Celebrities I Have Known…. Well, Sort Of!

| January 23, 2011 | Comments (3)


I remember distinctly the day I joined the world. The moment I knew I had really arrived on earth and had figured out  what it was all about.

I was twelve years-old, still hidden in baby fat and possessed of a high, squeaky pre-pubescent voice. Enveloped in the darkness of a movie matinee I was making serious inroads into a gigantic bag of popcorn.

The feature film was “Snows of Kilimanjaro” and the scene was Mediterranean. Gregory Peck is lounging on the deck of a yacht clad in a bathing suit, his leonine limbs absorbing  the sun’s rays as he radiates a perfect tan.  He stretches and looks out across the  limpid,  blue water at a figure moving towards him, cutting through the sea  with deft, graceful strokes.  It is Hildegarde Neff.

As she nears the hull of his sleek craft, Gregory leans over the side and says to her in what seems almost like a whisper,  “Natasha, how charming you are today, my dear!”  The camera pans to her face for a close-up  and, with only the slightest hesitation,  Neff pauses by the boat (she must be treading water at this point), looks up at Gregory and smiles with slightly parted lips saying, “‘ But, darling,  how could I help but be when swimming to you is my objective.”

That was  60 years ago and   I am still totally in that moment as though it happened just this minute; I remember emitting a low moan as my bag of  popcorn  fell to the floor, my jaw dropped and I became weak with the realization that there was a world out there filled with …things, things heretofore unknown to me. Glamor, sophistication, beauty, clever dialogue, wealthy people having forbidden fun (as I recall Gregory and Hildegarde were both married to other people at the time of this boatside exchange.)

Maybe my life would have taken another path and I would have ended up a different person had that film been “The Good Earth” or “Spartacus” or  “The Life of Christ.”  But as it is, although I appear outwardly to be a rather boring, humdrum person, I have a secret, inner life that I share only with Hildegarde and Gregory … and now you, dear readers. 

 I consider Gregory and Hildegarde to be  my good  friends because they have given me  the gift of  fantasy. Since that  moment in the dark when I waddled into the theater,  took my seat, drooling into my popcorn, I have lived in a magic world of make-believe. Thank you, dear friends, Gregory and Hildegarde.   

Gregory and Hildegarde are only two of many celebrity friends I have. Ofcourse, you see, I have never actually met the famous people I know, but that doesn’t matter. If you have the gift that I have,  given to me by my dear friends, you can know anybody you want to know.

So here’s another story about another friend, Mae West. It was told to me by my friend, Tom, but I feel I was there too when it happened.

One day quite a few years ago, Tom, who is a well-known Hollywood photographer, got a call to come to Mae West’s apartment  on Wiltshire Boulevard to shoot the publicity stills for her new film, “Myra Breckinridge.” Tom had not seen Mae in long time and was eager to make the connection after so many years.

When he arrived at Mae’s door,  he was greeted by Edith Head, the famous Hollywood costume designer. Edith said that they were running a bit late, but that Mae would be ready soon. Over the next couple of hours Tom watched as they readied Mae for her still close-ups. Normally talkative and full of fun, Mae was totally quiet and seemed old and a bit dis-oriented.  As she sat in her terry cloth bathrobe  looking out blankly into space while she was being made up, Tom thought she was a different person.

Finally with her wig on and corsetted up into her gown, Mae at least was starting to look her old self. Tom readied his cameras and turned on the flood  lights. As he moved in for the shoot, he stooped and pulled a small jar out of his  camera bag. Suddenly Mae became alert and asked,  “Wazzat?” Tom replied, “Mae, it’s Vaseline. I’m going to put a dab on the lens to soften the picture.”  With that, Mae came fully to life, drew herself up and, with perfect timing, uttered her trademark growl,  “Oh…they use it for that too…!”  

Aren’t my celebrity friends fabulous?

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Mothers, Near & Far, Harken to My Words – Keep Your Daughters Away from Pottery Barn !

| January 21, 2011 | Comments (0)
My friend, Bill,  in Florida, master of the exotic and the arcane,  is also an expert in  Chinese language. Information about that ancient tongue and its writing system recently reached me from his Ming Palace in Jacksonville. I hasten to convey his words to you and hope it is not too late for you to save your daughters.

The Chinese character for “pottery kiln” has another meaning and I won’t beat around the bush about what it is:  WHORE HOUSE. There it is – plain, simple and menacing.

So I implore you,  Mothers, and even Fathers, keep your gentle daughters away from the clutches and temptations of  POTTERY BARN. It may look innocent and inviting enough, but sin and evil lurk there behind the stacks of salad bowls and fold-out sofa beds. Enough said !

I have been snowbound, confined to the house today and cabin fever is running high. I won’t pretend that I couldn’t have ventured out, but I didn’t. There are some days when you just want to stay in bed, watch trashy TV and eat lots of buttered toast. And that’s what I did !

Which leads me to a message received from Malaysia. A friend and his partner, a local person, were staying in a hotel in the nation’s capital, Kuala Lumpur. They had rented a suite with a kitchenette and the night before had purchased fixings for a leisurely continental breakfast – juice, coffee, croissants, the works. Only problem – nothing in the kitchen seemed to work. No way to heat anything up.

Addressing what was about to become a breakfast crisis,  my friend’s partner, an inventive farmer from a remote village, disappeared into the bedroom and re-appeared moments later  with an iron  he found in the closet.  Moving purposefully  to the kitchen, he proceeded to iron the croissants until they were warm, crisp  and ready to eat. The result was so satisfactory that my friends expanded their culinary use of the iron to other dishes and report that they now iron their toasted cheese sandwiches. So… I’m thinking of ditching my microwave in favor of a steam iron. The possibilities are endless !

Continuing with what seems to be a food-focused narrative, another friend from faraway Brooklyn has reported on his recent jury-duty experience  which had surprisingly  serious culinary implications. A fellow juror, an impoverished artist by calling, described to my friend the wonders of dumpster-diving. Seems this artist feeds himself mainly by salvaging food from dumpsters near well -known supermarkets in New York City;  gourmet stores  like Whole Foods and Fairway. They also swarm around the trash area of Bon Pain and Zaro’s.  A savvy network of dumpster divers stay in touch electronically and carry out their raids as a cooperative group effort. Apparently the found produce is delicious…and free.

Finally, dear reader (or Blogette in the case of you ladies),  I will end this little food poem with a memory of my own. When I met my partner in Jakarta 30 years ago and we started living together, he decided to surprise me one morning with what he thought would be a breakfast treat. Unfamiliar as he was , as an Indonesian, with cornflakes,  he decided to serve them to me in the way he fancied they might be presented  – mixed with crushed ice and water. Ofcourse I ate them…and they were delicious !

Have a good weekend and don’t take any wooden nickels, as Grandpa used to say !

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No Exit for Poncho – The Life-sapping Effects of a Mis-guided Welfare System

| January 20, 2011 | Comments (5)


Poncho is a handsome, smart  21 year-old neighbor and friend of mine here in the South Bronx. At 6 feet, he is slender and walks with an athletic gait; he radiates what I call leadership. When he speaks he is confident and friendly, respectful and somewhat of a tease. He’s a whiz at  math and knows how computers think. He can coax the meanest, slowest laptop (mine) to cooperate and perform.

But Poncho dropped out of school when he was in the eighth grade and had just turned 14. He  has never held a job since he left school and aside from an occasional, passing remark about finding work, has never, to my knowledge, made a serious attempt to be gainfully employed.

He has failed the high-school GED equivalency test so many times  that just mentioning it to him puts him in a bad mood. He lives with his “girl”, a 33 year-old woman with three children;  the youngest  is 13 month-old Poncho Jr. The five of them live with their three dogs and two cats in a three-bedroom Section 8 apartment in the South Bronx. For those of you who don’t know, Section 8 is a government program that provides free housing to low income families.

In addition to their free housing, Poncho and his nuclear family get food stamps and comprehensive free medical care  under the MEDICAID health insurance  program for low income people. Some of their friends and relatives also receive early social security payments, having qualified for medical disability. (Without commenting on the bonafide nature of  many of the  medically  disabled – and I agree that there are many justified cases – I must register my surprise at the number of able-bodied, cane-wielding  young men walking the streets of my neighborhood who obviously have no need for a cane.)

Poncho spends most of the day hunched over his computer pursuing his obssession – video games; he is particularly crazed by X-Box. When he is not “gaming”, he messages me saying he is bored and depressed and wants to go out and get wasted.

As somebody who has done a fair amount of mentoring and counseling, I am stumped by Poncho.  He won’t cram to pass his GED and he is not interested in boring, entry-level burger flipper jobs. He is like many of his friends whose only aim in life is to suddenly  be at the “top”; which for them means somehow miraculously materializing into a hip-hip mogul, a super model or a basketball star. None of Poncho’s crowd are interested in being what my friends and I aspired to – being teachers, fire-fighters, nurses, librarians, policemen. These jobs are not  “cool” and require a lot of boring grunt work like studying, time wasted when they could just be “chillin’ .”

I hasten to add, at this point in my story, that I am a latte-sipping, New York Times-reading liberal who is in favor of our country’s having a safety net for those needy citizens who require it. My only reservation is: have we gone too far? Have we spread the goodies so widely and so indiscriminately that folks like my young friend Poncho see no need to get off their backside and actually go to work, maybe at first in a job they don’t particularly relish?  Like when my Father got his first job in 1932 sweeping the floor in a greasy spoon in Washington. DC because he needed to eat and pay for a roof over his head.And he already had a Master’s degree.

Part of moving ahead in life is challenge and necessity. If these elements are removed from life’s radar screen and we are provided the basics without making an effort to acquire them, we risk falling into slothful, self-pitying, scapegoat-seeking lassitude.

I hate to see a  potential winner like Poncho turning into a loser, but as sure as death and taxes, if he keeps up the way he has been doing, there is no hope for him and his ilk.

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It’s a Globalized, Barnum & Bailey World… And I Want OFF !!!

| January 19, 2011 | Comments (1)
Much as I love the place, I could never live in Italy.  It’s the elevators.  First, is their  impossibly small size.  Sandwiched-in like sardines with  four other  passengers, all gesturing as Italians are wont to do, is not something I am prepared to face on a daily basis as I descend from my flat to the local coffee bar;  or even more dreadful to contemplate  is negotiating the crowded contraptions with bags of groceries, emerging with squashed zuccinis and bruised elbows, suffering those knowing Roman  glances that say “You can always tell a foreigner;  they get so nervous in our beloved elevators…..”

Even if I eventually got used to the proxmity of hot pasta breath and prickly fake fox fur coats, the WAY these elevators function could risk a broken nose or worse. Recently on a visit to the Eternal  City, I entered a lift; there was already one passenger there before me. When the door closed I reached to push “4” and found my hand being slapped away from the button by a man who snarled, “What are you doing ?? !! I’m going to “2.”  Speechless, I watched as he punched his floor and almost did the same to my face.

Later my host told me that, of course,  I was wrong and the irate passenger was right. In Italy elevators are not programmed to stop by floor sequence; the lift will go FIRST to the floor that has been selected first. So, hit “9” and you will bypass “3” which may  also have been selected, but afterwards.  Elevator-riding in Italy is a matter of serious negotiation. Imagine ! In the land of Leonardo who had already drawn up blue-prints for a helicopter in the 15th century,  elevators are still stone-age.

And while I’m at it, Italy, there’s another thing you’ve got to change. Your buffet lunch rules ! The same day I almost got pummeled in the elevator for wrong-minded American lack of etiquette, I was invited to lunch at a very tony restaurant that featured  a buffet. It looked scrumptious ….beyond my wildest food fantasies. 

My brand of buffet engineering dictates that I make two trips to the table. I select a few items as my appetizer, tastefully arranging on my plate  aspargus spears, a slice of tomato and a wedge of mozzarella, watered by a spritz of olive oil. Returning  to my table, I polish off the “primo” and then make a second trip to the board for my main course.

NO WAY ! Not in Italy ! As I weaved through tables crowded with fellow diners, balancing the plate with my second helping, my entree, I heard a groundswell of muttering which sounded like  “maiale.” Seated, I asked my companion why everybody was talking about “maiale” – pork. Was there a dish on the table I had missed ?

No, he said, everybody is saying you are a PIG for going back to the buffet table a second time. It just isn’t done in Italy !  I will never bring you here again !

Oh, Olive Garden, where were you when I needed you most !

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KITCHEN ARMCHAIR TRAVELER : What Gives Writers Inspiration

| January 17, 2011 | Comments (2)

Sitting at My Window

Writers gain inspiration for their writing in many ways; a lot of mine comes from gazing out my kitchen window.

I live in an old row house, one of the surviving Victorian “grandes dames” in a sea of “projects”, those monolithic blocks of apartments that dominate the landscape in our working-class neighborhood.

I spend much of the day in my kitchen, a huge, airy, old-fashioned space that looks out onto my little garden, an city backyard that measures 40 by 20 feet, more or less. My favorite perch is an old wicker chair squeezed into the corner by the window. Mornings and afternoons I am usually at my “station”, notebook on my lap, a cup of coffee nearby; more than likely my old tiger cat, Putri, has joined me sprawled out on the back of the chair. Sometimes she digs her claws into my neck jolting me out of my reverie as I gaze through the barred window onto my little urban jungle.

This year I have opted for a “wild” look in my garden. Aided by ancient peach trees that hang over from the neighbor’s yard, I have allowed the ivy on my walls to grow without trimming it. Morning glories have taken control where they don’t belong. An old grape vine is running rampant. The only semblance of order is a moss-covered, herringbone-patterned brick walk that marches up to my trellis that shelters a riot of elephant ear plants. My other cat, Raja, a beloved Tuxedo, is buried there under the trellis.

Less mobile these days than I was before I entered my 70s, I have thrown to the wind any shame I may have had about just sitting and dreaming as I look out my window. And my imagination does take flight. Above the garden I see the backs of the neighbors’ glaring white pre-fab houses. They reach up to a bright, blue sky and I suddenly find myself in the sun-drenched Greek Islands. Hanging over my other wall is a beautiful rose bush. The flowers give out an intoxicating perfume. I crane my neck and plan my next “rose poach.” When the sun goes down I will sneak out and snip off one or two buds and my nice neighbor will be none the wiser! Well, they ARE hanging on my side of the wall !

Not only does my window give me sights. It also bring me sounds and smells. Sunday mornings are the best time. The African-American church down the block is alive with gospel song; further away, Saint Jerome’s ancient bells peal beautifully and the mournful whistle and clickety clack of a northbound train tell me people are on the move. Putri and I both salivate when the perfume of frijoles and chicken come through our window from Maria’s kitchen next door. It also attracts a variety of wildlife from feral cats to squirrels. My favorite sightings are the birds. The other day there was a red-breasted robin, a cardinal and two little humming birds hovering over my impatiens flowers.

The aging screen on my window has developed little holes which I have covered with bits of Scotch tape. I know some day in the not-too-distant future, I will have to have the whole screen replaced. In the meantime I gaze out my patchwork window thinking of the blanket of white that will cover it all before long.

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