Tuesday, November 28, 2006

On the Bus

If you had asked me in 1987, upon first moving to New York, if I’d still be taking a bus to make the NYC/PA trip in 20 years, I’d have laughed. “Surely, I’ll have a car at that point. Or something.”

Well, here we are, and no car. It’s funny how in your 20s, you project all these things onto your future: marriage, kids, houses, money, fame, cars, etc. And you get in your 40s and recognize the world is nothing like how you thought it was going to be. I’m not married – nothing against it, just haven’t placed myself in that situation yet, after a few close calls in my 20s. (Believe me, after seeing what various friends have gone through, aint nobody going to lecture me on the wonders of marriage. Hats off to you if you’ve made it work!) No kids that I know of. A house in New York? I’d have to rob a few banks to pull that one off. Fame? Not much, a smidgen within the city, and from what I’ve seen, it’s worthless without the money. I can guarantee you, if I had all these things, it would still be nothing like I had imagined it.

Cars? To have one in New York is a huge hassle. Insane insurance rates. Basic maintenance. Gas prices. Finding parking spaces. Changing sides of the street every day. Having it messed with by teenage goons and thieves. Only using it on weekends. And then having to deal with NYC traffic, which would age me in dog years. Sure, it would come in handy for trips back to PA or simply getting away certain weekends. But when I weigh all these things out, I can live without a car. Having a car in New York is much more of a luxury than it would be in the suburbs or country, where a car is a necessity. Here, most people really don’t need one. Once upon a time, that would have seemed like a very abnormal set-up to me, but you live long enough inside the insanity of New York, cars stop making sense.

Leaving the bus to get me back to Pennsylvania about once every six weeks. Normally, the bus is entirely doable, as I avoid traveling on major holidays. Plenty of room to spread out, traffic usually not so bad, and aside from getting one old coot driver who’s purposely late (and apparently unfireable), no hassles on the trip, which takes about four hours and drops me off literally down the street from Mom’s house. Used to take under three, but that implied taking an express bus directly to Hazleton, PA and Dad picking me up at the station for the half-hour ride back home. With Dad gone, it just aint happening anymore, so I have to take the milk run bus that hits all those small Coal Region towns.

One of my least favorite things to do is to take a bus any time around a major holiday, which invariably happens every Thanksgiving and Christmas. If I can swing a few days around each, I do so, mostly to avoid all the assholes, agoraphobics and skanks who tend to pile on the bus at these times of the year. You’d figure riding a bus wouldn’t take any sort of special ability, that anyone could do it. But you learn fast after a few holiday runs that there are uh, problematic people, who, let’s look at the big picture, have problems doing anything, and riding a bus is a subset of that unfortunate whole.

This time, there were a few people to file in the “special memories” folder. On the way from New York, there was some girl in the back blabbing on her cellphone. This alone is not a punishable crime – people do this all day long everywhere. Just another person with bad manners, talking way too loud, personal conversation, obviously could wait, I don’t understand how cellphone people have these useless conversations when they know everyone within a 50-foot radius can hear what they’re saying.

The real issue was the neurotic middle-aged woman in the seat in front of me. You know the kind. She’s reading the Book Review section of The Sunday New York Times, but she’d be just as happy wrapping and unwrapping a ball of tin foil. Or scratching at her window. Or bouncing a ball off a brick wall for hours. Like all of these neurotic harpies, she has all her shit spread out over the seat next to her. I guess that’s her survival kit of an Ayn Rand novel, the latest “hate Bush” book, bottles of anti-depressants and tofu sandwiches on 12-grain bread. Normally, I don’t care about that, but when the holiday buses get crowded, this really annoys me, as they guarantee people (like me) with manners are going to get hit up for that open seat.

Anyway, when cellphone girl started her navel-gazing monologue, this harpy went nuts. It was like a dog hearing a high-pitched whistle. She started squirming in her seat. Then turning around, full face, which really grated on me. Finally, she started commenting. “Oh, my god, is nobody going to stop that woman? Is this allowable? Are we supposed to put up with this sort of behavior?”

And all I could think was, what if I was having a conversation with the person in the seat next to me. Would that be any different? Would she still be writhing in agony? Finally, I just said, “Look, I don’t like that sort of stuff either, but there are no rules against talking on a bus.”

She looked at me as if I had just told her Santa Claus wasn’t real.

“I know that, but it’s the manners more than anything.”

Like spreading all your shit over two seats to ensure no one sits next to you is kosher. Or repeatedly turning around full-face on someone and grimacing.

“If you’re really that annoyed, go back and tell her to stop.”

She just stared at me. It was that simple. I think this woman was simply looking for the people around her to agree with her. Which I did in principal, but if assholic behavior was against the law, we’d all be in jail at one time or another, some of us on death row the rest of our days. At that point, I put my headphones back on and ignored her the best I could. I think she climbed a tree when we stopped in Lehighton, PA and started throwing whole-wheat pretzel bites at people on the street.

On the way back, two notable incidents. In Shenandoah, PA, two wiggers got on the bus, looking for round-trip tickets to Philadelphia, same day. They were wearing these puffy white hoodies that looked like berserk pajama tops for five-year-old boys – the matching sweat pants to their hoodies probably had built-in feet. They’d look like idiots anywhere, much less a small town in rural Pennsylvania. Of course, they start in with the phony standard-issue accent all these kids have had since 1988 (but magically lose when they become adults). People bust on me for how much I despise wiggers (is Bill really a racist masking his true feelings in his contempt for wiggers?), but these kids make hippies look cool. They’re insincere, false and usually idiotic. They’re what’s wrong with a lot of white people.

They had to buy their tickets on the bus, which is a sign of people who never ride the bus. I took one look at them and thought only one thing: call the DEA and alert them to stop the return trip from Philly that night, because these kids had “drug mule” written all over them. What kind of person takes a round trip to Philly that will drop them off around noon, and have them get back on the bus around 3:30 pm? You’d have to be an idiot to run drugs on a public bus. These kids were idiots. They spent the whole way to Lehighton (where the Philadelphia people get off), doing their little “yo, nigga, yo, for real, word” lines on each other. And left me wondering what new trend is bound to come along in the next few years that will make me nostalgic for the subtlety of wiggers. I promise you, this will happen!

Later in the trip, we pull into Easton, PA. I don’t like Easton. It doesn’t seem like a bad town, it’s just that people will often get on the bus at Easton to go to Somerville or Newark. If the driver doesn’t get anyone going to either location, he can bypass them and head straight to NYC, thus shaving about half an hour off the trip. This rarely happens, and it’s usually one of those Easton people who causes it.

By the time we got there, every person had his own seat, and there were probably about eight completely open double-seats. Five people got on. I wasn’t dozing, but I was pretty relaxed, as I always seem to get that way around Easton. Just then, I felt this whoosh of air then immediately felt a large weight pressing down against me. What the fuck, I thought, there are plenty of seats open, what’s going on here.

It turned out to be a very large, mildly-retarded girl. Is that the way to state this these days? I never went for that “god’s children” shit, and saying “Downs Syndrome” sounds too clinical. Special person? I can go with that. This very large special person plopped down next to me. Hard.

I'm not a huge guy, but I can guarantee there were people smaller than me with open seats, along with a few completely open double seats. For someone to sit next to me in that kind of scenario was really unnerving. Her girth was oppressive -- that's the feeling I get sitting next to really large people. You can feel their weight on you and understand how oppressive it must feel to be that heavy. A physical force against your skin. She starts waving out the window and going "buh-bye" to I guess what was some kind of relative.

And all I could think was, "Lord, I don’t ask You for much, but could You make one of these people get off at Somerville so this very large special person could get the fuck off me?" (This is the exact antithesis of my usual feelings towards Somerville.) I didn't have much to say to her -- I was incensed. I couldn’t move. And she kept moving her arms -- I could feel the muscles in her arms – she felt as strong as an ox. I pictured her throwing me over the edge of a cliff just to see if I could fly. If this was a normal human being, I would have considered this totally obnoxious, but this girl was special, so I understood she didn’t mean any disrespect or rudeness, and I rolled with it.

I later found out why she sat next to me -- she was jonesing for the front seat. At Somerville, a woman and her kid who had been in the front seat got off, and she bolted over there and clutched on the rail, ramrod straight and sat that way the rest of the trip. Really strange that a retarded girl would go off on her own to NYC unsupervised. But I was just relieved as hell that she was off me.

Once again, normally I get on these buses to Pennsylvania and have a relaxing four hours to listen to music, gather my thoughts and gaze out the window at the passing countryside, feeling myself getting closer to home with each passing farm field and patch of woods. All that shit goes out the window around the holidays. And I’m not even getting into that one Christmas trip when the woman next to me on a packed bus smuggled on her pet fox terrier, who kept leaving weird garlic-smelling farts all trip long.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Falling Tower

Well, a weird few days here. For possibly the first time ever, I angrily blurted “fuck you” at a woman on the street. Believe me, not my style, and I had a minor crisis of conscience afterwards that worked itself out nicely on the heavy bag in the gym.

While it was nasty, I don’t really regret it. I was walking east on 38th Street, approaching Broadway, in a hurry to get to my boxing class at about 5:15 pm. The West 30s in Manhattan is rotten with Times Square tourists, 34th Street shoppers and other assorted flotsam who make walking around there extremely uncomfortable. Often times, I’ll find myself walking out into the street simply to get around a herd of people moving slower than a 15-year-old chihuaha in a Notre Dame sweater.

Whether this woman was a tourist, or just some random assclown who thinks everyone else’s world revolves around hers, I couldn’t tell. All I know is I was walking briskly in a straight line, like I always do, going with the light. This woman was heading north on Broadway, approaching a “Don’t Walk” light, her head turned from me, blabbing to her friend, when she bumped into me. Actually, I made an effort not to bump into her, putting out my arms and basically brushing against her as I eased my body away – purely in a defensive mode, not looking to cop any sort of feel. This woman looked like a Potato Bomb (Pennsylvania Coal Region slang for a woman of Irish/Easter European descent who puts on a ton of weight after bearing her first child).

We brushed against each other – a little too close for comfort – but no blood, no foul. Not even a jostle. Just me noticing this inattentive woman heading toward me, making an effort not to run her over (which would have been easy), and both of us going in our own direction. Well, at least I was, as I was in a hurry. But as I moved away, I heard in an indignant voice: “Hey, don’t you know how to say excuse me?” Without breaking stride, and turning around to shoot her a look that let her know I was willing to come back and get strange, I blurted “Fuck you!” The look on her face … moral indignation, as if a girl scout had just plunged a dagger into her kidney. It was the right call, and she didn’t respond. Had she responded, I would have kept walking. As noted, I was in a hurry to get to my boxing class, not engage in a meaningless confrontation with an anonymous putz.

It’s been that kind of fall. And speaking of fall, I’ve made it to both Tower Records locations in Manhattan recently to take part in their Everything Must Go demise sale, which appears to be shooting for a closing date some time in December. At 40% off, most everything worthwhile is filtering out of the stores, and I think I made my last trip Friday after work. It’s too depressing. Granted, I haven’t been buying much from stores like Tower over the past five years. MP3s and better deals with used discs on Amazon and Half tend to keep me out of these places, unless I want to make an impulse purchase or get something new by a major-label artist on sale for under $10. Otherwise, it’s Emusic, friends forwarding bounteous MP3 discs, or the occasional spelunk onto torrent sites for mostly import stuff I aint paying $30 a disc for.

It’s depressing because I remember Tower’s prime, the late 80s through the mid-90s, and going there on a Friday after work with $40 to burn was a great feeling, with me walking out with 2-3 CDs a week, minimum. The place would be buzzing with activity, all the snotty floor people (save for the heavily-outnumbered good employees like Erik B. and his friend Chuck) laying on heaping doses of the Tower “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. I can still have that retail experience by heading down to J&R Music World, but even there you can sense that depressing “kids are downloading everything these days” vibe in the sparsely-populated aisles. In short, I feel weird buying CDs in retail stores these days.

I feel weird knowing a totem of this way of buying music is biting the dust, and it’s people like me, who once propped them up mightily, who are a large part of the reason. Not with any sense of guilt – more like someone noticing how much quicker a Model T is than my horse and buggy.

The permutations of retail music I’ve seen come and go in my lifetime: vinyl records (in colors, picture discs, RCA flexi-discs, virgin vinyl, etc.), eight-track tapes, reel-to-reel tapes, cassette tapes, the demise of vinyl singles (a dark day which I was hoping MP3s would revive, but haven’t), cassette singles (terrible concept), those horrible contraptions that made mix cassettes in-store in the late 80s, CDs, CDs in long boxes (I always thought there’d be some special treat in the other end of the box, only to find more cardboard), box sets (which I love for their overkill and rarities), DAT tape (which should have taken off, but didn’t due to pricing issues), SACD and DVD Audio (the cost of the players to support these things, more than anything, killed them off, and the SACD discs sound great even on average equipment), and, of course, the approaching murderer of physical product, the MP3 file. I’ve probably missed a few – like cardboard singles of The Archies I used to get on the back of cereal boxes – but that pretty much covers it.

And to walk through Tower now feels like the retail music equivalent of the fall of Saigon. Just a weird scene as customers paw through piles of mostly bad and remaindered CDs, whiffs of Black Friday in an "Everything for $1.00" store. I’d imagine there are a few hidden gems in there, but I don’t have the patience to slog through it. You can feel a pall settling over the stores, like we’re all saying goodbye to something once great, but now having a hard time justifying its existence. Like running into an old lover on the street and realizing you no longer give a shit in any real sense. A liberating feeling with a tinge of emptiness.

I made sure my last purchases felt some type of resonance:

The DVD of Doug Sahm and the Sir Douglas Quintet Live from Austin City Limits (circa early 80s). Doug Sahm is one of those artists I felt a need to go completist on, and that wasn’t easy. Only recently did I track down a torrent file containing his hard-to-find Scandinavian discs from the mid-80s. They’re hard to find for a reason: they kind of suck (but have their moments). This guy had the greatest voice in rock and roll – he could sing anything, in any style. And his voice was perfectly suited to that surly mix of tex-mex, country, rock and roller-rink organ. This is a pretty standard TV show performance, but worth having as there is no other DVD material on him. He was too strange to be a huge star, and that’s fine by me. The original redneck hippie; Willie Nelson "borrowed" his schtick.

The Ramones' Rock and Roll High School DVD. Man, did this movie suck. It should be viewed on a double bill with Get Crazy: two early 80s flicks still trying to present rock/new wave in a “beware parents, your teenagers are going wild with this crazy new music” manner. There was nothing particularly wild about The Ramones. They just rocked. It’s worth it to see them acting very poorly on film. They were meant to star in a B-Movie, and this is it.

Pete Townshend and Ronnie Lane's Rough Mix CD. This is a British reissue of that classic 70s album I already have. Bought it on a lark because it was remastered and had bonus tracks. And glad I did – it sounds phenomenal now, ah, the warmth of remastered CDs, which we'll one day rhapsodize over like weirdoes are doing for shitty vinyl now. Like Doug Sahm, Ronnie Lane is one of those people I will talk your ear off all night long if you get me going on unheralded recording artists. He was great with The Small Faces and The Faces, but he became someone else entirely with his solo albums, laying out that acoustic rock terrain Faces lead singer Rod Stewart hinted at in “Gasoline Alley” and “Mandolin Wind” (which Ronnie claimed Rod “borrowed” from him). Also recently picked up a documentary on Ronnie Lane that’s well worth owning. I wish I'd known Ronnie Lane, and that's a feeling I don't have towards many musicians I respect.

Buying that album was probably the best way to say goodbye to Tower. Ronnie’s dead, so is Doug Sahm, and three of The Ramones. So shall Tower be shortly. So shall we all one day. Let the shoppers rummage our bargain bins and find something worthwhile at 40% off one fine day.

Friday, November 17, 2006

The Christmas List

It’s that time of the year to put together my Christmas mailing list: a fretful undertaking. Doing this thing every year is a reminder of those who’ve fallen along the way, i.e., people who, for one reason or another, aren’t going to be on the list. I’d say the main reason is usually lack of contact – and I mean being out of touch for years, not months. Whatever the reason, it’s a reminder that our worlds tend to settle back on those who matter in our lives, rather than expand to some glorious horizon where we constantly acquire new friends like blossom on the wind.

I never liked the idea of Christmas cards, so I don’t do them. What I do like is making music compilations, so back in the early 90s, I figured rather than sending cards, I’d send people cassette tape compilations of whatever I was listening to that year as a compromise between a Christmas card and an actual present – complete with home-made art-work.

For those uninitiated or too young to remember tape mixes, making these was quite an ordeal. At that time in the early 90s, my music collection was half records/half CDs. So it was a matter of collecting the songs I wanted on X number of discs, putting them in a pile, taking a few days to wade through and decide on some sort of song order, then do the dirty work. This involved assiduously notating the times for each song, and adding them up to see how well they’d fill out a side of a cassette tape.

I favored TDK SA 110s. SA being some designation for a slightly higher grade of tape than their bargain stuff, and 110 meaning 55 minutes per side. But the reason I liked TDKs was that they usually had about two minutes extra time on each side – an informal gift to those of us looking to pack as much music as possible onto a tape. November would find me with stacks of CDs and records sitting on a table, me at the table, with a writing pad and calculator, making sure to note the crucial difference in adding seconds, that the roll-over was 60 and not 100.

Putting together the compilation would be great fun. It may be too early to say I missed my calling as one of those people who compile songs for soundtracks. If there’s anyone out there who’d want a top-notch compiler, I’m the one. That would be one job where I’d skip to work most days and have a ball. But in terms of the tape compilation, I’d have to sit down one night, after the push-pull of deciding the best song orders, and make the master tape. With the advent of CD burners, especially now that they can burn an entire CD in under five minutes, this seems like the “walking five miles in the snow to borrow a book” Abe Lincoln analogy. Real time recording. We’re talking about three hours when you count in breaks and monkeying with the recording level so the sound would balance. God forbid I botched the times, which did happen … and would entail me fading out the last track, or stopping it at a pause in a song. I still remember one of my friends saying, “Asshole, ‘Rockaway Beach’ doesn’t end at that first break – what did you do with the rest of the song?”

Once the master is done, then the drudgery of dubbing X number of tapes – in my case, that was around 40 tapes, give or take. Man, tapes sucked. I know from knowing musicians that professional recording tape is excellent and amazing to listen to on studio monitors. But the stuff made available to consumers was just dogshit, and it kills me that we’d sit around debating which brand/type was better, when all of it hissed and was nowhere near the quality you’d get from an average CD, forget about a well-remastered one.

The home-made CDs I put out now every year sound as good as anything you’d find in a store and leagues beyond any cassette tape. And chances are rare you’d find an officially-released collection getting anywhere near the variety of shit I do regularly. I think the first tape I did was a basic 70s Cheese collection, then disco, then bizarre Christmas songs, etc. A particularly memorable one was a muted collection of country/folk for Christmas 2001 called White People’s Soul Music – inadvertently coincided with the prolonged 9/11 malaise everyone was suffering from.

After dubbing came purchasing of mailers, stamps, and the mailing. It really is a lot of work. I’ve gotten in the habit of pulling together whatever mix I’m going to do in the spring of a given year, letting it sit for a long time, then dubbing the discs in November. I’ll also try to do the cover art in the spring, so that wherever I’m working throughout the year, chances are I’ll be able to nail down a color copier between then and Christmas. Didn’t happen this year – first time ever! But I eventually found this year’s offering looks better with a B&W cover anyway.

After mailing, some folks respond in kind with their own recordings, others with a card, others call, but honestly, there’s some silence, too. I tend to find that the folks who fall silent, year after year, tend to be the kind who fall and stay out of touch. A gradual process, and the Christmas tape dilemma is usually the icing on the cake. It’s the last baited line being thrown out on my part before I decide to stop throwing out the line. And these folks have not done anything in return for years, not offered any indication that they want to be a part of my life, even tangentially. Life doesn’t work like that. At least mine doesn’t.

Used to take that sort of shit personally, but now? If you want to fade out, I’ll let you go and won’t be calling at 2:30 some morning asking what the hell’s going on. What are you going to do with people? I never quite grasped the concept of fading out. I’ll gladly throw you out of my life if you’ve done something that I find unacceptable or wrong. But this fading bullshit is for the birds. So while I don’t lose sleep at night over this stuff, it does annoy me, more in the act of waffling than anything else.

Again, with Dad’s passing, probably one of the greatest teachers in life, death. If people aren’t in your life, it’s a waste of time to pretend that they are. Because when they’re gone for good, and I mean no longer walking the earth, the weight of that lands on you like a Cadillac falling from the sky. I used to really pump up that Christmas list – I think at its height a few years ago, we’re talking 50 people I’d be burning a disc for every year. But I was bullshitting myself and padding it out with people I knew I wasn’t all that close to in any sense. The real number, now, is right around 30, which seems like a good number of people to give a shit about. (There are probably a handful more whom I don’t mail to, simply because I know they’re not interested or too old to get into whatever music I’m going to put on a disc in a given year.) It's a weird feeling to look at that list and know that's it -- however big the world is, these are the people you are in some type of regular contact with.

Ho, fucking, ho. It’s a time for giving – and recognizing there are some folks you got to throw overboard from the creaky boat of your life. So they can row their creaky boat wherever the hell people like that row their weird boats. Where you apparently don't do shit for anybody, and nobody does shit for you. Happy holidays!

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

MP3 of the Week #2

This week’s MP3 has never been officially released, and I only recently became aware of its availability on the artist’s website: “Pennsylvania Turnpike” by Fred Wilhelm is a keynote song from the indie cult flick Scotland, PA that came out in 2001.

That movie blew my mind when I saw it the theater, mainly because it so unabashedly featured the music of Bad Company, a band that until that point, had escaped any of my 70s nostalgia binges. I liked Bad Company back then but never felt the urge to follow up. The songs were used expertly in this movie – as backing music for bar scenes and the subject of “rock blocks” on the radio (when the radio station played three songs by the same artist in a row). Something about the context of the songs in the movie, and the sound of them blasting from movie-house speakers, made the clouds part for me, and I immediately went out and nailed down that sweet two-disc Bad Company anthology. Which was overkill – I spent the next week calling every woman I met “mama” and encouraging her to “mellow down easy.” But the anthology contains all the great stuff by the band and reminded me of how hard this band kicked ass in its prime.

I gather Fred Wilhelm sat down for this movie and, when asked to come up with a song for one of the teenage kids to play in his garage band, forged “Pennsylvania Turnpike” from the molten lava of his hard-rock 70s childhood. There’s just a nice feel to this song, a good rock song, and one of the few songs I can find anywhere about Pennsylvania – there aren’t a lot. Billy Joel’s “Allentown” doesn’t count – besides which, that would be a rumba these days sung in Spanish.

The movie itself is great fun – crossing all sorts of weird lines, indulging in Shakespeare’s Macbeth story line, examining the birth of fast-food restaurants (I do remember life before them, vaguely), capturing that goofy 70s vibe perfectly and also acknowledging its darker side. It gets a bit morbid as it goes along, but there’s a nice feel to the movie and is somehow true to rural Pennsylvania (despite it being filmed in Canada, I think?). Of special note is great character actor Kevin Corrigan as a stoned, befuddled fast-food worker who gets sucked into the evil vortex of his friend and coworker’s greed. There’s always something pleasantly baked about that guy’s demeanor, and it works in all kinds of roles.

So, enjoy “Pennsylvania Turnpike.” For years, I couldn’t find the song anywhere, watched the DVD recently again, got curious, googled Fred Wilhelm’s site, lo and behold, someone had coaxed him into putting an MP3 of the song up there – and I, for one, am grateful he did.

A disclaimer: if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

MP3 of the Week #1

This is an experiment that will hopefully work. As many readers know, music has been a huge part of my life for decades, and my collection is enormous, spanning all sort of genres. Generally speaking, I know what I’m talking about … unless you get into rap, polka, classical, jazz, many kinds of world music, marching bands, most latino genres of music, pop since the 90s, post 70s heavy metal, etc. I know enough to know there’s a ton of stuff I don’t know. Nor have much of an urge to know. It’s a struggle just to keep up with stuff I like.

So, what I want to do here is post a song a week from my collection, hopefully something you haven’t heard, and do a little write-up about the song and how it relates to my life. Let me know if this works, referring more to the process of accessing this SendSpace site. The way I figure it, there won’t be thousands of people popping in here, so it shouldn’t be any big strain on their system. And I suspect you’ll get one or two pop-up windows if you download – that’s how these sites work. All I know is I’m not shelling out more money every month to have an extra storage site for this sort of thing.

This week’s MP3 is an interesting cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” by a band called Toda Costa I came across on the web. A hard song to cover to say the least, and my main criteria with covers is that they should take the song in a new, unexpected direction and have the same spirit/sense of excitement I got listening to the song in the first place by the original band. That’s not easy to do – most artists do rote cover versions of songs that are always dull to my ear. And just taking the song in a different direction doesn’t necessarily win me over – sometimes the new arrangements are just awful or boring.

As for the original, that song blew my 11-year-old mind when I first heard it on the AM radio of my mother’s station wagon while waiting for her in the parking lot of Citizen’s National Bank in Gordon, PA one summer day. At first, I thought it was a barbershop quartet. Then a quasi-classical 70s piano ballad. Then some bizarre opera. Then a blazing metal song. All wrapped into one. I knew of Queen from the single “Killer Queen,” but this was something else. If there was one song from my youth with that sort of galvanizing “what the fuck is that” effect upon first hearing it, it was surely “Bohemian Rhapsody.” I became a huge Queen fan – in tandem with my love for the Electric Light Orchestra – which guaranteed I would not get laid thereafter for a very long time, since I was a total nerd, my only saving grace being that I wasn’t also into science fiction or soccer.

So, download if so inclined, let me know if it works. If it does, I’ll make this MP3 thing a weekly feature. And as a disclaimer, if the artist, record company or any other entity associated with a song has a legal issue with any MP3 appearing on this site, I will remove the link immediately. Not looking to pirate music here – just looking to spread the word.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Working for Dick

One thing leads to another, and maybe I’m chain-smoking memories here, but that closing recollection I had in the previous entry, working briefly for that rural weekly newspaper back home before it folded, brought back some strange stuff, certainly worth noting here.

Those first few years out of college tend to be pretty disorienting, unless you’re already focused like a torpedo to shoot your way through life, as a some kids are at that age, especially the ones keen on being wealthy. In 1986, after graduating in May, I took the summer off to bum around campus, something I’d never done before, then came back home and immediately found work teaching remedial/tutorial English at the Penn State branch campus. Looking back, that might not have been a bad road to stay on, but I was restless to get out of my home county. After Christmas, I moved out to stay with my college friend CB and his fiancé, who were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Venice, CA.

Mistake. Nothing against CB, who was simply trying to help a friend at a strange time in our lives. But he and his fiancé were fighting like cats and dogs, all the time, which really wasn’t that much of a departure from what they had been doing in college. I’d hesitate to say she was nuts, but she had been a Vegas show dancer before college and was pretty high strung. You might recall her father Vinny from an earlier story, the crazy middle-aged guy who showed up at our college graduation and threatened to beat everyone up. Their apartment would have been great for one person. For two people, even two who got along, it was a bit cramped. For two people who didn’t get along and an old college friend trying to feel his way around, it was awful.

Much of Venice back then was run-down, and it was a disorienting experience to walk down streets I sensed were ghetto, but there were palm trees on them and all that sunshine. It was a weird neighborhood, and their apartment was two blocks from the beach. During the week, especially at night, there were homeless people everywhere, as they tended to congregate on the beach around trashcan bonfires. Also, the main thing I’ll remember about Venice was the creepy outdoor weightlifting gym on the beach, all those muscle heads doing their thing while gaggles of horny women and gay guys checked them out. There were also some gymnastic equipment set up near-by, so you had guys doing intricate moves on rings and pommel horses – it was like a fucking circus, and I wasn’t too crazy about it. Throw in kids clearly in gangs and tons of tourists on the weekends swarming all over the neighborhood, and I felt really disconnected there.

On top of CB and his fiancé going at each other like arch enemies. I had no car, and you need some type of vehicle to get around Los Angeles, which was spread over an area much larger than my home county. Getting any kind of work or trying to go on job interviews was difficult. I didn’t last but a few weeks there before heading home. Every time I hear The Eurythmics song “Thorn in My Side,” it makes me think of taking that plane back east, feeling utterly defeated and directionless, not sure what to do, and that song seemed to play every five minutes on the headphones. Just as I recalled hearing U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” blasting through a PA system on the beach one of those crazy days when the Santa Anna winds were blasting, and thinking, “I got to get out here.” Strange thing was, I had just picked up a copy of Musician magazine that had an article (my only story for them) of mine in it, and it was a rush to pick up a publication on the other side of the country and see my work. A strange mix of elation and disorientation.

Got back to Pennsylvania on the tail end of winter and was at loose ends for a month or two before seeing an ad in the local paper for writers/editors for a weekly newspaper that was just starting. Sent in my resume, which had only my college writing experience, and sure enough, this guy named Dick called back within a day or two. I should have known then that something was up – only very strange white businessmen call themselves Dick when their names are Richard, or Rick, or Rich. I think the only possible female equivalent would be a woman named Constance calling herself Cunt. It just didn’t make sense and designated a real lack of self awareness. Hi, my name is Dick! It just wasn’t right.

Well, Dick thought I was the cat’s meow and hired me over the phone. I went down to his office the next day. He wasn’t there. Nobody appeared to be there. Except this haggardly middle-aged woman, reminded me of Broom Hilda, pounding on the door and screaming things like, “Dick, you bastard, where’s my money, and how dare you change the locks, you son of a bitch. I’m going to kill you!”

This was my first exposure to one of the many vendors Dick owed hundreds, sometimes thousands, of dollars to. Printers, landlords, computer sales people, etc. The office was located in a weird, very small building just north of Pottsville on Route 61, next to a used-car dealership, the sort of place that rents out to insurance agents and such. Right off the bat, I felt trepidation. I went home. A half hour later, Dick calls, profusely apologizing, and asks if I could come down later that day. As it was, Dick was canny in that he somehow always knew when a creditor was going to pop in to his office to yell threats and abuse at him, and he’d get out of there in a hurry, telling the three girls in the office to turn off the lights and hide underneath their desks.

Dick owned a chain of pennysaver publications – those free papers you see at convenience stores and such advertising used cars, containing coupons for local vendors, or classified ads, etc. Laugh if you want, but there are plenty of people who have made a nice living or gotten rich putting those things out. One of the last deals I worked on at the investment bank was a pennysaver company that had been bought out by a larger firm, and the two guys who had started their paper for pocket money while in college are now multi-millionaires.

Unfortunately, Dick’s pennysavers seemed to be tanking. He had at least three, and his existence appeared to be simply driving around in his car and getting advertising for these things, on top of managing a staff of three women who simply took phone orders and handled very minor layout issues. Only Dick knew how to use a computer – at that point in history, 1987, I barely knew how to use one myself. All Dick had was one of those scrawny Mac II’s with a screen the size of my palm, but back then, this was cutting edge. I think it was Dick’s idea to start a weekly newspaper with which he had a ready-made advertising base via his pennysavers, and he could use the newspaper to raise visibility on the pennysavers. All he’d have to do would be hire one editor (me) and pay writers nominal freelance fees for enough stories to fill out about 10 pages every week.

The three girls in the office were pretty much assholes. Whether they got that way through dealing with Dick or, more likely, always were assholes, I’m not sure. Two of them were in their late 20s, aging tough girls from high school, the kind who had feathered roach clips on their belts and big hair. They were about as friendly as anal warts. The younger one, about my age in her early 20s, wasn’t that sharp, but was at least friendly. The idea was they’d go on doing production in the main office, whereas Dick had leased out another office in the building just down the hall for me to sit in, the editorial office. It was just another bad sign that his office had a surly undertone thanks to these two older women being in a foul mood with everyone. The only time I went over to the production office was to input stories on the Mac.

Dick used all the applications people had sent in to gather a stable of freelance writers. Some of whom were just fine – reasonably talented people who, like me, were at loose ends and wanted to write. He turned up one real loo-loo, this woman I’ll call Martha, who lived in a notoriously bad housing project on the edge of Pottsville. God, she might have been the homeliest woman I’ve ever seen. Balding, patchy graying hair, moles on her face, big ugly glasses, body like a lump and, worst of all, an attitude to match. I’m surprised she didn’t wheeze. She apparently had some experience on newspapers, but Dick wisely realized any sane person would reject working for her. And she knew I was wet behind the ears as an editor, thus speaking down to me most of the time, which I ignored. Whatever had gone wrong in her life, it had deposited her in a shitty housing project in a financially-depressed town in the Coal Region, and as far as I was concerned, this woman wasn’t going to tell me anything about life, unless it involved how to fuck it up.

We had our first editorial meeting, and it went well, people putting forth ideas that they wanted to write on, most of them the typical small-town stuff that made sense: proposed highway bypasses, rising crime rates in a given town, retired pro football player running for public office, etc. It dawned on me that all I had to do was put out an editorial every week, keep track of other writers with their stories, edit their stories, and get it all into the Mac, which already had the layout in place from Dick selling his ads, so all I had to do was fill the spaces around the ads. Sounds frighteningly simple, but I suspect if any newspaper editor was honest, that would be his M.O. in a nutshell, and spare us the bullshit about integrity, vision and fighting the good fight.

We took two weeks to put together the first issue. In that time, I saw the usual, almost-daily scene: Dick making a beeline for his car, miraculously just moments before some raging creditor was banging on the door. I’d say about 25% of my day was spent talking to these people – or more accurately, listening to them carry on about how much money Dick owed them, and what a bastard he was. I think they realized there was nothing I could do to help them, but they still wanted someone to hear them rage on. Seeing as how I was just 22 or 23 at the time, I put up with it, whereas now I’d tell them to fuck off and leave me alone. Dick was walking on a tightrope, he knew it, and he paid creditors when it became absolutely necessary, i.e., when they reached the point of no longer providing their services to keep his pennysavers going every week.

Another 25% was working on my own stuff, which really didn’t take that long. Some of it was fun, getting in a car to go interview someone, and I liked that sense of freedom to go out and do this stuff in the middle of the day. Another 25% was learning how to use the Mac and dealing with the three girls, who seemed to resent the hell out of me for having a college education. Was I getting paid more than them? I don’t know. But that tends to be the case for production staff and actual editors/writers. I avoided them as much as possible. Beside which, they didn’t think I was doing anything.

And 25% of the time, they were right. That included lunch, but there was also a serious load of down time for me to deal with daily. I still recall buying Dave Marsh’s second biography about Bruce Springsteen, reading it on my long lunch breaks there, and realizing what a horrible load of self-aggrandizing shit the book was. The worst was Marsh phonetically spelling out the passion he thought Bruce was exuding in the song “Born in the USA”: “I WUZ, BAAWWN IN DUH YEW ESS AYYY! BAAWWN IN DUH YEW ESS AYYY!”

Since Dick had a deadlock on laying out the ads, something he was very good at and didn’t want me doing, there wasn’t much I could do in terms of design or layout for the paper. He was the lone salesman, too, so that aspect of running a paper was out of my hands. Every now and then, one of the freelancers would drive up to the building and drop off his or her typed-up story, which was always a relief, as they were nice, intelligent and not hostile. Save for Martha. Who didn’t have a car, would take public transportation to the near-by mall, walk a few hundred yards down from there, drop off her story, carry on about what a big wheel she had been at such-and-such a paper in Boston, then cajole me into giving her a ride back to her housing project. Which I did, although, again, now that I’m older an wiser, I’d have driven by the project, sped up, latched open her door and pushed her out like a sack of garbage.

The first issue came out, and there were rumblings that there was finally another paper on the horizon to compete with the two county papers. Who knows, it might have grown into that, but at first, that wasn’t obvious. The two county papers weren’t that hot – now there’s one, but still the same story. Every few years, the paper seems to get an editor-in-chief who knows nothing about the county, isn’t a native, and has some cookie-cutter approach to how small-town newspapers are going to be. It’s dull – always has been, always will be. It would help if the new editor didn’t always reek of sanctimony. On top of which, the paper from the next county over will often have more in-depth reporting, especially on crucial political issues, the gist being that the home county paper is in some local politician’s back pocket for not reporting this stuff in the first place. I’m sure this happens with papers of all sorts all over the country. And I’ll never forget after college graduation, sending out dozens of resumes with some of my college clips and getting a few positive responses from national publications, but not even so much as a rejection slip from the home county paper.

But getting back to Dick, he was elated that he got one issue out. Thing was, this also represented him bottoming out financially. Whatever it cost to put that issue to press, it didn’t just bleed him dry, it seriously affected his already-damaged credit. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but late in the week after that first issue came out, I went to work and found the doors padlocked. By whom, I had no idea. The three fun girls weren’t around. Dick wasn’t around. Not even his howling creditors were around. So I went home. Later that night, Dick called to tell me this was just a minor inconvenience, he’d take care of it, just sleep tight, come in tomorrow, and all would be well.

Went in the next day, and the padlock was still there. Was this a bank? The landlord? Whoever it was, he wasn’t budging. Things got hazy at this point. I had been paid for two weeks work, but Dick owed me a week’s pay – at that time, must have been about $300 or so, which wasn’t bad for back there. I’m sure he owed the girls their pay, too. I had his home phone number, but had no idea where he lived. No one did. Should I make like the creditors, find out where he lived, go to his house, start banging on his door and threatening to bring doomsday down on his skull? What would it matter? I knew Dick wasn’t going to pay me for doing that.

The days went on, and after a week or two, it became obvious that not just the paper, but Dick’s pennysaver empire had crumbled. I don’t think it was the weekly newspaper that killed it, but starting one when he was clearly in financial desperation wasn’t such a smart idea. Within a month, he stopped returning my calls. I basically liked Dick – he was devious as hell, that much was clear, but he also had good manners and was clearly intelligent. I’ve met much worse people in New York, people who should be in prison or at least shunned by every sane person in their lives. Speaking of which, I spent the next few months at odd jobs – helping neighbor JB at his telephone pole-treating job, which was a total failure, after I caught serious poison ivy about a week into it, on top of asking myself why the hell I was doing this sort of stuff with a college degree. The last straw was doing a temporary janitorial job at a window factory in Mount Carmel, PA, and realizing one of the guys I was sweeping up after was one of the bigger druggies in my high school, and even he was asking me what the fuck I was doing there.

So, that fall, I made the move to New York, and it’s been shit and giggles ever since. What a strange fall that was. I remember one night, lying in bed, listening to Tom Wait’s Frank’s Wild Years cassette on my Walkman, particularly the song, “I’ll Take Manhattan.” For some reason, listening to that song filled me with an energizing hope, I’m talking a sort of “falling in love” burst, and I can only describe it as being possessed by the spirit of New York. Which, of course, was utter bullshit, but that’s how I felt at the time. It was enough incentive to get me out of these wacky jobs, realize there wasn’t much going on for me in the home county, and to take a big chance by moving to New York.

A strange thing happened a few years later. CB had come back from California, like me, utterly defeated, this time after he and his fiancé split up. (This was great news for him and everyone in his life, although it didn’t registers as such at the time.) He lived in West Chester, PA, and it became a habit for me in the late 80s and early 90s to visit him and his family down there, which was always a fun trip to take via Amtrak. We were still in full-on party mode and would go out Friday and Saturday nights, basking in that prolonged youth that the mid-to-late 20s have become.

One time, we went to a country pub to meet one of CB’s friends, and when we walked into the bar, I heard the bartender refer to a guy at the bar as “Dick.” I didn’t make much of it, until I went to the bar to order drinks, and looking in the mirror, I could swear that I was looking at my Dick – not my penis, the guy who had owned the weekly newspaper. Who still owed me $300. Dick made eye contact with me in the mirror. It was dark in the bar, so I couldn’t be certain, but I could swear it was him. I took the drinks back to the table, and when I came back to the bar, Dick was gone. It most likely had been him, and he had fled once we made eye contact. Understand that West Chester, PA is a good 80 miles south of where I’m from – to run into Dick by chance in a pub there was odd. I guess he thought I was going to kick his ass? No, I would have bought him a drink and let the $300 go, lesson learned from a guy who would have been tarred and feathered at least once if he had been born 100 years earlier. Besides which, I strongly doubt he would have had the money.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006


I was putzing around the internet this morning when I came across yet another story on Hazleton, the town in northeast Pennsylvania that is taking strong measures against illegal immigrants, as the article states: “…imposes fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and denies business permits to companies that give them jobs. The law empowers the city to investigate written complaints about a person's immigration status, using a federal database.”

If you’re expecting some anti-Hazleton rant from me, think again, because there a lot of sides to this story, none of them good. My hometown is about half an hour south of Hazleton along Route 81, and I grew up thinking of the town as a good-sized city. The reality is it’s a big small town, like so many others in Pennsylvania, many of which are having similar problems with crime, especially drug-related. Easton, Reading, Allentown, Williamsport. Generally the towns, like Hazleton, are located along interstates and serve as nice little drop-off hubs for the drug trade. Granted, you’d have to be a fucking idiot to be hispanic and move to one of these town to deal drugs – you stand out like a sore thumb to the police. But this has surely been happening over the past decade.

I strongly suspect most people involved in the drug trade aren’t illegal aliens. They’re probably young hispanic guys from New York and Philly, and they’re not smart enough to recognize their situation, that they’ve moved to areas that are mostly white working-class, and this alone makes them stand out. If they thought they got a raw deal in New York, I got some bad news, New York City cops seem pretty rational to me as compared to some small-town cops I’ve come up against.

I’m wondering if there are statistics to back up Hazleton’s problems? Because what’s being implied by the mayor of the town does make sense: if you have a large number of illegal immigrants not paying any sort of taxes in a relatively small municipality, that’s going to seriously damage the town’s infrastructure in terms of lost revenue. The town’s hispanic population had grown to one-third – I’m not sure what percentage of that one-third are illegal immigrants.

It should also be noted that the new law in Hazleton is going after employers and landlords who hire/rent to illegal aliens. The real issue here, the real criminals, if you want to be that dramatic, are employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens and pay them under the table, generally much less than they’d legally pay a citizen working for them. Why? A lot of these employers will tell you it’s basic survival, but I’m much more prone to believing it’s pure greed. If they can’t properly pay/take care of their employees and stay solvent, then maybe they shouldn’t be in business. Why pay an American $10 an hour and health benefits to work in your factory when you can hire someone illegally whose willing to work for $7 an hour, cash, with no benefits? Employers like this are lowballing the American worker. I’ve often heard the ruse “illegal immigrants are doing the work that Americans refuse to do” – but that’s bullshit. They’re doing hard work for a lousy wage that’s so low most Americans would be better off on welfare than taking the job.

Who gets hurt by all this? Obviously, hispanic people who legally moved to the town, are gainfully employed and have made their homes there. In a perfect world, everyone would know who they are, but in reality, any hispanic person walking around Hazleton is going to be held suspect, and more than likely receiving residual anger from locals assuming that everyone hispanic is an illegal alien or in the drug trade. Again with statistics, I’d be curious to see how Hazleton’s crime rate has done over the past decade or so. If it’s gone up – you get the impression it must have sky-rocketed – then the mayor has a legitimate gripe, especially if a majority of the criminals are illegal aliens. And I’d say looking at the local police blotter and seeing hispanic names isn’t evidence enough. I suspect if you looked at local police blotters in New York in the 1800s, it would be filled with Irish names – it’s part of the deal that poor people looking for a fresh start are going to bring along some people who aren’t making it, nor have any interest in doing so.

It’s a bit of a mess in Hazleton right now, but at least it’s an honest confrontation about a serious problem in America. I think people living around cities don’t quite grasp how employers hiring illegal workers can damage an economy, because the economy where they live is so relatively enormous that it can easily absorb illegal workers and not skip a beat. And, of course, many people around cities see themselves as being more liberal minded, but after nearly 20 years in New York I can safely say a lot of these people are just as, if not more, rigid and unchangeable in their beliefs than supposed “rednecks” are. If they want to get an earful on this issue, they could easily talk to someone who took years to legally immigrate here and actually become a citizen: a long process requiring a concerted effort, the same way it is for any other country.

I strongly suspect the left will position Hazleton as a bunch of backwards-thinking, racist rednecks. The people of Hazleton really won’t give a shit. I’m sure a lot of them are in exact agreement with the mayor, and I’m sure a lot have some trepidations. A lot of this is pure territoriality. Hazleton has always been predominately white working class, and naturally they’re going to feel threatened when some new ethnicity moves in. This is hardly just a white working-class thing. I’ve seen it go on with Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in New York, once even witnessing a screaming, raging fist fight on a subway train in the Bronx because this young Puerto Rican girl felt slighted by a Dominican kid making fun of her. To which her boyfriend took umbrage. They argued in English, and the gist was “I wish you Dominican scumbags would get out of our neighborhood, you’re ruining it for everybody.”

It goes on in all directions. It’s not enough to look at this issue and see nothing but racism. (I’m perfectly comfortable with people looking at it and seeing this as part of the issue, but surely not the whole issue. And if they’re really that concerned, they could go to Hazleton and referee these thorny confrontations. Which I know is a load of shit, as I’ve seen dozens in my time in New York, and they usually come down to one very stupid, angry person squaring off against another like-minded individual, and both of them losing the thread of their disagreement by descending into racial/ethnic taunting. You’d have more luck separating two squealing Tasmanian devils having a go at each other.)

Do I agree with what’s going on in Hazleton? Put it this way, if I was more privy to the town’s finances, and if there is a legitimate financial concern that illegal immigration is seriously harming the town’s tax base then, yes, I agree with what’s going on. If that’s not the case, then, no, I don’t. Whatever’s going on, it looks like the mayor is drawing a line in the sand, and a lot of hispanic people, legal or not, are leaving town rather than staying there to fight. And I can understand that – Hazleton is not where they're from and not "home" in their minds. Hats off to the hispanic people who stay and make a stand. I know what it’s like to move to an alien environment and make yourself somehow fit in and work there. It aint easy, and you’re going to catch a lot of dumb racial shit, nearly all of it undeserved, along the way. I know, because I’ve done it in NYC neighborhoods a lot of these people have left for places like Hazleton.

(Sidenote: I'm just remembering, in the year after I graduated from college, 1987, I had a very brief job as a weekly newspaper editor back in Pennsylvania for a real shyster who was in the process of tanking his small string of pennysaver publications, this new weekly paper being the last nail in the coffin. But we got one issue out, and I wrote an editorial that concerned pretty much the same issue of illegal immigration, only back then focusing on the brief time I had spent in Venice, CA earlier that year. It's roughly the same story. Nineteen years ago. Go figure.)