Spring Comes to Big Sur

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Friday, June 06, 2014

The Tin Ceiling


I was always captivated by it; its beckoning luminescence held me in awe. 
Each time I raised my head and gazed into the silver tin ceiling I saw something new. Within its many designs and textures I’d imagine worlds unknown and places that were so secret no words could describe them. There were many tin ceilings in shops and homes on the Lower East Side. Some were painted white so they looked like plaster, and occasionally a combination of colors was used. However, the ornate silver ceiling in my father’s store was always my favorite. It was divided up into squares and within the squares were all these patterns that told stories to me. Or perhaps the wonderful raised ceiling designs and I created the stories together.

            In the corner of the ceiling facing the front of the store my grandfather Joseph had embossed his initials, “J.S.H.,” and the year he installed it — 1939.
From the tin ceiling hung four glass pendants with grapevines spread and circling around a translucent milky globe. The back wall was covered with ten racks of Singer sewing machines, arranged a dozen to a row, standing black and stately with their golden raised lettering shining into the shop. There was a walnut roll top desk, a six-drawer Coats & Clark oak cabinet to store the thread, and an old swivel wooden chair, all of which rested quietly on a well-worn dark oak floor — a surface that, when traveled upon, would creak in various tones, all of which seemed like music to me.
Handcrafted pendulum clocks ticked away on each side of the door and chimed in unison on the quarter, half, and full hour. The entire facing of the store was glass with green carved wood frames. The words “Hellman Sewing Machine & Motor Company” spoke to the street from the window. It was my father’s store and his father’s before him and it stood at 19 Pike Street in the Lower East Side of New York for over sixty years.
            I would walk to the store each day after leaving my fourth grade classroom at PS177. It was an easy two-block stroll down Madison Street; the store would come into view as I made my way through the large oval tunnel that was part of the Manhattan Bridge.
And it was there that I would do my homework or just sit and dream. I loved its musky old smell of wood, machines, and motor oil as I worked away on addition and subtraction. My father would sometimes leave me there when he went out to repair machines.
            I was never alone, because in the back of the Hellman Sewing Machine & Motor
Company sewing away were my father’s mother, Sarah, and her unwed sister, Miriam Rosenkrantz. Though I knew that Sarah’s last name had to be Hellman, I thought of both of them as the Rosenkrantz sisters. I never met Sarah’s husband, Joseph, as he had died many years before I was born.
            Sarah and Miriam dwelled in the rear of the shop like ghosts from another era. Their respective heads seemed always to be bowing in reverence to their work. They spent most of their time sewing industrial-strength zippers on cases and parcels.
            They spoke to each other in German and Yiddish and when they spoke to me it was in an interesting form of broken English. “So the numbers they are doing well for you? Maybe are you hungry a little? You want we should make you a sandwich?”
            Sarah’s husband, Joseph Hellman (my grandfather), migrated with Sarah to America in the early part of the 20th century from a small town called Parchim, which was somewhere east of Hamburg. Joseph was a master carpenter and machinist and quickly saved enough money to open the Hellman Sewing Machine & Motor Company. I was told it was Joseph who put in all the fixtures and the glorious ceiling, which I loved to wonder in. No one in the store ever talked about my grandfather and when I asked my mother what had happened to Joseph she would say, “Oh, he had a some kind of illness.”
            To which I would reply, “Was it a bad flu or a disease?”
            My mother would take a breath and say, “It’s not important, he just got real sick and he passed away. Does it rally make a difference how he died?”
Sarah was quiet and brooding and dressed in dark colors to match her mood. Her silver hair always seemed to be in contrast to her black work clothing.
Miriam was lively and very kind to me. She played the mandolin, the same one she had played in a mandolin orchestra in Germany. Sometimes she would show me her fingers and say, “You see, you see all this work with sowing and machines and now I can’t play the mandolin as much anymore.” Her new love was opera. On Tuesday nights she would stand in the back of the Metropolitan Opera House for fifty cents and enjoy classics such as Othello, La Traviata, The Magic Flute, and her favorite, Turandot. She would collect the playbills and show them to me at the store. I would sit at my father’s desk as she explained what these great musical epics were about.
            Miriam was the light of the family and loved New York, while Sarah seemed to have left her heart in a small town in eastern Germany. And there we were, the sisters in the back sewing, my father repairing a machine or doing his books, and I sitting at the roll top desk gazing at the patterns on the tin ceiling and occasionally doing my homework.
            One day Miriam and I took a walk to the corner to look at the beautiful stained glass windows adorning the Pike Street Temple. Inside the windows were scenes from the Old Testament. On one of the windows was a depiction of King Saul falling on his sword. I told Miriam that this picture was very frightening to me. “Why would this man do such a thing? Why couldn’t God save him from the enemies that were surrounding him?”
            Miriam paused a moment and replied, “Oh well, you see, even though he was a king he still had to have faith and listen to God, and he didn’t. He also betrayed the trust the great prophet Samuel had in him.” As she spoke about Saul, the color seemed to disappear from her face. The lines on her brow and cheeks were pensive and she was slightly stuttering.
            Still confused I asked, “Why couldn’t God forgive him? After all he was the king of Israel. Surely the Lord of the Jews could forgive a great leader like Saul.”
            Miriam took my hand and replied, “Well this is just my opinion but I think when Saul realized what he had done he could not find a way to forgive himself. You’ll understand this story better when you’re older.”
Many of the Old Testament stories seemed mysterious to me, but they did have the power to make my eight-year-old mind wander into places that I had never been before. Those, along with stories I heard my relatives tell over Passover and other high holy days, were part of the folklore I grew up with.
Around 5:00 my mother would come by to pick me up. For reasons unknown my father’s store seemed to make her uncomfortable. There was some serious bad blood between my mother and my grandmother that I could see only in the prickly way they eyed each other. If there was an exchange of words it might be my mother saying, “Did he eat?”
And my grandmother would reply, “He had sandwich, big sandwich.”
To which my mother would shake her head, gather me up, and make an exit.
It was easy for my parents to keep secrets from an eight-year-old. If the subject were serious they spoke in Yiddish or German. I had picked up some words, but not enough to comprehend exactly what they were talking about.
My mother’s domain was elsewhere, namely our ninth-floor apartment at 40 Monroe Street. It was one block from the East River, and from our living room window I could see both the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges. I would sit on the top of our sofa and watch all the many types of ships moving north and south on the river.
I’d see freighters, ferries, tugboats, occasionally a destroyer, and sometimes a great battleship traveling north to the Brooklyn Navy Yard. My father had told me the story of the HMS Hussar, a twenty-eight-gun British warship that sank in the East River a long time ago. It was carrying millions of dollars in gold to pay the British soldiers. I’d sit on the edge of that sofa and pretend that someday I’d be the one to find the golden treasure of this lost legendary vessel.
One morning as I was getting dressed I overheard a conversation in English between my parents. My father was upset about something. It almost sounded like he was crying. I opened my door and as I did my mother said, “Sol, please, 1939 was seventeen years ago. You’ve got to stop thinking about it.”
My father replied, “Every time I look out the window it’s there, it’s always there.”
To which my mother said, “So stop looking. It’s not going to change anything.”
The next day as I was lost in the maze of the tin ceiling I once again noticed the year 1939 and my grandfather’s initials. I asked Miriam why my grandfather put his initials and the year 1939 in the ceiling. “Well, he was proud of the work he did and so yes, that’s why.”
I lifted my head and replied, “Didn’t he die in 1939?”
A moment of silence, then, “Well yes, that’s why we always light the Yahrzeit candle every October 15th. But this is not conversation for young boy.”
Something in me persisted. “Did he know he was going to die and is that why he put his initials in the ceiling?”
Miriam stood up and shook her head. “Such questions. Not to ask such questions. Where do you get such ideas from?”
My first experience with death came that year when we found one of my beloved parakeets at the bottom of the cage with his little feet up in the air. Each member of the family had a different reaction. My mother said, “It’s only a bird,” and my father told me I still had two left.
Sarah commented, “Everything dies, so what is big deal? It could have been worse.”
Miriam was the kindest. “Your bird has flown to heaven to be with all the other birds that have died.”
I replied, “Miriam, tell me what happens when you die.”
“Well it’s simple. You just go back to the place where you were before you were born.” 


           “Is that where my grandfather is? And all the other people in our family who are dead?” 

            “Yes. Joseph is there with his parents and his parents before them and maybe your bird is with them as well.”

            Most family truths were revealed to me when I overheard my mother on the phone. One spring afternoon as I was leaving the apartment to play baseball I heard my mom say, “You would have jumped too if you were married to that German witch.” 
All at once everything seemed clear to me and I understood how my grandfather died. 

I now knew why my father never drove over the Brooklyn Bridge. For some reason he’d always take the Manhattan Bridge even if it took us out of our way. That bridge spanning the East River was the ghost haunting Solomon Hellman each time he looked out our ninth-story window.

            On October 15, 1939, as war spread in Europe and The Wizard of Oz was playing in theaters around America, my grandfather Joseph Hellman decided to jump off the Brooklyn Bridge. I never told anyone in my family that I knew. For the first time in my life I had what I would later learn was a feeling of compassion for my father. I wanted him to know I knew and how sad I felt for him, but I couldn’t tell him.
            I continued to love the tin ceiling, as it was probably the last thing Joseph created before he took his life. I’d gaze at all the designs and look at his initials and wonder if it were his way of saying hello to a grandchild he would never meet.

            Or perhaps it was just his way of saying goodbye.

Friday, November 15, 2013

The Day He Died


Midwood High
            I’ve always had trouble with keys and locks, especially when there are so many choices and shapes on the ring. Why couldn’t they give me just the right one to open this unmarked utility closet on the third floor of Midwood High School? Shit, I thought, either the lock was stripped or the key was simply not functioning. I tracked down the custodian to see if he had an extra key. Ten minutes later I found the man, known to all as Mr. Nick because of his very long and complicated Greek last name.
            “Look, look, I show you how to open the door. You got to push it in real tight and then turn the key nice and easy, see? Simple.”
            I flicked on the light and proceeded to place 300 rounds of ammunition into a small brown steel case. I gathered up four rifles, made sure the bolts were out, and stuffed each one of them into its light canvas case. I knew those ten minutes I lost were going to cost me as the bell rang for the classes to change. I was already late. I was supposed to be in the coach’s office before 2:30. I was trying my best to fulfill my responsibilities as the cocaptain of the Midwood High School Rifle Team, but I seemed to be staggering my way through the day.
            That Friday morning had gotten off to a rough start. While we were eating breakfast I informed my mother that I’d be home late because we had a rifle match against Lincoln High School that didn’t start until 4:00. My mother was not fond of the idea of her son shooting rifles for sport. It was simply not on her socialist agenda. “Why,” she would constantly repeat, “why of all sports did you choose to be on the rifle team? Why not soccer or basketball? Since when does a fifteen-year-old shoot guns? It’s not even a sport.”
            I’d reply with my stock answer—“Mom, that’s what I can do well, that’s why.” My mother allowed me to stay on the team as long as I promised never to bring my gun into the house. I would then assure my mother that the coach always took all the guns back to the school after the match.
A number of the other students on the team owned their own guns. I was so envious of them. Tom Brown had a brand new Ruger 10/22 and he couldn’t even shoot straight. If only my folks would let me have my own rifle, we’d be the best team in the city.
I gathered up the rifles and the metal box of ammunition and headed for the stairs. There was always a great deal of noise during the changing of classes, as there were over 5,000 students in attendance in Midwood High School. As I took to the stairs I heard the usual jibes, such as “Hey man, don’t shoot, I’m a friend” or “Is that really a gun in there?” “Hey, come on man, take it out, let me see it.” 
Among those usual voices I kept hearing murmurs, quiet, yet audible murmers —“Dallas”— “Kennedy”—“hospital”— “in the head”—“he’s dead.”
            All these words seemed to run together and were somewhat indiscernible, but there was something unsettling going on. I could have sworn I heard the words assassination and president as well. It was as if the air was being poisoned with words. As I walked down the hall toward the office, two girls passed me arm in arm crying hysterically. I noticed my hand was beginning to shake as I approached the coach’s door on the first floor.
            Barney Cohen taught English and math, and he was also our default Rifle Team coach. He knew nothing about target shooting, but he was the only teacher nice enough to take on the job as coach of a bunch of fifteen- to seventeen-year-olds who wanted to shoot targets.
            I could feel something was wrong before he echoed those words that became ingrained in my mind at 2:45, November 22, 1963. “President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas. They blew his head apart.” When the last words came out of his mouth it was as if someone had hit me over the head with a sledgehammer.
            My body descended into a large wooden chair, my mouth fell open, and my eyes stared at my feet. Our young, idealistic, and glamorous president with the beautiful wife and lovely children was gone in an instant. John Kennedy was the handsome man on the cover of Life magazine. A vibrant person who played touch football and had a welcoming smile.
            The other members of the team came wandering in and we all just gazed at each other with our mouths open. Barney interrupted the silence by informing us the match with Lincoln High was still on and we’d better be taking off.
            The five of us left Midwood High around 3:00 with our rifles strapped on our shoulders and soon crammed into Mr. Cohen’s station wagon. Bob (our captain) was the first to speak. “What if the Russians did it? You think it will lead to a nuclear war?”
            “No, man,” replied Andy. “I bet it was the Chinese. Those guys are out to get us, especially since the Korean War. Did any of you see that movie The Manchurian Candidate? Maybe it’s like in the movie—the Chinese scientists get this American guy and they brainwash him and he doesn’t even know he’s killing the president cause he’s just all screwed up, you know what I mean?” Our coach tried to calm us down by saying he wasn’t the first president to be assassinated. It didn’t work.
            Eddie Galente piped up and said, “Maybe it was Castro and the Cubans—they did it because of that whole Bay of Pigs thing, remember that, man? Remember that? It was a big failure and I bet they were so mad at him that they shot him, you know, they just wanted to get even.”
       We listened to the news for a while until the coach shut the radio off, turned around, and reminded us to start thinking about the match. We sat in silence for the rest of the trip, each of us far away in his own little reality trying to somehow comprehend what was happening.
            I loved target shooting. It taught me how to focus and it taught me the technique of breath control. The first thing you learn is to balance the rifle. Your left hand gently supports the barrel while the index finger of the right hand just barley touches the trigger. You then relax and breathe slowly through the nose. The shooter then gets a proper sight picture. The ball of the front sight centered horizontally and vertically in the Vee of the rear sight. As the air slowly escapes, body and mind meld together, and that’s when you softly squeeze off that shot, so slowly that the activation of the hammer comes as a surprise. There is no thinking, only concentration upon the breath. There’s just you, the rifle, and the target.
            During a match a person would shoot five rounds in four positions: prone, sitting, kneeling, and standing. The target was always 50 feet away. The center of the target was worth 10 points, thus a perfect score would be 200, and most of us were usually up in the 190s. Each person was allowed ten practice shots at the beginning to get sighted in. Meaning that one of our team members would watch the target through a telescope and after each of our preliminary shots would call out “high and to the right” or a “low, just a little low,” and we would adjust our site accordingly.
            Our problems that day began with the “sighting in,” as the teammate looking through the scope was so distracted that the differences between left and right and up and down were obliterated. I couldn’t get my breathing right, and as I focused in on the target I was distracted by all the guys in the back talking in rapid-fire sentences about the assassination. “Three shots, there were three shots.”—“Some other guy got hit too.”—“Dealey Plaza.”—“They blew him apart.”
 The match took place in a basement of a high school, so none of us knew what was going on following the assassination. An hour into the match Coach Barney left to make a phone call, and upon his return he informed us that he was leaving, as his wife wanted him home right away. Barney then informed us as he hurriedly put on his coat that we’d all be responsible for taking our rifles home along with the unspent ammunition. We reminded him of what had happened that day and how odd it would be to get on the subway with a weapon. “Ah, don’t worry boys, just put your guns in your cases. You’re not breaking the law.” As I was about to fire the last shot of the day, the lights went out. We waited a few minutes and then decided that it was over. We all felt that one shot from one shooter was simply not important. No one scored above 175 that day. We somehow won the match, but neither team really cared.
      Before I left the building I took the 200 or so rounds of unspent ammunition and stuffed them in my briefcase with my schoolbooks. I then placed my rifle into its canvas case and said my goodbyes to my teammates. Eddie Galente summed it all up when he addressed us all with the phrase “What’s going to happen now, shit, I mean, who’s going to be in charge?”
      We emerged into the street. Everything seemed calm; the world was still there. It was now 8:00 and I was still a long way from home. The subway ride would take at least an hour due because I would have to change trains twice. It started to rain as I descended the steps to the Independent train.
            There was a short line to buy tokens, and I tried my best to tuck my rifle case into the fold of my coat. I felt so conspicuous, I held the gun case near my body, and as I went through the turnstile I could feel the piece of metal on top of the gun barrel poking through the thin canvas case.


            While waiting for the train I realized that I never took the bolt out of my gun. The thought then occurred to me that the rifle might still be loaded. I began to wonder if somehow the bullet could discharge if I banged the case the wrong way. I tried to stay calm and I picked up a newspaper and held it out in front of me to shield most of the gun case. I felt relieved as the train pulled in. I quickly took a seat and tried to keep my head down.
            Two little punks were staring at me as soon as I entered the train. I tried not to make eye contact. They could sense there was something wrong and kept looking at me as they whispered and pointed back and forth. The tall one with the sock hat asked me what was in the case, to which I replied “a pool cue.”
            The short one with the scar on his cheek replied, “That isn’t a pool cue. I bet that’s a gun and I bet there’s some ammo in that bag you’re carrying. Hey man, you didn’t shoot the president did you?”
            The tall one then said, “Hey Joe, don’t get this asshole pissed off. He might take a shot at us.” They then stood to get off the train and each of them took a swipe at the top of my case. They missed, and as they bolted out the door the short one shouted, “Stay cool, man, stay cool.”
            I had to change from the IND line to the IRT line, and that meant getting off at Franklin Avenue. Franklin Avenue was in a rough neighborhood, and to make matters worse one could spend over a half hour on the platform waiting for the Flatbush Avenue IRT.
            As I exited the train I noticed how frigid the air had become. There didn’t seem to be anyone on the platform, and I began to wonder if some kind of national emergency had been declared and the trains had stopped running. “No,” I thought to myself, I had just walked off a train. But that was an IND train., What if the IRT was the first to shut down? If I had to leave the platform and make my way home on the streets, I would find myself in one of the roughest neighborhoods in the city. I was relieved to see a few people making their way down the steps to the platform. They must have just walked through the turnstiles on Franklin Avenue, which would mean the trains were running.
I sat down on the only available bench. An older man sat down next to me. He started speaking about the assassination, and he went on about how this was the beginning of the end of the world and unless we all turned to Jesus we would all die without redemption.
            He kept muttering, “that poor, poor man, what he ever do to anybody anyway? They killed that poor man because he was a Catholic, that’s what I think happened. He wasn’t some kind of Papist, really, you know what I mean?”
As he was ranting on, all I could think about was the possibility that my rifle was still loaded. I spotted a men’s room. I didn’t know anyone who ever used a men’s room in the subway. A toilet in a subway station is where junkies went to shoot up, or gang members were in there waiting for someone to mug or rob. I couldn’t worry about that as I simply had to check that bolt, and this would be my only opportunity until I got home.
I entered the bathroom, and there was a tall thin man sitting on the floor with a pint of booze in his hand. He looked pretty sick but he was wide awake. He nodded and said, “Hey son, don’t think about going in that stall, I got a little sick and you know it’s just sort of not right in there if you know what I mean. Go ahead and take a piss in the sink, I won’t watch.” I stood and stared at him and as I did he could pick up my state of confusion. “What’s in that case son, looks like a gun, is it a gun? You look like a nice kid, what you need to run around Brooklyn with a gun for?”
I had only one choice and that was to tell the truth. “OK, I’m on this rifle team, you know, we shoot targets. We had a match today and I think I left a bullet in my gun so don’t be afraid because I’m going to take this gun out of the case and remove the bullet, OK?”
            He smiled as he took another swig and replied, “You just do what you got to do as long as you point that thing away from me. You don’t look like the gun type to me son, you just don’t.”
I slipped my rifle out of my case, and as I removed the bolt I could see the end of the 22 long snug in the barrel of the gun. I removed the bullet, and I was so nervous the only thing I could think of was to drop it down the drain of the sink. I placed the rifle back in the case and as I did I could hear my train coming into the station. “Got to go now.”
As I was opening the door he said, “Maybe you should consider playing basketball.”
            I ran and jumped into the first car just before the door closed. There are six stops between Franklin Avenue and Flatbush Avenue, and as the train rolled on I counted each one. I had my case fairly well hidden. I could feel my heart slow down. There was just one old man on the train and he was asleep. The train was slowing down as it entered Flatbush Avenue, the last stop on the IRT. I flew out of the car as soon as the doors opened and walked the long subway corridor under the street to a lesser-known exit. I looked across Flatbush Avenue and there were at least four policemen at the main exit checking people as they came up the stairs. I had made the right decision. I walked up Campus Road and decided to go through the college as I thought it would be a safe shortcut.
            There were many students out, a number of whom were ranting on about how the military and big business were soon to take over the government and we’d all be slaves inside a fascist state. Camelot had fallen and the era we would one day title the “60s” had begun.
It was now raining harder and the moisture was blowing into my face as I quickly walked down Amersfort Place. No one noticed the rifle case around my shoulder. I arrived at my door, reached into my jeans, took out my house keys. They fell from my hand twice. I took a breath and composed myself. I unlocked the first door, fumbled a bit, and then unlocked the second door and slowly began to climb up the stairs to our home.
            I had one more hurdle and that was my mother. As I ascended the stairs I could hear the TV on. When I entered the living room, both my parents and my brother turned around. The sight of me standing there with a weapon in my hand was so incongruous that all three just stared in silence. My mother looked at my dad and then the ceiling as if she was seeking guidance from above, and turned to me and said, “Are you hungry?”
After I ate I joined my family in the living room for our silent reverie as we watched the news until midnight. The networks were constantly showing the photo of Johnson being sworn in aboard Air Force One. Jackie standing by his side in a state of living paralysis, still wearing her blood-stained pink Chanel suit. It was all so hard to comprehend.
Love Field November 22, 1963
            When my head finally hit the pillow, I envisioned a picture I had recently seen in Life magazine. The Kennedy's were in South America or some other exotic location by the sea. To honor the beautiful Jackie and her handsome Brahmin from Hyannis Port, young brown-skinned men were diving from an incredible height, head first into the sea. John and Jackie applauded. They were happy, and in the final photo one of the young men was giving them a stunning bunch of flowers. I could see the colors from the tropical plants reflected in their smiling faces. This was my last thought on that day, the day he died.

Neal Hellman
Felton, CA 95018
nealhellman@gmail.com

Monday, July 02, 2012

Monochordo


           He brushed back the flakes of a jelly donut from the sides of his mouth and spoke while licking his lips, “So tell me again what your trying to say or do with this poster? It is a poster right?” I sat up straight in my chair and replied, “Mr. Antonelli.” He immediately stopped me by waving his cup of coffee and said “Joe, please call me Joe.” “Ok, sure, well Joe I’m trying to entice you and of course you’re wonderful poster shop in possibly carrying my Pythagorean Monochord poster. “Yeah, I know your trying to get my interest in your product but words like Diapente Materialis and Diattessaron Formalis somewhat confuse me. And this funny looking instrument being turned by a hand coming out of a cloud, could anyone beside you know what this is all about?”
Utriusque Cosmi Historia 1619
            “Oh yes I’ve written a three page epistle explaining what all the terms mean, see it’s right here and each epistle is held neatly together by a little blue ribbon, and there’s no extra charge, none at all.” He sighed took a sip of coffee and said “Ok kid, tell me in one sentence what this is about.” I was ready for that and quickly replied,  “It’s about the mystical construction and manipulation of the universe based on Pythagorean principals.” “You know Neal I love the universe as much as any man can, but why would anyone choose to buy this over Farrah Fawcett in a nice tight bathing suit or Lynda Carter showing a lot of what men like to look at?”
            What Joe couldn’t see was how inspired I was when I first opened Fludd’s work “Utriusque Cosmi Historia” and made the connection between the ancient Pythagorean monochord and the mountain dulcimer. Shortly after this motivational moment I took a copy of Mr. Fludd’s illustration to a graphics house where I had the image expanded and then printed on 17 x 22 parchment paper. After I picked up my 500 posters I hired my friend Peter to airbrush 100 of them. We ran a clothes line on my deck in Felton and pinned them up and painted them all in an assembly line fashion. First doing all the yellow, then the blue and so on. As we watched them all come into fruition we were convinced that thousands of people would treasure this ancient image in their homes. We were certain that our creation was a large step forward from mood rings and pyramid hats, both of which seemed to be very popular in the late 70’s.
            Joe offered me a donut and said, “ So did you draw this? “Oh no this is the work of Robert Fludd” I replied as I reached out for a donut. “Fludd, Fludd was he some kind of beat poet here in the city back say some ten years ago?” My mouth was full of jelly and sugar but I had to immediately reply “No he was a renaissance man from the 17th century,” I said all the while blowing little flakes sugar and pastry in front of my face. “Fludd was a really interesting guy he was a Christian, an alchemist, a Rosicrucian a Paracelsian and in 1598 he received an M.A. in medicine from St. John’s College, Oxford. Joe continued to nod his head and replied “I’m almost afraid to ask what a Paracelsian is, should I?” “Well Paracelsus was like Fludd, a philosopher of esoteric knowledge, he’s credited with the creation of laudanum and was an early practitioner in the use of chemicals and minerals in medicine. “Did he smoke the same stuff as his buddy Fludd?” I raised my hands to my chest and laughed with Joe and said, “Hey you never know what these free thinkers would do.”
            As Joe was poured himself another cup of coffee he looked at me and said, “So tell me Neal when you not running around San Francisco trying to sell posters about heavenly geometry what do you do?” “Well I write musical instructions books on the mountain dulcimer.” “What’s that?”  “Oh it looks a lot like the instrument that the hand of Apollo is touching except it has more strings.” Joe closed his eyes and replied, “Please don’t take offense at this Neal but why is it I’ve never heard of anything that you do?” That last statement from Joe gave me a great sense of gravity.
            The Pythagorean thing made sense to me. From his work on the seven string harp and his knowledge of mathematics, Pythagoras expounded the theory that the seven planets were in the same proportion to each other and to the seven notes of the then known musical scale. The planets, he said revolve in perfect circles upon invisible spheres. The harmony emitted by the interval and spacing of theses planets produces a concordant sound, known to the properly initiated as The Music of the Spheres, simple.
            The mountain dulcimer is played in modes and thus I found an even greater spiritual connection between all this ancient knowledge and my humble folk instrument of choice.
             It didn’t seem complicated at all, it made sense but as I sat opposite Mr. Antonelli I could feel that my career selling esoteric posters of the cosmos based on 16th century knowledge was coming to an end.
            It all seemed so promising when I started out that morning. I rolled up the California coast armed with the knowledge of the ancients, 500 newly printed Pythagorean Posters and a heart full of inspiration. I sold two to a store on Geary and then after nine polite refusals in a row I decided to go to the mega poster store on Columbus Street where I was currently receiving the truth from above delivered by one Mr. Joseph Antonelli.
            “So listen Neal, are there places that people say like yourself go? You know maybe you should be selling these to folks who play that thing, what do you call it the doorchemer?” “Yes” I replied that’s a good idea but most dulcimer players don’t share my interest in this whole musical cosmos thing and then most people into cosmology don’t really play the dulcimer so I’m sort of stuck I guess.” “Hey kid let me unstuck you a bit. I sell posters of Einstein, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, Brando, you know movie stars beautiful woman, handsome men. I have to level with you Neal in all my years here on Columbus Street no one has asked for this monochord Pythagoras thing you got here. I guess the closest thing would be the one with all the stars with the arrow pointing to the words “you are here”. I slowly nodded in agreement as I let go of my fantasy of becoming a New Age poster mogul. “So tell me Neal how many of these did you print up?” “Oh 500.” “And how many do you have left?” “Oh 498.” “Ah kid let me have three so now you just have 495 to go.” I insisted he take 6 for the price of three but he politely refused. He patted me on the shoulder as I was leaving and said “Hey kid, at least you gave it a shot, don’t ever give up and don’t worry you’ll figure it out.”
            It was a beautiful ride down the coast that evening. I stopped to look at the Seven Sisters and saw a shooting star. That night I dreamed a dream of all the muses— Calliope, Terpsichore, Urania,  Erato, Clio, Thalia and Polyhymnia singing to their respective planets. And there reaching out from the clouds tuning the string of the monochord to the heavenly choir was Mr. Antonelli and in his other hand was a chocolate cream donut glazed with stars.