Green Hair & Jam

A couple of weeks ago, as I was scrolling through the news items on Poetry Daily’s website, I came upon Ruth Weiss’s obituary. Although I didn’t know who Ruth Weiss was, the thumbnail in the news feed immediately caught my attention. Ruth Weiss, who was, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, a “trailblazing poet in the ‘boys’ club’ Beat scene,” had died on July 31 at the age of 92. She was less well known than her male counterparts and even less well known than Diane di Prima, who came later to the North Beach poetry circuit. Ruth Weiss is credited as being the first poet to read to the accompaniment of a jazz combo. And she had green hair.

The jazz poetry thing happened by accident. She was sitting in her basement apartment working on a poem when a friend rushed in, saw the poem, pulled it out of the typewriter, and ran out of the room. Ruth ran after her poem, as anyone would, and ended up in an apartment where a party was going on. There was music. Ruth was urged to read her work. She started to read, and the bassist and piano player soon joined in. She had started something.

Ruth Weiss was born to a Jewish family in Germany during a time when Nazism was gaining strength. The Weiss family got out of Berlin, seeking safety in Vienna and later in the Netherlands. They came to the United States in 1939, and Ruth’s parents became American citizens.

In the 1960s, Ruth began spelling her name in lowercase letters: ruth weiss. She was protesting against Germany, against the Nazis, against the German practice of capitalizing nouns. And, in another act of protest, this time inspired by the film The Boy With Green Hair, she dyed her hair green.

The Boy With Green Hair (1948) was directed by Joseph Losey and starred Dean Stockwell as the boy, Peter Frye. The film has been variously described as a fantasy/drama, a drama/comedy, and a parable. Because a certain amount of suspension of disbelief is required, I’ll go along with parable and fantasy. But this is not a funny movie. It’s serious stuff. Back when it was shown regularly on a classic movie network, I watched it several times. Those of us who love The Boy With Green Hair will never forget it.

Here’s the plot: The boy, Peter, has been sent to live with Gramps, a retired or failed actor now working as a singing waiter. Gramps is not his real grandfather, but the two of them hit it off. Peter believes his parents are in England working for a war relief agency but later learns that they have both been killed. Shortly after receiving this news, he looks in the mirror after his morning bath and sees that his hair has turned green. The color won’t wash out. Gramps tells him that it’s “a grand color,” but Peter wants to be like everybody else.

In what has been described as a dream scene—but I believe it really happened—Peter is wandering through the woods and meets a group of children he recognizes from the posters of war orphans that are taped to a wall in his school. “Your green hair is very beautiful,” the children tell him. “Green is the color of spring. It means hope.” They tell Peter that his hair is a symbol to remind others that “war is very bad for children.” That’s one of the messages—yes, this is a message movie—but the stronger message is about tolerance. “How many of you have black hair?” the teacher asks. She goes on to ask about brown hair, blonde hair, green hair, and red hair. “Are there any questions?” she asks.

In 2019 the director and cinematographer Melody C. Miller released a documentary film about ruth weiss. Titled ruth weiss; the beat goddess, the film has been shown at festivals worldwide and is winning awards. I don’t know when or if it will be coming to a theatre near me—or to a TV set near me—but I know I want to see it. Here’s the trailer:

ruth weiss’s hair color is sometimes described as teal, and in fact Peter Frye’s green hair was leaning toward the teal side of green. Perhaps that had something to do with the hair dyes that were available in 1948. Now, of course, it is possible to buy green hair in a drugstore. Googling, I found a range of vibrant green hues, some of which glow under black light.

The green-haired star of the moment, of course, is Billie Eilish. I first became aware of her when she sang the Beatles’ song “Yesterday” during the “In Memoriam” segment of the 2020 Academy Awards. Only 18 years old, she suddenly is everywhere. She even made an appearance at the Democratic National Convention, urging everyone to  “vote like our lives, and the world, depend on it.” After her brief talk she introduced a new single, “My Future,” which she co-wrote with her brother, Finneas O’Connell. Billie Eilish’s green hair is much lighter and brighter than ruth weiss’s. It is green at the crown only, and her two-tone hairstyle is similar except in color to that of the late Agnes Varda.

OK, time for the jam session. Peter Frye is an old man now, but his hair is still green. Let’s imagine that he has learned to play the double bass. He starts a bass riff as Finneas sits at the piano. (Finneas does not have green hair, but you can’t have everything.) Billie and ruth take turns at the microphone, Billie singing with her sweet, whispery voice, and ruth reciting playful, incisive poems. This jam is my fantasy, and, if I want them to, they will keep the beat going all night long.

Marathon Girl

Was it 1975, the year my brother and I caught the bus to Boston to see a Red Sox game and the finish of the Boston Marathon? I know it was Patriot’s Day, because we both had the day off and also because that’s when the Boston Marathon happens. Although we didn’t stay for the final inning, we knew how the game would end. Strangely, in my memory the Red Sox were the winners by a big margin. But a Google search tells me that my memory was flawed, that no, the Red Sox lost by a big margin. At any rate, there was no question about which team would win when Edward and I and a lot of other people got up and left. Marathon day meant a mass exit from Fenway and a short walk toward the finish line on Boylston Street. I remember walking past some sort of public garden area. Bostonians in gardening clothes and straw hats were raking, hoeing, planting, or weeding in their individual plots, and my memory of that part of the walk is almost dreamlike; I mean, there were the Red Sox on one side, and there was the Boston Marathon on the other, and there was that bucolic utopia in the middle of all the zaniness that was Boston then and I hope still is Boston now.

We weren’t at the finish line, but we were close enough. The winner of the men’s race that year was Bill Rodgers, an American, and we cheered as he passed us. He was finishing a 26.2-mile race, and, as everyone knows, the last 26 miles are the hardest. The last 26 miles demand dedication and training, days of protein-pushing and carbo-loading, electrolytes, water, and willpower. We continued to cheer as each runner pounded by until it was time to catch our bus back to New Bedford. I knew that day that the marathon was my sport! I’m a walker, not a runner, so I’m talking spectator sport here. But what I admire in any endeavor is the ability to “keep calm and carry on,” as the English Ministry of Information famously declared during the dark days of World War II. Stamina is way more important than energy, as I less famously suggested in my poem “Magalhães’ Last Testament,” which begins:

Having always been a person of more stamina

than energy, I’m not surprised to find myself

in the Philippines, although these wide-eyed natives

are surprised.

Those are Magellan’s words, or, to be more accurate, the words I put in his mouth, and when things go bad, when he realizes that “I guess stamina won’t pull me through this time,” he still isn’t sorry. He has kept calm and carried on. He has done his job.

Several years later I witnessed a history-making marathon, although I wasn’t lucky enough to be there in person. I remember watching on television as a young woman in a white cap emerged from the tunnel into the coliseum and, with the crowd cheering wildly, continued to the finish line. She was Joan Benoit, and she won the gold medal in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. The crowd was definitely not calm, but Joan carried on and did her job.

The medium of television is great for showing the whole marathon from start to finish, but of course the cameras can’t capture all of the runners all of the time. Only the most important races are televised, and whether or not you can see the one you want to see depends on your TV provider and the package of channels you have chosen. And of course nothing beats seeing the race in person, that slice of the race visible from your hard-won piece of sidewalk. But you have to be in the right place at the right time. When my husband and I were in Paris in April of 2015, we just happened upon the Paris Marathon, which begins at the Arc de Triomphe, loops around various Parisian attractions, and for part of the route follows the Seine. That’s the part we saw. I can’t imagine a more beautiful place to run, or to watch other people run.

That’s one kind of marathon, one person going the distance, making it to the finish line, navigating the mind-blowing beauty of the fjords lining the Strait of Magellan despite the fierceness of the williwaws. One person keeping on trucking, keeping on keeping on. But there’s another sort of marathon, the crowd-sourced kind, the passing-the-baton kind, the carrying-the-Olympic-torch kind, the Vestal-Virgins-keeping-the-fires-going kind, the lights-going-on-all-over-the-world kind. When I was in elementary school I read about the Vestal Virgins in my history textbook and was fascinated, not by the virginity aspect, which I was too young to understand, but by the eternal flames, because keeping the home fires burning was another way of keeping on keeping on.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Moby-Dick Marathon falls into the second category, the crowd-sourced category. Moby-Dick contains 135 chapters and an epilogue; reading it takes about twenty-four hours, no breaks, no naps. With volunteer readers passing the baton, it is a true marathon event, and last fall Joe and I decided to apply to be among this year’s 215. We arrived in New Bedford the day after a nor’easter brought wind, snow, and temperatures hovering around zero degrees to the whaling city. Despite the cold and the icy streets and sidewalks, the museum was packed, and everyone appeared to be having a good time. The initial readers read the opening chapters in the Bourne Building right in front of the Lagoda, a half-scale model of a whaleship; it’s large enough to climb aboard and explore. Father Mapple’s sermon was delivered in the Seamen’s Bethel, right across the street. And then, for the First and Second Dog Watches, readers and listeners settled into the museum’s Harbor View Gallery, where two podiums in front of a backdrop of a harbor scene meant that there would be no breaks between each reader’s allotted pages. Joe and I were scheduled for the Evening Watch, also in the Harbor View Gallery. Reading from, and listening to Moby-Dick made me realize all over again what an incredible novel Herman Melville has given us. It just keeps on keeping on. Do I feel as if I’ve run a 26.2-mile race, or at least a small bit of it? You bet I do!

Encore: Another Marvelous Fourth of July Parade with the Pickle Pin Club

In honor of Fourth of July Weekend, I am reposting what I wrote last year at this time. It’s still appropriate, although my brother’s cat, Trixie, died a few months ago. This is the post that made me cry. 

Evelyn and I started the club because we wanted a club.  We were the oldest on the street, or at least the oldest of the young kids, and we felt it was our duty to organize activities for the others.  Evelyn was nine at the time, and I had just turned ten.  We would ask our mothers for money for refreshments and prizes, and they would give us whatever change they had handy.  We would walk to Vee’s Variety and buy Tootsie Rolls, the ones that cost only a penny, and packets of Kool-Aid.  Then we would ask our mothers for sugar to put in the Kool-Aid.  We held our meetings in our clubhouse.  Actually it wasn’t ours.  It was a tar-paper shack that Evelyn’s brother had built in their back yard, but he didn’t seem to be using it anymore. Because it had four walls and a roof, we thought it was grand.  We had a bag of pickle pins that one of my father’s customers had given him, green plastic pins shaped like pickles with the number 57 in the middle.  Everyone who joined got a pin, and we had a lot of pins left over.  That was how our club got its name.

I don’t remember which of us first thought of a parade, but we were running out of ideas for field-day-type races and games, and we were giving away a lot of Tootsie Rolls.  A parade was easy.  Everybody came dressed as something or brought something to bang on.  We had no music, but we had noise.  Evelyn and her sister Joan had a supply of dancing costumes that could be customized, made to look patriotic.  I had had only one year of dancing lessons, and my choices were limited to a tutu that I had grown out of or a ghost outfit that glowed in the dark.  Neither was especially appropriate, so I settled for shorts and a t-shirt and an Uncle Sam hat that my mother paid 25 cents for at the 5&10.  It was made of cardboard and had stars and stripes all over it, and it matched the flag I carried.  Evelyn wore one of her dancing outfits and twirled her baton.  I didn’t have a clue how to twirl a baton, but I had an Uncle Sam hat.  Joan showed up in a costume that she said represented Miss Liberty, whoever that was.  Kirsten and Donna and Betsy and Marcia wore red, white, and blue and brought flags and noisemakers.  My brother refused to march with us, but he let us borrow his toy drum.  We gathered at the end of our dead-end street early in the morning of the Fourth of July, and we started to march.  The parade route took us up our street and back down again.  People came out of their houses to watch us go by.  Some had cameras.  It was exciting!

We did this every year for what seemed like a long time but couldn’t have been.  By the second year people were lining the streets with movie cameras.  (Well maybe there was only one movie camera.)  But by the third year Tootsie Rolls and Kool-Aid had lost their magic, my brother’s drum had a hole in it, and somehow my beloved Uncle Sam hat had gotten dinged.  Besides, Evelyn and I were growing up.

So that’s how it ended.  We grew up, we grew apart, we moved away.  The bag of pickle pins seems to have disappeared, although it may be in my brother’s attic.  Evelyn and Joan are gone.  Kirsten lives in California.  I don’t know where in the world Donna, Betsy, and Marcia ended up, but I hope they are happy.  My brother is the only one who still lives on our old street, but his cat, Trixie, spends more time there than he does.

Those were the best parades of my life, and no abundance of flags, floats, marching bands, or Clydesdales could have made them more spectacular.  I’m not big on fireworks or picnics or flag-waving, at least not without my Uncle Sam hat, but oh what I wouldn’t give for one more Fourth of July parade with the Pickle Pin Club!

Mr. Micawber, Mr. Marner, and the Slow Quickening of my Monthly Budget

 It’s not what you earn, I said to myself. It’s what you don’t spend. That was in the late 60s, early 70s, when I lived in San Francisco and made a point of spending less than my paycheck allowed. I lived on what I liked to call the slum side of Nob Hill, in a neighborhood populated mostly by young singles. My furnished studio apartment cost about $95 a month. It had a bay window on one side and a wall bed on the other, with a kitchen and bathroom small enough to be hardly noticed. I didn’t make much money, but I lived cheap.

My budget tool at the time was a packet of manila coin envelopes. I would stash money in the envelopes, seal them, write the date on which each was to be opened, and hide them in various pockets of off-season garments. I never forgot where the money was hidden, and I never opened an envelope before the appointed date. I was good at budgeting. I had read David Copperfield at a young age and taken to heart Mr. Micawber’s advice to David “that if a man had twenty pounds a-year for his income, and spent nineteen pounds nineteen shillings and sixpence, he would be happy, but that if he spent twenty pounds one he would be miserable.” Made sense to me.

After some pay raises, some rent increases, a job change, and a move back to the East Coast, I decided I needed to do some long-range planning. Also, I guessed that paying for a never-ending supply of manila coin envelopes was not cost effective, although I liked the simplicity of the system and the feel of the envelopes in my hand. (I still have nine of them in my desk drawer, left over from my last packet.) But the world was no longer simple. Suddenly I had credit cards and used them more frequently than cash; I wasn’t about to hide my MasterCard in the pocket of an old raincoat. And the check register might be a good enough place to record the checks I had written, but in essence it was a spending tool. Even if I hadn’t hated the sight of my own handwriting, I was at a point in my life when I needed to think seriously about saving.

I don’t think I would have become acquisitive if I hadn’t read Silas Marner in high school. I loved best those passages in the book that described Silas’s relationship with his gold and silver coins. What George Eliot had written was money porn, and it stayed in my head:

He loved the guineas best, but he would not change the silver—the crowns and half-crowns that were his own earnings, begotten by his labour; he loved them all. He spread them out in heaps and bathed his hands in them; then he counted them and set them up in regular piles, and felt their rounded outline between his thumb and fingers, and thought fondly of the guineas that were only half-earned by the work in his loom, as if they had been unborn children—thought of the guineas that were coming slowly through the coming years, through all his life, which spread far away before him, the end quite hidden by countless days of weaving.

Luckily, technology came to my rescue. First there were spreadsheets and integrated programs; for the Macintosh, Lotus Jazz and Wingz come to mind. At work, where we had a Kaypro in the basement, I used Perfect Writer to churn out contracts. We also had Perfect Calc for spreadsheets, but my job didn’t involve spreadsheets. Whatever there was, there was always something better the next year, but nothing was ever good enough. At some point I bought myself an IBM PC, which was compatible with the computer I was using at work. (The university press I worked for had ditched the Kaypro by then, and nobody was weeping over it.) I was using spreadsheets and databases all the time now. I enjoyed them, but not as much as Silas Marner enjoyed his piles of guineas.

What I knew I needed, although I didn’t know it existed, was money-management software. Luckily, my first laptop computer, an IBM that ran on DOS like its predecessor, came preloaded with Andrew Tobias’s Managing Your Money, a program that did everything I wanted it to do, including computing my debt-to-equity ratio whenever I asked it to, which was daily. I loved Managing Your Money. According to his website, Andrew Tobias, who is currently Treasurer of the Democratic National Committee, still uses the last DOS version, even though the rest of the world has closed that door and opened its Windows.

When I switched to a series of Windows computers, none of which I especially liked, I said good-bye to MYM and hello to Quicken. I liked Quicken. If I told it when I wanted to retire, it would tell me whether I could afford to do so. And although it refused to calculate my debt-to-equity ratio, it gave me enough information so that I could do the arithmetic myself. With each new version, Quicken for Windows became more sophisticated. What I liked best were the budgeting features. I could have as many income and expense categories as I wanted, and I could budget a different amount in each category for each month of the year. I could be as obsessively precise as I wanted to be, and Quicken would cheer me on.

The story could have ended happily right there, except that I really wasn’t happy with my string of Windows computers–not in the way I had loved my DOS computers and my manila envelopes. I finally made the decision to switch platforms, and for me it was the right decision. In most cases, transitioning to software designed for the Mac was easy. The Mac version of my genealogy program, the one I worried most about, worked just fine. The same is true for my word-processing and spreadsheet programs. I was almost happy.

However, I soon learned that Quicken software for the Macintosh was greatly inferior to the Windows product. Quicken Essentials, the version that was available when I made the switch, was so bad that I have blocked it out of my mind completely. I bought Quicken 2015 for Mac as soon as it became available, and it was an improvement, but nowhere near what I had gotten used to. What was missing–well, many things were missing, but what I missed the most–was 12-month budgeting. Quicken 2015 for Mac worked on the assumption that one’s income and expenses were exactly the same from one month to the next. It would have been a good program for a young single living in a $95-a-month studio with a wall bed in San Francisco, someone who spent exactly $120 a month each month at Cala Foods, someone whose monthly PG&E bill came in consistently at under $4. It was not a good program for a retired homeowner with property taxes, school taxes, and estimated taxes to worry about. My Quicken budget was a caricature of my financial life, and I was almost ready to go back to those envelopes.

 Now for the happy ending: Earlier this month Quicken 2016, which I hadn’t bothered to buy since it seemed to offer nothing new that I wanted, finally got around to adding 12-month budgeting to its other features. No, I told myself, they’re just trying to suck me in. It won’t work. Don’t believe them. I held my breath and downloaded the new version. I held by breath and transferred all of my data. I held my breath and looked at my budget. Yes, it was true. I could fine-tune my budget as much as I liked. I could assign guineas to a leather bag under the floorboards if I wanted to. (I do, in fact, have a Quicken account called “Stash,” but I don’t keep it under the floorboards.) I spent several hours editing my budget, and during those several hours I was ecstatically, hilariously happy.

There’s an element of uncertainty to all this happiness, however. Intuit has sold the Quicken line to a private equity firm, and, while the new owners have promised to double the number of engineers working on the Mac version, probably nothing will happen during the transition period. So I’m happy for now and can recommend the product, but I will keep my eyes and ears open. And I’ll hold on to those nine manila coin envelopes just in case. Hey, you never know.


Lily, Mr. Bluebird, and the Beginning and End of My Singing Career

“Nancy, I want to ask you something,” my cousin Lily said. By the look on her face, I could tell it was important. “How would you like to be a flower girl at my wedding?” she continued. I didn’t know what a flower girl was. I had heard people talking about sweater girls, and I sort of knew what they looked like, but I didn’t think I could look like that. I was only four years old. “You would wear a pretty gown,” Lily said, as if she were reading my mind,” and you would carry a bouquet of flowers.” I was still worried about the sweater, but I liked Lily. So I said OK. 

I still remember that day and how confused I was by this very grown-up request, how I wanted to please Lily but didn’t really know what I was getting into. Most of my cousins were older than I was, and a few of them were already grown up. Lily was grown up, and she and her boyfriend, Charlie, were getting married in June, a few days before my fifth birthday. Charlie was different from the people in my family. He had lighter hair, blue eyes, and a mother from Cuttyhunk. Even though I was very young, I could tell that he and Lily were in love.

Later I learned more about the responsibilities of a flower girl. I learned I would have to walk into the church next to the ring bearer, who was a boy I didn’t know. I think he may have been related to Charlie, but his name kept changing. One day it was Norman, and the next day it was Ronald. I think Norman was the first choice, because he was my age and we would have looked cute walking down the aisle together. But, because Norman refused to be in the wedding party, his older brother, Ronald, agreed to perform the ring-carrying duties. (I may have gotten their names mixed up.) 

At the rehearsal I did almost everything right. The Communion part confused me, though. I was too young for Communion, but I didn’t know when to stay in the pew and when to follow the others.  The bridesmaid, whose name may have been Rita, came up with a solution; she would scratch my gown with her fingernail when it was time for Communion, and I would know to stay seated. “Like this,” she said, and she scratched my skirt. I noticed her red nail polish and hoped her long fingernail wouldn’t snag my gown. I loved my gown. It was yellow and, as Lily had promised, pretty.

One afternoon before all of this, before the rehearsal and before the wedding, my mother took me to see a movie called Song of the South. I don’t remember too much about the plot, only that it involved cartoon animals as well as real people. I caught on right away that of the three main cartoon characters one was dumb, one was smart, and one was smarter. In the cartoon segments, which were mostly scary, the bear and the fox (dumb and smart) were always doing terrible things to the rabbit (smarter). Unlike Norman and Ronald, the three characters all had the same first name, Brer. Because Brer Rabbit used his head and not his feet, he was able to escape from his enemies over and over again. I didn’t understand everything that was happening, but I liked the briar patch segment after my mother explained it to me. The part I liked best, though, was when Uncle Remus walked along singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” while cartoon birds and bees and butterflies flew around him and landed on his shoulders. I especially liked Mister Bluebird. Although I had never seen a bluebird in person, I always had bluebirds on my birthday cakes along with pink roses. (My father worked for a bakery, so I always had bakery cakes with my name written on the white frosting. I don’t think I had ever seen a homemade cake.) Later my mother bought me a record with all the songs from the movie on it, and I learned the lyrics to “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” by heart.

On the day of the wedding I walked down the aisle with Ronald-or-Norman, and maybe-Rita scratched my gown very gently, without doing any damage. After the ceremony we all went to a photographer’s studio and had lots of pictures taken. And then, because there was still time before the reception, we went to Buttonwood Park for more pictures. My mother had bought Kodacolor film specially for the occasion. She wanted to take outdoor photos in the gardens across the road from the pond. Lily, the maid-of-honor, and maybe-Rita walked along the garden paths in gowns as long and willowy as the columns in front of the savings bank. The men looked on as if they were expecting something to happen, but nothing happened except that my mother snapped some photos with her box camera. I remember that the flowers–I think they were hydrangeas–quietly nodded their heads when they saw us.

Many years later, when I read Keats’s “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” I thought of those pictures, not the photographer’s formal wedding portraits but the Kodacolor photos that my mother had taken. Except for the blurry hydrangeas, everything was new and intensely still on that sunny June day under the “happy, happy boughs.” Between the wedding and the reception, all of that love was “still to be enjoy’d.” 

The reception was held in a rented hall. a large room with a stage at one end and folding chairs set up along the walls. Some of the women were arranging paper plates and napkins on the food table and setting out platters of chicken-salad sandwiches, bowls of chips, and bottles of soda. Although many of the guests hadn’t arrived yet, the band was playing, the singer was singing, and people were dancing. My mother wasn’t there. She had gone home to get a dress for me to change into; obviously she was also worried about the possibility that I might snag my gown or spill something on it. Left in the care of my aunts and cousins, who were still too excited to pay much attention to me, I joined a small group of children, including Norman-or-Ronald or possibly both of them, and, not knowing one another, we talked and played warily.

Here’s where it gets interesting. The music stopped and the band left the stage. The singer left, too. The set was over, and they were taking a break, but I didn’t know about sets and breaks. Naturally we children climbed onto the stage, and the boys began to examine the drums, and I’m not sure what the other girls examined because I was fascinated by the microphone. I had been watching the singer, the way she held it as if she loved it, and the way she swayed from side to side while she sang. I wanted to try, so I grabbed the microphone, which was way too tall for me, and I started to sing the only song I knew by heart, “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” I swayed from side to side, and I sang, but not too loud because for me it was a private pretend moment. The hall was suddenly very quiet. I was sure nobody could hear me because I wasn’t a real singer and the microphone was only something to hold on to. I sang all the verses, all both of them, and when I got to “Wonderful feeling, wonderful day!” I stopped singing. And then something surprising happened. Everyone in the hall–including my aunt Mamie, my cousin Lily, and maybe-Rita–started clapping. I should have been happy, I suppose, but I remember feeling that my privacy had been violated, although I wouldn’t have used those words. So that was what a microphone was for! I felt betrayed. 

My mother was surprised when she arrived a few minutes later and asked if she had missed anything. But I wasn’t about to perform an encore, and the musicians and the real singer were already reclaiming their space. That was the end of my singing career but not the end of “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” It won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 1948, and James Baskett, the actor who played Uncle Remus and spoke the voices of Brer Fox and, I think, one of the butterflies, won an Academy Honorary Award. Song of the Southwas a success at the box office, both at the time of its original release and when it was re-released in 1972. Since that time, though, the film has been widely criticized for its portrayal of African-American former slaves in the Reconstruction-era South, and for that reason it has never been released on DVD in the United States. I’m sure the criticisms are valid, but at the age of four I was not ready for a realistic depiction of life in one of the ugliest periods of American history. On the other hand, if Keats was right when he wrote that “Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” Song of the South can be faulted for not being true and thus, despite the charm of the animated singing creatures, not being beautiful. I’ll go along with that. Everything was not satisfactual, not really. But when I think of Uncle Remus singing “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah,” and when I think of Mister Bluebird perched on his shoulder, it’s not truth or beauty that I’m seeing but a celebration of the human spirit. And to that I say “zip-a-dee-ay.”


Painted Ponies Redux

Here I am riding one of the painted ponies that seem to be haunting me these days. This photo may have been taken at Lincoln Park, although the carousel looks much too small. Was there a smaller carousel in Kiddie-Land? Or was the photo taken at a different park? It doesn’t matter, because the parks are gone, or at least the ones I remember are gone. Lincoln Park, in Dartmouth, Massachusetts, had the longest  run, lasting from 1894 to 1987. In its heyday it was an oasis of delight, a place where families could spend all Sunday afternoon without running out of things to do, eat, watch, or ride. Lincoln Park was where I tasted my first pizza, although I didn’t much like it. I liked the rides, though. I started out on the  Kiddie-Land train and worked my way to the grown-up Merry-Go-Round, Ferris Wheel, Bubble Bounce, Tilt-a-Whirl, Dark House, and Fun House. (I secretly thought the Dark House, with boats sloshing through a watery channel, was more fun than the Fun House.) The Penny Arcade had a “Grandma” fortune-telling machine, and right outside of Kiddie-Land it was possible to ride an unpainted, real pony that walked around in a circle inside a small corral. The real ponies didn’t go up and down, and there was no music. I liked the carousel horses better.

My Uncle Walter worked at Lincoln Park briefly. He operated the Tilt-a-Whirl and then moved up to the Dodgems. He let me ride for free, but I wasn’t supposed to tell anyone. The Tilt-a-Whirl was fun, but I didn’t understand the philosophy behind the Dodgems. I would drive my car very carefully, trying not to bump into anyone, but others would bump into me and start laughing. I thought they were very uncivilized and hoped my uncle would be promoted to a nicer ride, like the carousel. But that didn’t happen because Uncle Walter decided instead to go to California and seek his fortune.

When I grew older, I rollerskated in the skating rink and bowled in the bowling alley. I didn’t get good at either skating or bowling, although I liked the distinctive thunder and clatter of the duckpin alley. There was a ballroom, too, but I never went there. By that time I was too busy doing my French homework and sending out college applications. I should have noticed that the park was losing its magic, but I didn’t. 

Here’s what happened, although not right away and not all at the same time: Duckpin bowling disappeared, as did the equally if not more challenging sport of candlepin bowling. As tenpin lanes took over the bowling landscape, TV shows like Duckpins for Dollars and Candlepins for Cash were replaced by the unalliterative Bowling for Dollars.  And that was only part of it. Theme parks and water parks multiplied like rabbits, and I guess they had a lot more to offer in terms of fantasy and adventure and gigantic water slides, but you couldn’t get there on the Union Street Railway (which was not a railway) or by driving a short distance up the highway. Lincoln Park had this going for it: It was there. 

And how could I almost forget to mention the scholarships? At my high school graduation, after all the diplomas were given out, the local scholarships were announced. These were mostly from organizations like the College Club of New Bedford and the Portuguese-American Civic League, but the biggest local scholarships, one to a boy and one to a girl, were presented by Lincoln Park, and I was lucky enough to receive one. It was more than enough to cover my first year of college tuition, and my other local scholarships paid for most of my second and third years. I didn’t get to meet Cinderella or shake hands with a mouse, but I did get to go to college. Lincoln Park, the College Club of New Bedford, and the Portuguese-American Civic League were my fairy godparents. Some people walk on air, but that night I was walking on glass slippers.

As for the painted ponies, they had their own fairy godparents. Carousel #54, made by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company, had been at Lincoln Park since 1920, and it needed a new home. Thanks to the Fall River community it was purchased, refurbished, and moved to Battleship Cove, a “fleet museum” right by the Braga Bridge. I’ve never visited it in its new home, but I like knowing that for two dollars I can have one more ride.

Another Marvelous Fourth of July Parade with the Pickle Pin Club

Evelyn and I started the club because we wanted a club.  We were the oldest on the street, or at least the oldest of the young kids, and we felt it was our duty to organize activities for the others.  Evelyn was nine at the time, and I had just turned ten.  We would ask our mothers for money for refreshments and prizes, and they would give us whatever change they had handy.  We would walk to Vee’s Variety and buy Tootsie Rolls, the ones that cost only a penny, and packets of Kool-Aid.  Then we would ask our mothers for sugar to put in the Kool-Aid.  We held our meetings in our clubhouse.  Actually it wasn’t ours.  It was a tar-paper shack that Evelyn’s brother had built in their back yard, but he didn’t seem to be using it anymore. Because it had four walls and a roof, we thought it was grand.  We had a bag of pickle pins that one of my father’s customers had given him, green plastic pins shaped like pickles with the number 57 in the middle.  Everyone who joined got a pin, and we had a lot of pins left over.  That was how our club got its name.

I don’t remember which of us first thought of a parade, but we were running out of ideas for field-day-type races and games, and we were giving away a lot of Tootsie Rolls.  A parade was easy.  Everybody came dressed as something or brought something to bang on.  We had no music, but we had noise.  Evelyn and her sister Joan had a supply of dancing costumes that could be customized, made to look patriotic.  I had had only one year of dancing lessons, and my choices were limited to a tutu that I had grown out of or a ghost outfit that glowed in the dark.  Neither was especially appropriate, so I settled for shorts and a t-shirt and an Uncle Sam hat that my mother paid 25 cents for at the 5&10.  It was made of cardboard and had stars and stripes all over it, and it matched the flag I carried.  Evelyn wore one of her dancing outfits and twirled her baton.  I didn’t have a clue how to twirl a baton, but I had an Uncle Sam hat.  Joan showed up in a costume that she said represented Miss Liberty, whoever that was.  Kirsten and Donna and Betsy and Marcia wore red, white, and blue and brought flags and noisemakers.  My brother refused to march with us, but he let us borrow his toy drum.  We gathered at the end of our dead-end street early in the morning of the Fourth of July, and we started to march.  The parade route took us up our street and back down again.  People came out of their houses to watch us go by.  Some had cameras.  It was exciting!

We did this every year for what seemed like a long time but couldn’t have been.  By the second year people were lining the streets with movie cameras.  (Well maybe there was only one movie camera.)  But by the third year Tootsie Rolls and Kool-Aid had lost their magic, my brother’s drum had a hole in it, and somehow my beloved Uncle Sam hat had gotten dinged.  Besides, Evelyn and I were growing up.  

So that’s how it ended.  We grew up, we grew apart, we moved away.  The bag of pickle pins seems to have disappeared, although it may be in my brother’s attic.  Evelyn and Joan are gone.  Kirsten lives in California.  I don’t know where in the world Donna, Betsy, and Marcia ended up, but I hope they are happy.  My brother is the only one who still lives on our old street, but his cat, Trixie, spends more time there than he does.  

Those were the best parades of my life, and no abundance of flags, floats, marching bands, or Clydesdales could have made them more spectacular.  I’m not big on fireworks or picnics or flag-waving, at least not without my Uncle Sam hat, but oh what I wouldn’t give for one more Fourth of July parade with the Pickle Pin Club!

Eating With the Ancestors: Curds and Whey

A while back our neighbors offered us a couple of bottles of raw milk.  Because of complicated laws regulating the sale of raw milk in New York State, consumers who want to buy unpasteurized milk on a regular basis sometimes work around the regulations by joining a buying club or purchasing shares in a herd–essentially subscribing to local milk deliveries on a regular basis.  Our neighbors were going on vacation, but the milk they had subscribed to was coming anyway.  All we had to do was pick it up and of course wash out the bottles afterwards. 

Those milk bottles, with a generous amount of cream at the top, reminded me of the milk of my childhood, but I should say right from the start that milk and I have always had a difficult relationship.  I remember that we had three kinds of milk in our tenement: chocolate milk, coffee milk, and plain milk.  Chocolate milk had some sort of cocoa powder stirred into it, while coffee milk was made with Silmo Coffee Syrup, a long-gone product that was once a staple in the New Bedford area.  Of the three, plain milk was the one I liked the least, although it was the simplest to prepare.  My mother would remove the orange cellophane from the top of the milk bottle, rinse the top of the cardboard cap, and give the bottle a vigorous shake.  Then she would remove the cap, pour some milk into a saucepan, and start warming it up.  Of course when my mother poured the warm plain milk over my breakfast Cheerioats, they immediately turned to mush. Truth is, I didn’t like Cheerioats much either, and changing the name to Cheerios didn’t make them any less mushy.  I didn’t know then, and didn’t learn until I was in college, that other people enjoyed their cereal with cold milk.

Today I like Cheerios quite a lot, but I prefer them with lactose-free milk straight from the refrigerator.  Yes, milk makes me sick–not terribly, horribly sick, just sickish enough to feel uncomfortable.  So, as appealing as those two bottle of raw milk looked, I wasn’t about to pour myself a tall one and drink it down.  I knew what I would do.  I would make some fresh cheese.

Fresh cheese is an Azorean treat, a simple cheese made with only two or three ingredients: milk, rennet, and sometimes salt. My mother made it often, possibly because she had extra milk in the refrigerator and the milkman was coming the next morning, or possibly because she knew my brother and I liked it.  Despite my problems with plain milk served in a glass, I loved most foods prepared with dairy products, especially fresh cheese but also goldenrod toast, cream of tomato soup, and creamed anything.  But could my mother have had another reason to include this shimmery white wonder in her cooking rotation?  Could there have been another explanation for the popularity of fresh cheese, or queijo fresco, among people of Azorean ancestry in the New Bedford area. 

I made my fresh cheese, and I made it again, and when the raw milk was used up I made it with pasteurized non-homogenized milk.  I could have used homogenized milk.  My mother did after homogenization became the standard, and the cheese tasted just as good, although the texture was a bit grainy.  I could have used low-fat milk or skim milk, as those work, too, as does goat’s milk.  (Ultra-pasteurized milk would not have worked, and neither would soy or almond milk.)  I chose whole milk simply because that’s how my mother made it.  After months of experimenting with different types of molds (my mother used a one-pound coffee can with top and bottom removed) and different types of rennet, I finally produced a cheese I was happy with.  And while I was testing out variations on my mother’s recipe and hunting down other recipes on the web, I learned something interesting: when the coagulated milk has been spooned into its coffee can or cheese mold and the whey is draining out the bottom, most of the lactose in the milk drains out with it.  

My ancestors came from the island of São Miguel in the Azores.  I have traveled several times to mainland Portugal and the Azores, and the only hotels where I was served fresh cheese with my breakfast–two different hotels on two different trips–were in Ponta Delgada, on São Miguel.  Nowhere else in this country of amazing cheeses was I served fresh cheese, although my hotel in Angra, on Terceira, included the different but equally wonderfully São Jorge cheese as part of its breakfast buffet.  I can’t help wondering whether the residents of São Miguel have an especially high incidence of lactose intolerance.  I’m only guessing, of course.  I’m guessing that my mother, a descendant of Micaelense parents, was lactose intolerant, although the term was not tossed around in those days.  I don’t think she knew that when milk is heated some of its lactose is broken down, but she fed me a cup of warm chocolate or coffee milk first thing in the morning, every morning, for years.  It seems that whenever she reached for a bottle of milk with one hand, she reached for a one-quart saucepan with the other.  And she made fresh cheese often.  

Last weekend our neighbors offered us another half gallon of raw milk.  The bottle is in the refrigerator right now, a gleaming reminder of what life was like before something as simple as milk from a cow was subjected to commodification and hyperregulation.  But what do I know about the dairy industry?  Here’s what I do know:  If I warm a quart of milk in a saucepan, if I add a small amount of powdered or liquid rennet, if I let the warm milk set for a few minutes, if I transfer the curdled milk into a cheese mold, if I patiently wait for the whey to drain out, if I do all of this and maybe add a couple of optional extra steps, I will have a smooth white cheese about the diameter of a coffee can and slightly more than an inch tall.  I will cut myself a good-sized wedge, and I will salt it generously.  When I taste it I will think of the cheeses that my mother made, and I will be surrounded by memories that I do not have of ancestors that I never had a chance to meet.  The cheese will not stand alone.

The Wegmans Parking Lot Riviera

The lead story in this morning’s Ithaca Journal was about how Canada geese have invaded area parks and disrupted peaceful family outings just by doing what geese do naturally and leaving behind what geese typically leave behind.  I can understand the concern.  There are a whole lot of these geese living in our city–about 240,000 in all of New York State, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation, and we have our share–and they’re not about to walk away from a grassy area just because some nice people want to have a picnic.  In fact, when they see that picnic basket I’m sure images of free food pass through their heads, and I can’t really blame them.  Living in today’s world takes energy and inventiveness, and geese don’t have credit cards to use in area restaurants.  But, because I had other things on my mind this morning, I set the newspaper aside.  

So I was surprised, as we were leaving Wegmans after our weekly grocery shopping expedition, to see a whole flock of Canada geese wading in the lake that the week’s rain had left at the edge of the parking lot.  Some were just strolling along the shoreline, enjoying the sun.  People were feeding them.  They like people, and they seemed happy to have found a place to hang out on a hot day.  

They strut their poise and stateliness.  Wouldn’t they make handsome carousel animals?