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Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Art of the Outdoor Grill

Let's encourage the return of warm weather with a piece from thirteen years ago that needed little updating.

                                                                                   

IT TURNS OUT THAT I didn’t know anything about grilling at all. Oh, sure, we’ve long had a nice kettle unit, and year after year would dump in charcoal briquets, squirt in some fluid, wait for white coals and sizzle away.

Then my cousin Billy Ray showed up. He’s from the south – suffice it to say I’m a Hatfield descendent – and he regarded my outdoor setup with an expression that shriveled my burgers in shame.

“You haven’t got a clue, now, have you?” he asked in a no-nonsense tone. “Tomorrow we’re going to git you started and have some barbecue.”

He intended it to be a celebration, which is, after all, the provenance of barbecue. When Spanish explorers first spotted Caribbeans grilling whole pigs in a lattice of green wood suspended over a smoking pit, they adapted the native word for it into barbacoa, whence our term. As near as anyone can figure, it’s always been a slow cooking process because tougher meats were usually being grilled into submission.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Stooge on the Doorstep

YESTERDAY I DREDGED UP a piece from 1987 that described, and not without attitude, some of the spirit of the Nicholson thrall that grabbed Albany-area people during the shooting of “Ironweed.” A similar frenzy gripped Schenectady last year when filming of “The Place Beyond the Pines” brought Ryan Gosling and Eva Mendes to town.

“Oh, come on,” you protest. “Show some sympathy. Was there never a time in which you shamelessly sought the company of somebody famous?”

Of course there was. A somebody more famous than anyone you’re ever likely to meet. Keep in mind that the course of my work has put me in contact, by phone or in person, with many childhood idols, and I’ve learned to treat these events as unremarkable. Usually there’s an interview to pursue, which doesn’t work if the interviewer is busy being star-struck.

Such was not the case, however, when I was ten years old, which puts this story in 1966. My family lived the commuter suburb of Ridgefield, Connecticut, about ninety minutes from Manhattan. Our street, Hessian Drive, was in the geographical center of town. It was a short cul-de-sac flanked by six houses.

A seventh house sat near enough our street to seem part of it, but its formal address was North Salem Road, an adjacent main thoroughfare. It was larger than any of the Hessian Drive estates, and predated the arrival of the street. It was owned by a family named Gelfman. Unlike the other modest properties, they had a fabulous yard with trees and lawn space.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

One Can at a Time

From the Vault, Jimmy Breslin Edition: Twenty-five years ago, the movie Ironweed was filmed in parts of the Albany area, a process that included a makeover for the recently closed Miss Albany Diner. Back then I lived near downtown Schenectady, and recorded the following conversation at a long-gone State Street store called Baum's News. The piece was literarily enhanced for publication, but, as anybody can attest who's witnessed the weirdness celebrities can inspire in civilians, not by much.

                                                                                 

THE NICHOLSON SIGHTINGS have been getting more frequent in my neighborhood, and I don't live anywhere near Menands.

“Oh, sure, saw him at the Price Chopper on Route 9,” said one old-timer, a guy named Pete. “He was buying frozen vegetables. Looked to me like Bird’s Eye.” Pete’s a stooper up at the track come summer, so you know he’s pretty observant.

But there are skeptics. “You sure about that?” asked Tiny Bob. “I seen those movies of his on cable. He’s pretty mean. If it was really him, I bet he wouldn’t stand for no snooping around his vegetables.” Tiny Bob’s kind of unique inasmuch as he really is tiny, about five-foot-zip with a hat on.

We were hanging out at the Newsroom. The afternoon paper had just come in with another piece of sensationalism about that Ironweed project. But we’re all pretty blase here in Schenectady.

“That sumbitch did that picture with Ann-Margret, I forget the name,” said Roy, clacking his dentures for prurient emphasis. We call him “Beef Liver Roy” because that’s all he eats over at Ruby’s since he got his new choppers. He made a high-pitched hog-calling sound and went out of commission for the next several minutes, submerged into an oblivion of Ann-Margret fantasy.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Protecting Us from the Evil of Protecting Us from Evil

AND NOW RICK SANTORUM is going to abolish porn. With a hundred years of hindsight, we see Anthony Comstock struggling to keep “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” off the New York stage and looking ridiculous enough to provoke George Bernard Shaw to comment that the U.S. had become “a nation of Comstockery.”

But even as he was laughed into oblivion, other crusaders erupted on the scene. Check out Edward De Grazia’s Girls Lean Back Everywhere for a scholarly study of the attempts to keep Ulysses, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, and Lolita (among many others) off our shelves. Then get a copy of Bob Rosen’s Beaver Street to find out how more explicit porn evolved in recent years.

Today is the official U.S. publication date for Rosen’s book, although fearless Amazon.com is listing only a Kindle edition and some overpriced copies from other sources. The best online source I've found so far is Powells Books. (It was published last year in the U.K., so you’ll see copies from British sources as you search.)

A signal moment in the history of porn took place in 1969, when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that you could look at whatever turned you on in your own home. In response, President Johnson formed a Commission on Obscenity and Pornography – which only seconded the High Court’s decision, noting that the shouldn’t “seek to interfere with the right of adults who wish to do so to read, obtain, or view explicit sexual materials.”

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gregor Piatigorsky: The Bum Rap

HE WAS RICHARD STRAUSS's favorite cellist. He commissioned works from Stravinsky, Hindemith, Walton, Prokofiev and others. He recorded and performed for over twenty years with the world’s greatest violinist. His good looks got him Hollywood offers, offers he spurned. Yet his legacy has diminished considerably since his death in 1976.

I wrote earlier about seeing Gregor Piatigorsky perform in 1975 at Carnegie Hall, when I witnessed an artist technically on the far side of his peak but with a command of the music that only comes from a lifetime of study. When you see him in the short film he made in the early ’50s, when you get beyond its goofy plot about a dizzy-blonde TV hostess trying to discover the “real” Piatigorsky, you see a charismatic artist in total command of his instrument.

In his prime, he was considered second only to Pablo Casals in terms of talent and appeal. Although both would be considered romantic players today, Casals was a throwback to 19th-century romanticism, while Piatigorsky’s playing is tuned to the new angularities of 20th-century sounds.

He urged both a concerto and a sonata from Hindemith, himself a violist. The concerto’s 1941 premiere took place at Tanglewood to great acclaim, but Piatigorsky never commercially recorded the piece.

And therein lies one of the legacy problems. As memories like mine fade away, all we have left are the recordings. “Piatigorsky was never in love with the recording studio,” writes his biographer (and former student), Terry King, in the notes to an important six-CD (and one-DVD) collection on the West Hill label. “(He) preferred playing to live audiences. It is therefore fortunate that air check recordings of some of his concerts have survived.”

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Intern and the Hollandaise: A Cautionary Tale

Haziz Likovic instructs the young author
in the fine art of Hollandaise Sauce
THERE ARE TWO very distinct paths to follow to achieve restaurant chefdom. One is to work your way through the ranks. By the time you end up in charge, you’ve worked every station and seen every disaster and learned what it’s like to crank out a hundred dinners or more in the space of a Saturday night hour.

Or you can go to culinary school. There you work in a fishbowl created to satisfy curriculum requirements, and you generally don’t taste the real world until you grab an internship towards the end of your studies. This is a story about one such encounter.

(There also are hybrid approaches, such as putting in a few real-world years and then grabbing a culinary degree, or seeking a variety of kitchens in which to work, usually for nothing, preferably in widely spaced parts of the world. Based on my many interviews with chefs, these are the rarest but often most fulfilling paths.)

My entry into the professional kitchen occurred when I was barely into my 20s and already had put in a few years as a fine-dining waiter. Fed up with a particular chef-owner, I’d stormed off in the middle of Friday dinner, my anger satisfied but the rent still due. Fortunately, a friend who worked as a waiter at a nearby white-linen joint told me that, while they needed no floor staff, the chef was looking for someone who’d been in the business but not in the kitchen.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Shut Up

LIKE DON BASILIO'S calunnia, it begins as a susurrus, intruding over the sound of the entertainment in front of you. Soon enough it achieves its full volume. It was never any less, but your brain refuses to admit to you a couple of things. One: People behind you actually are talking. Two: They’re not going to stop.

This is most common in movie theaters, which I’ve all but ceased to patronize because of the aural discomfort. Oh, hell, let’s throw in the texters, too, their pasty faces made pastier by the light of their silvery screens. But they also attend the concerts and plays I attend to enjoy and, often, to review. Perhaps the frequency with which I hit theater seats means I’m subjected to it more often than most. I’ve already bitched in these columns about the octogenarian classical-music crowd and their damn candy wrappers, but it’s the talkers who once again exercised me today, with a fascinating wrinkle.

The scene: Albany’s Spectrum Theater, the area’s cinematic art house. I begrudge them not the nuisance of sharing a line with overchatty “Hunger Games” attendees. That’s how the Spectrum pays the bills, and allows me to seek out such fare as the NT Live production of “The Comedy of Errors,” which played today.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Avonlea

Mike Pendergast  |  July 3, 2005  |  Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, March 23, 2012

Don’t Turn That Page!

Working in Coffeehouses Dept., Part Three. Jean Shepherd, best known for books like In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash (from which the movie “A Christmas Story” was drawn), Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories, The Ferrari in the Bedroom, and others, told the story on his long-running radio show about looking in bookstores to see where copies of his stuff were displayed.

The temptation, of course, was to improve upon it. If they were on a lower shelf, he’d move them up. If they were displayed spine out, he’d give them a quarter turn so the cover faced front.

What was unpleasant was to be lurking by the shelf when a customer stopped to peruse titles . . . and didn’t select one of his. Even worse was to see someone pick up one of his books – then put it back and move on. “What could I say?” he wondered.

I sympathize with his pain. As noted previously, I put in a lot of coffeehouse time. I get more work done in what’s a less-distracting environment than my office at home, with the never-ending chores of organizing my shit beckoning far more appealingly than finishing a writing job ever does.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Norman Conquest

More from the Vault Dept.: In an earlier piece I posted today, former Proctor’s Theater artistic director Dennis Madden noted (in 1987) that his pursuit of a recital by opera star Jessye Norman “was a three-year project. I wanted her ever since Musical America yearbook named her Artist of the Year. She doesn’t do a lot of recitals.” She sang at the Schenectady theater on Mon., Feb. 2, 1987. In the week leading to her recital, even as she was performing to full houses at the Metropolitan Opera, ticket sales were abysmal. Two days following her Proctor's appearance, Norman was scheduled to repeat the program at Carnegie Hall, which sold out well in advance, and with such demand that another hundred seats were sold onstage. And Carnegie Hall is the same size as Proctor's. Ultimately, something like 600 tickets were sold. And 600 smart people enjoyed the program I describe below.

                                                                         

JESSYE NORMAN IS A POET. She proved it in the course of her song recital at Proctor’s Theatre Monday night. Sure, she’s a top-ranking soprano – but you don’t get up to be a brigadier general in the opera world without something in addition to a fine voice.

With Norman, it’s simple and obvious. She adores the songs she sings. She explores them, crawls into the viscera of each and discovers truths that aren’t apparent on the page.

And then she woos and captures her audience with her insights.

If local opera fans had any problem with the recital, it was in the programming. Not designed to win the heart of the aria fanatic, it featured a diverse collection of songs by Mahler, Berg, Poulenc, Quilter, and Ives.

Such a program really is a relief from the “Best of” line-up you get on big-deal television shindigs; unfortunately, there isn’t as keen a following.

The Once and Future Cost of Doing Business

From the Vault Dept.: What charmingly innocent numbers herein! Proctors recently announced its 2012-13 Broadway Series, and you can bet that the expenses involved make what’s recounted below look like so much pocket change. But here’s a wistful look at what it cost that theater 25 years ago to try to entertain us.

                                                                               

SOMEONE WROTE A LETTER to Proctor’s (it hangs on their bulletin board) declaring the reason for the theater’s economic problems: High ticket prices.

It’s a nice theory. And executive director Dennis Madden says that if he could fill the house every night by lowering those prices, he would.

But tickets are priced as they are because productions are priced as they are. Madden’s willingness to discuss dollar amounts has led to an image of the man crying poor mouth at every opportunity, but the fact remains that, as of now, Proctor’s doesn’t break even.

Here are some reasons. “We’ll put together a hypothetical Broadway show along the expense lines of La Cage aux Folles,” says Madden. “That wasn’t our most expensive show, but it’s rather typical.

“The first problem you run into is that if you want a show while it’s hot and on its national tour, you have to book it for a week of eight performances. Or more, in blocks of eight. Often I’ve seemingly overbooked a show just to bring it in here and people wonder why I didn’t just go for, say, five performances. That’s why.”

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Babylon Revisited: NYC as Cultural Capital

A TRIP TO NEW YORK CITY is, for me, a theater-going event. Because I work as a theater critic in the Albany area, I rarely pay for a ticket here. But my critical reach doesn’t make it to Manhattan.

“Gatz” is returning to the New York’s Public Theater, and I’d love to take my wife and daughter to the show. It’s a marathon reading/performance of The Great Gatsby by an innovative, Brooklyn-based theater company called Elevator Repair Service. During the course of the six-hour (plus intermissions) show, you hear every word of the book, and the framing device is such that you’re drawn, deeply and unexpectedly, into the action.

I saw it performed, closer to home, in 2008, at Troy’s EMPAC, a young performing arts center on the campus of RPI. I was comped in. I was dazzled. But for the three of us to see it in New York, I’d have to pony up close to $600. I’m afraid we’ll have to see what discounts TDF is offering or take potluck with the TKTS board.

And we’ll find no lack of other options. From the high-profile events profiled in the glossy mags to the handbill-listed one-offs, New York City can slake any thirst for the arts. As an audience member, it remains for me the cultural capital of the country. As an artist, I can’t shake the notion that a warm reception there has to be the pinnacle of public success.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Girl You Came In With

FACED WITH A SET of 142 CDs, I charted the only logical listening course. I’m going through them in numerical order. This is Sony Classical’s new “Arthur Rubinstein: The Complete Album Collection,” part of an appealing series that puts CD recreations of original LP releases in cardboard CD cases that recreate the artwork of the original LPs. If, like aging me, you collected the originals, it’s a nostalgic treat.

I had an epiphany when I got to Disc 105. It’s Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1, with Erich Leinsdorf conducting the Boston Symphony – and it was the first Rubinstein record I owned. Acquired by mistake from the RCA Record Club.

When you signed up for this so-called club, you got 12 albums for a penny. You only had to buy a specified number (it changed) thereafter at full price to fulfill your obligation, after which you’d be showered with discounts. The more miserly classical-music division gave you only four albums for that copper cent. Being a violin-crazy teenager, my intro package was four Heifetz LPs.

The catch: every four weeks or so you received a magazine listing current offerings, one of which was chosen for you as the Main Selection. Unless you returned the don’t-want-it card by a certain date, this was automatically dispatched to you.

Monday, March 19, 2012

@#!$%*&!

FROM YESTERDAY’S (SCHENECTADY) SUNDAY GAZETTE: A letter to the editor slugged “Jersey Boys tainted by profanity and sex,” which reads, in full:

“A lot of hype for the Jersey Boys. As a native of South Jersey in the era of the Four Seasons, I was looking forward with anticipation to the March 10 matinee performance with my wife and friends. The music was fantastic – kudos to the talent displayed. But we were appalled at the language and sexual innuendos blatantly displayed. There were children present – shame on parents who allow such language to be heard in the name of ‘entertainment.’ The media hype should have included a disclaimer or a rating about the story content and language (which, by the way, truly isn’t necessary). Sadly their fame came with a heavy price. The audience didn’t need to hear the profanity – just the musical talent.”

That’s got to be a hell of a how-d’ye-do, expecting to see a comfy jukebox musical and getting an onslaught of fuckin’-this and fuckin’-that. Actually, it’s not that much of an onslaught – really just a few fucks and damns and the like sprinkled here and there – but there are also what usually are termed “sexual situations,” in this case of the innuendo variety, so it's rich in potential for the easily offended.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Restaurant Weekend, Part Two: Sage Bistro

Yesterday, I looked at a soon-to-open restaurant, which I won't review for at least another three months. But once I review a place, I rarely seem to get the opportunity to check up on it. My Sage Bistro review ran in the Jan. 27, 2011 issue of Metroland, but things changed shortly thereafter. Here’s an update.

                                                                                    


Sage Bistro (sagebistroguilderland.com)
Star Plaza, 2050 Western Ave., Guilderland, NY, 518-608-5410

“Two of the area’s most creative chefs have combined their talents to produce an unlikely restaurant. It’s in an unlikely spot, boasts an unlikely array of entrées, and is unusually inexpensive.” Less than two months after I wrote that, one of those chefs decamped.

Sage Bistro began as a joint venture of Joseph Soliman and Un-Hui Filomeno, combining his Middle Eastern and her Asian heritages and cooking styles. Both are well versed in continental fare as well, but I worried that Filomeno’s departure might have a bad effect on the restaurant.

A year later, the place is doing very nicely. Soliman, who developed his style at Delmar’s Hidden Café, which he owned and ran for nearly a decade, occupies the solo driver’s seat here with aplomb and creativity. The restaurant is in Guilderland’s Star Plaza, and was formerly home to an Italian restaurant that featured a tempting gelato display. The display remains; ice cream flavors abound. It’s one of the many pan-European touches that work well here.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Restaurant Weekend, Part One: Carmine's

Today and tomorrow I'm checking out restaurants new and (slightly) old. Today's entry is too new to review, but too appealing to ignore.

                                                                         

Carmine’s Brazilian Grill 
4 Sheridan Avenue, Albany, NY, 518-729-4477

The passadore arrives at your table with a long skewer in hand on which is speared one or more chunks of meat. With a few deft flicks of the knife, generous portions are carved onto a plate. You help yourself to as much as you’d like.

The bacon-wrapped turkey tenderloin is moist and smoky, and you’d like a few more medallions of it, but you know there’s more to come. And soon enough the roast lamb comes by, followed by the mustard-rubbed pork tenderloin, followed by a chicken legs osso buco, followed by flank steak. And there’s still more to be sampled at the starters table.

The official opening is March 22, but the doors already are open, which is how I got a look at and taste of Carmine’s Brazilian Restaurant. My official review won’t occur for at least another three months, in order to give the place time to get running smoothly.

It’s a gold mine of a concept. Although he made his name locally with Italian fare, this time Carmine Sprio has filled a conspicuous hole in the area’s range of cuisines. His eatery is a churrascaria, which is a Brazilian style of steakhouse. You’ll find one at Turning Stone Casino, and in larger cities, but it’s a first for Albany.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Lording over the Dance

From the Vault Dept.: Twenty-five years ago, dance was more of a regular entertainment feature in the Capital Region. Thankfully, we’re still able to support a handful of local companies, but we do spend each year in suspense as to whether the Saratoga Performing Arts Center will axe the NY City Ballet. Back in 1987, the Schenectady Gazette sent its new reviewer to pass judgment on the Royal Winnipeg Ballet. Founded in 1939, it remains Canada’s oldest ballet company – and one of the longest-running in North America, which has welcomed Mikhail Baryshnikov among its notable members. In my lede, I call ballet arrogant. I’m being abominably cutesy, of course. Nothing could hold a candle to the arrogance of the reviewer.

                                                                             

Rudi van Dantzig, right, rehearsing Four Last Songs.
BALLET IS THE MOST arrogant of the arts. It presents itself just as abstractly as the music it uses, but demands that we interpret with our eyes, the sense most accustomed to the concrete. It offers a spectacle of physical perfection, a perfection few of us can attain but must ruefully admire, even as it causes those bodies to combine into an ensemble with its own identity.

But there is an amiable kind of arrogance you find in despots and film stars: like them, ballet is awfully likeable.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet paid a visit to Proctor’s Theatre Wednesday night with a program of three likeable dances, each a contrast to the others, all of them suggesting that this is a company capable of top-notch work, and of taking a few risks. Much of what we saw, however, was the result of some risks that didn’t have the total commitment to pull them off.

The opening selection, “Ballet Premier,” is an old-fasioned, classical sequence choreographed by Arnold Spohr to a piano concerto by Mendelssohn. Pianist Nadine Lipsett, hidden in the pit with the company’s own travelling orchestra, did a virtuoso job as soloist.

On stage, an ensemble of eleven danced against a simple, stylized drape. Featured were Svea Eklof and Stephen Hyde in a lovely pas de deux to the slow second movement; but the ballet was a ballet of moments, little sparks of liveliness that failed to combine as a whole.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The True and Only Bagel

The web-hype for a Montreal-based restaurant chain called Cora led me to expect something shiny and welcoming. Breakfast is a touchy meal for my family, with both wife and daughter seeking a repast that’s generally egg-, pancake-, waffle-, sausage-, potato- and toast-free. Cora’s site sports an impressive fruit plate featuring sliced apples sculpted into towers among other feel-good choices.

What we found, not far from downtown’s Berri-UQAM Metro station, was a fading eatery with the feel of a tired Denny’s. But I may be letting a quickly achieved prejudice get in my way. What I found, on my plate of eggs and sausage and potatoes, was a terrible bagel.

In Montreal, that’s unacceptable. The Montreal bagel is a phenomenon as rich in passion and partisanship as the New York bagel, both of which arrived in their respective countries with immigrant Polish Jews. But each stage of the northern-style treat is differs: the dough is honey-sweetened, the poaching is done in honey-infused water, and the baking takes place in a wood-fired oven.

Two bagel bakeries dominate the city, both centered in the Mile End district. Neither Fairmount Bagel nor St-Viateur Bagel has a sit-down area, as we discovered upon taking a complicated route of Metro, bus and shank’s mare to find the neighborhood. But St-Viateur has sit-down satellite branches, and we visited one nearby on Avenue du Mont-Royal.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Guest Blogger: Guy Wetmore Carryl

How Jack Found that Beans
May Go Back on a Chap
Without the slightest basis
For hypochondriasis
A widow had forebodings which a cloud around her flung,
And with expression cynical
For half the day a clinical
Thermometer she held beneath her tongue.

Whene’er she read the papers
She suffered from the vapors,
At every tale of malady or accident she’d groan;
In every new and smart disease,
From housemaid’s knee to heart disease,
She recognized the symptoms as her own!

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

I’m Just Wild about Sherry

Truly Vintage Stuff Dept.: I'm not saying that bartenders tend to be arrogant and stupid. But if you've never even heard of the beverage I've requested, don't try to make me the butt of ridicule, as one jackanapes in Saratoga Springs attempted. This, written eight years ago, was my very measured response.

                                                                           

SO HERE I WAS in London, a high school junior on a theater tour, in a pub with some classmates. One of them, Lynette, was my co-star in a just-finished “Blithe Spirit,” in which she played one of my wives. I was supposed to kiss her during the first scene.

When I learned that she would be playing the role, my knees weakened. She was one of the most gorgeous and desirable young women in the school. Previously, my fantasy world included a passionate romance with her. Now that I was faced with nothing more than a stage kiss, my inner idiot shone through. At the first blocking rehearsal, she obligingly stood before me, with dewy, pouting lips, waiting.

I trembled. I froze. I looked at her oh-so-beautiful face and I became an inert mass of outsized protoplasm. “For God’s sake!” the director shouted. “Just KISS her!” And everybody in the rehearsal hall dissolved into laughter.

It was eventually decided that I should kiss her on the back of the neck, a less-painful but humiliating compromise. My inner idiot rationalized that she understood my restraint to be a manifestation of deeper adoration.

So here I was in a foreign land, sitting beside her, freed from the legal confines of the States, watching my classmates order vodka martinis or other fast-acting cocktails. Lynette asked me to order her something.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Growing Accustomed

IS IT POSSIBLE to be too non-threatening? I’m on an Amtrak train in the Adirondacks. My wife and daughter and I spent a few days in Montreal (you’ll read about it here and in Metroland), and crossed the border, heading home, a couple of hours ago.

On the way up, we had a pleasant chat with a Canadian customs official. I was a little more nervous about confronting U.S. customs, so I suggested that we follow the conductor’s instructions to eat and/or get rid of all the fruit we might have. There also was a package of pâté we’d bought at a fantastic IGA store not far from out hotel. Meat and meat products are on the proscribed list. “Better get rid of that, too,” I told my wife, who was managing the foodstuffs. She grumpily complied.

My only run-in with customs officials took place in about 1983, when I’d traveled to Buffalo to visit a friend named Eric Fiedler. This was my first opportunity to meet his father, Leslie, a renowned literary critic, whose Love and Death in the American Novel opened the door for me for a more fulfilling relationship with literature.

He was a charming man who made me feel so comfortable that I freely confessed to having never read Moby-Dick, about which he’s written extensively. But he was okay with that. It was when I confessed to having never seen Niagara Falls that he told his son to get me the hell over to see the damn thing.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Don't Save It on My Account

SLEEP BEING A tenuous pursuit in the best of times, I resent giving up that hour we’ve just been forced to sacrifice to after-work commerce and other post-sundown pursuits. Not that I mind the later-lighted evenings when I’m enjoying them, but I’m not generous-minded enough to justify missing a potential hour of sleep by a benefit that’s several hours away.

And it’s not as if there’s a payoff six months later. I’m usually the guy going around the house resetting the clocks the moment that the time shift occurs, so that extra autumn hour is an extra hour of tortured wakefulness for me.

It’s been this way for as long as I can remember. Two significant sleep (or lack of) stories continue to haunt me.

The first took place in the winter of 1980, as I was adjusting to a new job in Schenectady, NY, as the morning drive-time programmer and announcer for radio station WMHT-FM, which, back in those days, maintained an on-premises staff who therefore could tie in programming with area musical events – unlike today’s canned and condescending voices.

Fresh from college radio, I made the most of my time slot by hosting performers in the studio or at least inviting local performers to sit in as guests, allowing listeners to become familiar with the personalities driving the music scene.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Friday, March 09, 2012

I Thought It Was Golden

I LONG AGO CONFESSED to my daughter that I was the malefactor who de-batteried her toys. Like any toddler in this so-called culture, she amassed an armory of gadgets that blinked, whimpered, spun, laughed, dripped, glowed, or just sat there – but which invariably emitted some manner of horrible noise.

What she missed, fortunately, were the domestic squabbles when packages arrived from well-meaning but misguided relatives and friends. “Just because it got through the door,” I’d argue with my wife, whose relatives did the bulk of such sending, “doesn’t mean it has to stay here.”
“But she’s a baby,” Susan would argue. “She should have one of these!” Thus would we be cursed with an oversized stuffed bleating lamb or a dopey-assed plastic box in primary colors that spewed some unrecognizable but percussive melody when one of its buttons was struck.

I understand now the reason for this. I recently took a long train ride and was surrounded by a cacophony of electronic noise, a plangent symphony of Game Boys and ringtones and netbook bleeps and message-arrival dings, not to mention the crunches and booms and relentless crappy music issuing from the large notebook computer wielded by the boy across the aisle, which I silenced with a gift of earbuds.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Backstage with the Jersey Boys

Schenectady's Jersey Boys
interviewed by Albany's YNN.
BEING FRANKIE VALLI is a full-time job. Ask actor Brad Weinstock. “It’s unlike anything that I’ve ever done theatrically,” he says. “It’s definitely the most challenging.” Weinstock is one of the core quartet in “Jersey Boys,” now playing at Proctors in Schenectady. Once every performance day he progresses from warbling “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” to powerhouse renditions of “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man” and the many other Four Seasons hits, in a dead-on version of Valli’s signature style.

In order to maintain it, he explains, “I’ve become a very regimented person. I drink a gallon of water a day, I sleep with a humidifier, I steam with a personal inhaler, I have lots of electrolytes. And I sleep probably ten hours a night, because if you lose sleep or are dehydrated, the falsetto is the first thing to go.”

Weinstock and his fellow cast-members were fêted yesterday at the annual spring get-together of the Proctors Guild. Actors who spend time on the road will tell you that a touring company becomes a family; here the dynamic was obvious.

There’s also a physical quality about an actor that goes beyond the merely structural. Actors are comfortable as attention-centers, and stand or sit with an unselfconscious ease that nevertheless says, “I know you’re looking at me.” Even when off script, they tend to express themselves well. It’s very easy to believe, within a few minutes of falling into conversation with an actor, that you’ve become this person’s best friend – and you walk away from the encounter unaware that you did little of the talking.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Give Me a Break

“. . . But only one chemical substance gets out the lead.”
                                                         – Frank Loesser

KEEP IN MIND THAT I drink only decaffeinated coffee. You of the hard core may label me fraud, and I accept that. But I’m better off not aggravating the upper reach of my busy blood pressure, at which I’m already throwing a morning cocktail of medications.

(But you of the h. c. should know that many a restaurant is passing off decaf as regular, brewing only the low-test and pouring it regardless so as not to get in trouble with people like me.)

I came to coffee relatively late. I was in my thirties and easing back into theatrical work after a hiatus working in radio. Which is odd, because the radio studio is one of coffee’s glorious homes, especially for those on overnights. But I’d turned myself into a tea snob before then, ritually brewing pots of loose Earl Grey or Lapsong Souchong, exulting over the flavor notes in a superior Darjeeling.

By the time I married Susan, in 1985, this tea-centricity had infected her to the point where Earl Grey became her favored morning brew, but with typical high-handedness she corrupted the very soul of my obsession by favoring the stuff in tea bags. Floor sweepings, in other words. It’s a practice she cheerfully defends in the name of convenience. Sometimes the Philistines crawl right into bed with you.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

Older Boys

ALTHOUGH I FOUND MUCH to be impressed about Kurt, my next-door neighbor, what struck me most vividly was the sight of his hands. They looked unnaturally tan, as if he spent all his daylight hours outdoors. His knuckles were bruised and gnarly, and the veins on his hand-backs were bright blue and wrinkled. They were hands of accomplishment. Hands of wisdom, even, I decided. He was nine. I was five.

Portrait of the pith-helmeted author in the
throes of early adolescence. Summer 1970.
But I was a tall, precocious five, who, if I kept my mouth shut, could blend in with Kurt and his fellow nine-year-olds, allowing me to join them in forays through the gullies and along the railroad tracks of northern New Jersey. There was much to learn from those fearless sages. Especially how to keep our activities secret from excitable parents, who tend to prove unsympathetic to the challenge of getting a train to squash a penny.

Older boys seemed to have solved many of life’s mysteries, and because I could pass for one of them, I sought them for friends. Not that I was a picture of maturity. It was Kurt and his friends who told me the truth about Santa Claus, against which I fought with angry tears.

I joined the Boy Scouts when I was twelve. My family now was living in Connecticut, and I advanced through the ranks quickly in a suburban troop that seemed as much a social club for the dedicated dads as it was for us kids. I hiked, I camped, I tied knots, and I camped some more.

You start as a Tenderfoot, and by putting in a specified mileage of hikes, earning a certain number of merit badges, helping enough old ladies across the street and suchlike, you’re promoted ever closer to the exalted rank of Eagle.

Monday, March 05, 2012

They Grow Even Faster than You Can Cut Them Back

WARMTH OF STOVE, coffee, oatmeal, morning pee, warmth in the kitchen colliding with what’s sweltering at the screen door and coating the back steps, gray wood slabs hot on her soles, six steps down to the hot grey flagstone, dancing hot, hot until her feet touch grass with the warm soft brush of blades already dark green. Odorous heat, old dog and baked earth, dry and brambly. She settles a pale blue blanket by the old maple and arranges it, it’s almost funny how thorough she now has to be, with bag and towel and another smaller be-careful blanket, this one frayed plaid edged with pink piping, tucked in the moist cradle of her thighs as she lowers, lowers, and not without pain, onto a raggedy foam-rubber pad that usually cushions her desk chair. The plaid blanket stirs and she stares into a pinched and pointed face that looks back with solemn blue eyes. She folds and re-folds the blanket to re-frame the plump face. She shifts the baby’s weight to her other knee and feels the scratch of grass fronds poking through the bottom blanket. Her forehead, under the incomplete shade of a floppy straw hat, feels heavy. A door slams somewhere. A car radio trills and recedes.

“. . . Been lookin’ all over! What’re you doing outside?” The older woman emerges carrying a pair of ceramic mugs, edges through the screen door and descends the steps in a halting shuffle, shum-shump, shum-shump. “Hot out here. Don’tcha even want a chair?” The older woman’s face and forearms are doughy. She seizes the top of a lawn chair and drags it into the maple’s shade. “I’d sit down there with you but my knees won’t take it. Surprised you want to sit like that. I was sore for a week, you came along. Your Uncle Ken, he came over, wouldn’t even let him in the room I was so sore. Him and your father!” The older woman shakes her head. “You want this tea? Gone all cold. Now, Ruth – Ken’s wife, you met her – your cousin Bobby was born, she had it awful. That doctor, the one who did it to her, he got kicked out of medicine a few years later.”

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Fare for Jacques

Hey, how about Sunday brunch? Here’s an account of a memorable meal. Much has changed (and improved, if possible) at the Sagamore since I wrote this piece in 1987. After going through a couple of changes of format, Trillium, the fanciest of the resort’s half-dozen eateries, has been re-fashioned as La Bella Vita Ristorante, serving fancy Italian grub. And winter doldrums have led them to close the resort during the colder months; you can stay and dine there again after April 27.

                                                                                   

In Search of Jacques Pepin's Brunch: 

Trillium at the Sagamore Resort, Bolton Landing (on Lake George), 644-9400.

HE'S NOT TOO LARGE and he’s not too fat and he’s got an accent you could cut with a Sabatier. He’s Jacques Pepin, renowned author of many a book on French cookery, chef extraordinaire. And here he was at the Sagamore to help welcome their new chef.

I don’t think he showed up until late Saturday; I know he was on the cruise ship that carried a press contingent across Lake George that afternoon. But I didn’t know him by sight. That I had struggled into a tuxedo while he sported a kind of pâté-grey sweatshirt only emphasized how little he now needs to work at impressing people.

It wasn’t until the Sunday brunch that Susan and I became really Pepin-conscious. That’s when we decided to discover what M. le Methode piles onto his plate.

See, we knew what he had for Saturday dinner. Executive chef Kevin Graham prepared us a meal the like of which I’ve never had before. We’re not talking cholesterol conscious here. Not when the goose liver pâté mixes the sweetness of butter with the pungent meat. You scooped the pâté out of the hindquarters of a quail, by the way, and tender strips of the fowl were a charming decoration.

But we sat well across the room from the celebrity, catching only an occasional glimpse when he threw back his head with jollity.

Saturday, March 03, 2012

Lines Composed While Eating a Meatloaf and Mustard Sandwich

Vintage Stuff Dept.: "But, Dad – it's still too long!" Thus did my daughter protest yesterday's entry, intended to satisfy her desire to see more of my fiction posted here. Let me not only offer something short, but what's probably my oldest surviving piece of work. This dates from about 1971, when I was my daughter's age, and was published in my (Ridgefield, Conn.) high school newspaper, The Argus. Apologies to E. Y. Harburg. Not to mention ongoing apologies to ever-so-patient you.

                                                                                 

The author at an awkward age.
I’d begin by quickly slaying
All couples caught displaying
Obnoxious lovers’ play,
When I felt with a fervor
That he didn’t quite deserve her
If I only had my way!

There’d be no more tacky dressing
Without my special blessing
On just a special day.
All my classmates of the nether
Would be champing at the tether
If I only had my way!

Picture me: The majesty!
A crown upon my head!
All folk of lesser breed
Would be lined up,
And slowly bled.

If these lines of my composing
Seem terribly imposing,
Or somewhat recherché;*
If this sounds like a put-down,
Wait until I put my foot down
If I ever get my way!

                                                                                 

*Where the hell did I learn a word like recherché? Glad you asked. It was in the song "Sing While You Sell" by Hal Borne, Sid Kuller, and Hal Fimberg, sung by Groucho Marx in "The Big Store."

Friday, March 02, 2012

Grounds for Marriage

From the Vault, Homage to P.G. Wodehouse Dept.: A piece of fiction I wrote for a Metroland wedding section in 1987. I don't recall that the magazine ever ran it. My daughter recently asked why I don't share fiction on this blog. This should shut her up for a while.

                                                              

I THINK I'VE BEEN a happily married man these past several years. I’m not sure that both of my wives would agree with me, though, especially the first one.

But the first wedding braced me for the second. It was important not to get blasé about it: you only get married for the second time once, and anyway this would be my second wife’s first.

There’s an inevitable major problem, and it’s always the same. No matter how ferociously you plan to keep the event of controllable size, this or that relative has a better idea and will be mortally wounded if you don’t follow it.

“We’re going to have to invite my Uncle Dan,” Susan said ruefully. “And Aunt Sally.”

“I’ve never even met these people,” I protested.

“If we don’t invite them, my Cousin Lou won’t come.”

“So?”

“So Cousin Lou has a lot of money and gives very fancy wedding gifts.” Of course. The loot.

“Let me tell you about my Uncle Ned’s wedding,” I said.

“I didn’t know your Uncle Ned was married!”

“Let me tell you about it.”

Thursday, March 01, 2012

The Mechanicville Beat

I HAVE A REVIEW in today’s Metroland of a terrific little eatery in Mechanicville, a place called the Ugly Rooster that will delight you when you stop by for breakfast or lunch.

Visiting the restaurant was a nostalgic return for me, but not one I can regard with unalloyed pleasure. It’s hard to hang on to any aspect of one’s innocence these days, but I guess I still had some to lose one afternoon in 1985.

Mechanicville is the smallest city in New York, a former manufacturing town clinging to a western bank of the Hudson River. In its heyday, it was a paper manufacturing center with busy railroad traffic and an early hydroelectric plant that’s now on the National Register.

By the time I got there, it had become a sluggish community of retirees, with little enough traffic on North Main Street that you didn’t need sound-baffling insulation in a radio-studio window that overlooked the thoroughfare. And, as I was soon to learn, you also couldn't hear shouting or fisticuffs.

I was hired to helm an afternoon jazz program on radio station WMVI, headquartered in Mechanicville’s wee downtown. The station was a daytimer, which meant that it was on the air only when the sun was up, and its format was big bands and jazz.