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Of Pancakes And Porridge

Denis Munro is a conundrum with a Sean Connery accent; a cuisine-phobic, teetotaling man-about-the-High Street decked in snappy sports jacket complete with neatly folded hanky. “The hanky is sewn into the pocket” he pointed out as I dropped him off for a ten-day Alaskan cruise departing San Francisco. He wanted to make sure I didn’t picture him meticulously folding one himself, thereby dismantling the image he’d been carefully constructing all week of an edge-dwelling man hell-bent on destruction. The week saw us tracking ample city miles, climbing both Telegraph and Russian Hills. Seeing my surroundings through Denis’s eyes lent new perspective to the old and tired. A graying, bearded homeless man on the Wharf, flipping off passers-by with a “Fuck Trump” sign and plastic jar filled with cash transformed from eyesore obstacle to novel entertainment as Denis pointed his lens and parted with carefully-minded dollars. The dour-faced waitress with ample caboose in my local eatery couldn’t stay close enough to our table as Denis peppered her with pleasant chit chat ( “I’m from Scotland and don’t eat a wide range of food; it’s my only fault” ) and repeatedly asked about her life ( “Do you live in San Francisco? ; How do you get to work?” ) Bringing Denis to a restaurant is like bringing LSD to a Quaker picnic. He’s content to sit and watch you eat, ordering only an “Americano” and settling for regular coffee. Food phobias are matched only by a fearlessness for polite conversation.

The week was divided by a Lake Tahoe sojourn, pausing at Auburn on the climb up. Auburn is a Gold Rush town, its history steeped in prospecting and Old West doings. These destinations have filled Denis’s cup of tea since first visiting America long ago. Back then he returned from state-crossing adventures with tales of asking a Colorado filling station attendant what they grew in the mountainous terrain. “Son,” the old man told him, “‘round here we don’t raise nothin’ but rhubarb and pregnant women ..” Denis preserved such quotes in his trusty notebook, tucked away for future telling. He wasn’t keying on some imagined part of the western frontier; these people and places exist today. They’re just waiting for a garlic-avoidant man in a snappy blue sports coat to drive through and draw them out. He enjoys bars despite abstaining from drink and can be found recording bits of Americana from the graffiti on lavatory walls. Bumper stickers are memorialized in Denis’s canon and in 1980’s Nevada “Lead, Follow or Get Out of the Fuckin’ Way” was preserved, suiting something distinctly American. After Auburn we pulled into Truckee, a river town along train tracks and just over the last mountain range from Tahoe. I’d mentioned the Pastime Club, a local dive featuring live music on weekends and where I once risked ruining expensive dental work by dancing with the girlfriend of a six foot five biker who looked like Willie Nelson. No such diversion this time as we arrived late-afternoon to a sparsely populated bar and profane bartender speaking of her “shit-headed girlfriend in Florida” who had decided to stick around for Hurricane Irma. I ordered a Corona, Denis a club soda, and we ambled back to the billiard table where he impressed me with his cue-handling skills. Then it was back on the road for the short scoot to the lake.

No place manages to impress upon first sight like Lake Tahoe and the sensation doesn’t abate with return visits. “Here we go,” Denis remarked catching first glimpse. Later I grilled two filet steaks on the deck with simple baked potatoes and salad. Denis ate every scrap, efficiently and quickly, causing me to consider whether this was because it was palatable or if he figured if he slowed down he’d be faced with the sobering reality that he was actually ingesting food that wasn’t pancakes or porridge. The latter is a Scottish staple (or at least it was sixty years ago) and as central to his existence as snow to an Eskimo. I may have become cocky after managing to prepare a meal he consumed fully that first night, but after that it was porridge with berries three dinners in a row. I’ve never seen someone hover so intently over the fruit and raw nuts section of a supermarket and he purchased enough whole foods to keep the Central Valley stocked for a week. As for pancakes, they were first introduced many visits back by my equally-Scottish mother whose natural charms had wooed Denis since he was a wee lad. She put the flapjack stack in front of him at the kitchen table and as he reluctantly tucked in he realized that he was experiencing the rarest of rare; a new menu item added to the Munro Repertoire. This and the soon to be discovered fact that coffee refills are free in America had Denis looking into job opportunities in San Francisco after a single visit.

I’m not a man of excess but traveling with Denis can make one feel like Hunter S. Thompson on an ether binge or Rosie O’Donnell stumbling upon the all you can eat buffet at Trump Tower. We watched several Coen Brothers films as I indulged in Kit Kat bars and single malt drams. Denis flossed filet bits from his teeth. I snuck out to the deck to watch through the window while firing up a Montecristo cigar. Where others might make you feel self-conscious about habits they don’t share, Denis is quick to defer, admire and compliment. He asked with interest how one knows that a potato is baked sufficiently and commented on “quite enjoying” the whiff of a good cigar despite not tolerating the smell of cigarettes. The following morning we set out for Reno and Virginia City, two reminders that Nevada, of all American states, is operating on its own set of rules. Denis fondly recounts the time in Reno when, at the Silver Legacy Casino, he threw caution to the wind and put a second quarter in a one-armed bandit and pulled the lever. I provided the thrills this time, quickly dispensing with ten bucks at video poker before we opted for brunch (“ahhh … pancakes!”) then set out for Virginia City. There we took in typical mining town attractions — the ‘Suicide Table’ at the ‘Bucket of Blood’ — after entering the main drag up a set of back stairs through the Silver Dollar Saloon. Denis was too enamored with Toby Keith blaring on the juke box to notice the hundreds of lady’s brassieres suspended above the bar or the curious glares from leather-clad local bikers as he ambled by in finely tailored felt.

He’s a good man and I don’t toss the words out lightly. His fondness for my mother would have sufficed in securing my long friendship but Denis’s charms go beyond this. We hiked down a steep hill to sit on a rocky perch above the glassy-still, deep blue Tahoe water on our last afternoon at elevation and out-drove the edge of an approaching mountain thunderstorm back to the cabin. Once more I grilled my dinner and Denis indulged in some plain crackers, unsalted nuts and main-course porridge. The skies opened up with a spectacular light show, rain, tall swaying pines and thunder that seemed to reverberate from Tahoe to Glasgow. An early exit the next morning and drive down to San Francisco featured Norm MacDonald on the Audi sound system and brunch (“ahhhhh .. pancakes!”) at the appropriately-named Denny’s south of Sacramento. Nothing exceeds like excess, but there is something to be said, too, for simple routine stacked with hard laughs and good memories.

Blame The Vain

If I could choose one God-given gift it would be a good singing voice. I can strum a few chords and butcher my way through an original tune while relying upon questionable wit and song parody. But to really sing in a manner that makes one pause from her drink to look up and find out where that sound is coming from .. that’s something else. Then there’s Dwight Yoakam. The man could sing the English instructions for a selfie stick and bring any house down. He’s strut the line between stardom and obscurity but never wanted for attention. Johnny Cash called him his favorite singer. He dated Bridget Fonda and Sharon Stone but flies just below the radar. His acting career dates back to 92’s “Red Rock West” and he played Doyle Hargraves, Billy Bob Thornton’s trigger-tempered nemesis in “Slingblade.” Standard film persona is the bad guy or criminal with a sad but menacing edge. Minus the ten-gallon Stetson, boots and painted-on jeans, he’s an oddly decked character actor; a 70’s Central Valley gas station jockey or Tom Petty’s distant brother minus the hair work. But in the get-up with a strapped D-28 he becomes D-wight with a capital “D.” The vibe is difficult to nail down .. Ohio by way of Kentucky but pure Hollywood, all sequins and sex. The voice drawls, twangs, cuts, rocks, soothes and simmers. It crosses genres and sneaks up with potent appeal — angelic reminder that overlooking flyover states can be an egregious error.

Dwight played Saratoga Mountain Winery last Sunday night, the last leg of a day I spent driving down from the Sierras with a re-charge San Francisco nap sandwiched between. It’s a small, impressive venue nestled into the south bay hills and accessed by a winding, narrow two-lane road. The older gentleman and season-pass holder sitting next to me explained that “it was purchased by the guy who invented the Internet.” Temperatures hovered around 90 globally-warmed, dryly heated degrees and the venue fit the show. San Jose babes flaunting porn star cowgirl regalia with skimpy cutoffs and western boots abounded. Yoakam has played Sunset Strip punk clubs and big stadiums alike, but he shines at local yokel spots like county fairs and Saratoga. The Blasters opened and go back with Dwight to the early 80’s L.A. cowpunk scene. The “eclectic” label has followed him, accurate though insufficient, and he came up with Los Lobos, X, Rank & File and The Knitters. He was called too punk for country and too country for punk but the talent was there and undeniable. You can come to Dwight by way of movies, biscuits, Buck Owens, Sid Vicious or Elvis, but you stick around for the voice. It fits all genres and he opened Sunday with Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” leaving plenty of room for honky tonk pause at the “meanwhile, I’ze still thinkin‘ ..” break. The punk influence has sustained and he still cranks the amps, playing loud but precise notes and rarely pausing for applause between songs. He’s always surrounded himself with excellent musicians and his current, youthful guitarist Eugene Edwards not only fills the early 80’s Dwight heart-throb role, he blends his own Telecaster approach in with tasteful homage to Pete Anderson. (Pete being Dwight’s trend-setting axe man between ’84 and ’02.) Then Dwight will shift gears and croon out a straight-up doo-wop original like “If There Was A Way” and just own the place in the process.

I’ve been thinking lately about how music fills a somewhat safe role between politics and religion. Where I’ll rarely offer an honest opinion on Trump or God with any except those who know me best, I’ll generally speak up if someone spews an untempered or critical take on Dwight Yoakam. It isn’t that I don’t have my own thoughts on the other stuff but there’s always a nagging undercurrent of doubt and lack of conviction regardless of which side I take. But tell me that you “don’t like that country shit” or you’re “not into twang” and I’ll engage forcefully. Or I’ll just turn it on low in the background and let him sneak up on you. Many roads lead to Dwight Yoakam and none of them have been paved by Taylor Swift or Kenny Chesney. It just takes a while for most people to figure this out.

The Low-Carb Anarchist Cookbook

I watched two documentary films, by chance and back to back, during a recent Netflix binge. One is called New York Doll and focuses on the life of Arthur “Killer” Kane, bass player for the seminal NYC punk band The New York Dolls. The other, American Anarchist, is about the life of William Powell, author of the 1971 instructional manual The Anarchist Cookbook which has sold over two million copies. The book directs and even encourages the amateur bomb-maker in carrying out his trade. There was a strikingly coincidental theme in the two films (“film” being used colloquially here) particularly given that I watched them in succession. Both subjects die prematurely and during the making of the documentaries but not so soon as to prevent a finished product. Kane passes away at 55 from leukemia just days after seeing his dream of a Dolls reunion come to fruition and Powell at 66 of a heart attack shortly after being interviewed at some length about his now infamous work. Neither death seems imminent; both occur out of the blue. In Kane’s case he dies just two hours after he’s been diagnosed. And both deaths come within the brief time-frame of the respective documentaries’ production. They aren’t used as cinematic device some years later or for a flummoxed director to conclude “I guess I’ve got my ending.”

There isn’t much controversy to New York Doll. It follows a sweet man who struggled with youthful, short-lived fame and alcoholism. Arthur Kane seems a genuinely good guy whose life was cut short but not before coming full-circle with poignant emphasis. American Anarchist is different. Powell wrote The Anarchist Cookbook when he was 19 and attending Vietnam War protests. He cites a particular mass protest at Grand Central Station with indiscriminate police beatings as motivation. It’s later revealed that personal alienation, a disjointed upbringing and molestation by a school administrator might have been even stronger influences. Whatever his reasons, the fact remains that the book tells its reader how to make bombs and other weapons and encourages their use as a legitimate form of political protest. The manual has been found in the possession of numerous killers and domestic terrorists including Oklahoma bomber Timothy McVeigh and Dylan Klebold (the Bill Maher resembling half of the Columbine duo.) It’s a terribly reckless effort at best and arguably indefensible. Maybe causal evidence can’t  be drawn for Powell’s culpability, but there’s a lot more to work with than with JD Salinger and Mark David Chapman.

Of course Powell was just 19 when his work was published and as his wife notes “we all do dumb things but not everyone prints them in a book.” He is obviously regretful but has also become somewhat adept at compartmentalizing and rationalizing. Curiously, the film’s director Charlie Siskel seems guilty of a similarly egregious error in his approach to Powell: he can’t lay off the guy. In cut after cut he pushes him for something more than he is capable of giving. Powell has consented to be interviewed at length and is obviously a man who shoulders a heavy burden for his youthful ambition. But he isn’t sufficiently contrite for Siskel’s taste and the director wants something more. What that might be ( tears? .. mental breakdown?) is never quite clear. One wonders if Siskel sees any link between his approach to bring this partially repressed guilt to the surface and his subject’s fatal heart attack not long after the interview.  His editing choices and heavy-handedness are particularly suspect given that he was putting the film together in the wake of Powell’s sudden and unexpected death. It’s a time-honored theme, this “pot calling the kettle black” stuff, but most of us don’t go so far as to use it in a documentary.

Other high-profile examples of culpability arguments came to mind watching American Anarchist. Mike Judge was criticized for influencing child arsonists with Beavis and Butthead and the “Jackass” films aren’t everyone’s cup of tea, either. But what is art if not exposing and celebrating the disposition of the truly stupid? And what are the odds that preventing this celebration will do anything to curb this most human of all traits? It’s always a bit more difficult when the work in question emphasizes humor or satire. Put Beavis and Butthead on the chopping block and pretty soon they’ll be coming after Spinal Tap. The Anarchist Cookbook, for what it’s worth, wasn’t a humorous attempt. But neither is the Bible nor Quran,  and if we’re to start somewhere we should probably go after the heavy-hitters.


To understand the Minneapolis-based kinetic sculptor, filmmaker and artist Scott “Coleman” Miller, one needs to understand his vocabulary. It involves little premeditation and flows naturally. Near the top of the heap are the tried and true “splank,” “na-gooshed,” (pronounced ‘na-GOOSHED’) and “sheesh.”  Sheesh is an expression of exasperation, as in “I spent all night applying for a grant from the Boise Film Festival but spilled a Pepsi down my hard-drive .. SHEESH.” Splank is more difficult to explain and denotes both an unfortunate occurrence and an object contacting an unintended target. “I tried to hit the bucket with that big handful of moldin’-putty but it stuck to the wall instead .. SPLANK.” Na-gooshed is more specific, almost always referencing some kind of personal pain being inflicted upon an unsuspecting party by a  larger second party and as result of social misstep or wrong choice of words. “Yeah .. I can see me walking up to LeBron and suggesting that he stop wearin’ those straight-brimmed hats .. Na-GOOSHED!” This only touches on Miller’s full range and “sit-down,” “whiz-bang” and “SLAPPY” all figure prominently.

Tom Myers, the thrice Academy Award nominated sound designer and editor, has never changed his name. (Or if he has it’s only been temporarily and under circumstances he doesn’t discuss.) I wrote Tom a poem for his wedding many moons ago and called him a “guy among guys.” “Man among men” would be too exalted for Tom. His career achievements and popularity with the ladies would make another insufferable but Tom counters them nicely with a healthy amount of self-loathing and contradiction. In explaining his motivation for recent dietary changes and weight loss he notes “there’s less for me to hate now,” and he uses inexplicably un-Quaker expressions like “it really scratches that itch” to describe a favored musical passage. Tom is the pause in Miller’s monologue, the breath in between his antics. Miller becomes MILLER around Tom and jumps from eight to ten. Scott is the Sloppy Joe to Tom’s brown rice, the blurted “How you doin’ Chief?!” to Tom’s eye contact and hand shake. That said, Tom will politely call you on your shit when prejudice is expressed with a touch too much sincerity.

These two would not have met had it not been for the now-defunct and once semi world-famous Monaco Labs. I had mixed feelings about the place, for reasons that are perhaps self-evident. Miller describes those times as “the best” (an opinion contradicted recently by a third friend who worked the same era –“yeah .. I don’t think so.”) But time is subject to the perspective of the person living it.  That Miller and Myers crossed paths as result of the Monaco print department is unarguable. Their friendship would not be were it not for Dan Monaco, and that’s some rather powerful stuff when I give it a moment. I’m never sure where to go, however, with these moments. It’s a story that needs to be adequately told but that’s no blog-post task. Instead I’ll opt for the ever-convenient cartoon ending and quote a verse from “Millertown,” a recently-penned effort stemming from the three of us spending a few nights up at Lake Tahoe.

Everybody had a splank
Everybody a Na-gooshed
Everybody had a Big Sheesh
Got their Miller Buttons pushed (Down in Millertown ..)

No Friend Of Yours

Some friend of a friend of a friend of mine – Petty, “What’re You Doin’ In My Life?”

“Share Your Facebook Memories” is a recent feature on the internet titan that allows users to auto-generate a post from four or five years back and re-distribute some enthusiastic highlight from their past. I’m not sure how Facebook distinguishes and chooses these posts from the more dour “Sue has contracted Crone’s Disease” ones, but with face-recognition and virtual reality not far on the horizon and a zillion dollars in stock value, it can’t be any huge trick. This company may be getting too smart for their own good and is now compensating for the weariness of their massive user base in having to daily generate and project more interesting and enjoyable lives. “If you’re no longer buying the illusion,” they seem to be saying, “let’s show them how great everything was when you were.” Facebook is recycling old dopamine and offering a nostalgic high. I find most of the site to be a large-scale exercise in duplicating the mind-set of a friend of a friend, who was once described to me as never answering a question directly but instead turning every reply into a compliment for his wife. “I don’t know about that,” was this guy’s standard response, “but if I had it to do a million times again, I’d marry Linda every single one of them.” Yes, but the topic at hand was global warming, you moron. It’s this kind of inane positivity that dominates Facebook and makes us shape our days as an interminable series of life-affirming photos, comments and observations. Sure, you’ll get the occasional post when someone kicks the bucket — “Carbunkle Family Matriarch of 98 years and the rock at our center ..” But it’s a sanitized zeroes and ones obituary that only serves to emphasize the “you’re OK .. I’m OK, right?” nature of the deal. I’m not sure if birth announcements are proper fodder for the digital domain, but I surely don’t want somebody clicking a button to re-share the day I bit it, four years after the fact.

Or perhaps I’m just exceedingly bitter. Historically, this has been the case. Connectivity is the buzzword. We all know what the other is doing (or at least what the other wants us to think he is doing) and don’t have to wait for the morning paper on our doorstep to get the latest political news complete with spin. That spin can come from a variety of sources — paid “professionals” on various news sites, our personal group of 3000 close “friends” or Larry the Electrician texting us from our vacation home where he’s repairing a fuse box “did you see where Trump fired his FBI director?” There are two distinct differences from the past: it’s coming at us 24-7 and in much larger quantities, and there is no digestion-time. We used to have to wait for things: the paper, the six o’clock news, a phone call or letter or family get-together. We’d consume this information and then have some down-time to put it together in our own heads or find some way to put it aside. No such luxury anymore; we’re getting fed around the clock and all feeling the information-equivalent of being on one of those Caribbean cruise lines with no port in site.  I know how Benmont Tench feels about Sean Spicer because I’m on the former’s Instagram feed .. when all I was really looking for was some cool overhead piano shots from the latest Mudcrutch tour.

And what of these more “serious” political discussions on Facebook? I suppose one could view them as reprieve from shots of our buddy’s eighteen year-old daughter in her first low-cut dress readying for prom night or banal up to the minute postings like “look — a wasp has landed in my milkshake.” But in most cases the vast majority of these “friends” reading our opinions on Washington or Syria or healthcare are of like-mind and this “discussion forum” more resembles a closely-knit circle-jerk. We’re steeling and fortifying our already like-minded clique and creating this illusion of cohesion and shared “common sense” when in fact it’s no more accurate or reality-based than that picture of your friend’s eternally-happy extended family enjoying a ten-course meal around a perfectly decorated dining room table. If you really want to change minds or get an accurate reflection of those outside your group, jump into an Alabama discussion group if you live in San Francisco or Brooklyn .. or reach out to France if you’re from Tennessee. It’s never been easier to do so and they even have the language-barriers figured out. Of course you just won’t see this happen. We all enjoy being told that we’re right and smart and insightful. Nobody wants to go looking for instant dopamine only to be informed that he’s got his head up his ass.

I struggle with using the word “irony” correctly, even being familiar with it all my life and having looked it up in Webster’s on many an occasion. I’ve heard it said that Americans don’t fully “get” irony .. but I think it was by some pussy Frenchman or effete English dude with bad teeth. At any rate (what about six and half percent?) I think the term can be aptly applied to elements of our modern world, and more specifically the idea of information dissemination. Here we are at a time when it is easier to reach out or be reached than ever in history. And yet the result seems to be more disillusion, extreme personalities as figureheads, and the re-affirmation of bubble-living. We’ve bridged huge gaps only to ramp up the process of closing our minds. I guess it’s no great surprise, and if we’re to believe the film “The Social Network,” Zuckerberg created Facebook primarily to get laid. And the site has reportedly led to more infidelity, break-ups and divorces than at any time in our history. (The more pronounced side of staring into our phone and lusting after our buddy’s eighteen year-old daughter in her prom dress.) I still like to believe there is a basic good in people and I’ve had one shining, indefatigable, remarkable example in my life: my mom. She never got near a computer, didn’t own a smartphone and didn’t even trust ATM machines. Take that for what you will.

Nobody Home

“I got a grand piano to prop up my mortal remains” – Waters

What’s of greater value — getting better with something at which you’re innately good, or good with something at which you struggle ? I would argue for the latter, though there is no right answer. Clearly those starting out best at what they do have a distinct advantage and often go on to greatest success. Willie Mays’ love of the game was expressed with fluid motion, boyish enthusiasm, and a sense that he was born in center field with a glove on. But there was a particular beauty to Pete Rose, that most un-beautiful of ballplayers, too. Watching him lumber full-speed after a meaningless late-September foul pop before snagging it in a dusty, violent tumble was a thing to behold. Often those we admire most for what they do look at their ability with curious disregard and long to do something else. Gary Larson, perhaps the greatest of one-panel cartoonists, put down his pens to pursue jazz guitar. Michael Jordan tried to play baseball. Johnny Carson loved playing drums and wanted to be Buddy Rich. When people pursue these things passionately and outside the realm of vocation, we say they have “hobbies.” For most working stiffs this is a distinction made of necessity and because nobody will pay them to play jazz guitar. Some people are so crushed by the weight of their work-a-day world, they have neither time nor energy to consider that what they’re best at isn’t what they do. Others learn to hate that which comes naturally because they’re trapped making a living at it. There have to be a lot of natural-born accountants out there who could give a rat’s ass about their ability.

What’s this got to do with anything? Not much. Were I in a more constructive state of mind I’d find a segue here between Pete Rose and Theresa May or global warming. Or find a link between Gary Larson and the start of baseball season. But that’s just a parlor-trick; a device to try and trick the reader into thinking you know where you’re going.

I was watching the author, neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris on Youtube the other night. How’s that for a cocktail party show-stopper? “What do I do? Well I’m an author, neuroscientist and philosopher .. but I really want to play jazz guitar. Want to see my van?” Harris’s command of speech is admirable .. a close-second, perhaps, to the late Christopher Hitchens. He was making a point about the dangers of religious fundamentalism with an argument about how nobody on an airplane, regardless of secular devotion, would sit calmly if the pilot came on and told them he was turning off the controls and relying upon divine intervention to fly the thing. Except Harris made the point both extemporaneously and better, despite my having the time to consider and edit here. This — for a variety of personal reasons — might be what impresses me most these days. We take for granted the ability to form words in our head and spit them out of our mouths. But it’s a small miracle, even for those with limited vocabulary. Then there are people like Harris and Hitchens who seem not only to always have a salient point at the ready, but the effortless ability to use the right words in making it. I would argue that this form of intellect is more of the Willie Mays than Pete Rose variety. Sure, being a voracious reader and practiced public speaker helps, but there are geniuses of the first order who become tongue-tied no matter how they try to make a point. The ability to speak well and intelligently is a natural gift and great advantage in asserting one’s view. A decent argument will often beat a great one when expressed fluently and with the right words.

And finally, what’s the deal with San Francisco? I love the place and suspect I wouldn’t do well in Akron or Billings, but has there ever been a city more filled with unfriendly and weird stiffs? When I first moved to New York and was using Craig’s List extensively, somebody pointed out that even this was different in the two cities. People in San Francisco, he said, would contact you and arrange to meet or purchase something, then drop it without ever getting in touch. I thought at the time it had to be an errant observation. I was from San Francisco, after all, and would never do this. But the past few months in both cities have underlined his point both emphatically and empirically. For all its liberal posing and “community” activism, San Francisco lacks a strong sense of cohesion. Then there was “Max”, the guy who emailed multiple times to berate me for not offering enough to haul off a dismantled piece of furniture. “It costs $40 just to take something to the dump .. so what am I making here??????” (He included the six question-marks and an equal number of exclamation points elsewhere in his rant.)  I hadn’t contacted Max directly; he was responding to my posting. Instead of going on to the next one, or offering to do it for more money, he chose to lecture me. Yeah, yeah .. I know .. there are plenty of Maxes in a city like New York with eight million people. But I lived there and almost never ran into them. Or maybe it’s just that there’s a different brand of idiot in New York, and it’s more to my liking. Fortunately, a guy name Michael from the Avenues and with an Irish last name responded to my post well before Max did. He came by the place in the rain half an hour after I posted the ad and gladly hauled away my stuff, pocketing some extra cash to take an old bed frame as well. He said nothing and smoked a cigarette as we loaded the bed of his Toyota Tacoma, but offered an “Awesome – thanks” when I handed him the money and before I watched the red tail-lights fade into the damp March night. There was hope for me in and beyond his two words .. more than I could adequately explain here. Where’s Sam Harris when you need him?

All About You

“Horses scream, the nightmares dream
 and the dead men all wear shoes” –  John Prine

“Once you’re down in Texas, Bob Wills is still the king” – Waylon

I figured I could do better than that. Not Prine or Waylon, of course, but what I wrote previously about New York. Someone once told me that I possess a particular form of bravery and will look some things dead-on that others won’t touch. If it’s true it exists in conjunction with an equally potent brand of avoidance; not cowardice exactly, but the kind of deal that makes you not want to walk out the door in the morning. Some days I just don’t want to see anybody and will indulge the option. Lately, though, the option hasn’t been there. I’m a cynic. It’s ingrained to the point where it doesn’t register internally. I said it recently — “I’m cynical about a lot of stuff” — and the other person burst out laughing. So be it. Here, however, are some things about which I am not cynical: New York City. It smells like garbage and subways in the summer and can possess a particularly bleak, cold and grey winter quality. But it’s too big to be vilified, classified or marginalized. America never stopped being great and you need look no further than where I am now .. for a few more days, anyway. To quote Letterman post 9-11 “If you didn’t believe it before — and it’s easy to see where you might have been skeptical — New York City is the greatest city in the world.”

Loss provides perspective. Absence makes the heart grow fonder. Too many cooks .. well, you get the picture. “In order to win,” says the great and grumpy Van Morrison, “you must be prepared to lose sometimes .. and leave one or two cards showing.” So it is with New York. I’ve been coming and leaving since 2003 and within that context I’ve learned to appreciate the place. I’ve heard it since I arrived “it ain’t what it used to be” .. “Times Square is Disneyland” .. etc. New York City is immune to old money, new money, white kids, black kids, rich kids, Alec Baldwin, Williamsburg, Trump, DeBlasio and the Knicks. (And if you can be immune to the Knicks you’re doing OK.) Stand at its perimeter and feel the place buzz if you don’t believe it; pulsating like an old person refusing to die. It swallows, absorbs, embraces and spits out, but it isn’t going anywhere.

I’m no theologian .. this can be documented. But I’ve been talking to a Higher Power of late. Not sure if it’s God, the Universe, or the guys who designed and built the Golden Gate Bridge. (And for the record and with deference to New York’s many impressive overpasses, there is none like that bridge anywhere.) But it seems to me, if we’re to extract one usable instruction from most religions, it would be “it ain’t all about you.” Where they go from there gets a little shaky, but never mind that. Point being, no city emphasizes this idea more than New York. Here you will get your balls busted, regardless of how you choose to avoid or engage. Resist at your peril. Don’t be a sucker, but don’t be a stiff or a pussy either. There’s been a lot of buzz about that word lately, but in this context it refers to self absorption. A true New Yorker — and at thirteen years in, knowing I’ll never be one myself, I use the term sparingly — set me straight on this. “It isn’t all about you.” Never confuse self-absorption for sensitivity. New York embraces, is shaped and even hardened by the sensitive and is too big and bad to pretend otherwise. But it ain’t all about you.

And so the place again washes over and hits me with a fresh dose of reality. It’s there picking up the tab at a ten-dollar an oyster, overcrowded bistro down Court or sitting at the bar down Henry with a great plate of rigatoni and more than palatable glass of five-dollar red. Or sitting alone at a table in the back of Great Jones, remembering the first time I stopped in back in 2001 and observing that they still have Bob Wills vinyl 45 in the jukebox. It’s the Russian woman noting that she didn’t know she’d have a “big strong man” helping her load my $200 end-table sold for $40 into her Chrysler minivan. Or the beautiful brown-skinned Manhattan girl wheeling away my IKEA dresser as deftly attached to a dolly by her male companion. (“He was trained in European furniture repair ..”)  It’s there in Ismail my super, changing the “probably” to “will” in my noting the likelihood of return. Or seeing Springsteen at Giants Stadium before they tore the place down and Philip Seymour Hoffman performing “Death of a Salesman” before he shot himself up. It was in the Old Man, still in OK shape and between visiting melt-downs, marveling at the “energy” everywhere and noting “it’s a good hat” after scoring him a four-dollar beanie on a cold day in Central Park. And it’s there in every box I triple-tape and ship UPS ground from the packaging place across the street. In savoring just being here, again, for a while, while the apartment grows more spacious by the day.

I read and wrote essays when I arrived here and recall one by a young woman noting how difficult and isolating this city can be. It ended with the cheese falling off the top of her frozen pizza and to the floor as she pulled it from the toaster oven, alone in her Brooklyn studio. “I sat and cried for two hours that night and knew that was it .. I was done with New York City.” I got it, sure. But the top had fallen off my pizza long before I arrived. Better to walk a few blocks and stand in line with the other lonely souls waiting on a slice at two in the morning, noting that you can’t do this anywhere else. No, I’ll never be a “New Yorker.”  I know a few things about the place, though, and it’s inside of me. Tell me about your city and I’ll tell you about a few others .. we can chat on it all night. But there’s nowhere like here.

Little Pink Colorblind Tests

I’ve been listening to John Mellencamp of late. It’s been thirty years. Returning to him at this ripe age affirms a long-held suspicion. Everything needed to know about life can be attained by studying this man. Start with the obvious — don’t change your name more than once. Never mind airport security hassles; it’s not good practice. The world lets Zimmerman to Dylan slide. But Johnny Cougar to John Cougar to John Cougar Mellencamp to John Mellencamp to Rick Barry Basketball Camp is too much. It’s like a young girl changing her signature while trying to project the desired image. Nobody cares how you cross your “t’s.” The same applies to other changes .. facial hair, footwear, religion, sexual preference, etc. One shift every five years is acceptable but don’t go jumping around too much. It’s bad form.

Don’t be too earnest. Have a solid back beat and simple chords but don’t over-sell. Stick with lyrics like “get a leg up / get a leg over,” and avoid “well we’re dropping our bombs, in the southern hemisphere / and people are starving, that live right here.” Go with your instinct on “rooty toot toot, rooty toot toot” but steer clear of “is this your life, Jackie Brown?” People enjoy assigning personal meaning to simple songs. If you’re going to be literal take a clue from Hank Williams and “hey good lookin’, what ya got cookin?” Don’t write a great song like “Hurts So Good”  only to later claim you “never wanted to be no pop singer.” The same applies to claiming you never wanted to be “Johnny Cougar.” There is nothing wrong with being a pop star; the world could use a few more Cheap Tricks and a few less Alanis Morissettes. Earnestness is often mistaken for righteousness and righteousness never made any dinner party easier to get through.

Have a compelling personal life but keep it in check. Generate interest via your Wikipedia page when your career starts to wane. Marry multiple times with flocks of kids by different women. Name your girls “Justice” and your boys “Hud.” Date famous women after giving up on marriage. Start with Meg Ryan then jump to Christie Brinkley. Have Christie explain your amicable split was based purely on her distaste for Indiana and yours for the Hamptons. If you’re only 5′-8″ and have a disproportionately large head, don’t be adverse to chain-smoking and wearing heels .. particularly if you plan on standing next to Johnny Cash at Farm Aid. Go on Letterman (or current day equivalent) and tell him you saw a tear in his eye when you perform your latest tear-jerker. Smoke on the show.

That’s about all the John Cougar Mellencamp life advice I can dish, but I do have one other recommendation. Don’t post colorblind and/or math tests on Facebook. And worse yet, don’t reply if some other idiot posts one. You know the ones — a group of lavender and pink dots forming a word or a block of integers between one and two hundred with one missing. Then the claim “if you can identify this word / spot the missing number (in ten seconds or less) you are in the top five percentile.” This is then followed by a long list of replies, most of them correctly identifying “party” or “152.” And none, apparently, realizing that the answer is written a hundred times already and there is no way of determining whether you took all afternoon to get there. I’ve always assumed that those posting the wrong number or word are in on the joke and only doing so to keep the other Einsteins going at it. In any case it’s nothing in which Johnny Cougar would ever partake.

I Used To Live Alone Before I Knew Ya

I grew up with a lot of conservatives. Well, I grew up with the kids of a lot of conservatives. This was by no means a reflection of the prevailing demographic; rather it was our small group of largely Italian friends and family who tended to spend Thanksgiving and New Year’s together. And even “Italian” is a stretch here. My mom is Scottish, my grandmother Irish, and the group extended outward to all neighbors. But the names on the predominant mailboxes were Italian. And these people were and still are among the warmest and most inclusive sorts I’ve ever known.

As kids we didn’t know from Italian or any other group simply by hearing a name. “Monaco” or “Picetti” or “Galli” only reflected a family, or the kid in question. We applied no more ethnic identity to them than we did “Greenman,” “Greenberg,” “Callahan,” “Ramirez,” or “Jones.” The name meant a face — this was the immediate association. (Granted there weren’t a lot of African American kids where I grew up, but had there been equal numbers I believe the same would have applied.)

Then we all got a bit older and distinctions crept in. One of the first for me was the after-school catechism classes that my Catholic friends attended. They’d make a left turn climbing up the hill to go to Mrs Costello’s house and learn about Jesus and his pals while I continued onward alone. “Catholic” became a distinction for me. It was something they were and I was not. I wasn’t alone in this regard and it wasn’t as though I was a single non-believer in a sea of followers. But I didn’t go to Hebrew school or temple either. We weren’t Catholic or Jewish or Protestant (though I used the last when asked as a catch-all.) We were nothing.

By the time high school rolled around the distinctions were more clear. There was an entire school for the Catholic kids where they had to wear uniforms and study theology. It was also where the kids who were already fucking up badly tended to be sent, whether they were Catholic or not and if their parents cared and had a bit of money. My public high school was more diverse in makeup from Catholic school, but still largely white, affluent and liberal given the demographic. It was a relatively large school though, so there were plenty of kids from more conservative families as well as a handful of blacks and other minorities. By the time we all graduated, lines had been clearly drawn. Yeah, we were mostly rich white kids by national standards, but we definitely distinguished between ethnicity, religion and politics.

I won’t go into my college experience .. I didn’t graduate until later, anyway. In between I quit and went to work for our family company. We ran a motion picture lab in San Francisco, a city so liberal it would later have an actual proposition on the ballot to name a sewage treatment facility after George W Bush. My father grew up in North Beach and is a third-generation San Franciscan. When he was a kid, what passed for “liberal” politics in the city would be considered conservative today. And he ran a (relatively) small business in a city that never made that easy. The people I worked with — young, interested in film, and having moved to San Francisco — were mostly liberal in outlook. The company itself had a long tradition of informality and was rich in varied personalities. Put another way, we employed a lot of nuts. This was not Dow Chemical nor Goldman Sachs. We threw parties and played softball together. Management and middle-management were respectfully mocked at times, but it was kept to a healthy level. Most people knew that the shit that flew at our company wouldn’t be tolerated elsewhere and this served largely as glue more than dissent. I made many good friends working there, several of whom I’ve kept to this day.

There’s been a lot of talk of bubble-breaking recently; a need to reach out beyond one’s prevailing circle to engage others who might have a slightly different world view. I’ve heard some speak to the difficulty of this .. “I don’t know these people .. how can I reach out if I never come across them? Do I have to get in my car and go find them?” But I don’t think it’s about the staunch liberal and the gun-toting conservative crossing state lines for a Kumbaya moment. You don’t have to look too far to find someone who thinks slightly differently than you do and you might not need to pierce your own bubble. Perhaps I’m over-simplifying or being naive in light of too much time or water under the bridge. It’s almost 2017 for god’s sake. But I can remember a time when a name just meant a kid’s face, and in that fact I still find hope.

More Three Dot Journalism


My buddy Miller ran into Herb Caen at the Saloon in San Francisco some years back. He (Miller) had a tendency to “project” back in the day, and seeing Herb on the town flanked by two thirty year-old hotties was more than he could resist. “HERB — you NUT!!” he yelled, two feet away from the famed scribe and loudly enough for the packed bar to take note. Herb smiled calmly and without breaking unhurried stride replied “You’re pretty crazy yourself ..” Miller’s Cubbies are in the playoffs again, beginning tonight against the Giants. Herb, for the record, was from Sacramento .. no more a “San Franciscan” than Miller. “Sometimes we’re all hypocrites,” to quote Meadow Soprano talking late-night in the kitchen to a drunken Tony. So in this spirit and that of three-dot journalism ..


How about that Conor Gillaspie, replacement third baseman for a guy (Eduardo Nunez) already replacing a traded favorite Giant (Matt Duffy.) The guy made an incredible catch in their final regular season game against the Dodgers, flipping over both railing and massive TV camera. And then he squares one up in Queens the other night — over the right field fence — in the ninth inning of a do or die wildcard match as the team rode Madison Bumgarner’s formidable shoulders into the playoffs. If you can’t appreciate this moment in a world of chaotic nonsense, then I can’t help you. (Except, of course, if you aren’t a baseball fan, which is perfectly acceptable and would account for your indifference.) “Enthusiasms” as DeNiro, playing Al Capone, notes in DePalma’s “Untouchables” before punctuating his point over some guy’s head with a baseball bat. They call it “squaring one up,” I believe, because it aptly describes what’s necessary to hit a round ball — traveling an unknowable path at a hundred miles an hour — with a round bat. Which reminds me of another get together around the same time as the Miller-Herb story and at Vesuvio, a bar just down the hill from the Saloon. There was a group of us, including three-time Academy Award Nominee Tom Myers. Tom and I were discussing the Ted Williams – like swing of Giants first baseman Will Clark. Another young woman, typical of the type who moved to San Francisco back then, interjected with “Yeah .. but you know it’s just baseball. I mean if you got a hundred people together who were pretty good at sports, one of them could hit the ball like that ..” I’m not sure what my facial expression reflected in that moment .. all I recall is Tom grabbing me with two hands and saying “OK .. steady big guy .. steady ..”


While I’m on the bar theme and writing in this non-sequitur, stream of nonsense fashion, here is a short list of names I’ve created over the years for the assortment of regular characters frequenting Specs’ tavern at 12 Adler: Monkey Boy, Forrest Whittaker Junior, WSM (World’s Saddest Man) and J’sus Christ the Lord. (Actually that last one is credited to Paul Tognotti .. as it relates both to the guy’s appearance and, I think, the speech Linus gives toward the end of “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”) I’m sure there are several more I’m missing but those four, and the individuals so assigned, are novel-worthy.


This is where Herb would throw in an anecdote about something one of his oft-quoted San Franciscan buddies heard while waiting on line in Safeway, or drop a restaurant owner’s name to assure he continued his well-known tradition of never picking up a tab. I know no such luxuries, though I certainly know a few others. That said it’s been a hard summer and into the fall, and I’ve seen some shit. Enough to know that, as my buddy Dave (as well as Iggy Pop and several others) once noted “I don’t want to take any more.” Or any more than necessary, I suppose. Here’s to Conor Gillaspie, Joe Panik (native New Yorker,) Brandon Crawford, some other dude and an early Thursday morning NYC pizza slice shot that’s bound to bring back a few smiles in years to come. Enjoy it while it lasts boys and well beyond. Here’s tae us; wha’s like us? .. Damn few, and they’re a’ deid.