasket just a few feet away. I reached over to pick it up with one hand, and put the other hand out to balance myself. I suddenly felt something metallic in my open hand. Puzzled, I looked to see that a well-dressed older woman had placed a quarter in my palm, and was walking away with her back to me. She must have perceived me to be a homeless man.
MOBILE TRADITIONS (July 12, 2010): In February 1999, my wife and I visited an ancient site in Mexico called Monte Alban. These ruins included a ball field where winning and losing could literally be a matter of life and death three thousand years ago. Most of the visitors were obvious tourists, but one couple stood out in their native dress and manners. Since my wife can speak Spanish fluently, we walked over and began to talk with them. They told us about how they appreciated the traditions of their ancestors which had sadly been lost through the centuries, which is why they wore clothing which had to be made laboriously by hand. Their lunches consisted of old-style recipes which had been passed down through generations and included no concessions to modern times. All of a sudden, I heard a cell phone ringing; the man pulled out his handset, which was much more modern than my own, and took the call. He quickly placed several buy and sell orders, since he was the head trader for an investment fund based in Mexico City. In much of the world, old and new have been learning to coexist in amazing ways.
CRASHING A UNIVERSITY PARTY (March 24, 2010): When I was a senior university undergraduate, I was walking one late Friday afternoon toward my apartment a few blocks away from the campus. Usually I wore very casual attire, but for the final class of the week I often dressed up since there was an event at the Rathskellar most Friday evenings which I liked to attend. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a group of people on the lawn who would not normally be there, and decided to take a detour to see what was going on. I was startled to see an array of lavish food and drink (alcoholic and otherwise) which rivaled that of the best restaurant in Baltimore. Not sure what to do, I noticed that everyone around me was wearing a name tag, and that immediately to my right was a table full of unclaimed name tags. I quickly went over, picked one up which looked reasonable, and put it on my shirt pocket. I then proceeded to mingle with the other folks; fortunately, my jacket and tie helped me to fit in comfortably, and I even met a few interesting people. I made sure not to overlook my main objective as I progressively enjoyed the fanciest meal during my entire time at college, eaten almost entirely with toothpicks as I frequently obtained refills of high-quality red wine. Fortunately, the person whose name tag I had appropriated either never showed up, or didn't notice what had happened, and not a single person displayed any doubt that I really belonged there. The next issue of the school newspaper had a front-page photo about a special reception to dedicate a new building on campus; while everyone else appeared to be toasting the camera, I was off to the side but still clearly visible, wine glass in hand, obviously intent on completing my repast.
FINDING ALPHA AVENUE (January 24, 2010): A few years ago, I took a business/personal trip to Toronto, a city which I have visited perhaps a dozen times because I have many relatives who live there. One Saturday morning when I had some free time, I decided to go jogging for a little over an hour. After running past a zoo and a cemetery, I found myself in a neighborhood of charming, relatively small historic houses with the sign "Welcome to Old Cabbagetown". The place looked vaguely familiar, so I figured perhaps I had briefly driven through the area at one time while on the way to someplace else. I ran down one street which looked more unusual than the others, even though it appeared to be a dead end; this led to an even more interesting block and yet another dead end. I looked up and saw the sign "Alpha Avenue". This suddenly triggered an event from two decades earlier which had become completely forgotten in my conscious memory.
In 1986, I visited Toronto with my girlfriend; we stayed at a bed and breakfast in Cabbagetown for several days. In that pre-internet era, it was more of a challenge to find landmarks in any part of the world. We had a book about Toronto which was wonderfully written, but which frustratingly had no maps whatsoever. While we were able to find most of the places in the book which sounded worthwhile, one place remained tantalizingly elusive throughout our trip: Alpha Avenue. For more than a year afterward, whenever we were unable to accomplish something, one of us would say that it was like trying to find Alpha Avenue. It became a metaphor for our relationship. After we broke up, the whole episode somehow vanished from my mind until I went for a jog 20 years later. It's odd how our memories can trick us in unexpected ways.
PROMISED LAND(S) (October 11, 2009): When I was attending college in Baltimore three decades ago, there was the Charles Theater, which showed the latest popular art films and which is still operating today--and then there was another cut-rate theater which showed more obscure art films, and which has long since gone out of business. In those pre-multiplex days, this cut-rate joint had only a single screen with a single film, which would be shown twice each evening. My best friend at school usually accompanied me to these events. General admission was $2.00, while the cost was just $1.00 for students and senior citizens; this disparity inevitably caused some arguments about exactly who qualified in both categories. One early winter evening's scheduled feature was "Promised Land" by Andrzej Wajda, the famous Polish film director. After the lights went down, the film began with a tank rolling across the desert; some murmurs of discontent began to be heard in the audience. After about one minute, the dialog began; while the subtitles were in English, the language being spoken was clearly Hebrew rather than Polish. There were louder mumblings from those watching the film; then the title was clearly displayed: "Promised Lands" by Susan Sontag. Pandemonium broke out as nearly everyone rushed simultaneously to receive a refund; with the confusion over how much each person had originally paid, it rapidly became nearly a mob scene. Some were shouting about the theater's incompetence in not even realizing that they had the wrong movie. I have not seen either film since then, but I will never forget every moment of the opening scene and especially the incredible emotional transformation of the audience.
MAYOR SERVING TEA (August 25, 2009): A few years ago, my wife and I decided to take a vacation in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. We selected a charming bed and breakfast run by Jim Addy and his wife, which had received strongly favorable reviews on several internet web sites. As we walked through the small, hilly city on our first day, we noticed a high frequency of political signs on many lawns: "Re-Elect Jim Addy, Mayor". As the bed-and-breakfast host was graciously pouring our tea the next morning, I asked him, "Am I being served by the mayor of this fine city?" "Indeed you are!" he replied. "We intentionally don't mention that fact in our advertising." By another odd coincidence, his wife had been my brother's English teacher at Baltimore Polytechnic High School before she retired. Unfortunately, whether due to the responsibilities of being mayor or for personal reasons, this bed and breakfast is no longer in business. I see that Jim Addy has invited President Obama to attend that city's 150th anniversary of John Brown's Raid which helped to start the U.S. Civil War.
FAMILY TIES (May 25, 2009): In December 2008, my wife and I visited New Orleans. It was an unusual visit in many ways; on our first day there, they had their heaviest snowfall in eight years. Kids had a wonderful time building snowmen which they had previously only seen on television. We walked through a fascinating neighborhood called Bywater, which includes the street named Desire, and serendipitously found ourselves at the monthly Bywater Art Market. We purchased an unusual wooden sculpture of a cat made from a gourd--but the real highlight of the market was a fellow selling huge, rich chocolate truffles. We bought several, and then ran into him the next day at another outdoor fair in Washington Square Park where several remnants of snowmen could still be found, at which we purchased several more. He had some free time, so I spoke with him at length and discovered that the chocolate maker and I were born and raised in the same neighborhood in Baltimore. A month later, when our family was making plans for our parents' 50th wedding anniversary, I discovered that the chocolatier's grandfather was the rabbi who officiated at my parents' wedding.
NOT NECESSARILY THE BAD GUYS (May 3, 2009): Earlier this month, I hosted my first True Contrarian conference. One of the features was touring New York City, which included walking on the boardwalk at Brighton Beach. We also stood on the front deck of the ferry from Manhattan to Staten Island and back, passing by the Statue of Liberty. As our group of thirty disembarked in Manhattan, carrying our conference bags, one middle-aged Staten Island fellow confronted the person who happened to be in front of our group and who was leading the way forward. It was not myself who was fated to face this inquisitor--but a bright young man named Martin. "What kind of group is this?" challenged the local Staten Island fellow, who appeared to be rather red in the face and excited about something. "We're part of a financial conference," Martin responded. The fellow turned angrier, and retorted, "Oh, so you're the ones who messed everything else up for the rest of us!" Martin began to respond, but the fellow continued, "Don't you think we should do something for the little guy in manufacturing who can't get a break?" Martin, who works for an oil refinery, immediately blurted, "I'm in manufacturing myself." The fellow brightened noticeably and said in a much calmer voice, "In that case, maybe you folks are okay, as long as you keep guys like us in mind and try to get us back working again the way things used to be." I'm not sure that we true contrarians can save the world, but at least we can try to help this fellow and those like him make the most of the money they have been able to save.
MURDER SHE BAKED (February 16, 2009): In August 2003, my wife and I were traveling through one of our favorite U.S. states--which name I will intentionally not mention here. We were in transit from one bed-and-breakfast inn to another, and decided to stop in a local pizza place for supper. The front door was closed, but we heard lots of voices near the back, so we walked around and found a massive pizza-making operation in full swing. The setup was completely informal, as though they weren't expecting any customers. We spoke with one of the workers who was taking a break, and discovered that this establishment had built up quite a nationwide reputation; they mail-ordered thousands of their brand-name pizzas all over the country each week. We watched as the dozen or so workers, all in their late teens and early 20s, formed an elaborate assembly line: throwing the dough into the air; forming the pizzas; putting sauces and other goodies on them; running to put the pizzas into their boxes for shipping; and other highly kinetic activities. Everyone was generally laughing, sometimes cursing, and otherwise appearing to enjoy a wonderful time. I was astonished that with their being constantly in motion, they did not tire out more easily.
I walked over toward the lively assembly line, and commented to someone that they seemed to get along amazingly well with each other. This statement was followed at first by complete silence, and then by hilarious laughter which seemed far out of proportion to my remark. A short while later, they huddled in the corner for what looked like a brief private conference, after which they gradually became as animated as they had been at the beginning. Our meal was delicious, and I made sure to thank them profusely before we left.
When we arrived at our inn, the proprietress asked us where we had eaten dinner. We told her, and her eyes opened wide. "You mean they're still serving over there?" she exclaimed, rather surprised. "Sure," I responded. "We had to go around back to get in. They didn't have any formal tables set up, but when they saw us, they found a couple of chairs and an old bench, and brought us a pizza with tap water on the side." "I guess you don't know the story," she sighed. "Last summer, one of the young workers was shot and killed in back of the place, a couple of hundred yards away from the building. They never figured out who did it, but they lost their license to operate as a local restaurant. They only do mail orders these days; the internet has really helped them stay in business. You must have been the first people to eat a sit-down meal there since last year. The local newspapers still mention the incident every now and then, but everyone figures it's just one of those cases which will probably always remain unsolved."
ARMENIAN PIZZA (January 19, 2009): Shortly after I graduated from college, I met a fascinating fellow who was born and raised in the Armenian Quarter of Jerusalem. His name is Mike Benlian. When he was seventeen, his entire family moved to the Boston suburbs, which for him was a huge culture shock. He was also a true contrarian of sorts; I used to suggest that we play tennis at my favorite courts, but he said: why go there since the courts are too crowded? So we drove instead to Glen Burnie, a working-glass suburb, and sure enough there were tennis courts available even at the busiest times while the softball fields and basketball courts were overcrowded.
One of Mike's goals was to find the cheapest falafel place in the Baltimore area, which took on the aura of a holy grail as we would travel from place to place, often not knowing the exact address or the name of the establishment. (At least we got to learn the back streets quite well, even miles away from home.) He often made homemade pizza for both of us and dreamed about opening his own pizza place, which he planned to name "I Love You Pizza". Mike had an incredibly dry sense of humor which influenced my own way of thinking about the world. We usually got together at least a few times per month, sometimes just sitting around talking about how if we were in charge, the world would be a much better place. Whatever he did was performed with incredible energy, with even ordinary household chores always pursued with the most amazing degree of concentration. Sadly, when we both left Baltimore in 1985, we somehow didn't stay as close over the long distance. I hope Mike found his falafel heaven and that there's an "I Love You Pizza" out there somewhere.
FADED MORNING SUN (November 28, 2008): When I was a teenager, I had a newspaper route for several years. I would wake up at exactly 4 a.m. every day to bundle Baltimore's "Morning Sun"; after riding my bike on the route, I would be finished shortly after 5 a.m. After having breakfast with my father who woke up each business day at five, I would usually go back to sleep for an hour before rising again to go to school. Since it was my responsibility to collect payments in addition to making deliveries, I made sure to deliver all papers on the porch instead of just tossing them carelessly in the general area of the driveway. I prided myself in being able to hit almost any exact spot from a long distance, and often collected some generous tips from customers.
One afternoon shortly after I returned home from school, a fellow with a gruff voice called to complain that he hadn't received his newspaper on a particular morning two weeks earlier. I asked why it took him so long to notice, and he responded that he realized it immediately--but he had been very busy that month. I suggested that maybe he had simply forgotten, or that someone else had brought in the newspaper. He sounded certain, so I agreed to stop by to discuss it with him.
When I first arrived, I stuck with my story that he must simply have misplaced it. However, out of the corner of my eye, I could see something in the bushes which to my peripheral vision appeared more and more like a yellowed copy of an old newspaper. I tried to avoid staring directly at it, while my argument became increasingly feeble as I realized he was right. Finally, I apologized profusely to the fellow, reimbursed him for the missing paper--and when I was sure that he was well inside his house, quickly retrieved the sun-faded Morning Sun out of the bushes and brought it home.
HORSING AROUND (November 9, 2008): I was invited to be the featured speaker at a financial conference in Costa Rica near the end of 2007. Among other amazing activities, about a dozen of us rode horseback on the beach by the Pacific Ocean just south of the city of Jaco. We were trotting along in a leisurely fashion, when suddenly one woman and her horse started flying down a small side road at about 30 miles per hour (48 kph)! We were startled and afraid, since she was less than a half minute away from intersecting the main coastal highway with its cars and trucks surging at twice that speed. Fortunately, the manager of the equestrian club was able to coax his own horse to accelerate rapidly enough to overtake the runaway steed and to push the wayward animal into a ditch just a few seconds before both had reached the highway--with only minor injuries to all involved. We later discovered that this woman's stallion was a retired racehorse that had not run at such speeds for several months--but which must have gone through a middle-aged crisis and wanted to regain its lost youth.
ATTORNEY'S GAMESMANSHIP (September 21, 2008): There is a card game called Pit that I learned as a teenager, which is great when you have five people and your original planned outdoors event is rained out. It's easy to learn--you have five different "suits" each of nine cards, and the cards are shuffled, giving nine to each player. (Nine of the Jacks, Queens, and Kings count as a separate "suit".) You repeatedly trade your cards with other players, by shouting out the number of cards that you have of a particular suit (you don't mention the suit) which you then trade with someone else who shouts out the same number. So if you shout "three", then you wait for someone else to also shout "three", and you then give that person three of one suit (such as hearts) for three of whatever suit that person wants to give up. (It's cheating if your three cards traded consist of two or more suits.) Any number from one to eight of one suit can be traded at a time. As soon as you have accumulated all nine cards of any given suit, you put your cards face up on the table and declare victory. If two players get nine of the same suit simultaneously, the first one to place his or her cards on the table wins.
I made the unforgivable error of playing this five-handed game with one attorney among the five players. Everything went fine for about a half hour. Then, we experienced a hand which seemed to go on interminably. After about ten minutes, I looked over at the attorney; he was just calmly smiling, and not trading with anyone. After several more minutes of being puzzled, I finally realized what had occurred: he had accumulated at least one card of each of the five suits. While he couldn't possibly win that round, he knew that no one else would prevail, either! I'll let you figure out the moral of this true tale for yourself.
HAILING A TAXI FROM AN AUTOMOBILE (September 7, 2008): When I lived in Baltimore, I wanted to visit my best friend from high school who was going to school at the University of Chicago. There were no direct flights from Baltimore, so I booked a trip from Washington National [now called Ronald Reagan]. Although I thought I had left plenty of time to drive there, I became hopelessly confused as many of the main streets were blocked off for some political function or another, and I hadn't studied the route well enough in advance. While mired in a particularly bewildering stretch with a lot of traffic circles, I noticed that a D.C. taxicab was driving immediately to my left. I motioned to the driver--who may have thought I was crazy, but who had the presence of mind to pull over to the side of the road where I joined him. "I'd like you to take me to the airport," I pleaded, "but first you have to take me to a parking lot where I can drop off my car." Fortunately, he knew of a reasonably-priced place nearby, and I made it to the airport just in time. The toughest part was remembering how to get back to that parking lot in the dark when I returned home from Chicago on a night flight.
TRAINED SQUIRREL (August 10, 2008): Two decades ago, I worked for a company which sent me on a business trip to a suburb of Albany, New York one weekend per month. One autumn Sunday, I decided to explore downtown and walked around the area near the state office buildings. I was carrying a small bag of food, and stopped for a break on a park bench before continuing with my tour. I was startled to observe that a squirrel, spotting my food, scampered within an inch or two of my fingers--as though he expected me to feed him. I withdrew a cracker from my bag and, sure enough, he gently took it from me. I was quite surprised by this, until I realized that I was seated in an enclosed, tree-shaded area of about a dozen closely-spaced benches where the local office workers probably took their daily lunch breaks. Over a period of weeks or months, they must have domesticated this squirrel to the point where he no longer feared humans and expected them to give him treats. I went back the next month and he was there waiting to receive my goodies. After that, though, even though I returned to the same bench several more times, I never saw him again.
PAPER TRAIL (July 27, 2008): When I was in my senior year in high school, I took a class entitled "Introduction to Computer Programming". The course was so new that the teacher had to take a special intensive summer class to understand the material. At that time, there was only one computer in the entire county where I lived, so our class had to get there via a bus ride once every second Monday. There weren't enough keypunch machines for us to punch our old-fashioned Hollerith cards, so we had to buy black Sharpee markers to construct our program "decks". If we needed extra time to finish our work, we had to arrange for private carpools on Wednesday afternoons for those of us who were fortunate enough to have both drivers' licenses and automobiles. Every now and then, a hapless student would instruct the printer to spew out reams of paper at a time, which always caused the computer operator to become incredibly enraged and to treat our entire class to a stern lecture. Fortunately our teacher maintained a wonderful sense of humor throughout the year which contributed greatly to our interest in the topic.
After having so much fun in high school, I decided to take a somewhat more advanced class during my first semester at college. Unfortunately, the professor was far less inspired and interested in his students than my high-school teacher had been, so the class (for me, at least) soon deteriorated into boredom and confusion. When it was time for the final exam, we were supposed to find a computer terminal and figure out how to write a computer program to accomplish a particular task. I was rather slow in getting to the computer room: by the time I arrived, all of the terminals were taken except for some ancient machines that loudly clanged with each keystroke and printed out cheap, faded yellow paper. So I was stuck having to work for eight consecutive hours with paper constantly pouring out and forming a huge yellow mass that soon covered my entire working area.
By the time I was finished, I had no idea how to arrange my work into a coherent summary. So I just played around with the massive paper roll for about a half hour, and finally figured out how to roll it into a scroll somewhat resembling a Torah (and nearly as thick). I found a huge rubber band that held it in one piece, and handed it in. Being completely indifferent at that point, I figured the professor may as well fail me if he wanted to. Amazingly, I got a better grade than most other students--since I was "humble enough to do my work using a permanent medium--and to show, step by step, all the mistakes I had made before I finally figured out a correct solution."
SNEAKY MOVES WITH PEANUTS (July 14, 2008): It has been very trendy lately, with a slowing global economy, to tell stories about being frugal--so I figured why not give my own penny-pinching reminiscence.
When I was a kid, my mother's father took me to some wonderful baseball games at the old Memorial Stadium in Baltimore, the predecessor to Camden Yards. I got hooked on the American League sport, and soon learned to root against the New York Yankees. After college, I moved to New York City and began to regularly purchase discounted mini season-ticket Yankees' packages that would go on sale around Thanksgiving for the following year. I always select the best bargain seats that are still available, but since there are so many season-ticket holders whose families go back decades, this still means sitting pretty far away from home plate.
Lately I've been going to "the Stadium" with a die-hard lifetime Yankee fan named Keith, who knew the names of all the retired Yankees' numbers even before he could read or write. We naturally prefer to watch from a closer vantage point than our official seats, which means moving down surreptitiously during the game. Our favorite move is to go to the loge section--even better, the MVP loge section, if possible, close to where the broadcasters view the game. Wearing a tie and general business attire helps greatly; the ushers usually challenge others to show their tickets, while moving aside for us and apologizing while doing so.
Several weeks ago, we attended the debut pitching performance of phenom Joba Chamberlain. With very few unoccupied spots available, I was reluctant to try to improve our location, but Keith insisted. As we were heading toward the lower and closer area of the ballpark, I grabbed a barely touched bag of peanuts that some fans had left in their haste before departing the game quite early. When we identified one of the very few pairs of seats in the loge section that were unoccupied and sat down, I immediately offered those peanuts to the guy sitting next to me. This had the desired effect of convincing the nearby usher that it really was our assigned area. By the end of the game, our somewhat inebriated neighbor who had eaten almost the entire bag of peanuts started calling me his best friend. It was truly a grand time at the old Stadium.
HALE AND HEARTY HIKER (July 1, 2008): My wife and I went hiking several years ago on a steep trail in a town called Gold Bar, Washington. We had just completed most of the ascent, when we realized that it was about to turn nearly vertical. We took a break to admire the marvelous view, and wondered whether we should continue to the top of the mountain. Just then, a fellow who must have been in his 80s rapidly approached behind us, and without hesitation, continued rapidly toward the summit. We were astonished, and wondered who he might be. When he passed us again on the way down, we asked him if he had hiked this mountain before. "Only about a dozen times a day, nowadays," he responded as he continued to quickly descend. "As you can see, I'm not as young as I used to be, and I carry this walking cane with me most of the time. But the view is as magnificent as ever, and I'm not going to allow myself to deteriorate without a fight."
NEXT STOP, WILMINGTON (June 26, 2008): When I was in high school, I had a friend named Ken whose father Sal loved to tell stories around the dinner table. Unlike myself and most of my friends who ate our biggest meal of the day around six or seven in the evening, my friend and his family dined at 3:30 sharp--which also made it convenient to watch "All in the Family" on TV. After school ended at 2:30 p.m., Ken and I would often walk over to his house, so I was invited to quite a few dinners through the years (my mother always wondered why I wasn't as hungry as I should be). Sal's favorite story was about the time when he was helping his oldest son load several heavy packages onto the train at Penn Station in downtown Baltimore. He was about to leave, but the doors had firmly shut and could not be opened even with several other people trying to assist. By the time he found a conductor, the train had left the station--on its way to the next stop more than 60 miles away in Wilmington, Delaware. In those days before cell phones, all Sal could do was to make an expensive long-distance call when he finally arrived in Delaware and tell his wife that he'd be quite late for dinner that day, as he was in Wilmington and would have to wait for the next train back. As the years went on, this tale accumulated numerous additional humorous embellishments which may not have been entirely true.
Sal pretended to forget that he had recounted one or another version of this story dozens of times earlier, so he would frequently retell it and improve upon his earlier attempts. One fine Saturday morning, my father drove his brother, who lived in New York, to the Baltimore train station and still had not returned after nearly two hours. Finally, the telephone rang and my mother answered it. "You'll never guess where your father is!" she screamed. "Wilmington, Delaware, no doubt," I calmly replied.
LAST STOP IN ARLINGTON (June 15, 2008): For many years, I took a commuter train at 9:30 p.m. which stopped in my town exactly seventeen minutes later. I took this train so often that I got to know practically everyone else who rode it along with me, including especially the gregarious conductor who had been in charge of that route since about the time I was born, and was close to retirement. We used to talk about everything from the weather to the financial markets to what we were planning for our weekends. Several years ago, there was a political maneuver by a wealthy nearby town which caused this locomotive service that had operated since just after the Civil War to be permanently terminated in September 2004 in my town and in two other towns. On the last scheduled day of its operation, I had to take an earlier commuter train for an important meeting--but I headed out after dinner to the train station to say a final goodbye to my favorite conductor whom I knew would be passing through my town for the very last time. When he arrived, even though it was after dark, he somehow knew to look for me and saw me standing on the platform. I expected him to wave and maybe say a few words; instead, he completely stopped the train and talked with me for several minutes, lamenting the concept of "progress" before finally starting up the train again and completing his ultimate ride on that line.
SHEEPISH JOGGER SURPRISE (June 1, 2008): Each year, the city of Montclair, New Jersey has a special festival in their largest open meadow entitled "May in Montclair". One of the most popular features is an exhibition of real Scottish border collies by world-renowned trainers of those dogs. The handler wows the audience by showing how sheep and geese will move together in the exact direction that he requests, by using his dogs to herd them. Several years ago, he began the demonstration as he usually does, by letting three sheep out of their holding pens. He didn't expect that his sheep would dash off toward the end of the meadow and beyond, traveling well over 20 miles per hour. You should have seen the looks on the faces of a pair of joggers on a nearby running path when these three sheep suddenly bounded in front of them, practically knocking them over, followed shortly thereafter by one very eager border collie.
WESTMORE BEAN (May 11, 2008): In July of 2000, my wife and I stayed at a bed and breakfast place in Bermuda that was owned by a wonderful man named Westmore Bean, who rented out the basement of his house to us. Mr. Bean taught me the rules of cricket, cooked some local specialties, and reminisced about life on the island going back to the 1920s. In preparation for the trip, I had printed out roughly 200 pages from the internet which dealt with all aspects of the history of Bermuda: why people wear Bermuda shorts, what to see in each of the individual islands, and so on.
On the night before our flight home, our place was covered with randomly scattered internet printouts, as I had been too lazy to put them into any kind of meaningful format. I wasn't eager to bring the huge amount of paper back on the return flight, so I tried to throw it out--but I could not fit it into the trash can, since it was in such disorganized form. I therefore sat down to put it into a single pile that could be easily discarded. While I was doing that, I began to organize the papers into categories: by island, west to east; by historical significance, earliest to latest. Before I knew it, the whole pile was perfectly arranged--and so I couldn't bear to throw it out! So I simply left it for Mr. Bean to take care of after we left. As a gift after we got back to the U.S., I mailed him a videocassette of "That Touch of Mink", starring Cary Grant and Doris Day, which Mr. Bean had watched being filmed just one block away from his house.
In April 2004, we returned to Bermuda. His bed and breakfast was no longer in operation, so we stayed elsewhere. We decided to pay Mr. Bean a surprise visit. It turned out that he converted the basement into a long-term rental. We sat for more than an hour, talking about everything that had happened since we were last there. Unfortunately, his wife had recently passed away. As we were about to depart, Mr. Bean thanked me for the video, and said, "Before you go, let me show you something which you'll find interesting." He returned with a book, bound by hand, which contained all of the 200 pages that I had left in a pile. A friend of his who was cleaning the place after our departure had noticed it, and decided to surprise him by having it specially bound at a local print shop. Mr. Bean showed off the book proudly to everyone who came to visit.
In his early 90s, Mr. Bean died less than a half year ago. He will be missed.
SHADY KELLY (May 4, 2008): When I was in high school, I had a friend named Kelly who enjoyed playing Led Zeppelin songs on electric guitar. Being a pianist myself, we worked out duets and performed in the neighborhood. When not playing music, Kelly was the biggest sweet talker (a.k.a. b.s.-er) that you could imagine. One day, I bet him lunch that if I dialed a number at random, he couldn't keep the person on the telephone for a full minute. He immediately accepted my challenge. I literally just picked out numbers without even looking at them, and a woman answered the phone. Kelly not only was able to keep the conversation going for more than three minutes, but in another three minutes had arranged a date with this woman. After high school, I didn't see him again for about a decade, when I ran into him in a well-known local music store where he was looking for some special guitar picks. Not surprisingly, he had become the lead salesman for some kind of shady outfit. I'm sure he's still out there selling timeshares or arranging subprime mortgages, and working on the arrangements for a few Zeppelin tunes.
JAN MINKOWSKI (April 27, 2008): When I was a student at Johns Hopkins, my academic adviser was Dr. Jan Minkowski. He was the kind of person who cared about not just the obvious academic achievements of his students, but also their lives as a whole. When I was having difficulty deciding which classes to take in my sophomore year, he suggested, "Take differential equations--that's something you'll use over and over again." I responded naively, "I'm sure that once I finish my final, I'll never see another differential equation in my life." I was wrong; for more than a decade, I have been working with differential equations every day in computing options prices. He knew exactly which professors made their classes interesting, and who made their students learn how to think. Dr. Minkowski also made sure that I was introduced to ideas and people who later made a major difference in my life. On graduation day, he somehow located me amidst the massive crowd of students to give me some final words of encouragement. Sadly, Dr. Minkowski died before I had a chance to go back and thank him.
CHESS CLUB KISS (March 31, 2008): When I was in college, I joined the chess club which used to meet each Saturday night starting around 9 p.m. and often going well past midnight. The only room large enough for us to meet at that time was in the same building and also the same floor as the university's Rathskeller, which used to blare loud disco music most Saturday nights. Eventually, we got used to playing chess with "Staying Alive" in the background and the reflections created by bright strobe lights.
On one Saturday evening, the disco DJ stayed home and I was invited to perform at the Rathskeller on a grand piano for a special "Western Night". This was great fun, as people crowded around the piano to sing some old cowboy songs from the 1800s. Around midnight, so many people were leaning on one side of the piano that its weakest leg gave way and it suddenly collapsed onto the floor, dragging down a few dozen beers and creating an amazing mess--not to mention a loud dissonant crash. Luckily, there were no real injuries. I brushed myself off and walked over to the chess club to see if anyone was still around.
There were still several intense chess matches in progress, so I sat down and watched. Not one person noticed that I was dressed as a cowboy with a ten-gallon hat. A few minutes later, a few of the women who had been gathered around the piano noticed me sitting in the club and walked over. One of them gave me a passionate kiss--which finally induced a few of the chess players to look up from their games.
CHI SQUARE MEMORIESEMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (February 18, 2008): When my sister Beth was in ninth grade, she began an independent science project that took several months to design and investigate. She created a special colorful display on a wooden board; she accumulated a huge amount of data; and one day after exhausting herself with some meticulous painting, she asked me what I thought. I looked carefully at everything, and finally told her truthfully, "You've done a wonderful job collecting information, and your artistic ability is amazing. What you need is some way of connecting it all together." "Can you be more specific?", my sister insisted. "I'm not even sure what I'm looking for," I admitted. "Let me study it this weekend." That Saturday afternoon after piano and composition classes at the Peabody Preparatory, I went to my favorite hideout, the Enoch Pratt Free Library in Baltimore, and spent a few hours skimming through several science books. I was beginning to get discouraged, when finally I discovered something called the "chi-square test". I borrowed the book, studied it, and explained it to my sister. She immediately realized its importance, and redesigned her entire project as though she had years of experience with significance levels and frequency distributions. In a major regional competition, my sister won numerous awards from the state statistical society and other organizations.
AUSTRALIAN BUSKER IN TAKADANOBABA (February 12, 2008): I visited Tokyo for just over two weeks in October and November 1987. When I was there, I stayed at a traditional Japanese inn which had one distinctly nontraditional feature: all of the other guests besides myself were working full time on tourist visas. One fellow was a lively Australian chap from Brisbane, who sang and played traditional American and Australian folk songs on his guitar near subway stops. That might sound like an unpromising way to survive in the world's most populous city, but he actually earned more money than any of the other people who were staying at the inn. From time to time, passersby would leave him tips as large as ten thousand yen (at that time, about $70 U.S.). Having stayed for more than two years at this inn, he coaxed the proprietress into giving him a special monthly rate and in eventually occupying the most desirable room available. We discovered that we could both speak some Spanish, so we would converse in that language when we did not want the other residents to understand what we were saying. That was especially true when he told me about his unfortunate and rather lengthy experience in a Mexican jail after he was caught with a small amount of marijuana on a music tour. Some of this guy's adventures, if they were true, would make Crocodile Dundee seem like a hopeless wimp in comparison, although they can not all be reprinted on a family-friendly web site. This chap made friends with the inn's other residents by always having on hand a generous supply of high-quality whiskey.
MY USUAL TWO CONSECUTIVE DINNERS (January 21, 2008): In May 1984, I decided to drive from Baltimore to Chicago to visit a good friend from high school who had moved there. His older sister was also living in the Windy City at that time. I usually flew, but for whatever odd reason, for the first and only time, I decided to drive. After supper, I began to head west into the sunset of the Blue Ridge Mountains at 6 p.m. on a Wednesday evening and arrived at 4 p.m. the following day, having driven for 16 hours and taken two separate 3-hour naps on my car seat in the parking lots of two chain motels. I didn't bother to stop for food along the way. (That's what I call traveling in style!) When I finally arrived in Chicago, I contacted my friend and invited him out to dinner. We had quite a full meal, after which his sister unexpectedly called and invited both of us to have dinner with her an hour later. Naturally, we accepted, and all of us went to a popular Thai restaurant where I eagerly downed a second and even larger feast. My friend, not surprisingly, was barely able to eat anything. "What's wrong with you?" his sister worried. "Don't you have a good appetite these days?" "Maybe he's not accustomed to the spicy Thai seasoning," I suggested with a sly smile.
TWO-SONG WIZARD OF OZ (January 8, 2008): When I was in second grade, we moved from one part of Baltimore to another. At the new school, each class was learning a different song for the school musical to be performed in December, "The Wizard of Oz". The assigned song for our class was "Ding, Dong, the Witch is Dead", and since we had moved several weeks after the fall semester had started, I worked diligently each evening and even on the weekend to memorize the words so I could catch up with everyone else. Finally, I came in one day confident that I would be able to sing along with the other students in the class--and that day I was abruptly transferred to a different class. "No!" I screamed, "not a whole new song!" (The story has a happy ending, as I was able to eventually also memorize "Follow the Yellow Brick Road".)
JACK MARTIN (December 12, 2007): When I was in high school, the father of one of my best friends became my buddy. His name was Jack Martin, and we shared a love of music. Especially during my college years and for a few years thereafter, we went to see some truly great jazz and folk performers together: Count Basie; Pete Seeger with Arlo Guthrie; Oscar Peterson; Ahmad Jamal; Anita O'Day with Harry "Sweets" Edison; the Modern Jazz Quartet. I especially remember a concert in a small, crowded club in downtown Baltimore featuring the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli; during a break between sets, the violinist's forty-something backup band took a much-needed break, while Mr. Grappelli himself, at that time in his mid-70s, played jazz piano throughout the intermission.
My favorite time with Jack was a fine early summer day in 1984. We drove early in the morning to a waterfall in western Maryland where we sat and talked about life for several hours. In the afternoon, we went to visit a friend of his who had four musical children. They each performed a classical piece in turn on their various instruments, starting with the youngest, as I accompanied them on the piano. The oldest one, about sixteen years of age, played Bach's Violin Concerto #2; this well-known work has a piano reduction that would have been impossible for me to sightread competently if I had not practically memorized it several years earlier to win a statewide competition with a violinist friend in high school. All of us shared a delicious and leisurely dinner together before we returned home. Either before or since, I cannot recall a more memorable day.
MEETING JANET HALFWAY (November 26, 2007): When we were growing up together in Baltimore, my sister had a close friend for many years named Janet. Unfortunately for my sister, Janet's father was given a promotion which involved moving to Buffalo, New York, which is several hundred miles away. About two years after they moved away, our family drove to Toronto to visit our cousins. As we pulled into a motel in a small town called Painted Post, New York, the immediately adjacent parking place was simultaneously taken by Janet and her family, who--unknown to us--were driving to Virginia Beach for a vacation. That remains to this day as the most remarkable coincidence that I have personally experienced. It was a somewhat embarrassing event for Janet's father who was scolding Janet as we got out of the car, not realizing that we were right next to them quietly watching--except for my sister who was jumping excitedly up and down.
The same evening, our two families enjoyed a wonderful dinner together. Afterward, having forgotten that we had driven so far during the day, I turned on my favorite radio which I had packed and which was tuned as usual to listen to the Baltimore Orioles' baseball game. In another surprise, the game came in almost as clearly as if we had been in Baltimore--I guess the same AM radio frequency was not used for a very long distance north of my home town.
BEUCHNER'S LIBRARY CARD (November 11, 2007): When I was studying at Peabody Institute in Baltimore, there was a fellow who used to hang out with me named David Buechner. Even in those days, he was a sensitive and intelligent performer who often discovered nuances of interpretation that I had overlooked, and therefore I often asked his advice before important piano recitals. One day more than three decades ago, I forgot my library card, but I wanted to borrow Debussy's beautiful "Estampes", with my favorite "Gardens in the Rain". I asked David if I could borrow his library card, and he said okay. When I offered to return it to him later, however, he insisted that I keep it. I thought he might change his mind, so I kept it at all times on the top of my dresser.
The library card expired in May of 1976, but I couldn't bring myself to discard it. I have relocated more than a dozen times since then, and yet David's library card has always remained on my dresser. Various people through the years have asked me why I have someone else's library card so prominently displayed. I do not even have my own library card or almost anything else from those days, so it is rather difficult to explain. A couple of years ago, I saw David mentioned on the front page of the New York Times magazine. Unlike myself, he is still performing full time, although life has changed for him in rather unexpected ways. If he wants his library card back, I'd be delighted to return it to him.
THE ALUMNI ARE GETTING YOUNGER (October 22, 2007): For many years, I have been attending an event each January in which sophomores and juniors from my alma mater visit Manhattan for a few days. I serve as one of their mentors, telling them about how to pursue job opportunities in finance, and the best way to make the most useful personal networking connections. During the first few years of mentoring, I was barely older than the students whom I was assisting, so when they asked me when I graduated, I would always joke that it was "before you were born". This response would inevitably generate great laughter. Now, it is no longer humorous--at least to me--because it is true. If I continue with this mentoring program long enough, I'll eventually be able to say honestly that I graduated before their parents were born.
SHEEP MAY SAFELY GRAZE (October 8, 2007): Just over a year ago, I was in Alaska during the beautiful autumn season that lasts for only a couple of glorious weeks in September. While driving on the highway to Seward, I noticed a photographer standing patiently by the side of the road, so I parked and walked over to him. "Look at that," he pointed to a craggy stone hill nearby, "that's a family of Dahl sheep. I've never seen them at such close range." I asked him, "Do you live around here?" "No," he replied as he began to rapidly take one photo after another, "I freelance for National Geographic. They're going to love this." As he took dozens of photos, I slowly took out the digital camera that I had not had time to familiarize myself with before the trip. I had the owner's manual with me, but it took several minutes to figure out how to use the camera properly, during which time my amused pro had taken probably two hundred shots. Finally, when I had everything set, the sheep had gradually moved well up the mountain, so even with the strongest zoom lens my photos looked like indistinct white dots on an autumn landscape. At least the colors turned out brilliantly.
GEORGE HOFFMAN (September 23, 2007): In February 1984, I was scanning the advertisement section of a local Baltimore newspaper when I noticed that some historic sheet music was for sale. I called the number listed in the ad, and made an appointment to visit a house in an old section of town, owned by a woman named Hoffman. When I arrived, this woman told me that she had music from songs which had made the "Hit Parade" back in the forties and fifties. I saw a grand piano in the room, and asked if I could try sightreading some of the music to see if I liked it. As I did so, her brother George showed up, and told me the piano was for sale along with the music--so I ended up buying both. After arranging to pick up the piano a week later, George asked me: "Do you have a little more time? Let's try some of these." He played and sang for about ten minutes, then got up for a moment. I immediately sat down on the bench and cheerfully offered, "That's wonderful, now let me try a few." We went back and forth for four or five hours, until finally George told me, "I'm tired. Let's do that some more when you pick up the piano next week."
Just before I left, I noticed a bass in the corner of the room. I inquired politely, "Does anyone play that?" He responded with a chuckle, "Oh, sure, I have fun sometimes when no one is really listening." When I returned a week later with the moving people, the sister was very agitated. She told me, "George just passed away this morning after riding his bicycle. He collapsed right after he got back and died instantly. I hope you like the piano. Meanwhile, my brother's burial will be tomorrow," and she gave me the address. I hardly knew what to say. When I showed up at the funeral home, I was startled to see a full jazz band performing tunes just as they famously do in New Orleans when a well-known musician dies. I asked someone, "Is this the funeral for George Hoffman"? "Yes, of course," this person responded, "didn't you know that at one time he was the best-known jazz bassist on the East Coast?" I was stunned, and responded honestly, "No, I didn't realize that. I've only heard him singing and doing Hit Parade tunes on the piano." The other person glared at me as though I must be crazy.
EARLY RETIREMENT (September 9, 2007): I have a brother named Dan who is 6-1/2 years younger than I am, and is much more intelligent than myself. When Dan was a kid, he always wanted to learn new games. In the spring of 1970, I broke my arm, so I stayed inside for most of my summer vacation that year. My brother was usually around, and kept pestering me to teach him something more interesting. I finally surrendered and told him, "I'm going to show you a simple game called chess which I'm sure that you will enjoy." I figured that Dan would soon give up due to the difficulty, but amazingly he quickly grasped even the most obscure rules. Over the course of the summer, he improved so much that I told my dad that Dan knew how to play chess. My dad laughed, until they played against each other and my brother easily won. When American Bobby Fischer contested the world championship versus Russian Boris Spassky in Reykjavik in 1972, and the whole country wanted to learn the game, Dan taught his five-year-old friends how to play. After joining the chess club at his high school, which consistently won state championships, my brother at the age of fourteen was able to beat me routinely without much of a challenge. At the age of sixteen, Dan won a citywide tournament, brought home a huge trophy, and--just as world champions Bobby Fischer and Paul Morphy had done before him--announced at the peak of his accomplishments that he was permanently retiring from the game.
EMINENT DOMAIN (August 5, 2007): Way back in 1966, our family stayed one week at a mountain camping retreat in the Poconos called "Barrow Lodge". Each morning, all of the residents got together to sing the official camp song, which began like this: "We welcome you to Barrow, we're mighty glad you're here . . . ." After all of us sang the song in unison, the parents split up from the kids, not to get together again until after supper. We had a wonderful time, so a few years ago I was telling a co-worker about the place. He insisted that it never existed, so I told him, "I'll bet I can even find the camp song on the internet". I was wrong--it was nowhere to be found. The only reference to "Barrow Lodge" was a small radio station. So, in frustration, I sent an e-mail to the owner of the radio station, telling him that there used to be a real place called Barrow Lodge, and sending him the lyrics to the camp song. I didn't expect any response, but I quickly got back a corrected version of the lyrics, along with a question as to how I knew about the camp. The radio station owner was the son of the couple who had started the place in the 1940s. Unfortunately, the camp lasted only one year after our stay; the Federal government forced his parents to sell using eminent domain, with the intention of building a dam--which was never built. The land remains abandoned to this day. The radio station owner had saved some promotional postcards about the original Barrow Lodge, and graciously sent me one--which stands proudly on my piano. An identical postcard four decades earlier had encouraged my parents to take us there in the first place. There are currently two different Barrow Lodge postcards for sale on Ebay (is anything not available on some online auction site these days?), but I have no intention of selling mine.
OFF AND ON (July 23, 2007): For one year I had the most peculiar white-collar job that you can imagine. I worked for a company that had an interlocking series of computer programs. The problem with these programs was that they did not synchronize with each other, since some of them ran too quickly, while others were slow. There was no easy way to speed up the slow ones, but there was a simple way to slow down the fast ones. Every computer language has a command which tells the computer to "do nothing" or "take a break for a certain exact period of time". The programs I was working on had an instruction called NOP, which means "perform no operation for 2 clock cycles". My main job for the year was to add as many NOPs as was needed to ensure that hundreds of programs ran synchronously. One of the few breaks I got from this rather tedious task was whenever one of the shared computer machines began to act crazy. The first time this occurred, I happened to be very close to where my boss was sitting. I told him confidently, "I can fix this!", even though I had no idea what to do. I asked everyone to please leave the room, so that I could work without distractions. I then turned off the computer, and turned it back on. Amazingly, this solved the problem. People asked me what I did, but I didn't want to give away my secret. After that, every time one of the main shared computers went haywire or crashed, I would be asked to fix it. More than 80% of the time, simply restarting it did the trick, but I still insisted that everyone leave the room first, to create the illusion that I was doing something really unique. To this day, I think my co-workers didn't learn my secret. Please don't tell them.
PEPPERMINT HAIR IN VENICE (July 8, 2007): My sister got married in Venice six years ago, so several of us spent about a week there during the time of the wedding. I wore my favorite straw hat, which sometimes makes people think that I am impersonating Vincent van Gogh. My sister dressed each day in her unique style, while a friend of my sister had braided her hair with various dyed shades of blue, white, and pink, rather like an exploded peppermint stick. As we visited the fascinating neighborhoods in that old city--Cannaregio is my favorite section--we tried to capture parts of Venice through film. Every time we tried to get a good angle for some shots, especially when we were in a popular part of town, we found ourselves being approached by quite a few tourists who wanted to take photographs of us. Many others pointed, gawked, or otherwise commented on our presence. It was simultaneously flattering and annoying--a little taste of what it must be like for a famous person to travel around the world.
NIXON RESIGNS (June 27, 2007): In August 1974, our family took a vacation to a remote part of West Virginia--so remote that I repeatedly paid for very small items in local stores with dollar bills, since I was getting real silver dimes and other very old coins in change. Somehow, word got out that President Nixon was going to resign, so people from miles around gathered at the single color television in the nearest town's main lodge to watch the historic event. As Nixon made his speech, some people laughed derisively, as others wept; many just stared passively, while a few simply got up and walked out of the room. My sister and brother had the right idea: while the rest of us were listening carefully to the President, they played the pinball machines in the back room.
TRAPPED IN MONTCLAIR (June 17, 2007): I was hiking one day with some friends in a forest located on top of a ridge. We had a wonderful time, but it became dark sooner than we had anticipated, and it was clear that we had not allowed sufficient time to return to the starting place of our hike before it got dark and the trails would become very difficult to follow. There was a town below us which had well-lit streets, so we decided to quickly descend before we had difficulty finding our way. Fortunately, we found a relatively easy path that was not too steep and did not have any poisonous plants or sharp thorns. Just when we thought everything was going to be fine, we discovered a very large dog, weighing at least 150 pounds, that was too eager for us to reach the bottom. We tried to distract him by throwing some sticks in the opposite direction, but that had no effect. Soon the dog started barking loudly, which attracted the attention of the owner of the property. Fortunately, the owner did not begin shooting! He was rather startled to see the seven of us suddenly appear on his land at dusk, but he was gracious enough to grab his dog and permit us to cross through his house into one of the streets of the town. We apologized for causing him trouble, and he said it was the first time that such an event had happened in the fifty years that he had been living there. We later discovered that he was a rather famous person who had moved to the U.S. from Europe shortly after World War II. The next time we hiked in the same forest, we made sure to check the time of sunset before we began.
BRONX CHEER (May 28, 2007): This is probably the only reminiscence I have written about someone else's reminiscence. In my update from September 20, 2005, I talked about how from 1969 through 1977 I would spend a couple of hours each Saturday at Baltimore's historic Enoch Pratt Free Library (see link immediately below). They had an unusual collection of books, including probably the sole remaining copies of some works. One of their books was a very plain paperback which had been written by a working-class man from the Bronx, called "Bronx Cheer". The author's name was Julius Jacobs. The pages of the book were obviously unprofessionally typeset, as though someone simply put them through an old-fashioned typewriter and perhaps checked briefly for errors if time permitted. The book was written by an old man who clearly wanted to leave some legacy of what it was like growing up in that borough of New York City during the early part of the twentieth century.
The writer has a quirky, original viewpoint on life--such as pointing out that the profession of physician has so many precisely named subspecialties, whereas his own career as a dishwasher allows no distinction between those who are adept at cleaning glasses from those who are best at washing silverware. His conclusion is that the greater the money involved, the finer the distinctions--which is absolutely true if one sees what has happened with the sudden explosion of classifications of modern art these days. One of the more amusing recollections is when the author climbs onto a roof to get a closer look at an unusual architectural detail, only to get unwanted attention from a passing policeman who thinks he has more nefarious intentions. The author is a feminist years ahead of his time, proposing the word "xe" which would serve as a neutral pronoun instead of saying "he or she".
By the time I had finished reading "Bronx Cheer" thirty years ago, I decided that one way or another, I wanted to write my own reminiscences for others--even if mine would probably be hopelessly unable to meet his impressive standard. I also felt sad that I couldn't purchase the book, because I sensed that I would never be able to locate it again. However, that was before the internet and Amazon; I see that "Bronx Cheer" is currently available in theory from a few places, although in practice it is rather difficult to locate. One of these days, I'll have to get a copy and reread it, to see if I can gain some additional insights.
UNCASHED CHECKS (April 11, 2007): When I turned 13 years old, like most Jewish adolescents of that age, I had a Bar Mitzvah. There were months of preparation in chanting the Torah and Haftarah, and in preparing for relatives and friends to visit--some of them from quite far away. By the time the day arrived, I felt I was ready, but I had not expected the crush of people who surrounded me almost nonstop during the Bar Mitzvah weekend. One of the features of the occasion is receiving gifts--which seemed to happen in frenzied clumps. I tried as best I could to make sure that I did not misplace any of these presents, and meticulously wrote down the name of the giver along with each gift in a special book. About one week after the celebration was over, and life had returned to normal, I wrote thank-you notes to each of the gift givers. At least I thought I had; as the months slowly passed thereafter, about a dozen people began to make subtle remarks--mostly to my parents--about not having received thank-you notes. They also made puzzling comments such as "are you people loaded--how come you haven't cashed my check yet?" My parents and I concluded that some of the gifts must have been overlooked somehow, but even after turning the house upside down, we didn't find any additional ones.
In those days, I was studying music at the Peabody Preparatory Institute. About once or twice a year, I would be invited to give a piano recital or to enter a competition. I was in one such competition about a half year after my Bar Mitzvah, waiting backstage with my piano teacher who was helping me with final preparations. She told me, "I'm not worried about how you're going to perform--I only get a little nervous about how you look. Why does your jacket look tilted?" I had no idea what she was talking about, and told her so. "See that; it's not balanced properly. Let me help you fix it." She opened up my jacket--and out of its pocket dropped a dozen envelopes. The other students in the competition looked at me strangely as I began to laugh uproariously, since nervousness is usually the only emotion just before going on stage. I think this strange incident helped me to perform more calmly that day. As you can guess, those envelopes were Bar Mitzvah gifts that I had placed there during the rush of receiving presents six months earlier, and had totally forgotten about. Since I only wore my "fancy" jacket a few times each year for special occasions, the recital was the first time that I had worn it since my Bar Mitzvah.
RUNNING A SURPLUS (February 21, 2007): I have only played golf twice in my entire life. The second time, which happened a couple of months ago, will be described in a future reminiscence; now, I will concentrate on the first time, which was way back in June 1978. I had just graduated from high school a week earlier, and my girlfriend invited me to spend several days with her and her brother in their cabin on an island in Virginia, immediately adjacent to Chincoteague (of "Misty" fame). When we arrived the first evening, her brother asked if I would like to play golf with him at 4:30 a.m. the next morning. That sounded ridiculously early to me, but I didn't want to seem like a sissy, so I immediately responded, "Certainly." When it was time to head to the course, I observed that he was wearing high boots more suitable for duck hunting than for golfing, and a very ragged pair of old blue jeans. I also noticed that we had plenty of clubs, but only a handful of balls, so I politely inquired if we were going to pick up some extra balls along the way. "Yes, we are," he laughed, "you'll be quite a busy bee. I may not play golf very well, but I always run a surplus." I had no idea what he meant, but went with him willingly. I thought I would show how generous I was by bringing enough money to cover both of us, but the clubhouse looked abandoned. "Don't we have to pay something to golf here?" I asked, puzzled. "I see a list of prices." "Oh, just forget about that, no one charges on Wednesdays. The course is completely trimmed and cleaned from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. each Wednesday, so no one is around to collect the fees. Those of us locals who appreciate the true meaning of frugality always play early Wednesday morning. There's nothing like high, tall grass to separate the men from the boys!" I didn't want to appear to be a spendthrift, so I kept my mouth shut as we went to the first tee and started to play. As we walked down the first fairway, he pointed out a water trap just to our left. "I don't think we have to worry about that one--we've already gotten past these hazards," I pointed out. "I never skip a water trap!" he boasted. "Let's go." He then proceeded to walk right into the pond, all the way to its deepest point. Now I understood why he was wearing those boots and jeans. Naturally, I had only my regular shoes and designer pants, which were about to become quite soaked. "Put your arms in all the way as though you really mean it," he exclaimed, and soon we had found five thoroughly dirty balls that had gone into the muck. "Wonderful! Right over there is a sand trap, so let's get ready to dig." I cannot even remember how well I played, since the entire morning was a blur of bending over in smelly, muddy, algae-ridden pools of something like water, and plowing through sand mingled with bird droppings. We ended up staying more than four hours and playing all 18 holes. We also ended up bringing back well over a hundred golf balls, which left my golfing buddy absolutely delighted. Ironically, to this day, the only thing I remember vividly about the entire vacation was the golfing experience.
WHEELING AND DEALING (February 6, 2007): About a decade ago, I booked an airport rental car at a surprisingly low rate from a well-known nationwide chain. When I arrived after my flight to pick up the automobile, the manager asked with a smile, "Would you like to upgrade from your compact car to an Oldsmobile Cutlass S to make your ride more pleasant? It will only be an extra ten dollars a day." I thought about it for a moment, then politely declined. Barely a few seconds later, the manager tried again. "Surely, sir, you would prefer a more comfortable and luxurious method of transportation. You can have the Cutlass S for just five dollars more per day." "No, thank you," I insisted, "I'll just stick with my compact car, but I appreciate your offer." "How about a mere two dollars a day extra--you can't beat that for a deal!" "Thanks, but no thanks." I asked the attendant for the keys, and he walked me over to my vehicle--which was an almost new Oldsmobile Cutlass S. The only cars remaining on the entire lot were all of that model.
NAGASAKI SURVIVOR (January 16, 2007): When I was in Tokyo in October and November of 1987, I walked east of the Sumida River late one afternoon into a working-class neighborhood where few tourists bother to go. I found a small park where there is a bronze statue of a bull. It is considered good luck to rub the part of the bull which corresponds to that part of your body which is feeling pain. The brightness or dullness of each area showed where most people had chosen to touch the bull. After examining this, I decided to slowly wander around the park, not having any particular purpose in mind. I saw a park bench and decided to take a break. Soon afterward, an old man who was similarly wandering around the park sat next to me. Neither of us said anything for a few minutes. Finally, I decided to attempt my very poor Japanese and remarked, "Good day, is your health well?" To my great surprise, the man responded in fluent, unaccented English, and proceeded to tell me his story. His parents had been killed by the atomic bomb in Nagasaki, so he was raised in an orphanage by Americans for several years during the occupation. He had always been interested in visiting the U.S., but had been poor his entire life, and so never had the money to afford such a journey. The man told me I was the first American he had ever met in that park. I hardly knew how to respond, so I told him that I just wanted to learn more about the world. He responded with a nod. We each sat in silence for a few more minutes, and then slowly went our separate ways.
SAME QUESTIONS, DIFFERENT ANSWERS (December 21, 2006): When I was a student at Johns Hopkins, I had an excellent economics professor named Dr. Carl F. Christ. By the way, his last name rhymes with "grist", not with that guy whose birthday is being celebrated next Monday. Each winter, the sophomores and juniors from my alma mater who are getting a minor in business visit New York City for one week, to learn about potential employment opportunities. I have been attending these gatherings for several years. Last year, I received an unexpected surprise when Dr. Christ showed up along with the students, and was deservedly given a special honor. I was even more surprised--and, frankly, a bit disappointed--when I discovered that Dr. Christ already knew all of the economists' jokes that I had learned from the internet. My favorite of these jokes is about a student who visits his favorite economics professor 25 years after graduation, and arrives on the day of the final exam. The student says to the professor, "I can't believe you're still asking exactly the same questions, word for word! I'll bet I could still get an A if I took this test today." "I'm sorry, but you'd fail," responds the professor. "The questions are exactly the same, but the correct answers are completely different."
ANGELO GATTO (November 19, 2006): There's an old saying that a man may be a king to some, and a pauper to another. When I was thirteen, I was involved with a youth orchestra that was conducted by a dynamic, fiery leader whom everyone in the group loved and followed without question. He demanded very high standards and his young followers consistently exceeded them. His teenage orchestra met across the street from the Peabody Institute of Music each Saturday afternoon and won many state and even national awards over the decades. Unfortunately, this same fellow had a thankless, but higher-paying, "day job" at a public junior high school as the conductor of each grade level's own band. All of the classical music that he loved had to be "dumbed down" repeatedly so that it could be followed by the students--many of whom were, shall we say, less than talented. He was derided by many, including some loudly complaining parents, as out of step and "into" the wrong kind of music. He frequently became frustrated with some who never practiced and others who repeatedly hit glaringly misplayed notes. The lowlight of his career was one day when he became particularly irritated at one indifferent kid who was beyond incompetent. While in a raging tirade, his toupee flew off flying into the front row of band members, exposing his bald head to a raucous cacophony of dissonant jeers.
ALAN KAHN (September 10, 2006): A lot of times I'm asked how I originally got interested in metals. Many years ago, at the age of 8, I took a special summer class in geology along with other kids my age. One of my fellow students was named Alan Kahn, who had a Jewish father and a Chinese mother. We soon became great friends. Each week, after the classroom session was over, we would go with about one dozen others--mostly boys--on an old school bus and drive to a site where we would all grab interesting rocks from a cliff or from some other huge deposit. Most of these were in western Maryland, a traditional mining area. Alan was obsessed with building the best possible maze for his gerbils, so he used to bring home huge slabs of pig iron, granite, quartz, and every other type of rock, to make an incredibly complex maze in his basement that would have made the Flintstones proud. After a few months, he must have had the smartest gerbils in the Baltimore metropolitan area. One day I taught Alan and his brother how to play bridge; about a month later, he and his brother handily beat myself and another friend who had been playing for a couple of years. We were baffled until Alan showed us how he had developed an elaborate cheating system by kicking feet with his brother under the table. Unfortunately, Alan moved to Pennsylvania in 1970, and I never found anyone else who was that creative in his leisure pursuits.
TURNING PAGES FOR A PRODIGY (August 4, 2006): At the age of fifteen, when I was studying music one chilly Saturday winter morning at the Peabody Preparatory of Music in Baltimore, a sharply dressed nine-year-old boy approached me and asked if I could please turn pages for him. Assisting other students was a common courtesy, so I told him that I would happily do so, and could he please lead me to his classroom. The boy's father appeared, and told me that the request was not for a lesson, but for a recital later that afternoon. The father then invited me to have lunch at an elegant restaurant in the neighborhood with himself, his wife, and the kid. I happily accepted, surprised that I would receive such royal treatment just for turning a few pages at some obscure "Prep" recital that perhaps a dozen people would attend. After our meal, we proceeded to the back of the main Conservatory concert hall, which made me wonder why we were taking such a circuitous route to the building where I had always given my own student piano recitals. Suddenly I found that we were ascending the backstage area at one of Baltimore's premier concert halls, with several dozen professional musicians around me tuning up their instruments. I was puzzled, so I blurted out, "What's going on?" The boy's father replied, "My son, who recently won the U.S. under-ten piano competition, is about to perform Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto. It is the final rehearsal and the media should be in attendance. Please follow him onto the stage and sit to his left, where we have placed an extra seat for you." The boy's parents left the stage. A moment later, the curtain rose, and as I walked to my seat, I heard a sudden loud applause. I turned toward the source of the noise, and gasped as I faced the largest audience I had ever seen anywhere, complete with TV cameras zooming in and out. The boy remained quite relaxed throughout, but I don't think I have ever been as nervous as I was during that performance. Fortunately, my page turning was sufficiently competent that it did not interfere with his playing. The father was gracious enough to give me free tickets to the final concert the following week, which the young prodigy performed without sheet music, and which received very favorable nationwide publicity.
WHAT'S A FEW DECADES AMONG FRIENDS (July 11, 2006): When I lived in Baltimore, I used to go to several shops and restaurants for as much as two decades, and got to know the proprietors at some of them quite well. When I finally left in 1985, I didn't have a chance to say goodbye to all of them. Earlier this year, I was visiting one of my favorite delis from the old days, known as Edmart, on Reisterstown Road. They sell something called "hamish mustard" which is out of this world. I thought I recognized the person behind the counter, but I couldn't be sure. He stared at me for a minute, then exclaimed with genuine concern, "You haven't been in here in awhile. Is everything okay?"
NINE-YEAR-OLD BROTHER OUTSMARTS ADULTS (April 12, 2006): I have family all over the world, but the greatest concentration of my relatives live in Toronto. In 1976, we had our biggest-ever family reunion in that city, and I met some of my cousins for the first time. I still keep in touch with most of them. While we were there, we went to the Ontario Science Center, which I still rank as the best of its kind. In the center (or, should I say, "centre") of the complex, visible from any of the other rooms, was a huge contraption going all the way from the floor to the ceiling. It was patterned after the inside of a computer chip, in which wires conducting electricity go through a series of Boolean "gates". Each gate has two inputs, each of which can be either on or off; each gate has one output, which is either on or off depending upon the values of the two inputs. The gates were arranged in a complex cascading pattern going from the ceiling to the floor. Anyone who wanted to be the next victim of this contraption voluntarily ascended a staircase to a central area in which this person could set the values of all of the inputs to the uppermost gates, those closest to the ceiling. The remaining gates would be triggered deterministically depending upon the results of the outputs of the other gates. An enormous bell on the side of the room was apparently set to ring if someone correctly set all of the inputs in the exact sequence necessary to trigger a positive output from the bottommost gate. Over the course of the few hours that we were in the science center, the bell did not ring even once. An amazing parade of folks gave it their best shot, but inevitably failed. I didn't see anyone under the age of twenty attempt to figure it out. Suddenly, my nine-year-old brother ascended the steps, which caused a ripple of laughter and a lot of fingerpointing. On his first try, the bell loudly rang. They didn't realize they were looking at a future science professor.
INDIAN CULINARY DELIGHTS (March 12, 2006): My project leader at work, who sits immediately adjacent to my desk, is from south India. His wife is from the same area of the world, and she prepares a traditional lunch for him each morning which he takes to work in several plastic containers. Every so often, my colleague prefers to eat out at a restaurant with a few of his colleagues, rather than eating his wife's home-cooked selections, but he dares not tell his wife that he has not finished her food. Therefore, he inevitably offers me the lunch. That's great for me, since it is excellently prepared and delicious, and is also sure to be vegetarian, since his wife does not eat meat of any kind. The first time that I was offered these delicacies, I made sure to meticulously wash each of the plastic containers afterward. Apparently, my co-worker was not doing the same, so his wife was puzzled why suddenly they were spotless. He didn't want to tell her that he wasn't eating the food, so he came up with some excuse that is known only between the two of them. Since then, she must wonder why once or twice a week the containers are so clean, whereas they are not on the other days. As far as I am aware, neither of the two is a reader of my web site. Thus, the secret is safe and they should maintain family harmony, which is important since they have two young sons.
FREE PECANS (February 26, 2006): Many years ago, I was visiting the small town of Dahlonega, a quaint old historic gold mining town not far from Atlanta. Years before gold was discovered in northern California, there was a gold rush in North Carolina and Georgia, substantial enough so that U.S. mints were established in Charlotte and Dahlonega to make coins from the gold mined in each region. In Dahlonega, there is a fascinating gold museum, and even some gold mining still going on by mom-and-pop operations in the area. The Appalachian trail is also nearby. While walking around less than a block from the town square in late December, I was puzzled to see more than a dozen people bending over, apparently picking up the recently fallen autumn leaves, and putting them into bags which had been apparently brought along especially for the occasion. I thought to myself, "What a strange activity--don't they hire someone to do this kind of work?" I went over to one of the leaf pickers, and asked him, "Is this a kind of volunteer community service that you're doing by picking up the leaves?" He laughed heartily and responded, "These aren't leaves, they're pecans which fall from those big trees up above every year at this time. They're six dollars a pound at the corner store. We don't mind if outsiders join us." So, I went to my car to retrieve a canvas bag, and was appropriately occupied for the next hour. They were delicious.
BUNK BED TO PROFESSOR (January 22, 2006): My brother is a well-published professor and researcher, and had been living within driving distance of my home since 1988. This past year he received a wonderful job opportunity in a distant city, even including full paid college education for his children, so he decided to make a move. I knew that this meant seeing him a lot less often, and was concerned that we would begin to lose touch. One evening, a few months ago, I was just beginning to walk home from the train station when my cell phone rang. It was my brother, who had just gotten into his car to drive home from his laboratory, and on a whim, decided to see if he could reach me. By an amazing feat of serendipity, although we are not even in the same time zone, our commuting hours from work to home exactly coincide. We now sometimes talk a few times per week. For fun, I'll have my brother listen in as I stop at a bakery and chat with the people behind the counter, or I'll hear my brother stop at a gas station and fill up the tank (sometimes he asks me to guess the price per gallon). It's not quite the same as when we shared a bunk bed all those years ago, but we're enjoying the unexpected chance to communicate so frequently.
FUJI-SAN EMERGES (December 26, 2005): In October and November 1987, I was fortunate to be able to spend some time visiting Tokyo. I could write several dozen reminiscences of that trip, with the smell of persimmons in the air, elevated trains running determinedly here and there, and the most unusual people that I met in the city's small parks. There was a series of over one hundred woodblock prints that were done of Tokyo by an artist named Hiroshige a decade before it became the modern capital in 1868; almost all of them show the famous Mount Fuji in the background, usually partially covered with snow. In real life, a resident of Tokyo almost never sees Fuji-san: besides being 60 miles away, with modern industrial pollution in Tokyo and frequent fog by the mountain itself, it is primarily a vision of the imagination. After I had spent about two weeks in the capital, there was one especially clear November afternoon that was said to be among the crispest in months, so I took the opportunity to ride an elevator in the downtown Kasumigaseki building all the way to the observatory level at the top. There were several dozen people milling around, almost all with cameras: most of them were locals with the same idea that I had. All of us looked in the direction of the famous mountain, but not even the faintest outline could be seen. Gradually, the hour became late, and as the sky became dimmer, most of the previously hopeful onlookers began to descend. Finally, the last brilliant light shone a deep orange, and suddenly Mount Fuji appeared, in all of its glory, perfectly backlit by the sunset. A few people gasped, and the entire room crowded together to take photos for one glorious half minute; then the sun's rays dimmed for the last time, and Fuji-san faded once more into invisibility.
ROY (December 4, 2005): For the past nine years, I have lived across the street from a man named Roy. I don't even know his last name, but he was the first person other than the landlord to say hello, and had the most interesting stories about growing up in Scotland and how he studied piano from a young age. I invited him over to hear me perform some of my songs, and soon we became good friends. After listening to his brogue for several months, I decided to try to imitate it--when he wasn't around, of course. I eventually wrote a Scottish whaling song in Roy's honor and had the privilege of performing it for him before anyone else could hear it, including intentionally attempting to mimic his thick accent. He was totally silent for a full minute, then chuckled that "it sounds like the kind of tune we used to listen to around the fireplace when I was a kid". Roy then added, "Were you trying to sound like me, or did I just imagine that?" I continued to practice imitating his voice, but never got it precisely right. Roy loved to tell stories about "the good old days". He was always outside, chatting with neighbors, playing soccer with kids that happened to be walking past, or working on his house--if he would finish remodeling it, he immediately ripped it apart again, so that he could do it better the next time, and the next. Roy passed away this past Wednesday.
PRACTICAL ELEVATOR JOKE (November 22, 2005): I studied music for ten years at the Peabody Preparatory Institute in downtown Baltimore. The main building in those days looked very much the same as when it was first constructed, with almost everything decades old, including the ornate contraptions needed to get drinking water, the long, narrow benches on each floor, the elevators which had to be operated by a live person, and even the light switches, which were of the small black pushbutton variety not seen in most other buildings in the U.S. since the 1920s. One room even had a telephone dating back that far; although it no longer functioned, it still had its phone number imprinted (only six digits!). One day, I was sitting on the bench in front of the main elevator on the basement level, with my music books spread out along with my lunch, as I tried to eat while studying Mozart's 20th piano concerto. I always loved the basement floor the most, as I could hear distant sounds of many different instruments coming from all directions, mingled with the muted shouts of the ballet teacher barking directions to her students at the far end of the hall. A friend of mine boarded the elevator, telling me he was going to the fourth floor, the topmost one in the building. Feeling somewhat mischevious, and knowing that it would take a few minutes for the elevator man to stop at each of the floors along the way to let people out and in, I gathered together my books, my drink, and my food, put them quickly in my bag, raced up the marble steps to the fourth floor, unpacked everything, and arranged it as similarly as possible on an identical-looking bench in front of the same elevator. When my friend walked into the hallway, he stared at me for a few moments, then turned back into the elevator, wondering why he had ended up where he started. The elevator man had to explain to him that he really had changed floors. Finally, after another half minute, he broke out laughing, and kept on laughing for an unusually long time.
88S, SING FOR US (November 1, 2005): In junior high school, I had a very unusual teacher of social studies for eighth and ninth grade. He was a charismatic man, but somewhat vain, and always eager to have the last word. On occasion, he would ask one of the students to make a paper crown. He would take his chair, place it on top of one of the tables, put the crown on his head, and declare himself king of the class. He gave each student a nickname, and called each of us by that name, rather than by our true name. I was "eighty-eights" because I played the piano, which has 88 keys. When the class would get too rowdy, he would inevitably shout, "All right, babies, sit down!" He had a previous career as a magician, and when we least expected it, he'd pull something out of a student's ear, or something equally whimsical. To his credit, he always made the class lively and informative, and was well prepared for each lesson. The other teachers considered him something of a freak, and did not always include him in their social gatherings. Once, we were studying the California gold rush, and he asked me to sing a few songs that were in the textbook. I'll never forget the first line of one of the tunes: "The happy days have passed, the mines have failed at last . . . ." For a teachers' talent show, he was the hit of the evening, performing incredible magic illusions. His greatest ability was to make even the most boring topic seem exciting.
BORED IN BODIE (October 25, 2005): Three decades ago, my family took a car trip to the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My father decided that we should visit the starkly beautiful Bodie Lighthouse, which would have been an excellent idea, except that there was a sharp nail located in one of the parking spots in the lot, which our automobile naturally drove directly over, making the right rear tire immediately very flat. Given the somewhat remote location, we were stuck at the lighthouse for five hours. Bodie Lighthouse is located on a tiny island, and the opportunities for exploring it by foot are limited, especially as most of the small "land" area is below sea level, quite marshy, and not really walkable, even if you have thick waterproof boots, which we did not. There was a ten-minute film on the second floor introducing visitors to the history of the lighthouse. There was also an aquarium on the first floor that featured two healthy goldfish, one very sick goldfish, and one small, young crab. Well, there you have it. My brother and sister each watched the film, and watched it again . . . about 25 times altogether. After seeing it once, I concluded it wasn't going to win any Academy awards, so I went downstairs to see if the crab could catch the sick goldfish. After more than four hours, and about a hundred attempts, the crab finally succeeded. That was my cue to finally go to the bathroom. Oddly, when I look back on the trip, the Bodie Lighthouse is always the first thing that comes to mind, even 30 years later.
DISCO CHESS (October 16, 2005): When I was at Johns Hopkins, I joined the chess club, which met every Saturday night at 8 p.m., and was run by a real chess aficionado named Steven Immitt. There was no rule about who could join, but only guys did. The only space large enough to hold the dozen or so chess games that were typically played simultaneously was a room in the basement of the Student Union building. The same basement was host to the university's Rathskeller, a place where students would party hearty every night of the week, but especially boisterously on Saturday evenings. This was in the days when the drinking age was 18, beer was cheap, and disco dancing a la "Saturday Night Fever" was king, so it was common to have well-dressed, but very drunk students saunter, or more accurately stumble, from the Rathskeller into the chess club, and challenge one of us to a game. We had a grandmaster in our group, who loved to challenge these overdressed inebriated strangers, and who refused to play anyone unless there was a stake of at least a quarter. The rest of us usually witnessed at least a few speed-chess contests between this genius and some sorry drunk frat boy, the latter who soon proceeded to lose a few bucks, and then would usually turn either somewhat violent or occasionally break down in tears. The campus security had to be called in at least once per month when the situation would get out of hand, especially if the player had a few pals with him. A general melee sometimes ensued, with chess pieces, clocks, and/or a few bodies flying, and a lot more excitement than you usually associate with that usually sober, intellectual board game. On rare occasions, a female student wanting a break from the Rathskeller noise would wander into the club, leading sometimes to even more interesting situations to be described (perhaps) in another reminiscence.
EMPREMINISCENCE OF THE WEEK (September 20, 2005): For ten years I studied piano and music composition at Peabody Preparatory in downtown Baltimore. I soon discovered a marvelous quiet sanctuary only a few blocks from the music school, which was the main branch of the Baltimore Public "Enoch Pratt" Library. Upon entering the massive old building, the main hall had incredibly high ceilings, with dozens of the old-fashioned card catalogs arrayed in a few dozen rows in the center. Paintings of Baltimore's entire founding Calvert family, including distant cousins, hung along the walls, as though one had entered the home of a wealthy and very eccentric surviving member of that family. If one continued in a straight line, one entered an even more unusual inner room, with a loft level of ancient books that appeared to rise into the sky, and which was apparently entirely inaccessible by normal human means, unless one had developed the ability to fly, since it was more than fifteen feet up, with no obvious staircase or ladder. The room contained a massive globe that the public was permitted to use and explore closely, as well as the library's primary collection of up-to-date reference volumes. On other floors were complex labyrinths of all kinds of books, including some very old ones, as well as the most modern, and an entire room of the collected works of Edgar Allan Poe. Walking into the building was like entering a temple; exiting, like returning to reality after a strange dream. Once, when I was nine years old and departed by the main entrance, I was immediately approached by a street bum who begged me for a quarter. That was an even more startling return to the real world than I had bargained for.
ENOCH PRATT FREE LIBRARY (August 15, 2005): When I was in junior high and high school, I had a friend whose father was a jazz musician named Jack. Jack had later left the music business to become a salesman, but continued to closely follow the jazz music scene. As my own music knowledge, which began with classical piano, gradually evolved into a broader appreciation of all kinds of music, Jack served as a teacher of jazz, going with me to see whom he considered the best performers of the 1980s, whether or not they were famous. We went together to nightclubs, to outdoor pavilions, to concerts in local universities where some of the greatest unheralded players sometimes had an audience of only 40 or 50, and even to shopping malls. In some cases, it was years later before I realized how special and unusual was this musical journey. On one occasion, we drove early on a Sunday morning for 1-1/2 hours to visit a friend of Jack who lived in a tiny town in western Maryland. His friend was also a former musician, and he had five kids still living at home, all of whom played different instruments. I ended up accompanying each of them in turn on the piano as they played everything from a Mozart violin concerto to a modern jazz clarinet improvisation. Although they had never seen me before, or even heard of me, they all treated me like part of the family and fed both of us a marvelous supper, after which more music followed. It was an unexpected day that I will never forget.
COATLESS IN MANHATTAN (July 4, 2005): When I first moved to New York City, I interviewed with many companies before finally deciding where I wanted to work. One of these interviews was at a bank on a very cold early December morning in 1985. I had been preparing to purchase a new overcoat since the previous winter, but had continued to procrastinate about making the purchase, so I was stuck that day having to wear an old navy blue sailor's pea coat with threads literally hanging off the sides, and with a few noticeable holes in various places. When I arrived at the interview, I naturally did not want the person meeting me to see the coat under any circumstances, and got a lucky break: the interview was on a high floor of the building, so when I arrived at the lobby, there was a closet with coat rack right there, near the elevator. I asked the doorman if I could use the coat rack, and he said to go right ahead. By the time I arrived at the interview, I looked professionally appropriate. After meeting with several people, and having what I thought had been a very successful afternoon, the last person interviewing me, a vice president, decided for whatever reason to accompany me all the way down to the lobby, as he was leaving for the day. When we arrived at the ground level, the doorman immediately understood what was happening, and did not attempt to retrieve my hopeless garbage from the closet. However, as we went to go outside, the vice president realized that I was going into the 20-degree evening without an overcoat. He inquired, "Aren't you going to be a bit uncomfortable outside?" I didn't know what to respond, so I said in a cheerful voice, "Well, it's just a short walk to the subway, and the wind has died down quite a bit." He called my bluff, and I had to stop from shivering as we went together to the #2 train downtown, and headed to Brooklyn, continuing the interview informally. He finally departed at the Atlantic Avenue stop to catch a commuter train, about a 15-minute ride from the bank. I waved goodbye, discreetly returned to a train going the other way, and returned to the interview building. Unfortunately, another person who had interviewed me was leaving just as I was about to take my coat out of the closet, so I had to whirl around, say a few pleasantries, and again go outside in the cold for a minute to wish him a proper farewell. I returned once again, and finally was able to get my coat in quiet and peace. Before returning home, I went out one final time in the chilly evening to purchase a proper winter coat. After all that, I didn't get a job offer from the company, for reasons unknown.
BALLISTIC IN BALTIMORE (June 19, 2005): When I was near the end of my junior year in high school, we were offered the unusual opportunity to take a class in computer programming the following year (1977-1978). The reason was that the county where I lived, Baltimore County, Maryland, obtained its very first computer for use by students. (They previously had other computers for government use only.) Because one computer had to be shared by all high schools in the county, a strict timesharing arragement was necessary; every second Monday at 10:30 a.m., we would arrive by school bus at Loch Raven Senior High School, and enjoy the use of the computer for exactly 1-1/2 hours. If this was not enough time to complete our assignments, we were permitted to optionally share private carpools to attend the school between 3:30 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. on Wednesday afternoons. Since there were not enough keypunch machines for the Hollerith cards that we had to use, we were given Sharpee black markers to manually mark the cards; if one minor error was made on any card, it had to be thrown away. Inevitably, once or twice each hour, one of the students would make an error on the card and request a full page between each line sent to the printer, rather than a single line; this caused paper to come flying out wildly, the printer to become jammed, the computer supervisor to become enraged, and a screaming tirade to follow. Ah, the joys that today's kids will never experience.
WHERE THE BUFFALO ROAM (June 5, 2005): Whenever I visit my parents in northwest Baltimore, I enjoy taking a long morning run through the neighborhood just north of where they live, where there are a lot of horse farms and private tennis courts and swimming pools, and the scenery is spectacular. From time to time, I was sure that I spotted one or two buffalos along one section of the run. I thought perhaps that I was imagining it, but I found out from a family friend that a somewhat quirky guy had been keeping buffalos on his property for several years, and enjoyed showing them off. I conjured up a fantasy whereby the buffalos would somehow get free, and terrorize the tony neighbors. Each morning, on my commute to downtown Manhattan, I pick up "Metro", one of the free newspapers that are handed out each morning to New York City area train commuters. On the front page of the April 27, 2005 edition was a huge photo with this story: "An American bison tramples through a makeshift barrier of lawn chairs and netting, knocking down a police officer on a tennis court at Greene Tree gated community yesterday in Pikesville, Md. A herd of American bison escaped from Buzz Berg's Stevenson, Md., farm, and police corralled the nine buffalo into the courts . . . ."
BILL KNOX (May 30, 2005): In the summer of 1983, I worked with an interesting man named Bill Knox who lived in Rockville, Maryland. One Friday afternoon he asked me, "Would you like to go flying tomorrow?" I didn't know exactly what he had in mind, but I met him just after dawn at a tiny airport only a ten-minute drive from where I lived, and soon we were airborne in his twin-engine four-seater Cessna. He flew the tiny plane along roads that I had only seen while driving and we covered parts of four states altogether (MD, VA, WV, PA). After about half an hour in the air, I asked him, "What are these controls doing on my side of the airplane?" He said, "You can fly this baby equally well from either seat; let's see how you do on your side," and proceeded in a few seconds to remove his hands from the steering wheel, push a button, and give me full control over our destiny. After recovering from the sudden surprise of what had happened, I was able to guide us pretty well for the next half hour; of course, all I did was make minor adjustments to our speed and make a few slow, easy turns, but it was the first time that I had been a pilot, and was a real thrill. As we approached our destination, Bill took over in order to land the vehicle, and I thought that would be our adventure for the day, until he said he wanted to take a glider around some particularly challenging and partially uncharted peaks in the Appalachian Mountains. That was too risky for me; while he went up in the glider to happily flirt with the fine line between life and death, I hiked alone up the highest ski trail in the area, enjoying the wildflowers and being on solid ground. He returned safely, after which we flew in the Cessna back to our original point of departure. Bill and I got together a week later to see Mose Alison perform in a small club in Georgetown, D.C.; it was a fabulous evening. A week later, Bill suddenly took a job in another town, while I simultaneously moved to a new neighborhood in Baltimore; in the confusion, we lost touch with one another and have not been in communication since. P.S. If you haven't crashed your plane yet and you're still out there somewhere, please contact me.
LOST AT HOME (May 23, 2005): I usually pride myself in being able to find my way back to wherever I want to be, even when I am thousands of miles away from home. Once, however, I got lost less than a mile from the house where I spent most of my childhood. My sister and I were visiting our parents several years ago, when we decided to go jogging together. We started out toward our former high school, then took a familiar path through the woods. We thought we were following along a well-marked stream trail, but soon found it became increasingly overgrown, and after making a turn toward what we thought was the main road, found ourselves surrounded by a thicket of thorny brambles with no obvious way out. Our only clue was the sound of heavy, fast traffic nearby, indicating that we were only a hundred yards or so from the Baltimore Beltway. We spent several minutes trying to find our way back to the original trail, or else some alternative path to a known area. We were almost ready to give up and run painfully through the sharp thorns toward the sound of the traffic, hoping to hitchhike a ride from a passing motorist on the highway, but we finally saw some trampled twigs where we must have entered originally, and rediscovered the main passage without getting too badly scratched. The moral of the story is that even the most familiar path can sometimes lead to utter confusion.
SEPTA JACKPOT (May 15, 2005): About a decade ago, I went to Philadelphia with some friends. They didn't want to take Amtrak, since they said it was too expensive, so we took a PATH train--basically a subway--to Jersey City, where we switched to another PATH train to Newark, and then at Newark, switched yet again to a New Jersey Transit train to Trenton. Once in Trenton, we had to purchase tickets for the Philadelphia transit system, known as SEPTA (not to be confused with a septic tank). The train in Trenton was only a few minutes away from departing, and it is a long walk up a staircase to get to the human ticket sellers, so most people were buying their tickets from a machine on the train level. My ticket cost $3.20, but I didn't have anything other than a few $20 bills that I had recently gotten from an ATM machine, so I put in one bill and hoped for the best. On the PATH system, often the change from a large bill in those days arrived in the form of clunky dollar coins from 1979. I was prepared for that, but I guess that near Philadelphia they had run out of those coins, and they don't like to give away their quarters so easily, either, so after a brief pause, the machine gleefully spit out 168 dimes. It was like winning the jackpot in Vegas, except that the dimes were bouncing all over each other and rolling around the platform, and meanwhile about a dozen people behind me in line were impatiently waiting for me to pick up my "winnings". The total trip to Philadelphia took about 1-1/2 hours more than the Amtrak train, so the actual savings was questionable. I got a slight measure of revenge on the return trip when I paid for my New Jersey transit ticket, and for those of my companions, entirely from those dimes, but it took a few weeks to disgorge my coat pockets of all of the ten-cent pieces. The worst part: not a single one of the 168 was a silver (pre-1965) dime.
MOTHERS' DAY TALE (May 8, 2005): The most physically painful experience of my life occurred when I was just 3-1/2 years old. I was going to preschool as a part of a carpool. The driver that day, who was the mother of one of the other kids, was slightly impatient when I was leaving the car, and did not check carefully enough to ensure that my entire body was out. She slammed the door on my left ring (fourth) finger, almost severing it in half. To her credit, she quickly rushed me to the hospital, and the surgeon was able to sew it rapidly and efficiently enough so that, even though there is still a visible scar, it does not adversely affect even the most difficult piano playing. Perhaps that is not the most upbeat story, so here is another: my great-grandmother (my mother's mother's mother) always loved to prepare special food and a lively atmosphere whenever I visited her house, and tried to encourage me in whatever I was doing, such as learning to play the piano. Her greatest lesson to me was to keep pursuing your dream, no matter how difficult it may seem.
COHEN'S CODDIES (April 27, 2005): When I was a kid, our family joined the local swimming pool, called the Colonial Village Swimming Club. One of my favorite activities, after leaving the water, was to walk dripping to the snack bar to buy little codfish cakes served between two Saltine crackers and lavishly dabbed with sharp mustard--all for just 15 cents apiece. A good friend of mine lived down the block from me; for many years, we invented our own song-and-dance routines that we performed for our parents and for whoever else was unlucky enough to be around at the time. I was visiting my friend and his mother several months ago, and we spent some time talking with his mother's friend, an older gentleman who was interested in telling tales from the past. He asked me what I remembered of Baltimore in the olden days, and I told him my fond memories of the codfish cakes. "Do you know what they were called?" he asked me. "No, I forgot", I admitted. "They were called Cohen's Coddies," he replied. "Oh, yes, that's right. How do you remember such a detail?" "I'm the Cohen who started Cohen's Coddies."
ROGUE AVOCADOS: I enjoy eating Haas avocados, which are an especially tasty variety with a black craterlike skin. After I eat one, I take the hard central pit, which is inedible, and put it into whatever pot of dirt is most conveniently nearby. About 80% of these pits just sit there and slowly decompose, but the rest, after taking several weeks to germinate, can surge rapidly to a height of ten feet or more. My wife eventually got weary of seeing yet another avocado plant, so I began to take the pits to work to plant them next to the usual boring office greenery that one finds in any professional building. Nothing happened with the first few pits, but finally an avocado tree arose close to the staircase leading down to the next floor. It soon towered above all the other plants nearby, so more and more people began to notice it. I pointed it out to a few of my co-workers, one of whom started calling me "Farmer Steve". Then, one late evening--as I found out second hand the next day--someone from another department brought in a large pot of dirt, carefully dug up the tree, and transplanted it into their own pot, so they could bring it home. Imagine that, an avocado tree thief right in my own building. I'm still eating avocados and still planting them, so sooner or later, another creation will arise to take its place. Perhaps I'll have to hire an armed guard for the next one.
TABLA: Last week, one of my co-workers left the company where I am employed as a computer programmer. Whenever this happens, the rest of us quickly descend like vultures on the departed person's desk, to see if there are any goodies worth taking. Sometimes one finds nothing but a few paper clips. Other times, one might find a decent book or a useful computer accessory. As I was going through this man's treasures, I found something I had never seen before in the desk of a fellow programmer: a tabla. For those who are not familiar with Indian music, a tabla is a conical drum carved out of a solid piece of hardwood. It is a real one, too; not some plastic or cheap imitation, and is accompanied by its proper holding stand. I do have some co-workers from India and Pakistan, but the person who left the company is of Italian descent. Naturally, I couldn't resist playing it, which garnered quite a bit of attention from everyone else, who wondered where I got the instrument. Then, a few days later, the person sitting next to me decided to go through the remaining items in this person's cubicle, and found--seriously--a second tabla(!), which he immediately began to play. Now we can perform duets. How someone happened to own--and discard--two of these Indian drums is an interesting mystery. I do have this person's forwarding e-mail, so I can perhaps satisfy my curiosity by finding out the rest of the story.
SLOW AND STEADY SOMETIMES WINS: In my freshman year in college I drove a very used Plymouth Fury, which looked almost like an ancient, faded blue monster compared with the small Japanese cars that had become popular after oil prices had surged. On one of the first warm days of spring, during the height of the evening weekday rush hour, I became impatient as I had to wait three times for a traffic light to change before finally being able to make a left onto the main road. I screeched my wheels and "burned rubber" as I turned the corner, so even though my speed did not approach the posted limit, a policeman looked dimly upon my driving manner, and flashed his lights as he approached from behind. Even if I had wanted to pull to the side of the road, there was no way to physically do so, as I was already in the rightmost lane. Meanwhile, the traffic cop was four or five cars behind me as all of us moved less than ten miles per hour on a very crowded Charles Street heading downtown. As I signaled for and made a right turn onto University Parkway, the policeman had a bright idea and took a shortcut through the driveway of the corner apartment building in order to catch up to me more quickly. At that point, the traffic became even more intense, so we were going only four or five miles per hour, and I noticed that an amazing event had occurred--the cop was actually four or five cars ahead of me, instead of behind me. Not eager to keep pace, I slowed down to maybe two or three miles per hour, and the cop noticed my maneuver, so he slowed down to match my snail's pace. After another minute, I was almost not moving at all, and he eventually stopped, so I did also. I thought that he would simply get out of his car and walk back on the sidewalk to give me a ticket--something he probably wished later that he had considered--but instead, we remained in a frozen stalemate for another few minutes. Finally, the policeman himself burned rubber and surged across to the opposite side using a short break in the median strip to head the opposite way in an attempt to catch me from the other direction. That was a hopeless idea, however, as the traffic was simply too heavy for even his flashing sirens to have any effect. It was a simple matter for me to keep driving slowly forward as, surrounded by dozens of cars, I was soon unreachable a few blocks away. I kept looking in my rear view mirror for the next several blocks, and still looked even after I had driven a few miles on the rapidly moving Jones Falls Expressway, just in case, but nothing ever happened. I guess the moral is that even the best shortcut has its pitfalls.
CATTAILS: In January 1987 I had an interview with a company that had offices in both Manhattan and Staten Island. I performed well at the Manhattan meeting, so all that remained to be hired was a brief visit to the Staten Island office. In order to get there, I had to take a subway to downtown Manhattan, board the Staten Island ferry, and finally connect to a bus for a half-hour ride, a total of nearly two hours. After all this traveling, and being a full hour early for the scheduled interview, I noticed some tall cattails growing on the side of the road that were just the right size and color to go nicely into a large basket at my girlfriend's place. Since the temperature was several degrees below freezing, I didn't notice while I was picking them that they have tiny but definitely prickly thorns. My hands began to bleed, but I was oblivious to this, and continued to the site of the interview. I found a place to unobtrusively hide the cattails, and foolishly without going into a bathroom, I headed toward the receptionist. She noticed my hands, which by now were turning a bright crimson, but she didn't say anything about them directly, merely asking me if I was feeling O.K. I responded that I never felt better. I was directed without further ado to the head of the department where I would be working, and that person and myself noticed simultaneously that I looked like Frankenstein after a particularly gory feast. I couldn't even figure out for a moment what had happened, until I realized what should have been obvious. After the interview, I had to carry the cattails onto the bus heading back to the ferry; if you have never tried to fit several pointy nine-foot objects onto a crowded public vehicle, it can be quite a challenge. On the ferry itself, the main difficulty was preventing a strong wind from carrying them into the water. An elderly woman noticed my unusual baggage and made an excellent sketch of my holding them, which cost me several bucks, but was definitely worth it. Then I had to get on a subway and avoid poking anyone's eyes out, and finally walked to my girlfriend's place. Epilogue: She hated the cattails, and I didn't get the job. (Post-epilogue: Two months later, my girlfriend dumped me, but let me keep the cattails. I think I was left with the better end of the bargain.) Moral: If you depart from the usual path, expect more thorns than praise.
JEFF COHEN: At the Walden School music composition summer camp in 1974, discussed below in another reminiscence, one person was chosen by the faculty to serve as the "secret inspector". This person had the task of carefully examining all dorm rooms to make sure that all beds were made properly, all trash cleaned up, and other standards generally enforced, and to report any violations to the camp staff. It was necessary that the identity of the secret inspector not be revealed, so that we would not attempt to bribe this person, or to otherwise act in a way which would adversely affect his or her duties. Unknown to the rest of us, one of the female campers surprised the secret inspector when she returned unexpectedly to her room one morning and found him there, but she was sworn to secrecy. On the final day of camp, we had to guess who the person was. About three quarters of us, including myself--especially myself--thought that it was Jeff Cohen, since he was a couple of years older than most of us and had known connections among the faculty. Jeff has since gone on to considerable fame as a classical pianist living in Paris. But a contrarian approach would have worked better, as the secret inspector turned out to be none other than my own roommate.
EARTHQUAKE?: Two years ago, I was at work in downtown New York City when the person sitting in the cubicle next to me said his chair was shaking. I thought he was joking, until about a half minute later when my own chair began to rattle and then the apparently solid floor below us began to vibrate. Soon, we could hear books and glasses crashing down all around us. A few people started yelling, and shortly thereafter an announcement was made on the fire system to "please evacuate the building through the stairs". When we gathered on the sidewalk below, a few hundred of us could talk about nothing else but what we figured was the first serious earthquake in Manhattan in history, until we noticed that only people from our building were clustered outside. Everyone else from neighboring offices and down the street was working at their desks as usual, apparently unconcerned. Puzzled, we couldn't figure out what was going on, until a fire department investigation determined the cause of the tremors. An aerobics class of fifty people was entirely responsible for creating resonance and massive vibrations that had affected a dozen floors of a major skyscraper.
HOT BOX: As mentioned in more than one previous reminiscence, in November 1977 I played piano for our high school production of "Guys and Dolls". One of the liveliest and cutest members of our cast played the role of a "Hot Box girl", performing two burlesque numbers in the show. As a student, she was quiet in class, but outside the classroom, she was very outgoing and enjoyed life fully. She was always the center of attention when we would go to the local diner during rehearsal breaks. Since high school graduation, I have not seen her again, but three years ago I was, shall we say, somewhat surprised to see her name in print. In the "New York Times" Sunday "Styles" section, from September 2, 2001, was a front-page article by their lead society writer, Guy Trebay, entitled "All Undressed and So Many Places To Go". On the page 8 continuation, she is given two full paragraphs. One sentence should suffice for a family-oriented web site: "For herself, however, the experience of going naked at Lighthouse Beach this summer was liberating."
HOGAN'S HEROES: I used to attend a summer music composition camp known as the Walden School. It was run by an energetic, inspiring man named W. David Hogan, Jr. We were each assigned to a kitchen crew in order to set out the dishes and silverware, and to serve the food and drink. There were two crews per meal. One day, our crew showed up as usual, but the other crew was nowhere to be found. We didn't know what to do, so we decided to do the best we could with our limited numbers. Naturally it took twice as long to set up as usual, so we still had a few tables to go when the counselors and kids began to pour in for supper. We tried to work a little faster, when the other crew suddenly showed up. It turned out that they had been playing a close game of handball that went into overtime, and they didn't want to interrupt the game to do something boring like setting the tables. The second, tardy crew tried to cover up for their misdeed by rushing to set out the final table, which was comprised of the most senior staff and counselors. They did a good job at first, but when they served Mr. Hogan himself, the head of the tardy crew rushed just a little too energetically, and tipped an entire meal and large cup of grape juice onto David Hogan's freshly washed shirt, tie, jacket, and pants, not to mention splattering the director's face with some kind of vegetable medley. Needless to say, that particular crew did quite a bit of floor scrubbing, lint cleaning, and every other conceivable and inconceivable task for the remainder of the summer without a complaint.
DUCKPIN BOWLING: When I was a kid, the most popular birthday activity by far was to have a duckpin party. In Baltimore, unlike other American cities, almost every bowling alley is divided into two halves. In one half, there are lanes with tenpins that require fifteen-pound balls and where you throw the ball twice per frame, as you can find throughout the U.S. In the other half, there are lanes with pins that are much smaller, known as duckpins, for which you throw a ball weighing only 3-1/2 pounds, and where you get three throws per frame. It's more difficult to throw a strike (all pins down in a single throw) or a spare (all down in two throws) with duckpins, since the ball is far less powerful, so a score of 120 is considered very good. Kids almost always prefer duckpins, because they can hardly lift the larger balls needed for regular tenpins, and because it has been the norm for Baltimore youth for decades (although this tradition has somewhat faded in the past twenty years, alas). Our parents would drop us off at the bowling alley, whereby we would bowl for about 1-1/2 hours. Afterward, we would gather in a big room nearby to eat strawberry ice cream and pound cake, and be entertained by someone dressed as a clown, who would then suffer the indignity of having leftover melted ice cream and cake thrown at him whenever any of his antics were less than excellent. As a true contrarian even then, I decided that for my ninth birthday, I would have my friends meet at Patapsco State Park just west of the city limits. Instead of bowling, we all went on a five-mile hike along a stream with a waterfall, and instead of ice cream and cake, we had barbecued goodies with lemonade and root beer. The general attitude afterward was "it was weird, but we had a lot of fun and we learned something". I guess that's similar to the reaction of those who read this page after perusing the usual web sites.
BUCKINGHAM FOUNTAIN: In the summer of 1983, I went to visit my best friend from high school, who had moved to Chicago to attend the university in Hyde Park. He was rather busy during the daytime hours, so I explored a lot of the city on my own. One morning around 10 a.m. I headed for a park, and discovered an elaborate sculpture which looked like it might be or once have been a fountain. I walked over to it, and finding it intriguing in its design, I went toward its center to examine it more closely. Suddenly I heard a whirring sound, and soon discovered that it was very much a live fountain, which began to spout prodigious amounts of water. Since it took me quite some time to climb out of the middle of the contraption and move away from the range of the spray, I was thoroughly drenched, at which time the fountain shut down as rapidly as it had started up. I walked around to the other side of the massive sculpture and saw that it was called "Buckingham Fountain", which I later discovered was the most famous fountain in the city. Its posted hours of operation were clearly in the afternoons and evenings only, so the person in charge of its maintenance must have turned it on that morning solely for my benefit.
A DOG'S LIFE: In my senior year in high school, there was a family living next door that had grown up in the farm belt of North Carolina. They grew corn and other crops in the back yard, instead of planting the traditional lawn grass, and they had a huge dog which lived in a doghouse in the front yard. One day in January they went on vacation for two weeks to visit their family back on the farm. While they were gone, a small brown-and-white stray dog moved into the doghouse and begged for scraps in the neighborhood. Whenever I left the house for a walk, the stray dog would follow me for a block or two, unless our own family dog was with me, in which case it would stay at a distance and whimper. After a week had passed, the dog was still in the doghouse and I knew it would get kicked out the following Sunday when the next-door family was scheduled to return. On Saturday afternoon, as snow flurries fell, I walked to the library to return some books, and the dog followed me all the way, more than a mile, but stayed just outside the library door. I only took about half a minute to drop off the books, but when I went back outside, I couldn't see the dog anywhere. I looked around for almost an hour, then gave up and walked home. Perhaps the stray dog somehow sensed that the doghouse would no longer be available, and decided to head for a new place to live.
JUNGLE CURRY: Several years ago I was teaching piano in Chinatown in downtown Manhattan. My star pupil not only improved his performing ability, but also began to write his own songs. One day, he surprised me by telling me he was treating me to supper for my birthday. I selected my favorite Thai restaurant called "Thailand" at the corner of Baxter and Bayard Streets (it has been there now for twenty years). My protégé asked me what to order, and I told him probably he should get one of their excellent curries, but not the "jungle curry", since that would be too spicy for him to eat. Naturally, he ordered the jungle curry, telling me that since he was from southern China, he could certainly eat much hotter food than any red-haired wimpy American from Baltimore. I warned him again to get either the red, green, or yellow curries instead, but he insisted, so I intentionally ordered the yellow curry for myself, the mildest of their signature dishes, so that he could swap later without losing face. When the jungle curry arrived, my overeager student took one bite, then without a word switched plates with me. I was truly surprised when he discovered that even the yellow curry was a lot spicier than anything his mother usually cooked (he was only a high school junior at that time, and had not eaten out very frequently), since that was mild even to my taste. I ended up eating both of our entrees, encouraging him to order something even more harmless than a Big Mac, such as pad Thai, but he was too embarrassed to want to order anything further at that point. Finally, the bill arrived, and he made a great show of very proudly taking out his first, very recently obtained credit card to pay for both of us, only to discover that the restaurant accepted only cash; he had less than five dollars in his pocket. We have since become good friends, although to this day he becomes upset if I remind him of this incident.
9/11 MEMORIES: In the late summer of 2001, my brother and I visited Iceland. We went horseback riding, swam in thermally heated pools, went biking, and marveled at the Northern Lights (the aurora borealis). I had met an Icelandic man while playing bridge on the internet; we later sent e-mails and talked on the phone, and he was kind enough to drive my brother and myself around the country for two days. We saw amazing geysers and waterfalls, wide open countryside with a few domestic animals, and a generally austere landscape. Rainbows were almost an everyday occurrence. On the second day together, after we had just visited an ancient Icelandic graveyard, my friend said, "I'm not sure why, but I'd like to hear the news on the radio for a few minutes if you don't mind." My brother and I couldn't understand what was being said, but my friend told us "the World Trade Center was just hit by an airplane." That didn't make any sense to us, and then shortly thereafter he told us "another plane just hit the other tower, and they say it's terrorism." We drove immediately to my friend's house and, just as we arrived and turned on the television, on CNN we saw the South Tower fall.