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Saturday, December 31, 2011

Guest Blogger: Booth Tarkington

 Offered in anticipation of the weekend's excitement, this excerpt from The Magnificent Ambersons.


. . . these people were gayest on New Year's Day; they made it a true festival — something no longer known. The women gathered to "assist" the hostesses who kept "Open House"; and the carefree men, dandified and perfumed, went about in sleighs, or in carriages and ponderous "hacks," going from Open House to Open House, leaving fantastic cards in fancy baskets as they entered each doorway, and emerging a little later, more carefree than ever, if the punch had been to their liking. It always was, and, as the afternoon wore on, pedestrians saw great gesturing and waving of skin-tight lemon gloves, while ruinous fragments of song were dropped behind as the carriages rolled up and down the streets.  (1918)

Friday, December 30, 2011


Twelve years ago, dictation software still struggled to make sense of its master's voice. I'm a middling typist but very accustomed to making sense of what I write as I write it. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by a technique used by writers as diverse as Graham Greene and John Updike -- insofar as they dictated texts that later were transcribed. But here was software that would transcribe my prose even as I spoke! Or would it? I wish I could recall what I was saying when the software presented what follows. It's a verbatim transcription to which I added only punctuation and line breaks.

The the the the of the but the the
the dead to the that the that
to blow but it into bed
did a bit
and gaped
didn’t have intimidated
the dead DB DB Peabody BBB BBB
but the productivity
but the date of a David ibid.

a out the notable
atop the benefit
to opt the up the
data the deliver
the move of the been inhibited event
a dividend buffeted
Aberdeen adopted data
data that HFD
a deep piece depicted womb
data data in the

Thursday, December 29, 2011


My father opined that all drivers must endure three types of travel disaster: losing control of your car, hitting another car, and being hit by someone else. I’m a veteran of all three, all of which, I can state with relief, were relatively minor if you don’t count a dislocated hip.

Yesterday I was driving a stretch of the New York Thruway with my teenaged daughter in the seat beside me. The light, unidentifiable precipitation that started falling as we eased away from the house turned into a determined snowfall by the time I’d paid the entry toll, and the road quickly whitened from bad to worse. Out of habit, I checked the braking. Once upon a time, a small, controllable skid would tell me how worried I ought to be. Now, with computer-assisted braking the norm, there’s an undecipherable shuddering that runs from the pedal up through my calf. I’m still not used to it.

We saw the aftermath of one spinout and managed to stay away from the insane SUVs that see bad weather as a call to idiocy, and made it to our destination and back home again safely. Which put me in mind of some of my winter-inspired greatest hits – all of which, thankfully, ended up as near-misses at worst.

I live on the side of a hill that slopes slowly up from the four-miles-distant Mohawk River, giving us what seems to be our own micro-climate. It can be thick with fog here and crystal clear on the river-adjacent Thruway; likewise, the quality of snowfall can change. As I discover on many a winter day beginning the long climb to home.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Who You Gonna Call?

Vintage Technology Dept.: I'm assuming that cell phone service in the Adirondacks has improved in the decade since I wrote this piece. Even as I placed the first pay-phone call described below, I had the sense that the experience would be laughably nightmarish and began taking notes. The follow-up calls were fun, too. This originally appeared in Metroland Magazine.


“Operator! Get me the police!” The aggrieved caller jiggles the switchhook while clutching a bakelite handset. It’s a great old-movie image of urgency, followed immediately by an undercranked shot of cop cars rounding a curve.

As a kid, I was instructed to dial 0 and tell the operator where the police were needed. I never had occasion to try it back then. But I did last week, and that simple gesture has a rugged enemy in current technology. Here’s what happened:

My family and I spent a few vacation days in the Adirondacks last week, and stayed one night at the pleasant Cedar Pond Campground in Newcomb. We were given a space that adjoined a schoolyard so our young daughter would have access to the playground.

As the sky darkened, we kindled a small fire at the campsite and watched the evening’s mosquito squadron descend. My daughter drifted into somnolence; Susan soon joined her in the tent. As I prepared to turn in – it was about 10:30 PM – the roar of an unmufflered car heralded the arrival of a group of boys at the schoolyard, which erupted into a loud and very annoying basketball game. Yeah, I should have just walked over there and reasoned with them, but I was tired and grumpy. I switched on my cell phone and ... nothing. No service.

So I hiked to the pay phone near the campsite entrance.

Monday, December 26, 2011

The Home Stretch

Boxing Day, 2011  |  Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Talking Heads: Remembering Bugaboo Creek

Vanishing Restaurants Dept.: Bugaboo Creek Steakhouse opened in Albany's Crossgates Mall in 1995 and stayed for twelve years, closing because of the very high rent. The rent is notoriously high, but the chain also was tasting trouble. They had at least 30 units at their peak; now, after bankruptcy and changes of ownership, they're down to twelve. I reviewed the place for Albany's Metroland Magazine in August, 1996, and found the animatronic animals startling, to say the least. A few years later, when my daughter was a toddler, I took her there to enjoy the show. There was none: every animal mechanism had broken. 


Chain restaurants depend on market research, focus groups and lots and lots of meetings to hone a particular style. The consistency this offers is a plus, although it’s achieved through safety and familiarity – in other words, no creative risks are taken. Which means that you’re going to enjoy a particular plateau of dining.
    Those who don’t cook and don’t dine out much will think of the plateau as a summit. So be it. But Bugaboo Creek does go a step beyond the usual chain restaurant limit. Not in cuisine or service, which are exactly what you’d expect, but in what I consider to be its true identity. It’s a theme park. With a restaurant attached.
    Start with the decor. In the manner of old-time Hollywood, where even cigar butts and driftwood looked scrubbed, Bugaboo Creek’s appointments are premeditatedly rustic, a base camp feel reinforced by the many stuffed critters on counters and walls. Oh, but that’s hardly all.
    Assuming you’re seated and get your order in pretty quickly – and it’s efficient there, you won’t have to wait much – you’ll just be settling in over a beer or cocktail when one of those stuffed animals will come to life with a click and a whirr. Might be a raccoon peeking out of a tree stump. Might be a fish flapping its head and tail. And, at some point in the meal, a big buffalo head at one end of the room will kick into gear and sing “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain.”
    You may want to order another drink.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Fifty-Six One-Hundredths

Such is the holiday largess in my household that Christmas Day inevitably dawns upon a scene of breathtaking wreckage – or so it seems until one realizes that the worst of the rubble is made up of hastily removed wrappings and boxes, heaped into an atoll surrounding this year’s booty.

Pacquette, about to make her début, displays the hand-tooled, whalebone-reinforced corsetry with which she hopes to redefine a figure currently bulging with an excess of convex complexity. Young Rutherford clutches a small plasticine box scarred with minuscule buttons and sporting a wren-sized color display, his slumber the sleep of one drunk with the glee of social networking, his fingers still twitching at the buttons like the paws of a blue-heeler dreaming of the chase. The twins have fled into their respective rooms, protecting their gifts from each other’s plunder despite my best effort to present items as identical as they.

What do you give to the wife who has everything? Chatty and I worked out a rider to the much-amended pre-nup, affirming that her claim to the yacht will be uncontested provided my ownership of the Meissen and Miró remains undisturbed.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Majestic Goose

Holiday Vault Dept.: An essay I wrote five years ago for Metroland Magazine. It remains gustatorily timeless. Bon appetit!


Toward the end of December 1972, Jean Shepherd devoted one of his radio programs to, as he termed it, “The Majestic Goose.” Best known as the author of the tales that formed the basis of the movie “A Christmas Story,” Shepherd held forth for many years on WOR in Manhattan every weeknight with a 45-minute show. He was a master monologist with an incisive view of American life; on this particular program, he lamented the fact the roasted goose plays so small a part in the otherwise large realm of the domestic palate.

As Shepherd pointed out, this is “the only time of year when you can get one of my absolutely favorite – well, it’s a sensual experience, is all I can say – one of my favorite items of food.” Before launching into an overview of the goose in history (from which I’ve drawn several elements of this piece), he termed it “one of the truly exquisite taste pleasures. If there’s any food I enjoy better than roast goose, I don’t know what it is.”

That opinion has been extensively shared throughout history. Goose has long been a Christmas meal staple, with some incursions (notably in my house) at Thanksgiving. Tracing it as a foodstuff back through history, we find it as a staple of a Celtic Hallowe’en (Samhain), which, for a mighty conflation of holidays, was also New Year’s Eve.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Made for Walkin'

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: My wife and I drove a VW camper from New York to California and back in September, 1989. Imagining myself a latter-day Ernie Pyle, I filed a number of stories from the road that ran in subsequent issues of the Schenectady Gazette. Two footnotes: My wife was so envious of the boots I obtained that she bought herself a pair in El Paso. And the boots remain in excellent shape, so much so that my teenaged-daughter has appropriated and proudly wears my wife's pair.


NEWCASTLE, Wyoming – The boots in Crum's Department Store are shelved according to size, so the littlest ones are the highest up. But if you're coming in looking for a size four or five, you're probably travelling with tall help.

“It's usually a grampa or grandma who buys that first pair of boots for you,” Dick Crum explains. “They're every bit as good as the full-sized boots, so they're a little bit expensive. But it's a special occasion, that first pair of boots.”

Dick and his brother follow a family tradition in operating this store in the center of what was once a railroad-company town. Crum's has been in business for three generations. A large sign outside boasts the availability of western wear for those tourists who don't take the Route 16 bypass as they travel from Mount Rushmore to Yellowstone National Park.

Like so much that emerges from cowboy tradition, boots are very functional and very handsome. Several inches of fine-tooled leather encase the calves and shins; the foot is cradled in a solid mitt of support.

While I don't expect to be riding the range any too soon, rarely get near a farm and don't even own a motorcycle, I had to have a pair of boots. A good pair. I didn't want to make the mistake I made with my cowboy hat.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Word of the Day

Honey (hun' ē), n. [ME hony, OE hunig; c. D, G honig, Icel hunang; akin to Gk knēkós pale yellow, tawny]
1. A sweet, viscid fluid produced by bees from the nectar collected from flowers.

2. Something sweet, delicious, or delightful.

3. (often cap.) Used as a term of endearment for a loved one. “Honey, did you pay the school tax bill?”

4. (in a sarcastic tone) A signifier of disapproval, typically with a drawn-out second syllable. “Hon-eee. I’m still waiting!

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Christmas Time Seems Years and Years Away

Guest Poet Dept., You Have to Start Somewhere Division: In 1909 -- 32 years before the first performance of "White Christmas" -- Irving Berlin penned the following lyrics, set to a tune by Ted Snyder (best known for "Who's Sorry Now?" and "The Sheik of Araby") unlike contemporary songs like "By the Light of the Silvery Moon" and "I Wonder Who's Kissing Her Now," this ditty failed to grab and hang on to the public's fancy. Could it have been because of the stilted syntax and cheapjack sentiment? Probably not. That didn't stop other such songs from taking off. I'm guessing that, even in those less song-saturated times, people were wise to the fact that this number could have been about any other holiday. While not even the most show-crazed among us ever dreams of a white Easter.


In a garden fair sat a happy pair,
’Neath a shady maple tree;
She had promised him, “We’ll be married, Jim,
To the chimes of Trinity.
’Tis the month of May, but next Christmas day,
I will be your blushing bride;
Don’t you worry, dear, it will soon be here.”
But he looked at her and sighed:

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Winter Warmth Olympics

From the vault: We moved into our farmhouse in 1990, the year this piece ran in the Schenectady Gazette, so much of the reminiscence herein -- including the very real story of frozen Christmas pipes -- was inspired by the downtown Schenectady house we'd fled. But it might as well have been written about the new place, through which chill winter breezes continue to skitter.


Once the hill behind my house disappears beneath its winter-long blanket of snow, many of the neighbors break out toboggans and sleds and dot the side of it, descending in crazy zigzags. Others strap their limbs into skates and whirl on the frozen water I can see from my window.

I don't sled, skate, toboggan, or ski. Because winter offers another sport, even more demanding in its regulations, that I play for the entire season. It's the simple challenge of staying warm.

Sure, it’s my fault for living in a drafty old farmhouse, but I accept the fact that year after year this month will sound a silent starter’s pistol: On your mark. Get set. Get toasty!

The rules are simple. Maintain a surrounding warmth of at least 80 degrees, and don’t get a stiff neck at night. The elements are few, consisting of various combinations of clothing, insulation, fuel, and alcoholic beverages.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Christmas Time

At 2:30 PM on a bright December day, the orb of sun blazes through a lower quadrant of the picture window at the back of Union College’s Memorial Chapel, blasting its light across several center pews.

I settled myself into the front one (leg room!) knowing that by the time the Boston Camerata concert begins, in half an hour, that orb will have slipped out of sight.

“A Medieval Christmas” offered selections from the 10th to the 15th centuries – 500 years of music in celebration of the holiday, sacred and secular. That’s a huge window of time, far larger than most classical-music concerts offer, and the variety of pieces and cultures of origin became itself a set of windows, from tenth-century Spain through 13th-century France and England and into Holland a century later and Germany a century later still.

Given the spare notation and shocking lack of original recordings, the ensemble offers a best guess as to the performance practice – but it’s an enlightened, very educated guess. When former music director Joel Cohen and the ensemble put together this program (it’s one of several Christmas programs they offer) in 1974, Cohen already was recognized as one of the leaders in early-music scholarship.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Cupid's Got Me by the Bells

I waited for your call. It came
At half-past six. You're not to blame
If circumstances hobnob so
They cause your sense of time to go
Right out the window. Pardon me:
I am a bit upset, you see,
For when the hour came and went
It caused me – not quite bafflement –
A feeling more like – not despair
(That's not to say I didn’t care –
More like – oh, skip it. What it was
Was very foolish, all because
An apprehensive – that’s the word!
I know, I know, this sounds absurd,
But, hell, I worry!  Who can tell
When Fate will toll disaster’s bell:


From the late, lamented eatery. Albany wasn't ready for a Moroccan restaurant.


Casablanca Restaurant, July 2010  |  Photo by B. A. Nilsson

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Santa's Little Yelpers

A Metroland feature from December 6, 1990. I approached the task aloof with a cynicism that evaporated as I spoke with the very likeable people there. And much as I hate to admit it, after 21 years, the photo does exactly what it's supposed to and provokes great sentimental "awwws" around the house.


Photo by Meera Shankar
My parents forced me into a photo session with Santa when I was four and I have resented them for it ever since. The traditional revenge, of course, is to inflict the punishment on your own children, but I haven't got any. So when the Clifton Country Mall announced its second annual “Pet Day with Santa,” it seemed like a good opportunity to give the brutes a road trip and sooth my damaged sesibilities.

It also would answer an important question: Who in their right minds wants to wrestle a beast into Santa's lap? The cruel truth is that, holiday mangers notwithstanding, animals care nothing for Christmas.

Malls are traditionally petless places and we felt very out of place leading our animals through the corridor. Bud Collyer, my two-year-old black Labrador, has never been taught to walk on a leash and zigzagged in front of me as he chased what must have been some splendid smells. Susan led Asta, an eight-month-old mix of Australian Blue Heeler and neighborhood hound.

This was the dog that barked at the occupants of every passing car, with special eagerness at stop lights. She barked at the people in the mall; she even barked at her own reflection in the shop windows.

Try to visualize the set-up we found: Santa sat at one end, of course, in that oversized chair he drags from mall to mall. Around him were red and green holiday decorations, or what was left of the decorations after one unhappy dog decided to attack the plastic holly (possibly because it had been anointed by another unhappy and somewhat incontinent beast).

Friday, December 16, 2011

Paws to Refresh Us

Travel up an escalator and into the large, bustling dining room of Jing Fong, a restaurant in Manhattan on Chinatown’s Elizabeth Street. Settle at one of the large eight-tops amidst the other families already seated there, families native to the area, conversing avidly, wielding chopsticks with virtuoso skill. Watch for the old woman bearing down on you with a large, lumbering cart. Choose the items you’d like to eat. Do it quickly – they get impatient. It’s busy. People are hungry. Forget about identifying what it is you’re choosing. They’re small portions, steamed or fried, their shells and wrappers betraying little about the contents. Trust the process.

Or have a Chinese dignitary at your side, as I did during my first visit to this venerable dim sum palace. This was many years ago when I was writing for monthly computer magazines, most of them editorially based in Manhattan. Having learned I’d never partaken of this Chinese custom, an editor of one of those magazines insisted that I join her and her husband, a former diplomat, for dim sum.

It was a Sunday morning. Canal Street was mobbed, and the turn onto Elizabeth ran us into the brunch line. She and I looked to be the only Occidentals there. Her husband glided us to the door of the restaurant and murmured a few words to the hostess. We immediately were ushered inside.

“Don’t worry about selecting things,” my host advised. “I’ll take care of it.”

Thursday, December 15, 2011


A short story, written in tribute to Peter DeVries.


Mrs. Ivey had the maddening habit of enhancing her sentences with verbal embroidery that disguised itself from casual ears, revealing its oddness only after she’d chattered her way into an offshoot subject. Thus, she would describe an annoying situation as something that got her dandruff up, leading to a sudden sermon about buying shampoo. The savings on an economy-sized bottle were worthwhile, she said, even though the container itself would “like, burden the hand. But it’s good for you,” she added, “like lifting weights. My husband lifts weights at the gym downtown, but I don’t go with him much on account of all the dumbbells there, staring at me all the time.”

No doubt. She was an extremely attractive woman. Tank-topped and sandalled, in shorts that snickered at the idea of modesty, she was the cynosure of laundry room, pool, and dumpster at the apartment complex we shared. We shared it with at least a hundred other tenants, and in fact lived at opposite ends of the place, but she and I also shared a schedule of early afternoon errands that caused us to meet fairly soon after I moved in.

“You’re the new guy,” she said, dropping a succession of small, frilly garments into the adjacent washer. I was about to acknowledge that status when she laughed — a wonderfully infectious act — and touched my forearm. “I mean, it’s not like this is some kind of a club or anything, but I’ve lived here nearly a year now and I saw you moving in and everything, so I figured it was just a matter of time before I got to know you — ” and on and on in that vein, her bounty of words a provocative counterpoint to her skimpy laundry. I learned that her name was Rosalie but that everyone called her Peaches, that her husband, Jack, was foreman of a county road crew, that she was 22 but married Jack when she was 18, that he was her first boyfriend and when he came on to her she was “a total innocent. Total. I mean, he shows up with this real smooth line and I swallowed it, foot-long and sinker.”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Malice in Wonderland

Accommodations at the 18-screen multiplex have grown more confusing and hostile than at any time in my long film-going history. From the confusing marquee displays of multiple titles and screens and times and dimensional format to the array of ever-climbing ticket prices, the battle begins even before you step into the theater lobby.

That being a caterwauling arena lighted like a Vegas casino and threaded with an obstacle course of free-standing promo displays, around which one eventually finds the oasis of refreshments. There one can obtain oiled popcorn in wheelbarrow-filling amounts. (“And don’t forget your free refill when you buy the extra-large size!”) Which would have been fine in the days of intermissions. Now I’m expected to abandon my seat and miss what could be a key scene in the narrative because I’ve consumed forty pounds of gut-swelling carbohydrates and can’t suppress my craving for more.

But I’m betraying my movie-going origins. During my high-school years, which covered the early 1970s, following the long decline of the Hollywood studio system and the attendant rise in television as an entertainment-spewing medium, there came a halcyon period of thoughtful filmmaking spearheaded by such directors as Robert Altman, Mike Nichols, Woody Allen, Peter Bogdanovich, Martin Scorcese, and many more, directors who had absorbed the vocabulary of the best of their Hollywood predecessors and found new and imaginative ways of bending those techniques to suit a questioning era. My friends and I attended these films with reverence and sat through them in silence, the local pizza joint our forum for a lively post-mortem.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Monday, December 12, 2011

Get Your Money Back

Vault Encore: There's mention in yesterday's snowblower piece of the unit I purchased and returned, reminding me of another article I wrote describing the struggle to persuade Montgomery Ward to take back the machine. It's part of a piece titled "How to Get You Money Back" that ran in Metroland in June 2001 and subsequently was reprinted in a few other alternative newsweeklies across the country.


Start by repeating to yourself the following: “They want to give me my money back in exchange for returning this horrible piece of crap. I need only remove the obstacles they feel duty bound to put in my way.”

Repackage the item so that it looks as identical as possible to the way it appeared on the shelf. Store managers love that, and it’s the reason I hang onto all packaging for many weeks. Present the package and your receipt to customer service with a plausible explanation of the problem. Try to make it as technical as possible, and speak in a monotone. (“The thing only runs off the USB port, and my PC doesn’t have one.”)

Be aware of the store’s return policy. If you’re not supposed to get a cash refund after 30 days and you waited for more than a month to take back the thing, practice your look of astonishment in the mirror. Then play it like this:

Sunday, December 11, 2011

The Snowblower Brigade

From the Vault: Buddy Ottaviano spent over 40 years at the Schenectady Daily Gazette, 25 of them as city editor, his last five as managing editor. Back then the paper was legendarily grey, but it rewarded a close reading. Like Ottaviano, there was color hidden within. I freelanced for the paper for a few years in the late 1980s, and Buddy was generous not only in giving me assignments but also bumping up the miserable fee I received. I lived in Schenectady back then, and could walk to Gazette's State Street offices. One day in 1989, as the weather turned chilly, I stopped into his office and he asked, "When you think of winter, what comes to mind?" "That's easy," I said. "All the damn snowblowers starting up at the crack of dawn on my street." "Great," he said. "Give me 700 words on that."


Only after I spent a winter with black and blue ankles did I understand why the world's largest snowblowers live on my street.
At first I thought it was funny, seeing those behemoths. I suppose that's not quite true: at first I thought it was annoying. Snowfall is a comfort at night, blanketing the noisy world, but the first glimmerings of dawn brought out my neighbors and their fleet of bright orange and red machines.

The first time it happened, not long after I moved onto the street, I was in bed. In a sleep that can resist the telephone and garbage man and probably a small dynamite blast next door. There was this roar like a thousand angry chainsaws, muffled at first, annoying me out of my sleep with its insistent crescendo of buzzing.

And it was a sound I didn't recognize.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Wonderful Room

My father’s military experience was a stint as a Naval officer from the late ’40s into the Korean War, and included a time in the Mediterranean and occupied Japan, where he bought one of the earliest Nikon cameras. He kept in touch with some of his shipmates, but I never got the sense of bonding urgency that characterizes those who got a foxhole’s-rim view of battle.

There are different kinds of battle, many without bloodshed or even bruises. Sometimes it’s only the task of battling a calendar while pursuing a shared artistic vision into the high-adrenalin arena of the theater stage. While I wouldn’t pretend to compete with anyone who’s defended this country or opened up a patient in the operating arena or tried to grab a home run in a playoff game’s ninth inning, I’m thinking at this holiday time of year of a place where I forged some memorable bonds: a theatrical dressing room.

Friday, December 09, 2011

Math for My Homeschooled Child

Addition, Subtraction, Multiplication, Division

Problem 1: Sam has two parents, one step-parent, one brother, and two sisters. Alice has one parent, one grandparent, one ex-husband, and two sons. When Sam marries Alice, how many people will show up at the house for Thanksgiving?

Problem 2: Alice is pregnant again. Her obstetrician charges $3500. Her ultrasound was $392.97. The anesthesiologist gets $880. Her doula wants $400, but won’t sign on if an anesthesiologist is involved. The doula also brings a midwife to the team, who is prepared to barter her services if Sam straightens out her tax mess from last year. Forgetting about the facility fee, the mix-up at admissions, the vaccination fight, and, of course, the resultant legal fees, what was the cost of bringing you into this world?

Self-portrait, 2010

Working in my summer aerie. Can it get more pretentious?

Thursday, December 08, 2011

Joe's Rejuvenated

From the Vault: Joe Kulik ran a celebrated deli on Albany's Madison Avenue for 55 years. Two years after Joe died, the place was sold to restaurateur Charles Chow, who ran it for two years before selling it to Franklin Plaza's Michael Cocca, after which I lose track of the property's permutations. Here's a piece of mine from the debut issue (December 1985) of the short-lived CAPITAL Region magazine that looks at the history of Joe's and Chow's ambition to replicate the place.

Saturday afternoon used to be one of the busiest times of the week at Joe's Restaurant. But the legendary Albany delicatessen is quiet on the pleasant Saturday when I stop in with three friends. Two or three tables of diners are conversing in low tones, leaning over those voluptuous sandwiches Joe's has served for over 50 years.

“It's strange not to see Joe at that table over there,” says my friend Alex, who has been coming to Joe's for over 20 years.

But Casey is still there. “I survived the summer,” the veteran waiter says gruffly, brown napkin folded over the shoulder of his black dinner jacket.

After a fire, financial problems and the death of its founder, Joe’s is back in business under a new management that wants to live up to the old standards.

“Pleasing Jewish ladies can be very difficult,” present owner Charles Chow told Fred LeBrun of the Times Union. But Chow – who also owns three area Chinese restaurants – shrewdly rehired as many of Joe’s former employees as he could, and proceeded to re-create the legendary menu. According to Casey, the effort is working.


While the rest of the Eastern Standard Timers are rising and shining and planning productive days, while the road repair crews and roofers and utility linemen are backing beepy trucks and clattering up the poles outside my window, I’m swathed in a heavy layer of Zs, reflexively hauling the blankets over my ears. Chances are that I nodded off only a couple of hours earlier. There are times I’d rather be one of those risers and shiners, knocking off a day’s work in daylight. Then I find myself at my desk again after midnight, surrounded only by the easygoing hum of computer fans, the peacefulness addictively compelling.

But late-night productivity isn’t what it used to be. That sense of brain-buzz, the loose and dynamic energy that sparks the creation of a good paragraph, ebbs earlier. As early as 11 PM, unthinkable a few years ago. There’s plenty of busy work to do – clearing out and backing up hard drives, filing photographs, recataloging the Toscanini CDs – until the brain feels ready to write again, but at that point I’m so tired that I’m free-associating almost without control, which provokes wasteful, wacky texts. I should be sleeping. I should be trying to get to sleep. I should be trudging upstairs and easing into bed.

This is when the nightmare begins.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Enjoying the Soup

Vintage Stuff Dept.: On Nov. 10, 1987, Soupy Sales appeared at Albany's Comedy Works, presenting a long set of song and shtick. I grew up watching Soupy's show, a low-budget barrage of puns and anarchy that taught me early on how unreliable the adult world could be. Clearly, Soupy had made it his peculiar form of adulthood with his kid sensibilities intact, and it inspired me to try to do the same. Here's the review I wrote of his Albany show. How nice to discover that he was still as much of a kid as ever.


“My kids have grown up!” Soupy Sales declared on the stage of the Comedy Works on Tuesday night.  He gestured to the small crowd of fans – people in their 20s and 30s – who had gathered on a snowy night to see the man who made “The Mouse” a million-seller back in the ‘60s.

His kids, those who remember the TV show in which Soupy delivered an endless stream of puns and sight-gags, may have grown up, but Sales hasn't. Even his bluest jokes have the ring of a naughty child's voice behind them, and that's really his appeal. Like any good clown, he has a unique style. And in his case, it's that of an energetic, risqué kid.

And it's still a stream of puns, old jokes, rewritten song lyrics and crazy free association. “People ask dumb questions,” began one routine. “They see you snoring on the couch and say, ‘Hey, are you asleep?’” (Musical flourish from the keyboard.) “You say, ‘No. They're showing little movies on the insides of my eyelids!’” (Flourish.) 

Yes, in Fact, I Am a Married Man

Let no one tell you otherwise:
I love you for your limpid eyes.
The stunning salary you make
Is merely icing on the cake.

You come to me and I rejoice
Too see your face, to hear your voice.
You come to me with much to share,
Like freshly laundered underwear.

You make my bed, you wash my dishes,
Satisfy my dinner wishes,
Forgive the crimes that I confess:
I couldn’t love you any less.

You’re all I ever bargained for.
Go cash your check. I’ll tell you more.

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

Tube Stakes

When I was five, you couldn’t pry me away from Bugs Bunny cartoons. By third grade, I shared with a few engeekened friends a passion for the TV show “My Favorite Martian,” and every clement recess period was spent extemporizing our own scenarios of space travel and the magic of on-demand invisibility.

By the time I was 9, TV owned my Friday nights. Start on channel 4 for “Camp Runamuck” and “Hank,” pop over to ABC for “The Addams Family,” suffer the idiocy of “Gomer Pyle” so as to avoid “Honey West,” follow that with “The Smothers Brothers” (the unremembered series in which Tommy was an angel) and finish back on NBC with “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” My indulgent mother could wash my hair so quickly that it lasted no longer than a commercial break.

Which is to say that television owned me from a very early age, a constant and reliable companion in a combative, unpredictable world. As I slipped into my teens, I sought movies, which started with a 4:30 showing on channel 7 and reached its peak with the odd festivals – Alec Guinness, Busby Berkeley, the Marx Brothers – that channels 5 and 9 would show at night. So depressed was I during my single year in college that I rose at dinnertime, took a self-pitying skulk after the meal, then slouched until dawn in a room with a TV set, flipping from film to film.

Leo Brings Joy

Florence, Italy  |  Photo by B. A. Nilsson  |  Oct. 2007

Monday, December 05, 2011

After Hours with John Fahey

From the Vault: Guitarist John Fahey performed at Saratoga's Caffe Lena on Nov. 23, 1986. I attended and reviewed that night's second set, a rambling, discursive medley-cum-improvisation that gave us the musical legacy of the man who started his career under the pseudonym "Blind Joe Death." Another spectacular guitarist, Paul Geremia, was in the audience, and Fahey invited my wife and me to join the two of them for drinks after the concert. We walked a block to a long-defunct bar. Here's the piece that accompanied my review in Metroland Magazine three days later.


Nothing much stirring in Saratoga Springs on a Sunday night. The last show at Caffe Lena ended at 11 and John Fahey wants a drink. And he wants to catch up on some talk with a fellow guitarist.

Fahey’s first-ever appearance at Lena’s brought out two full houses of enthusiasts to watch this unique artist at work. Those who know him only from the old Takoma and Vanguard albums have a picture of a skinny kid with circumflex eyebrows but saw a balding, bearded, middle-aged fat man in a blue work shirt, as incongruous an image as you can imagine for this artist.

Of course, when he plays it’s a different story. Fahey has spent a lifetime absorbing the blues traditions of this century’s greatest players; this he has translated into a sound all his own.

Onstage he consumed a pitcher of Coke. Now he’s after something harder, so Fahey and Paul Geremia cross over to Caroline and into the Turf Bar.

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Variation Variations

In these days of shuffle play, the cumulative effect of a program of carefully chosen music stops being an option. A concert experience, at least when there’s no arena involved, shuts you in a hall with like-minded others willing to forego the visual experience (put that crossword puzzle down!) and let the music do its magic. Over the course of a couple of hours, with intermission, there’s the possibility that concert will culminate with an excitement as great as any provoked by plot-driven entertainment.

That’s where shrewd programming comes in. In my long-ago radio days of inflicting classical music upon the masses, I shared with other announcers a pleasure in building the music into blocks of an hour or more in which one piece led to the next with some sense of continuity or contrast, with the new piece somehow taking up the energy of the one before. Of course, I had a range of textures at hand: orchestral, chamber, solo instrumental and more (but no vocal. This was WMHT-FM in the early ’80s, when, thanks to the Napoleonic numbskull who ran the place, vocal recordings were forbidden).

Solo piano restricts the playing field, but there’s a boon in such a restriction. The music has to work with its core attributes of melody, harmony, rhythm, and dynamics. The form of a piece becomes more evident. The conversation between performer and audience may seem more austere, but we entered the hall expecting this.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Hail and Farewell

Eric Fiedler, late 1982  |  Photo by B. A. Nilsson  |  Shot with a venerable Pentax K1000

Notes on Christmas

The aural assault began even before my Thanksgiving turkey met its doom. At first they were seemingly random shots in the Muzak line-up, a sappy “Sleigh Ride” here, a lugubrious “Silver Bells” pealing over that way. My first full dose – still before Nov. 24 – came at a coffee shop playing Christmas music nonstop. Now, with December fully engaged, the purveyors of background tunes have let loose with a dedication of purpose guaranteed to cyberize my shopping for the rest of the year.

But how to handle it in one’s own house? My wife and I enjoy vigorous disagreement over the amount of holiday treacle that’s tolerable. You won’t be surprised to learn that she’s a supporter of all things Christmas-y, but she pursues such things as shopping and decoration with commendable restraint. Yet she’ll willingly listen to Johnny Mathis croon “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

Many years ago I compiled a list of Christmas-themed recordings we own. I had to do this because my obsessive CD (and record, and cassette, and DAT, and minidisc) filing system doesn’t shelve them all under “C.” Leon Redbone’s Christmas disc is with the rest of his stuff; you’ll find the many by Michael Martin Murphey among the “M”s.

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Aboard the Steamer Natchez

Across the U.S.A. Dept.: In the autumn of 1989, my wife and I crisscrossed the country in a VW camper. Imagining myself a latter-day Ernie Pyle, I filed a couple of dozen pieces that appeared in the Schenectady Daily Gazette. Here's an account of our stop in New Orleans.


As this boat prepares to depart on a Mississippi River tour, a row of topside pipes erupts in a calliope serenade. The music, a medley of standards on the order of “Alabama Jubilee” and “Get Out and Get under the Moon,” bounces off the face of the nearby Jackson Brewery, and there’s enough of a distance to give the sound a weird delay. Cute and cacophonous at the same time, and that’s what New Orleans is all about.

“It's surprising how much variety you’ll find in Louisiana,” explained Dudley Passman, who does promotional work for Paul Prudhomme, the area’s best-known chef. “I grew up in Baton Rouge, went to school in Lafayette and now I live here. Baton Rouge is very conservative, bible-belt country. In Lafayette you find a more family-oriented community. Lot of Cajuns there, and lots of Catholics. New Orleans is like New York in being much more cosmopolitan. You’ll find everything here.”

From here, on the highest deck of the steamer, the colorful old buildings of the French Quarter seem dwarfed by the newer high-rises. Behind a row of four-story Federal-style brick houses are the twin towers of Sheraton and Marriott.