Friday, May 23, 2008

Mezuzzah blues

On the 13th of April 2008 I entered my seventh decade here on earth. To commemorate my 21,000 plus days of breathing, eating, laughing, crying, and dealing with all matters earthly, I and eighty-five friends spent the day eating, singing, and having a joyous and mirthful time.
That evening as I laid my contented head on my pillow, I noticed a small blue box with a little yellow bow sitting on my night table. During the party one of my friends went into my house and left me a gift. How kind, I thought. Though I had told everyone no presents, I did feel excited at the sight of one by my bed. I opened the box, and inside was the most lovely and ornate mezuzah I had ever seen.
An Israeli woman named Ester Shahaf created it. Ms. Shahaf fabricated the mezuzzah using a combination of silver, pewter, and Swarovski crystals, a very special type of crystal created by a Swiss engineer in the latter part of the nineteenth century. I had never owned a religious item so ornate and looked forward to mounting it upon my door. Little did I realize that this four-inch tall object of Judaica would soon lead me into a spiritual crisis.
The next morning as I read the instructions for mounting my gift, I realized how little I knew about the entire concept of a mezuzzah and thought what a lapsed Jew I have become.
Mezuzzah means “doorpost,” and, yes, while it is decorative and ornate, it’s not as important as the rolled-up parchment scroll that rests inside. The scroll contains passages from Deuteronomy 6:4–9 and 11:13–21. The scroll is to be prepared by a scribe writing in Hebrew with a special quill pen. At the end of the instructions, right after the part about inviting a rabbi to participate in the ceremony, in four-point type were the words parchment not included. On the very bottom of the instruction sheet was a web address and the scroll part number.
Being the great grandson of the famous Polish Tsitsis mogul Rabbi Joseph Kanet and the product at least 3,000 years of Judaism, I decided not to rock the spiritual boat, and I soon found myself going online to purchase part #9064 from
I punched in the part number. I learned that for $26 plus shipping I could purchase what was described as follows:
Standard Kosher Hand-Written Mezuzzah Scroll. Executed in Jerusalem by a traditional scribe. 
Will fit any mezuzzah case in our collection.

Underneath this description I read that for $9 more I could receive a mezuzzah scroll that was scanned by a computer to ensure the consumer that the scroll was error free. You would think that a talented and trained scribe writing the same verses from Deuteronomy over and over again would not need his worked checked by a computer. Though my knowledge of the old religion is fading somewhat, I can say with absolute certainty that there is no mention in the Bible of any of the great patriarchs owning a scanner.
I felt myself falling ever so quickly into a spiritual abyss. I opened my Bible (actually my neighbor’s Bible) to the passages from Deuteronomy that were to rest inside my beautiful new mezuzzah. Chapter 6 verses 4–9 were a bit stern but acceptable. They were about loving Yahweh with all your heart and then writing the words from Deuteronomy
…on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
It was chapter 6 verses 13–21 where things really got rough, especially verse 15:
For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you lest the anger of the LORD thy God be kindled against you, and destroy you from off the face of the earth.

Was this the message I wanted to place inside my beautiful work of art handcrafted by Ester Shahaf? Why couldn’t there be a more optimistic message such as
May a song be on your lips and love in your heart
As you enter and leave my home.
Please sit a while, have a cup of tea.

It’s not easy being a Jew. Two thousand years of persecution mixed with a monotheistic sky God with insecurity issues is not by any means a recipe for inner peace.
God needs a hug, or perhaps a week at Esalen writing poetry, bathing in the tubs, and at least two massages a day.
Or better yet an evening with Pema Chödrön in a rustic eighth-century monastery situated on a high peak somewhere in Tibet where the only sounds he can hear are the wind, the chanting of the monks, and the bells of the yaks.
What if Yahweh and I could go to couples counseling to try and talk things out? I’d probably make the mistake of saying something like, “God should be a little more compassionate and forgiving.”
To which the therapist would say, “Neal, remember the ‘I’ message here. Now I want you to turn your chair toward God and use the ‘I’ message, not the finger-pointing ‘you’ message.”
I’d face my creator and say, “I am very uncomfortable with a deity who is vengeful, jealous, and destructive. Things like turning women into pillars of salt, killing the first born, and condemning poor Eve for thinking are hardly what one would call the acts of a peaceful and loving God.”
The therapist would turn toward the almighty and ask, “How do you feel about what Neal just said?”
“Well,” the Lord would reply while fondling his beard, “Neal is made in my own image, so he’s stuck with me. However, the good book has shown that I am willing to deal, to compromise—that’s what the essence of a covenant is—and I’d be ready to deal with Neal as long as he promises to keep the faith.”
It’s true, I thought, Yahweh has made deals with Abraham, Jacob, and Moses, so why not with me? He hasn’t been all bad—he gave Noah a rainbow sign and he delivered my ancestors from bondage.
There were other factors as well. If you count that squirrel I shot for no reason when I was sixteen, I am 0 for 10 on God’s commandments. I’m also getting on in age, and what if, just what if there really is this edgy, omnipotent, bearded deity calling the shots both here on earth and all over the universe?
Since I couldn’t prove he doesn’t exist, I decided to offer the creator of the universe a deal. I would put the prescribed verses from Deuteronomy in my mezuzzah, but he would look the other way while I created a bootleg scroll. Or simply put, I would keep his commandments, but I refused to pay retail for them. I raised my head and looked to the heavens for an answer. I saw two doves flying through my garden; truly this was a sign from on high that the Lord and Neal were now in business together.
With one hand one my mezuzzah and the other on my mouse, I googled the digital universe for mezuzzah scrolls. I found a nice six-by-eight-inch 72 dpi jpeg and brought it into Photoshop. Using a trick a graphic artist taught me I made it into a three-by-three-inch 300 dpi tiff, truly a miracle! I then sampled the blue of the flag of Israel and used it as a light tint backup color.
You will not find such a colorful scroll on This so-called “source for everything Jewish” is located in Niles, Illinois. Anyone familiar with Lenny Bruce’s theory on Judaism will know that if you live in Niles, Illinois, you’re simply not Jewish.
I printed my creation out with my HP LaserJet 2430dtn on a very biblical looking piece of parchment paper, and it was good.
I will soon mount it on my office door, where all who visit Gourd Music can enjoy the art of Ester Shahaf. And when I’m on my phone wheeling and dealing in the music business, I can look at my beautiful gift and realize that like all the great patriarchs before me, I, too, have made a covenant with the Great I Am.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Jackie Mitchell

On April 2nd. 1931 a 17-year old girl took the mound for the double A professional minor league team the Chattanooga Lookouts. This was only the second time in the history of professional baseball that a woman came this close to pitching in the major leagues.
Virne Beatrice “Jackie Mitchell” was born in Memphis Tennessee sometime between the sinking of the Titanic and the outbreak of World War I. Jackie’s dad loved baseball and he had aspirations for his daughter to be the first women to make it the majors. Mr. Mitchell’s neighbor was Dazzy Vance a future hall of fame pitcher with the Brooklyn Dodgers. Dazzy taught Jackie his famous drop pitch and the art of focusing and control on the mound.
Both Dazzy and her dad constantly worked with her and by the age of seven Jackie had already mastered the drop pitch and became a childhood star in the sand lot league in and around Memphis. Jackie also excelled at basketball, tennis, running, shooting and boxing.
At sixteen she played for a professional women’s team in Chattanooga and at seventeen signed a contract with the Chattanooga Lookouts a double A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds. Jackie had many offers from professional women’s teams but turned them down to play in the men’s league with the hope of going on to triple A and then on to “the show” as those in the minor leagues called it.
In March of that year The Chattanooga News wrote:

She uses an odd, side-armed delivery, and puts both speed and curve on the ball. Her greatest asset, however, is control. She can place the ball where she pleases, and her knack at guessing the weakness of a batter is uncanny.... She doesn't hope to enter the big show this season, but she believes that with careful training she may soon be the first woman to pitch in the big leagues.
Each year as the New York Yankees would break from spring training they would venture up to Chattanooga on their way to New York to play the lookouts in an exhibition game. The 1931 Yankees were a powerhouse club that featured Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Dixie Walker, Red Ruffing and Tony Lazzeri.
A capacity crowd of over 4000 filled Lookout Stadium to cheer on their local heroes and pray for a miracle. Seventeen-year-old Jackie Mitchell was brought in early in the game to face Babe Ruth with runners on the corners. Jackie struck out Ruth on four pitches and then struck out Lou Gehrig on three quick drop pitches.
Jackie became an overnight hero as word quickly spread around baseball that a teenage girl had struck out two of baseballs greatest icons.
This news did not please the current commissioner of baseball Kenesaw Mountain Landis. Landis was a former federal judge who ruled with absolute power and was dubbed “the baseball tyrant” by many of the sports journalists. He was the man who banned “shoeless Joe Jackson” for life following the 1919 Black Sox scandal. When Landis heard of Mitchell’s performance he cancelled Jackie’s contract on the grounds that baseball was “too strenuous for women.” He then went on to ban all women from the sport, a ban that was not lifted until 1992.
Jackie was out of a job but wanted to keep playing ball and soon hooked up with The Israelite House of David. The Israelite House of David was a religious commune that was founded by Benjamin Purnell and his wife Mary in Benton Harbor, Michigan around the year1902. It was their belief that by gathering all the twelve lost tribes of Israel together it would hasten the return of the messiah. To be a member of the commune one must refrain from sex, haircuts, shaving, and the eating of meat.
To support his spiritual undertaking Mr. Purnell operated an amusement park, a zoo, bowling alleys, sponsored a traveling jazz band and at least three baseball teams. By 1915 he had a number teams on the road barnstorming away and playing against other semi-pro teams, minor league teams and various clubs in the Negro Leagues. Legendary pitcher Satchel Paige referred to the Israelite House of David team as “the Jesus boys.” Baseball became so popular with the House of David commune that they needed to enlist players outside of their organization and in 1932 signed the lefty female phenom Jackie Mitchell.
Jackie toured with the bearded boys for five years. On September 12th. 1933 she started an exhibition game against the St. Louis Cardinals where she was the winning pitcher. The next morning a sports writer for a local St. Louis paper wrote:
Benton Harbor's nomadic House of David ball team, beards, girl pitcher and all, came, saw and conquered the Cardinals, 8 to 6, last night at Sportsman's Park.

It was while touring with The House of David that Jackie became friends with olympic champion Babe Didrikson.
Though Jackie did have her moments of glory, life on the road for a female pitcher in the mid 1930’s was no easy chore. Being a woman in baseball left her as a target for endless degrading jokes and she choose to retire in 1936 at the age of twenty-three. She returned to Chattanooga and worked for her father in the optometry business and latter married. She passed away in 1987 at the age of seventy-three.
Shortly after her death many critics dismissed the fact that she struck out Ruth and Gehrig at the age of seventeen. Some baseball aficionados claim that it was a stunt set up by Joe Engel the president and owner of the Chattanooga Lookouts. According to Jackie Mitchell’s biographer Jean L.S. Patrick there is film footage that clearly shows that both Ruth and Gehrig were fooled by her drop pitch. Also Ruth was quoted in a local paper shortly after the game as saying:

"I don't know what's going to happen if they begin to let women in baseball. Of course, they will never make good. Why? Because they are too delicate. It would kill them to play ball every day."

Baseball Hall of Fame researcher Amanda Pinney has studied the incident and has repeatedly said that the strikeouts were real. Ruth and Gehrig had every intention of hitting the ball. Tony Lazzeri the Yankee second baseman who was on deck while Gehrig went down swinging confirms Pinney’s conclusions.
The kindest notice I found in the press about Jackie was from the New York Times dated April 4th. 1931:

Cynics may contend that on the diamond as elsewhere it is place aux dames. Perhaps Miss Jackie hasn't quite enough on the ball yet to bewilder Ruth and Gehrig in a serious game. But there are no such sluggers in the Southern Association, and she may win laurels this season, which cannot be ascribed to mere gallantry. The prospect grows gloomier for misogynists.
There will always be a controversy surrounding the events of April 2nd 1931. However Virne Beatrice “Jackie Mitchell” has earned her place in the great book of baseball lore as “the girl who struck out Babe Ruth.”

Jackie Mitchell with Babe Ruthe & Lou Gehrig - Chattanooga, Tennessee April 1931.

Monday, March 31, 2008

The Ghost of Gight

It’s truly an exercise in the thrift, trying to explain a song in eighty words or less as I often  do when creating liner notes for recordings. For within a song there are many songs and a multitude of different stories. Say a the main focus of the piece is Highway 101 and your enjoying the ride as you speed down the road. However, if you wish there are always many side roads one can take. All of which exists in a song, especially the older ballads. 
A very timely quote about songs and ballads is from folklorist Frank Harte:

All songs are living ghosts
And longing for a living voice

For example track #13 on Celtic harper Kim Robertson's recording Highland Heart which is actually about a ghost titled: The Ghosts of Gight. 
Here’s the whole story in 83 words:
Gight Castle (near Fyvie above the river Ythan) was home to the Gordon’s for many hundreds of years. It was built by William Gordon around 1479 and eventually sold in 1787 to clear the gambling debts of one Mad Jack Byron whose son was the famous poet Lord Byron. The ghosts’ legend concerns a piper who was sent to investigate an underground passage and never returned. Though it is said that the sound of his pipes can still be heard at the castle.
That’s it, four hundred years of a Scottish family and their castle is now compressed into less then 90 words.
 As I would hate to short change the Gordon’s and their estate here is (as that obnoxious man on the radio says) the rest of the story:              

In or around 1787 Catherine Gordon (the daughter of the 12th Laird of the Gordon’s of Gight sold her families estate to pay off a gambling debt accrued by her husband “Mad Jack” Byron. “Mad Jack” was anything but a loving husband as he pilfered money from his wife so that he may run around Paris, drank, gamble and visit numerous houses of sin. He died before his son was three. Mad Jacks father “Foulweather Jack” was an officer in the royal navy with a reputation for attracting storms and his brother known as “the “Wicked Lord Byron” was a suspect for not one but two murders. As well as being members of the Gordon Clan they were also direct descendants of King Edward III of England (1312-1377).              

William Gordon constructed Gight Castle around 1479 as a home for many of the Gordon clan. The castle sits along the Ythan River just east of the town of Fivie. For the two centuries that the Gordon’s owned their castle they were plagued by mysterious circumstances some of which lead to the demise of a number of the occupants of the said estate. All of the various tragedies were prophesized by one Thomas of Ercildore who lived near the Eildon Hills sometime around the 13th century. His story goes something like this: 

One day a wizard named Michael Scott instructed three imps (who were known to the Scots as little mischievous devils or sprites) to split one hill into three. Out of the split hills came a Fairy Queen who abducted Thomas for seven years. There have been many verses written about this abduction, here be a few:

 And see not ye that bonny road, that winds about the fernie brae?
That is the road to fair Elfland,where thou and I this night maun gae.
"But, Thomas, ye maun hold your tongue, whatever ye may hear or see,
For, if you speak word in Elflyn land, ye'll neer get back to your ain countrie.                

After his seven years in fairyland Thomas returns with the gift of both poetry and prophecy. He used these gifts to his advantage as he would create poems to illustrate his predictions and soon he became known as Thomas the Rhymer. In a very real sense he was the first Scottish rapper and the only one known to have the gift of prophesy.              

He is credited with predicting the death of King Alexander III in 1286, the defeat of King James IV at the Battle of Flodden in 1513 and the Union of the Crowns of Scotland and England in 1603. Thomas soon gained the reputation as sort of a Nostradamus of Scotland. He became so popular that the Jacobites consulted his predictions before their uprisings of 1715 and 1745. For the Gordon clan he wrote theses prophecies: 

‘When the heron leaves the tree, 
The Laird o’ Gight shall landless be.’ 

When the Gordon’s first owned Gight Castle there were Herons living in a large tree by the castle. Around 1735 the herons flew away and in three years the estate was sold to the Earl of Aberdeen.                              

His next poem for the Gordon’s:

‘‘At Gight three men by sudden death shall dee,
And after that the land shall lie in lea.’

 In 1791  Lord Haddo fell from his horse on the Green of Gight. A few years latter a servant on the estate met a similar death while working on the farm. In this century a worker was crushed to death while working on a wall. The castle is now in ruins with only a small guesthouse standing on the estate and of course the ghost of a piper who disappeared while working underneath the castle. 

Catherine Gordon emerged from the ruins of Gight and moved to London. Shortly after relocating, her son Lord Byron is born (1888). Byron is born with a clubfoot an issue that some say was one of the causes of his erratic and sometime violent behavior.               
At the age of ten Byron inherited the titles and the estates of his great-uncle “The Wicked Lord Byron”. Byron then attends many prestigious schools (including Harrow and Trinity College) where he begins his career as a writer of prose and poetry. At the same time he is indulging himself in what some have called “an abyss of sensuality."
One of his lovers Lady Caroline Lamb described him as “mad, bad and dangerous to know."              

In 1814 Byron became obsessed Anne Isabella and pursues her for a year. She is gifted in math and science Byron refers to her as the “princess of parallelograms”. In 1815 she agrees to marry him and in December of that year she gives birth to Byron’s only legitimate child a daughter whom they name Ada who would latter be credited as the first person to write a computer program.              

Byron’s moods soon sink and his behavior turns violent. Fearing for her and her daughter’s safety Anne Isabella off to her parent’s estate. A year latter they were divorced and Lord Byron soon leaves the country. He then travels though central Europe with his personal physician Dr. John Plidori and in 1816 they decide to rent Villa Diadati an elaborate estate constructed on the shores of Lake Geneva Switzerland.              

Meanwhile Clara Mary Jane Clairmont one of Bryon’s many lovers is relentlessly pursuing him. Claire was an aspiring writer and had an affair with Byron (as many women and men did) shortly before he left England. She constantly wrote to Byron for career advice in publishing but her desire was to always be Bryon’s lover as she had been at seventeen when they first met in London.
Clara is so obsessed with him that she persuades her eighteen-year-old half sister Mary Wollenstonecraft Goodwin and her lover, poet Percy Bliss Shelley follow him to his estate in Switzerland. Realizing that Claire is pregnant with his child Byron allows them to stay and soon forms a close friendship with Shelley and his young lover Mary. They swim in the Lake Geneva, inspire each other to write and indulge themselves with Laudanum, the additive opium beverage that became the drug of choice during the Romantic and Victorian era.               

It then rains for a week straight and Bryon suggests they read a book of German ghosts stories published in Leipzig in 1811 titled “Fantasmagoriana” compiled by German author Fredrich August Schultz originally titled Gespensterbuch. After reading a number of the stories Byron then challenges his guests to create their own personal tale of horror.               

Dr. Poldori based his character on Byron and called his work “Lord Ruthven” which was about an aristocratic vampire who bites into the necks of members of the establishment for sustenance. The novel is released in 1819 as “The Vampyre and for many years it is attributed to Byron. It is the first work in print to take the folklore of the vampire and place it in a contemporary setting. Shortly after being adopted for the stage in the 1820’s many authors including Poe, Dumas and Tolstoy wrote similar works, which of course culminated at the end of the century with Irish author Bram Stoker’s Dracula.               

Mary Wollenstonecraft who in a year would become Mary Shelley wrote a novel about the dangers of the industrial revolution titled “The Modern Promethus” after the character in Ovid’s Metamorphoses who created a man “in godlike” image from clay. She worked on this idea for the next two years and released it under the name of Frankenstein.

The mysteries that followed the Gordon’s for two centuries, the untimely deaths, the rhyming prophet Thomas of Ercildore, and the missing piper who became the Ghost of Gight have now manifested themselves in the birth of the gothic novel.

Lord George Gordon Byron (1788-1824)

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Do Nuns Have Feet?

The Madonna House was a two-story red brick building that was clearly visible from my bedroom window. It had a huge curved wooden door; with a large crucifix suspended ever so stoically above. Each time the oval gothic style portal opened, nuns would appear or disappear.
I’d gaze at them through the ninth floor window of the eighteen-story apartment house known as Knickerbocker Village and watch them making their way down Market Street. When they traveled in groups they were like an apparition from the middle ages. I could clearly see them—their long black habits and veils waving together in the wind, the metal keys suspended from their belts, and the wooden crosses, which adorned all of their necks. Their habits covered every part of their bodies except the center of each nuns face. The East River was just one block away and when the wind would blow it was as if they were gliding en masse and their feet never touched the earth. I ‘d be alone each afternoon and I’d watch them sail across Cherry Street on to Market Street and then they would pass under the crucifix, through the wooden doors, and slowly disappear into the great red fortress known as The Madonna House. In my eyes they were a fleet of dark ships floating home into their mysterious and vast red brick harbor.
I was a troubled child, a troubled nine year old growing up on New York's lower east side. Besides being raised in an extremely violent neighborhood I was also disturbed by the fact that my parents were communists. The second stage of the House of Un-American Activities Committee was in full swing and my greatest fear is that the FBI would come knocking on my door and take my parents away. This was a well-founded fear as they did just that to our neighbors Julius and Ethel Rosenberg.
 This was the environment I grew up in— physical threats on every corner and a precarious political agenda permeating the air in our home. I never let on to my parents that I was aware of all this political intrigue.
In 1955 instead of verbalizing fear and asking for help a nine year old starts to sleep walk, have constant nausea and become extremely anxious and begins to visibly shake from time to time.
At one point I became so frightened of the elevator that I’d always opt to climb the nine flights rather then enter it alone. My parents started to notice my restless behavior and decided that I needed a creative outlet and arranged for me to have piano lessons at The Madonna House.
I’m nine years old and I’ve never once talked to a nun and now once a week I’m fated to enter those big wooden doors and God only knows what goes on in there.
At least I knew who Jesus was. I had been told a number of times by some of my Catholic friends that my religion was personally responsible for his demise. I was extremely worried about being in contact with the nuns. Why did they have so many keys on their belts? How did they seemingly just glide down the street? Would they be angry with me because I was Jewish? I needed some help and advice and I knew it wasn’t going to come from my parents.
I did have a Catholic friend, his name was Tony d’Angelo and he lived on the sixth floor in the apartment down the street. Tony and I played baseball together, we were both Dodger fans, and we liked to hang out in the luncheonette read comics and drink cokes real fast and get a wicked sugar buzz. Tony was twelve and had 5 brothers and three sisters, it seemed like his mother was always pregnant. They also had one of those crucifixes (a real big one) mounted on the wall a few feet over their diner table. It was easily two feet high and the same length wide.
The Lords only son was featured in such great detail that one could easily see the nails plunging into his hands and feet. His head was lowered and the sculptured lines on his face revealed the intense pain he must have been experiencing. “Tony” I said pointing at the immense metal crucifix on the wall “how could you look at that guy when you eat”? “Ah it’s nothing” Tony replied “it’s been there for so long I don’t even see it any more, you get used to it. My father’s mother gave it to us, and then “boom” she drops dead the very next day. So my dad likes to keep it over the dinner table because it reminds him of his mother Teresa.”
“Well why don’t you just put a picture of your fathers mother on the wall instead” I asked? “Well” Tony replied “my mother wasn't too crazy about my dads mom but she’s very religious so this way they’re both happy, while she’s seeing Jesus my dad’s seeing his Mom.
“Funny thing” Tony continued, “every Saturday before my dad goes to the track he gets up on a chair and rubs Jesus’ head. Now check this out every Wednesday night before my mom goes to bingo she rubs his feet.” I then explained to Tony about my upcoming piano lessons at the Madonna house and my many fears about coming face to face with a nun.
Tony knew the Madonna House as he attended a Catholic Youth Group there once a week. Tony told me he didn’t know what all those keys were for either but he was pretty sure they didn’t lock up little boys and girls with them.
“Look it’s like this” Tony said, “first take off your hat when you go in, don’t say nothing dirty or disgusting or you’ll have to go to confession and you won’t like that.
As a matter of fact just ask them what room you piano lesson is in, and if your scared keep your head down and don’t say nothing stupid, take my word for it nobodies going to bite you or slap you with a ruler.”
I then told Tony that I had this fear that a nun could read your mind with a secret device that sat on top of their head underneath the crown of their wimple.
Tony looks at me rolls his eyes and says, “Who told you that stuff”? “No Neal they’re just people you know people doing a job just like a cop does his job, a fireman does his job and well a nun does her job”. “What job is that”? I asked? “Oh “Tony replied “it’s like there all married to God and they give their life to him and serve him. So you know they never go out on a date with a guy or you know they never do the nasty, you know sex with anybody.”
This latest bit of information actually comforted me, as at least I knew that nun’s and I had something in common. Not that I knew anything at all about sex but I knew it existed and it had something to do with being naked.
Tony did tell me about the time his sister dropped a candy wrapper on the floor and one of the Nun’s made her carry a very large and heavy rock around the building three times. This sounded a little harsh but nowhere near any of my creative vision of whips, fires, and devils with flaming pitchforks and of course eternal damnation in a place where the only thing to eat was tuna fish.
The day soon arrived for my first piano lesson. I elected to avoid the elevator and took the stairs down the nine flights to the lobby. I created a sort of rhythm with my feet as I made my way down the steps and I would also hum a little tune in counterpoint to the noise my shoes made. I did that “dance” each time I would ascend or descend the stairs; it was one of the rituals a child performs when alone to help keep him or her self-sane. I felt a sense of relief as I crossed over the baseball field, as this was always a safe place for me.
It was an extremely clear and bright afternoon, which only heightened the black habits of the nuns against the red brick building. I was really trying hard not to look too Jewish, as I wanted my first trip to the Madonna House to be as painless as possible.
I approached the large door there were three nun’s speaking outside. They were conversing in English they were not speaking in Latin or in any secret nun language that I had imagined.
Proceeding inside I went to the front desk and I walked as quietly as I could so as not to attract any attention. I did notice that as well as nuns there were also people in normal clothing just as I was. I stood in front of the information desk and waited for the nun to raise her head.
I noticed that she seemed to be dressed differently then the other sisters. I learned latter that she was a beginner nun called a novice. She lifted her head, she was young and pretty, she had a black veil pinned to the back of her head that accented her beautiful red curly hair. She looked at me, smiled and said, “oh yes your here for your one O’clock piano lesson, let me show you to the room.” Not only could I see her feet I could see clear up to her ankles, and the little man on her Cross-seemed almost to be smiling. I was so relieved, but not for long.
I entered the room and immediately recognized my piano teacher; it was Mr. Bloom he worked for the kosher butcher. I saw him only yesterday boning a chicken. He was bald and had a funny little mustache and wore wire rimmed eggshell glasses. It was the first time I saw him without a bloody apron and a cleaver in his hand and he still looked frightening. Mr. Bloom I exclaimed! I didn’t know you were Catholic? He scrunched up his face, removed the cigarette from his lips and looked at me with his little beady eyes and said “what Catholic, I’m Jewish just like you, I rent the room and give piano lessons, case closed, now sit down and show me what you know and try not to waste too much of your parents money.
He was arrogant, mean and horrible all at the same time. I tried to learn my scales but it’s hard to perform music when one is shaking inside. I returned a few times and each time the pleasant young nun would greet me with a smile before I entered the room with Mr. Bloom.
She’d always ask me if I had learned any pieces yet. I told her that I was working on “Volga Boatman” and the first part of “Ode to Joy” which in it’s own way seemed fitting since my father’s family was German and both my parents were communist.
It was during my third lesson that Mr. Bloom really cut me to the quick. As I was making the best pass I could at Beethoven, Mr. Bloom (with cigarette smoke bellowing out of his mouth) barked out “your fingers, there so stiff, there like bayonets”.
I never learned how to play the piano; but I did get to talk to a few nuns and they all seemed very helpful and very much human. My parents were not pleased when I told them that I’d rather play baseball with my friends on Saturday afternoons then take piano lessons. I was somehow getting used to them being annoyed with me as they both always seemed to be in a state of agitation.
I did have one less fear, as I looked out my window and watch the nuns walked down Market Street I realized that my friend Tony was right. Just like everyone else nuns had a job to do and like a policeman a fireman and a soldier they wore a uniform as well.

A rare look inside The Madonna House which was located on 173 Cherry Street, between Market and Pike Streets,
From the nypl digital library collection.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Thru Time

Thru Time
Part 1 – Heading West
December 13th 2006 never entered my existence last year. Or, perhaps a more accurate description would be— I never showed up for the thirteenth of December, it literally flew away,
vanished, disappeared, never to grace any of its minutes, hours or seconds in my life. On December 12th at 3:00pm I and a few hundred other souls boarded a 747 at S.F.O. and headed west over the Pacific to the island nation of New Zealand. Nine hours into the flight we were only one hour away from December 13th. All of which changed as our flying steel vehicle passed over that magic longitude of 180º. As a Tonganese family was watching a video thirty eight thousand feet below us we simply passed on into December 14th. It was indeed December 13th for those in Hawaii and all my friends in California but for all aboard Air New Zealand flight number 28 there was absolutely no interval between December 12th and December 14th. We simply slipped through the grip of the hands of time. Which makes the mind wonder what indeed might have happened in my life on that day? Would that have been the day I started my award-winning novel? Fallen in love? Met an old friend for lunch? Or perhaps just simply grown a day older? I’m thankful I wasn’t expecting an important phone call on that day or had a ticket to the opera for I was simply not present in the world on December 13th. So let it be known that on December 13th 2006 I never told a lie, sang a song, read a book, took a breath or boiled an egg.
Meanwhile almost everyone else on the globe was acknowledging the 13th of December by being born, riding a bike, creating poetry, stealing, kissing, dying, cooking and just hanging out.
I was and still am a member of a very select group of travelers who actually crossed the International Date Line at exactly midnight and thus skipped an entire day.

Part 2 – Heading East
While all of you were sleeping in Santa Cruz California (say at 3:00 am on January 15th) my January 16th began. I was in a folk club on Mt Victoria called “The Bunker” in the charming New Zealand town of Devonport. After much merriment and libation I collapsed on my pillow at two am realizing I that I would arrive back in America before I ever left New Zealand.
I awoke at 8:00 am and washed some comfortable fitting clothes for my thirteen-hour plane ride. My kiwi friends treated me to a farewell lunch and as I munched down a bowl of delicious green-lipped Mussels in Tai simmer sauce I knew that on this day I would once again travel through time. I’m shuttled to the airport for the 8:00 pm flight to San Francisco. This will be the first of two 8:00 pm’s I will experience on January 16th. The other is when I will be reading this piece to my writing group on the west side of Santa Cruz. As I board the 747 at 8:00 pm it is currently 11:00 pm January 15th in Santa Cruz. The lost day of December 13th has been reborn as the double day of January 16th as I am once again time traveling across the magic longitude of 180º. In New Zealand it is now tomorrow as I fly east into today.
Eight miles below, someone in Tonga is cooking an Ono fish for her family as soar into the darkness. The woman next to me is in a writing group in Carmel. She is so inspired by the fact that I’m scratching out a story for my own writing group that she takes out her laptop and commences to write as well. Two writers are now elbow-to-elbow, bouncing in the turbulence, trying to fight off fatigue by putting it all down on paper.
We land in San Francisco at 11:00 am, my son picks me up and I arrive home with just enough time to type my time travel story down and to deliver it to my Tuesday night writing group in my 29th hour of my thirty-three hour day of January 16, 2007.



On a rainy afternoon in December of 1988, UPS delivered four parcels to my office door; a dozen music books from Mel Bay Publishing, a stack of Celic CD’s from Narada Records, a carton of bubble wrap mailers and a securely wrapped box from The Pensacola Mortuary containing my father’s ashes.

As I signed for the shipment I wondered if I should have paid the Mortuary in Florida the extra $50.00 to have the last little bits of Solomon Hellman dropped into the Gulf of Mexico. In the end I elected to have his remains shipped to me, reasoning that in the near future I could take his ashes back home to New York.

After I racked the books and the CD’s I opened the parcel from Florida and wondered where I should keep the urn. It was a little terracotta sculpture with his name embossed on the side. I held it for a while with both hands. I then decided to place it by the postal scale where I could both reflect on Solomon’s life and lean my outgoing mail on it. So for a short time my dad would be part of my daily life at Gourd Music.

As the first few days passed I would gaze at the urn and think about the man who was my father for 40 years. Not a demonstrative individual but in his shy and quiet way, loving and kind. I remembered with fondness how my father would walk around our home on Sunday mornings. Dressed only in his boxer shorts, an old button shirt, a well worn fedora on his head, and an unlit half smoked cigar in his mouth he’d amble around our home with a coffee in one hand and part of the Sunday New York Times in the other. This will always remain one of my favorite images of him..

He was extremely dedicated to his work and it broke his spirit when he had to give up The Hellman Sowing Machine and Motor Company. A business and a way of life he had inherited from his father which stood proudly on New York’s lower east side for over 60 years.

We had our own funny language. When I said I had to leave he’d say, “Go, Man, go”. He’d usually finish a sentence to me with “ok bub”. He had this funny habit of counting the number of my friends I would have over. We would be upstairs playing board games; my father would enter and then just silently count the number of bodies in the room by pointing his finger at each of my friends.

Sol only made one visit to Santa Cruz but he was impressed. He was fascinated by the number of people who would sit behind The Bookshop Santa Cruz and drink coffee all day. As we’d pass through the Café Pergolesi he’d say “it’s 2:30 in the afternoon, how do they make a living?” “Dad”, I’d say “this is Santa Cruz and it’s sort of a laid back community.” To which he’d always reply in his New York way “well bub, nice work if you can get it. Maybe I can retire here and drink coffee in back of the book store, too.” “You can dad” I’d reply “ You can start right now with a double latte.” And then we both would laugh.

After a few days of contemplating my father’s urn the happier memories faded and the reality of his last few years took over. A series of operations, two failed suicide attempts, and then a brief rally as he pulled what remained of him together, and rented a small condominium on Pensacola Beach.

Just as he attained an island of sanity, the years of poor eating, alcohol and depression caught up with him and he found himself living from procedure to procedure at Pensacola Baptist Hospital.

In the last year of his life I began flying between Santa Cruz and the panhandle of Florida every few months. The doctors would always call at 4am and say if I wanted to see him before he went on I should hop on a plane as soon as possible. My father somehow kept himself breathing but with each flirtation with death he grew weaker. Then they moved him to a smaller facility where they put individuals who are about to expire. The hospital was antiquated and extremely disorganized. Two of the three times I visited my dad, they sent me to the wrong room. My father once had another patient’s chart hanging from his bed.

His skin had a yellow cast from a liver bombarded for decades with Scotch. His heart was giving out and he had colon cancer as well. Half of his teeth were cracked and there was a musty putrid smell about him. Scales were spreading across his scalp among the last strands of his thinning white hair, and crooked red lines crisscrossed through blue gray eyes.

During my last visit to the Pensacola Baptist hospital I made plans for my father’s imminent demise. I contacted a local funeral home and signed all the papers to release his body after he passed on. I never saw his body after he died

On November 5th 1988 I spent my last morning with my father. He was in and out of consciousness but we managed to exchange a few words. He asked me to hold his hand and as I did I knew that we both were accepting the fact that his time on this planet was coming to an end. I hadn’t remembered ever holding his hand. I promised to come back but I knew this was the last visit.

“Well dad I have to go back to California but I’ll be back in a few weeks.” He uttered out a faint but audible “Go, Man, go.”

Two weeks later as I was working on a paper in my family student-housing apartment at U.C.S.C. an attendant called me from Pensacola Baptist to let me know my father had died of a cardio pulmonary collapse. He suffered so much that I felt a sense of relief when I was told he was dead.

At least that’s what I thought.

On the fourth night following the arrival of my father’s ashes I dreamed of him. We were in a rowboat in a small lake in the Catskills in upstate New York. It was a beautiful day and the sun danced on the water creating a cathedral of broken light. We were fishing for perch somewhere near Bear Mountain. In my dream I hooked a large one and when I turned to show my prize to my father he wasn’t there. I was alone in the boat. I could feel my heart beating rapidly in my chest as I searched the water around the boat but could not find him. I heard his voice calling me from the dock, and ordering me to row the boat in. I grabbed the oars and rowed towards the shore. Just as I got there he disappeared. I then heard him say “hey bub” and there he was sitting behind me in the middle of the lake.

The next morning I gathered all my business correspondence, Which I neatly stacked between my fathers urn and my Pitney Bowes postage meter and climbed into my car to take it all downtown to the post office. The day presented itself with my favorite Santa Cruz weather— bursting sunshine but a little cool and a sky filled with towering cumulus clouds. After mailing my packages I stopped halfway down the post office steps to speak with a friend about a music project he was doing. As we said goodbye I felt a tap on my shoulder. In all the years I’ve been alive very few folks have ever tapped me on the shoulder to get my attention. It’s usually an “excuse me” or some eye contact, maybe a hand on the side of my arm but hardly ever an actual tap on the very top on my shoulder.

I looked left and then right and saw no one but felt the tap again. Whoever was trying to get my attention was standing behind me two steps up. Figuring it was one of my friends having fun with me I turned around with my hands on my hips and said in a joyful but somewhat loud voice “yeah, what’s up?

I wished I had never turned around. I felt like Scrooge seeing Marley’s face in the doorknocker, however this face didn’t fade away. It simply stared, and frozen to the steps I stared back.

Just two steps up me stood a replica of my father, looking exactly as he did just before he went into the hospital for the last time. He also smelled that musty old man smell that I remembered from our last visit. He wore a gray fedora hat tilted towards the back of his head

He smiled and I quickly noticed he had the same two cracked front teeth dangling from his gums. Lifting his head up towards the blue sky he said “What do people do around here? This is really some town you have, it seems very interesting.” His smile was so bright it almost seemed like his entire body was dancing.

As I listened in bewildered silence the only reply I could muster was “You want to know what people do?” As I spoke I could feel my self being split in two, like the lyrics of the old blues song, “The Two Trains Running” Well now there's two, there's two trains runnin'Well ain't not one, (ho!) goin' my way.

The first train was my rational self, saying “Ok Neal, he’s got those cracked teeth exactly where Sol’s were, he also has the blood shot pale blue gray eyes and yellow skin and the smell. He’s Sol’s height, and his voice is the same timbre. Take a breath, take a breath, I’m sure there are many old Jewish males of German extraction who would look a lot like your dad once they have reached his age. It’s just an amazing coincidence. It’s probably just the smell of him influencing your other senses. That must be it.

The old man continued to grin and said, “Well, what kind of things go on here?” And as he spoke he bobbed ever so slowly as if he was following a melody somewhere in his head. I licked my lips. “Well” I said “A lot of talented artists live here and there’s the beach, a giant roller coaster and many places to get a cup of coffee.”

He smiled and as he did he never let go of my eyes. I felt frozen as if I was captivated by some beam of energy coming out of this, out of this, of this what? Who is this man?

As I was forcing words out of my mouth the second train took off and said “you never saw his body, you haven’t heard from the mortuary, remember how that hospital put the wrong clipboard on his bed? What’s more, the nurse who called you did not once mention his name and the State of Florida has never sent you a death certificate.

The specter then said, “How long have you’ve lived here? What do you do here? Are you one of these artists who hangs out and drinks coffee?”

Now my mouth was completely dry and I felt like I was getting off on some kind of mind-altering substance. I too wanted to yell out like the Dickens’s character:

Mercy…Dreadful apparition, why do you trouble me?

The first train spoke again: “Come on Neal, breathe, this is not your dead father coming back to haunt you. It’s probably just another old man with a liver condition that for some reason looks like your father. Just relax, look at your watch and tell him you have to leave. Tell him any lie just go.”

I couldn’t leave. It was alarmed but at the same time entranced. He then said what to me was his coup de gráce: “Those folks in back of the bookstore, don’t they have jobs to go to or do they just sit, read and drink coffee all day?”

The second train whistled, “They might have gotten the charts mixed up, perhaps he went into remission and then just got dressed and left the hospital. He wouldn’t be the first person to do that. He then hiked over to his bank, and withdrew his remaining money. After all it was his dough. He probably got a hotel room, rested up and then he flew to San Jose and presto, here he is.”

The first train then asked the second train “Well, why didn’t he call?” And the second train replied, “He’s probably not being very rational. After all the last time he saw his son, he was leaving him for dead in a run down hospital in Pensacola, Florida. I then announced to both trains that I did what I could for him and I don’t feel guilty.

I wanted to bust out of myself and say to this ghost, this spirit, this eidolon “Listen, man, I just lost my dad and you look a lot like him and it’s really starting to get to me so, please enjoy your visit here in Santa Cruz but I have to leave now, OK? Goodbye.” I wanted to say it, but I didn’t.

Just then the old man started pointing towards the street and began silently counting. “What are you doing?” I anxiously asked. “Oh I’m counting the number of people who are drinking large cups of coffee in those take out containers.” All I could do was nod.

“Hey Neal,” a voice called to me. It was my friend Elise, leaving the post office. Just seeing someone I knew was a relief, “Thank goodness” I thought, a friend. Elise made a beeline for me and immediately gave me a hug and said she just heard that my father had died and how sorry she was for my loss. “So how are you holding up Neal?” I was tempted to say, “Well Elise, I’m somewhat faint and approaching a massive anxiety attack but before I collapse I want you to know that my father has come back from the dead and by the way he’s standing right next to you.”

What I did say was, “well I’m ok.”

Elise glanced in the direction of the old man who politely nodded to her. Could she see him? Did she feel a presence? For three seconds there was a deafening silence. Elise dropped her car keys, she quickly retrieved them, reached out to me and said “I’ve got to run, call me, let me cook you dinner.” She made her way down the steps to her vehicle waved and drove away.

The old man then said: “Is she your girlfriend? She’s very pretty. Do you ever sit in back of the bookstore and drink coffee with her? What kind of coffee does she like, do you both like the same kind of coffee?”

“Were just friends but yes sometimes we have coffee together.”

He smiled and nodded and then lifted his head up at the sky and said, “What a beautiful day. Nice day to be out on the water, what do people fish for here in Santa Cruz?” “Oh sand dabs, cod, albacore and sometimes people like to go out on the water to look for whales.” “Have you ever seen a whale?” the friendly apparition asked?” “Well yes I did. I once was on a boat out of Moss Landing and I saw two grey whales.” “Moss Landing, what’s that like? Are there green and grassy banks there?”

Oh Jesus I thought he busted my chops when he was alive and now that he’s dead he’s still toying with me. Perhaps he just showed up on his way to the next dimension to say goodbye in his own weird Sol Hellman fashion.

I then realized what day it was, December 21st, the Winter Solstice, the day of the longest night. A day that ancient cultures viewed as the time when the veil between worlds becomes translucently thin, a time when a deity would escort the dead from the underworld.

I didn’t notice any deities standing with my father. The idea of some type of Drudic spirits leading an old Jewish man form Florida to the next level of existence somehow just didn’t work for me. However the resemblance was so strong, I could only look at his face for a few seconds at a time. It was like staring into the sun. I was now convinced that this was my father’s spirit saying goodbye to me. I had an urge to heave logic to the wind and just embrace him. But I didn’t.

I finally mustered up enough courage to say “ I really have to go” and he replied, “Well, go, man, go” and sort of saluted me. I sort of saluted him back and said, “Enjoy your time here in Santa Cruz” and began to descend the steps. After I crossed the street I turned around figuring as in most ghost stories he wouldn’t be there. But he was, and he waved to me again. I waved back and smiled, he waved back and called out in a raspy voice, “Take care of yourself bub, and buy that pretty girl a latte for me.”