Growing Up

:: Tonsils ::

July 2002

 My first memory is of my father. It was warm outside, a summer evening. The smiling man held me in his arms, against his white t-shirt, and I reached up to touch his face. His face felt scratchy. I felt excited by the change of scene, loved and safe and awed by the man’s size. It was 1947, and I was eight months old.

My second memory comes from when I was three years old, going to Deaconess Hospital in Buffalo, N.Y., to have my tonsils removed. I remember the snowy ride to the hospital, a winding drive with wet, black, bare trees.

I remember a roommate in a bathrobe who was all confidence and bravado before his surgery, and who couldn’t wake up to talk to me after. We were allowed one toy. I had a blue car with tiny windshield wipers that moved when the car rolled on the floor. He had the same car in maroon. It was my first encounter with coincidence.

When it was my turn for surgery, I was rolled down the halls on a gurney, watching the ceiling lights pass over, one by one, a nurse on my left and a man in white on my right. And into a very bright room, parked, and then a black mask coming down over my face and a smell like burning tires. My brother, who had already had his tonsils out, had told me, “Don’t fight it.” I fought it, the acrid, hissing smell, the hands that held me down while a softer voice tried to calm me, and then I went under.

When I woke up, I felt fine. But they wouldn’t let me eat or drink. Instead, I was told to chew crushed ice, which was a real treat, better than any water or food. It was fun.

As much as I liked the food, the service was not good. One night I was awake, and standing in the crib. I think I had to use the bathroom. I called to the nurse who was sitting up very straight in a chair right outside my door. I could see her through a crack in the door. She had red hair in a braid, and a white cap. Her hands were folded in her lap. She was sound asleep. I couldn’t wake her.

And one final memory of the hospital. I was standing in a crib, holding on to the rails, waiting for my mother to come for her evening visit. The room had a high ceiling; the tall windows were black from the night outside, and the light in the room was yellow. I heard voices in the hall, but my excitement died ­ when I saw that my father had come too. He was wearing a dark coat and he filled the room with darkness as he walked toward me, smiling. My mother hung back in his shadow, and I was afraid.

I don’t know exactly what happened between eight months and three years, but I can guess. When I became a parent, my father said, “You’ve got to show them who’s boss the moment you bring them in the door.” He had a sour expression on his face as he spoke, while my daughter played quietly, innocently on the living room floor next to me.

 :: Thumbs ::

June 21, 2007

 My father had murderer’s thumbs. My mother hated them. She told me, “When you boys were born, the first thing I did was grab your hands and look at your thumbs.” Once, when Mom saw me trimming my thumb nail, she said, “Not so close!” As if trimming the nail would shrink my thumb and make it look like my father’s.

The medical term is Brachydactyly Type D, also known as “murderer’s thumb” or “potter’s thumb.” The proprietor at Palmistry International’s website notes, “While it may not make a person commit murder, it almost certainly reveals a person who can be extremely passionate, aggressive, ruthless and cruel, and with other corresponding features in the hands, even a little sadistic or violent. If the second phalanx is short in comparison, there will be no logic or reasoning behind the actions. Confrontation with such a person may not be wise.”

To make things worse, Dad had severe allergies which manifested themselves as terrible rashes on his hands and arms. The medicines for these were heavy salves that smelled like heavy salves, and equally aromatic milky solutions for long soaks in a white metal basin, with gauze wrapped and dripping from wrists to fingertips.

To tell the truth, Mom didn’t really want to be touched on the best of days. Like her mother, she thought all men were animals and that sex was debasing no matter who was doing it to whom. This, I suspect, came as bad news to my father, probably a message he received when darkness fell on the first night of their honeymoon.

Today, women who feel this way probably don’t even date, and men who find disgust and contempt off-putting probably pick up on the vibe a long time before they slip into a suit for the Big Day. But my parents grew up in a time when silent desperation, dark secrets and mutual disgust were not considered impediments to a lifetime union.

So there was Dad with murderer’s thumbs and scaly skin, occasionally wrapped like an oozing mummy, with a wife who hated his touch. Even as a boy, I was sure I did not want to be in that boat. Eventually Dad found solace in other quarters, spent most of his time away. Mom was alone at home, which was the way she liked it. The only time we had to pretend otherwise was when we gathered to celebrate a holiday, or worse, their wedding anniversary. For me, these were occasions that could not end soon enough.

Fortunately, my wife likes my hands and does not think I’m an animal. Well, maybe a domestic animal, but certainly not a wild one.

 :: My Mother’s Kitchen ::

December 22, 2005

 At the age of three, I spent a lot of time watching my mother. My brother was already in school; we didn’t have a television set; I couldn’t read. Watching Mom was pretty much it, and the best viewing was in the kitchen, where she had an array of fascinating and shiny objects.

The egg-beater (which I still find amusing) was cool to watch, and as a bonus I sometimes got to lick whipped cream or melted chocolate off the beaters. The electric mixer was a step up, but I could not touch it. I did, however, enjoy its whirring sound and the rumble of the bowl as it turned.

The flour sifter was more fun. On a good day, my mother would allow me to squeeze the handle, releasing a fine flurry of flour onto a sheet of waxed paper. I think the sifter was my first action toy.

The meat grinder was a brutal machine and I sat well away from it, watching my mother clamp it to a chair, stuff cut beef in the top and strain to turn the crank, and then, miracle of miracles, ground beef oozed out of the tiny holes to be patted into patties or mashed with eggs and bread crumbs for meatloaf.

Smaller items held charm for me as well. I loved the measuring spoons because of the way they clacked and how their appearance sometimes heralded the appearance of the small brown bottle holding vanilla, which filled the room with its rich, heavenly smell.

The rolling pin was a wonder, the way it ran over a lump of dough and flattened it out, smoothing and spreading. And cookie cutters had a real presto quality. It’s nothing — we press and lift — it’s a star!

The cake tester, a sword-like wire with a painted ring at the top, had an air of menace, but all of the appliances and utensils bowed down before the pressure cooker. Here was something that could actually explode and kill us. My mother told me that a woman down the street had put a hot lid right through the kitchen ceiling because she failed to screw down the top correctly. The cooker was a huge (to my eyes) pot with at least four or five wooden handles on the top that had to be clicked into place and screwed down tightly before the gas flame was lit below. When Mom canned jams and jellies, pears and grape juice, and the dreaded dead tomatoes, the cooker got a real workout. The Mason jars went down into the water, the lid was clamped on, the needle on the little round gauge began to climb, and steam puffed out of the safety valve. Sitting just a few feet away from this steel time bomb, I felt like I was living on the edge.

Which might explain why, when I turned five, I was not all that excited about going to school.

:: Garbage Men ::

July 2002

People who say I don’t go out much will not be surprised to hear that I did not leave the house often as a child. If I wanted, I could be tied to the garage door with clothesline — a loop around my waist, a knot in the door handle and about 15 feet of slack — and left to play on the driveway, to ride my tricycle, sometimes in the company of my cousin. But this was not much of a good time, and I soon cried to be brought back in. More often I would stand at the window in the living room, the sill against my chest, and look out through the bottom panes at whatever was happening on Englewood Avenue.

Once a week, I was rewarded with the garbage men. The cans sat at the curb, almost like bait. I would hear the truck even before I saw it and press my head sideways against the glass to try to see down the street. And then they would appear at our neighbor’s, the truck huge and exotically noisy, the men jumping off, picking up the cans in their gloved hands, banging them on the back of the truck, trash cascading, men throwing the cans onto the lawn, whistling to signal the driver, jumping back onto the moving truck or running on ahead, and then they were at our house, flinging off our can lids and pouring our trash into the hungry machine, tossing our cans onto the lawn, and, one magic day, waving to me before they were gone in a rush.

They were dirty and threw things. They shouted and laughed while they worked. Holding on with just one hand, they rode on the outside of the truck. Outside! They broke all the rules. They were like pirates in our world.

:: Clean ::

June 30, 2007

More than anything, my mother wanted me to be clean. One of my earliest photos shows me sitting in an enamel basin on the kitchen table, glistening with rinse water. To picnics, my mother carried a quart jar holding a soapy washcloth; before food was served, I was lathered almost to the elbows. It made sense that we went to a Baptist Church; I am only surprised there wasn’t a fresh cake of Ivory bobbing in the baptismal tank.

During the summer, when boys tend to pick up dirt, Mom scrubbed my belly button with a toothbrush. And this was before dentists recommended soft bristles. The toothbrush also saw duty in its traditional role. We used toothpaste, of course, but periodically Mom brought out a tin of pumice, tapped the powdered stone into a little gray pile on the side of the sink, wet the brush, dipped the bristles and polished my teeth, the brush cool and gritty.

For our ears, there were Q-Tips, in a blue cardboard box with a sliding tray. For dirt in our eyes, there was eye wash in a blue bottle and a blue eye cup. I remember tilting my head back and blinking up through a blue watery world.

Our hands were scrubbed with a brush the size and shape of a donut, with tan bristles. (Mom thoroughly enjoyed the Fuller Brush man’s visits.) There was also a metal nail file with a curved, pointed end that was put to work under our fingernails, paring out the dark specks. When my brother began to work on cars, he was sent to the basement to wash, dipping his blackened hands into a can of DL and finishing up with Lava soap. (Pumice, again; you can’t beat it.) Cuts, after a good soaping, were painted thoroughly with iodine, merthiolate or mercurochrome. If it didn’t sting, it wasn’t working.

Because soap and water cannot solve all problems, my mother was a faithful reader of the Lucy Lincoln household tips column in The Buffalo Evening News, and trusted the fictitious Mrs. Lincoln totally, especially on the subject of stains. Clorox and Tide were the power players, but there were dozens of arcane solutions to the more exotic challenges. Because we were boys, these included grass stains, oil from bicycle chains, grape juice, mustard, and blood, plus all the ghastly things that can collect in white handkerchiefs, white underwear and white sheets. The crowning evil of laundry day, however, was not mine or my brother’s, but rather the hair tonic that pooled on my father’s pillowcase.

My hair was kept neat without oil. Instead, Mom applied a glue-like liquid called “wave set,” dipping a comb into the jar and combing it through my hair until my “wave” hardened in place. I periodically refreshed the hold with a little water, once, famously, dipping my comb into a water glass in a restaurant. To this day, my brother watches me carefully when we dine together.

:: Octogen & the Steamer ::

October 15, 2006

As a young boy, I had lots of colds, and laryngitis and pharyngitis, words I still can’t spell without looking them up. The treatment for all of these was the same, and it did not involve wonder drugs.

First, my mother gave me an aspirin tablet. I chewed aspirin because I did not like swallowing pills, and I grew to like the taste. Bayer had the best flavor. Aspergum was good, too, with its orange candy coating sweet to the tongue and its first bitter crunch.

Next, Mom slathered my chest with Octogen, a green salve from a white glass jar. Within seconds, my chest warmed and my head filled with billows of camphor, eucalyptus and menthol, with a heady top note of turpentine. This was medicine that smelled like it had some cure in it.

Then Mom plugged in the steamer. Taller than a tea kettle, it was made of some dull silver metal, with a conical spout and a black wooden knob riveted to its dented lid. The bottom quarter housed a heating element, and the top three quarters held about a quart of water. Mom would pour in water from a glass measuring cup and go back to her housework.

I communed with the steamer for hours, listening to the water warm up, a soft squeaking, moaning, hissing sound that worked itself up to a quiet roar, watching the jet of steam broaden into a cloud over my bed. I remember the smell if the water got too low, a cooking, burning smell. I’d call my mother and she’d come with more water, the steamer hissing as she poured it in, and then starting its climb to the boiling point again. I enjoyed the steamer.

That was about 55 years ago, but the sounds and smells remain vivid. I imagined that Octogen had gone the way of the Pierce-Arrow, but to my delight, I found it on the Web the other day, for sale primarily as a heat rub for muscle soreness, made by the Octogen Pharmacal Company in Cumming, Georgia. Of course, I had to call, and a soft-spoken gentleman named Roy Sanders answered all my questions.

Octogen was developed by a physician named Austin W. Bender. Born in 1875 in Utica, New York, the son of a grocer, Dr. Bender practiced medicine in Utica and Buffalo. He hired a pharmaceutical company in Buffalo to prepare Octogen for him, and they shipped it in 50-gallon steel drums to his home in Utica. There, in the basement, he packaged it in jars. Imagine what the Bender home smelled like; Mrs. Bender must have been a saintly woman. When the Dr. Bender died, his heirs, possibly having had enough of camphor and eucalyptus, sold the formula and rights to the current owner, Roy Sanders. He had known about Octogen for years: His first job out of school was mixing up Octogen at the Buffalo company that supplied Dr. Bender. The day Roy heard the company was for sale, he flew from Atlanta to Buffalo with his checkbook.

Octogen does not advertise, and years ago someone spread the rumor that the company was dead, but the product continues to sell based on the testimonials of faithful users. The primary buyers are trainers for athletic teams; the New York Yankees are among 35 baseball clubs that buy “the green stuff” by the case. Hockey and football teams also swear by Octogen.

In addition to camphor, menthol and eucalyptus, the original formula includes thyme, cedar leaf, and Siberian pine needles. The green color comes from chlorophyll. Roy admits that finding all the ingredients for the original formula can be a challenge, but one the company meets successfully. If you do not frequent the New York Yankees’ training room, you can order Octogen over the phone by the case. I did. I just had to smell it again.

 :: Monkeyshines ::

November 3, 2005

My father’s anger with me may have had its origins in 1828. As a child, I did not understand his rage. And my father’s language was no help.

“I’ve had enough of your monkeyshines!” he would shout. I am sure I looked at him dumbly, mouth open, eyes empty of understanding. What in the world were monkey shines? Monkeys that shined like the sun? Monkeys that polished shoes? I was trying to sort that riddle out when I was supposed to be stopping some bad behavior or doing something else entirely.

“I’m not going to tell you again!” he would shout, and I’d think, good, I was getting tired of hearing about it. And then he would tell me again.

“Go look at the porch,” he said one winter night, when he was expecting a client. It was a mysterious request, but I was nothing if not obedient. I went out and looked at the porch. There it was. It was cold outside, so I closed the door and returned to whatever I was doing. Ten minutes later the client arrived and tracked in snow. My father grabbed me and hissed, “I told you to look at the porch!” I said, trembling, “I looked at the porch.” He said, “It’s covered in snow!” And I whimpered, “Yes it is.” I later learned I was supposed to see if there was snow on the porch and, if there was, shovel it clean, but my original instructions said nothing about that.

“I’ll tan your hide,” he said. I understood that one. It had to do with animal hides being made into leather for things like belts which in turn came down on the bare bottoms of children in a manner which brought to mind the tanning process.

Today, for some reason, I thought I would sort out monkeyshines once and for all, and determine, better late than never, just what it was I was doing wrong all those years. Apparently, I was engaging in pranks or capers, in monkey-like antics. The word first appeared in 1828, at a time when an increasing number of monkeys were being imported from Africa for American zoos and circuses, and the little animals’ tree-swinging behavior was amusing the public. Even if I’d known that as a child, I doubt if it would have been much help.

 :: Elephant Lake ::

This postcard brought back memories from one of my family’s earliest vacations, in the summer of 1951 I would guess, when I was four years old. First, this is Elephant Lake exactly as I remember it, with the barn-like structure next to the dock, and the main lodge building on the edge of the woods, with cabins nearby.

In the main lodge, there was a dart board. My brother threw a dart that missed the board and hit another boy in the leg. On the dock, I was bitten on the shoulder by a horsefly, the first I had ever seen, and blood ran down my arm. In a wood pile outside the lodge, chipmunks had built a home. They were my first chipmunks, and I was fascinated by them, and terribly upset when someone removed the woodpile and the chipmunks went away.

But mostly, I remember almost drowning. The water in Elephant Lake was murky and the bottom was slick, either with clay or algae, I don’t know which. I couldn’t swim, but I loved the water, and I was wading, splashing around, with the water about up to my chest. My mother was about 10 feet closer to shore, in up to her knees. Suddenly, I slipped and fell down, and found myself sitting on the bottom with my head under water. I tried to stand up, but I slipped again, my feet flying out from under me. Every time I tried to stand up, I slipped before I could get my head above the water. I remember the pain in my chest, and my fear, slipping and falling again and again, my eyes wide open, seeing brown green and my own flailing arms. On about my fifth try, I got my feet under me, I did not slip and I stood up, gasping, probably crying. I saw my mother and I reached out to her, and she said, “Where did you go!”

I remember the anger on her face. I wanted to be held and reassured; I had been so frightened. She led me out of the water and scolded me for disappearing. We never went back to Elephant Lake, which was fine with me.

:: Asparagus ::

January 21, 2008

 I believe most children have a least favorite vegetable, one that is remembered long into adulthood as something fearsome and repellent. For me, it was asparagus. Not the crisp stalks from Bon Appetit, bathed in olive oil, sautéed with garlic, served with a squeeze of lemon. No. Everyone in our family boiled asparagus until it was droopy and squishy, but still stringy. And the asparagus flavor, bitter yet somehow rank, was front and center. The squishiness made it worse, and the stringiness meant you couldn’t get it down quickly. You had to chew and chew, and all the while that smell filled your head.

My heart sank when asparagus appeared on the table. Now, if I had a different family, my parents might have coaxed me by showing me a print of Adriaen Coorte’s “Still Life (Asparagus)” painted in 1697 and hanging in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, or perhaps Edouard Manet’s “The Asparagus” and “Bunch of Asparagus,” both painted in 1880, as examples of how asparagus has inspired artists. Or they might have read aloud from Marcel Proust, who in Swann’s Way wrote, “My greatest pleasure was asparagus, tinged ultramarine and pink which shaded off from their heads, finely stripped in mauve and azure, through a series of imperceptible gradations to their feet  still stained a little by the soil of their garden-bed  with an iridescence that was not part of this world.” Or Proust’s comment that asparagus transformed his chamber pot into a vessel of perfume. What little boy wouldn’t want funny smelling pee? And just possibly, as a clincher, a very understanding father might have mentioned asparagus’s reputation as a fortifier of virility, while my mother smiled and blushed.

Not at my house. And not at my grandmother’s house either, where asparagus and I came together for one last titanic clash. It was a family dinner, an occasion where I was usually safe from any dinner table discipline, but Grandma Braun served asparagus, on a little plate to the side, and I finished my meal without touching it. As everyone else rose to leave the table, and the plates were cleared, my father told me to sit back down. He sat down on my right and put his left arm over the back of my chair. He pulled the little plate directly in front of me. With his curled index finger, he pointed to the asparagus and said, “You eat that.”

I picked up my fork and tried to cut off a bite-sized piece. The stalk squashed flat under the tine, but would not cut. I rocked the fork back and forth until the last of the fibers gave way. I put the piece into my mouth, chewed for as long as I could stand the taste and swallowed. I swallowed hard, but not hard enough. About halfway down, the severed stalk stopped, quivered for a moment, and then the waves reversed, the asparagus began to rise up, coming faster and faster until I choked, gagged and the brownish green spear leapt out of my wide open mouth. To my credit, I hit the plate. The asparagus made a “plink” noise, ringing the china like a little bell.

As I tried to catch my breath, tears in my eyes, my father shouted, “This is ridiculous!” And then I heard the voice of mercy, “Keith,” my mother said. That was all she had to say. And my father stood up and stormed away. The plate was cleared. I was allowed to get up and leave the table. I went as far away from my father as I could go. No one ever served me asparagus again.

:: Just Being Polite ::

October 16, 2005

I grew up in Kenmore, N.Y., a suburb of Buffalo, in comfortable but modest circumstances. We lived in the lower flat of a two-family home on Englewood Avenue; there were two bedrooms and one bathroom; it wasn’t a mansion, but I was never hungry. My mother darned my father’s socks rather than buying new ones. We took one vacation a year, someplace you could drive to. But my father was an accountant, and through his clients we occasionally had a glimpse of another world.

The world of a smiling man named Al was one of my favorites; he owned the Your Host chain of restaurants in Buffalo, and once in a while we’d get to eat at the Royal Host, his flagship restaurant. The chef made things like hors d’oeuvres, something I’d never heard of, and lobster tails with melted butter, and once even a cheeseburger that arrived at the table on a fan of lettuce looking like a million bucks.

But it was an invitation to Al’s home for a summer day that was the real eye-opener. Al and his family lived in Buffalo in a beautiful home with a huge backyard, a green lawn that went way back to tall trees, a hidden park. And right next to the house was a swimming pool. In the ground, with a real diving board and a chrome ladder. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. I was probably about 12-years-old, and loved the water. I spent most of that day splashing and swimming.

Al’s daughter was about my age. She studied ballet; there was a mirror on the wall in the basement, with a wooden bar just like in real ballet studios. She swam all summer. When she dove, it was in one fluid motion, she just floated into the air, followed an invisible arc and disappeared into the water without a splash. She would swim underwater like a fish, and come up in a minute or so, not even gasping. I was in awe of her.

When it got dark out, she said, “Watch this.” She turned off the outside lights, flipped on the underwater lights, and the pool glowed like a pale, rippling sapphire. We dove in, and it was like diving into a star, into a huge burst of light, then coming up into the dark sky above. Ecstasy.

“Come back anytime,” Al’s wife said as we left, and in the car I asked my mother when we would be going back. “We’re not going back,” she said, “They were just being polite.” I thought about that all the way home.

 :: The Year of Living Famously ::

November 30, 2006

In the second grade, I was called out of class to meet someone from a local television program called “Fun to Learn.” There was a different kind of “Fun to Learn” on WBEN-TV every weekday at 5 p.m. Wednesday was “Fun to Learn about Art” and they needed a new round of artists. Somebody at Lindbergh School in Kenmore, N.Y., put in a good word for me, and I was selected to be the youngest in the new group of four. My star was on the rise.

The host, Dr. Howard Conant, was a very nice man, with a warm smile and a nice voice. He taught Art Education at Buffalo State Teachers College, and was genuinely interested in the possibilities for art education in the new medium of television. The studio was a basically a room with a television camera and three tables. We sat at the tables and made things.

Through the activities, Dr. Conant shared four basic principles: “Be creative! Think up your own ideas.” “Don’t copy.” “Make a collection of your best work.” “Be a neat and orderly worker.” (I’m a little spooked, looking back at those, at how they appear to have sunk in.)

I don’t recall having much of a sense of being on camera; I was just having fun, being with the other kids and Dr. Conant. I had a crush on Linda, but she was already aware of her blonde hair and telegenic features, and was shooting for bigger game. Carol, on the other hand, was very nice to me, as was Billy.

Fame had its rewards. I was invited to a birthday party in a far away neighborhood, for the son of one of my father’s clients. I remember mostly the home’s woodwork, which was beautiful. When I walked in the front door, someone shouted, “It’s the boy from TV.” We played, had cake, but mostly the other boys stared at me as if I was about to do something.

I was eventually cycled off “Fun to Learn,” but I’d caught the eye of someone at WBEN, and soon I was doing live television commercials during the Joe Palooka show on Saturday mornings. The sponsor was “Milk for Health on the Niagara Frontier” and my job was to do live 30-second commercials during the show, mostly drinking milk and smiling. For this, I received a princely sum, $7 for each appearance, about once a month. I was on my way.

My director was a man named Fred Keller. He would run me through my paces before each spot, and then give me silent direction from off-camera when we went live. Some weeks, things went well. In one set-up, I was a young boy playing, and then the announcer, a man named Virgil Booth, said, “Kihm’s big brother has made him a milk shake” and a large hairy arm entered the screen with a glass in its fist. I accepted the glass gratefully, smiled, drank and licked my lips, smiling again. I have to tell you, it was a really good milk shake, the best I’d had up to that point, so smiling was easy.

Other weeks, things did not go as well. Once, at the end of the thirty seconds, Mr. Keller was winking at me from off-camera. Again and again he winked. I thought, “He really likes me.” Afterwards, he reminded me that I was supposed to wink at the camera. I had forgotten.

Then there was the picnic. The beginning of the end. The set was a grass rug and a paper tree. They gave me an empty glass, and a shiny glass quart bottle of milk. I had small hands and could not hold the bottle with one hand, so I used two hands. The glass wobbled on the grass rug, and then, when it was half full, tumbled over, the milk gushing out onto the fake grass. I snatched the glass back up and steadied it while gripping the bottle in one trembling hand, and just got enough milk into the glass to drink, and smile. In school on Monday, my classmates informed me that I had spilled milk, just in case it had escaped my notice at the time.

On my next trip to WBEN, I wandered off during the show to look at the engineer’s booth. I remember being in a man’s lap looking at the big board of knobs and things when someone on the other side of the glass said something in the nature of, “Where the heck is the kid?!” The engineer said, “You’d better get in there.” Later, at home, my mother explained that I wouldn’t be going back. My career in television was over, and I was only seven years old. I had peaked too early.

By way of an epilogue, I was not done with Fred Keller, nor he with me. We met again in high school, when he came to Kenmore West to talk with the Humanities Club about the Theater of the Absurd. During my college years, in the 1960’s, Fred ran a barely profitable idealism called the Circle Art Theater in Buffalo, where I spend scores of summer evenings watching old films. I recall standing at the back of the theater with him one evening while Greta Garbo danced in front of a golden statue in Mata Hari. Fred smiled at me and said, “She couldn’t dance to save her ass.”

In the 1980’s, I was producing a lot of radio spots, and using Chameleon Studios in Buffalo. There came a day when I found myself directing Fred Keller, who, I neglected to mention, has one of the most wonderful voices I have ever heard, and the acting ability to make it work. Directing Fred, many times over the years, was a lovely closing of the circle.

* * *

My thanks to Gretchen Pearson for finding “Creative Art Activities in a Viewer-Participation Type Television Program” by Howard Conant, Art Education, Vol. 6, No. 1 (Jan., 1953), pp. 2-5;  “Art Education on TV” by George K. Stark, College Art Journal, Vol. 15, No. 2 (Winter, 1955), pp. 152-153; thanks also to Kim Ferullo and Alan Baumgartner of Chameleon Communications, and of course, to Dr. Conant and Fred Keller. Photo by Matthews. Taken at WBEN-TV on October 21, 1953. Left to right: Carol, Billy Spute, Dr. Howard S. Conant, Virgil Booth, Kihm Winship, Linda Bell.

* * *

 If you’ve read this far, I’ll tell you one more Fred Keller story, via Kim Ferullo. In the 1970’s, Fred had a theater in Williamsville and it burnt to the ground. Fred had no insurance, and he was pretty much wiped out. So he did what any other person in the same position would do. He moved to Paris. He was starving, but he had that wonderful voice, and he was fortunately able to find work, doing something he was born to do, dubbing French porn films into English. Sitting in a studio with a copy of King Lear in his lap, he dubbed in the panting male portions, while across from him sat a woman knitting an afghan for her granddaughter, who voiced the female parts. “Oh, Monique, yes, yes.” “Oh, Philippe, now, now.” Fred said the woman never missed a stitch. I’m sure the films were better for their participation.

 :: On Broadway ::

May 11, 2003

 Last Valentine’s Day, the coldest evening of the winter, Laurie and I went to the Springside Inn in Auburn for a warm evening’s entertainment with the Skaneateles Summer Theatre. Good food, lovely people, wonderful music. And as we listened to the performances, I was reminded again and again of how the theater was one of my mother’s greatest gifts to me.

One of many, of course. She taught me how to tie my shoelaces, how to thread a needle, how to boil water for tea. She shared with me her love of reading, and introduced me to the library. She tried to teach me how to roller skate and her shins paid a terrible price. She shared with me her love of chocolate, with more success. But one of her nicest gifts was the stage.

When I was a boy, Easter vacation was a time to ride the rails of the New York Central from Buffalo to New York City, and spend a week in the big city. The train trip itself was an adventure, with a scary glimpse of Sing Sing prison and a long look at the mothball fleet, rows of ships at anchor on the Hudson River. And then the arrival in Grand Central Station with its vast vaulted ceiling and throngs of travelers.

By day we shopped. Macy’s, Gimbel’s, Lord & Taylor for my mother. F.A.O. Schwartz, the Scribner’s and Brentanos bookstores for me. I bought the entire set of James Bond novels in paperback at Scribner’s one afternoon; the sales clerk, a lovely woman, smiled and said, “You’re going to have fun with those.” At night, I would watch old movies on the TV in the hotel room while my mother went to the theater — until I was judged old enough to appreciate the finer things.

Just stepping inside the theaters was magic. They were small and gilded, like jewel boxes. I would look at all the people, settle into my seat and read the Playbill, and when the house lights went down and the stage lights came up, I could not help but smile.

My first play was My Fair Lady, and what an introduction. By the third number, “Loverly,” I was in love. At the 54th Street Theater, we saw a George Bernard Shaw revival, Too True to Be Good, with Glynis Johns, Robert Preston, Cyril Richard, Cedric Hardwick and Lillian Gish, which was something of a triumph for my mother because she had never been allowed to go to Gish Sisters movies when she was a child — they were “too suggestive.”

At the Music Box, we saw Any Wednesday with Sandy Dennis, a play about a businessman and his mistress. She asks if he and his wife still make love. He says yes. Why? And he says, “Well… for the children.” And she says, “Do they watch?” My cousins and I, and almost everyone else in the audience, laughed out loud. My mother smiled quietly. My grandmother, who found the Gish Sisters too suggestive, glared at the actors.

We saw Camelot with Richard Burton as King Arthur, Robert Goulet as Lancelot and Julie Andrews as Guinevere. We had box seats right over the stage, and leaning forward during “The Lusty Month of May,” I almost tumbled headlong into the lusty maidens’ dancing cleavage. There was nothing like this in Buffalo.

We saw a young Alan Arkin in Enter Laughing, a young Robert Morse and an old Rudy Vallee in How to Succeed in Business without Really Trying, and a vintage John Mills in Ross.

We saw Mary Martin in The Sound of Music. That was Standing Room Only, so I stood, and didn’t mind at all. (And years later, when I had dinner with half of Firesign Theatre, I found that Phil Proctor was playing the young German soldier at that time, so dinner was our second meeting.) We saw Subways Are for Sleeping with Phyllis Newman, and I still can sing the first lines of the title song. I never saw a play I didn’t like.

My mother’s love of musicals extended to movie versions, and we saw South Pacific together, at a movie theater in downtown Buffalo. The evening at the Springside Inn opened with songs from South Pacific, and when I found myself silently mouthing the words, I knew exactly who to thank.

:: Sunrise at Schraft’s ::

April 15, 2003

My mother took Lent very seriously. One year, when I was a boy, we both gave up desserts, candy, even chocolate. For my mother, this was a significant piece of self-denial. But we both held the course. Near the end of the Lenten season, we went to New York City for a week of shopping, theater, sight-seeing, as we did many years at Easter time.

One evening near the end of our stay, Mom and I went to a play. But instead of grabbing a cab after the show and going straight back to the hotel, Mom suggested we take a walk. I said sure — what sheltered young boy would turn down a chance to stay out late and stroll among the lights of Broadway?

As we walked, we found ourselves in front of a Schraft’s candy and ice cream parlor. Mom said, “How would you like a hot fudge sundae?” I was shocked. “But Mom,” I said, “it’s Lent.”

“Yes,” she replied, “but at midnight it’s Easter.”

And so at about five minutes past twelve, I found myself in a booth at Schraft’s, looking at my mother across two enormous hot fudge sundaes. We dug in. “Pretty good, isn’t it,” Mom said. And I said, “Yes, it is.” And she said, “Happy Easter.”

And that was my Mom.

:: My Paper Route ::

February 2, 2005

I hated the paper route. It was a Courier Express route, the morning paper in Buffalo, published every day of the year. First it was my brother’s route, and when I was old enough I joined him, and then when he left, it became mine, without any discussion. My father helped me for quite a while. I think he wanted me to understand the value of making my own money, doing a good job, and was willing to spend his own time to keep me in the learning experience. He even had business cards printed for me.

But my first days were with my brother. The alarm went off at 5:30 a.m. It was dark out. You might ask how we could get up every morning at 5:30 a.m., and spend an hour delivering papers in all kinds of weather without any breakfast, 12 hours since our last meal. The answer is chocolate chip cookies. My mother made the best chocolate chip cookies (rivaled only by those made by my wife today) and there always seemed to be a ready supply in the cookie jar on the kitchen counter. When I apprenticed under my brother, he made it clear that two chocolate chip cookies were absolutely necessary for what we were about to do, but that we had to take them quietly, without letting the lid clatter, so we could deny any knowledge of where the four cookies had gone when we returned at 7 a.m. I have always hated lies and liars, but in retrospect, this seems to be one I told straight-faced every morning for years.

A delivery truck left the papers in the drive or in a green box by the side of our house. We would lift the bundles out and cut the wire with wire-cutters, folding up the wire and putting the papers in the paper bag or, on Sundays, the wooden wagon. Sections for the Sunday paper arrived earlier in the week, and we had to fold the sections together before we could deliver them. The paper bag had a flap to keep out the rain and snow. It was a heavy, canvas material, grimy with newsprint.

The bags full, we would walk around the block to Grimsby. The route had four streets: Grimsby, Grosvenor, Dorset and Devonshire. About 110 Sunday paper customers, 80 dailies. Grosvenor was a straight street with many beautiful tall trees that were beloved by hordes of starlings that crapped on us as we delivered the papers, a soft pattering sound like spring rain; you didn’t want to drag your feet on Grosvenor.

Dorset and Devonshire were curved streets that formed a nice loop, and Grimsby curved around at the base of all three streets, tying them together. It was down Grimsby to Grosvenor, up one side of Grosvenor and down the other back to Grimsby, down Grimsby to Dorset, criss-crossing up Dorset to the top of Devonshire, down Devonshire, back to Grimsby, and then walking with the empty paper bag through a small vacant lot back to Englewood and home.

Between the bag and one arm, I could carry all the daily papers from my house to the route. Thursday’s papers were full of advertising and very heavy; Saturday’s papers were blessedly thin. We had standards. We did not throw the newspapers. We always put them inside the door. We deftly folded the dailies so they would not open inside the door. I could fold one today in a second, with my eyes closed.

The route was filled with people who lived in nicer homes than our own. Some people were even rich. One man owned a Buick dealership. Another was a contractor who specialized in paving streets for the city of Buffalo. His name was Mr. Schmidt. One morning I delivered his Courier Express and he took it to work and held it up in front of his face when a Courier Express photographer tried to take his picture to illustrate an article on indictments in a “paving probe.” The next morning, I delivered his Courier Express and on the front page was his picture holding up his Courier Express from the morning before. It is one of my favorite memories.

Another man owned a company called Keystone Chromium and had a big house, and another house in his backyard, for entertaining. We thought that was so cool. His neighbor lived in a big house too, and one Sunday, when I had a sprained ankle, I pulled the paper wagon up to his house about 30 minutes later than my usual time, and he came out and said, “What paper is this? Is this tomorrow’s paper??” And then he stormed back up his driveway, muttering, while I limped away.

One of our customers (side door/Sunday/daily) had a front yard surrounded by a low hedge and filled entirely with ground cover, the leaves rolling up over the stumps of old trees like waves on the ocean, a rolling green sea. I loved looking at it every morning. Even in the winter it was fascinating, the snow drifts changing, shifting, the early light casting shadows from the trees on the rising and falling, unbroken whiteness.

I daydreamed a lot. Most mornings I returned home with no memory of having been out, just of whatever had crossed my mind. Thus, when someone called and said that I hadn’t delivered their paper, all I could say was that I would bring one over. “Don’t you remember delivering it?!” my father would shout. No, I didn’t remember anything. I do remember now one such incident on Grimsby, first house we delivered to, calling at 7 a.m. and demanding their newspaper. A week later I was collecting, and the man laughed and said, “Hey, sorry about the paper the other day. I took it upstairs to read, dropped it behind the bed, and my wife thought you hadn’t delivered it!” And then he laughed and laughed. I went home and told my father, and he said, “Oh.”

Animals were up before the people. I remember a home with a Siamese cat, the first I’d ever seen, or heard. Blue eyes, and a yowl that was human. A reddish chow with a mean streak, perhaps at the Ferguson’s, but I never had to flee. I saw earthworms mating; I stayed on the flagstones in that yard.

We saw a different side of life on the paper route. My brother recalls “a kid urinating through the screen on the 2nd floor.” What delights me about that memory is not that the boy was pissing out the window, but that he was pissing through the screen.

My brother also recalls a Mr. Gelman. “He lived on Dorset,” he writes, “about half way down on the right hand side. Had a new Packard with the adjustable ride height. Don’t be late with Mr Gelman’s.”

Our route was Z-52, and our supervisor was Mr. Van Leaven, a WWII vet who said his blood had been thinned by his service in the South Pacific. I remember him shivering at our kitchen table, still in his hat and coat. He would come to our home to collect the money for the papers; whatever was leftover I could keep. On a good week, I would make about $10. But I was always behind in my collecting. People who didn’t answer the door, didn’t hear the doorbell, didn’t have $2.48 and hey, could I come back next week, and of course I could. I was not a very intimidating figure. In the seventh grade, I weighed 65 pounds. Nor did I have a forceful personality or an upbeat attitude.

When we added a new customer, or dropped one, we had to call and say, “This is Z-52. Add one daily,” or whatever. I hated to make the phone calls because I was afraid of adults, even on the telephone. I grew up thinking that my father must be the mildest of men, because he loved me. And because he terrified me, all the other men had to be much more angry and terrifying. So I was afraid of the telephone, afraid of strangers, afraid to talk to any grownup. If I was short a paper, it would be days before I could work up the courage to telephone a strange man at the Courier and order another. I remember one Sunday morning riding my bicycle to Delaware Road to find a store open early where I could buy two Sunday papers to deliver to the last two houses on my route. I made the mistake of enjoying the ride, and was informed that the following Sunday, “I COULD WALK.” Caught between the terror of the unknown man at the newspaper and the known terror of my father, I called on Monday and Z-52 added two Sundays.

In Buffalo, you get to enjoy all four seasons, which is a real estate agent’s way of telling an out-of-town buyer that winter is brutal and the other seasons are so brief that you really have to enjoy them or go wild with despair. I don’t remember heat, or rain, or wind, but I do remember the snow. I remember a morning when the snow was thigh-deep, and I had to pick up each leg all the way on every step, while the paper bag dragged along next to me on the surface of the snow. I got home about 8 o’clock that day; it was light out, and my parents greeted me with the good news that the schools were closed. They seemed happy to see me.

Collecting was the worst. As I was taught, I staggered the collecting so I didn’t have to visit every customer every week. I would ask for $2.48, and they would pay me, and I would tear off a little row of white receipts from the perforated sheet and say “Thank you.” Most of the time, they would give me $2.50 and say, “Keep the change.” But there was one man who insisted on the two pennies, and got very surly if he suspected I was going to try to sneak away with his money.

I had a silver coin changer I inherited from my brother and wore on my belt, and I could dispense quarters and dimes and nickels and pennies with great facility. But it required bare hands, even in the winter, and that was no fun. One dark, cold, windy, winter evening, I rang a doorbell and the man came to the porch and opened the door. I said, “Courier Express, two-forty-eight.” And he said, “I’ll be right back.” He closed the door. I stood out in the dark and cold for about five minutes, not wanting to anger a grownup by ringing the bell again, but finally giving in. The door opened again and he laughed out loud, and said, “Hey, I forgot about you!” Then he closed the door again.

I hated asking people for money. And in many cases, I hated looking into people’s lives. One home was nauseating. One night it reeked of wine. Another night, the young son answered the door with his face smeared with blueberry pie; I almost vomited. Another evening, I was asked into the front hall, looked up the stairs and at the top stood the 300-lb. father, nude, holding a white towel in one hand, his privates swaying beneath a swag of paunch, an image from the primate house at the zoo.

Another woman drank red wine and played a huge Hammond organ in her living room. I could see her playing, her eyes closed, through the screen door. If she was really into the music, I could not rouse her with the door bell and would have to come back another night.

I did get a break once. One of the dour, gray-suited vice-principals at our school was, surprisingly, married to a young beauty. They had a pool, and one summer evening his wife answered the door wearing a red bathing suit and a little robe over her shoulders. “Courier Express, two forty eight,” I said, and she smiled warmly. I thought I would die from happiness, which was going to be infinitely better than dying from the cold.

But mostly the collecting nights were hard for me, house after house of people who were rarely delighted to see me. A home I didn’t really want to go home to. Any freedom too far away in the future to imagine. One winter night in Buffalo, during a snowstorm, I walked down the middle of Devonshire with my eyes closed and prayed to God to send a car to run me down and kill me. I walked the length of the street with my eyes closed, but no deliverance came.

On the bright side, every Christmas the Courier Express would print a calendar that the paperboys gave to their customers, hinting that this was a good time to tip the paperboy for a year of early morning deliveries. Some of our customers did not take the hint, and said, “Oh, thanks.” Others gave us a dollar, or two dollars, and a few princes among men gave us — and we loved these princes — five dollars. The man who owned the Buick dealership, five dollars. Mr. Schmidt, the paving contractor, five dollars. I must have looked up at these men like a choirboy gazing up at Jesus. I know I heard music. In a good year, we could clear $100 from the calendars, a fortune, a windfall of loaves & fishes proportions.

The last year I had the route, when its presence in my life meant I could not participate in any high school activities because I spent my evenings collecting, I was finally allowed to quit. I was very happy. The replacement to whom I agreed to pass on the route said he would give me half of the calendar money. His father, however, got wind of this and complained to Mr. Van Leaven, who knew of these informal agreements but could not condone them openly. So I lost the calendar money, but I had my freedom. And happily, most of my customers stiffed the new kid, and instead of $100, he cleared less than $20. He complained to me bitterly at school. I was not sincere in my condolences.

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