Tuesday, January 22, 2008

John Stewart

On John Stewart’s Death
A Fan’s Notes

In my bedroom in my small apartment in Manhattan there’s a big, framed poster under glass from the Bombs Away Dream Babies concert I went to in Cleveland. They weren’t selling posters; this one was the marquee of the evening. I went back the next day and got the place to give it to me. John looks like Gary Shandling in the poster.

I was about 30 then, so you can do the math. I first became aware of John Stewart when I was away from home in a Catholic boarding school. A quick friend of mine there played guitar and had a good collection of folk albums. He had one by the Cumberland Three and I noticed John’s voice. Later on a Limeliters’ album I obsessed over a song called ‘Heading for the Hills’. I looked to see who wrote it---(John Stewart). Of course I was buying all the Kingston Trio albums and paying close attention to John.

A few years later I’m in college in South Bend, Indiana. It’s I think 1966 or ’67 and the Kingston Trio is coming to town on their last tour. They’re not coming to Notre Dame this time though. They had earlier in the fall for a football weekend concert when I remember how haunting John’s voice was when he got a chance to do a couple solos. This time they’re playing downtown at a big, old theater. No one on the floor wants to go with me on the cold Saturday afternoon of the show, so I go out to the highway alone and hitch hike the short distance into town. Pretty soon a generic car stops to give me a lift. Well, I wouldn’t be telling you this if it weren’t the Trio that picked me up, in a rental car they’d driven in from Chicago. I remember the older-than-college-guy laughter and verbal confidence among them. Brother-less me, I felt so cool being with them.

I got married out there a few years later, moved to Cleveland with a little daughter who would crawl around the floor while I stood or sat in the top floor of a double-house apartment smoking Tareytons and listening incessantly to ‘California Bloodlines’.

That daughter is 38 now. There are two other grown daughters, and an ex-wife. On Sunday I emailed the three girls to tell them John Stewart had died.

I was in Boston for the weekend when I got the news. I had none of his music with me. It wasn’t till Monday night that I got back to it, and the big poster.

For over 40 years, with occasional, irresistible, obvious exceptions, I listened to John Stewart almost exclusively. You can imagine how I feel. Some of you know.

Bill Gunlocke

Friday, July 27, 2007

I Found a Free Weekend Getaway
Our Town downtown
July 30, 2007

A month ago I stayed in someone’s apartment near Washington Square while they were away. I went over to the park to read that Friday evening while it was light out because I had nothing going on and because I hadn’t spent much time in that park recently. I wound up sitting there for maybe three hours listening to music, watching folks walk by, hardly reading it was so stimulating to just watch and listen.

I came back the next morning with the Times and a cup of coffee, and when I realized that I didn’t actually ***[ital]have[ital]*** to go hurry back to the apartment to watch the women’s tennis final from Wimbledon – or anything on the TV for that matter – all day or all year or all the rest of my life, if I didn’t want to, I was liberated to think that I could sit in the park and watch people go by and listen to music, go get my book, and come back for more. I did that ’til dark. I did it the next day, too. It was like being on vacation. (Anybody who has a weekend place or a summer cottage without a TV will tell you that that’s an [the?] all-important component in being “on vacation.”)

Here’s what I thought about while I sat there:

The fountain ought to be on all the time. The empty dry pool that’s there when it’s off certainly does allow for some noisy, tourist-interesting entertainment. But those guys would find other places to put on their show, and New York’s filled with all sorts of entertainment. Parks are better with fountains on on hot days. It’s a beautiful thing to look at.

There’s no coffee there. You can get all sorts of popsicles, big pretzels, water in bottles, soda pop. But you have to walk a ways out of the park for a cup of coffee. I don’t want the Shake Shack – I just thought it was odd that no one in such an entrepreneurial city was selling coffee from a truck near there.

I love dogs. I grew up with dogs. I had a dog that died at age 16 just before I moved here nine years ago. I still miss him, and have his old dog dish out where I can see it in my apartment. Sometimes in the kitchen I’ll find myself sweeping crumbs off the counter on to the floor as if he were still around to lick them up. I catch myself maybe once every couple months when I’m out somewhere around dinnertime thinking I better get home to feed the dog. That having been said, the dog obsession in/around the dog runs is a little much. No one else’s obsessions are fun to watch.

Some of the music is so good that you can’t believe it. You also can’t believe that so many of the listeners won’t put a measly dollar in the basket.

I saw six impressively strong, alert, no-nonsense plainclothes cops round up six easily-over-40 black drug dealers. While I was watching this occur not 100 feet from me, another dealer strolled by me on my bench and, with his eyes and a soft mumble, tried to sell me some. I wondered how the three black cops felt putting cuffs on these toothless old tigers.
That there are bathrooms at all is a nice surprise. God, are they dirty though. I feel bad for women.

I’d make the bathrooms cleaner even if I had to have an attendant in there all the day. I guess I’d clean up the whole place a little. I’m not sure what I’d do. Make sure the grass is green. Keep the fountain on. That fountain being on makes the whole place feel cleaner. When it’s off, the place seems faded and dried out a bit.

I wouldn’t put a Shake Shack place in the park. That’s all too cute. I don’t hate those places. We all have to eat. But I’d rather have the chess guys in the corner even if they don’t mean much to me. I don’t play chess. But it annoys me to see people standing in a long line at the Shake Shack or at a sushi place or at a breakfast place that will not be as good as Denny’s.

If you don’t have a weekend getaway, get away from your TV and sit in the park the whole time. Read a book, read the paper, hears some tunes, talk quietly on your phone, go get a sandwich and bring it back.


Friday, July 20, 2007

When Barry Goes ‘Downtown’, He’ll Go Without Me
Our Town downtown
July 23, 2007

When you read this, Barry Bonds may have already hit the last home run he needed to get beyond Henry Aaron. Boo, that’s what I say. Here’s how much I say Boo: I have not watched baseball all year. Which is something when you consider that I twice went to Tucson to see the Indians in spring training with my youngest daughter. And that I would have named my oldest daughter Willie if I’d known then that I wouldn’t ever have a son.

One night last week I stopped for one beer up the block at 10:00. It’s not a sports bar but there’s an old TV at either end of the place. I took out a pencil and made little notes in a notebook about stuff rather than get into the Mets, or the Yankees on the tube. And I’ve stopped watching Sports Center too because they, after having excoriated (basically buried) Bonds over the last couple years, now count down his march toward Aaron like it was Aaron himself going after Ruth. And while I still save the sports page till last every morning to savor it like I have since I was a kid with major league pennants on my pajamas, I find myself now getting through it as quickly as the business section.

The other day after Bonds hit two in one game against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, he said, after having sat out for a couple games, that he felt ‘rejuvenated’. Here’s what I thought: maybe he went and got his human growth hormone, or whatever he might use, level adjusted after the recent dry spell he’d gone through. That’s what I thought. That’s what his history has put in my mind. That’s why it’s no fun for me anymore. I don’t even know if he’s using anything right now, but if I have to think about it, that’s a turn-off. It distracts me from the game. I used to think, like every man who went to college was supposed to, that baseball was ‘the perfect game’ and getting home was like the Odyssey and all that. Steroids have taken that away from me. Just like Michael Richards’ racist rant has taken the fun out of Seinfeld. When he slides into Jerry’s apartment now, I don’t just see Kramer anymore. That ruins it. I don’t watch it at all anymore. Jason Giambi hit a home run last year when I was sitting in a bar and I looked down at my glass rather than watch his trot around the bases.

It’s weird what we get outraged by. James Frey’s being dishonest in his memoir rocked the world for a month or more. We hated him. Giambi we still love, the big lug. Well, I don’t.

We’re supposed to hate Bud Selig instead. I don’t, anymore than I hate any wealthy, long-ago-compromised business guy. I don’t expect high standards from a club owner. Maybe the Rooneys who owned the Steelers were good guys, but I can’t remember anyone else. So I have no reason at all to expect an owner/commissioner to be a morally courageous guy. He might be a good dad. I’ll bet he is. But he’s certainly no one you should expect to go to the wall or against the grain. He’s a grabby mogul. Come on.

Who I am holding it against, besides the players themselves, of course, and their parents and the managers who are supposed to look out for the boys (Say it ain’t so, Joe), are the sportswriters. Where were they? Where was Lupica, and Dave Anderson and William C. Rhoden and all the other sportwriters in this town and all around the country who’ve got bold things to say about Tom Coughlin, and Dick Cheney even ? Yo, guys, you didn’t notice? Didn’t see muscles where there weren’t any the year before? Didn’t see homeruns flying off the bats of second basemen? I’ll read James Frey before I’ll read those guys about Bonds again. They’ll be blaming Bud Selig, anyway, or George Bush when he owned the Rangers. If they’d have done their job at the time, maybe things would be different this summer for me, and Hammerin’ Hank Aaron.

Bill Gunlocke


Sunday, July 15, 2007

John, Paul, George, Ringo—and Harry
Our Town downtown
July 16, 2007

Last week I saw an ad in one of the dailies for back-to-back shows on PBS; one was on John Lennon, one was on Paul McCartney. I didn’t watch either of them. But I have an old Walkman that gets a few TV stations and I happened to take a walk through the East Village the night they were on and so listened to some of the Lennon one. (Try doing that with your TV.) Anyway, while I’m not much of a music listener anymore, and seldom put any tunes on, my whole being lights up when I hear almost any Beatle tune. One will come on in a bar once in awhile, and for three minutes life for almost everyone in the place I have to believe is transformed. I think I can see it in their eyes and from the way their lips are moving a little with the lyrics. Conversations stop for a bit, maybe just a second. In my 60 years, nothing has been as big in life as the Beatles. I’m way more a sports nut than a music guy, but not even Willie Mays was as big. Or Michael.

I can remember driving through the hills of Western New York as a teenager on my way from my rural hometown to Cooperstown with my girlfriend to see Casey Stengel and Ted Williams inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame. On the ride there, on the car radio, we heard ‘Paperback Writer’ for the first time. Whenever the Hall of Fame comes up in talk among buddies and I tell them I was there the day Casey and Ted Williams went in their eyes light up. My biggest memory though was not the ceremony but that drive through the hills on the way there and back with that new Beatle tune on. (I think ‘Rain’ was the flip side.)

Here’s why I’m thinking of that today. Some day maybe 50 years from now some guy will be sitting at a keyboard telling some readers that the biggest thing in the life of the culture during his lifetime were the Harry Potter books. He may be from here or Omaha or Birmingham or Cape Cod or from a rural town in Western New York and he’ll remember his equivalent of driving to Cooperstown. Whatever it might be; the first book, the birthday gift from his now-dead mother, the third time he read the second book, the night he stood in line at the big store in the mall with his buddies at midnight to get the newest one, how he read 700 pages in one weekend.

The Harry Potter thing is so big my eyes water about it sometimes knowing it’s like the Beatles to millions of kids. Years from now they’ll happen upon one of the movies flipping though the channels. They’ll buy the books for their kids hoping to light up their lives. Publishers will release 25-year anniversary editions. 50-year boxed sets will appear. J.K. Rowling will come out on stage at 75 at the Oscars for some special honor and the kid that plays Harry in the movies will walk onstage looking eerily like what John Lennon might have looked like if he had lived that long.

I wasn’t, and am not, a reader of the Harry Potter books and while I really thought the first movie was wonderful, I have not seen the others. Like my father never listened to the Beatles, I guess I wanted to leave the books for the younger generation and not be that baby boomer can’t-miss-a-thing guy about them. But I did observe it all wide-eyed. I used to own a bookstore and just the publishing phenomenon of Harry alone was enough to fascinate me. I had made a note to go to the Scholastic store on Lower Broadway for some Harry Potter event on the evening of September 11, 2001. I may have even thought about it that morning when I woke up. I saw Jim Dale at the big Barnes & Noble on Union Square read in all the characters’ voices one night. I’ll never forget the kids’ faces in the audience. It was a kind of Beatlemania.

It took me years to write, would you take a look…’

Bill Gunlocke


Friday, July 6, 2007

My Friend Says It’s The Schools
Our Town downtown
July 9, 2007

So my old Midwest-college friend lives in Westchester now with his second wife and a couple new kids and when, over beers in a little Mexican place in Mt. Kisco on July 4th, I again tried to get him to come to his senses and move back into the city with his new family, he said he understood all the reasons I was giving, but that the schools were much better up there, and that’s why people moved there from Manhattan.

I’ll get to the schools in a minute. No doubt they’re better there. But that’s not the definitive reason my buddy’s staying, or most of the others up there are. I think they just like living there. They use the schools as a cover, so you don’t see the real reasons, like how much they like walking into the back yard while they’re on their cell phones, or how handy it is that they have a washer and dryer right by the back door. Or that all their late-parents’ photos and dining room table chairs are right there in their basement instead of in a storage unit in Queens. I also think they like having a car with the ballgame on. And they like the playing fields nearby, and a library in town that stays lit until 9:00 at night. They can get the Times and bagels and pizza and Starbucks and the new Ian McEwan book right there on Main Street. That’s why they’re there, even though, of course they miss all the things I—or you—could throw at them to try again to get them to see how cool it truly is here. They may, indeed, from the remove of the suburbs, think the city is cooler than even we do; they just aren’t coming back yet. It’s the schools, they reiterate.

Let’s say it is the schools. No doubt schools are a big part of why they left and aren’t coming back for a while if ever. How can it be that the schools are worse here? Why would that be? Is the Merrill Lynch office worse here than the one in Stamford? Are the bagels not as good as in Armonk? Can you not buy Crocs here? Is there a bigger Bergdorf Goodman in Darien? Are there better musical theaters in Scarsdale than on Broadway? Of course not. Then how come all those places you can think of have better public schools than we do here?
Can it be a money thing? Does New York City not have the money? That can’t be, can it? There must be plenty of money, if the city can drive by the big brokerage houses and throw money—suitcases full of it—out the window at them to get them to stay here. There were more suitcase filled with loot, weren’t there, to throw at the Jets to get them to move into the city? There’s money. The city just doesn’t spend as much per pupil on its schools as Westchester towns do.

More is at work—or not at work—than that. My buddy’s oldest kid, from this new batch, before they moved did go to a public school here. It wasn’t bad, he says. But he mentioned this: there was a broken part of the outer door to the school. I think he said like a panel. It was broken when the school year began; it was still not fixed when school let out in June. Come on. That’s not because of money. I’d say that that’s a lack of will.

Maybe the lack of deep attention—the kind of deep attention that’s given, along with mountainous tax breaks, to brokerage houses—to the schools is because the city’s school kids are mostly minorities. You know that’s some of the reason. That has to be addressed. It is not being addressed enough. If it were, the schools would be better. How can we live here knowing not enough is being done for the kids and feel so good about living here?

—Bill Gunlocke


Friday, June 29, 2007

The Mike Bloomberg Show. Would You Watch?
Our Town downtown
July 2, 2007

When the Clintons were running for their second term in the White House, somebody commented that they’d win for sure because we had become an all-consuming, TV-watching nation and the Clintons offered us a sitcom-worthy dysfunctional-family show that we were in no way going to cancel just yet. They were just too much fun to watch, what with no 9/11 upon us and the Silicon Valley tiger still roaring along and balancing the budget. They were a fascinating show to watch in that easy time.

That very TV obsession of ours could be why Hillary and Rudy are in the lead. They’re two people we like to watch for whatever odd and not-odd reasons. They’re just weird enough to be ever-interesting to us in a TV way. You’d watch 10 minutes of John McCain and start flipping through the channels. Five or ten minutes of John Edwards. Surprisingly, I don’t think we really want to watch Obama for a whole season. He’s turned out to be kind of boring. You wouldn’t think he’d be, but he is. I think we thought he’d be like Tiger Woods or Derek Jeter because he made you think of them in his bi-racial gracefulness and his likeability and intelligence. But those guys, who were just picked as the country’s favorite two athletes, do something. They win majors and World Series rings. Obama just talks calculatingly and always looks good. Who wants to watch that? He’s too mild for a hit TV show. Other than the fact that he supposedly smokes and that his brother-in-law coaches hoops at Brown, he’s not tube-interesting in any special way.

Fred Thompson is the worst-looking human who’s ever even considered running for president. He looks like a criminal. Or a warden. Who’d watch that show without squirming? Mitt Romney is too-nice-looking. Something seems odd about him for that reason. Interestingly odd, because we don’t know anybody quite like him in our own lives, but not enough people want to watch that show. The Mormon show is already being done on HBO.

So, what about The Mike Bloomberg Show? Would you watch it? Would people outside New York watch it enough to make it a hit? Remember, hits are what people want. Hillary or Rudy would be a hit, no doubt; she probably the bigger hit with Bill’s potential infidelities a part of the plot. Of course, though, Rudy’s got quite a supporting cast of characters himself. It’ll be a tough call to see who of the two will go up strong against Monday Night Football.

But what about Mike? What’s he got that’s good TV material? For one, he’s a billionaire. That’s TV-interesting. He has a bunch of homes, luxury homes like you see in those heavy Sotheby’s real estate ‘books’ they put in the Times now and then. Maybe like the Clintons sold over-night stays in the White House, Mike could put up people in his Bermuda home, or one of the others, if the Lincoln bedroom is booked. Maybe President Bloomberg would refuse to go to Camp David or even live in the White House like he eschewed Gracie Mansion in favor of his nicer digs on 79th Street. That is good TV material. So, is his size vis-a-vis his good-looking, model-tall girlfriend. So is just the fact that he’s a president with a girlfriend. A bachelor in the Oval Office. Boffo TV. A Jewish bachelor in the Oval Office, to boot. Better yet. With a Jewish mother still alive. Come on. It’s getting good.

Plus, he’s got that voice. If Tom Brokaw and Barbara Walters –and Newman--can make it big on the tube with their voices, why can’t Mike with his? That voice of his is an odd instrument. It may go over big, like Urkel. It’s a clean voice, a little bit of a sissy voice maybe, but clean in a good way. And it’s precise and confident, like that of a successful guy who’s used to being at the head of the conference table. That might work on the tube. And he’s certainly got the clothes for the role. He dresses perfectly. His haircut is good too.

I think the show would fly. I think he thinks so too. Stay tuned.

Bill Gunlocke


Thursday, June 21, 2007

A Penny for Your Thoughts. Really?
Our Town downtown
June 25, 2007

You shake your head at the headline in the Times, ‘Schools Plan to Pay Cash for Marks’. You can’t resist the impulse to get angry about it and you get mad at Klein and Bloomberg, and Gates and Jobs, and everybody involved in TV while you’re at it, that they’ve let it (hell, hurried it, actually) come to this; that we have to pay kids now to open a book and read it long enough to answer some simple questions on a test. How lame is that! You couldn’t be lamer, if you ask me. Bloomberg and Klein and every person in town who cares about kids, or claims to, should all get in a big room and have that headline projected up on a huge screen at the front of the room. The rest of the day or week or year (or years) should be taken up with how it’s come to that and what can be done about it that week to make a dignified correction to our way of schooling so we don’t have to stoop to paying kids. No one could leave until the ‘what can be done’ part is decided upon and set in motion by the end of that week.

In this city, with the richest history of transforming lives through opportunity and education in the world, it’s come to this: We’re going to pay kids to study?

It’s not unprecedented though, this paying kids to do well in school, even in my life. In the small rural Western New York State town I grew up in, four brothers lived two doors away. Their father was a doctor. He was kind of a moody guy who wouldn’t wave to you even if he was driving by slowly and must have seen you waving to him like you waved to just about everyone in a town that size when they were driving by looking for someone who might be waving at them. You’d eventually learn to line yourself up with trees next to the sidewalk as cars passed, to avoid all that waving, But none of this eagerness or hiding mattered to the doctor; he would stare straight ahead and just keep driving.

The doctor was a smart guy and played chess at lunch time when any of the four boys were around to play with him. He liked the Yankees and would always watch their games with the boys. I envied all that and used to hang out over there. They always had big cases of pop in the garage and your large glass was always filled with ice and exotic brands from the cases, like Cream Soda. The doctor smoked and had a wooden dispenser-like thing on the knotty-pine wall in the TV room where one pack of Camels would be replaced by another when he took one. Like a Pez dispenser on the wall. There was a stuffed fish on a plaque right next to it.

Their mother was smart too. She was on school boards and library boards and if women had been allowed to take up the collection at mass at the Catholic church she’d have been extending the long-handeled basket among the pews with the best of them. So, the four boys were smart and mostly a cut above the other kids in the small parochial school just up the street from them—and me. I wasn’t in class with any of them. Three of them were older, one was decidedly younger. I amend that: one year I was in class with the boy two years older. So small was the town and the Catholic grade school we went to, that when I was in third grade, the third and fifth grades were combined in one classroom. I remember him being real smart. I also remember him having a bottle of prescription red cough medicine in the back pocket of his heavy corduroy pants. He’d take a slug out of that whenever he wanted. The brothers were a confident bunch, and the nuns loved them.

But they didn’t get good grades just because the nuns loved them. They were smart and would have gotten good grades in the rural setting our growing-up took place in if they’d never even bought their school books. At home, they had stacks of comic books and sports magazines and the whole set of the Hardy Boys. That they’d get ‘all A’s’ was a given. But that didn’t stop their ol’ man, the doctor, from giving them a dollar for every A they got. We couldn’t believe that! A dollar!

Looking back on it, it was having all those books and magazines and comics that made them know stuff in school. The dollar for every A was after the fact. Yo, presidential-hopeful-despite-your-denial Mike Bloomberg, you must know that. Come on.

Bill Gunlocke