Thursday, November 28, 2013

Pleased to meet ya...

I had lunch today with my old friend, Bill Kuhre (he’s 83, a whopping 13 years my senior). He’s a retired professor of English, commie pinko, and Lutheran Minister (in no particular order). We enjoy each other’s company. I lent him a copy of a DVD I’d just received on the Boston shrine to the early folk movement, Club 47. Opened in 1958, Club 47 launched the careers of scores of luminaries from the early ‘60’s Folk and Blues scene. It also provided a venue for the then newly rediscovered giants of Blues music and I saw the faces of former clients (members of the Memphis Blues Caravan) Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes among a featured handful of others of their ilk. Bill allowed as how Ohio University, back in the day, played host to a few of the greats as well, mentioning Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee in particular.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sonny and Brownie a couple of times. Both instances are treasured memories – but the one that really stands out was a cold night in late September in ’72 or ’73. The Caravan had been booked on an outdoor show at some college in Wisconsin along with Sonny and Brownie. As we pulled into the motel parking lot the afternoon of the gig, walking out of the office, , there they were. The tour bus stopped, I was the first one off. I called after them. We shook hands. Then, one by one, off the bus came the Caravan members. I stood by the door, by my side stood the two of them. I introduced them to each guy as he emerged. “Sonny and Brownie, meet Bukka White. Meet Hammy Nixon. Meet Sleepy John Estes. Meet Furry Lewis. Meet Houston Stackhouse. Meet Joe Willie Wilkins. Meet Piano Red.”

I wish to God someone would have filmed it. I beamed. And I beamed. I’m still beaming. One of life’s important moments (for me at least). And, a real historical encounter. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Dad Brag...

Last week I was in NJ/NY to celebrate a milestone birthday. It was nice. The real treat was seeing a young lady I had known since birth present herself as an actualized, centered young woman. My daughter. I had last seen her a few months before when she graduated from Georgetown University and I helped her pack her belongings, say goodbye to college friends and move back to NJ. She was sad, nervous, unsure and about to begin the finial interview for (hopefully) a new job, her first employment as a young adult. I picked her up at the train station after the interview – she had received a firm offer via text during her ride home. She was told to report for work in the office of Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark, the following week. She was excited. She was scared. “I don’t know if I can do this, Dad.”

We talked about how natural those feelings are, how change is always scary and about the fact that she was well equipped educationally and intellectually. We also talked about integrity and truth-telling, about how important those qualities are, especially in the field she was about to enter. “What if I make a mistake?” Count on it, you will. And the world won’t come to a halt.

A few days later, I kissed her cheek - and drove back to Ohio. And a few days after that, she dove into the sea of work. Sixty – seventy hour weeks. Little sleep. Saying YES a lot. And learning. Leaning mostly about herself.

On the 17th of October, I again picked her up at the train station, this time after a 12 hour workday. We went to dinner. There was something different about her. Entering the restaurant, we walked to the MaĆ®tre‘d’s desk. No one was there. We waited. We waited some more. Finally, a young woman approached, looked in the reservation book, checked her iPhone for messages, then looked up. “May I help you?” In an even tone, without a hint of anger or petulance, my daughter said, “We’ve been waiting for five minutes. No one said hello, no one said anything.” The young woman’s eyes widened, “Oh, I’m terribly sorry!” She showed us to our table.

After dinner, the check arrived; my daughter took it and laid her credit card on top. The waiter looked at me. “I’ll play this however you want, Dad.” Let her get it. She’s in charge. “I like taking my Dad to dinner for a change. I’ve got a job – I can afford it.” My oh my. Like I said – actualized, centered, purposeful. A young woman.

Riding home in the car after dinner, she said, “You know what my theory is, Dad?” Ah, no – what’s your theory. “My theory is, I’m 22 years old, I work hard, I don’t say no, I keep my head down and I produce. That’s my theory.”

While I was in New Jersey this past week, she again had job interviews, this time to join the staff of now Senator Cory Booker. She had been in his employ for a mere four months. Her first interview was with the gentleman who initially organized the office of Senator Al Franken of Minnesota. After the interview, she was convinced she had done badly, had said the wrong things. Did you tell the truth? “Yes.” Then you don’t have anything to worry about. She passed muster and was asked to a second interview, this time with the newly hired Chief of Staff for Senator Booker. Again, she felt she had blown it. I picked her up afterward and we talked in the car ride home from Newark. How many job interviews have you had in your life? “About three or four.” We get good with practice. Did you tell the truth? “Yes.” If you are supposed to get this job, it will happen. If not, fire and reload. You’re smart and talented and work hard.  “Thanks, Dad.” 

Yesterday, I got a phone call. “Dad, you can tell Uncle Ivar and Uncle Erik but you can’t put this on Facebook – at least not until I tell you.” OK – tell me what I can’t tell anybody, a smile stretching across my face. “I got the job!” Brava, I yelled. When do you leave for DC? “Tomorrow!” I’m a luck guy.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Slidin' through the darkness...

Last night I saw Patti Larkin and Chris Smither at Jorma Kaukonen’s Fur Peace Ranch. It was wonderful. Chris did a tune called ‘Leave The Light On’. The song is about constancy and acceptance and hope; it made me think of a guy named Robert, whom I knew in NYC years ago. Robert was a faithful attendee of a meeting located on the extreme upper west side of Manhattan, scant blocks from Harlem. He ALWAYS wore a dark blue baseball cap, pulled low, over aviator shades. He wore a P coat, with the collar turned up. Twelve months out of the year – except if it was really hot, when he’d trade it for a navy nylon jacket, collar turned up.

He never spoke.

One summer night I was heading home from a show at a westside club and changed trains in Times Square from the downtown express to the local. It was about 1:30 AM. I crossed the platform and started walking toward where the front of the Broadway Local would stop. Standing on the platform was Robert. Hat, shades, P coat. I walked up to him. Hi, Robert. He looked me over. I extended my hand - Arne, from the Wednesday meeting. He shook it. “How ya doin,” he said, scarcely looking away from the white tiled wall above the third rail across the tracks. Robert, I said, mind if I ask you something? He shrugged. It’s almost two in the morning, we’re in the subway, and you’ve got those shades on and the hat and your collar up. How come? He looked at me. He looked back at the wall. Staring straight ahead, he said, “I like slidin’ through the darkness, alone and unnoticed.” Then he turned and walked down the platform. I’ve never forgotten that encounter.

Listening to ‘Leave The Light On’ last night I was happy I was where I was - in the company of people. I was glad I could let the words in. I’ve spent some time slidin’ through the darkness. And I’ve felt alone and unnoticed. I’m not regretful of the experience. There’s no pity in it nor am I sad about it. I’m just thankful I came out the other side. I don't know why, but sometimes when I hear a tune that strikes a particular chord, I think of Robert. And wish that I could thank him for what he shared with me that night.

Thursday, September 19, 2013


Bobby had a last name – but I never knew what it was. He was just Bobby. He lived in a trailer on Bails Road half way up a hollow outside Athens, Ohio. He lived alone. He wore a scraggly beard, his hair was long, matted and unkempt and his clothes, old and raggedy. He drove a 1978 Cadillac Coupe Deville, the Bobby-mobile, and kept it running with duct tape, junkyard parts and his own skill as a mechanic - except for the muffler, which never worked.  He was sober.

Tuesday night, I attended a meeting, as I do most evenings, wherein we discuss how we stay sober. God, temptation, defects of character, and service to others are typical topics. I attend these meetings because I want to, not because I have to, and I always seem to learn something new. Some meetings are better than others, just like days. At this particular meeting we were reading from a volume called The Big Book, if you’re a ‘friend of Bill’s’ you know what I’m talking about. We read chapter 4, We Agnostics. On page 47 there is a discussion of faith, that elusive quality necessary for living a satisfying life. How do you get such a thing? How do you keep such a thing? What is the nature of God? How is that nature manifested in day to day living? These were some of the questions touched on in considering that particular page. “Articles of faith” and one’s own concept of a Higher Power often appear at odds. Religion, it seems, oftentimes gets in the way of one’s own concept of a Higher Power.

When it came my turn to speak, I talked about Bobby; sober for over a decade, he once told me that his Higher Power was a white plastic tiger that sat on top of his TV set. “As long as that tiger doesn’t drink, I don’t drink.” OK. Whatever you say, Bobby. It seemed to work, and who am I to question anyone’s personal concept of a Higher Power. It’s called “a God of my understanding” – and it was what Bobby understood.

Bobby never had much money, he lived on public assistance due to his mental illness and incapacities. He often spent his days at The Gathering Place, an old house converted into a kind of clubhouse for “God’s other children”. He was very proud of the fact that he sat on its Board of Directors. The facility is run by the county and funded, in large part, through charitable donations.

Four months ago, Bobby died. He was diagnosed with cancer some months earlier and had largely disappeared. “Seen Bobby?” No one seemed to have an answer. The folks at The Gathering Place knew but, unless you are a regular, news usually doesn’t get much further than the front door. Bobby was hospitalized for a while. He was told there really wasn’t anything that could be done. He said he wanted to go home – that his neighbors would look in on him – that he’d rather be where he was comfortable.

I learned of his death in an offhand way, and heard that there would be a memorial service at The Gathering Place. I went, along with another member of the ‘recovery community’. Besides us, there were about 12-14 folks gathered, regulars at the establishment. I asked if anyone was with him at the end. No one knew for sure. The Director, Mary, spoke; a few people volunteered stories. I spoke of the time we were leaving a meeting in a church basement, walking through the kitchen. How’s that white tiger doing, Bobby? “Fine, just fine.” He smiled. “Sometimes, we even talk.” On a stainless steel counter by the door sat several bunches of bananas. “Boy, I sure like bananas” said Bobby. I picked up a bunch, here, take these. You sure? Yup, I’m sure. I laid a few dollars on the counter, and we left. He put the bananas on the seat next to him, fired up the Bobby-mobile and rumbled out of the lot. It was about the last time I saw him. I also spoke to the group of the white plastic tiger and how much that concept meant to me. It was hard to explain and I wasn’t able to speak in much detail, I had started to weep. Sap that I am.  Later, I came to find that Bobby died alone in his trailer. A neighbor, having come to check up, found him the morning after his death.
Lying in bed Tuesday night, I thought about the bananas. I thought about the Bobby-mobile. I thought about his Higher Power. And I was comforted by the thought that he really didn’t die alone. Sitting on the top of his TV, the white tiger watched over him. 

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Johan The Giant & The State Fair...

The Minnesota State Fair is in full swing. It’s huge. Some say the biggest in the country. It lasts for 10 days and attracts a crowd equal to the entire population of the state. As a youngster, I faithfully attended with my family. The animal barns and livestock exhibits, the church-sponsored eateries, the tom-thumb doughnut joint, the women’s building (because my mother insisted) where the it-slices-it-dices guy made it look sooo easy. The Grandstand show. And the best - the Midway, run by Royal American Shows. Rides to make you puke, carnie barkers to fleece you and, my favorite, the 10-in 1 tent - the sideshow. ”She walks she talks she crawls on her belly like a reptile. Step right up – one thin dime, one tenth of a dollar. One thin dime won’t make you – one thin dime won’t break you.” The freak show, now gone forever. And one of the attractions at the freak show was Johan The Viking Giant. He would come over to my uncle’s house of an afternoon when the fair was in town, jabber in Icelandic with my uncles, my mother and the sisters-in-law. And eat. Eat Icelandic fare prepared by my aunt Gulla. Pictures were taken; my father (6’4”) standing under his outstretched arm, my brothers and our cousins, scattered around his shins, grinning. He was sweet and gentle and bright. And very lonely – so my mother said. It was a living. Below is Johan, standing in front of a classic 10-in-1, somewhere in America. One thin dime, one tenth of a dollar…

As a high school sophomore I got a job (thanks to my Uncle Val, the State Treasurer) working at the State Fair. Me, and about twenty others swept out the grandstand, once in the afternoon after the auto races (Offenhouser and Allison Racing Conversions) 800 HP open topped single seat race cars, rolling on a dirt track. Buzz Barton was the man to beat. They made a lot of noise – and kicked up a lot of dirt. Which I helped sweep up. A process repeated again at 10:00 PM after the Grandstand show. Between the afternoon races and the evening show, we were free to roam the fair. And when you’re 16, where do you go but to the Midway. Action and more action. Royal American Shows was the attraction provider and they rolled in on their own rail cars, parked in a siding specially built for the fair. Car after car. Pullmans where they lived during the run, huge animal transport cars with bars on the open windows for the animals they carried.

The Midway was a carny’s dream. Rubes as far as the eye could see. And they made a fortune. “Ring a cane, the cane’s ya win’s that’s cane ya carry away…” “Penny toss, hit the plate and the prize is yours…”  The penny had to stay on the glass plate. The barker made it stay with each toss. Easy. Try it sometime. Veritable fortunes were spent trying to make that penny stay on the plate. My personal favorite, as mentioned, was the 10 in 1 – ten attractions under one roof. The freak show, as it was referred to. There was Johan the Giant, The Snake Girl (some kind of skin condition), the sword swallower, the world’s smallest man, the girl contortionist, who was put in box where swords were then passed through. Top and side. But before the swords were inserted, she removed her bra (out of sight in her box, handed up to the pitchman). “We do this for safety reasons…” After the sword stuff, customers were charged fifty cents each to “come up and see how she survived.” Farm boys mobbed the steps. I went up once. Her right arm, modestly draped across her bare breasts, her body contorted around the blades. She looked bored to death.

Next to the 10 in 1 was, depending on the year, either the Club Lido or Leon Clarkson’s Harlem In Havana. The girlie show. The announcer stood out front, mic held tight to his lips, dyed black hair slicked back, dressed in a soiled red velvet jacket with ruffled shirt. He promised the crowd that what they would see on the inside would astound them. It was suggested that ‘gentlemen only’ attend and there was an inference that deals had been made to expose more than what was legal, or maybe it was just for this show and this show only. So, step right up. Every 15 minutes, the barker would bring out one of the girls. “Folks say hello to Carmen, be nice, she’s come all the way from Havana…” Carmen would twirl a couple of times, and then, facing the throng, legs set far apart, she’s touch her palms to the stage floor. The barker, standing behind her, assured the crowd that the view he was enjoying was available only on the inside. I used stand and watch as long as my coworkers would tolerate. The pitch and cadence of the delivery, the absolute transparent hustle, the smarm. I loved every second (no wonder I became an agent…). Dusk would settle, and it was time to back to the brooms.

After the grandstand show, the real work began. We’d start at either end of the top rows, two crews, and sweep to the center - and then send the accumulation tumbling down the center aisle. Repeat. And repeat. The crew, most of whom had been doing this for many Fairs past, was a mixed bag. I was about the youngest and was enjoying a real stretch from my cocooned existence as a middleclass white boy. There was Whitey the Pollock. Big, mean and silent. One of the old timers cautioned me early on to leave Whitey alone. “He don’t talk much and he sure don’t like to be talked to…steer clear if you value your teeth.” Okay. There was Sparky, toothless, who lived in what was left of Minneapolis’ skidrow (at that time undergoing a merciless destruction in the name of urban renewal). Watching him with a broom in his hands was almost ballet. “You workin’ too hard, boy! It’s in the wrists…see?” There were fathers and sons, who would take their vacations to work the fair for $9.25 an hour. The comfort of the south Minneapolis that I enjoyed was not theirs to be had. Sixteen years old and rubbing shoulders with life – looking back, I should have been embarrassed. At the time, I was just fascinated.

 We’d finish at about 2:00 AM. Weary, I’d walk back to my car parked just outside the grounds, on the other side of the Royal American trains. Passing cars, the girls from Harlem In Havana or Club Lido would be out, working the late night stragglers. “Hey sugar… Sonnyboy, you lookin’ for a little fun?” I was callow, virginal, and scared stiff. Head down, I walked. Quickly. “Ain’t no one thin dime, honey. But you gonna git your money’s worth.”