Monthly Archives: February 2018

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

 

 

 

 

 

OUT WITH THE OLD IN WITH THE WHAT?

tom briggs
Copyright Tom Briggs 2018

They moved out the old, and ushered in the new.
A bit too sudden, that much is true/
They regarded the past, with utter contempt.
They slaughtered the truth, now all beaten and bent/

They besieged heroic icons of yesteryear,
While turning common decency on its ear/
They constructed the new order, of totalitarian design
based on lies and manipulation of the worst kind/

It all came down as generations flew by.
Because what’s lost makes the knowing cry/
So welcome the new, the glorious now
It’s the One World Order where politicians cow/

To bosses unseen who wield the power
Of profit and control from their Ivory Tower/
Where are the dissidents of yesterday?
Who sang the songs that promised to slay/

Injustice, poverty, ignorance and vice ,
Their words were hollow but the glory was nice/
Now is the day where  iconoclasts are muzzled,
Speaking  truths that have the ignorant fools puzzled/

So hush, don’t say this or don’t say that.
Someone might snitch, the dirty rat!/

Getting protection from the State
Beneficiary and chooser of a cowardly fate/
Where are the Dylon’s, the songsters of protest?
When ability doesn’t matter, even for the best/

When Whitey and reason reel in geno-cide/
Because they’re the oppressors, when the truth has died/
A slow and calculated death of suffocation
A strangling of will and guilt equals desolation/

So they get the credit, those icons of ‘equalitee’
Who live behind gates, and yell ‘listen to me’/
Don’t build the wall, the world is my brother
Though I’m not home, they needn’t bother/

To knock on my door in Beverly Hills,
Think I’m going to solve these social ills?/
I’ve got a picture to make, pays ten mil.
So don’t bother me now, I’ve had my fill/

The conservatives who whine for the gloried past.
They think all good things should last and last/
But it never existed, at least not for all
They say more races have money at the mall/

But the ‘mall’ is fast closing, the lights they’re dim.
The revolution is over, it’s sink or swim/
Only the fat-rich-cats will stay above water.
The rest, hapless pigs – ready for slaughter.

TRAINS,BRUSSELS & LILLE

tom briggs
Copyright 2018 Tom Briggs

Lieve and I boarded our train for Brussels at Antwerpen Centraal, a cathedral-like station of medieval styling with a vast steel and glass domed ceiling. The intricate stonework and painstaking detailing seem to have been created as payment to the god’s, perhaps for an eternal train  pass. It’s immense size and grandeur render all within its corridors into frantic ants. An exalted and cavernous entity where I half- expected a raven or bird-of-prey to swoop down from one of the sarcophagus-like window fittings. A gargantuan renewal and extension was completed a few years ago that has resulted in a pleasing melding of the old and the new. A great many boutiques and fine eateries are along its two level route.  No doubt one of the most impressive train stations in all of Europe.

The station’s prodigious depth was expressed when we had to take three very long gleaming stainless steel escalators down from street level to board our train. I still cannot figure out how it’s possible to descend halfway to China (ok, maybe a third) and exit from tunnel darkness into the light at street level, though come to think of it,  I vaguely remember seeing two people that looked strangely like Lieve and me, going up on another escalator during our descent. This station apparently has properties that occur only in transcendent realms.

We soon were passing  a wintery grey and uninspiring quilt of cities and farms. The stretch from Mechelen, (about half-way) to Brussels,  was a visual statement that has probably not changed since cities existed. The nearer to Brussels, the more defacement of property, the more bums on the streets, the more  displays of shoddiness and dereliction, in buildings, autos and signage. A depressing scene to say the least. But it makes Brussels no different than most other cities when entering  by train. However, Antwerp’s poorest enclaves thankfully don’t come close to what I saw. All this was in stark contrast to entering Brussels Centrum by car. Then one is surrounded by the grandeur of European architecture and style. Palaces of wealth and power, both historical and new, rise like a forest of opulence and grandiosity over a perspective-vanishing stretch of Regentlaan(D) / Boulevard du Régent (F)

Brussels main train station, Brussels Midi Zuid,  was a blur of humanity, giant lighted schedule boards and automated ticket machines. Along several walkways filtering out from the main area were dozens of fast-food restaurants and boutiques.  A sign on the floor warned to be wary of pick-pockets as we adroitly zigzagged our way about through a continuous crisscrossing of hurried pedestrian traffic. I counted five thousand, forty-nine heads bobbing on top of mostly anoraks, usually neutral in color. (just kidding) A few homeless and the requisite para-commandos on patrol, rounded out the human element. We had lunch at a veggie-joint called Greenway. Lieve and I both had a very good dressing-laden veggie-wrap. A wrap so thick  one could risk a dislocated jaw from eating it in a normal sandwich way. A knife and fork were the ticket.

When we entered the train bound for Lille,  all was quiet, with only a few other passengers on board. The interior was in fairly new condition, was litter-free and had  soft comfortable seats. I looked forward to the next forty-five minutes of conversing with Lieve, gazing at the passing countryside or reading.  A place and time to relax and think serene thoughts. Enjoy the romance of train travel. Such a short-lived expectation. A naive notion that was felled like a house of cards. Our car was soon inundated with the smiling, laughing, rosy-cheeked sons and daughters of privilege, many of them toting ski equipment.  In no time, every seat was taken. It might as well have been a city bus. The romance went out the window. Or at least the sense of relaxation.

Oh, I could still talk with Lieve, read a book or look out the window, but something had changed. Maybe if it were a crowd of touristy seniors? Of forlorn refugees? Or of hooded young street blacks? Would I then have longed for the relative merits of an inundation of twenty-something’s who had everything? Maybe this, this romance  was never possible to begin with. Maybe it was just my imagination running away with me. I might’ve been thinking of trains in old black and white movies from seventy years ago.  Because this seventy year old was longing for re-entry into a past unencumbered with the reality that it once possessed. Now that illusionary past glistens like a diamond against this, this time and world. This train. It beckoned with a beguiling smile, and said: That’s when trains sounded like trains. That’s when they looked like trains and smelled like trains. And moved like trains. The landscape went by slowly. The conductors shouted the next stop. “Willowby, next stop Willowby”  I’m damn well certain that I would’ve been as discontented or more precisely mal-contented about a whole slew of things had I been on one of those trains in 1947, at age seventy.  Back in my day only counts for my generation.

Lille, Capital of French Flanders
While we had visited Lille a few times in the past, we had always arrived by car, so this was our first time entering the city by train. The Lille station looked contemporary. I found out later that it was completed in 1993. The building is a grey, soulless, formless heap of abstraction. A concrete and steel pile of dung disguised as a railway station. A visual cacophony with ugly site lines everywhere.  No matter where you looked, nothing was pleasing to the eye.  Only a government financed project could produce such ugliness. Such alien form.  Every square inch of the place said to me that its designers and planners were well-pleased with this monument to their collective egos and vision. Most unfortunate that the proletarians who use the station would not ever get it.

Is it possible that a group of architects could be so unimaginative and so blind to aesthetic form or is it that the blueprints had to conform to the abstractionist post-modernist post-taste parameters of the Post-Christian-Post-Reason-Post-Sanity- State? There was a coldness to the place that made the February temperature of two celsius balmy by comparison. But that didn’t matter because if the station at first gave the appearance of being indoors, it was nothing of the kind. In fact, it may very well have been a degree or two colder than outside. We saw many warning type signs and I asked Lieve what they meant. Translated from the French, the signs read: You are required to wear a sullen, blank expression at all times. Failure to comply with this mandate may result in a fine or penalty.  Luckily, as is my habit in such an environment,  I was already wearing such an expression. Lieve tells me that I wear it more than I think.

Fortunately, amid this sea of alien formlessness, was a beautiful piano. There, a young lady of about fifteen sat, flawlessly playing what sounded to me like difficult classical and contemporary pieces. What a dichotomy, as beauty and form and rhythm and composition and taste and drama filtered through the pavilions and waiting areas and walkways and causeways and escalators of grey steel and concrete, all of which were devoid of those qualities. It reminded me that this train station experience could’ve been infinitely worse if Eminem-like sounds had been piped in through the speaker system.

A barren  area of some three city square blocks was at the ground floor level as one exited the escalator.  This vast, treeless, mindless concrete stretch of nothingness apparently served as a pedestrian mall of some sort. One could observe, going up the opposite escalator, an area at ground level of some fifty meters long by twenty five meters wide. This monstrosity served as some kind of pool, of perhaps ten centimeters in depth. Its water was a horrid rust colour and was decorated with all manner of debris. In the station’s near vicinity were tall buildings of an alien aspect, quite possibly designed by the same architects. No need to elaborate on that.

Ironically, only half a kilometer away (or about one hundred and fifty years away), is the other Lille train station, the Gare de Lille Flandres. This is a magnificent Neo Classical train station built somewhere between the mid and late nineteenth century. This is a building with heart and soul. There is love of craft in every brick and girder. It retains a quiet majesty and timeless beauty. A dignified and proud symbol of a by-gone time. This station is highly conducive to human beings who feel things and appreciate grandeur, visual harmony and great architecture. It invites you in, whether or not you are aware of it. If all this makes me a philistine, so be it. We only spent a few minutes there. Too bad we didn’t bring our cameras.

Lille Centre Ville has hundreds of beautiful mid-to-late nineteenth century buildings of ornate design. Wonderful and charming neo-classical structures of Beaux Arts and Baroque styling. Many painted in soft yellow or tan tones. Of course, while these buildings convey a past richness and glory, rats were still a daily menace while they were being built. I think about such things when I criticize the present too much! It also has an endless supply of boutiques and shops where corporate clothes are bought by the hordes of twenty-something’s  who come to Lille as if part of an orchestrated avalanche. After all, this is a university town. Thousands upon thousands, most not varying in age by more than five or six years, converge in the center of the city on weekends. A smattering of homeless, usually accompanied by a dog,  the inevitable Romanian beggars, or mendicants, no doubt trained at the Romanian College of Begging, a squad of four uzi-toting para commandos ostensibly there to protect everyone from terrorism, and hundreds of cafe/restaurant-goers bent on an hour or two of small talk, big talk, gossip, and other salacious verbal morsels, over  latté, Sauvignon or Kronebourg 1664.  This diversified mix rounded out the human environment.

Lille has many terrific cafés and terraces in the centre ville area. On the street where we’ve visited a few times in the past, there are some twelve to fifteen terraces, usually filled with happy people. It’s much more Parisian in character than tourist. Luckily, there weren’t too many other seventy year old Americans in attendance!  Lieve and I used to eat at a restaurant on this street called Le Chicorée, which is still there. One day around twelve years ago, Lieve had asked me to make a reservation for two people at our favourite table, table forty-nine. I approached the person behind the counter, using as many French words as possible, which was three. The rest was in English, which was not understood. Both languages were accompanied by hand gestures by which I tried to indicate that table forty-nine was upstairs. That section of the restaurant was off-limits during that time of day. This person then said something that indicated that he would check with another person. A minute later, I’m vainly explaining all over again in my three word French and useless English to this higher-up that I would like to reserve table forty-nine. So he’s nodding his head in a tentative way that suggests to me that he doesn’t know what-in-hell I’m talking about.

But then he gives me a half-smiling look of assurance, which communicated to me that he somehow miraculously understood me. Indeed, I thought he was going for a pen and reservation book. Some five minutes later, in comes a  third person, very well dressed. Very boss-looking. This boss-looking individual wore an expression and countenance that said authority, experience and stature, if not wisdom. So I went through my well-rehearsed plea for the third time. He is only speaking French, mind you. To my utter amazement, this boss-looking guy very confidently-like  grabs a reservation book and writes in my reservation. I am delighted and like a boy with a toy, I scamper back to where Lieve was waiting and proudly give her the good news, while describing the delightful time I had in arranging things. The following day we arrived at Le Chicorée at the appointed time and forty-nine tables that we didn’t reserve were ready. True story.

Return Trip I had to use the station restroom, but discovered that there was a charge of seventy-five euro-cents. I’m sorry, I don’t pay to open my fly., unless I offer to pay. It’s an insult, otherwise. So I determined to find a no-fee-pee-place.  After crossing two streets in heavy traffic, I entered the Ibis Hotel,  on the opposite corner from the station entrance-way, passing  a heroin addict curling in embryo formation on the sidewalk right in front. After a five minute search, I found the restroom, only to discover that a room key-card was needed for entry. Who could blame the Hotel for such precautions? What with long-haired seventy-year-old well-dressed Americans roaming the grounds?

So I exited and re-crossed the street, heading west.  I soon found an appropriate concrete corner. Sufficiently hidden, this had to be the vilest nook in Belgium. An epicentre of filth. A veritable shit-hole central. I reconsidered, and started walking. As I passed some forty meters under the darkly monolithic train trestle, a rusting red and white sign announced: This area is zoned for mugging. Enter at your own risk. The street was cobble-stoned and filled with litter. After another hundred meters or so,  I  entered a dingy tavern where a few haggard’s lingered over drinks and shattered dreams. I saw toilet on a door, then entered.  I almost fell down a flight of stairs, which began immediately and without warning. Into a solid black darkness I descended where I searched for the toilet. I felt somehow shanghaied, half expecting a club over the head. Miraculously I found the john and a light switch. The only light in this…..place. My business done, I then had to feel my way out in the black abyss. I offered pay the barmaid, but she kindly refused. All this for my thick-headed unwillingness to adapt to the changing times in which it goes without saying that one’s pocket will be picked here, there and everywhere.

We boarded our train without a problem, and were soon on our way. Then I saw through the train window at Brussels Nord, alabaster and olive-colored whores in  lighted store windows advertising their voluptuousness in a slum where any light, any color, any promise of pleasure, seemed a vain temporary distraction from drudgery.  But I guess the pimps must love it. And of course the Johns. I saw a giant banner that advertised: Forty Third Annual International Pimps Convention. Brussels Sharitoné  April 12-14. It made perfect sense in this European bastion of conventions. That’s it. Hey, you give me all of this grey steel and concrete and grey skies and grey-clad denizens and grey silvery rainy wind and grey food and I’m going to write grey. Color is for another day. And for another, more imaginative writer. Gratitude?  I had plenty of it for this delightfully grey day. I’m in my element of intoxicating sourness on a day like today.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

WALKING WITH SPIKEY & PEPIE

tom briggs

At least three times a day, over the past eight years, I walk our dogs Pepie and Spikey. Pepie is an eight year old  black short-haired Mini-Pincher of about six kilo’s, while Spikey is ten years old and is a coffee-coloured Pincher-Jack Russell mix.  Spikey is a hefty ten kilos. I say hefty because he’s only around twenty-five centimeters in height. If my math is correct in figuring it for eight years, that’s one thousand ninety two times per year times eight which equals eight thousand seven hundred and thirty six walks with both dogs. Add to that  the two thousand one hundred eighty four times that I walked only Spikey and it comes to a grand total of ten thousand nine hundred and twenty walks. And that’s a conservative estimate because it doesn’t factor in  extra walks on weekends and innumerable vacations during that time, where the duration and frequency of daily walks was/are increased. So we’re looking at a figure somewhere between eleven and twelve thousand walks.

Now let’s have a little fun with the kilometers. The average daily Pepie & Spikey Walk or Pipey & Specky Walk (as my occasional attacks of  dyslexia inverts the names) in our neighbourhood is as follows: Two modest walks of minimally 200 hundred meters and one walk of about six hundred meters, on average.  These are round trip totals and bring the yearly total to three hundred sixty five kilometres per year. At eight years that’s two thousand nine hundred and twenty kilometers. Now let’s throw in the two years walking only Spikey. Three hundred sixty five times two times two equals seven hundred thirty. That brings the grand total to three thousand six hundred and fifty kilometres total. With those numbers, I think I know these dogs.

The Walk  It’s not aerobic walking, I can tell you. There’s walking and then there is Pepie-Spikey Walking. The latter are constituted of stop and go, standing and waiting and not infrequently doubling back a few meters when either dog needs another sniff or two to decide whether or not to leave his calling card. This appears to be their version of window shopping.  I‘ve learned to be fast on my feet when Pepie suddenly stops or crosses right in my path as I’m walking. It seems he is incapable of spatial judgement and as a result, sometimes gets his legs/paws kicked or stepped on. Lieve and I think he suffers from myopia or poor peripheral vision. Fortunately I’ve become an adroit rope-skipper, thus saving him from injury. So far. On the other hand, Spikey is in perfect sync with me, as he is adept at anticipating my movements. I also skip rope, pirouette, cross arms and hop on one leg when the leashes cross or when Pepie, wanders behind me, which is frequently. While I don’t get an aerobic workout with these two, I’ve developed the foot quickness of an NBA guard, the hand speed of a magician and have added several centimetres to my arm length. The latter as a result of both dogs pulling in opposite directions.

Territory, Curiosity and Bombs Spikey is The Master of Indecision and often takes forever to leave his mark. Like a guy in a pool hall who takes an eternity to line up a shot. First the left leg is raised. Then the right one. Then he looks right, then left. He decides ‘not this tree, I’ll try the next one’. Same routine. Right leg, then left leg. Looks around. No mark yet. Two, sometimes three trees later, he commits. I think he’s somehow contacting a special consulting agency embedded into his psyche, weighing the feasibility and complicated variables of such an action. Or weighing the long-term ramifications. Or maybe everything has  to be in alignment with the planetary system. It’s all about universal angles that only astrophysical geniuses, mathematicians and dogs like Spikey understand.

Spikey is Sherlocking when he’s walking with his nose fixed to the ground. He is searching for a very important clue, perhaps the Holy Grail of scents. Maybe some equivalent of a narcotic or some hint as to his antecedent identity. Pepie on the other hand, doesn’t want to miss anything, as his nose is everywhere, like a ball in a pinball machine. Hyper-frenetic to the max, reducing attention deficit disorder to tranquility by comparison.

On the longer walks, there are some sixty trees along the route.  Both dogs commit scores of times per day. Where is all this marking juice coming from? Is it somehow manufactured on the spot? Pepie, with his long black legs, has perfect form. Very high leg lift. Great balance. Acrobatic even. Not unlike those high-beam gymnasts in the Olympic games.  Deft, capable and athletic. All the cards show the number ten.  The dog is flawless. Sometimes Spikey and Pepie will do a ballerina gig together. While almost butt to butt, they’ll  leg-lift  as one. Beautiful symmetry and synchronicity. Score that a ten also. Spikey sometimes half-legs it or old-dogs it or trap-doors it. Meaning that he’ll lift his leg only halfway, which conveys a certain laziness or half-effort. The trap-door appears to require the least effort and differs from the other two half modes in that it creates a  little crease or fold in Spikey’s piglet-like thigh, giving the impression that his stream is somehow emanating from a hidden trap door.

On the underside of things, Pepie’s indiscriminate and wanton territorial presumptions have no equal. When it comes to leaving his mark, he defers to no one, and would lift a leg on the king’s or prime minister’s shoe if afforded the opportunity. It’s hilarious to speculate what might happen if Pepie were let loose in a Brussels chandeliered state room of antiquity, opulence and refinement, filled with the high-brows of importance and pretence. Pepie brings a bit of the hood with him wherever he goes.

Pepie squats in a kind of disciplined military by the book perfect form tripod-style when he sets to drop one. But he does so very suddenly, and occasionally leaves it vertically on the side of something,  such as a tree. Isn’t that special, that’s so cute. Or where it’s completely hidden and inaccessible.  A regular Houdini. It was just there. I saw it. Now it’s gone. Spikey is a cluster bomber  and often produces a trail of four or five products. Sometimes they indicate a letter ‘S’, ‘O’, or another letter. Is he using advanced coding? I should study this more closely. Very forensic. Both dogs will attempt to bury their offering, but spraying  one another with dirt, grass and worse is apparently much preferred to accuracy. Is each is getting even for past insults or slights? Perhaps attaching a rear view mirror to their collars is the ticket.

Spikey and Pepie sometimes go real-dogging. That’s when they attempt to eat the vilest, rancid-looking, decomposing substances available anywhere on the ground. Their genus canis wolf-like antecedents from way back had to scrounge for anything, so there you go. Food is food. Or is it more precisely like a Pollock is a Rembrandt to the blind. It’s as if they hadn’t eaten for days. Attempting to take it away from them is offering a wolf your precious fingers for lunch.  I cannot relax my vigilance, not for a second, not with these two Neo-Wolves.

Spikey is an instigator and provocateur. He’ll bark and snap out at other dogs for reasons only he knows. Even to dogs across the street, or from similar distances, he’ll aggressively bark and pull hard as if to say: Let me at him, I’ll kill him! But it’s all bluff, because I tested it once by dropping the leash. No attack. No punches were thrown.  Pepie, on the other hand, is OK with other dogs, at least until somebody says something about somebody’s mother. Then it’s an insult-laden war. Also, when Pepie sees that Spikey is upset, he’ll join in, for reasons that probably he doesn’t even remotely know. Or is it: What did you say about my brother?

Love is measured in different ways. I love Spikey because Spikey is Spikey, but I love Pepie because Lieve loves Pepie. Actually, I’ve come to appreciate Pepie, to understand and have empathy for him. So that’s love too.  Spikey is a uniquely handsome dog.  He’s also a real charmer with a circus clown’s sense of playing up to people’s reactions. He is magnetic and draws everyone’s attention. He’s also a bit of a prankster who plays the angles to get his way. Pepie doesn’t have those talents or endowments.

Pepie stands in the shadows while everyone admires Spikey. I’ve learned patience and tolerance in looking past Pepie’s short comings of judgement and recklessness. I feel for him because he is the outsider. The refugee dog.  A dog with a likely tumultuous past that nobody knows about. So if Spikey is the sun, Pepie must be the shadow. And with all of the kilometers in the sun and shadows, in the rain and snow and wind over all these years,  I never tire of walking them. And when one of them is no longer around, it’ll be a half-empty walk. Less chaotic for certain. And much less of an adventure. But I’ve been very fortunate for these past ten years, walking Spikey and Pepie. Or have they been walking me all along?

EDWIN QUINN GOT KICKED IN THE HEAD

tom briggs

I remember there was a drug store on Thirteenth and West First, and the 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 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 near the Sunshine Biscuit garage where I once saw Robert Duncan, he had a marine’s neck like he was headed for Tulane or something, slap boxing with Tommy D’Nisco while the sun was setting beyond the New Haven tracks, where Robert & Willie Basciano and I used to lay large nails on the tracks and wait them it to become a knife and it was sad, real sad about Tommy, cause I saw him in uniform in Katherine’s Tavern on Fifth in ‘66, I think, before he left for Vietnam… and me and my Irish cousin Johnny used to slap box too, reddening one another 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 ‘cause your balls will squish like grapes if you don’t and the  Italian lemon ice melting on my arm after looking too long at Maureen, then there was the music that played forever like Del Shannon and the Ronnette’s and 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 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, ‘cause 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 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 in 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 I loved it. And we drove to New Jersey, I forgot why but it looked nice with the rain and red lights and neon along and  on 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 ways 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 Mrs Kincher hanging around. Lookout, Russell just threw a sizable rock through the New Haven Train engineers 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”..