All posts by Richard

Café Frida is a new art gallery and cafe hot spot in Santa Rosa.

My friend Shey called me yesterday to say he’d heard a rumor that the fledgling coffeehouse and art gallery in town, Café Frida Gallery, was finally opening on Thursday, January 16, and he was going to check it out. I said I wouldn’t miss it and true to his word he rang me this morning saying, “I’m here and it’s happening!”

So I headed over to meet him at the same place where I used to spend many days at my writing studio and literary salon in the SofA Arts District of Santa Rosa at 300 South A Street, in the space formerly occupied by Atlas Coffee Company, which had permanently closed in October 2018.

Two months later, Mario Uribe, an artist with a well-established studio and gallery in the arts district, took over the space and began the long process of turning it into his vision of the sort of cafe he wanted to operate in the neighborhood.

It’s been a year in the making, during which time I’ve lamented the loss of an artistic and cozy place to hang out with my friends and converse on meaningful subjects. I’ve been searching for that special place to go and gather with others and make human connections in the real world and Café Frida Gallery is just the sort of place I would want to create if I had the means and the motivation. A place I could also kick it with a book or write when I wasn’t with others.

As soon as I arrived at the café I could tell I was in my home away from home. The joint looks swell and there’s a chill vibe in the air with jazz music playing over speakers, art on the walls, and a single bookshelf filled with art books—from various indigenous artists around the world to books containing works by old familiar names like Picasso, Hockney, and Parrish.

Mario is working in the café today, along with his son-in-law, Mamadou, and their friend Alex, shown below.

Mario’s daughter, Andrea, is also here today and she tells me about the large portrait on the wall that Mario painted of Frida Kahlo standing before a field of giant-sized orange and white calla lilies and flanked by local hero, Luther Burbank, and her legendary husband, Diego Rivera. The artwork overlooks a cozy lounge area that appears to be able to seat three or four people in comfort next to the bookshelf.

A long table in the center of the café seats 10-12 people; perfect for conferences or just a random assortment of writers tapping away on their laptops. There are outlets to plug in power cords for eight laptops but you can bring in your own power strip if you need more. In fact there are power outlets everywhere in the café.

Eventually, the food menu will expand to reflect the culinary identity of an actual cafe but for now there’s a small nosh menu with savory and sweet pastries from Dawn Zaft’s nefariously yummy Criminal Bakery. A plethora of teas. And, naturellement—an espresso machine playing all your caffeine favorites.

Currently, a sidewalk sign stands near the building facade by the walkway during business hours to guide passersby strolling on A Street, as the café is tucked behind the 300 building and to the right of the courtyard as you walk down the access path I’ve always called Atlas Alley. A more permanent form of signage for Café Frida Gallery is in the works.

Come and check it out for yourself. There’s seating for thirty-three with some extra standing room inside and even more seating in the courtyard and the cafe is open every day except Tuesdays from 8 am to 3 pm.

Café Frida Gallery

300 South A Street #4

Santa Rosa, California 95401

(707) 308-4344

The Turning Point

Steve Cutts has released his latest short film today, a music video called The Turning Point, which was commissioned by Wantaways, a solo project by Melbourne musician, Ken Seto.

The video flips the script and explores a world wherein it is anthropomorphic animals that are responsible for climate change and the destruction of the human species, not humanity.

Check it out and stay tuned for more words on the subject…

Dancing With The Chicken Slacks

It’s a cold autumn afternoon and the unrelenting rain that’s been falling for days has me wallowing in a pit of melancholy. I override my nesting instinct and trudge over to Lenny’s to warm up with a bowl of matzoh ball soup. I might catch a flick at the Bijou later but the need for sustenence in the form of comfort food is foremost in my mind.

Bob is sitting in a booth when I arrive, sipping coffee and reading a book of poetry by Ezra Pound. Scott and Gary are in the next booth with Curt. Bob looks up at me and nods. I say hello to Molly at the counter, she gives me soup, and I take the seat across from my mentor.

On the jukebox, Sam Cooke is singing about a place, somewhere up in New York way, where the people are so gay, twisting the night away. I laugh, my mood beginning to shift, as I recall aloud a moment the other night when I was hanging out with Joe and we heard the same song; which inspired a lively debate on the questionable fashion of wearing chicken slacks.

“Sam is giving us a delightful example of semantic noise” Bob says when the moment comes back almost a minute into the song. “Like when Hendrix sings, ‘scuse me, while I kiss this guy. We know we’ve misheard the lyric but something in our mind convinces us that we’re hearing the truth.”

“We want to believe Sam is singing about dancing in chicken slacks,” I say. “It’s funnier and more absurd.”

“Especially, after he’s just sung about a man in evening clothes,” Gary says.

“It makes sense,” Curt says.

“It’s sensible,” Scott adds.

And then we start merging instances of semantic noise with Freudian slips (when you say one thing but you mean your mother) and the alchemical mixture of soup and witty banter has chased away the dark wet clouds overhead.

We completely fall apart when Sly & The Family Stone plays next.

Bonus Content:

The image I used for this piece is a still from the 1941 movie Hellzapoppin’ with two swing dancers from Whitey’s Lindy Hoppers. The group was formed in the 1920s by Herbert “Whitey” White and disbanded in 1942 after its male members were drafted into World War II.

The incomparable Slim Gaillard and Slam Stewart are the featured musicians, with Slim on guitar and vocals and Slam on standup bass.



On the value of transcribing…

I have a habit of transcribing recorded conversations and passages from books as a way of gleaning a more in-depth understanding of a subject. There’s something about transcribing for me that aids in the digestion of certain concepts that enter my brain in that specific manner.

There’s a chapter in Kurt Vonnegut’s book, Cat’s Cradle, wherein the narrator asks a “vacantly pretty” woman of twenty named Francine Pesko—who is introduced to him by a Dr. Breed as the secretary for a Dr. Nilsak Horvath, a famous surface chemist “who’s doing such wonderful things” with films—the question: “What’s new in surface chemistry?”

“God,” she said. “don’t ask me. I just type what he tells me to type.” And then she apologized for having said, “God.”

“Oh, I think you know more than you let on,” said Dr. Breed.

“Not me.” Miss Pesko wasn’t used to chatting with someone as Dr. Breed and she was embarrassed. Her gait was affected, becoming chickenlike. Her smile was glassy, and she was ransacking her mind for something to say, finding nothing in it but used Kleenex and costume jewelry.

Since Cat’s Cradle was published in 1963, we can say that Miss Pesko’s attitude was not unusual for the era, but the excuse just doesn’t hold up for me when I think of my grandmother, who was a medical transcriptionist in 1963 and forty-one years old at the time.

My grandmother soaked in the knowledge she gained from transcribing and decades later, when I was an adult, she would rattle off medical facts in conversations that made her sound like she, herself, was a seasoned medical professional.

I’m very much like my grandmother in that way. In fact, I consider myself a knowledge junkie. And, I don’t understand how people can affect an attitude of willful ignorance about things with which they are in daily contact.

There’s no excuse to remain ignorant when most of us have access to a tremendous body of knowledge at our finger tips.

Add “ing” to a movie title.

Here’s a writing prompt that’s sure to stimulate your imagination and get the creative juices flowing and it’s a level up in the game of adding “ing” to movie titles. Not only do you have to add “ing” to the title, you also have to write a description.

DIE, HARDING

A dark comedy about the rivalry between Olympic ice skating champions Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. In the aftermath of the attack on Kerrigan by Harding’s former boyfriend, Nancy Kerrigan hallucinates a graphic medley of revenge fantasy murder attempts on Tonya Harding. With a screenplay by Bret Easton Ellis, this film has been hailed by critics as a labor of loathe.

LADY BIRDING

Meryl Streep’s tour-de-force performance as a 19th-century Englishwoman struggling for acceptance as an equal in the company of a group of men that belong to an elite club of all-male bird watchers. Directed by Jonathan Livingston Seagal.

A GHOSTING STORY

Where did they go? What did I do? Was it something I said? Everyone leaves me and relationships suck. Directed by Roman Polanski.

THORING

A shy young man with a lisp overcomes his insecurities and, in spite of his speech impediment, he becomes the Top Gun of glider pilots. Starring Tom Cruithe.

ENTERING THE DRAGON

Shrek’s pal, Donkey, finally releases the sex tape nobody wanted.

PITCHING PERFECT

A tedious biopic of a baseball player with a pitching technique so perfect that no player can hit his balls. No hits, no runs, no game. Solid performance, though, by Kevin Costner as the aging ball player.

HOUSE OF WAXING

A sinister Brazilian esthetician sets up shop in Beverly Hills and makes a killing in the bikini waxing business. Produced by the Weinstein Company.

DIAL MING FOR MURDER

Flash Gordon’s nemesis gives up his throne on Mongo to become a contract killer for the mob.

STARING WARS

Han blinked first.

DYING HARD

A tough homicide detective exposes the deadly danger of Viagra addiction in this modern film noir. Narrated by Peter O’Toole.

Charlie Chaplin’s Inspirational Great Dictator Speech

The Great Dictator (1940) was Charlie Chaplin’s first talking picture and the film is a magnificent parody and a scathing condemnation of fascism and Adolf Hitler. The movie was still in production in 1939 when Britain and France declared war on Germany on Sunday, the 3rd of September, and Chaplin heard “the depressing news” over the radio while he was on his boat in Catalina over the weekend. The allies could no longer stay out of the fight after the invasion of Poland by German forces two days earlier and the news was delivered in depressing tones by British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain.

Two years earlier, in 1937, when war was in the air and Nazis were on the march, Charlie was struggling to write a story and a role for his twenty-nine year old wife, Paulette Goddard, who had shot to fame the previous year as leading lady to Chaplin’s character, the tramp, in Modern Times.

“How could I throw myself into feminine whimsy or think of romance or the problems of love,” Charlie would later write in his autobiography, “when madness was being stirred up by a hideous grotesque, Adolf Hitler?”

Enter, friend and fellow filmmaker, Alexander Korda—whose own wife, film actresss Maria Corda, was unable to make the artistic transition from the silent era to the emerging age of the talkies because of her strong Hungarian accent. Korda made the audacious suggestion to Chaplin that he make a film about Hitler based on mistaken identity, because the resemblance of Charlie’s famous fictional character, the tramp, was often compared to the infamous real world character of the dictator, as they both sported the same sort of mustache.

Coincidentally, Chaplin and Hitler shared other similarities, in addition to the style of the hair below their noses. Born four days apart in April of 1889, both men idolized their mothers, had ugly drunks as fathers, and had risen to success from the experience of living in great poverty. They were also both consummate actors.

***

This is the first page of a projected six-page piece on The Great Dictator.

Alec Guinness on getting a laugh…

Theatrical audiences are fickle beasts and each audience is prone to its own sort of reactions and mood swings with regard to play performances; no two audiences are alike. So, it’s best to think of audience reactions as gestalt expressions of the moment and to not take them personally. Especially when you speak a line in a Saturday night performance that gets a huge laugh from the audience—and the same line spoken to a Sunday afternoon audience the next day lands like a sour note sung to a cricket symphony.

Sir Alec Guiness, writing in My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor, gives the following example of the fickle beast’s inconstancy, and sometime mystifying immunity to laughter, as a cautionary tale for the fragile actor ego:

“In 1937 [Sir Tyrone] Guthrie directed Twelfth Night at the Old Vic with Larry Olivier as Toby Belch, his then wife, Jill Esmond, as Olivia, and the adorable Jessica Tandy as Viola. Marius Goring was Feste and I was Aguecheek; for some odd quirky reason of my own I played him as if he were Stan Laurel. It was a very undisciplined affair, not good at all, but I was thrilled to be acting my first important part. Also, I learned a thing or two while doing it. Like every Aguecheek that has ever been I got a laugh on the line, ‘I was adored once too.’ One midweek matinee, with a sparse audience, no laugh came although I undoubtedly sought it. Larry hissed in my ear, “Fool! You should know a matinee audience would never laugh at that.’”

Occasionally, a schizophrenic quality in the audience will present itself in the traitorous bark of laughter from a single audience member. In cases like this, while I reject the belief some actors have that sometimes they “are performing for the wrong audience,” I fully believe that when a single audience member laughs when no one else is laughing that person is definately sitting in the wrong audience.

*** *** ******

Richard La Rosa is an American writer that once played Sir Toby Belch in William Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.

A conversation with Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke

The following is a work-in-progress from an hour-long conversation I had with Danielle de Picciotto and Alexander Hacke at Sam Bond’s Garage in Eugene, Oregon, on 29 August 2015.

Alex and Danielle are performing soon but they’ve arrived early to speak with me. We’re sitting at a table in the backyard and I awkwardly explain that I want to write an article that will speak to an audience of people that could use a bit of validation to tap into their own creativity and go with their artistic instincts. It’s something that Alex and Danielle are very qualified to speak about, since they’ve been deliberately living as nomadic artists for a half a decade. My first question is to ask them how long they’ve been on the road.

Danielle Well, we gave up our house five years ago.

We’ve been touring for almost fifteen years doing projects we’ve always initiated ourselves. But, we’ve been without a home for almost five years.

Alex We’ve been nomads for five years, y’know, not natives.

I’ve been there. I had a counterculture upbringing and was also a nomad for almost five years.

Danielle It’s a long time—five years.

Yeah, it is. Especially for a kid. And this book you’ve written focuses on the first eighteen months?

Danielle Yeah . . .

Are you starting to feel the burn-out yet? Constantly moving from place to place without a home base.

Danielle Well, there’s been a lot of ups and downs, in a way. The first two years we were very enthusiastic and very excited about it. Then we had two years of being very depressed about it and fighting with that sudden realization what it means not to have a home. I think now, at the moment, we’ve become capable of dealing with all those issues and just kind of being neutral to the whole theme but I [she glances at Alex] for one would like to settle down again, because I have the feeling that for my work it’s important to be able to be in one space for a longer amount of time—to be able to concentrate on the work instead of traveling. I really enjoy traveling but I have the feeling, if I don’t settle down again at some point, my work is gonna become superficial.

I imagine that settling down would also give you a gestation period to create a new works of artistic expression.

Danielle Exactly! Right.

Alex For me, in the beginning, I was a skeptic. I didn’t know whether I could handle the process or if I could handle living without a homestead, because I’ve been traveling all my life, I’ve been touring all my life since I was fifteen or something, but I always had a place to come back to and since 2010 I didn’t have that anymore. And in the beginning I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to handle it. And then there came this euphoria, like two years, y’know, I was in a state of euphoric epiphany like [shouts out “woo-hoo!”] I can do anything! I don’t need anything, I’m free. Y’know, that was really great for awhile. And, then . . . and then it just takes a toll on you physically if you don’t give your system a chance to switch off to recuperate if you don’t have that certain spot where you just go back to and recharge your batteries. You’re always in a state of having to be alert and polite and operating within the parameters you are given when you are traveling and you are relying on people to be hospitable and when you rely on having commissions that bring you to certain places.

It sounds like you’re also ready to settle down again.

Alex I’m about ready to, y’know. I would like to build my alters and my shrines and basically that interior decoratoring . . . I miss that a little bit.

Danielle We’re quite different, too, in the way that Alex is a rare thing, a real Berliner. He was born and raised in Berlin, so Berlin is kind of a scene like New York where a lot of people move to, especially when the wall was there, especially men (because of the army) so he had a home, a place where he was from. But he started touring early on.

What about you? Are you rooted to a specific place?

Danielle I never had a home because my father was in the army. I was born in Tacoma and three months later we moved so I don’t have any place that I can identify with from the start. The place I lived the longest was Berlin, which was kind of like my adopted home. So, for me, it’s kind of been a state that I’ve been in all my life— except when I was in Berlin—that I was traveling and I can adapt very fast. Alexander is used to traveling but he always had that home. So, it’s interesting to see how it affected us differently.

Alex, did you find that when you left Berlin at fifteen—each time you left and came back—that you came back to a changed city that wasn’t the home you remembered? Or, did you always feel you had come home?

Alex Well, the city I born in doesn’t exist anymore. I was born and raised in West Berlin and the city is not there. There’s a new city now which is the new capital of the new united Germany which is the city that came to be after 1990 which is a very different one from the city I spent my formative years.

Danielle It’s like living in a different country, actually—it’s incredible. It’s like living in a different country and you haven’t moved.

Alex We all had to . . . natives and everyone that moved there . . . we all had to adapt in the way that there is a completely new set of rules from that point on. At the end of the Cold War when the Wall came down and West Berlin didn’t have any hinterland, y’know, it didn’t have any suburbs. You could only go so far and you’d get to the Wall and that was the end of your plate. And, when the Wall fell, there was suddenly suburbs from little villages that were around with people that would come and frequent the city over the weekend and it was very different. And I didn’t adapt to it very well, personally, in 1990 when all that started. I kind of secluded myself even more.

Danielle [to me] Did you go to Berlin in the eighties?

No, my first trip to Europe was in 1991. Even though I traveled extensively that first year and worked in Switzerland for several years after, I never made it to Germany. I always had my usual haunts in Paris or Amsterdam and various cities and villages in Italy that kept me from going to new places. My perception of Berlin comes exclusively from German movies I’ve seen—specifically the films of Wim Wenders.

Alex Wim Wenders is a good example. That Berlin, that you see in Wings of Desire, that Berlin is definitely not there anymore.

Danielle That’s the Berlin I moved to—I saw the movie when it came out and the week after I moved to Berlin. I actually moved there from New York (in 1987). So, when I moved to Berlin it was kind of like, this is incredible, this is the kind of dream you have of an island where there’s only artists and musicians and everything is really really cheap. I got an appartment that cost $35 for 800 square meters and it was not dangerous and there was as much culture and art as there was in New York and I was just dumbstruck. I saw it a couple of years before the Wall came down and it was such an ideal situation for anybody that is interested in culture, it’s really hard adapting it to becoming basically a normal German city. I mean, it’s still a party city and a lot of things going on, but basically it’s adapted to modern times. And, once you’ve experienced something like that, it’s hard to get used to anything else because it was just so incredibly perfect.

My experience of being a nomad as a child and later as an adult is complicated. I cherish my unconventional and wild experiences but it’s created a longing . . . I suppose an eternal search for a place to place that feels like home. So, I’ve been searching for decades, trying out different cities and towns to see if they were a fit. I lived in Eugene in my teens and the first few years of my twenties. Then I moved to California. I tried on New York for a few years. Now I’m rooted in California again. But, in the past I always left places because something in my life wasn’t working and I figured the best way to shake things up was to change my environment by moving to a different town or city. Why did you both leave Berlin?

Danielle One of the reasons we left Berlin was that we really couldn’t deal with the gentrification anymore.

People like us are still basically underground artists and we don’t do things because of money, although we’ve been doing our art for thirty years now, and Berlin—which is a party city that wants to attract tourists—is concentrating more and more on mainstream stuff. We don’t do that so that’s one of the reasons we left.

Gentrification seems to be the direction most big cities are moving in.

Danielle Yes, we’ve noticed that almost all of the big metropolitan cities are like that—New York is crazy in that way and so is Los Angeles—and I think we’ve noticed that we feel more comfortable in smaller places because they’re still more individual. So we like Eugene a lot; we like Houston a lot; we like Joshua Tree a lot. We feel more comfortable in smaller places because it’s not so much about big corporate companies and we think that we might be able to identify more. And, in the beginning we didn’t think that way. We thought, okay, New York, LA, London, Paris, and then we went there and everywhere we went people were saying “this is terrible, we’re leaving!” And we were like, omigod, everybody’s leaving, and we saw there was this huge movement of everyone leaving because they hated it so much.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed that there’s this huge flow of people going from New York to LA right now. The people in LA are freaking because the New Yorkers are coming.

And many Californians are moving North to Oregon and Washington.

Danielle Exactly!

Alex Or to Colorado—to Denver.

Danielle Denver’s a nice place, too. So, we’ve tried out all sorts of different places. Not for very long, though, because we wanted to just get a whiff of different places to see where we wanted to stay a little longer, and we noticed we like the smaller places better, even though we’ve grown up in big cities. We’re city slickers.

So now that you’re hip to the dissatisfaction people have with gentrification I imagine other artists are telling you that they’re also having a similar experience of not wanting to do their art just for the money.

Danielle Yes, it’s all about money and that’s the problem. I mean, if you look at Berlin it’s all being gentrified in a way…

…in a way that is pushing artists out?

Danielle Exactly! It’s being renovated and the rents go up and only certain people can afford paying the rents and buying things and everybody that can’t and doesn’t even want to . . . I mean, I think some of those prices are obscene and I wouldn’t want to pay them. Even if I could, a one-bedroom apartment in New York for $4,000 [she shakes her head].

Alex And that’s a global thing—the eradication of the middle-class. Either you’re filthy rich and you live the life or you are underground and you’re young and you’re wild and you don’t care and you live in a squat somewhere and then you can find great spaces and people that will help you like a Detroit kind of feel. But, that works when you’re young, y’know.

Danielle I actually think it’s being erased. I think it’s gonna end up like Hong Kong in the end effect. Those big cities…they’re gonna try and erase everything.

I’ve noticed a certain homogeneity in gentrification that seems to value exclusivity. If that’s the case, as independent or avante garde artists, do you feel you’re welcomed into that millieu or are you treated merely as a curiousity?

Danielle No, we’re people that question things with our art. Gentrification doesn’t love that.

You’re shit disturbers.

Danielle [laughing] Exactly!

Alexander In the true meaning of the word, we’re not avante garde, y’know, because the avante garde are the ones that are sent first before the actual guard, before the actual army comes in, so we’re not forerunners of something that comes afterwards, basically we’re questioning, we’re more like dissidents, y’know—we’re running away from the army that is behind us.

Well, I see that, for sure. It seems to me that you are coming forward to spread this sort of message to get people to look at gentrification and consider other options. So, in that way I see you both as being avante guard.

Danielle I think we are in that way. I think we’ve always been five years ahead. I started getting really restless in ’95, ’cause I was like: Something is changing when industry moved into Berlin. Suddenly, things are changing and this is not gonna go in a good direction. And then, ten years later—that’s when you could really feel that they were becoming so powerful that they just didn’t care about the artists.

Which seems at odds with the global perception of Berlin

Danielle Right? Berlin lives off it’s reputation of being an artist’s city. And now they’re living off it and the artists aren’t earning anything from it, so it’s sort of become this mass media thing. So, I do think we’re avante garde in that way that we’re saying, “Y’know, we already said it five years ago and now everybody is starting to complain that it’s happening everywhere.” I don’t even know what you can do about it in big cities, because it’s the money and it’s the power of those corporate companies, it’s so big that I think the only thing one can do is for us to go to that smaller place where the eye of those corporate companies hasn’t focused yet and try and build a really strong force of people who are not gonna give in to . . . Starbucks, for instance.

***

Danielle de Picciotto is a musician with Crime and the City Solution with a recently released solo album called Tacoma. She is also the author of We Are Gypsies Now: A Graphic Diary.

Alexander Hacke is a musician best known as a member of the post-punk industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten.

They continue to tour the world and perform together . . . gypsies now and for the unforeseeable future . . .

Flowers for Jean-Dominique

I want to write. But…

Hold that thought.

I’m standing before the grave of Jean-Dominique Bauby at the Père-Lachaise cemetery in Paris with a journal in one hand and a pot of chrysanthemums in the other—paying my respects to this remarkable writer.

I open my journal and read some words I’ve transcribed into it from a book called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, an English translation of a French book called Le Scaphandre et le Papillon written by the man in the ground at my feet.

These sentences were “written” by a writer unable to use his hands to type words, communicate through gestures, or to speak words to be transcribed by another writer.

No need to wonder very long where I am, or to recall that the life I once knew was snuffed out Friday, the eighth of December, last year.

Up until then, I had never even heard of the brainstem. I’ve since learned that it is an essential component of our internal computer, the inseparable link between the brain and the spinal cord. I was brutally introduced to this vital piece of anatomy when a cerebrovascular accident took my brain stem out of action.

The accident that rendered Jean-Dominique Bauby mute and immobile?

In the past, it was known as a massive stroke, and you simply died. But improved resuscitation techniques have now prolonged and refined the agony. You survive, but you survive with what is so aptly known as “locked-in syndrome.” Paralyzed from head to toe, the patient, his mind intact, is imprisoned inside his own body, unable to speak or move.

But, how was Jean-Dominique able to communicate the words you’ve just read if he was unable to speak or move?

In my case, blinking my left eyelid is my only means of communication.

Wait—What?

Of course, the party chiefly concerned is the last to hear the good news. I myself had twenty days of deep coma and several weeks of grogginess and somnolence before I truly appreciated the extent of the damage. I did not fully awake until the end of January. When I finally surfaced I was in room 119 of the Naval Hospital at Berck-sur-Mer, on the French Channel coast–the same Room 119, infused now with the first light of day, from which I write.

Enough rambling. My main task now is to compose the first of these bedridden travel notes so that I shall be ready when my publisher’s emissary arrives to take my dictation, letter by letter.

He writes these words by dictating his memoir, one letter at a time, to his clever and efficient conversational co-conspirator, Claude Mendibil, who lists the letters in accordance with their frequency in the French language.

In my head I churn over every sentence ten times, delete a word, add an adjective, and learn my text by heart, paragraph by paragraph.

By a fortunate stroke of luck and intuition Jean-Do’s physical therapist noticed that he could blink his left eyelid—his paralyzed right eyelid had been sewed shut to prevent his eyeball from drying up—and she had devised a communication system called partner-assisted scanning, which utilized his singular muscular ability to dictate a beautiful memoir.

Le système est assez rudimentaire. On m’égrène l’alphabet version ESA jusqu à ce que d’un clin d’œil j arrête mon interlocuteur sur la lettre qu’il doit prendre en note.

It is a simple enough system. You read off the alphabet (ESA version, not ABC) until, with a blink of my eye, I stop you at the letter to be noted. The maneuver is repeated for the letters that follow, so that fairly soon you have a whole word, and then fragments of more or less intelligible sentences. That, at least, is the theory. In reality, all does not go well for some visitors. Because of nervousness, impatience, or obtuseness, performances vary in the handling of the code (which is what we call this method of transcribing my thoughts). Crossword fans and Scrabble players have a head start. Girls manage better than boys. By dint of practice, some of them know the code by heart and no longer even turn to our special notebook—the one containing the order of the letters and in which all my words are set down like the Delphic oracle’s.

And what are those travel notes of which Bauby babbles about? They’re excursions of the imagination, of course—the only recourse for a traveler physically bound and rooted in place like an oak tree. His thoughts branch out, stretching beyond the boundaries of place, allowing his mind (which he likens to a diving bell) to take flight like a butterfly.

You can wander off in space and time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for King Midas’s court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realize your childhood dreams and ambitions.

Ten months and two hundred thousand blinks later Jean-Do completes his magnificient memoir and expires from pneumonia on 7 March 1999—two days after his book is published.

Bauby’s story is often my inspiration to write. My motivation.

Je veux écrire. Mais…

I set the pot of chrysanthemums on his grave, move to a nearby bench, open my journal, and write like there are no excuses.

Ilonka the Raconteur

This is a photograph of my maternal grandmother, Helen, when she was a sixteen year old girl named Helen Stefurak in the year 1938. Grandma Helen just celebrated a birthday a few days ago on October 17th—she’s ninety-six years old now and still sharp and full of memories.

I called my grandmother today to chat, as we do from time to time, and had to disconnect after a few minutes because she was cleaning her hearing aids and our conversation was cycling between frustrating and surreal. But she said she would call me back shortly after she put in the hearing aids and she did and we spoke for almost an hour.

We talked about her youth in Bridgeport, Connecticut and she told me a familiar tale about the time she was an accounting clerk at the Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation in Stratford, Connecticut. Helen started working at the factory when she was twenty in 1942 and was employed until the end of 1944, during the time when Sikorsky was in constant production manufacturing helicopters for the war effort.

Helen and her co-worker, Olive Robillard, would have to work half days every Saturday and occasionally after they got off work the boss himself, Igor Sikorsky, would give the girls a lift in his Cadillac and drop them off at the corner of Broad and John Streets in downtown Bridgeport, right in front of D.M. Read—New England’s largest department store known for its classy, upscale merchandise.

Cmdr. Frank Erickson hoists Igor Sikorsky during the development of the hoist capable helicopter in the early 1940s in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

The girls sat in the back seat of the car while Sikorsky drove, usually accompanied by another man from his company in the front passenger seat. Grandma Helen says the men were always perfect gentlemen during the brief eight-mile drive and there wasn’t much conversation beyond a bit of small talk about the weather.

After they arrived at D.M. Read, the men would go into the department store to shop and my grandmother would walk the last two miles to her house at 288 Bostwick Avenue.

D.M. Read in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

2.

My grandmother spoke to me about community in the neighborhood where she lived, an area settled predominately by Hungarian immigrants and others from neighboring European countries such as Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia, which were once part of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Helen says that it was a wonderful time for her, even though it was a terrible time for many others in Europe suffering under tyranny and fascism.

The Stefuraks weren’t wealthy but they weren’t poor, either, and Helen’s parents earned enough money so there was always coal for the stove, food in the pantry, ice for the ice box, and no one missed a meal. Peddlers rode up and down the streets of the neighborhood in horse-drawn carts selling vegetables door-to-door and Tuesday was Bank Day at the cinema and my grandmother could watch a double feature for a dime.

Helen loved going to the pictures and never missed a movie when it came out.

Poli‘s Majestic Theater in Bridgeport was built in the Beaux Arts style—with vaulted ceilings, gilded hand-carved moldings, seating for over 3,600 and a giant Hall theater organopened in 1922 as a vaudeville house and Mae West played there in 1927.

I never met my great-grandparents John Paul and Ethel Stefurak. John Paul died sixteen years before I was born and Ethel tried to hold off Death long enough to see her first born great-grandson but died three days after my birthday.

My maternal great-grandmother, Ethel Stefurak.

John Stefurak was a mechanic and he specialized in repairing cars in the early days of the automobile. Some years later my great-grandfather would get a license to be an electrician and supplement his income repairing radios. When the era of silent films gave way to talkies my great-grandfather was the go-to guy to install the new film projectors in the Bridgeport movie houses.

John Paul & Ethel Stefurak in the car my great-grandfather built in the 1920’s.

John’s father, Paul Josef Stefurak, didn’t live to see the wonders of the 20th century. He was a blacksmith who specialized in making metal horseshoes and fabricating some of the parts for carriages during the horse and buggy era.

He was also a farrier—a specialist in equine hoof care—highly skilled in the art of the trimming and balancing of horse hooves and fitting their hooves with horseshoes.

A Country Blacksmith (1859-61) engraved by C.W. Sharpe.

3.

And now, a brief digression to explain the title of this bit of biography: Ilonka the Raconteur.

The raconteur part is easy enough to decipher; my grandmother is a great narrator of her life and I’ve grown up hearing her anecdotes. However, the name Ilonka needs some explaining.

Ilonka is the name my great-grandmother Ethel called my grandmother when she was a child. The name is a Hungarian diminutive of Helen, the English form of the Greek ‘Ελενη (Helene) which comes from ‘ελενη (helene) which means torch.

I like to think that Ethel as a young woman in the 1920s was a bit of a flapper and an avid reader of classical pulp novelists like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Aristophanes, Cicero, Homer, and Virgil—and she came up with the name Helen for her daughter in 1922 while reading Book II of The Aeneid.

A quartet of stylish flappers in the early 1920s.

In the Greek myth of Helen of Troy, the 1920s flapper version of the tale, Helen was a gal from Sparta with a legion of suitors. The daughter of Zeus and Leda, she was a legendary looker and all the Spartan cats thought she was the bee’s knees.

But, it was King Menelaus, the High Pillow of Sparta, that would claim Helen as his wife. Well, that didn’t sit well with Paris, a big timer Prince of Troy who zeroed in on Helen’s puss with his peepers and became so smitten with the kitten he thought he’d dust out and make a clean sneak and a mad dash home with the dame.

So, when Menelaus discovered that his frau had lammed off with Paris he called upon all the other suitors to fulfill their oath to defend the chosen husband against whoever should quarrel with him, and thus began the Trojan War.

An image from a 1927 silent flick called The Private Life of Helen of Troy, a film based on a 1925 novel by John Erskine and directed by Alexander Korda that featured María Corda as Helen and Ricardo Cortez as Paris.

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The above snippet of memoir is just the first three parts (3×336 words) of a work in progress. To be continued…