“Don’t Bogart that joint, my friend” was a phrase I heard fairly often in the 1970s, usually spoken slowly in a fake Southern drawl, and the phrase became popular in the American counterculture after it was featured in the 1969 film, Easy Rider.
Composed by Elliot Ingber, a guitarist in Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention in the mid-sixties, and Stash Wagner of The Fraternity of Man, the band that recorded the song for the soundtrack, the title and refrain gets its name from the actor Humphrey Bogart.
🎶 Musical Interlude 🎶
Now, I dunno if Bogie actually partook in the reefer, but he had a habit, in cigarette smoking scenes in tough guy roles in his movies, of leaving a gasper dangling from his lips without taking a drag. That act of wastefully letting a cigarette smolder, without inhaling the smoke, inspired the expression among pot smoking counterculture wits.
I was eight years old the first time I heard it.
The year was 1972 and I’d recently arrived in Bandon, a small coastal town in Oregon, after traveling the backroads of America in a bread truck for a few months with my dad and his girlfriend. We landed at a hippie crash pad and stayed with people we had just met; fellow freaks with an open door policy that was still part of the hippie homesteader etiquette esthetic in rural areas of the country.
That night, in the living room, after a shared meal, our host produced a mystery joint he had received from a friend in the mail. He lit the joint and passed it around to the group and, when it came to me, nobody thought to say, “No, you can’t have a toke because you’re just a kid.” Bear in mind, this was a time of testing mainstream values and almost everything was permissible.
I took a drag and let the joint hang from my lip. That’s when the phrase was uttered and explained.
Passing the joint, I felt the room spin, and promptly passed out.
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.
Check it out for yourself. There’s seating for thirty-three with some extra standing room inside and even more seating in the courtyard. Currently, and through mid-February, the café is open from 8 am to 3 pm Thursday-Sunday.
Café Frida Gallery
300 South A Street #4
Santa Rosa, California 95401
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.
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.
They continue to tour the world and perform together . . . gypsies now and for the unforeseeable future . . .
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.
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 organ—opened 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.
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.
The above snippet of memoir is just the first three parts (3×336 words) of a work in progress. To be continued…
I enter the Literary Salon and shake the debris of popular kitsch off my overcoat, turning a deaf ear away from the hue and cry of current American politics as I begin hanging on the Gallery wall paintings of half deserted streets shrouded in yellow fog, bowls of uneaten peaches, sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown, and scenes from the cactus land.
Seated in the guest chair is my friend, Thomas Stearns Eliot, one of The Grand Masters of Poetry—born on this day a hundred and thirty years ago in St. Louis, Missouri, on 26 September 1888. Thomas (known to the world as T.S.) is in the Salon to regale us with two glorious heirs of his invention.
Now, every published poet has a first born child of the muse that is presented to the world but not every fruit of the brow is heralded as the second coming.
T. S. Eliot, back at Harvard after a year spent studying philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, was a month shy of his twenty-third birthday when he finished composing The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in August of 1911.
A few years later, as Eliot was just beginning his life-long expatriate act in England, the poem came to the attention of Ezra Pound — who was acting as foreign editor of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry: A Magazine of Verse — and Pound urged Monroe to publish it—gushing that young Eliot “has actually trained himself and modernized himself on his own.”
The year 1915 was filled with the sensational and it began with a story of a hospital cook named Typhoid Mary in New York City. The Great War in Europe was spreading rapidly like a cancer from the center and fears of death and disease were a constant preoccupation. News that more than 29,000 people had perished by a massive earthquake in Avezzano, Italy married the unnatural with natural disaster.
One form of defiance was embodied by a straitjacketed Harry Houdini, spurning the advances of his would-be lover, Death—and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was published in the June 1915 issue of Harriet Monroe’s magazine
For those with a finely tuned poetic ear in that second decade of the 20th century it was a revelation.
The Love-Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (1915)
Some of us living in the century after Prufrock was written may find it amusing that a comparison of the evening sky to a patient etherised upon a table was considered shocking and offensive at the time. To me the poem has a timeless feel that people of any age can understand—a stream of conscious lament of a man characteristic of the Modernists of the time that seems just as relevant now as it did in the last century.
Ten years later, Eliot would give us another masterpiece of poetry.
The Hollow Men by sive.
Stay as long as you wish in the Salon (after the cups, the marmalade, and the tea), away from the kitsch and oblivious to the hue and cry…and go deeper into these two songs of humanity.
In this last of meeting places we can cast off deliberate disguises, disturb the universe, and talk of Michelangelo.
A different version of this piece first appeared in the online magazine Rebelle Society on 7 October 2012
I’m at the café with Pola Negri, the femme fatale from the Kingdom of Poland who appeared in German films such as Die Augen der Mumie (1918) and Mad Love (1921) before she made her first Hollywood film in 1922. Charlie Chaplin joins us at the table.
“I met Charlie at the Palais Heinroth,” Pola tells me.
I know the place well as it’s the swankiest hot spot in Berlin. Pola says that Charlie entered unrecognized, conspicuously underdressed among all the swells in evening dress.
Charlie remembers it like this:
“I was guided by the Palais Heinroth manager to a table located at the most obscure part of the room and I’m surprised by a slap on the back and a voice calling out my name.”
It’s Al Kaufman of the Lansky Corporation.
“Come over to our table,” says the manager of the Famous Players studio in Berlin. “Pola Negri wants to meet you.”
Negri laughs at the memory.
“A little man with a sad sensitive face fought his way up to our table. Were it not for his odd appearance, so dapper and so pathetic. He had such a strange physiognomy, with tiny feet and an enormous head that made him seem top-heavy. The only physically attractive thing about him were his hands, which were never without a cigarette.”
“Pola was so beautiful,” Charlie remembers. “Beautiful jet-black hair, white, even teeth and wonderful coloring. She was the centre of attraction.”
The silent screen star blushes.
“What a voice she has,” he says, traveling back in time to the moment. “Her mouth speaks so prettily the German language. Her voice has a soft, mellow quality, with charming inflections. Offered a drink, she clinks my glass and offers her only English words, ‘Jazz boy, Charlie.’”
On Christmas Eve of 1922, Charlie gave Pola a large diamond that he intended to set within an engagement ring. However, in March, he announced to the papers he was too poor to marry her and she ended their engagement.
I’m in a pub with Charlie Chaplin and he’s regaling me with one version of his history. He says he was born into poverty amid the squalor of South London on 16 April 1889—the same year that the Moulin Rouge opened in Paris. Charlie’s birth took place in a gypsy caravan as it was traveling through Birmingham. His mother, Hannah, would never tell Charlie who his father was or if she even knew.
The funny thing about this interview is that Chaplin’s lips are moving but no sound is coming out. Of course, he’s a silent movie star, I should have expected a dumb show. Fortunately, there are subtitles in my mind.
Chaplin started as a music hall performer among comics and mimes and magicians and mesmerists, performing before booze soaked audiences that watched the acts through a haze of tobacco smoke. At eighteen, he joined Fred Karno’s burlesque of mimes and acrobats. Karno, a theater impresario and comedian, was known as the father of the custard-pie-in-the-face gag—and Charlie was still with Fred Karno’s Army in the autumn of 1910 when the touring company left Southampton aboard the SS Cairnrona and crossed the Atlantic bound for Canada.
Not surprisingly, a piano crashes through the ceiling above and crushes our table, depositing an unkempt Stan Laurel at our feet. I’m reminded of Slim Pickens riding an atomic bomb at the end of Doctor Strangelove.
Stan dusts the ceiling plaster from his suit and says, “I was Charlie’s understudy and room-mate for the tour. When we reached the shores of Quebec, we were all on the deck of the [converted cattle boat], sitting, watching the land in the mist.”
Suddenly, Charlie ran to the railing, took off his hat, waved it and shouted:
“America, I am coming to conquer you! Every man, woman and child shall have my name on their lips—Charles Spencer Chaplin!”
“We all booed him affectionately and he bowed to us very formally and sat down again.”
24 August 1985
I’m sitting in a booth at Lenny’s Nosh Bar, dispatching the remains of a hot meatball sandwich with a Löwenbräu chaser and stewing in a shame of failed expectations that has dogged me from San Antonio to Eugene.
My return to Oregon after being discharged from the Air Force on grounds of a difference of opinion regarding my military career path wasn’t celebrated at home by a ticker tape parade. There’s no reward for an idealistic child of flower children that infiltrates a system to try to change it.
I desperately want to kick off my combat boots and peel off the military issue fatigues that hang on my body like an old skin to be shed in snake-like fashion and to wash away the sour smell of cigarette smoke and cheap alcohol—the proprietary perfume of the Greyhound bus that delivered me home—which clings to me like a desperate barfly. But first, I need to decompress in familiar surroundings.
Tossing back the last swallow of beer, I sigh deeply and press my back against the duffle bag propped beside the wall of the booth and close my eyes, listening to the sound of a twelve-bar blues tune with a palpitating Hammond B3 organ line as it spars with my beating heart. Green Onions, the 1962 hit by Booker T. & The MGs, is playing on the jukebox to welcome me back.
My head turns as the bell above the door rings and there’s Lenny Nathan, strolling into the Nosh Bar like he owns the place. He sees me and raises an eyebrow but heads directly to the tap. A moment later he comes over with another pint which he places on the table in front of me. He plucks a joint from the pocket of his apron and sets it beside the beer.
“I told ya so,” Lenny says. But there’s humor and understanding in his mischievous eyes.
I grin back at him as Ella Fitzgerald starts singing Too Young for the Blues.
Excerpt from Long Live Lenny’s Nosh Bar.
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I pass by the old dude while riding my bicycle on the path that parallels the railroad tracks in the west end of Santa Rosa. His body is stretched out and facedown, a gnarled hand is resting over a soft guitar case, and his backpack is open and his head is on the path.
“Hey, man—are you alright. Do you need help? Are you alive?” No answer.
I get off my bike and touch his hand. It’s stone cold.
Gently placing my hand on his back, I nudge his stiff body, which rocks like a mannequin stuck in the mud. He doesn’t seem to be breathing. Damn—another dead man.
I call 911—it’s not the first time I’ve made this call. There was that dead man in Eugene, Oregon in the mid eighties and another guy in New York City almost a decade later.
“I found a guy on the bike path,” I say to the dispatcher. “I think he’s dead.” Suddenly, his shoulder circles slowly.
“Oh shit,” I say. “False alarm. He’s alive.”
“Does he need medical attention?” The woman asks.
The guy raises his head like a bear waking suddenly from hibernation and glares at me with feral alertness.
“Do you need medical attention?” I ask. “He’s not responding,” I say to the 911 operator.
“What are you doing here,” the man growls.
“Hey man, be cool. I’m just checking to see if you’re alright.”
“I’m trying to get away from people,” he says rising. “People like you!”
“Okay,” I say, laughing nervously and backing away. “Take care, man.”
“Hey, HEY,” he yells.
The operator asks me what’s happening and I tell her the guy is coming after me—but not to worry as I’m on my bike and riding away.
“Try to do something nice and that’s what you get,” she says. “You should buy a lottery ticket.”
I laugh and say, “I would if I lived in a world where I could exchange good karma points for cold hard cash.”