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Monday, March 31, 2014

A Play for Radio

From the Ether Dept.: I was recently asked to provide some kind of template for those wishing to write a radio play, such as are produced by the group Hudson Air, of which I'm a member. Here's what I came up with, showing page setup and offering some philosophical direction. It's meant to be instructive and silly.



ESME: A traveler
WILLY: Her cold-blooded father
TITUS MOODY: A radio star
FRED ALLEN: Vaudeville legend
NICK: An electrician
ALICE: A passing fancy


ANNOUNCER: Welcome to “A Play for Radio.” During the next few

           minutes, we’re going to mess with your mind by way of
           your ears.




ESME:     (V.O.) I’m not comfortable here. That’s why I’m speaking

           directly to you, the listener, over the background of 
           all those damn sounds. They remind me of something . . .

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Blogging at Bedtime

The realization: I have failed to provide a post for today. The dilemma: I'm upstairs in bed. The going-back-downstairs dissuasion: my wife is beside me, unclad. The solution: write some meaningless guff using my bedside Nook. Consider this a sequel to yesterday's post, with its persuasive work-at-home theme. Nighty-night.

The Underwood, continued:
Guaranteed to keep those keys from jamming.

Friday, March 28, 2014


From the Vault Dept.: I put some time in at the kitchen of Donovan’s Restaurant in Clifton Park – a very brief time, because I got hired away by anther kitchen that turned out to be something of a nightmare (not the least of the problems was that no swearing was allowed). But Donovan’s had been fun, and I returned there to research the piece below. Dig that $7 dinner special, but don’t get hungry – the place is long gone.


A SUBCUTANEOUS INCISION must be made. The surgeon, dressed in white, uniform stained with blood, studies the breast in front of him. He pinches the skin at one side, pulls hard, and the whole top layer comes off in one piece.

Photo by Mark McCarty
They do look like doctors, these chefs who trim the chicken in the kitchen at Donovan’s in Clifton Park. And the operations they perform call for the skill of a surgeon and the flair of an artist.

At a little past five on a Thursday afternoon, Joe Morano is at the butcher block stripping chicken skins. There is rhythm in what he does: next breast, strip, next breast, strip, two piles of chicken parts exchanging heights. Like the others in the kitchen, he sometimes breaks into a song lyric.

(“When I was in the Navy,” a Montenegran chef once told me, “the Captain told me I wasn’t getting my work done fast enough. ‘You need faster music: he said, and he was right. I changed to a faster tune.”)

Michael Marafito, manager of the restaurant, enters the kitchen. He’s dressed in white, too, because he alternates between working the front and the back of the house, making him somewhat unusual among restaurant managers. “I don’t see how you can be effective if you don’t know what’s going on back here,” he explains. Simple, right? Tell that to some other managers and see how popular you become.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

The Art of the Artemis

THEY LULLED US WITH a Brahms quartet, then snuck in fifteen minutes of music by György Kurtág before intermission. The Hungarian-born Kurtág, still with us at 88, isn’t as well known as his friend and classmate, György Ligeti (whose music was played here a couple of seasons ago by Jeremy Denk), but he shares a fascination with the very nature of sound.

Artemis Quartet
In Kurtág’s case, a love of the music of Anton Webern has shaped his composing career. The piece performed by the Artemis Quartet, “Officium breve in memoriam Andreæ Szervánszky,” was written in 1989, paid tribute to yet another composing compatriot and fellow Webern fan. Szervánszky, who died in 1977, and whose “Six Orchestral Pieces” (1959) was very influential as an exploration of serial composition.

The Union College audience generally is a game bunch, but some get a little grumbly when denied accessible melody. Still, the spoken introduction by cellist Eckart Runge helped prepare a fairly full house for what followed, in which the writing was as tight as possible and the performance – as presaged by the Brahms – transcendent.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Going After Big Game

Guest Blogger Dept.: We encountered Anthony Comstock via H. L. Mencken in this post. Now let’s enjoy some hagiography from the pen of Charles Gallaudet Trumbull, whose Anthony Comstock, Fighter has moments of unintended hilarity – if you can get past the self-righteousness with which this tome so heavily drips. Here’s Chapter VIII, titled “Going after Big Game: the Louisiana State Lottery.”


IT HAD BEEN ON A SATURDAY, March 3, 1872, that the unknown dry-goods clerk made the seven arrests of dealers in vile literature that virtually started him in his new life-work. Exactly a year later, to a day, — on Sunday morning, March 3, 1873, — the United States Congress passed the bill that was so vital to the successful continuance of this work.

Immediately after the patience-testing passage of the bill there was another surprise in store for the young man. For Senators Buckingham, Windom, Ramsey, and Representative Merriam now united in asking Postmaster-General Jewell to appoint Comstock a Special Agent of the Post-Office Department to enforce the new laws. He replied that he would be glad to make the appointment if Congress would appropriate a salary and “per diem” (expenses) to cover it. The appropriation bill was still pending, and an amendment was offered, in committee, to cover the needed item.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Hip to Be Skewer

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: This week’s restaurant review takes us to Afghanistan by way of Albany, for a stop at a very unprepossessing eatery.


AFGHAN FARE HAS EASED in an out of our region over the years, with a couple of brief successes in Latham and Schenectady. But neither fine dining nor the buffet approach seems to have been enough to sustain such a restaurant.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Albany’s Afghan Kabab Express is a casual-dining eatery situated in a not-quite-downtown stretch of Central Ave., it’s almost always open and it offers a cheap and varied enough menu to make it a mainstay. And the food is very good.

Open for just over two years, the family-run restaurant boasts a large dining area split in two by an Oriental-motif divider, which reflects the heritage of a its space. It’s in a small indoor complex originally named the Chinatown Mall, rechristened the Central Mall as its tenantry moved in more Occidental directions – or moved out.

A counter by the entry sport a display of pastries, encouraging you to start your visit with a look at the potential finish. The menu is conveniently brief (and helpfully photo-illustrated), dominated by sandwiches and kabab platters. Should you have a friend in tow who is unshakeably fearful of foreign food, the menu also offers chicken wings (6 for $4), a cheeseburger ($5.49) and a Philly cheesesteak ($7.49).

Monday, March 24, 2014

Honey and Blood

CREATION – BIG-TIME, putting-together-a-universe-type creation – is a deliberate, often improvisational business. It’s the opening up of forces that will combine in harmony and destruction. With humans involved, there will be creative examples of the latter.

Jordi Savall’s latest and most magnificent music collection opens with a Gypsy improvisation in which viola, bass, and cimbalom combine in a slow improvisation. It must be a familiar-enough sound in some southern-European cafés, and a check of YouTube videos by violist Janos Dani confirms this. Violinist Tcha Limberger then joins the group to welcome spring (“Birth, Dreams, and Celebration”), in a dance tune played in the style of Gypsies in Budapest, with as a lively fiddling as you’re likely to hear, with the crunchy bounce of that cimbalom buoying it.

Bal • Kan, the title of this lavish three-disc-and-a-fat-book collection, refers to a name bestowed by the Ottomans upon an area they invaded in the 15th century. The words mean honey and blood, and the area now includes Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Kosovo, Macedonia, and Montenegro, and parts of Romania, Slovenia, Serbia, and Turkey.

The idea for this CD-and-book set was born in 2011, during a concert Savall dedicated to Sarajevo, recognizing the horrific siege that Serbian troops inflicted 20 years earlier. Even before that, the city was a flashpoint for the First World War. What politics rends asunder, Savall labors to unite, bringing together musicians from this variety of regions to demonstrate their sounds and styles and combine them with others – as people are naturally inclined to do when not blinded by phony patriotism.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

A Date with Judy

From the Vault Dept.: She’s been a regular visitor to this area, but the first time I caught Judy Collins in concert was in 1984, and my review is below. (The next time would be in 1989, under entirely different circumstances.)


JUDY COLLINS HAS A SINGING VOICE which has a lovely innocence about it, and she is capable of making every song she sings seem a divine inspiration.
Judy Collins
During her concert at Proctor’s Theater Thursday night, she enchanted the audience with a mixture of song and story, that remarkable voice working its magic on a wide variety of material.

No longer the wide-eyed, melancholy folksinger, she came onstage wearing a slinky black dress with her hair cut in layers and lightly permed. She was backed by three excellent musicians: Shelton Berton was the leader, playing keyboards and supplying background vocals; Frank Vilardi on drums; and Zev Katz alternating between keyboard and electric bass.

Ms. Collins opened with the uptempo “It’s Gonna Be One of Those Nights,” then gave a slow, syncopated version of “Both Sides Now,” the Joni Mitchell ballad she parlayed into a hit over a decade ago.

The contrast between the two songs was Illustrative of an uncomfortable aspect of the evening: She can put a song across with the best of them, but where no chanteuse can touch Judy Collins is in making the sentimental song heartfelt and the simple sound profound. This is what made her such a successful folksinger, and it’s wasted on the glitzy pop tunes which have come creeping into the repertory in recent years.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Friday, March 21, 2014

There Won’t Be Trumpets

On the Boards Dept.: A review of the production of “Gypsy” playing through April 13, 2014, at Albany's Capital Repertory Theatre.


ALBANY HAS THE GENEROUS quality of judging cultural events, especially locally grown ones, as “good enough.” Good enough for applause and acclaim, despite – as it would appear to non-Albany eyes – a prevailing mediocrity. It reflects the rural heritage of the city (and Schenectady, and Troy) and thus the insular nature of its residents. Fear of being considered different and a proud anti-intellectualism help define the prevailing social class, dubbed High Prole by sociologist Paul Fussell. It’s entirely in keeping with that perspective that local celebrities should be news broadcasters. If your talent is greater, you’ve probably moved away.

Mary Callanan and Kelsey Crouch
Photo by Joseph Schuyler
What makes the acceptance of Good Enough the more striking is that it thrives in a region only a couple of hours upriver from Manhattan, where cultural excellence can be found when it suits Manhattan to produce it. As a tourist destination feature, that city’s entertainment caters to the middle class, including its upper reaches. The higher-priced offerings you find there may be relatively tame, but there nevertheless lurks a standard of excellence encouraged by audience and critics.

While Good Enough won’t work on Broadway, it’s what Albany expects, satisfying the sense of victimhood that also characterizes the High Prole, ranging from “you can’t fight the system” to “you mustn’t go to such trouble.” If it sings and dances, it’s probably good, even if it doesn’t sing and dance very well.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why Must the Show Go On?

In the Clouds Dept.: Sure, this has been a precipitous winter, but some of us old-timers remember that snowstorm at the beginning of October, 1987, which closed roads and took down wires and marked the last time I tried to keep tropical fish. Here’s a piece I uncovered detailing the travails of the area theaters back then.


TO HEAR THE CALLERS on WGY talk about it, you’d think Proctor’s Theatre was as un-civic-minded as they come. The decision to go on as scheduled with a performance of “La Cage aux Folles” Sunday afternoon – despite the impassable roads the snowstorm left us – was upsetting to many who were stranded in outlying areas (not to mention Albany).

The radio station quoted a Proctor’s official as saying that the performance would take place as scheduled, “just like at a New York City theater.”

At the theater, as showtime approached, executive director Dennis Madden shook his head sadly as he watched the people trickle in. “I didn’t need this,” he said quietly. “This isn’t decision I enjoy making.”

Power stayed on in downtown Schenectady throughout the day, and that, ironically, was bad news for the theater. “If the power went out we could have cancelled and not lost so much money,” Madden explained. “As it is, we’re obligated to pay the producer. And, while it’s the sort of thing we could try to absorb once in a season, you can count on more bad days in winter. This would be a nice day in January!”

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Home as Hell

MY FIRST CAR was a 1970 Volkswagen Karmann-Ghia. I bought it in 1974. The intervening years had not been kind to the vehicle, whose single previous owner was a schoolteacher in the small, angry city of Waterbury, Connecticut, and who had dented the length of the car’s right side by sideswiping a tree, and who found the vehicle perforated by three large-caliber bullet holes after leaving it parked on a downtown street while attending a performance event.

I described my mechanical relationship with the car in this essay. There also was an aesthetic relationship built on the sense of freedom I achieved though the ability to travel many more miles in a reasonable period of time than I could on foot – or at the mercy of public transportation. It wasn’t simply traversing the distance that was important. It was the freedom. The sense of freedom. The illusory sense of freedom.

It’s been characterized by literary critic Leslie Fiedler as the “home as hell” phenomenon that informs classic male-oriented fiction and sent Huck Finn and Dean Moriarty, among many others, on their quests. It’s what drives so many blues-song subjects to “catch a freight train and ride.” It’s the need to achieve identity through rebellion.

Or so I’m guessing. At the time, it tasted like many flavors of grown-up, allowing me to fully exist in a society that assumes quick transport. And this freedom was achieved the autumn after I graduated from high school, during a school-free year I awarded myself as my friends went off to college and insisted I visit.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014


Guest Blogger Dept.: Anthony Comstock (1844-1915) was a zealot whose campaigns against what he regarded as obscene literature resulted in the NY debut of Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession” getting shut down during its first performance. Shaw’s response: “Comstockery is the world’s standing joke at the expense of the United States. Europe likes to hear of such things. It confirms the deep-seated conviction of the Old World that America is a provincial place, a second-rate country-town civilization after all.” H.L. Mencken sought some explanation for comstockery in his essay “Puritanism as a Literary Force,” published in 1917 as part of A Book of Prefaces. Here’s an excerpt.


Anthony Comstock
I HAVE GONE INTO the anatomy and physiology of militant Puritanism because, so far as I know, the inquiry has not been attempted before, and because a somewhat detailed acquaintance with the forces behind so grotesque a manifestation as comstockery, the particular business of the present essay, is necessary to an understanding of its workings, and of its prosperity, and of its influence upon the arts. Save one turn to England or to the British colonies, it is impossible to find a parallel for the astounding absolutism of Comstock and his imitators in any civilized country. No other nation has laws which oppress the arts so ignorantly and so abominably as ours do, nor has any other nation handed over the enforcement of the statutes which exist to agencies so openly pledged to reduce all aesthetic expression to the service of a stupid and unworkable scheme of rectitude.

I have before me as I write a pamphlet in explanation of his aims and principles, prepared by Comstock himself and presented to me by his successor. Its very title is a sufficient statement of the Puritan position: “MORALS, Not Art or Literature.” The capitals are in the original. And within, as a sort of general text, the idea is amplified: “It is a question of peace, good order and morals, and not art, literature or science.” Here we have a statement of principle that, at all events, is at least quite frank. There is not the slightest effort to beg the question; there is no hypocritical pretension to a desire to purify or safeguard the arts; they are dismissed at once as trivial and degrading. And jury after jury has acquiesced in this; it was old Anthony’s boast, in his last days, that his percentage of convictions, in 40 years, had run to 98.5.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Growing Buzz

Afternoon Joe Dept.:  I visited the recent Coffee Fest at NYC's Javits Center, and filed this report for Metroland


HAVING MOVED FROM percolator to drip-brewer to French press, I see I’m still not preparing my coffee correctly. My beans are too old; I don’t have a burr grinder; I’m not preheating my coffee filters—because I should be drip-brewing the stuff—and my water isn’t pure enough and it’s probably too hot. It’s enough to drive you to tea. Provided you preheat the pot.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
More than 150 vendors gathered in a wing of Manhattan’s Javits Center last weekend to hawk their wares, and if there was any one thing I could identify as a trend it would be an emphasis on coffee as a tool for world betterment. When you have the “Coexist” bumper-sticker people involved, you can be sure something socially commendable is brewing. And where better to fuel any such revolution than in a coffeehouse? I don’t mean the prefab (and socially onerous) Starbucks variety, but your neighborhood hangout, where, since at least the 18th century of The Spectator, the coffeehouse has served as a place for intellectual discourse, the sea of Facebook-polluted laptop screens notwithstanding.

The Coexist Campaign sees its coffee as one of what will be many products grown through farming cooperatives. The coffee itself is grown organically and hand-picked in Uganda, roasted in the United States, and available in dark and light roasts and a decaf blend.

Café Kreyól’s beans are organically grown in Haiti, a site chosen by company founder Joseph Stazzone to benefit a badly ravaged country. Stazzone himself knows the challenge of turning a life around: He did hard time for a variety of felony convictions, found God while in prison and now runs a company that employs 850 Haitians working at nearly 40 farms.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Where’s the Weather?

From the Tech Vault Dept.: Here’s my debut piece in Computer Life, which began a brief but highly remunerative association. The house pictured below is mine, but the weather station is long-gone, soon to be replaced, we hope, with a more up-to-date model. Most impressive about the day this was photographed was the visit by editor Alice Hill (one of the best), who flew in and out of Albany on a single day with no luggage and dispatched this project with admirable efficiency.


WEATHER INFORMATION is a valuable commodity. It’s the classic conversational icebreaker; it’s reckoned for the coming week in the general store and for the coming year in the Farmer’s Almanac. On television, it’s the only part of the news that merits two commercial breaks.

As a youngster, I installed a Remco Weather Station outside my bedroom window. This cool-looking kit included an anemometer, a temperature gauge, and a plastic funnel for measuring rainfall.

WeatherBank’s Weather-Brief Plus Weather Station reminds me of that Remco kit (OK, its anemometer is a lot more precise), except that WeatherBrief sends its information to your computer via a six-line phone cord, and data is plotted onscreen. It’s actually a two-part kit, the other part being the software that calls the WeatherBank BBS and downloads local, domestic, and international weather info. Short of sending up weather balloons or your own satellite, this is an excellent way to read current conditions and find out what’s to come.

Your bum knee may be a good forecaster of rain, but WeatherBrief gives more specific information about wind and temperature. In fact, with the optional barometric and rainfall sensors, you can ignore that knee altogether. The software displays a real-time account of wind and temperature and calculates the windchill factor for you; it also plots a chart of averages for the past 24 hours. Meanwhile, the hourly averages are saved to an ever-expanding file on your hard disk, which you should thin out every few months with an included utility.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Spring Fashion

Lily Whiteman in a gown by Daniel Mozzes Design
14 March 2014 | Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Friday, March 14, 2014

Author, Author!

The State of the Stage Dept.: Christopher Durang spent last Monday at NY’s State University at Albany, and I was delighted to attend both the afternoon and evening sessions. Here’s my report.


WE WERE GIVEN A LOOK at a typical day for Christopher Durang in his 1987 video biography, a short, Showtime-commissioned film directed by Jerry Zaks and featuring cameos by Sigourney Weaver and Julie Hagerty, and Christine Estabrook as Durang’s wife (“I think he’s gay but won’t admit it to himself.”) One thing missing from that day: “I forgot to write!” he realizes.

Christopher Durang
Durang showed this clip during his evening seminar at SUNY Albany last Monday as part of an autobiographical narrative that reminded us of the difficulty of explaining why a writer writes as he does – especially when his material is dark and funny. “I was influenced by Noël Coward,” he offered, and Broadway shows like “How to Succeed.” And he talked about the influence of Catholic school as an institution that “has an answer for everything,” even if those answers turn out to be insufficient.

But you’ll find more information about this in his play “Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You” than was given in the seminar, which is only fitting: the work is where playwrights examine such problems. I suspect we seek out the seminar to discover whether a writer of such disturbing work as Durang has produced can remain a fit member of society.

We learned that the playwright is the great-great-great grandson of 18th-century performer John Durang, best known for dancing “Durang’s Hornpipe,” and that, wonderfully improbably, ASCAP once sent Chris a royalty check for a dollar-something “because they couldn’t find any other Durang to send it to.”

Thursday, March 13, 2014

From Italy with Love

From the Record Shelf Dept.: Two recent issues on the IDIS label remind us that there were great performances long before digital recordings hit the scene.


IN 1959, THE CONCEPT of historically informed performances was rarefied enough that its proponents tended to be radical fiddlers wielding curved bows. Julian Bream was playing lute music on a lute-like instrument that was a guitar at heart, and you were likely to hear Bach’s Brandenburgs with piano continuo. Which is to explain why the sound of I Musici was at once radical and reassuring. This Italian ensemble of strings and harpsichord was founded in 1951 and is still going strong.

When they recorded an LP of Locatelli’s concerti grossi in 1959, it was a major tribute to a neglected composer. The string sound is rich and vibrant, a contrast to the more austere approach that would overtake the early-music world a decade later. The tempos are deliberate, much slower than you’ll hear in more recent recordings, but keeping the movements not overlong by omitting repeats. My ears like the contrast between this recording and another favorite, a brisk mid-90s version by Capella Istrolpolitana on Naxos that gives you all of Locatelli’s Op. 1 on two CDs.

On this IDIS reissue of the old I Musici version are Op. 1 nos. 8, 11, and 12. It’s paired with a 1962 recording of the first three concertos from Vivaldi’s Op. 4 set subtitled “La Stravaganza,” which are violin concertos in the “Four Seasons” style but with a less programmatic, more technically inventive approach. The recorded sound is brighter, highlighting the continuo switch to organ, and the tempos are more in keeping with what’s chosen today.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

A Belly Full

Unsurprising Extinction Dept.: A Jamaican restaurant in a shopping-mall food court? Too good to be true? It was. Albany is frightened of this kind of thing. But here’s what I wrote about it during its brief existence in 2009.


IT HAS THE COLOR AND TEXTURE of scrambled egg, but cooked ackee fruit takes you in a completely different flavor direction. It’s sweeter, I think, but it’s difficult to isolate that flavor when it’s paired with salt cod, which, true to its name, spreads a salty penumbra over the palate.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
But the combination teases the salt into a milder realm, so this pairing became popular enough in Jamaica to win the title of national dish. It’s an acquired taste. I have food-adventurous friends unwilling to commit to it just yet, but my own experience suggests that it grows on you quickly.

And it’s now offered in the least likely place to find it: Crossgates Mall, at one of the food court stalls. Amidst the familiar fast-food brands, past the gauntlet of free-sample barkers is Full-Mi-Belly, a colorful, bargain-priced eatery that offers a handful of Jamaican specialties.

It’s an outgrowth of Jamaican Spice, a Beacon restaurant opened in 2005 by Jamaican native and Poughkeepsie resident Larkland Campbell. Pleased by the quick popularity of the place, he created a model that could be franchised into places like malls.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Grand Old Rag

Guest Blogger Dept.: Cecil Smith’s fascinating, intensely researched, and very witty book Musical Comedy in America was published in 1950, and thus takes a more comprehensive look at the genre’s origins than a more recent book might, what with the incredible innovations of the last half of the 20th century. Here’s an excerpt reminding us that opinions about George M. Cohan were not always kind – and that critics weren’t bashful back then.


George M. Cohan
WITH GEORGE WASHINGTON, JR. (1906) – subtitled “An American Musical Play” – Cohan began to wave the flag in earnest, with the aid of a song entitled “The Grand Old Flag.” The plot hinged upon the conflict between an Anglomaniac father and a son so intensely patriotic that he renounced his own name and took that of the Father of Out Country. Cohan’s conception of the ideal American youth was by no means universally admired. The dissenting view was strongly put by James S. Metcalfe, critic of the old Life:
 . . . . [He is] a vulgar, cheap, blatant, ill-mannered, flashily-dressed, insolent, smart Aleck, who, for some reason unexplainable on any basis of common sense, good taste, or even ordinary decency, appeals to the imagination and apparent approval of large American audiences. As a living character in any American town or village, it is hardly to be conceived that he would not be driven out as a public nuisance and a pernicious example to the youth of the community. The rounds of applause which greet the efforts of this offensive personality must convey to the minds of ignorant boys a depraving ideal for their inspiration and imitation.

Monday, March 10, 2014

A CD Convert Holds Forth

From the Vault Dept.: Once upon a time, compact discs were a new and incredibly improbably technology. Let a grizzled record-scratcher remind you of the awe this thing inspired, with a piece I wrote in 1985.


OWNING MY FIRST CLASSICAL RECORD made me a philosopher. Nothing to do with the music: it was being hit on the nose with planned obsolescence, in this case the predictable fact that I would clumsily skate a weighty tone arm across a surface that seemed – still seems – as delicate as butter. A one-inch gash across the slow movement of the Brahms Violin Concerto left a sequence of whip cracks that I still anticipate whenever I hear the piece. Thus the ephemeral pleasure of the music itself was matched by the evanescent life of the record, and I replaced that disk (and many others) more than once.

I prayed for a record that wouldn’t wear out, and I’m now prepared to believe that those prayers have been answered. (My reservation is just a natural distrust of things that seem too good to be true.) I watched the introduction of compact discs with the same wariness with which I observed the hype about quadrophonic recordings a decade ago: back then I didn’t buy into it, but this time, only a few weeks ago, I did. I stopped buying digitally recorded records a couple of years ago in anticipation of CDs, and decided to wait until I could buy a player for less than $300.

Oh, sure, I resented those people over at the CD bins in the record stores: how dare they show off their consumerism so conspicuously, I muttered, fingering yet another doomed vinyl platter.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

A Hot Bargain

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: When I moved to Schenectady in 1980 to work for WMHT-FM, which at that time was based in that city, the first restaurant I visited – where I was taken for lunch – was the nearby McLane’s Deli. Here’s what I found there recently.


ONE OF THE BRAVEST ACTS I can think of took place in Schenectady last April. Nittaya Raksa, who had run an Albany sewing shop, opened a Thai restaurant there. Specifically, in Rotterdam, at the site of what had been, for many years, McLane’s Deli. Asking Rotterdam to go from meatloaf to Massaman curry is a challenge. So far, it seems, so good.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
While Thai food may seem to offer a daunting array of unfamiliar menu items that threaten to be soul-crushingly spicy, I’d like to think that you need only a single encounter with good tom kha, a coconut soup, or pad Thai, a sautée of noodles, eggs and peanuts, to embrace the satisfying flavors. Certainly the menu at Jasmine Thai offers some of the more economical choices for this cuisine. Pricing for most entrées is based upon what you choose as a central ingredient. Thus, chicken, pork, beef, tofu or vegetables is $8 for lunch, $13 for dinner; shrimp or scallops run $12 and $15, mixed seafood is $15 or $18 and duck is always $15.

This applies to rice-based items like ga pow, a sautée of onion, bell peppers, garlic and basil; noodle dishes like pad see eww (rice noodles with eggs, broccoli, and carrots) and pad poy sean (glass noodles with celery, carrots, mushrooms and eggs); six different curries, including the three traffic-light colors, and eight items grouped under “entrée,” including a sautéed eggplant feature, a sweet and sour cucumber and pineapple mix, stir-fried mushrooms with garlic and black pepper sauce and a cashew and mushrooms mix with pineapple, peas, onions and peppers.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Friday, March 07, 2014

Small Victories

From the Bookshelf Dept.: Finding this review in my archives brought back memories not only of how impressed I was with Freedman’s portrait of NYC schoolteacher trying to do her best, but also at the near-futility of trying to wring anything approaching a reasonable education out of any state-regulated school system. When my daughter was born, nine years after I read and wrote about this book, I’d long since decided she’d be homeschooled.


WHEN YOU SPEND NINE MONTHS pursuing a subject for treatment in a journalistic study, you’re pretty much stuck with what that subject does. In Samuel Freedman’s case, he spent the academic year 1987-88 observing a teacher in the New York City public school system – specifically, in Manhattan’s Seward Park High School, a crumbling, crowded building that nevertheless boasts an astonishingly high percentage of subsequent college attendance.

Jessica Siegel, the subject of the study, emerges as a remarkable teacher who really is only doing the job to the best of her ability. What makes her so remarkable is her full use of an ability other teachers have abandoned.

Plagued by the unavoidable emotional involvement with students fighting the inner-city monsters of crime and poverty, Siegel serves as surrogate family as well as instructor to many of her students, whom she then loses to graduation year after year. That high proportion of college admissions is a gratifying statistic: the actuality we learn is that her greatest success is an even more basic attempt to satisfy the responsibilities of friend and role model to the kids – often the first of each.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Goblins and Other Dancers

From the Concert Stage Dept.: During the encores part of Itzhak Perlman’s recital at Proctors last weekend, he displayed a sheaf of papers. “This is everything I have ever played in Schenectady since 1912,” he said drolly. “So you don’t have to hear the same thing again. Of course, if you were here in 1912, you probably can’t hear anyway.” Here’s my review of the performance.


THERE’S A PUBLISHED EDITION of Bazzini’s “Round of the Goblins” that reads, “For the player who has mastered all technical difficulties, because they’re all there in this brief violin showpiece. Not only must your left hand keep up with the brilliant passagework, those fingers also have to pluck strings, finger two strings at once for double-stops, finger a cascade of tenths, which is almost anatomically impossible, finger two strings at once for double trills, which puts all four fingers in simultaneous action and finger two strings at once for double false harmonics, the explanation of which would frighten you.”

Itzhak Perlman | AP Photo by
Dr. Scott R. Lieberman
If that’s not enough, there’s an entirely gratuitous but effect moment when an F is sounded on each of the fiddle’s four strings—the same F, starting low on the E string but sending the left hand up, up, up, until it’s so near the bridge that there’s almost no fingerboard under it.

Meanwhile, the bow is flying, skittering, trembling, all of it coordinated to the microsecond with what the left hand’s fingers are doing. From a performer’s standpoint, it’s a tightrope act demanding, beyond the technical mastery, total commitment. To the audience, it’s as impressive to witness as it is to hear.

“Everybody plays this,” said Itzhak Perlman, “and they play it well. But I’ll play it anyway.” And the goblins danced with a dazzling surety of purpose. Everybody may try to play this piece, but only the finest players crest the most of the technical hurdles, and Perlman’s account was brilliant. Especially coming, as it did, at the finish of a taxing program.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

The Turmoil

Guest Blogger Dept.: With the rise of the automobile came industrialization in America like never before, and Booth Tarkington chronicled it in a number of his works, most notably his Pultizer Prize-winning novel The Magnificent Ambersons (1918). But three years earlier, in The Turmoil, we get a taste of Tarkington’s perspective, introducing not only an overbearing industrialist in the person of James Sheridan but also his artistic son, the annoyingly hypersensitive Bibbs. Here’s the novel’s second chapter.


Booth Tarkington
THE SHERIDAN BUILDING was the biggest skyscraper; the Sheridan Trust Company was the biggest of its kind, and Sheridan himself had been the biggest builder and breaker and truster and buster under the smoke. He had come from a country cross-roads, at the beginning of the growth, and he had gone up and down in the booms and relapses of that period; but each time he went down he rebounded a little higher, until finally, after a year of overwork and anxiety—the latter not decreased by a chance, remote but possible, of recuperation from the former in the penitentiary—he found himself on top, with solid substance under his feet; and thereafter “played it safe.” But his hunger to get was unabated, for it was in the very bones of him and grew fiercer.

He was the city incarnate. He loved it, calling it God’s country, as he called the smoke Prosperity, breathing the dingy cloud with relish. And when soot fell upon his cuff he chuckled; he could have kissed it. “It’s good! It’s good!” he said, and smacked his lips in gusto. “Good, clean soot; it’s our life-blood, God bless it!” The smoke was one of his great enthusiasms; he laughed at a committee of plaintive housewives who called to beg his aid against it. “Smoke’s what brings your husbands’ money home on Saturday night,” he told them, jovially. “Smoke may hurt your little shrubberies in the front yard some, but it’s the catarrhal climate and the adenoids that starts your chuldern coughing. Smoke makes the climate better. Smoke means good health: it makes the people wash more. They have to wash so much they wash off the microbes. You go home and ask your husbands what smoke puts in their pockets out o’ the pay-roll—and you’ll come around next time to get me to turn out more smoke instead o’ chokin’ it off!”

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Spice of Life

Fat Tuesday Dept.: If you can’t make it to the real Mardi Gras, a good Cajun meal might be the next best thing. I visited the Bayou Café in Glenville shortly after it opened, and my report (from 1997) is below. It's still in business. Re-reading the piece has me contemplating a follow-up visit soon.


THE BAYOU CAFÉ IS LISTED in the recent METROLAND Dining Guide under Pub Fare. That was a mistake. You can find good pub fare there, but that listing hardly begins to cover the real specialties. “Bayou” and the alligator featured on the menu and throughout the restaurant are the tip-offs: There’s mighty good Cajun cooking going on there.

We weren’t instantly won over when we paid our first-ever visit, on a recent Friday evening. It was just after 6 PM, so we were hoping to avoid the dinner crowd.

The place was packed.

In the bar area, folks were playing pool, watching ESPN on the oversized TV or just hanging out and talking. A lot of cigarettes were burning, but we couldn’t smell smoke from where we sat, which I’ll explain in a moment.

Where we were, in the dining area, tables were pushed together to accommodate different-sized parties around us. Lots of families. A fairly aggressive stream of music, with plenty of zydeco in the playlist. One of those odious Quick Draw screens in the corner.

Monday, March 03, 2014

Art Apart

From the Bookshelf Dept.: The Andy Warhol Diaries was supposed to be the big beach read for 1989, but I’m sure that more discriminating readers realized it was more fun to enjoy the sun of a beach. Here’s my brief review.


SAMUEL PEPYS HE WAS NOT. Where Pepys’s massive diaries were literary and offered both insightful and satiric commentary among the juicier episodes, Andy Warhol’s diaries are little else but the jucier episodes. If your idea of juicy includes snide accounts of drug consumption by bitchy models, fashion designers and the like.

That’s the stuff of best-sellerdom today, and this book has been up there on the lists for several weeks now. If you’ve ever wondered what your friends think about you, be glad you weren’t a pal of Andy. His friends now know. In lavish detail. (If you were a friend of Andy and didn’t make it into the book, you mustn’t have attended the right parties. Or you simply behaved with uncommon restraint.)

The diaries are the product of Warhol’s daily reminiscences with onetime secretary Pat Hackett, who recorded his musings from 1976 to 1987, shortly before his death. She edited the manuscript, she explains, by excising reports about some of the many parties Andy attended. Apparently we also were spared some of the less-than-desirable behavior of a Warner Books executive or two.

What you wish Andy had spent some time talking about is his art, but that’s noted only in a most perfunctory passage, most vividly by accounts of various celebrities micturating on canvas for one series of paintings.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

It’s about Food

What’s for Dinner? Dept.: This week’s food piece reminds us that you still can shop the old-fashioned way, with personal service and excellent choices – for a price.


“FARM TO TABLE,” that catchiest of current culinary catchphrases, typically refers to a restaurant’s table, although the proliferation of farmer’s markets has allowed us, seasonally at least, to drag that bounty to our own boards. When you use a supermarket to flesh out the offerings, you’re at the mercy of corporate food choices, inevitably made to favor the market’s bottom line. The alternative is going to be more expensive.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
One such alternative recently opened last October in Troy. The Grocery is another brainchild of Vic Christopher and Heather LaVine, whose Charles F. Lucas Confectionery and Wine Bar has been a considerable success. The Grocery is in an adjoining space, connected to the wine bar by way of a large, open-air dining area with a retractable roof. It’s modeled on the kind of place at which your grandparents may have shopped. It offers staples and specialty foods. It’s very big on charcuterie and cheeses. And manager Andrew Siskind is also a beer fanatic, so you’ll find some brews you’ll see nowhere else in the area. Bo & Luke Imperial Smoked Stout, for example, a handcrafted ale aged in Kentucky bourbon barrels. Or the Coriolis IPA that’s currently on tap, and available to take home in a 32-ounce growler.

Saturday, March 01, 2014


Working in Coffeehouses Dept.: A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I were clearing our driveway of an impressive accumulation of snow, she working the shovel and me wielding a large, noisy snowblower. We’re on a state highway that’s kept pretty clear, but persistent winds continued to undo the work of the plows on a road already narrowed by big, dirty berms.

Traffic had been minimal. Only the occasional Amish cart seemed at home in the snow. Then we heard a far-off roar. A small Honda with a distressed muffler came wailing by, doing at least 60 in a 35 mph zone. We stared after it in astonishment and anger.

We finished clearing the driveway soon after and set off on an un-postponeable trip. About seven miles along the road, just before a NYS Thruway entrance, we saw the Honda tipped at nasty angle, its nose submerged in snowbank. A cop car was nearby. An agitated kid danced in front of a trooper, his body language a festival of denial.

A wave of schadenfreude came over me. “I shouldn’t feel good about this,” I said as we continued our trip, “but the son-of-a-bitch brought it on himself.”
“You’re right,” my daughter said. “You shouldn’t feel good about it,”