The April fool

The attic of my writing life is filled with antiques: files of newspaper and magazine clips, Xeroxed copies of manuscripts, notebooks, tape cassettes.

There is also a black binder labeled Journal 1980, jammed with typewritten entries from spring and summer, from Ontario to the West Coast.

What I see now are the musings of a young man not unlike the old man: an expat American struggling to reconcile a life in Canada; a city boy in conflict with a craving for wilderness.

On April 1, 1980, my wife Linda and I and dog Yaz, a two-year-old black standard poodle, left Toronto in a new 14-foot Mini Cruiser motorhome we called Fenway.

The plan was to ramble west across Canada, drive down the coast to L.A., east to the Grand Canyon, north to Yellowstone, and then bolt across the northern states to arrive in Maine as the leaves turned.

I’d take a job on a paper, maybe in Portland or Bangor. We’d rent a little house on the ocean. I’d practice journalism, write Travels With Yaz and quit the paper when a New York publisher handed me a six-figure advance.

For the journey, I packed my Olympia portable typewriter and a list of newspaper and magazine editors who said they’d take stories from the road.

Linda had a Nikon and darkroom supplies to develop film in Fenway’s tiny bathroom.

Reading the journal today, those inner conflicts I mentioned jump from the pages, starting with the first entry on the first night, camped in a snow-covered parking lot off a frozen lake a couple of hours north of Toronto.

The date of departure is not insignificant.

April 1, Algonquin Park, Ontario

After seven years in Canada, seven years of calling myself a New Yorker and feeling more and more like a Canadian, I really feel like a tourist, a traveler, passing through, unlikely to return.

April 26, Riding Mountain National Park, Manitoba

Awakened to news from Iran on the radio – a U.S. raid to free the hostages was aborted, eight U.S. airmen killed. And yet, just before turning in, all I can think about are the bears Yaz treed on our walk around the lake, the moose we’d seen off the road, the beaver working on its dam, the beauty of this park.

May 8, Saskatoon

Went to a movie. Neil Simon’s “Chapter Two.” Good movie. Bad choice. James Caan plays a New York writer, living in a New York townhouse, going to restaurants, taking taxis. And me? I’m some fucking Okie driving across the prairies in a covered wagon, tin plates clashing in the back. What the hell am I doing in Saskatchewan? SASKATCHEWAN! If I see another red pickup I’m going to scream.

May 16, Yoho National Park, British Columbia

Here, at our campsite, it is quiet, except for the rushing water of the Kicking Horse River. We have a great view of Cathedral Peak (10,000 feet), which lit its golden dome at sunset. We crossed from Alberta into B.C. today, but the Rockies defy provincial borders. They are splendid and unique and awe-inspiring.

May 20, near Kamloops, B.C.

The radio says the “no” people won in Quebec, where saying “no” means saying “yes” to staying in Canada. No one in the West seems to care whether Quebec stays, goes, or gradually drifts away.

June 3, Vancouver

Had dinner with Malcolm. Lots of talk about writing and books and journalism. Been a long time since I had someone like Malcolm to talk to. Didn’t realize how much I’d missed it.

June 7, Larrabee State Park, Washington

Crossed the border today. The U.S. Customs guy was really confused and really arrogant. American man? Canadian wife? New York plates? Where’s your home? I said: “Here. Or New York. Or Toronto. Take your pick.” He finally waved us through.

June 11, Olympic National Park, Washington

At a campground, surrounded by Washingtonians and Californians. I feel like a Canadian here and an American in Canada, always more comfortable when set apart, looking in.

June 13, Denman Island, B.C.

Safely back in Canada – not that I felt threatened in the U.S. But hard not to be jarred by the gun on the belt of the U.S. Customs guy; the guns in the holsters of the guards at the ballgame in Seattle; the Californian at the ferry dock in Port Angeles ranting about the blacks taking over Oakland and San Francisco.

June 19, Denman Island

Have spent a week here, in a little campground off the beach, beside the rainforest, in Fillongley Park. May be the best place yet – bald eagles in the trees, clams and oysters for the picking, cutthroat trout in a nearby lake.

July 8, Kootenay National Park, B.C.

Met a lovely family (dad, mom, three young sons, Doberman) from Suffolk County, Long Island. He’s a teacher, wrestling coach and looks like Nick Nolte. Showed me the .357 Magnum he smuggled across the border.

My journal entries ended a few days later. But the odyssey continued.

I did file stories from the road, from telegraph offices, several on cowboys and Indians, on rodeos and reservations.

We followed the original plan: down the coast to San Francisco and L.A., the canyons of Arizona and Utah, Yellowstone and the dash east all the way to Maine by early October.

I walked into newspaper offices in Portland, Augusta, Waterville and Bangor, changing into a suit in the back of the motorhome.

All the editors thanked me for dropping by. All said they had no openings.

Besides, they said, I was probably over-qualified for a reporter’s job on their small papers and wouldn’t be happy in their small towns.

We went “home” to Toronto. I never wrote Travels with Yaz.

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On the music beat: Gibberish and cat shit

Searching for some info on Esperanza Spalding, an enchanting young woman I’d been introduced to on Friday’s Bill Maher show, I stumbled into a review of her latest album in Rolling Stone.

“The lyrics, flowing in disjunctive clusters, are about deleted narratives, glass ceilings and dreams deferred – ultimately a complex, funky prog-rock concept opera about love and identity,” writes Christopher R. Weingarten.

This sentence notified me that nothing has changed since my brief time as an editor of a music magazine 47 years ago.

It’s all about showing off, writing gibberish disguised as the language of the in-crowd. It sure ain’t English.

In the spring of 1969, I was a 22-year-old reporter at the Livermore Herald and News when my Uncle Jack offered me a job with a magazine he was starting called Changes.

“It’ll be the East Coast answer to Rolling Stone,” he told me. My salary would be $150 a week. Pretty good money, I thought, and a welcome return to my hometown of New York from the sticks of northern California.

But the highpoints of my three months on the music beat were hanging out with Richie Havens and keeping Charlie Mingus company while his lady friend made sales calls for the magazine.

From my first day in the grungy Changes office on Fifth Avenue, at 14th Street, I knew I was out of my depth. My co-workers were so hip they were unfathomable.

There was an editorial staff of four. Uncle Jack Banning – he’d changed his name from Becker when he was a young actor doing bit parts on Broadway – was editor and co-publisher with Sue Ungaro, also the advertising manager. Terese Coe and I were associate editors.

The writers, if you could call them that, were all freelancers plucked from the counter-culture Rolodex.

Terese showed me the respect I deserved – none. She made it clear that my only qualification for the job was being Jack’s nephew.

I never figured out what I was supposed to do, or what anyone else was doing.

I hung around the office and tried to help out, which meant mainly running errands.

My one assignment for the first issue was to meet with Richie Havens and edit a short essay he wrote for the mag. I was excited to meet Havens.

His first album, Mixed Bag, was a favorite. I’d worn out the tracks of San Francisco Bay Blues and Dylan’s Just Like a Woman.

We huddled in the magazine’s dingy back office. Havens asked me for guidance. I didn’t have any.

But he was gracious and I was puffed up meeting a celebrity who seemed to enjoy my company. (I’d see him again, twice: in Paris and Toronto.)

He handed me his story, which he titled: Everything is Music. It began:

How many times have you lay awake at night and listened to the city? A conglomeration of sounds that almost sub-passes your listening, when you are of course moving within it.

I had no idea what he was writing about. But I read on, all the way to:

So like the sound of one hand clapping, so like the sounds of the entire universe (heard from the moon).

“Far out, man,” I told him, all the editorial judgment I could muster.

We sat and talked for a while, shared a joint, and talked some more. Other people came in, more drugs came out.

When we ran out of refreshments, Sue and Mingus – they’d marry before he died in 1979 – took me for a ride in his Cadillac to get more.

On this and other occasions I would sit with Mingus in his Caddy while Sue went about her business. We didn’t say much, since I knew nothing about jazz or other cool Greenwich Village stuff and Charlie knew nothing about growing up in the suburbs and living with your parents in Queens.

The one subject that interested both of us was how he had taught his cat to shit in the toilet.

“It took me only a couple of weeks to toilet-train Nightlife,” Charlie said with great pride. “He’s even learned to flush.”

The debut issue of Changes came out in May and was dated June 1, 1969. It was tabloid size, on rough newsprint, sold for 50 cents, and had a psychedelic drawing of Dylan on the cover.

Terese wrote the cover story, defending Dylan’s Nashville Skyline album against criticism of its country bent.

At least that’s what I think it was about, since I found it as incomprehensible – with references to Camus, Beckett, Genet and Antonioni – as the rest of the stories in the magazine.

In July, I left my job and parents’ apartment in Queens, where we’d been bunking, and moved with infant daughter Kate and then-wife Anita to her hometown of Bern.

Switzerdeutsch and cuckoo clocks made more sense than Changes.

***

Postscript:

  • The last time I spoke with Uncle Jack was at my dad’s funeral in 1995. I came across his 2005 obit in a San Diego paper. He’d gone back to acting and was apparently highly regarded on the SoCal theater scene.
  • Terese Coe is a poet, according to Wikipedia.
  • Sue Ungaro Mingus has devoted the years since Charlie’s death to keeping his music and legacy alive.
  • On a visit to Paris with Anita in 1970, I spotted a poster for a Richie Havens concert. We went to the Odeon Theater to get tickets, and ran into Havens. He invited us to sit in the empty theater for rehearsal, back to his hotel for drinks, and gave us passes for that night’s show. Years later, my wife Linda and I saw him at a small club in Toronto, and visited with him in his dressing room afterward. “Of course I remember you,” he said with a smile.

Sparring with Saint Jude

I feel a lingering regret for one of my first interviews as a reporter, with Al Lowenstein, the charismatic, complex American activist/politician who was shot dead 36 years ago today.

Like Bernie Sanders, Lowenstein attracted cadres of young and idealistic disciples. One of them, deranged and resentful, eventually stalked and killed him.

I’ll get to that. But first, a bit of background.

Allard Lowenstein was a passionate participant in the liberal causes of the ’50s and ’60s: civil rights, anti-apartheid, antiwar.

But, while often on the right side of history, he was mostly on the wrong side of elections. He failed in all but one of several runs for office, and consistently backed losing candidates – from Adlai Stevenson to Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential bid.

His one great triumph was leading the “dump Johnson” campaign. LBJ yielded to the Democratic Party forces allied against him in 1968, announcing in early spring he would not be running for re-election.

Great. But then Bobby got shot, Gene McCarthy pulled up lame, the Hump got the nomination and Nixon won the presidency.

Lowenstein secured a Democratic seat in Congress in 1968, but was defeated two years later.

About a month after that loss, on Dec. 6, 1970, I went to his house in Long Beach, on the south shore of Long Island.

I had just turned 24, in my first year as a reporter for UPI in New York, already cocky and cynical. He was 41, with a long and virtuous resume.

I arrived at Lowenstein’s modest two-story home with a preconceived notion of what I wanted to write and what I wanted him to say: That political action was a waste of time, that the surge of energy that brought down LBJ died with Bobby and was buried in the streets of Chicago, that we were all doomed to live the rest of our lives under Nixon and his scummy ilk.

We sat at his kitchen table – the phone ringing constantly, kids wailing in the next room, jets flying overhead on their approach to JFK, his wife Jennifer interrupting with messages – and argued.

He wanted to talk about hope for the future, his effort to find the best candidate – from either party – to bring down Nixon in 1972. He was back in the “dump” business.

“What makes you think,” I said, “that there is anyone – Democrat or Republican – who can go into that office and cleanse the political process to the point that you’re not going to have deceptions and lies?”

“It’s a matter of degree,” he said. “I’m not trying to suggest purity. I’m just trying to suggest that there are some standards of public integrity which people in the country expect—whether they are right to, or not.”

“You really believe that?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said.

“Based on what?”

And on it went. Finally, exasperated, he said: “What’s happening is you’re pushing me into a situation in which, on tape, you want me to say things that I’m uncomfortable with, which, when taken out of context, are going to make it sound like I’m some Pollyanna.”

“I wouldn’t take anything you say out of context,” I snapped.

“I don’t know you,” he said. “I can’t take that chance.”

After about an hour of close-quarters combat at the kitchen table, I turned off my tape recorder and stood to leave.

Like two boxers at the end of an exhausting fight, we shook hands. About the only thing we’d agreed on was that we were still bummed about Bobby’s death.

I asked about his kids and discovered our daughters had the same name. (My Kate had been two the previous day. His Kate was not yet a year old.)

Suddenly, unexpectedly, he said: “You want to join us for dinner?”

It turned out to be a fundraiser, to help pay off his debt from the last campaign.

It was at a restaurant in Great Neck, Fitzgerald’s West Egg. I stayed for cocktails, stood at the edge of the crowd, spotted the actor George Segal, skipped dinner and left.

I never saw Lowenstein again.

A couple of years later, I moved to Canada for UPI.

Lowenstein would pop up in the news from time to time, still plugging away, the Saint Jude of American politics, patron saint of lost causes.

Then, on March 14, 1980, he was back in the headlines – shot in his Rockefeller Center law office.

The killer, Dennis Sweeney, 37, had met his target in the early ’60s, when he was a student and Lowenstein was lecturing in political science at Stanford.

Sweeney became a devotee, adopting the teacher’s causes, going to Mississippi to work for civil rights.

But the younger man spent much of his adult life in menial jobs and mental institutions – the voices in his head blamed Lowenstein – which did not prevent him from buying an automatic pistol at a gun shop in Connecticut.

He emptied the clip in Lowenstein’s office, five slugs hitting home, placed the gun on a secretary’s desk, sat down and waited for the cops to arrive.

I found the news shocking. And, for the first time, considered my belligerence and youthful ignorance at his kitchen table 10 years earlier.

Now, I regret not talking less and listening more.

I been Donald Trumped, Bernie Sandersed

The din of the U.S. presidential campaign has put a song in my head that I can’t shake loose:

I been Norman Mailered, Maxwell Taylored.
I been John O’Hara’d, McNamara’d.
I been Rolling Stoned and Beatled till I’m blind.
I been Ayn Randed, nearly branded
Communist, ’cause I’m left-handed.
That’s the hand I use, well, never mind.

Paul Simon belted out A Simple Desultory Philippic in the ’60s.

Nothing desultory in 2016.

And, sorry, Demosthenes, philippics ain’t what they used to be.

***

With Jon Stewart gone, one of his protégés, Samantha Bee, is the sharpest comic observer of the campaign on television. Recently, on her Monday night show Full Frontal, after airing a clip from a Republican debate, Bee said: “I don’t mean to sound sexist, but I think men are too emotional to be president.”

***

For all you Bernie Babies, an old tweet from Cicero: “Not to know what happened before you were born is to be forever a child.”

Even if he’s elected, fat chance of a President Sanders paying your tuition and health care any time soon – or hijacking a Brinks truck on Wall Street and unloading it at your door.

***

I keep hearing about an angry electorate. Is it just the shitkickers and holy rollers riled up by years of Fox News and right-wing radio demonizing the black family in the White House?

Or is Trump tapping a new vein of “Reagan Democrats,” who were first “Nixon Democrats” – the Archie Bunker vote:

And you knew who you were then,

Girls were girls and men were men.

Mister, we could use a man

Like Herbert Hoover again.

Didn’t need no welfare state,

Everybody pulled his weight.

Gee, our old LaSalle ran great.

Those were the days.

Archie: “I’m not racist. I’ll be the first to say it – it’s not their fault they’re colored.”

***

You want an angry electorate? Try 1860, when the only issue was slavery versus the threat of civil war.

Lincoln won, the slave states soon seceded, and the war followed.

Republicans like to call themselves “the party of Lincoln,” but they’re really the party of Thurmond – the Democrat turned Dixiecrat turned Republican. Old Strom, lover of Jim Crow and the 16-year-old black maid he knocked up, began the bloodletting that turned the south Republican red.

Now, when the disloyal opposition fails to get its way, it doesn’t plot insurrection – as far as I know – it goes on strike for eight years.

***

You want another angry electorate? Try 1968, the first year I was eligible to vote.

The election came after a year that saw MLK and RFK murdered, black neighborhoods burning in cities across the county, and millions marching against the war in Vietnam as the body bags kept coming home.

A whole lot of hate was blowin’ in the wind: old versus young, black versus white, hawks versus doves, cops versus kids, cops versus blacks and Chicanos.

After the Republicans nominated Tricky Dick in Miami and the Hump emerged from the blood and teargas in Chicago, I cast my first presidential ballot for Eldridge Cleaver of the Black Panthers, running on the Peace and Freedom Party ticket in California.

One of its founding documents read: “The racist imperialist butchers will no longer be allowed to usurp the electoral process to camouflage their illegitimate exercise of power, maintained through treachery, terror and genocide.”

Those were the days.

***

The election of the racist imperialist butcher Nixon in 1968 was the last time more than 60 percent of eligible Americans bothered to vote.

The turnout for Lincoln’s win in 1860 was, at the time, a record 81 percent.

Fitting for a man with the prescience to divine his GOP descendants and warn: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

***

“I could be more presidential than anybody. I can be more presidential, if I want to be, I can be more presidential than anybody,” Trump said after winning Michigan. “I would say more presidential – and I’ve said this a couple of times – more presidential than anybody other than the great Abe Lincoln. He was very presidential, right?”

***

Not even Ted Cruz’s kids can stand him. His seven-year-old daughter recoiled when he tried to kiss her and, another time, walked off the stage when he was making a speech.

***

Cruz and his ilk advocate the “freedom” to carry guns anywhere – movie theaters, elementary schools, churches, bars.

Brave talk for those who work in places with guarded gates and travel with security details.

Trump recently said it was a “great honor” to be endorsed by a Florida preacher and gun nut who has repeatedly said the Sandy Hook school massacre never happened and that some of the grieving parents were actors.

***

Cruz does look like Grandpa Munster.

And, to me, Sanders sounds like Jackie Mason – and my Cousin Shlomo.

A novel eulogy

The one time I met Pat Conroy, who died Friday, I was about to change my life, get out of the news biz forever.

“I’ve already quit my job,” I told him over breakfast in an outdoor café at the Intercontinental hotel in Toronto, in the late summer of 1995. “This is my last interview.”

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m going to try to do what you do. I won’t do it the same or as well …”

“What are you going to write?”

“I’m going to write a novel.”

“Are you really?”

“Yeah, after thirty years in journalism I’ve just had it. We’ve sold our house and …”

“Have you really?”

“And we’re renting a house on the north shore of Lake Superior, out in the country.’

“Where?”

“Near a place called Thunder Bay,” I said.

“I know it well,” Conroy said. “It’s beautiful. Are you going to write your novel there?”

”Yeah.”

That novel is another story. But my conversation with Conroy, when we were each pushing 50, has stuck.

I had only one reason for accepting the offer from the Doubleday publicist to interview Conroy and write a feature for Canadian Press – my daughter Kate was a fan.

I knew he had written The Prince of Tides and The Great Santini only because I’d seen the movies. Family drama. Psychobabble. Chick flicks.

But I’d read Beach Music, which he was promoting that summer, and liked it. Nice writing. Good story.

I figured he’d be one of those sensitive guys, comfortable with his feminine side, whatever the hell that was.

I expected a delicate southern gentleman in a seersucker suit – Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote.

Then, this big bear of a man in a T-shirt and grungy Atlanta Braves cap offered a warm handshake.

We started out talking baseball, the names and stories tripping along easily: Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Cal Ripken, the young stars with his hometown Braves.

He told me about meeting Ted Williams, one of his boyhood heroes. I told him about my season as a baseball writer, talking to Ted Williams at spring training in 1978.

Finally, I said, “I better get something on tape I can use.”

“Sorry,” Conroy said, “I guess I’m not doing you any favors here. But I get off on this stuff.”

“So do I.”

I learned his life was not going very well. He’d moved to Fripp Island, South Carolina, looking for solitude. But a profile in Vanity Fair had revealed his hideaway.

One night, he found a stranger inside his house. “She said, ‘You’re getting a divorce.’

“I said, ‘Yes.’

“She said, ‘So am I. Isn’t that lucky?’

“I said, ‘I don’t know you.’

“She said: ‘Yes you do. I’ve read your books.’”

The hospitable southerner poured the woman a cup of coffee before telling her he was calling the cops.

“She said: ‘I know you won’t call the police.’

“I said: ‘How do you know?’

“She said: ‘I’ve read your books.’”

That was the problem. Obsessed readers, especially women, knew the characters he created were based on his life. Tom Wingo wouldn’t call the cops.

Conroy didn’t either. He drove the woman to where she was staying on the island.

He told me he recognized the very strong emotional connection he’d made with his readers. “It’s something I don’t think I can help as a writer, that they feel that they know me.”

And yet … “I’ve ruined Fripp Island for myself. I think I have to go someplace else now.

“I was walking on the beach at sunset. This was always a personal, very private, almost sacramental end of the day for me. But people were waiting on the beach with their books. I heard: ‘There he is.’ I signed seven books.”

Conroy signed my copy of Beach Music:

To Ken and Linda Becker,

For the love of books and words and Canada, O Canada. Here’s to a new life in Thunder Bay. I look forward to reading the first Becker novel.

Great love,

Pat Conroy

Sept. 12, 1995

We moved to a house on Superior that month. While unpacking, I came across a Ted Williams baseball card and sent it to Conroy with a brief note. I never heard back.

We lasted nearly three years in the frozen north before coming home to suburban Toronto. I went back to journalism.

Conroy wrote one more novel: South of Broad, published in 2009. Nice writing. Good story.

My novel never got written in Thunder Bay. It’s since been completed and rewritten.

Conroy had asked me: “You know what it’s going to be about yet?”

“Sort of,” I replied, “I’ve got two characters and a vague idea of where I’m going.”

Conroy looked me straight in the eye: “When you say you have two characters, I think, ‘ah, a writer.’”

Maybe I’m ready to take another whack at the novel.