Saturday, April 19, 2008

Hindu deity of the high C's

Discussing the Hindu pantheon last night in the usual place for such things, a sleazy gay dive, explaining the Hindu take on monotheism (of course there's only one god - all 370,000,000 of them are one) to a (somewhat) religious Jewish friend, and Ganesha's birth from Parvati and Shiva, and Parvati's relationship with Kali-Durga, and he intruded, "Is Pavarati the Hindu god of singing and overeating?"

I'm sure you're as appalled as I was.

"I think I'll save that one for appropriate re-use," I muttered. He responded with whatever the Hebrew greeting is for the eve of Passover. (I wouldn't know; we gave all that stuff up a couple of generations back.)

Multiculturalism lives!

Pesach Shalom!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Captain Peachfuzz in Love

"Dear Diary: Today I kill off moose and squirrel. Weather continues fair."
"Boris! Boris! Moose and squirrel - they are saved!"
"Raskolnikov, Natasha! Now I must rewrite whole page."

You may remember Wrong-Way Peter Peachfuzz from the original episodes of the adventures of Rocky (the Flying Squirrel) and Bullwinkle (the Moose): His Navy career ended in fiasco, but on receiving a legacy of eight million dollars from an eccentric aunt, he bought the S.S. Andalusia and hired himself as captain. His next act was to sail it into the Brooklyn Bridge. (Why does all this come back to me?)

His crew responded as any crew might: they rewired the steering mechanisms of the ship. Do what he might on the bridge, PP had no control over the movement of the liner, which was controlled from a secret engine room lower down. But one day (as luck would have it, when Rocky and Bullwinkle, deceived by Boris, had taken flight in a lifeboat with Boris's Uncle Chumly, not realizing the latter was actually the stolen mooseberry bush in disguise)(WHY do I remember all this?), Captain Peachfuzz took a wrong turn into the right room and was once again (fortunately nowhere near Brooklyn, just on the high seas) steering the vessel....

Why has all this come back to me in the dazzling sunshine of a brave April day?

Because (just in time for Beltane)(the Lusty Month of May), it seems to me that Wrong-Way Peter is the perfect metaphor for love (anyway lust) in my aging but still adolescing heart. Over the years I have figured how to distract him, keep him happily occupied, unaware of the disconnect between his orders and reality - happy years when lust no longer occluded my vision, a time of busy-ness and productive activity, liberated from the horns of the male dilemma (so to speak).

I live however in dread that some awful day the captain will make the fatal wrong turn into the right room again, and embark me for Cythera, the isle of Aphrodite, the picnic ground of love affairs, the very last place on earth I want to go. (Okay, besides Florida and Abu Dhabi.) (And even Florida has a few opera companies.)

Peachfuzz is my metaphor: prosaic proper command on a rational course is all my desire.

Lorenz Hart wrote, "I Wish I Were In Love Again," but he didn't live to be as old as I am. I don't wish it at all. A country song I wrote when I was writing (titles for) country songs: "Look out, Mama! Turn out the porch light! Here comes love at us again!" That expresses it.

Hacksaw Kind of Guy: A True Story

It wasn’t the bike – it was the principle of the thing.

No, it wasn’t the principle of the thing. It was the bike.

It was a good New York bike – looked like crap, worked fine. I’d be terrified to leave a thousand-dollar bike on the street, even for five minutes, and what’s the use of that? I don’t use it just for exercise; I go places. And then I go back.

Had it seven years. Pretty well-used when I got it, from a friend trading up to a mountain bike. At first I thought it was an inch or two too high for me, and the seat, hard plastic, rough on my rear, but I got used to it. Knew its quirks; developed the responses to guide it through Times Square at rush hour, or jump from pavement to corduroy when a street was being resurfaced.

It was my bike. I felt like me on it.

Replaced the tires just a few months back. The seat (narrow, hard, a rip in it) could use replacing too. And there was the plastic remnant of an old lock holder that I never removed, still on the shaft.

Never put my name on it. Didn’t record the serial number. Until it was stolen and I went to the cops, I didn’t know bikes had serial numbers.

Knew it would be tough to replace. They don’t make them like that anymore – they make these fat-tired jobbies, sometimes with no gears at all. Didn’t want something that looked new – thief magnet. Didn’t want something that would fall apart at the first smash of a suddenly opened taxi door. And it would have to occupy a very narrow place on the road at those moments when the cab you didn’t see, the one whose driver earned his stripes in Katmandu or Abidjan, scorches by a quarter inch from your elbow. You have to be able to hold steady. You have to know your machine.

Tuesday I biked to the Mid-Manhattan library, collecting books to research an article, checking the half-price booth for theater tickets, flirting with cute foot traffic, and so down Fifth Avenue home. New metal hoops have been installed in the sidewalk, and I left it there, with my simple – too simple – hoop lock. It was about eight, and I figured I’d drop my loot then ride to the piers to watch the sunset. Instead, I fell on the bed; did not open my eyes till ten. Still a safe hour, wouldn’t you say? Very safe in my part of the South Village. So I went downstairs. No bike.

Well, it’s New York. Your bike will be stolen. No tears. (The last bike went that way.) Besides, I had an article to write.

When the writing was done, I called Cedric, who’d recently purchased a used bike, and asked him to recommend bike stores. He told me about a couple, but they were far away – Avenue C, Grand Street, the East River. No easy matter to get there – without a bike.

It was a week before I had time to explore. I took subways to Grand Street, E up to West Fourth, F down to Grand – no bikes, but I did find a kosher bakery with real prune danish. The nearest bus went up Avenue A, and I started across East Fifth Street for Avenue C. If I’d known the East Village well, I’d never have chosen Fifth – it’s a cul-de-sac. Some civic building - a police warehouse garage, I think (ironically) - runs from Fourth to Sixth on B.

So it’s a quiet afternoon on an unfamiliar street.

But one thing on the street is not unfamiliar.

I’d been staring at every red-brown bicycle in the West Village for a week, and each had characteristics that quickly revealed they could not be mine. So I studied this one. New yellow-wall tires? Yes. The name on the shaft in rusted flash-letter: Rampar? Yes. The rip in the seat? Yes. The old plastic bike-lock holder? Yes. The soiled bandages on the ends of the handlebars? No – covered with fresh black tape.

It was mine all right. Locked by a heavy padlock and a thick, rusty chain to one of those little square fences the city puts around spindly trees.

I ran about, frantic, for the nearest cop shop. Found one on Eighth and Avenue C. I explain: I found my bike. My bike. No, I haven’t got a receipt or the serial number; no, I never put my name on it. The cop is sympathetic but regretful. Nothing they can do. I recognize his problem, I sympathize with his predicament. But I’m boiling.

As I wait for a bus back across town – a bus I shouldn’t even have to take – I am boiling. I consume prune danish at a dangerous rate.

I’d feel easier if I hadn’t found it again – gone with the wind. But I have found it again. And it’s my bike.

Every person riding by me on a bike is doing it on purpose to make me feel lousy.

Every ache in my fallen arches is a grievance, with an identifiable culprit.

“So get a hacksaw.”

No, the cop didn’t say that. The guys in my local pub, Ty's, suggested it.

I’m not a hacksaw kind of guy. Visions: passing cops enquiring politely what it is I am up to with that hacksaw? “Well, it’s my bike.” “I see. You can prove this?”

Cat suggests, “Oh officer, I’m such a ditz! I locked my bike here and then lost the key to the lock.” She might get away with that – but I’m no actor.

Bunny says, “Get some liquid freon. Tell them you have a chain on an old trunk and you’ve lost the key. Pour it on the locks, then hit them with a hammer. Wear protective goggles.” But the hardware guys don’t stock freon. And another guy at the pub says it doesn’t always work.

And what do I say if the owner – no, I won’t use that word – the person in current possession – shows up in the middle of the operation? I imagine him: taller than I, younger, well muscled, martial arts belts of various hues. Someone to reason with.

A stratagem: Get another lock and put it on the bike. To this attach a note: “This bike was stolen from me last Tuesday. Please call this number and let’s discuss who you got it from, and so track the thief. Or tell me how much you’d let me have it back for.”

This could work, if he’s a reasonable guy, and we meet in a public place where he can’t beat the crap out of me.

Or, he’ll just get a hacksaw and cut my lock off, and move the bike someplace I’ll never find it. Such as indoors.

Then he (or a cop) knows how to find me.

Alternate scheme: I get a nameplate and glue it beneath the seat, then tell the cops I knew it was mine because it has my name on it. Would they detect that this was a recent addition? Would they be amused if my fraud came to light?

“Why not keep an eye on it until someone uses it?” – say many people who have not thought the thing through. How many hours do they expect me to commit to this? How much of their lives would they devote to an unpaid stakeout?

“So forget it. You can get a cheap Chinese-made bike at K-Mart,” says Judy, who has, in fact, bought one. It’s all shiny and inviting – to thieves. She lives in New Jersey and can keep it in her garage.

I can’t forget it. I feel my manhood has been challenged. I want my bike.

The thing that drove me into fits was the sight of it, sitting there, unridden yet unavailable. I know because I went back, again and again, to make sure it had not been moved.

It never budged!

It appeared to be sinking, like a triceratops at LaBrea, into the mud of the little square in the pavement. The bastard was leaving it out in the rain. And it only occupied one side of the square fence because the other sides are occupied by other bicycles. None of them ever moved either.

This has the earmarks of a depot. Someone is stealing the bikes of New York and leaving them here, a quiet area because it’s not a through street, and barely policed (that I can see). Here they sit until he gets a customer, or until some truck drives up and hauls them off to Belgrade. Okay, Newark. The principle is the same.

The police should be aware of this. Won’t they be pleased I have uncovered a multi-hundred-dollar bike-fencing ring? Doubtful. And I do not want my bike impounded and held as evidence; I want it ridden. By me – and nobody else but me. I just want it rid by me alone.

However, by revisiting the crime, I have discovered that the heavy, rusted chain around the fence behind my bike … isn’t attached to my bike at all. It’s just curled on the fence, waiting for some worthier candidate. The only thing holding my bike is the padlock attached to the bike chain. Not to the body of the bike – just the chain.

The sonofabitch is tossing my helplessness in my teeth.

Quite a little nest he’s got here – not only chains and various padlocks, and a number of bikes, but a club from a stolen car is attached to this fence.

If I’m going to do something vaguely illegal (okay, it’s not vaguely illegal; it’s illegal), I’ll have to do it very quickly, when no one’s around. Midnight or four a.m. are out – just when he might come by to inspect his stock. And on weekends people fill the streets unpredictably. Weekdays are emptiest, mid morning or mid afternoon.

“Do you have clippers – heavy ones – the sort that cut through chain? The sort that cut through padlock even better?” – I ask everyone.

Nobody has. Not a regular utility item, is it? I’ve seen them on Canal Street for $80, but it’s unthrifty to buy a tool to use only once – unless I go into bike theft as a profession. Not a bad idea – the police pay no attention. Think of it as unregulated capitalism.

I try to rent clippers from my bike store, claiming I’ve lost the key to my lock. They look at me funny and refuse. What do they think I’m going to do – steal a bike?

I am a very law abiding person. But the laws are said to frown on bike theft. Well, I haven’t looked them up lately.

I put it off on the weekend – street patterns are unpredictable on weekends. I put it off during the week – I have my own work to do. But I can’t focus on it, or on anything. I’m having dreams about it. I’m overreacting. It’s the principle of the thing. One has one’s principles. But one doesn’t have one’s bike.

Inspecting the corpus delecti, I sit in the Café Gamin across the street for two hours, seething. No one comes by looking suspicious. Or rather, everyone looks suspicious.

Before I leave, I attach an old bike lock to the shaft and the fence. If he sells it or wants to ship it out, he’ll have a tougher time moving it. On the other hand, if he ever looks at it closely (the evidence implies he never does), he’ll know someone is on to him.

Finally: Hank has a hacksaw. It looks frail, but I’m desperate.

Tomorrow. This thing will be resolved tomorrow.

Hermes, god of thieves (and commerce), be my aid! (Peter has made me a little statuette of him for my altar; I libate to it before major travels.)

The moon is full, omens are everywhere. I will shave my skull to look tough, wear a ripped flannel shirt and a bandanna around my head; if spotted by witnesses, I will look nothing like myself. But then I do none of this. Looking like myself, I put the hacksaw in a backpack, and head for the bus. Just missed a #21 – bad omen. I will take a cab – I want this thing over with. But no – here comes another #21. Good omen.

Avenue C and East Fourth. Everyone has a bike, all insecurely fastened to this, that or the other part of the streetscape. I could have them off in no time, if it weren’t for witnesses.

Heading down East Fourth, I pass a yard full of police and police vehicles, but East Fifth is empty as usual.

I study the problem. I pull out the hacksaw. I look as though I know just what I’m doing. The saw makes not a dent in the padlock.

Well then – Plan B.

I want this situation resolved.

I begin to saw at the bike’s own chain. (What’s the crime? It’s my property, isn’t it?) The chain spirals around a large wheel and a small one, through a mechanism. Between the mechanism and the padlock is an open space. Half a link cuts right through, but the other half, because of my awkward angle, is harder to bear down on.

A passing fellow (shaved skull, bandanna) eyes me. I look up, not resentful, just … looking. “Having a nice day?”

“Pretty good, thanks,” I reply, with bland cheer.

He wanders off. Does he look back suspiciously? I don’t know. I am at my task. If you do not look as if you thought people were looking at you suspiciously, no one will think you look suspicious. I feel no stage fright – there was near-hysteria in anticipation, but now that I’m in action, I feel good – the workman at his trade, the job no one could do for me. I feel righteous. I could kill, rob, perform an act of terrorism, sing Turiddu on the Met stage - it is beforehand and afterwards that terrify.

Free at last. The chain comes out of the padlock, and then I remove my own lock from where I’d left it the day before. Simple.

Of course, it cannot be ridden in its chainless state.

I walk it to a bike store and say, truthfully, “Someone took a hacksaw to my bike chain.” He says it will cost $5.95 to repair it, and to come back before 7. He urges me not to replace the chain with a new one.

At 7, I'm back. I buy a $30 lock and head home, graceful as a loping centaur. Centaurs are graceful; trust me. Doored by a cab on Houston Street. The cabbie asks if I’m okay. Now, that’s a good omen.

There is a hiccup as I ride, as if something in the gear mechanism is catching. It requires an overhaul, but hey – I’ve just saved $150 on a new bike.

Before anything else, I turn it upside down and copy the serial number. Proof!

It’s no happier for 17 days at the mercy of the streets and the elements, and a certain element in the streets. And now the chain hiccups.

Perhaps it’s time for an upgrade. (This time, keep the receipt!)

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Great moments in reparté (a continuing series)

Great moments in Yohalemesque reperté and riposte, first in an ongoing (we should be so lucky) series:

"Were you a rocker?"
"No, I was more of a Récamier chaise-longue."

"Why would I want to join a group that would accept me as a member?"
"Thank you, Groucho Marx."
"We're in a chat room. Try communicating on-line in the style of Harpo Marx."

"What are you doing after Pride?"
"Well, lust is traditional, but this year I think I'm going for gluttony and sloth."

Sunday, April 6, 2008

The Past is a Foreign Country

"The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there" - L.P. Hartley

At a family brunch today, given by my cousins Carl and Bonnie Seligson, my uncle Mark Yohalem told me a story about Joe Diamond. Around 1910, when he was courting Jennie Yohalem (a cousin of my grandfather's), the proud but one-eyed beauty of her family, Joe was so overwhelmed with passion in anticipation that whenever he knew he was going to call on her, he would go to a bordello first so as to arrive in a calm state. Her parents found out about this (he probably told them), and they thought it a splendid sign of his prudence and foresight, exactly the qualities they wanted in a son-in-law.

Since it was Mark that told me this, it might actually be true.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Fashion statement - Czech it out

I don't do fashion. Not interesting. I go to stores with sales, but my favorite clothes seem to be discards left in the laundry room. I can't find shoes that fit anyway. I used to wear black, but in SoHo everyone wears black, to prove they're nonconformists, and I'm rather fond of colors, so I am the only conformist in SoHo.

But I have one whimsy: soccer scarves. They are colorful, they are inexpensive, you can find them anyplace on earth except in the U.S. I buy them whenever I travel outside the U.S. and I wear them according to the nationality of the opera I am going to hear, or the restaurant I am going to eat at, or whatever doesn't clash with my jacket. (Mario, in Herzegovina, tells me there's a store where I can get them all. Unfortunately, it's in China, near the factory where they are all made.) Anyway, they're great for inspiring conversations in waiters and tourists who think I am a fan (or double-dyed enemy) of their home team, and I get jolly conversations out of it, which are among my great soul-soothers in any case.

Today I was wearing - for no good reason but the colors are pretty: blue, red, yellow - the Prague scarf. I was dizzy from copy editing in the Vandam Diner (and having a brainstorm I wanted to run home and write down for my novella), and I did not know what to make of the three big bruisers staring at me and saying, "Porto?" Obviously they had mistaken me for someone else (who else might I logically be?), so I hurried around the corner and there were four more guys - big bruisers in similar colors and caps - "Czech" prominently ran a (checkered) lapel - who stared and grinned at me: "Porto?" they said. By this time I looked down and found I was indeed wearing the Czech national scarf (I can't be sure until I look), and then I grinned self-consciously (for having led them on) and then I hurried up the block - not quite fast enough to miss three more great big footballer types - the team? or just fans? is there a game on? where do soccer teams play in New York? I had no idea they even bothered. I thought they just sort of hung out in bars with 24-hour cable hookups to watch the games in Ankara and Sydney and Valparaiso. I don't even know the proper drink for such excursions. ("Beer," Nora advises - she was in Berlin, doing grad work on Gluck, while the Cup was in contention, and had a blast.)

You will be surprised to hear I made it home without a soccer player in tow. It does make me sigh - slightly.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Poetry footnote

In Seattle I knew a guy - Paul? - quite extraordinarily handsome - mercifully I was not attracted to him except as one is, casually, to anything beautiful - he had a lover and was delighted NOT to be sexually interested in anyone else; he was laying out the Seattle Gay News where I wrote and edited, and later he moved on to The Weekly (where I did some reviews). He'd moved to Seattle (with his lover) from Colorado, and told me that when he was in college two professors had been madly in love with him (perfectly believable) and had vied for his favors by writing poems to his beauty, each one topping the other. I said, "What a compliment! Poems!" His response was to stick a finger in his mouth - the whole notion seemed to him silly to tedium if not nausea. His lover was neither of those professors, some kind of forestry service scientist.
Typical, eh? Did the Dark Lady even CARE what Big Bill the Bard was saying?

(Well, in college, a woman wrote me a couple of sonnets, and I was friendly, and I think I kept them, but ... )

I don't often write poems, and they become kind of over-literary, historical/artistic, Amy Clampitt-like when I do. I loved Clampitt - she could do historical and artistic references like nobody - I used to feel she'd written them for me! And we'd never met.

One of the poems I wrote when I was coming out (LOTS of poems THEN!) compared the guy I had a crush on to Byzantine emperors on coins - it was about counterfeit love, y'see - "perhaps the Caesar I adore be heretic/ or the symbol on the obverse no salvation" - that should be "reverse" technically, but the scansion demanded "obverse" and I never could bear to change it - I left him a copy with my phone number and he never responded. Maybe he was a closet numismatist ...

Tuesday, April 1, 2008


I chose the wrong calendar this year.

I'm not hard to please - the calendar should be colorful, and different from the one last year, and have big white squares with the numbers in them (plus, ideally, the phases of the Moon and the major holidays of several religions - I can remember the Pagan ones, but movable feasts are a great nuisance). I like to alternate between scenery one year and art the next, and I have a fondness for leaving the choice up to chance.

I wanted to find a calendar in Turkey, with scenes of Istanbul or of the rest of that inexhaustibly scenic nation, but they have not got the hang of great big white boxes around their numbers there, and a calendar is not useful to me otherwise - I need to be able to write in my appointments, my opera and theater dates, and the due dates of work projects or there is hardly a point in having one at all. The only calendars I saw in Turkey were quite small, with no space in the number boxes.

So, as last year's calendar was European castles (too many Scots and Irish if you ask me; not nearly enough East European or Mediterranean), this year was set for art. I went to a bookstore sometime in December, and none of the calendars I saw there pleased me: the scenery was predictable (I prefer mountains to tenements) and the artists a bit ho-hum - does Rothko really elucidate times of year? Does Braque? So I settled on a calendar of Victorian illustrators. Each page shows three or four herbaceous borders or wallpaper samples or fabric designs by a different Victorian draughtsman. (Or -woman.) Big boxes, small numbers, phases of the moon.

The trouble (as I put up page four, April - Kwiecien if you are Polish!) is that while the colors are different, and the patterns, and the arrangements have been chosen to be different, there is far too much sameness here - one colorful pattern of gilded leaves followed by another - one set of bells or pears after another - one meandering ribbon symmetrically balanced by another - and the riot of color is too much of a muchness. After a while you can't tell them apart. The year does not pass or change; it's always the same damn thing. This is too much like life - it's not at all what I want in the metaphor for passing life that a calendar should be.

Otherwise I am in a very cheerful place after a depressed winter - all of which, I think, must be credited to creativity, the juices humming, the sparks flying, or vice versa. For a week or more, now, at least since my second performance of Tristan und Isolde - last Tuesday, March 25, Lady Day, Frodo-Destroys-the-Ring-in- Mount-Doom Day - I have been writing something like 5000 words each day of a novella, awaking each day with ideas for another point in the story that needs to be enhanced, having wild, wonderful ideas for new events and new characters, writing my very first battle scene (what a delight that was! and I've always been terrified of the prospect), jokes and sadnesses (it's very funny and very sad), and every day just - going at it - and at the slightest sign of slack, playing some version of Tristan - bless you, youtube! - and that cranks the motor again, and off I go. I have hopes of first draft completion this week (but I've told myself that before). My mantra is: Finish It. We can worry about what works or doesn't work or who the bloody hell would ever want to read it later - just Finish It.

Maybe I'll finish it.

Except I just got assigned five jobs by St. Martin's and HarperCollins and Hyperion and Palgrave, and two of them are Rush. (Who needs money? I need to WRITE.)

Today I am starting at 46,000 words and aiming for 51,000. The dentist intrudes. But I'm awake early and there's no opera tonight.