Category Archives: Personal

PLAYING HOOKY AT GUS’S DINER

tom briggs

Gus’s Diner was right in front of an old ironworks factory on the corner of West First Street and Sixteenth Avenue, in Mount Vernon. It was one of those classic boxcar-like structures, similar to thousands of others in New York, Connecticut and New Jersey. It was very small and was painted red on the outside. It was tucked into a corner of an ironworks factory. The factory building and its large yard were likely there for a hundred years, the diner seemingly plopped down beside it, as if airlifted into position.

Gus’s was where my cousin Johnny, my brother Russell and I used to gather for a few hours in the morning while we were playing hooky from high school. We would eat breakfast and then hang out until a little past ten o’clock. Then it was it was off to stay at Johnny’s parents apartment until four o’clock. Uncle John left for work at eight, but Aunt Stella didn’t leave until ten. The radio said some snow for today, but not much, maybe an inch. Unfortunately that wasn’t nearly enough for school to shut down. I got good at forging my mother’s name, but not so good at phrasing and composing  the letter to the school from my mother.   We mulled it over and thought the snow might actually be a good excuse for not showing up anyway.

Russell and Tommy didn’t attend school yesterday because they both had diarrehea. Sincerely, Francis Brengel.

Johnny was eighteen, though he could pass for twenty-four. With his receding hairline, thick neck, wire-frame glasses and ruddy Irish complexion, he had the kind of face that pops up in old photos of a Belfast workers strike. He lit up a Marlboro, as I asked him what he was reading.

Finnegan’s Wake, said Johnny. It’s by James Joyce.
He handed me the book and after only a short glance, I knew I would never read it. Too much mumbo-jumbo.
What does all that mean, Johnny, I mean those crazy words? I asked him.
It’s dream associations and stream of consciousness, he answered.
I think I’ll stick with the New York Post sports section, I closed with.

This was our fourth or fifth illegal absence from school, all but one spent here. Once before, we had taken the  subway at 241st Street, and rode the IRT line to Times Square. That would kill an hour. The token was 15 cents each way, and that left us with just enough to buy donuts and coffee at a little stand along the shuttle stop, and later, a hotdog. We would board the free one-stop shuttle train to Grand Central Station, where we  would walk around aimlessly, oblivious to its magnificence. To kill more time, we would shuttle back to Time Square, then back to Grand Central, and would repeat this maneuver several times, like a hamster on a wheel. That was enough for us, and we vowed that next hooky-time, we would return to our alma mater, Gus’s.

We had some money today and would order bacon and eggs, toast and coffee, and sit at one of the yellow-colored table booths along the front, right by the window. As often was the case in winter, the effect of the place was heightened considerably when it snowed. A feeling of fantastic warmth and good fortune, as if staying there forever wouldn’t be such a bad idea. The air would be filled with the comingled aromas of all that Gus was cooking. He operated alone and moved around very well for an old guy. Gus had a lot of Popeye in him, and was straight out of the Great Depression thirties. He always had a cigar hanging out of his mouth and would wear a white cap and apron. He even talked a little like Popeye. Gus’s mumbled speech required some time to translate, to connect the verbal dots. Looking back on it, a signer might’ve made things much easier.

It was fun to watch Gus move around behind the counter. He was fast for a big guy and would adroitly pivot to get this or that, then return to the grill and start flipping pancakes and eggs and hash brown potatoes. We would be at Gus at least two hours. The snow started to stick and was accumulating on the street. Kelley’s gas station was right across the street. And one or another of the three Kelley brothers or staff would come in from time to time. Most of Gus’s customers were blue-collar types in dark coveralls and coats, many with embroidered script lettering on them. I suppose a few worked right there at the ironworks factory. We dreaded the possibility that a grown-up that we knew would walk through the door and rat on us. The only one who could be trusted to not slip a lip was my uncle Ralph. I remember that he once told me he had hated school.

I popped a dime in the red tabletop jukebox and played Runaway by Del Shannon and Popsickles Icecicles by the Murmaids. That’s a faggy song said Russell. My dime, I play it,  Those chicks are foxy, plus they’re from California, so get some cotton for your ears. Gus always had the radio going, and always tuned to the all-news-all-the-time station. That  morning New York City Mayor Robert Wagner was to meet with city officials over budget appropriations , a budget no doubt fattened by the previous summer’s World’s Fair. and there was bad business in Berkeley, where over eight-hundred students took over an administration building. If Gus had opinions about all of that, doubtless no one could make heads or tails of it.

Johnny had put his book down by now, and we  took turns and playing table football. One player would snap two fingers and kick a rolled up piece of paper between goalposts represented by the opposing player’s index finger and pinkie. How unimaginable then to think that harmless formation would be a gangsta salutation half a century later. Scores were kept in a meticulous way, though arguments would result anyway. If someone was clever enough to have brought along a rubber band, then other amusements were enjoyed. Johnny talked high about a senator named McGovern What a name for someone in the Mc Government. Johnny said he would be President one day. Russell told one dirty joke after another, then insulted and berated those passing by in the snow, all out of earshot naturally. Russell was in high gear: Look at this one, with his belly hanging over his belt. He hasn’t seen his dick in twenty years. It’s just a rumor. All of us were laughing then. Russell had an awful lot of Don Rickles in him.

Since both Johnny and Russell were occupied with what, with not much at that point, I drifted into  inner imagery. I looked out the window and saw my favorite football team, the Cleveland Browns playing against what appeared to be the San Francisco 49’ers. Right there on West First Street in heavy traffic. Frank Ryan was quickly dropping back in the pocket behind his blockers some thirty yards up the street, right by a passing 241st Street Bronx-bound bus, throwing a forty yard bullet-pass to his favourite target Gary Collins, who was running clear in his route right in front of Kelley’s. I yelled out first down! and Johnny and Russell asked if I was alright. I thanked them for their heartfelt concerns and then sought other reveries. In no time I conjured up the fantastical idea of Leslie Gore walking into the diner. I was in love with her, especially after seeing her on Hullabaloo, or was it Shindig, singing You Don’t Own Me. Suddenly, as my dream’s eviction of reality had demanded,  she walked in and went to a corner booth. She was dressed in a black trench coat, and some snow was still on her shoulders.

The diner was now empty except for Gus, me and the apogee of my dreams.  I was afraid to approach her, so I selected You Don’t Own Me on the Seeburg. She looked across the empty tables at me and smiled. Emboldened, I then asked if she wouldn’t mind if I sat with her for a minute. She smiled and accepted and we ordered two coffees, as that was all she wanted. I immediately asked her What are you doing in this…. place? If I may ask. She looked at me with eyes that went straight through me and said:  I  had arrived yesterday from California and had just finished some business with an agent in Manhattan and was en-route by limousine to Scarsdale to see a producer. She continued: I had had a premonition of sorts while on the ride up from New York.  A strong inner voice that told me to come here. Leslie went on that she discovered where her power of expression had come from. It came from the hearts of those who most admired her, and that she was here to thank me. She then reached across the table and kissed me softly on the cheek. The acne scarred kid who was afraid of good-looking girls felt like a light that guaranteed inner peace forever had entered him.  With that, she quickly turned and walked out the door to a long black Crysler that was waiting out front.  A rolled up piece of paper, probably  fashioned with spit, then hit me in the eye. Hey Rip Van Winkle, it’s time to go,  can’t stay here forever Chooch! The subtle and soothing voice of brother Russell had snatched me from my sanctum of bliss.

We left for Aunt Stella and Uncle John’s, and the snow was thick in its rapid decent. Maybe we wouldn’t have to write that note after all.  It was a windless snow that covered every grey inch of the cityscape in no time. Kelley’s gas station, with its big lighted Texaco sign and naked winter trees as background, was turning into a painting called Currior & Ive’s and Gas and Oil, maybe painted by John Sloan. We walked down the hill on South Street towards our destination. Along its entire two block length, heading down towards The New Haven Railroad tracks was Ward Leonard Electric Company with its three-shift two thousand employee workforce. This morning its windows were glowing yellow because of the dark grey sky. This whole thing was a very Pittsburgh-looking scene. The hell with sunny days in winter anyway, I thought.  What a waste of sunshine. What a feckless ineffectual sun, that winter sun, neutered as it is, by winters ground level realities. Give me grey, give me snow, give me rain, give me torrent in the mood of grey wintery chords, played to my heart and soul.

After arriving at our destination of the next several hours, we immediately pursued something more meaningful than Gus’s Diner. We turned on the television. From a selection which included Jeopardy starring Art Fleming, Truth or Consequences with Bob Barker, reruns of Andy of Mayberry and The Rocky & Bullwinkle Show, we chose the most serious one. Bullwinkle was not only the coolest and smartest cartoon moose ever, but likely the  coolest thing standing on two feet in all of television. The smartest was Mister Peabody, with the second coolest being his sidekick, Sherman. I don’t know who the third coolest was, nor the second smartest,  but I suspected that whoever they were, they had a lot of catching up to do to surpass the smartest and second coolest, respectively. Peabody & Sherman excelled at going  back in time to help history’s hero’s achieve their fame. Rocky & Bullwinkle, on the other hand, were forever finding ways to outsmart the villainous Russian spies, Boris & Natasha. After Johnny advised us against raiding the refrigerator for obvious reasons, Russell, who hadn’t eaten since emptying a bag of Connecticut potato chips at Gus’s well over twenty minutes ago, waited, like the patient carnivore that he was, for our host to relax his vigilance. That moment came when Johnny got up to use the bathroom. Before one could blurt out the customary Jackie Robinson, brother Russell quickly wolfed down two slices of Kraft swiss cheese and the remains of a plastic bowl containing some unidentifiable  brown sauce.

I looked out the window and to my dismay, the snow had stopped. It was now time to write and forge the absent-from-school letter, which we would bring to Mount Vernon High tomorrow. And with Bullwinkle’s antics over, and with Peabody & Sherman having figured out what actually happened aboard the Santa Maria with Christopher Columbus, Russell and I left for home, leaving our hapless host to contend with an empty plastic bowl that needed washing. Two days later, Russell and I were called into Vice Principal Doctor Panitz’s office. Doctor Panitz was a impressive man of about fifty. With his piercing blue eyes and imposing and very administrative and authoritarian demeanour, I could easily imagine  Wehrmacht or Waffen SS medals pinned to his blue suit. He cordially asked Russell and me to have a seat.

Dr Panitz: So you both don’t like school so much?
Russell: No, Dr. Panitz, we like school fine, but we just didn’t feel like going last Monday. Tommy: I like school too, but it looked like it might snow that day.
Dr. Panitz: I see. You both know that it cost a lot of money to build this beautiful new school, don’t you? And to pay all the teachers and maintenance crew. Do you both realize how lucky you are to receive an education, and a free education, with no cost to your parents?
Russell: I bet it cost a lot of money. We’re sorry, and we won’t do it again.
Tommy: Yes, Dr. Panitz, we’ll be in attendance every day from now on, right, Russell? Russell: Every day, for sure.
Dr. Panetz: That’s wonderful, that’s what I like to hear, sensible students, appreciative of the importance of their education.
Dr. Panitz, now yelling very loud: NOW YOU BOTH WILL WRITE A THOUSAND WORD COMPOSITION DESCRIBING WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO ATTEND SCHOOL. AND YOU SHALL HAVE IT IN MY HAND BY FRIDAY, IS THAT CLEAR?
Russell and Tommy: Yes Dr. Panitz, it’s clear.

When we returned home that evening our mother announced that a truant officer named Mr. Gist was there earlier and had asked if she had signed an absent from school note on Monday. We were dead-to-rights, and it was KP and no after-school activities for the next two days. That evening, I started penning my composition, entitled Why I should attend classes. But in my brainless adolescence of ingratitude, it quickly became a farce resembling this:
Dear Doctor Panitz: While I see some reason for attending classes, I notice that all the adults that I know or ever heard of or that I like and admire don’t really use math, proper English, geography or history in their jobs. I mean, Joe the bartender probably didn’t learn how to tap beer and argue about baseball with customers because he went to school. Gus, at  Gus’s Diner didn’t go to school to learn how to smoke a cigar without  really smoking it. And he didn’t go to school to learn how to flip hamburgers or fry eggs in such a way that they were the finest of their kind. Then I know for a fact that Luigi of Luigi’s fruit stand didn’t learn how to sell fruits and vegetables without ever have learned English to all the people who buy from him, and still love him inspite of his linguistic shortcomings. And not for nothing, Doctor Panetz, but Mickey Mantle didn’t learn how to hit a ball over a building in New York that bounced on top of a moving train that went all the way to Eau Clair, Wisconsin, by attending geography classes. It’s not like he had to know where Eau Clair actually was, you know what I mean? And I’m just saying, but isn’t it true that it’s possible to acquire a decent knowledge of American geography by studying the backs of baseball cards? After all, the typical major league player has had to endure playing in some places with more cows  and chickens than people. But Eau Claire and Greensboro, NC and Augusta GA and Batavia NY and Visalia CA  and two hundred some odd other stops along the minor league trail on the backs of baseball cards taught me all about American geography,  few years ago. OK, I’ll grant you that there are most definitely worthy courses in Mount Vernon High School. Classes like Mister Milonzi’s commercial art class and Doctor Dodd’s drawing and painting class. However, if I had to fill up this composition with one thousand words, I’m more likely to be successful at it if I had to admit the ludicrousness of my duplicity which I do. None the less, if I consider the uselessness of gym class, here we go with at least three hundred words: I get a lot of exercise. Most of which consists of horsing around with friends on my block. We like to jump over parking meters. It’s a hoisting manuever that requires strength, thrust and a fair amount of courage, lest the participant go minus one or both of his testicles. Sometimes we play as teams, that is to say, two players against two opponents. This then teaches team play, a worthy endeavour, you have to admit. Other athletic games consist of playing touch football in heavy traffic along West First Street. Setting up complicated pass plays and patterns while the 241st Street bound bus is passing at forty miles per hour inches from your gluteus maximus,  is an activity that promotes awareness, courage, agility and quickness, all attributes of superior athleticism that I think to be a notch or two above what is prescribed in school gym class. Then there is the unique test of one’s determination to hang in there, and not flinch, from fielding  a sharply hit ground ball right at you that will very possibly hit a piece of broken glass or pebble, thus diverting its path and redirecting its trajectory to make hard contact with your eyeball or lip, resulting in a black eye, split lip or missing tooth. Of course I’d like to add that I a…

Of course I never sent such an abomination, just a sloppy, repetitively written and insincere apology describing my wanton recalcitrance and total lack of appreciation for a quality high school education. An education that  would in fact prepare me for a lifelong career as a commercial artist, and later as a sign artist. Following is a letter of gratitude that was unfortunately and shamefully never written to my commercial art teacher, Mr. Victor Milonzi.

Dear Mr. Milonzi: I know that this letter is over a half-century too late. But when I was a student of yours, in 1963 and 1964, At Edison High, then at Mount Vernon High, I didn’t know or care anything about gratitude or sacrifice. And I didn’t know or care about such things for the next fifty years. You provided me with a great education that equipped me to be a commercial artist.  I showed my thanks by jumping from your class and enrolling in Dr. Dodd’s fine arts class, without ever having said thank you. It turns out that you were the best teacher I ever had, including all of my instructors during my two years at Phoenix School of Design. And I can add that any bad professional  breaks that came my way during these ensuing decades  might’ve have been payback for such lack of character and ingratitude. I used to hate it when you would tear at my artwork just to remove a tiny imperfection, smudge or speck of dirt.  But this taught me to shoot for the very best professional quality in the way of presenting my artwork. It took me all these years to appreciate you as a first rate professional advertising artist, who sacrificed a lucrative career to teach young kids how to be successful commercial artists. I remember now how you would make special trips to Manhattan, to advertising agencies and corporate headquarters  like Coca Cola, just to gather samples of products, particularly new products, in the  pioneering stage, as you called them, so the class could redesign the package, label, billboard, or magazine ad. Or how you took us on field trips to offset printing companies and typesetting shops to see first-hand how it was done. You taught us about duotones, halftones and four color process printing. About register marks and bleed marks and how to do paste-ups and mechanicals. And how to make mock-ups for point-of-sale displays. You taught your students all about materials such as illustration board, Cellotac, Zipatone, Coloraid, Magic Markers, drawing instruments, and even how to operate an airbrush. You taught about typefaces like Bodoni Bold and Franklin Gothic and scores of other fonts. You gave us the opportunity to use those liquids that smelled like rotten eggs but that created magical halftone dot patterns for cartoon illustrations when painted on a special white board.  For this was how it was all done in the days before digital art. You offered your students the opportunity to compete in poster contests that awarded great prizes to first, second and third place winners throughout Westchester County. Contests, I might add, that were won by many of your students, including me. And you did all of this with a unique sense of humor. Your disarming wit was entertaining yet edifying and got the message home. Thank you, Mr. Victor Milonzi, for all you did for me.

Sincerely, Tom Briggs

 

 

 

 

 

EDWIN QUINN GOT KICKED IN THE HEAD

tom briggs

I remember there was a drug store on Thirteenth and West First, and the Daily Argus had a great smell when the ink was still wet and I delivered it to old people in white painted houses with shiny porches on Thirteenth and the summer of ‘60 was hot, real hot, and they had dark hardwood banisters in their houses but it looked like a dull place to live: too orderly and shiny with the smell of furniture polish wafting through the air,  because I liked the smell of model glue and paint and the dope used to stretch the model airplane paper. And Mad Magazines laying around my room and I still like paint smell. Then the bubble gum from the card pack stuck to my shoe and I got a Rocky Colavito finally, he looked confident in the shot taken at Yankee Stadium, who wouldn’t be with 43 homers, and everyone knew Schwerger’s was the place for pastry and Silver’s for rolls and Joe’s Deli for those neat little Table Talk pies. Then there was the Carvel soft ice cream stand near the Sunshine Biscuit garage where I once saw Robert Duncan, who had a marine’s neck like he was headed for Tulane as a running back or something, slap boxing with Tommy D’Nisco while the sun was setting beyond the New Haven tracks.  Where Robert & Willie Benvenuti and I used to lay large nails on the tracks and wait for them it to become a knife and it was sad, really sad about Tommy, because I saw him in uniform in Katherine’s Tavern on Fifth in 1966, I think, before he left for Vietnam. And me and my Irish cousin Johnny used to slap box too, reddening one another’s face while the candy store guy’s father looked on approvingly and  of course we all did those boyish things before then like stealing tomatoes and apples, burning tall heaps of Christmas trees and the suicidal sleighing-while-standing rides down Pearl Street all the way to the casket factory on the street with no name while the branches glistened against the purplish night sky. Then there was the parking meter straddling with the two hands, then over the top and do it right because your balls will squish like grapes if you don’t and the  Italian lemon ice melted on my arm after looking too long at Maureen’s ample pink Irish thighs. Then there was the music that played forever from Del Shannon and the Ronnette’s and with Cousin Brucie talking fast on ABC and the blizzards were fun, but adults hated them. And we threw snowballs with rocks in them at buses and close friends, then water balloons off the roof in summer and we should’ve all been in reform school.  I swear if it weren’t for the Grace of God, I  don’t know how we came out of it alive, but many did in a good way, I’m sure. But I’m still unraveling and rewinding the ball of psychological and spiritual yarn that I’ve been intermittently trapped in for seven decades and the years and decades came and went like the flashing lighted windows of a fast night train that disappeared into a tunnel and the Spaldeen I hit off of Junior Poliaka is still bouncing on the roof of Ward Leonard’s Electric Company on South Street and  I swear the fish my big brother Russell caught in the Bronx River is getting bigger all the time. And Russell was one hell-of-a jokester who made everybody laugh and the sun went down and the moon went up twenty thousand times since but Sonny Liston is still staring at me balefully from the cover of Boxing Illustrated, the one I bought in ’61 on Ninth Avenue along First Street, the magazine I loved to read, though I couldn’t fight a lick. Then Edwin Quinn got kicked in the head in gym class and died two days  later. All the kids were at Pat King’s big birthday party, except Edwin. I saw him in his room looking at his aquarium while I shied from dancing. And that wintery night when I walked past the vacant Coloruso house on Terrace Avenue. Andy Williams’ song Can’t Get Used to Losing You played on the radio in my head. The Coloruso’s were murdered, all five of them, by a guy named Hansen. The same street where Maureen offered her very personal jewels to me, a few years later. Then that kid who stood there and got smacked hard in the eye by the football I bulleted to Roy. Look, there’s  Mike Graziano getting smacked by his mother because all the Orange Crush we all stole from Bob’s  Candy Store cellar was in there. “What’s in the bag, Michael?”  And all the guys liked Bob’s wife Madeline’s tits which stuck straight out real big from her sweater. Then they had to lower gargantuan Mrs.Vertrano out of the fourth story window by special means. And Nate King Cole died and it was sadder than when Kennedy got shot. He had over two hundred suits but wouldn’t sing anymore. Then Junior or somebody lit a high pile of ashcan powder that took two days to clear from Kowell’s garage. And Doctor Panitz ordered me and Russell to write a thousand word composition on why we should attend school. I wrote that the diner where we hung out was better than Mister Altshuler’s geography class. That took up five hundred words. The rest was about how Gus’s diner served fried eggs and bacon, the likes of which were rarely surpassed. I was then told to write a two thousand word composition on the futility of writing smart-mouthed compositions.. Then that record by the Animals hit the radio in sixty four. House of the Rising Sun. All over the radio the English Invasion played. And we drove to New Jersey, I forgot why but it looked nice with the rain and red lights and neon along the Jersey Turnpike as the radio played Gene Pitney’s  Town Without Pity. Then the lights went out all over the east coast and Roy, a tall and good-looking fellow, walked a long way home from Eastchester in the dark, and bingo, eighteen months later he’s in Vietnam. Hooky from school was played casually and shamelessly in cousin Johnny’s apartment watching Bullwinkle cartoons and shooting rubber bands and cursing everything to do with school until Aunt Stella returned from work. Of course, the German butcher Gene Kramer was doing more than resting in the rear room of his store, what with perfumy Mrs. Kincher’s floppy bottom hanging and waving around. Lookout, Russell just threw a sizable rock through the New Haven Train engineer’s window, but miraculously avoided reform school. And the old Jewish lady on the fourth floor gave me a twenty-cent tip, all in pennies, with her shaky blue-veined hand for bringing her gevelta fish. And the autumn wind blew October into November and Tom Mack, the white-haired gullible and naive father of a West Pointer, always volunteered to run the store polling place… “ Schultz checks with McCarver, here’s the pitch…Mantle sends it high and deep to right. It’s going, going,  gone!” And the watery-eyed red-faced bums with too-short trousers left empty bottles of cheap wine and Mrs. Wagner’s Pie wrappers on the snowy ground in makeshift box-houses in the vacant lot near the Bronx line. Now the Christmas tree lights are reflecting beautifully on our living room window with the blackness of outside showing a little blue. Someone is out there in this black cold night, wandering, maybe lost in the mind and beyond hope is what I thought as I got ready to open a present. Did they have a tree and presents once? “Terry checks the runners, here’s the pitch, McCovey hits a line drive bullet, right at Richardrson, and the Yanks are world champions”.

SONNY LISTON

 tom briggs

The first time I saw Sonny Liston was on the cover of the December 1961 edition
(35 cents!)of Boxing Illustrated. He was in a fighting pose and was wearing black Everlast speed bag gloves. He was also wearing a scowling, menacing look. He glared at me from that cover, like he was mad at me personally. Liston was the number one heavyweight contender for Floyd Patterson’s heavyweight championship. Since that issue, Liston has remained the most intriguing and compelling athlete I’ve ever seen in some fifty five years of following major sports. That covers hundreds of great athletes, including Sandy Koufax, Joe Montana, George Foreman and the greatest athlete I ever saw in any sport: Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali.

Liston was born in Pine Bluff, Arkansas in the early 1930’s. No one knows the exact year. At age fourteen he escaped to St. Louis from his share cropping family which included his parents plus twelve brothers and sisters. His often liquored-up father had regularly used him as a punching bag. To say that Sonny gravitated to the wrong crowd in St. Louis is an understatement. Soon the hulking youth developed into a formidable street mugger and armed robber and was eventually sentenced to five years in Missouri State Penitentiary. It was in the University of Detention where he learned how to box, earning a masters degree in jaw-breaking and rib crushing. In 1956, he assaulted a cop and did six months.

Upon his release, he hooked up with mobsters Frankie Carbo and Blinky Palermo, securing part-time employment as part of their shakedown and enforcement teams. He soon started climbing up the professional heavyweight ladder during the mid to late fifties, scoring impressive knock outs, usually early round, over rated fighters. One of his managers during this run of victories was mob appointed Joe Barone. Interestingly, his management team regularly matched him with tough fighters with hard punches. Liston could deliver and take, a tremendous punch.

Floyd was rather small for a heavyweight. At five feet eleven inches, he weighed between a hundred eighty five and a hundred ninety . Cus D’Amato, Patterson’s manager, made certain that Floyd stayed clear of Liston and several other hard hitting heavyweights. Liston weighed around two eighteen, some twenty five pounds heavier than Patterson. Sonny also had a tremendous reach advantage over Floyd But that was not the most remarkable difference between the two. While Patterson had fast hands and a decent left hook, Liston was a murderous hitter with either hand. Rib-cracking body shots. A right cross that would have you seeing five referees counting over you. And an uppercut that could send your mandible where your cranium was. Even when his punches landed on the arms, opponents complained of pain and soreness for weeks afterwards. Liston had fourteen inch fists. Sports Illustrated writer Mort Sharnic described them as ‘two cannon balls made into fists’. He also possessed a left jab that was described by many who fought him as if being hit with the butt end of a telephone pole. No doubt, the best left jab in heavyweight history, aided by an incredible plus eighty inch reach. Many still rate the prime Liston of 1958-1962 as one of the best heavyweights of all time. Certainly the best or second best puncher in the last hundred twenty years.

As if these endowments weren’t enough. During the referee’s pre-fight instructions in the center of the ring, Liston would stand, Reddish beside him, about two inches from the other fighter. I can still see it on television. Nose to nose. Sonny is wearing his customary white hooded terrycloth robe. His dark face is surrounded by white. The guy made Darth Vader look like a pink cupcake. He then would shake-down the other fighter with his jungle-like predators eyes. Sonny would mug him and take away his courage before the bell even rang. As his opponent walked back to his corner to await the bell, his legs were already a little wobbly.

Most impressive of Liston’s wins were his two demolitions of highly rated Houston heavyweight Cleveland Williams, 1959-60. ‘Big Cat’ Williams was a ferocious hitter with fast hands. Many fighters had ducked him. After taking some heavy punishment from William’s early assaults, Liston caught up with him, pole-axing and starching* the Big Cat in rounds two and three, respectively. One could only imagine what Patterson might’ve been thinking had he witnessed these demolitions. Check it out on You Tube. Liston Williams. One and Two.

In the high school where I went there were a few ‘Sonny’s. ’ Nobody, black or white, messed with this incarnation. They were built like grown men while in ninth and tenth grade, though they might’ve been left back a grade or two. Rumours flew that that one drove a milk truck before school or that another had three kids. They would shake you down for change on the stairwell. “Let me hold a quarter” they’d say. Horsing around in gym class, they could fracture your breastbone with a playful punch. They had that look that said ‘share something with me’. ‘Be my friend, you are my friend, and friends lend money to friends’.

Liston would do his speed bag, heavy-bag and rope skipping to James Brown’s Night Train with his head trainer, the beret-topped Willie Reddish, looking on.
“All aboard for the night train / Miami, Florida/ Atlanta, Georgia / Raleigh, North Carolina /Washington D.C. Oh, and Richmond, Virginia too/Baltimore, Maryland / Philadelphia New York City / Take it home And don’t forget New Orleans / The home of the blues /Oh, yeah, night train Night train, night train”

I’ve been to a few of those cities, and many others. Invariably the train or Greyhound bus I rode on entered the city from the poor side of town. Usually places where the Liston’s of the City hung out or were raised in. Sometimes I think I’m part black, because I can feel the rhythm in that song with a rare intensity. I can hear the crickets. I swat at mosquito’s that aren’t there. See the red lights and hear the sirens of the Man. Especially the hot summer city. Especially the night city. Especially the Southern city. This all is The Essence of Liston. Considering the milieu that Sonny came from, the Arkansas sharecroppers farm, the streets, the prison, the bullet invested world of the mob, facing a fighter who wanted to take his head off was like a vacation. “I’ll have another Daiquiri while I break this guy’s ribs with a body shot” “Ah, feels good to finally relax now, the bell is about to ring”

Patterson was articulate and sensitive. He didn’t talk like a fighter. He often sounded apologetic after beating an opponent. But he was a great fighter and he loved being a fighter. But he was better suited against fighters his own size. And he did very well against light-punching fighters. The anti-climactic results: Liston destroyed Patterson, first in Chicago in 1962, then in Las Vegas the following year. Both were first round knockouts.

In 1964, in one of the greatest upsets in ring history, Liston was stopped by Cassius Clay/Muhammad Ali, Liston failing to answer the bell for the seventh round. The odds for that fight were seven to one, Liston. Maybe Sonny had too many early round knockouts. Maybe he aged all at once. But could Clay/Ali have beaten the 1959 Liston? Maybe, maybe not. In 1974, in yet another huge upset, Ali knocked out George Foreman in the eighth round. The way I figure it, Ali remains the greatest heavyweight who ever lived. The only heavyweight to have beaten huge odds twice against tremendous punchers to win the title. Foreman was considered to be another Liston by many – a bigger and taller version with as much, if not more, punching power. I rate him the second or third greatest heavyweight in history. But neither had the essence, mystique, history or ability to chill the spine of other fighters quite like Charles Sonny Liston. The Night Train fighter.

It has recently been suggested that there is not enough character dialogue in my writing. This by someone very close and important to me as it gets. Also, the fact that I’ve always thought it would be great to interview Sonny Liston, here goes:

TB Sonny, I thought you were underrated, all-time.
SL Thanks.
TB It must have been tough being the son of a sharecropper.
SL Yeah. The only thing my father gave me was a beating.
TB Why did you look so mean during the referee’s instructions?
SL Cause the other fighter wanted something from me and I didn’t want to give him nothing. I wasn’t there to tap dance for him.
TB What was it like as a teenager on the streets of St. Louis?
SL Not as bad as the farm in Arkansas. I didn’t have any money then.
TB But you mugged people in St. Louis. You robbed them, using a gun.
SL That’s right. I was hungry. Plus I wanted to get even.
TB Get even? With who?
SL With life, cause the dice I was handed early on in life never won me anything.
TB What was prison like?
SL It was tough at first. But I got used to it. Boxing saved me from going crazy.
TB Did that somehow make things easier in the professional ring?
SL Yeah. That was easy compared to having guards watching me all the time
and cons asking for favours.

TB What happened in the first Clay fight? You said it was a shoulder injury, that you couldn’t go on.
SL I just said that. Clay was too fast. Too smart. He wasn’t afraid of me, like the others.
TB I have to ask this question. How was it working on the Braniff Airlines commercial with Andy Warhole?
SL It was ok. But we had to do it over and over again (laughs)
Warhole made me laugh too much.
TB So what do you think of Foreman and Tyson? Could you have beaten them in your prime?
SL Foreman was like me. Strong and he didn’t mess around. Somebody would go down, probably in a late round. Probably him. (Laughs)
TB And Tyson?
SL Tyson is crazy. He might bite my ear off. (laughs again) But he comes right at a fighter. That’s dangerous with me.
TB How did you die, Sonny? There was a lot of mystery surrounding your death.
SL It was an overdose of heroin.
TB Any regrets Sonny?
SL Yeah. I could’ve made some people happier. Especially kids. I should’ve gave them more time. Street kids like me.
TB Sometimes, I saw that in your eyes. Thanks for talking with me, Sonny.
SL Your welcome.

*Common boxing slang terms.
Stunned, as if hit with a poleaxe. / Starched, like a stiff shirt, not moving.

 

CALIFORNIA STORY AT A BRONX COFFEE SHOP

tom briggs

Sometime in the late eighties.

In the shadows of the 241st Street subway station, last stop on the IRT line, half an hour to Yankee Stadium. White Plains Road. DeLillo Country. The City Line twenty-four hour bakery and coffee shop. Where the bookies, hoods and dreamers  from City Island to Baychester hung out, talking about how Frankie done this, and Joey done that and how Jimmy Pepperoni got nailed for drugs and was headed for the Dannemora big house for at least ten years with good behaviour but that Jimmy never had good behaviour so forget about it. But maybe Johnny The Greaser could get him reduced, no problem. The protagonist in this story has ‘been there and done that and wishes everyone to know about it.

…..”Hear about Franky Tagliateli’s ’s kid Joey? Going to Fordham. Hey, any kid that uses the word perhaps instead of maybe is not cut out for our line of work. And not for nothing but Joey, not that Joey, but Joey The Plumber, his wife that is, makes the sweetest meatballs. Momma Mia. Better than at Antonio’s up in Yonkers. Then not for nothing again, but OTB is taking the action away from the local bookies and now the Feds and those crumbs in Albany are bigger hustlers and bums than all of the slobs in Wakefield. Look who just walked through the door! That Irish goon Mike Quinn. How in hell did he find time between hold-ups? Are you shitting me or what? Sit right here. Tell us all a tale of woe. Where you going? Hey! I was just saying…

Hey! Come here! Are you Tommy DeVino’s kid Tommy Two? You the guy that wanted to know about California from twenty-five years ago? Come over here. Sit right down. I was there when it was California. I got stories. You want to listen? Good.

I went there in sixty-four. I was twenty. Flunked the draft exam down on Whitehall Street the year before on account of eczema. I was shit-faced happy about that. I was working for a place called Wakefield Signs on 210th Street then, right under the el. It’s not there anymore. I was making good money already. Hand-lettering paper banners and sometimes trucks. Somebody there knew a sign guy from Los Angeles. Me and a guitarist named Frankie Jerome from Baychester Avenue decided to jet out there. He was a year older than me.

We rode on a seven twenty-seven. Coast to coast. First time flying. Never got the creeps from it though. Those wings cut through time like it was a tomato and the engines played a joke on three thousand miles. A few minutes after take-off, the whole city, the whole damn dirty Bronx, Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and Staten Island easily fit in the small window I was looking out of. I was right here at the coffee shop at five in the morning. I was in Los Angeles at two in the afternoon. Yeah, I know, the time zone changes didn’t hurt either. When I saw those orange rooftops of San Bernardino smiling up at me and all those swimming pools glittering like aqua-colored jewels, I knew I’d never go back. Naturally, I’m back now, but that’s a much longer story than the one I’m telling now. I’m just saying.

Everything was strange like in a dream. Looked nothing like the Bronx. Not even Westchester. Nothing like anything I ever saw. Another planet. All those pink and light green deco buildings and convertible cars. Those Googie signs. The kind that Huxley liked. Those wide streets. The palms shooting towards the sun. Santa Monica Pier. And Venice Beach was like an Annette Funicello movie that kept running. A carnival all year long. Three weeks later, Frankie got involved with some musicians in the Valley and I never saw him again. But I didn’t miss him. Too busy. I heard he wound up in San Francisco. That’s where everyone said to go. That’s where it’s happening, they said. Flower Power, poetry, guitars, sex and dope was happening for them. But I got good gig at Western Signs, after only a month. On Pico lettering trucks. Before the year was out, I had enough money to buy a 1956 M Series Mercury truck. Red. Good condition too. Paid seven hundred for it.

I met up with crazy Justin Thyme one day on La Brea. But that wasn’t his real name. He was lettering a window. His name was Arnold Goldberg or something. Around ten years older than me. What a fastidious bastard. Complain about a speck of dust. About anything. Come from Bushwick in Brooklyn. Did a little time in Rikers Island and Tombs for this and that. So he upped and moved to California. In fifty-nine, I think. Probably running from alimony. Or creditors. Or forgery. Or worse. Upped and joined the Krishna’s. You ought to get a load of those characters. Drifters, dreamers, schemers. Anyway, Justin lived free and easy. Usually got free board from the local temple. Moved around the state. What an operator. First in San Diego. Then Santa Rosa. Santa Barbara. Long Beach. Up and down the coast. When I met him, he had a shop in LA, compliments of Hare Krishna Temple, at La Cienega and Venice.

Hung with him for a few months. Justin always got the best weed. Knew every whorehouse from Long Beach to Daly City. The guy was a great sign painter. A real
Michelangelo. He made signs that you wanted to take home and sleep with. Signs that you wanted to walk right into. I’m not shitting you. They weren’t signs. They were events. Happenings. Mesmerizing they were. He would take a week just to prepare the signboard. Sanding, priming, painting. Drying. Sanding again. Then repeating everything a few times more. Something like the Dutch do with their doors and window frames. The surface would shine like a mirror. You could shave while looking into it. Then he would hand letter it, using One Shot enamels. That’s where I first heard about One Shot, because we always used Ronan’s in New York. That would take another week. But it looked like God made it. Or one of His right-hand sign painting angels.

One time I was lettering the door of Whiskey A Go Go on Sunset in Hollywood when I saw Johnny Rivers for the first time. Got to know him a little bit. Real name is Ramistella. Great singer, guitarist and songwriter. A legend. He even invited me for a recording session. I was there in the studio on Sunset when he recorded Poor Side of Town. A religious experience. I’m not shitting you. The guy had style. Class. Come from Louisiana. Memphis. Secret Agent Man. California Dreaming better than the Momma’s and Papa’s hit. I’m not shitting you. His stuff never ever gets old. The guy had phrasing. Emotion. Great guitar, too. Underrated something awful. The Whiskey was nothing until he made it big. Iggy and The Stooges played there. The Doors too. The Byrds. I saw them all. And the girls. They swarmed like bees that made the right kind of honey if you get my meaning. When I go, don’t send me to heaven, please. Just send me back there at the Whiskey.

Then there was the sign guy who wrote on the side. Rudy Dietrich was his name. We called him Rudy Kazootie. Real good sign guy. Knew about type and layout instead of just hand lettering. Better than most. He drank too much. First beer. Then wine. Then Mad Dog. That’s what he drank. At the end, he Short Dogged it on the streets. The little bottles. All he could afford. It got to him finally. Hardly ate. A bowl of cigarette butts for breakfast. Was full crazy without it and half crazy with it. A real shame. The guy had talent. A manuscript that nobody saw, nobody read. Thick as a phone book, it was. All about the demons of art, of love, of the abandoned soul, the alienated self. That heavy shit of what makes us all tick. After getting a little juiced, he would call in on KABC talk radio and read a satire he’d written. Got lots of laughs. He died on Jefferson one Sunday morning with the sun coming up. Laying there in the gutter. Thirty-nine years old. A frameless nameless sketch. Lost and never found. Missed for only a short while by a handful of bums from Venice Beach.

And ask me about that prodigiously talented nut case Phil Spector. OK, the guy was a musical genius. But a tough Jew with a temper like TNT. And brains. Always thought the guy was connected. Maybe Cohen’s Family bankrolled him. Who knows. Mickey Cohen was still running things Los Angeles underworld-style in those days. Maybe I was dreaming but I could’ve sworn I saw Mickey go into Gold Star one day. That’s where Spector made his Wall of Sound. A storefront right on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood. I’m not shitting you. I was gold-leafing a window not two doors down the block. I was fascinated with that little store. But I never was inside. I would go by there once in a while. See who was showing up. I wouldn’t go near Spector. Not after I saw him once railing against some studio musician or poor slob technician. But I did talk with half of The Righteous Brothers one day. Bobby Hatfield was a nice guy. The king of blue-eyed soul had a simple heart of gold.
I’m not shitting you.

When I got enough money together, I opened my own shop on Montana, Horizon Signs three blocks up from the Pacific. Santa Monica was great in those days. The rent was only one hundred fifty bucks a month. Think about that. I ate at Zucky’s Deli on Wilshire and Fifth for lunch. I think it’s still there. Sandwiches. Ham and Swiss on Rye. Better than drugs. A BLT, thicker than a canned ham, was a buck and a quarter. Think about that too. Had those fabulous red leather seats. Same at Ships Diner in Culver City and a hundred other lunch joints in LA. Ships was right by the Metro Goldwyn Studios, where I lettered a few props. You would see all those TV actors coming in at Ships and Zucky’s. The ones that did all those series. Twilight Zone, Cannon, The Fugitive. I’m not shitting you. Jack Klugman, Peter Faulk Angie Dickenson. A lot of others. Everything was happening. The old and the new. I even saw Stan Laurel one day walking on Jefferson, not long after I got there. In sixty-five, right before he died. I loved the guy, but I didn’t want to bother him.

I saw a taping The Turtles were doing right in front of the LA Water and Power Building, Bunker Hill. Sixty-five, I think. I was working on a sign right across the street. They were lip-syncing “You, Nobody But You”. Nice kids. Goofing around while they did it. They were just like me, looking for the gold. They started out as nothing, right on Sepulveda, near LAX, but they found a lot more gold than I ever did. But those were the days. Golden days of flagrant youth. When courage was forged from delusions. Where dreams ripened like avocados in the California sun.
Hey, I even wrote a poem about it. I think I remember it. Goes something like this:

Those long gone LA days.
Tooling around in the warm sun rays/

In my old Merk truck, the one of red.
Now a sign on La Brea, pays good, ‘nuff said/

In the majestic light blue and tan of the city.
Though its style disappears, oh what a pity/

What a place, a regular paradise.
Even considering all its vice/

What a shame, that place on Fairfax upped and closed.
And now a few more while expectations dozed.

The sun has set, beyond the Monica Wheel,
Lovely sight, though blue I feel/

But the memories, they are mine forever.
And has LA died? Never never never!

That’s it kid. Thanks for listening. I got to go place a bet with Jimmy The Wop.
Say hi to your father for me.

REEL BIG FOOT IN MEDITERRANEAN

tom briggs

Two huge pieces of footwear, one weighing almost sixty kilos, were hauled in from the Mediterranean Sea, seven kilometers off the coast of Villanueva Loubet, Cote D’ Azure, late yesterday. Julian Carpentier, 37, first caught a thirty-seven-kilo sneaker. An hour later, he hauled in an amazing shoe, which weighed fifty-nine kilos. Both are world records for footwear. Archeologists, anthropologists, oceanographers, criminal investigators, world media and their presstitutes, are descending upon the Riveria community known as Marina Baie Anges, to begin examining the incredible catches. Approximately half a million onlookers disguised as gawkers, pickpockets and busy-bodies have already amassed at the seaside community like so many pesky gnats.

While aboard his ten-meter inboard Jeanneau, Catch This, Carpentier had first netted a few plus ten-kilo striped bass. At about two in the afternoon, and after an hour and a half struggle, he landed the gigantic sneaker. “I felt, after landing it and observing its size and approximate weight, that I was lucky to have hooked it on the toe-end. This allowed much less water resistance.” He added: “ I’d landed footwear in the past, but obviously nothing like this. This is the highpoint of some twenty years of fishing”

Carpentier, a bagel baker from Biot who fishes these waters every week, had at first thought to have the massive footwear professionally dried and restored, then hung in his apartment as wall displays. Or to have them sliced up and given to friends for Christmas and as birthday gifts. However, he now has considered the lucrative monetary possibilities of the monumental catches. Barring any legal restrictions or jurisdiction limits, such as size limitations from Cote d’ Azure/Alps Maritime Ocean Regulation authorities. Indeed, suspicion is gathering relative to the unlikelihood of Carpentier landing such a massive object on 45-kilo test line. Nets would be the only other possible way to get them on board. And nets are illegal for private fishermen.

While initial conclusions of professional observers were that the footwear is of some promotional or advertising origin, early on-the-scene scientists, including oceanographer Dr. Christof Seafluer, MOS, and noted anthropologist Dr. Gesippe A. de Species, Ph.D., run counter to that conclusion. Their early observations are that the footwear’s material is unlike any they have ever encountered. They are intrigued by the strange molecular structure of both catches. They are also excited by the microscopic material surface deposits that indicate an alien form of DNA. The discovery will no doubt bring millions in funding to those scientists and universities fortunate enough to be selected to conduct extensive research.

Representatives from rapacious blood-sucking companies Nike, Adidas, Converse and other footwear ‘giants’ are en route. Nick Prophit, executive sales director for Nike International said: “This astounding discovery offers the possibility that a race of giants inhabit an area below the ocean floor. If that is the case, and it appears likely, we’re determined to be their supplier of footwear. A few million more slave wage workers is a small price to pay” Gideon La Monopolli, regional CEO for Adidas, quipped: “Adidas has already offered ten billion, give or take a buck, to any oceanographic organization willing to conduct a full-scale underwater investigation that guarantees results” Damian Bhotohmliny, Converse CEO, added: “We have already started overhauling our worldwide production apparatus in anticipation.” Executives for the National Basketball Association haven’t yet been reached for comment.

THE GORILLA OF VENTIMIGLIA

tom briggs
(A television news report)

“Rumors continue to swirl around the Cote d’ Azur regarding the ‘Gorilla of Ventimiglia’. But now it appears that they’re not just rumors. We spoke with several market goers, the mayor of Ventimiglia, a restaurant owner and even an anonymous celebrity. They all assure us that it is indeed true. A 200 kilo gorilla has been spotted throughout the world-famous venue.  Here are some eye-witness accounts from a few of those who were indeed present yesterday at the Ventimiglia market. Over to Jason Linquini, live in Ventimiglia”:

“Thanks Chris. Beautiful Saturday here in Ventimiglia.  Crazy day yesterday, though. Lot’s of happy faces still here.  Lot’s of excitement in the air.  A wonder what a gorilla can do. Let’s start talking with some of those happy folks who were here yesterday”…

“We were here yesterday. We come every Friday.  So we were very surprised when we arrived. We spotted the first of many signs that announced the gorilla’s presence. That and that traffic seemed heavier than usual. Translated into English, the sign roughly read: Gorilla on Foot Patrol (big letters) Do not be alarmed. (slightly smaller) He is an important temporary member of the Ventimiglia Market Police Force. Carry on with your normal shopping. Please do not feed, photograph, distract or attempt to converse with him. (much smaller) Penalties for these infractions start at €150,00 for all non-Senegalese and Pakistani persons.  (you need reading glasses) The above message was blared over loud speakers as well, in Italian, French, and English at regular ten-minute intervals, throughout the market. It added a somewhat disconcerting and unwanted edge of authority to an already uniquely novel market experience”.
Menton resident, Pierre Lafollett

“We learned at the info booth that the ape was added to the force for his remarkable agility and uncanny crime prevention instincts. I guess to help cut down on littering, illegal games of chance, shoplifting and such. I guess his size and potential for violence played into it as well. My wife and I witnessed one episode involving an elderly white-haired woman of a certain girth running as best she could, at that age, with the gorilla in hot pursuit. We heard screams in the commotion as the gorilla easily caught up with her, then quite casually stood in front of the culprit with his arms crossed. Funny, it looked like he was saying  “come on, hand it over”. He was waving his right index finger. Sort of like a grade school teacher. Damnest thing I ever saw.  The slack-jawed  woman complied as she handed over three watches and half a dozen shawls. But the gorilla kept on with his wagging finger. She then relented by handing over the remains of her day’s larceny – a pair of women’s shoes, two cigarette lighters and a beach towel with an Elvis portrait on it. Both of them then just walked on in opposite directions, like it was nothing.”
Billy Bob Williams, Baton Rouge, Louisiana USA

“We seea the gorilla in many places. We thinka maybe that there are many of him. At half pasta one, we see himma by the fountaina. He wassa throwing orange fruita over hissa  head. He then kick it witha his heel! It go over his head and he catcha with hissa righta handa! He thenna peela the orange. Everybody happy about dissa. Theya laugha. We too.  Later, he starta talking witha all the Senegalese! They, all of dema, theya  laughing and maka high five with himma. Theesa not normalla! We love thissa gorilla!”
Antonio Parmasiani, Ventimiglia resident.

“While budgetary considerations were an issue to add the ape to our force, the unfortunate inefficacy and misfeasance of several of the Ventimiglia market police was the prime reason for the experiment. With the market force reduced by some 40% on as yet to be determined future market days, the city will save upwards of €250 thousand per year with the ape on duty. More than a few vendors that I spoke with hailed the move, as theft and littering have been growing concerns.  While the publicity potential for the market was not a reason (really?), we certainly are aware of its advantages.  Incidentally, this remarkable  ‘deputy’ has scored very well on the intelligence tests that are administered to all deputies.  The gorilla outperformed many veteran officers as well as new recruits. Of course his huge strength, quickness and intimation potential is a big plus in the fight against crime, though we are assured by his trainers that he will never resort to violence”
Nino Zucchini Alfredo, Mayor of Ventimiglia

“I seeya fromma my restauranti. Thissa gorilla, he issa facinata witha the Pakistani toys. You knowa, the kinda thata turna into a frieda egga when you throwa atta the sidewalk. He looka  at thissa a many times, because the doll, you know, it comma back fromma a fried egga to a dolla. Thissa funny, but I no likka thissa gorilla. Maybe he throwa somebody to the sidewalk and waita to see iffa they maka into a frieda egga. Dissa I no likka. I no likka why the policia maka him a duputia and do dissa thinga”. I donta serve himma, thissa gorilla, if he comma into my plassa”
Luigi Bambino Meatiballi, Ventimiglia restaurant owner

“I like it. I saw the primate yesterday. Exquisitely beautiful. Charming even. The eternal majesty of primordial rhythm. The sublime otherness. It’s good for Ventimiglia. It’s good for Italy. It’s good for the world. For the universe, maybe. I love this place. Life is good. I’m good. You’re good. Ya got to keep it simple. Screw complexity. Burn it. Blow it up. I’m everything and I’m nothing. Everything is nothing. I gotta tell Martin about this. Maybe a picture. Who knows. Existential message in all this. Could be big. Shame Hunter couldn’t see it. He’d have run with it big. Hunter was crazy. Gonzo crazy. I gotta go. Cut some grapes. Make some wine.  Savour some boeuf bourguignon. Some coq au vin. Fine dine. Do a gig. Shoot a reel. Do a deal. Do a line. Make more wine. Live life. Love life. I gotta go. That’s enough for today”.
Johnny Depp Actor (incognito)

“ We saw him on the bridge. It looked like he was communicating by gesturing with the Romanian concertina player. Suddenly the music stopped and we never heard it again the rest of the day. (brother, do we need that ape in Antwerp) Then he quickly turned and climbed over the balustrade and leaped some fifteen feet to the ground below. He then disappeared behind some tall shrubs. I guess to take care of his natural needs. When he reappeared, he started picking up debris of all shapes and sizes.  ‘Yeah!’ I heard a few in the crowd yell. ‘Trash left by members of another two-legged species’, somebody said. He was moving really fast, arranging it on the ground. After around fifteen minutes, we all could make out the word ‘pigs!’ in lettering a meter high. Everyone started clapping loud and long.”
Dr and Mrs Ernesto Davilo, tourists from Peru

“That’s it from Ventimiglia for now. Back to you, Chris”.

“Thanks Jason. Great job. We just received word from anonymous sources that the ape ’s acquisition and duration as a special police deputy will remain secret. Only that he will work the market on unannounced selected Fridays. It remains doubtful that this uncertainty will keep the avalanche of humanity from inundating the City by the Roya every Friday. We’ll keep you folks posted on this amazing story as details come in.  In other news….”

MARINA 2018 WINTER SOJOURN

tom briggs

Our ten day winter Marina visit was one quarter filled (don’t quote me on that, could’ve been a little over a third) with adventure, approximately one quarter misadventure and the rest filled with the usual predictable expectations. In week two, on a partly grey afternoon in Juan Le Pin, Lieve, I, Spikey and Pepie encountered, or more precisely were accosted by, a  wind storm of bad intent. Getting out of the car to face that meteorological event was a test of upper arm strength or stupidity or both.

As  palms swayed elastically, like in a cartoon, and violence besieged the slate-grey Mediterranean, we  walked, as if up a steep hill, straight into the whistling abomination towards a lunch place on the boardwalk. The wind seemed  determined to  take anything that wasn’t nailed down  (or bolted, glued, but not necessarily items affixed with Velcro tape) into a Wizard of Oz-like vortex of unknown destination. The slashing, metallic knife-like (OK, it could’ve been razor-like) waves danced crazily towards the beach and boardwalk, daring anyone fool enough to enter. The incongruous sun, seemingly observing all this, disdainfully laughed, and said “don’t look at me” while puffy, cuddly high up pinkish clouds yawned with indifference. This dichotomous meteorological  joke was on all who ventured out into the tumult.

Marina Baie Des Anges was peopled by the usual suspects, both resident and gawking anorak clad Yankee-ball-capped visitor types. Philippe and Mark, the two gays who run Lieve’s favourite eatery, the smallish quirky and garish Victoria Restaurant, were gracious as usual. Mark, the rotund one, laughs at everything. It’s all a big joke to him, lucky guy. Geeze, if they could distribute some of his laughter around the world, what a wonderfully hilarious place it would be. Hardly any time for strenuous thinking at all. The ponderous but Teddy Bear affable  Philippe creates great, simple dishes with the best and freshest ingredients, though for this New Year’s offering, the gastronomical compass curiously pointed towards Lunch Garden.

Their  New Year’s party was attended by some forty characters, (squeezed in the small joint like so many sardines) disguised as regular people. The veritable Three Penny Opera cast enjoyed the attendant hoopla celebrating, for God knows why, the New Year. Noise makers, hats, loud music, cold potatoes and chewy steak all welcomed 2018 in. Some were ‘dressed to kill’, others ‘dressed to the nines’, still others were attired in the commonest clothing, as though work-bound and  ready to board a creepy city bus or subway car. Lieve was stunningly beautiful and dressed appropriately for a much higher venue/extravaganza/soiree. Me? I was just sitting there not drinking, as usual, enjoying Lieve’s joy. That, and observing the benign madness that enveloped me.

Ventimiglia was a blustery, wintery experience, but fun as always. Lieve took many great photos there. Especially of the surfers on the Big Sur-like waves that appeared to be a few meters high. Scores of onlookers invariably messed up the best shots, though. We stayed one night at the  ironically named Calypso Hotel.  The manager/owner eyed us with suspicion as we registered. I suppose anyone talking with an American accent while his head is buried in his hood would warrant such wariness.

Of course we ate again at La Vecchia Napoli, (at the foot of the River Roya bridge) where Bruce Willis is the chef. At least that’s what Lieve calls the chef. Try to picture someone who never smiles nor blurts out three consecutive words, wears a white apron, has a bald pate that shines like a mirror, is built like a tree trunk with four thick limbs, has fingers like sausages, is usually carrying a large sharp knife while bearing  a slight resemblance to the movie star and you got it.

While going to our car to exit the municipal parking lot near the police station, we witnessed an altercation between a thirty-something Frenchman of slight to medium frame and a fiftyish Moroccan who was taller and heavier by some twenty kilos.  As the Frenchman was backing out, the Moroccan tapped his horn to avoid a rear/frontal collision. The former took offense to this perfect logic and harangued the latter with racial insults. Lieve was ready to step in between them. My feeling was let them settle it themselves. A shoving/pulling match then ensued, with the livid purple-faced Moroccan getting the better of it. This lurid entertainment only lasted a few seconds, as both Lieve and I stepped between.  We now rightfully qualify for the Nobel Peace Prize. When one considers some of the charlatans who have been honoured with that dubious award, we’re on the short list.

Recovering from a spectacle laced with international implications, we headed towards  ‘Catering’, the grocery store for restaurant owners, only a few kilometres away.  Philippe (yes, that Philippe) had asked Lieve to pick up some ‘Jambon Cru’ (I love the sound. A rock band, perhaps?) He assured her that while she couldn’t use his membership card, she didn’t need one and would only be charged an extra euro to make purchases. I waited in the car while Lieve shopped. After about twenty minutes, she returned crying. “What happened?”, I asked, as I tried to calm her. Lieve replied that she was told by store personal that she did indeed need a membership card.

She immediately called Philippe to explain the situation.  His curt response amounted to a  very convincing impersonation of a jerk and an asshole  “I’m very busy now. I haven’t got time, bye” “Don’t call me when I’m busy” A more wanton display of ingratitude we have never encountered. And from a friend.  When we arrived back at the Marina we immediately confronted him. After several minutes, his apologies started to leak out and before long turned into a veritable waterfall of remorse.  We didn’t accept his offer of a free dinner, but took him up on his whole-hearted and magnanimous offer of free drinks for the next five years.

(Just kidding)

HAPPY 23RD, SWEETHEART!

Anniversary day, the Twenty third,
that day in August, I received the word/

From Lieve of Antwerp, a beauty with shine
who answered my ad in Senior Friend Find/

She took me away, as if by wings not seen,
to a place in her heart, that could only mean/

My once empty life is now full to the brim
with love and adventure, but where is she,
Oh yes, she’s gone for a swim!/

But I rejoice in glee, that she stays so young,
and keeping me happy, while she’s playing her Kung(s)!

THANKSGIVING

Thanks, Mom and Dad, for all the wonderful Thanksgivings back in the sixties and seventies at 253 West First street. Those were priceless occasions of joy and family togetherness. The food never stopped coming out of the kitchen and onto the table. Outside, the wind blew and the leaves sailed fast against and past the window. Uncle Artie cracked a joke and everyone laughed. Then everyone laughed at anyone. Aunt Stella asked for more turnips and I piled high the white meat on my plate. Johnny bought in two Schaefer’s from the fridge. Gene and I went and got more beer, after stopping at City Line Bar. Laura drew a horse and said she would ride it one day. Lorraine said “look, it’s starting to snow” A small argument momentarily sullied the afternoon and the wind blew harder and I heard Pat Summerall bellow “as the clock is winding down at Pontiac Stadium, Bear’s thirty-seven, Lions, three” The whole thing lasted forever or until everyone went home.

The living room light was warm and the laughter was too/
But the sky turned grey and my thoughts to blue/

For I saw high on a limb, across the yard,
a bird of black whose gaze looked hard/
He stared at me with beaded eye,
a forlorn look and I wondered why/

It announced a gloom, it seemed to me,
A portend I dared not wished to see/
The moments spent at the table that day,
were to live past the lives of the guests in a way/

At first, I concluded, as if at a chance meeting,
Love, live and laugh, for it is all so fleeting/

But I then inferred as if through a strange portal,
the only things that are truly immortal/
Are those moments spent together in love,
carried here and forever on the wings of a dove.

A bird so opposite of the one I just saw,
in the yard on the limb, in the wind so raw/

Not all is understood in the white of Light,
One has to see in darkness to attain the might/

That serves so well, in times of travail
of loss, and pain and spirits that fail/

For white makes black and pain makes pleasure,
and time is the guest that we all should treasure/

At the dinner table, we set in haste,
or of time ill spent that went to waste/

For better things are in the offin’,
before you get nailed shut in your coffin/

So show gratitude and mercy to stranger and kin/
to evade the demons you once invited in.

NEIL THE SQUEAL YOUNG

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Neil Young, who recently flipped the bird to president Trump, has reached iconic status over a fifty year career by writing crappy song lyrics then singing them in a crappy soulless, whining voice.  A regular fingernail-on-the-blackboard sound that would be better excused if accompanied by great lyrics. I am truly exasperated that he maintains a huge following, by mostly educated people, no less. I must be deaf. Or blind. Blind as the guy who embarrassingly gazes at an absurdly minimalist painting and misses the deep hidden transcendent meaning that all of his enlightened friends see in it.

For my money, Neil The Squeal Young edges out Jim Morrison as the most overblown so-called poet of pop music since the mid-20th century. They both could win the Jackson Pollock of Music Lifetime Achievement Award. You might ask who-the-hell am I to criticize a musical icon? A nobody like me? While I’ve  never made a dime from writing, please excuse me for having a brain, a pretty good ear, a passion for great writing and almost fifty years of appreciation of top forty music. I haven’t listened to or read all of Neil Young’s hundreds of songs, (Better things to do, like clip my nails) and maybe he has written a few that are good,  but just by surfing  lyrics.com and other lyrics sites I detected a pattern of inanity loaded with vapid, silly, juvenile, insipid and laughable phrasing all punctuated by an overall lack of imagination and innovation.

I’ve naturally heard many of his hits (while a member of CSN&Y) and none of them are in my personal top thousand. Young’s lyrics are not so bad, some might argue. Especially when you compare them with some Gangsta Rap “lyrics” that promote killing whitey, burning the USA to the ground and demeaning and abusing women. Maybe they could then be called benignly mediocre. But if you compare them with  hundreds of other song writers, they are indeed bad. Very bad.

For some seriously beautiful, heartfelt, sobering, truthful, wise, simple, funny, happy, forceful, ironical, witty, sad  and intelligent lyrics, I recommend Bob Dylan, Gordon Lightfoot, Leiber and Stoller, Allan Lee Gordon, Burt Bacharach, Neil Diamond, Ray Davies, John Fogerty, Berry Gordy, Ron Argent, Carole King, Simon & Garfunkle, Bobby Gentry, Don McClain, Elton John, Paul McCartney, Sting, and several hundred others.

I have such a visceral dislike for this guy, that I think I’ll write a song about him. “A guy named Neil, he of the squeal;  pulled a rabbit out of a hat, sang to millions ‘glad you liked that’; Words of a child, notes far worse, this bloody so-called singer is a musical curse; He’s a pompous ass, the worst of his kind, writes  so bad, they should issue him a fine; They swear he’s  a legend, his fans are agape, but I tell you as I stand here, he sings like an ape; His tortured phrasing, his butchered  notes, he’s a drunk in a musical China shop, I’d rather  hear the coyotes…

I admire many lyricists and singers who doubtless hold a left wing world view, particularly writers from the famed Brill Building in New York. However, my observations, from the people that I’ve met, clearly show that the leftwing musical compass always seems to point in one direction. That direction includes Young, John Lennon, Led Zeppelin, Bob Marley, African music, especially Youssou N’Dour, Pink Floyd, The Doors, Grateful Dead, Fleetwood Mac and many others. I suppose I’m showing my age by excluding any artists post 1980’s.  I’m certain though, that AT readers can add to the list.

MONSIEUR VEGAS

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Lieve and I witnessed a dazzling, glittering, hopelessly kitschy spectacle at the Marina last night. Johnny Kool, Johnny Soul, Johnny Rock, Johnny Rhythm, Johnny Be Good, otherwise known as Johnny Vegas (and his band) put on a hell-of-a-show. The very alter-image of the French legend Johnny Hollyday, Monsieur Vegas, in full Post-Elvis-Post Hollyday, Post-Authentic regalia was the sublime affectation of the Real Thing that the crowd was waiting for.

One could reasonably conclude that this latest incarnation slowly morphed into the Legend, never to return to his former self, or that he was born with sideburns, swaggered before he could walk and donned a leather jacket at least a few months before he first sat on a toilet. He threw away the rattler and the bottle for sequins and a mike at six months.

Amid the multi-coloured puffed steam that swirled through the warm June night air while his  wax-like glossy face and shoe-polished black hair glistened in the  bright overhead lights, Johnny and his band wailed away through one electrically charged pop hit rendition after another. Included in the medley were the inevitable Elvis, Neil Diamond, and  CCR hits. The appreciative Marina throng consisted of those standing shoulder to shoulder twelve deep around the platform and hundreds who were seated on the Parthenon-like stairs of the Commodore-Ducal entrance way. You couldn’t slide a Visa card between them.

During intermission the crowd was treated to a Theater of the Absurd-like exercise disguised as group dance performance. Dozens of seniors, attired in colourful dress, were energetically lost in a kind of Arkansas barn or line dance –  amazingly to the music of Stevie Wonder’s “superstitious” I scored the intermission show nine of ten on the Fellini scale and still cannot determine if it was the highlight or the lowlight of the evening.

Halfway through the second half I did a double-take as Jimi Hendrix tapped me on the shoulder. Convinced  that I was on something I didn’t know about or dead, I stupidly blurted out: “Are you a Jimi Woodstock like Vegas is a Hollyday” He snapped back with “What you on, dude? I play real music. Where can I get some rock candy, some base, some nuggets?”  He then disappeared as quickly as he had appeared, while the air still hung heavy with vapors of the joint he was smoking. Naturally, Lieve didn’t see or smell anything, though she admonished me in no uncertain terms for talking to myself. But we both agreed that Spikey was barking and Pepie was growling.

Other band members included an utterly miscast grey-haired 50ish guy who played the sweetest delta blues harmonica. He looked like he belonged behind a desk of an insurance company. Then there was a twenty-something long haired shirtless leather-vested electric guitarist, the type that keeps reappearing in untold numbers of rock bands down through the ages. He was real good. A sax player and a drummer offered their soul, skill and considerable energy to the two hour gig to round out the ensemble.

I  must say that the show was well worth the price of admission which was free. Wise cracks aside,it was a great show!

SAFETY WORLD

tom briggs

Frankie carried a switchblade because one was allowed.  He wore government CorpState-sanctioned oil-stained clothes, the kind with the Ché logo on them.  He was a Punkrebel, who was ready for anything the feds cooked up. Frankie liked the idea of “edging” and living close to death.  He said he did.  And I thought and talked like he did. The government shot real rebels but designated others like us,  as a sort of unofficially-sanctioned ‘rebel’  To the degree that we rebels distained civilized history and reason, logic and art, family and tradition, we were allowed a certain free reign.

Our two tickets cost two hundred eighty-nine demerits apiece on our cash card and that was for the back seats, over 350 feet away.  I had been to GangstaHit a few years ago in Hayward.  Three kills in that one. On the field that is. I think almost two thousand went down in Grand Stand Jam.  A third of the government armed escorts had arrived late.
I knew this would be good. The first place LA Crips were taking on the third-place Kansas City Bloods. They expected 50,000 or more.

The NFL, the CorpState’s  old game, went passé long ago.  GangstaHit is it for adrenalin and testosterone.  And for death.  The big beer companies and fat bureaucrats saw it coming and are making trillions. Nobody walks on the edge like at GangstaHit. On the field or in the stands.   Since the race riots were stopped by martial law, the big hitters behind closed doors decided that money could be made if the whole thing, the riot thing,  went commercial.

We get the rush, us Marin County punks, knowing we may not make it out of the stadium alive.  Living with one foot in eternities door is the only way they say. But we’re really here to get points on our safety cards.  Someone way up there thought of that one. White boys from money had to show something more, prove something. Participate in something dangerous to show what they were made of.  Too much safety, too much comfort, and you could be sentenced to hard labor.

Looked like there were plenty of escorts today. We found our seats while the hip-hop shook the building. The Gangs were warming up, swinging chains, fist fighting one another. The two shooters were taking target practice. Blood’s shooter Kool Papa Ice led the league in kills. He had twenty-six and there were still over ten Blood matches to go in the season. He could break the record.

The Event helicopter, with the giant BankCorp logo on it, hovered above the field. Violations were answered with precision laser shots. They could take out a gangsta or spectator for over a month. GetItOn started and right away Kansas City had three half hits. Crip’s  were down everywhere. This set the pattern for the remainder, and the final was six to two Kansas City.  A big upset.  Four full hits. The Bloods bled, the stadium emptied and we went home with three hundred thirty-four safety points. More than could be said for over a hundred – the tote board flashed – that didn’t make it, in Grand Stand Jam – but that’s GangstaHit.

YEBBIT, YABBIT & THE BOYS

Composite

Yebbit and Yabbit (without their ‘Boys’) left of center, front row, with the Paul Whiteman Orchestra before singing & playing Tin Pan Alley favourites and Madagasgarian compositions at the Roxy Theater opening in New York City, March 11, 1927. Over five thousand were in attendance. (AP Wirephoto)  

BY TOM BRIGGS

The musical duo sensation, mostly forgotten today,  were spotted in Madagascar by the enterprising adventurer and traveler Carl Denim in 1919. A music fan all his life, Denim immediately saw the commercial possibilities in the exciting rhythms of native music of the island nation. Brought to New York the following year, Yibbit & Yabbit and five of their fellow native musicians signed a contract with Owney Madden five years later. Madden was a notorious bootlegger  and owner of Harlem’s famed Cotton Club.  Yebbit & Yabbit first performed at the storied  nightclub in June, 1925 and were an immediate hit.  At times they drew larger (white only) crowds than the big name regulars of the club’s heyday like Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Fats Waller. Continue reading

CHARLIE HEBDO
A LETTER TO A FRIEND

BY TOM BRIGGS

I decided not to publish the below image on Facebook, along with other unpopular postings because I do not speak the language of the country of my residence (Dutch)while taking profit of the liberal European bureaucracy that I loathe so much. It’s easier to critique that which I have no control over, than to tackle personal issues like character development and adult responsibility which require real courage and committed discipline. Continue reading

THE LADY IN RED

tom briggs

I was once at an old ballpark. I saw it when Three Dog Night’s haunting, rolling Momma Told Me Not to Come played in my head . The song stopped and the ballpark was demolished. But the memories have remained .

1970. A humid grey mid May Saturday morning at the Greyhound station on 44th in New York City. There’s a bus. It’s marked “Philadelphia” in white lettering along the top of the front windshield. That’s us. My younger brother Gene and I are going to the City of Brotherly Love. Not to see the Liberty bell, or any other American historical icon. Nor to learn about the Declaration of Independence. No sir. I had wanted to see ancient Connie Mack Stadium, The Lady in Red, home of the Philadelphia Phillies baseball team, since I was around ten years old.  They were going to tear it down in a few months. The Phillies were to move into a brand new  building called Veterans Stadium. Philadelphia was only 90 some miles away along the New Jersey Turnpike. Less than two hours. Continue reading

SENEGAL

tom briggs

Our ten day winter vacation in this West African country was an unforgettable and often surreal adventure. It was a  only a five hour flight but it seemed at least a few light years from Belgium. We were looking for winter hot and we got it, because the dry Harmattan trade-winds help to soar Senegal’s January temperatures to over forty celcius or roughly one hundred and four Fahrenheit. Senegal is a former French colony and while many of its people speak French or Arabic, the native language is  Wolof. There are thirty-five other languages spoken as well. The country is home twelve million inhabitants and almost all of them live in dire poverty. Amazingly many of its poor, who live in simple huts and block houses, have cell phones and music systems.

The one hundred and fifty kilometer five hour taxi-van ride from the airport in Dakar to the Royal Lodge Hotel in Palmarin was an adventure laced with the omnipresent uncertainty that we would ever arrive there.  The road was paved for just the first seventy kilometers. The remaining eighty kilometers was an adventure that reduced auto speed by two thirds. Crowded on either side of most of the paved section were an endless display of buyers and sellers amid all manner of colorful and chaotic entrepreneurial dilapidation. Many often crowded against our vehicle, selling fruits and various Senegalese trinkets. I had never witnessed such a spectacle, such a panorama of bright smiling darkness. As night fell, the last thirty kilometers turned into a lunar-like mud and stone laced nearly undriveable surface. Humanity vanished and the only lights were those from our vehicle. A white-robed native-man suddenly appeared wielding a rifle. I’ll never forget that image. The hearts of all six passengers skipped a collective beat, but fortunately he was friendly and known to our driver.

The Royal Lodge Hotel, an African thatched building with a congenial contemporary look, was a great place to stay and had a beautiful swimming pool that appeared to blend right into the Atlantic Ocean. The patio restaurant offered an ocean view that included the remains of a wrecked cargo ship resting on a sand reef some two hundred meters out to sea. Our bungalow was one of twenty-six, and had a uniquely authentic  yet contemporary African hut styling. It also had a fabulous high ceilinged interior complete with a jacuzzi. Lieve and I met some very interesting people from England, France and Belgium, and the entire staff of the hotel,  all Senegalese except for one Nigerian,  were extremely courteous and friendly. We also made friends with a great group that sold carved wood artifacts out of their straw huts on the beach located near the hotel. Jean Noel, who spoke fluent French, was friendly and very helpful. He became our unofficial guide throughout our stay. Others of this group were Gambian English-speaking Alex, and several other Senegalese. All were accomplished djembe  players. Lieve and I celebrated the New Year by dancing with un-western abandon in the sand to their ageless rhythms in the African star-lit night. Spikey, who was a major hit with everyone, joined in this gala display of inter-continental joy.

Later, we brought the locals some food from the hotel, as well as cigarettes and packets of sugar. That staple is a rare commodity in Senegal. In fact, there exist numerous smuggling operations between salt-rich Senegal and nearby sugar-rich Gambia. On New Year’s night, while I was taking food to them, I saw a distant flashlight glowing in the darkness. We learned the following morning that it was from a pistol-carrying ex-commando who was patrolling the beach for hyenas. These night predators often wander many kilometers in search of dogs or wild pigs. The commando later expressed a liking for the white shirt that I was wearing. Later, I gave it to him. Always nice to have protection. And wise to accommodate anyone carrying a gun. And from a guy who could also pull a tree out of the ground, I’m exceedingly fortunate that he wasn’t desirous of my pants or underwear.

Lieve came close to catastrophe one afternoon while we were walking along the roadway. Two boys aged around thirteen, were racing their donkey-driven carts. One lost control, knocking Lieve to the ground. The donkey’s hoofs inexplicably avoided crushing her. That she also sustained only a minor injury from the wagon wheel that just missed crushing her abdomen is a miracle of sizable proportion. All this in a few seconds. What dark thoughts can race through one’s mind in this sliver of time. We were too far from a hospital, with not a doctor anywhere close. Nor was there sufficient medical  aid at the hotel.

We had just returned from a visit to a village that was actually a cultural/learning center complete with a small museum. The leader was Oozman, a kind and sagacious Uncle Remus type, who left a good position and comfortable life in Dakar to help give hope and substance to young minds. We had a great time there, as everyone was gracious and friendly. All of the children and most of the adults went crazy over Senegalese Spikey. Lieve had an unbelievable rapport with everyone we met, as almost all of the natives spoke French. Of course, Lieve had to later translate into English for me. Most of the locals also spoke the native Wolof. We soon were greeting Senegalese with “nagadef” (hello, how are you?), and said thank you with “jerrijef”.

One afternoon we were driven by car to a marketplace some thirty  kilometers from the hotel. The driver then assigned us a guide who was friendly at first, but not so friendly later. He walked with us through a hellish and foul-smelling catacomb which was inundated as far as the eye could see, with natives of varying ages selling fruits, vegetables and meats in varying stages of decay. They also offered clothing of the type worn by locals along with off-brand western styles. An endless variety of other items, including pots, pans, blankets and the like, rounded out the menu. All this in the midst of the potential insidious serpents of malaria, cholera and yellow fever. The air permeated with the smell of burnt fish, dust swirled and an unfriendly mid-day sun melted our will. After about thirty minutes,  Lieve and I wanted to get the freak out of there. Our opportunistic guide tried to get some extra money out of us, but Lieve held fast. I could’ve told him that you just don’t “spit into the wind, you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, and you don’t mess around with Lieve!  Doo, doo-dee-doo-doo-dee-doo-doo”….!

Another trip of six to eight kilometers was taken by donkey with cart. Not the most accommodating way to travel, I assure you. It heightened the experience of Senegal to traverse the dirt roads in this manner. Riding along the beach, on the way to a nearby village, Lieve spotted a group of about twenty-five “LaLutte” wrestlers engaged in their daily Spartan-like training. Lieve couldn’t resist, and asked the driver to stop. She then brazenly exhorted a few of the group to “let’s get it on”. Our photographic evidence of this epic encounter is priceless.

Other adventures included a foray into the “bush” where we spotted a group of hyenas from a safe distance. Later, we crossed the salt flats for a few kilometers with our guide Pierre. We then boarded a colorfully painted boat of about ten meters long. This craft was  powered by a Yamaha motor appropriate for a boat that could fit in a bathtub.  Pierre then took us about twelve kilometers across a magnificent saltwater lake to an island where very friendly and colorfully clad artisans and sellers of jewelry,  carvings and sand paintings engaged us.

I developed flu symptoms late New Year’s day. By the time we headed back towards the airport, I was feeling pretty bad. Fortunately, we took the precaution of taking malaria tablets every day and were vaccinated before the trip for yellow fever. We passed again the tsunami of humanity on either side of the road to Dakar. A tapestry of disorder strewn with litter of all sizes and makes as far as the eye could see. If this social menace were a cash crop, Senegal would be basking in prosperity. Our African-robed driver, a Michael Jordan look-a-like, was affable and a great driver. He even called when we were back in Belgium to ask if I was feeling better. That’s typical of the Senegalese that we met.

My richest and most enduring memory of Senegal are of its people. Lieve and I and we’re sure Spikey as well, look forward to coming back one day. We returned to Belgium, where most everyone wears a long winter face, with a renewed appreciation for the great conditions in which we live. Inspite of the abject poverty and desolation in Senegal, most of its residents, it seemed to us, shine in contentment.   Their bright smiles tell that their hearts sing. But a growing number of discontented and dispirited others are willing to risk their lives to cross the often angry Atlantic to the safe haven of the Canary Islands. From there on to Spain, France and elsewhere in Europe. The whole experience left me asking a few questions such as: Is contentment the brother of ignorance? Is courage a product of desperate desire? Can a heart be taught to sing?

 

CAMPING

tom briggs

The tent  We started out with a pop-up tent. The circular kind about a meter and half in diameter.  It springs to final shape in a second or two, then takes two hours for the novice to figure out how to get it back into its original shape and ready for storage. Our next tent was a little bigger, an elongated half circle model of about 1.5 meters wide with an infinitely wider learning curve. An abysmal struggle ensued on a wind swept beach to a chorus of benign derision from a group of nearby German inebriants. Those hilarious grainy pre Wright Brother’s films of failed flight attempts came to mind. Continue reading

SAN DIEGO DARK BAR

tom briggs

The sun had just come up and I needed a beer.  Lot’s of canned Coors,  mostly empty, were left over from Saturday. Warm, but with a few  in the refrigerator. No Winston’s left either,  just butts.  Still two hours until that place on University Avenue opened.  I don’t remember the name. They opened at seven. I had twenty bucks in change left. Remnants of last nights McDonald’s lay on my desk and on the floor. How much did I piss away the night before? How much did they steal off the bar? But I had enough cash until the Coo Coo Club opened. There I could tab it. Continue reading

CALIFORNIA DREAMING

tom briggs

One of my all time favorite songs. Every time I hear it, it’s for the first time. It’s on my list of timeless songs. There were many hits from 1964 – 1966 that have that quality. A soulful version of California Dreaming is sung by Johnny Rivers, a great artist who made the Whiskey-A-Go-Go on Sunset Boulevard the place to be for rock bands of the mid-sixties and later. River’s rendition might even be better than the M&P hit. As far as Los Angeles groups of that period, I liked The Turtles, but not The Doors. Continue reading

FAUSTO

tom briggs

The  83 year old white haired craggy faced owner of La Sirena Italian/French restaurant where we dine most every Sunday.  Mastro Geppetto in an Armani suit,  which drapes his wiry frame perfectly, Fausto is the personification of one who takes liberties with others while remaining ready to strike back at any perceived “liberty” taken against him. There once was a famous crooner from Hoboken who had similar traits.

Continue reading

ROYAL TYPOGRAPHERS, 1965

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I had a summer job in New York City in 1965. It was to help pay my tuition for art school. My cousin Carol’s husband Bob, who set type by hand at Royal Typographers on 44th street, helped get me an entry level position as press boy. I would run a block of text, set in metal type, through a small press. It would produce a proof for the client. Usually for an advertising agency like Doyle Dane Bernbach, BBD&O or Grey Advertising.  Continue reading