Monday, February 28, 2011

True stories of a real Mad Man: The Japanese account disaster

True stories of a real Mad Man. The Japanese account disaster.

Before the Palm Pilot and the PC, there was the electromechanical desktop calculator.  It was clunky, loud and the size of a Buick.  Monroe and Freiden were the big brands.  Our agency, Grey was working on a top-secret assignment from the American subsidiary of Sharp Electronics-- a pocket sized, battery operated, portable calculator that would perform complex statistical tasks in seconds.  Glowing red numbers appeared magically in a small window.

The agency team had been working for months on a campaign to introduce this technological marvel to American businesses.  Our client was an American who was recruited by Sharp to run the US company.  But nameless and faceless people mysteriously made the real decisions in Tokyo.

Our American client loved the new campaign.  It was a no holds barred comparison of the nimble, silent and hand held wonder to the clumsy, slow and noisy American machines.  Side by side photos illustrated the superiority of the new device.  Blunt copy hammered home the message that the gray metal contraptions occupying half the desk space in offices were a thing of the past.

It was a no brainer!  One look at this magical device would make the sale.  Case closed.

Word came that Mr. Ichihashi, President of the Japanese company, was touring the US offices and wanted to come to New York to meet the agency.  We were to be the last stop on his American tour before heading to the airport for the long flight back to Tokyo.  Great, everyone thought.  Timing couldn't be better.  We'll show him the new ad campaign over a sumptuous lunch in the agency's elegant executive dining room.

A week before his arrival, a package came to the agency containing forty rolls of film.  Pictures taken by Mr. Ichihashi of his American tour.  Would the agency arrange to have these developed so he could bring them home?

Mr. Ichihashi and his entourage arrived at the appointed time and were greeted in the lobby of the building by the agency's top brass with much fanfare and bowing.  Whisked off in an express elevator to the executive floor, the group ate heartily while awkward efforts at conversation were attempted through an interpreter.

The dishes were cleared and the ads were brought in.  Large color reproductions had been produced to show the campaign in the most dramatic fashion.  One by one the ads were revealed; the copy read slowly by the creative director and translated into Japanese, line by line. 

Mr. Ichihashi listened intently, nodding occasionally. When the presentation was finished, Mr. Ichihashi turned to his American executive and made a brief statement.  Out of earshot of the agency the interpreter whispered the translation of this statement to the American.

His face turned beet red. He whispered something back, looking shell-shocked.  The translator turned to Mr. Ichihashi and spoke in Japanese.  This game of bi-lingual whispering went on for a few more minutes when, sensing trouble, the agency president interjected, "What 's going on?"

The translator said:  "Mr. Ichihashi says you lose account."

Dumbfounded, the agency president asked "why?"

"He says that it would cause him to lose face in Japan to run ads that were so insulting to competitors," the American explained.

The agency man pleaded his case, "Did you tell him that's the way things are done in America?"

"I've been trying to tell him that for the past five minutes, but he's not buying it," came the response.

Then, with a full stomach and a brief bow of thanks, Mr. Ichihashi picked up his forty rolls of pictures and returned to Tokyo.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

My first three star meal. Paris, 1969 La Tour D'argent

My first three star meal.  Paris, 1969  La Tour D'argent.

Stars in my eyes, Ellen and I entered this temple of dining with a feeling of reverence. I had booked a month in advance and requested a table with a view of Notre Dame. We were greeted by an elegant man in a tux, taken to a lovely elevated table, and then greeted again by Claude Terrail. I had decided that quenelles and pressed duck would be the meal, and we added another app (probably something with foie gras). Ellen does not drink wine, so I selected three half bottles, a white burg, a red burg. and a Bordeaux. I'd lie if I said I remembered which ones, but they were very good.

The room was magical, and the view of the cathedral, lit up by the restaurant, was truly awesome. The quenelles were light as air and in a delicious sauce. I remember the white had good acidity and was a match for this course. The pressed duck was, of course, a ritual. We were shown the bird, given its numbered tag and served in two courses. We watched the duck being pressed and the blood and juices running into a silver cup below. 

The meal was good, but not having any standards of comparison, I can't be objective except to say the tastes were delicious. The service was amazing. 

As we left, we entered a small elevator with the walls covered in red plush. The doors slid open, and instead of being in the lobby, we were in a wine cellar. A man with a tastevin greeted us, and led a tour though the twisting museum of meals and bottles that, to a neophyte wine collector, was a mind-boggling event. I'll never forget it and can see it clearly in my mind's eye. 

The carte is huge, so the scan does not do full justice to its "majesty."

Jazz, Beer and Tear Gas. A fantasy up in smoke.

Jazz, Beer and Tear Gas. A fantasy up in smoke.

©Joel Baumwoll

I got into jazz when I was sixteen, in 1956.  Elvis was over for me already.  I think Count Basie was responsible.  His rendition of April In Paris hit the top of the charts that year, and the swinging arrangement was irresistible.  Thad Jones and Joe Newman’s trumpets and Benny Powell’s trombone sang to me, and I wanted more.  Already a fan of Glenn Miller and his classic 1940s big band swing, Basie was whole new ballgame.
I played the Verve LP of Basie’s so many times on my Sears Silvertone “hifi”  that the needle worked its way through the vinyl. And I was a sucker for Basie’s three endings-- “one more time” and play it just one more once.”
Joe Williams, recording of “Every day I have the blues,” became another of my anthems, and soon I lusted after more jazz, as Rock and Roll began to lose its grip on me.  Music in 1956 was heard on LPs and the radio.  AM radio was full of syrupy Patti Page, Pat Boone and Doris Day, but gutsy black R&B and hip jazz were to be found on a new medium, FM radio. 
Disc jockeys with cool names held me captive in the late night hours.  Jazbo Collins, Symphony Sid, (the “all night, all frantic one”) and a melodramatic DJ who called himself “Jock-O” played Olatungi and his Drums of Passion, Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, Horace Silver, the totally cool Modern Jazz Quartet well into the early morning hours. 
An exotic FM station, WBAI, was sponsored by listeners, and played avant guard stuff, including Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” and “Krap’s Last Tape,” bebop of Coltrane, Miles and Gillespie, the zany Goon Show from England, and social critics like Julius Lester and Larry Josephson.  I remember Lester mocking a New York Times ad from some Fifth Avenue store with the headline “Is this the day you do something dramatic about your ice bucket?”  He wondered if the folks living on the hot air grates and picking through garbage cans for food were worried about their ice bucket.  I was becoming socially aware and an anti-capitalist critic.
In 1956, I heard a fantastic cut from a vocal group that sang lyrics written for specific instrumental solos.  I was immediately smitten with Lambert Hendricks and Ross. Their new album, “The Hottest New Group In Jazz” took pride of place on my Silvertone.  I sang along to Annie Ross, Dave Lambert or Jon Hendricks as they sped through “Cloudburst,”  “Bijou” and Annie’s funny “Twisted.” (“My analyst told me, that I was right out of my mind…”)
By the time I was eighteen, I did my best to look and act like a “bohemian.”  I grew a beard, smoked a pipe, and made my way to the jazz clubs of Greenwich Village as often as I could scrape up the money.  The Morristown Daily Record even did a story about two of us freshman at Fairleigh Dickinson who had grown beards over the spring break.  It actually made the front page, with a photo and the headline “Fairleigh students strike a bohemian theme.”  I guess in 1959 Morristown, this was big news. 
Next day, I got several phone calls from men who wanted to get to know me better.  Instinct told me to ignore them.
I lived with my parents in an isolated summer community in north Jersey called White Meadow Lake.  Bereft of action in the cold winter months, and not being able to afford room and board at college, I commuted to Fairleigh Dickinson in Madison. I spent weekends working in M. Epstein’s, an upscale department store in Morristown, selling men’s clothing to the wealthy shoppers who lived in nearby towns.
Greenwich Village was an exotic place to me, with its dark, smokey clubs and hipsters with their cool talk.  I was a fan of a radio monologist, Jean Shepherd, who, in his nightly program, talked directly to me in an intimate way.  He became my mentor into the world of cool.  “Shep” as we called him, was a truth teller, and he made us see the hypocrisy in the “adult” world with his stories and anecdotes.  He called his listeners “night people” and we were like a secret society, with our own form of decoder rings.  “Excelsior, you fathead” was a common Shep greeting, and “keep your knees loose” was an oft-given piece of advice.  Shep lived in the Village and played cool jazz in the backgrounds of his early all-night show.
In Manhattan, we’d often go to Prexy’s, a hamburger joint that was a sponsor of his.  Their slogan was “The hamburger with the college education.” Conspiratorially, we’d whisper “excelsior” to the counter man, and were supposed to get a free order of fries.  Mostly they’d look at us like we were nut cases and just shrug.  Every once in a while, a hip waiter would bring a platter to the table with the secret salute returned under his breath.
I drove nearly an hour from Rockaway to East Orange to see “films” (not movies) in an “art theater” called the Ormont. “The Bicycle Thief,” “400 Blows,” a raft of depressing post-war Italian films, and an occasional obscure Swedish movie (“Wild Strawberries”) that showed naked women making love, drew us back at least monthly. 
“Black Orpheus” was one film that I remember vividly, with its samba and bossa nova rhythms, the music of Jobim and Bonfa, the beautiful Marpessa Dawn and the tragic story of Orpheo and Eurydice, set in Rio’s carnival. The melodies of the soundtrack still haunt me, especially the chanting Manha de Carnival, and A Felicidade.  At the end, two preadolescent lovers starting the saga over again, singing the Samba de Orfeu, was enchanting.  I still listen to this music, over forty years later, with undiminished emotion. 
In the spring of 1960, we were drawn to East Orange to see a film with the title “Jazz on a Summer’s Day.”  The movie had a lot of “buzz” in the world of jazz.  I had no idea what it was about, except that it was a documentary, filmed at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958. 
Well, little did I know what was in store for me!  For the next eighty-five minutes, I was transfixed and transported to a world I wanted to be in.
Bert Stern and Aram Avakian had captured a magical moment.  The setting, amid the sparkling ocean and white sands of Newport Rhode Island was entrancing.  Scenes of beautiful blond young women lounging about on the decks of white yachts caught my fancy like no Ralph Lauren ad could ever do.  And the music!  The music was a banquet of the best that the world of jazz could serve up in 1958.
Here were Jimmy Guiffre, (playing “Train in the River,” one of my favorites); Thelonious Monk, Sonny Stitt, George Shearing, Anita O’Day (incredible), Dinah Washington, Chico Hamilton, Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Big Maybelle, Mahalia Jackson, Bob Brookmeyer, Chuck Berry (!!), Buck Clayton, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Holiday, Carmen McCrae, Eric Dolphy, Art Farmer, Terry Gibbs, Max Roach, Jo Jones, Jim Hall, Urbie Green, Bill Crow and many others.
As the musicians played, the camera wandered over the audience, the town, the beaches and the musicians.  The enthusiasm of the fans was transferred to the audience in the theater.  It was like being there!
The highlight of the 1956 festival was Duke Ellington’s performance a composition called “Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue.” Ellington told the audience that the diminuendo and the crescendo would be separated by a tenor sax solo by Paul Gonsalves.  It made jazz history.
One jazz fan’s description of what happened:
“The piece starts with a several minutes of standard-issue Ellingtonia, that is, Duke setting the stage with four jumping choruses on piano before the ensemble rolls in to fortify the main theme. After two more choruses by the Duke and with a rollicking beat being laid down by bassist Jimmy Woode and drummer Sam Woodyard, Paul Gonsalves finally steps forward to perform his most memorable solo. Gonsalves' segment begins conventionally enough and his first few choruses could have been played by any number of tenor players from this era.
Traditionally, three or four choruses by even the most notable soloist would be plenty for an Ellington composition, but this would not be the case at Newport. It was somewhere around Gonsalves' sixth steaming chorus that the crowd began to sense something special was occurring and it was during his seventh go-round that a sophisticated lady (a platinum blonde in a black evening dress, as the legend goes) jumped up from her box seat and began dancing wildly to the rocking rhythm. Bear in mind that the festival was a somewhat elegant event and the commotion caused by Gonsalves' tour de force had the Newport police security more than just a little concerned.
By this time, most the crowd (7000 strong) was on their feet and cheering. Eight, 12, 15 muscular choruses and Gonsalves still showed no signs of slowing down. At the very foot of the stage, Jo Jones (former Basie drummer who was appearing at Newport with Teddy Wilson) was pounding out his unbridled enthusiasm with a rolled up copy of the Christian Science Monitor.
Still being backed by just bass, drums and an occasional piano fill by the Duke, Gonsalves reared back even harder and played on. Veteran Ellington bandmates like Johnny Hodges, Cat Anderson and Harry Carney were shouting their own, special encouragement as Paul Gonsalves soldiered through a grand total of 27 straight, groovin' choruses.”
Familiar with this legendary performance, I was hoping to see Ellington go for a repeat. But alas, it was not to be.
However, I left the theater that spring evening promising myself that I was going to the Newport Jazz Festival in July, to have my own Jazz on a Summer’s day.  As much as eighteen year-old who did not know what he was going to do from one day to the next could make a plan, Newport in July was on the books.  Two of my buddies, Pete Tannen and Bill Bloete, Shep fans, sports car aficionados and jazz nuts decided we would go.  My cousin Roz’ parents had a cottage in Barrington Beach, not far from Newport, which we were invited to use for sleeping.  I counted the days from April to July with mounting excitement. 
Every spare dollar I made went into a pile for Newport.  The fantasy of the movie played in my head as we drove to Newport.  I don’t recall whose car we took, but it could have been my red 1960 Saab, the one with the two-cycle engine that required oil to be mixed with the gas, like some lawnmower or outboard engine.  But it was, at least a foreign car, which set us apart from the mopes that drove the uncool Detroit behemoths.
We arrived at my cousin’s beach cottage to a rousing reception from Roz and a few of her girlfriends.  The plan was for Roz and I to share a bed, and my friends to bunk on couches and other beds.  Why we made this quasi-incestuous arrangement, I don’t know, but I don’t recall objecting.
Roz had decorated her room with a huge pyramid of empty beer cans, which we immediately proceeded to extend in all directions.  Naraganset was the local brew, an exotic lager with a photo of a sailboat on label.  Somehow, it was more exciting than drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon or Ballantine, my usual brand of suds.
The plan was to drink a few six packs, eat some food and make our way to downtown Newport.  Luckily, Roz had purchased tickets for the first day’s concert, and we figured we’d buy the next two days’ events when we got to Freebody Park, the ramshackle stadium where the concerts were held.
I discovered several years later that there was an uneasy relationship between the upper crust town and the Festival.  The merchants, restaurants and hotels loved it, but the tony folks who summered in Newport were not happy with the hordes of unruly hipsters and beer guzzling kids that swarmed into the town every year, creating traffic jams, making noise to all hours and having sex on the beach at night.  That one of their own, Elaine Lorrillard, was a main sponsor of the festival, and an ardent jazz fan, did not help matters.
We had not counted on the huge throng that came to Newport, owing to the growing popularity of jazz and the impact of Bert Stern’s documentary.  Apparently, thousands of people left the movie theaters after seeing the film with the same idea as I had, and the result was that tickets were in short supply, traffic was bumper to bumper and tempers of the local police were frayed.
The first night was marked by some fantastic music and marred by a torrential downpour.  I sat huddled under the shelter of sodden newspapers and listened to Gerry Mulligan, Diz, and Louis Armstrong with great enthusiasm, as only a half-drunk eighteen year-old, experiencing a rare time of total freedom from parental oversight could do. 
Louis Armstrong closed the place down with a rousing rendition of “Saints,” joined by an energetic audience who yelled for more.
John Wilson, The New York Times Jazz critic reported on the events.
HEAVY RAIN SOAKS NEWPORT THRONG; 8,500 Brave Downpour to Hear Gillespie, Armstrong and Mulligan Groups
By JOHN S. WILSON Special to The New York Times.
July 3, 1960, Sunday
NEWPORT, R.I., July 2 -- The fortitude and devotion of the 8,500 persons who heard last night's Newport Jazz Festival program at Freebody Park was put to a severe test by a drenching rain that began before the concert started and was still pouring down when it ended.
After the concert, we filed out and pushed into the nearest tavern.  It was crammed to the walls with wet and thirsty kids, many of whom were drinking foamy pitchers of Naraganset without bothering to pour it into glasses.  Much to my cousin’s annoyance, I scoped out the room for good looking chicks, and slithered and squeezed through the throng to get within earshot of one or two, hoping to find one who I could spend the rest of the evening with, slaking our thirsts for beer and romance.
I have no memory of how we got back to the cottage at Barrington Beach, but I woke up in the early afternoon smelling of stale beer, cigarette smoke and perfume.  A willowy blond was next to me, still in deep sleep.  It must have been a hell of an evening.
Breakfast of more Naraganset and doughnuts, and off we went to get tickets to the next concert.  We managed to cadge some of the last available seats before “Sold Out” signs went up at the box office.  I read later that 15,000 people were inside the stadium listening to the concert, while another several thousand outside began to protest.  Beer drinking kids started to throw empty cans and bottles at police and the lid came off.
Inside, unaware of what was going on outside, we heard the music of Horace Silver, Lambert Hendricks and Ross, the Oscar Peterson Trio, Ray Charles, Dakotah Staton, Harry “Sweets” Edison, and George Auld. 
By the time the concert ended at 1:30 AM, a full scale riot was ultimately ended by uniformed National Guard troops, firing tear gas grenades and breaking up clusters of kids that looked threatening.  The streets were full of broken glass, uniformed National Guard patrolled in jeeps. At one point, we climbed a fence and sat on a tree branch to get away from the melee and smoke of tear gas that hung close to the ground.
Making our way back to Barrington, we ended the evening in a less boisterous fashion, and figured we’d get up very early to get tickets to the next day’s concert.  It was not to be.
Newport Jazz Festival Closed Because of Rioting
By JOHN S. WILSON Special to The New York Times.
July 4, 1960, Monday
NEWPORT, R. I., July 3 -- The remaining performances of the Newport Jazz Festival were canceled today by a 4-to-3 vote of the Newport City Council. The action followed a battle last night between a crowd of several thousand persons outside Freebody Park, where the festival was being held, and the state, naval and local police.
Hearing this, we decided that there was no point in hanging around, so we packed into the SAAB and headed back to Rockaway.  The excitement of the weekend was still with us, but somehow, Jazz on a Summer’s Day did not turn out to be the magical experience that my fantasy promised.
As I got older, I learned that fantasies rarely panned out, and often went up in smoke.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

My brush with atomic death

My Brush with Atomic Death 

Or, Duck and cover.

© Joel Baumwoll

Most of us don’t think about death in a literal sense, until we are pretty far along in years. I doubt that anyone has looked into the jaws of total annihilation and talks much about it.


But if you’ve had the experience of believing you and everyone you know was about to be obliterated, completely, totally and utterly, you don’t forget how it felt.   

When I was a stripling of fourteen, my life revolved around school, after school and weekends.  After school afternoons were spend at DonEl’s; a classic “candy store” on Bloomfield Avenue, about six blocks from Hillside Junior High School in the leafy village of Montclair, New Jersey.
Candy stgore

In a scene that set the stage for “Happy Days,” ten or twelve of us would pile into booths, shouting orders to El, who knew from long practice what each of us would have.  Nickels went into the jukebox and refrains of the Penguins’, “Earth Angel” or the Moonglows’, “Sincerely” floated into the air like thick chocolate syrup.  

We’d mouth the sounds we’d sung and heard about nine hundred times…“Bop badow badow, badow, bedoo doo, hoyeet..Sincerely, ohho yes sincerely, cause I love you so dearly, I’ll do anything for you.  Please say you’ll be mine.”

A fierce game of table-top matchbook football would start in one booth, while the girls filled another, tight sweaters and white fluffy balls of rabbit fur around their necks, circle pins gleaming in the fluorescent lights.  A few of the guys would get up and start dancing with Joanie, or Pixie or Dania.  Mostly we’d sit, looking cool with our collars turned up, smoking Chesterfields, one in the mouth and one behind the ear for later.

Somehow, two, three hours would go by, hamburgers would get eaten if we had the money, and plans would be made for the weekend.  The weekend!  “Whose house would have the party?”  “Who was coming?”  “Could we get any booze?”  “What girls would come?”  “Were you gonna ask one?”  At fourteen, life’s issues were not very complex.

A big part of my fantasy life revolved around cars.  I had gotten so expert that a mere glimpse at a tiny part of any car would reveal its make, model and year to me. I could tell The slant of the windshield, or the curve of the fender, was all that was necessary for me. Like one of those sailors they always showed in war movies, who could tell in split seconds from a silhouette if it was a Jap Zero, German Stukka or British Spitfire. 

The horsepower, displacement and zero to 60 acceleration of every new car on the market were recorded in my brain.  The Chrysler 300 and the Buick Century coupe were the current street champions, at 9.6 and 9.8 seconds respectively.
My dream car was a 1954 Corvette, of course.  But a close second was a 1949 black Mercury coupe, nosed and decked, lowered, with dual glass packed mufflers and so many coats of black lacquer, it seemed you could plunge you arm into the surface.  I think there was one like it in James Dean’s anthem, Rebel Without a Cause.

My father was a loyal car man, always buying a used version of one of the “low priced three.”  Except for an unexplained lapse when he came home in an ill-fated ’48 Kaiser, we always owned Plymouths.  I was mildly excited when he decided to buy a new, 1953 Plymouth.  He picked out a sky blue model, and the thing I remember most was that it was our first car that had a one-piece windshield.  We were movin’ on up!

All our cars were stick shift, since my mother didn’t drive, and my old man was a truck driver, and considered himself an expert behind the wheel.  Of course, I could mime the motions of shifting and using the clutch from first to second to third and down in my sleeps.

There was much excitement one day when my father came home driving a new snazzy Chrysler New Yorker sedan. In those days, the car and exact model with features told all you needed to know about how much dough-re-me a family had. That model was not one, but two stations above our place in the socioeconomic pecking order! 

Turns out, he was given this boat by DeCozen Motors as a loaner since the new Plymouth had to have some factory warranty repairs.  I remember my old man talking about how people (women, heh heh) were eyeing him at stoplights, and how heads turned when he turned into our driveway.  My mother, unimpressed, said something like “That’s nice dear” and returned to her fantasies of being taken off to a romantic rendezvous with Dennis James, a handsome TV announcer who advertised Old Gold Cigarettes (my old man’s brand).

Another part of our lives in 1954 was the atom bomb hysteria.  People were building fall out shelters, school kids were taught to roll under their desks at the first sign of a blinding atomic flash, and duck and cover.  It was not unnoticed by the boys, that girls were told to pull their long tartan plaid skirts as far over their heads as possible to protect them from flying glass and debris.  Of course, the sexiest girls wore tight skirts with narrow hems, so this was impossible.  But some tried.  (heh heh).


Once a month or so, there was a civil defense drill. We paid little attention to these antics, thinking an atomic attack was about as likely to happen as an earthquake or volcano eruption.  We all knew that we would flatten the Ruskies before they could get their planes off the ground.  Curtis LeMay had told us that in the Air Force films they showed us in school.  Why, we even had B 52’s with huge bombs in the air 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  They wouldn’t dare try anything.

It’s been my experience that every once in a while, a kid gets an inspiration that just knocks you for a loop.  One afternoon, my friend Mark Anderson had one.  He slid into the booth next to me at DonEls.  “Want to go for a ride?” he asked me furtively.  “A ride?  Whaddya mean, ride?” I couldn’t comprehend what he was offering.   “In a car, dummy.  My old man’s car.”  “Uhh, sure.  How you gonna do that?”

“He comes home from work every day at 3 and takes a nap until nearly 5.  I take the keys from his coat, roll the car out of the driveway, start it up and off I go.” 
The sheer simplicity of the plan stunned me.  “What if he wakes up?”
“He never does, especially after he drinks a big bottle of beer.”  Mark’s father was a big Swedish carpenter, gangly and strong, who could suck down a quart of Ballantine like it was apple juice.  “I already did it three times myself.  Wanna come?”

Oh boy.  A ride in a car, driven by a kid, unsupervised by a parent.  Who could resist?


“Now, this afternoon.”

“Who else do is gonna come?”

“How about George?”  Of course!  George Gugliotta, my best friend who lived across Clarement Avenue from me.  “OK, you ask him.”  Of course George said yes.  

Mark’s house was just a short walk from DonEl’s, on Mountainview Place, a tree-lined dead end street, just off busy Bloomfield Avenue.  George and I crouched behind the bushes at the end of the gravel driveway as Mark went into the house through the back door.  His old man’s Dodge sedan sat in the driveway.  Just as he promised, Mark came out of the screen door holding a bunch of keys up in his right hand, waving them back and forth with a big grin on his face.

He slid into the Dodge and released the brake, letting it roll quietly over the crunchy gravel and onto the empty street.  “Get in,” he whispered, and the two of us opened the doors and stealthily slid onto the seats.  Mark turned the key and the car, still warm, kicked over immediately.  I remember it was a fluid drive transmission, and I watched push the gear shift on the steering wheel column up and back, and with a practiced move, he stepped on the gas and swing the wheel sharply around and down the street, heading for Valley Road.  

“Where ya wanna go?” he asked.  Having never faced a decision like that before, we looked at each other, and I blurted out, “let’s go past the bowling alley.”  Bellaire Lanes, on Valley Road, was another of our hangouts. I set up pins three or four days a week, making 11¢ a game, plus occasional tips.  League nights were big money and tips.  But even better, we could bowl for free when no one was in the place.  I became an ace bowler at the age of 13, and was well known among my gang for my personal high game of 245.  

Pin spotting was a tough job, in the days before totally automatic machines put us out of business.  We’d have to jump into the pit, lift the ball onto the return ramp, pick up all the downed pins and put them in the open slots on the holder and jump up on the wall behind the lane before the guy sent the next ball whizzing down the alley.  

There were a few wise guys who liked to roll the next ball before we had gotten out of the pit.  We spotted them pretty quickly, and secretly used our toes to prevent teetering pins from falling, messing up their game.  Screwed out of a couple of spares, they wised up and stopped playing chicken with us.

The three of us lit up our Chesterfields and cruised by the building, hoping one of our friends, or better yet, some of the girls from tony Montclair Academy would see us.  “Now where do ya want ta go?” Mark asked, as he smoothly drove the ’53 Dodge down Valley Road.  “Go around Edgemont Pond!” was George’s brilliant idea.  “Cool,” we said and off we went around the elegant park that stood at the end of Valley Road, just before entering Upper Montclair.   “Wanna go to Bond’s and get an Awful Awful?”

I said hopefully, now fully caught up in the excitement of being able to get places in a few minutes it took a lot longer to reach on our Schwinns.
“Nah.” Mark nixed the idea.  “We gotta get back.”  Reality set in. The spectre of getting caught by Mark’s father gave each of us a bit of a scare.

As we drove up Claremont Avenue, a wide street lined with large Victorian houses and white picket fences, a strange sound startled us.  Suddenly, the large steel columns that stood every few blocks in the town and contained huge and very loud sirens, began to wail.  Through the open windows we heard the sirens deep, vibrato


 coming from every direction.  These were the air raid sirens.


Cars pulled over to the curb, drivers got out, according to the instructed procedure, lay down in the street, faces pressed against the curbstones and hands covering the backs of their heads.   “HOLY SHIT, IT’S AN AIR RAID.’  

THE RUSSIANS ARE ATTACKING!” we screamed at each other in total panic.
Immediately I thought of my mother, working at Sears Roebuck on Bloomfield Avenue, my father in East Orange delivering milk, my kid brother somewhere.  What to do?  Would I see them again?  Could I find them after the bombs went off?   Where to go?  Were we all going to die?  

Photos of the bar-b-qued Japanese in Hiroshima flashed through my head.  The TV films of the houses in the Nevada desert being blown to bits by a huge shock wave were vivid images.  I imagined our house on Vincent Place being reduced to a pile of splinters.
C121 civil defense test

In total, absolute fear, Anderson floors the car and heads for home.  Forgetting any pretense of secrecy or concealment, he tears up the gravel drive, slams to a sliding stop and leaps out of the car, heading for his back door.

The sirens are wailing ceaselessly 

In a fog of fear, George and I follow him into the house through the screen door.  ‘MOM, DAD,” he yells, ‘WE GOTTA GET IN THE BASEMENT.  IT’S AN ATOMIC ATTACK.”

Mark’s father and mother are standing in the kitchen.  I remember the two of them standing by the door like a reception committee; he, in a sleeveless undershirt, suspenders and denim work pants and she in a floral print dress.  Mark got two feet inside the door and his old man hauled off and hit him with a haymaker to the jaw, sending him flying across the kitchen smacking into the refrigerator door and collapsing in a heap on the floor. 

“WHAT DID YOU DO!” his father screamed.  “WHAT DID YOU DO!” he kept shouting, obviously enraged by the theft of his car, and unconcerned about the impending doom of the atomic attack. 

Fear of atomic obliteration suddenly became less immediate than the prospect of getting my block knocked off by Mark’s furious father, and I turned and ran like hell. 

As I ran down the street toward my house, the sirens changed to an intermittent “whoop whoop whoop.”  The “all-clear signal.  Drivers rose up from the curbsides, like so many corpses come back to life, wiped their clothes, and continued on their way.  

Another air raid drill successfully carried out, giving the clueless population the confidence that they could survive a nuclear attack if they heeded the instruction to duck and cover.

The whole episode remained a secret between Mark, George and me.  I never went to his house again. And we drifted apart, finding new friends.  I do remember Mark very well for one other thing.  He introduced me to the HiLos, jazz oriented singing group that I loved to listen to.  I bought a couple of their LPs and have CDs in my current collection.

Some ten years later, I saw Mark on 42nd Street, near the Public Library. I called to him, said hello and we spent a few awkward moments reviewing what we had been doing with our lives since Montclair.  

We made no effort to get together.

I guess once you share the fear of being obliterated with someone, you don’t feel like spending much more time with them.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

"You can't do that to me!

True Stories

True stories. © Joel Baumwoll

We all have a past.  It follows along behind us and smacks into today in ways we aren’t even aware.

Talking to kids is a great way to reach back into that bag of experiences and tell about it.

Kids listen with an unjudgmental ear, and see the humor and the message in a story, even before the storyteller. 

My granddaughter, Hannah, is a great listener.  She gets it.  And she turns the idea around in her nine-year-old mind and puts it to use.  “Tell me another true story,” she asks most times I see her.  I’ve dredged my memory for four years now for as many true stories as I can tell her, and many that will have to wait a few years.

As a teen, I was inspired by a great story teller, Jean Shepherd.  His style and technique were irresistible.  And his stories had a universal relevance to a city kid growing up 30 years later than he did.

So as I framed my “true stories” for Hannah, it was Shep’s voice that was in my ear, his intonation, phrasing and ability to hold the reader in suspense and make him or her feel the fear, embarrassment or humor that guided my narratives.

This blog is dedicated to my grand children, Hannah,Nathaniel, and Maya, and is meant to show that the stuff that happens to a kid as he grows up stays with him in many ways big and small. It is good to keep a record, because it is the stuff that really matters in that bag of history each of us drags around.

One story has to do with where my sense of justice came from.  Think about it.  We all have a sense of justice, right and wrong, and perhaps most important injustice.

We instinctively know when we are not being treated right.  Where did we learn that?  What encounters did we have a little kids that became the fortress of our indignation?  You know.  When we rise up, voice trembling, and bellow: "YOU CAN'T DO THAT TO ME!"

I know exactly when my sense of righteous indignation was first detonated.  It was in Miss Schecter's third grade class in PS 73, in the Bronx.

The other stories are about events that most kids have in their lives; encounters with bullies, confronting death, being afraid, getting blind drunk and regretting it.  Not  the kind of stuff that Norman Mailer would write about, nor would Norman Rockwell have made paintings from, but the meat and potatoes of my growing up.

Years later, I realize that that life is like an ongoing circus.  Sometimes people fall off the trapezes, and sometimes the lions eat the tamer.  Best to laugh when you can.

Joel, 2006

And as my four year old grandson 'Thanny said when asked what was the most important thing he's learned, "Pee when you get the chance."

Joel, 1944 Yankee Stadium in background

Friday, February 18, 2011

How a child learns about death.

How a child learns about death.
© Joel Baumwoll

Kids are mostly oblivious to the adult world around them, and the events that affect their parents or relatives, until something very big intrudes. Usually that big event involves death or serious illness. Then, a kid senses that his world is not quite the same as it had been. If he’s young, say five years or less, the idea is just a feeling. If he’s a little older, close to eight or ten, he understands a bit more of what is going on.

Normally, kids live for the games they play. Give a kid a few good friends, some toys and a place to play and he’s good to go until dinnertime. A collection of lead soldiers was much prized when I was four years old. Dressed in the uniforms of the First World War, they stood bent over, charging with bayonet tipped rifles, crouched over machine guns and next to howitzers. Few of the soldiers looked like the GI who was fighting in France or the Pacific Islands, because lead was being used to make bullets in 1944, not toys. But we know little of that.
Marty Manson and I directed our troops like field generals, conducting hours’ long battles that took over most of the floor space in the small apartments we lived in. Our war had nothing to do with places like Tarawa and the beaches of Normandy. To us, the war was an abstraction. Born in 1940, it had always been part of my life. We wore military uniforms because our mothers dressed us up like little officers, sailors and airmen.
                           From left, Marty Manson, me and Larry Alexander, c1945    
We had no awareness that food and gasoline was rationed, just that there was food on the table and we could go places in our 1937 Plymouth. The only part of the world around us that we were aware of, and intensely involved with, was baseball. Living just a few blocks from Yankee Stadium, rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, perennial losers in the World Series to the Yankees, at seven years old, major league baseball was second in importance only to our daily games of stickball. And even these were imaginary recreations of the big league players’ actions and habits. We’d run a play by play inside our heads as we stood at the plate waiting to hit the rubber “spauldeen” with the broom handle.

The voice of Vin Scully would echo in my mental narrative… “Hodges steps in, runners on second and third, bottom of the ninth. Dodgers are down by two and must win this game to stay in the pennant race. Maglie checks the runners, goes into the stretch and throws. Low, ball one. Hodges steps out, looks up to third to get the sign from Lavagetto, and steps back in the box. Maglie throws. There’s a high line drive to deep center field. Mays is going back back, he turns. It is gone. A home run. The Dodgers win and will go on to face the Yankees in the World Series!!”

This narrative would be complete with simulated crowd noises (yeeeahhhhhhayyy) and cheers. Our stickball field faced the side of a large apartment house, 1080 Anderson Avenue. The windows of this building looked down on the schoolyard and reverberated with our shouts and arguments of “safe” or “out, “ball” or “strike.” Several times a week, one of these windows, about five stories up, would open and a matronly woman would stick her head out and holler “yoo hoo. Boyus, yoo, hoo.” It was Mrs. Sarrow, with her usual request. “Go tell Hedi that dinner is ready,” she’d command and request simultaneously.

Of course, we’d groan, and one of us would get the job of hunting Hedi down on the block to send her home. “I did it yesterday,” Paul Josephs would always say, “Your turn.” I think he hated Heidi, because she used to tease him, calling him “Pawleeee,” with a feminine wag of her hips. That was anathema to a seven year-old kid, so he always said it wasn’t his turn.

So here I am up at bat, taking my practice swings, and I see Mrs. Sarrow, back to me, cleaning the windowpanes. Her legs were hooked over the sill, inside the apartment, and her rear end was perched precariously on the sill as she reached out to swipe at the panes with her rag. It was a common site in those days.
Except this day, my eye caught what looked like a bundle of rags falling down to the alley below. Some sense of strangeness told me that this was no bundle of rags, but it wasn’t immediately clear what I had seen. “Wait,” I yelled, put my stick down and ran to the big chain fence that separated the schoolyard from the alleyway. Pulling myself up a few feet I looked down into the alley to see the form of a body lying in an odd position on the concrete walkway. It was Mrs.Sorrow.

We all crowded around the fence and soon some adults ran down the alley. We watched as they bent over her body and someone draped a brown blanket over Mrs. Sarrow, completely covering her body and face. Even at that young age, we knew that meant she was dead.

That night as I lay in my bed, I replayed the sight of her body, lying sprawled on the concrete. The position of her arms and legs were particularly vivid to me. I began to move my arms and legs to positions that did not resemble those of her corpse. I felt that if I lay like I had seen her, I too would die.

This was the beginning of a nightly ritual that lasted for years. I was probably in my 20s before I could lie with my legs akimbo and my arms stretched out in the way she had lain. That’s how powerful the image was for me. And for at least a year, I had twilight fantasies of her head and shoulders rising above the sill of our bedroom window, looking in, and calling to me to find Hedi.

Mrs. Sarrow was my first-hand encounter with death, but as a five year-old, I had a different kind of experience with the grim reaper.

I was home after 5 PM, listening to the radio; a western show. The announcer broke in “We interrupt this program to bring you a special news bulletin from CBS World News. A press association has just announced that President Roosevelt is dead. The President died of a cerebral hemorrhage. All we know so far is that the President died in Warm Springs Georgia.”

My parents sat in stunned silence and began to cry. I had never seen either of them cry and I could not understand why. My father said, “President Roosevelt died,” as though I could understand who he was and why his death was a matter of such sorrow to them. He wasn’t a relative, a friend or even anyone they knew personally. It was to be many years before I understood why his death was a matter of such immediate sadness for a couple of middle class working people in the midst of a terrible war.

My second personal encounter with death occurred in the third grade. I was assigned a line mate at PS 73 whose name was also Joel. Joel and I were supposed to hold hands as we stood in rows of two waiting for the bell to ring to enter the school building in the morning and after the lunch recess. I wasn’t friends with Joel and did not play with him. And I did not like holding his hand, mainly because he had a large wart on the base of his thumb. I could feel this wart not matter how I tried to avoid contact with it. I was terrified that I could “catch it” and one would grow on my hand.

I never said anything about this to anyone, but dreaded line up every day. In 1948, we returned to school after the Christmas holiday. The streets were still buried under piles of snow from a storm that had hit the northeast on December 26th. For the kids of Anderson Avenue, the snow was a dream come true. We spent days tunneling through it, sledding over it and throwing snowballs at buses and cars as they slithered past.

As we filed into the schoolyard on the first day of school after the break, there was a strange buzz among the kids. My friend Marty ran over to me. “Did you hear what happened to Joel Cohen? He got killed. He was sledding on the lot up by 166th Street and he went under a bus.”
The New York Times even reported the death.


Killed? I never knew a kid that got killed. The idea that we would never, ever again see him was slowly sinking in, but I remember being in a kind of dream-like state. The thought that a kid I knew, and held hands with every day had disappeared was hard to understand. I was assigned a new line mate. For a fleeting instant, I was relived that I would no longer have to feel that wart.


The death of Al Jolson was another event that I recall with clarity. The tabloids of
October 1950 all announced in large black type “AL JOLSON DEAD.” At ten years of age, I was vaguely aware of who he was, since it was impossible not to hear his voice, on radio, and on a new medium, television. My parents had many 78-RPM records of his, singing Yiddish songs, and popular hits like “If you knew Suzie” and “Mammy.” They would play these, interspersed with melodramatic recordings of Jan Pierce, singing “Bluebird of Happiness”: and “Because.” My old man would sing along in a kind of out of tune karaoke, complete withexaggerated arm gestures.

I came home from after school to find my mother in tears. “Al Jolson died,” she said to me, as though I would understand the magnitude of the loss. She never explained why she cried, and it wasn’t until I had some concept of history that I understood Jolson’s role as an iconic immigrant Jew from the Diaspora who had made it big in America. Even the “goyem” listened to his singing and paid to see Jolson’s movies. His death somehow diminished the status of Jews.

The final death I experienced in my first decade was that of my grandmother. My mother’s mother. Leah was a soft spoken women, a refugee from the Cossack pogroms in Moldova who had remarried an American and settled in an apartment on Ogden Avenue. I was often left in her care while my mother went on errands, and doctor’s appointments (I learned much later that my mother suffered from angina in her early 30s).

Like most Jewish grandmothers, she doted on me. We made raspberry sodas by spooning preserves into thick glasses and shooting seltzer from heavy siphon bottles into the black sweet jam. She was a semi-observant Jew, and I recall seeing candles burning in multi-faceted glass jars on top of the refrigerator. I learned these were “yartzheit” candles, memorials to the dead. Grandma Leah was a source of unlimited affection and admiration for me.

By the time I was nine, I knew that grandma had problems with her heart. She also had a variety of other ailments and was in and out of the hospital several times. My mother was very upset during these spells, and I could see how concerned she was and how little I could do to change anything.

Toward the end of 1950 we made a huge change in our lives. My father decided to move us from the Bronx, which he was constantly disparaging in summer as “like an oven, you could fry an egg on the hood of a car” and in winter, as a dirty, snowy place. That he had to drive two hours every morning to get to his job in East Orange New Jersey had no small part in his dislike of the Bronx.

We moved into a large early 20th century house on a leafy street in Montclair, New Jersey. After I got over living in a state that had no major league baseball team, I grew to love Montclair. I made fast friends, even girlfriends and was
having a great time.

However, grandma had taken a turn for the worse, and after an operation to remove her gall bladder, a decision was made to move her to our house to recuperate. A hospital bed was installed in my kid brother’s bedroom and an ambulance delivered her from New York. It created a kind of strange vibe in the house, a bit scary, to be honest. The hospital bed was an alien thing, and the seriously ill person who was my grandmother was spooky to me.

Her stay did not last long, and there was great commotion, as she had to be taken by ambulance back to the hospital in New York. The next week or two are a bit vague, as our lives were turned upside down, with my mother going in to New York nearly every day. A kind of sadness enveloped the house, which came to a head when she died in the hospital. Though she seemed like an old woman to a ten year old, I realize now how young she was, just fifty-six years.

Her funeral, at a place just off the Grand Concourse on East 167th Street, was bizarre for me. Rows of benches filled with my relatives, some of whom I did not recognize led to a long wooden box on a platform in the front of the room. Sounds of sobs and sniffles came from all directions, and I was scared and upset to see my mother crying so much. I was given over to Aunt Rae for caretaking.

Rae was a small round woman with a voice like Ethyl Merman’s and a manner like a bar room bouncer. She was my mother’s aunt, and I was told years later that she had been kidnapped by gypsies in Romania and returned to the family after a period of a few weeks. The joke was that even the gypsies couldn’t take being bossed around by Rae so they sent her back. She lived in a small apartment several doors away from ours on Anderson Avenue, and was often the appointed babysitter for my younger brother, “Genie” and me. Rae adored us, and made her feelings known by grabbing my cheek between her thumb and forefinger and squeezing it hard enough to make me howl, while she exclaimed “what a doll face.”

My father couldn’t stand Rae, mostly because she was an incredible busybody, and seemed to delight in sowing discontent between husbands and wives in the family. I suppose it was her jealousy, since she had never been married or even had a serious boyfriend, as far as we knew. She would also burst into our apartment for impromptu visits, regardless of what may have been going on in the privacy of the place.

Rae was fond of cooking lamb chops in a small electric broiler. These she would subject to enough heat to turn them nearly black, and inundate the entire first floor of the building with the smell of burning lamb chop fat. She did the same with lumps of calf’s liver. It was many years before I could eat either without gagging on the memory.

At the funeral, Rae got it into her head that I had to go up and look at my
grandmother’s corpse before the lid was closed. Why it was open, I have no idea, but someone must have asked for viewing, which I gather is unusual for Jews. Of course I was horrified by the idea, but she was not to be denied. I was pulled to the front and forced to look at Leah’s face. I remember going cold all over and turning away quickly to get away from that place.

During the service, Rae took me next door to an ice cream parlor called Addy Valens, and ordered me a hot fudge sundae. I guess she realized how upset I was, and wanted to make me happy. I had never eaten a hot fudge sundae before, and I remember this glass, shaped like a big open flower, heaped with balls of vanilla ice cream and covered with dark chocolate sauce that was actually hot. The whole was covered with a mountain of thick whipped cream. It was the most delicious thing I had ever eaten! I scooped the ice cream and hot fudge into my mouth as fast as I could. The sweet cold vanilla contrasted the bittersweet taste of the chocolate, and the cream was very dense and rich tasting.

It has been fifty-seven years and the memories of both events are vivid and clear to me. I have never had a sundae as good as that one. It has become my Madeleine, soothing me after the terrifying experience of the funeral.

And that day marked a passage for me, where I no longer lived in a world of play, oblivious to the terrible things that were happening and could happen.