Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#816)

Mythic pizza
by David Benjamin

“You better cut the pizza in four pieces because I’m not hungry enough to eat six.”
                                                            — Yogi Berra

MADISON, Wis.— So, there I was — about a month ago — standing on the sidewalk on a clammy night in Taipei, hip-deep amongst the hip, the young and the trendy, watching for our number to appear on the display in the window at Din Tai Fung, reputedly the best damn dim sum joint in either of the two Chinas. Hotlips, my brilliant spouse, along with our hosts, Judith, Grace and Brandon, were eager for the experience and patient with the obligatory delay.

I was a little less starry-eyed because I tend to regard dim sum as glorified hors d’oeuvres. However, I’ll eat just about anything Chinese (except duck tongues), so I did my best to blend with the hundreds huddling ‘round the restaurant’s plastic mascot, a giant hydrocephalic dumpling-boy. Inevitably, my mind wandered to similar scenes in New York, where the local pizza cult strikes an eerie parallel to this dim sum dementia. New York City’s pizza exceptionalism requires communicants to not only queue up outdoors in the rain, snow, heat and dark of night, but to stay outside, on their feet. They eat — lest they be ostracized and mocked by friends and family — with their hands (Din Tai Fung supplies chopsticks) and follow an exacting ritual prescribed and enforced by a legion of self-appointed pizza nazis who prowl the streets in search of heretics.

The first precept of New York pizza orthodoxy is that New York not only has the best pizza on earth, but that there would be no pizza at all without New York. The accepted gospel is that pizza was born at a tiny storefront bistro in the East Village in the year 1561, almost 60 years before the Mayflower docked at Battery Park, just east of Whitehall Street. The Italians later claimed to have thought of it first, but only because Amerigo Vespucci got the original pizza chef drunk on dago red and stole the recipe.

Second, because New York is the center of the pizza universe, the city’s most-discussed topic (hashed out passionately on the food pages of the Times, the Daily News, the Post, the Voice, Newsday, New York, The New Yorker and the Bergen Record, is which pizzeria makes the BPNY (Best Pie in New York). This means, of course, that there isn’t just one BPNY. The number can slip two to three. It can balloon, in any given news cycle, to as many as fifteen, with locales ranging from Arthur Avenue to Mulberry Street to Hell’s Kitchen and Park Slope, with names that tend to sound more authentic if they carry an apostrophe — Al’s, Luigi’s, Tony’s, Porfirio’s, Dona Lucia’s Pizza and Sushi. Like that.

BPNYs pop up randomly and ascend precipitously to citywide fame, only to fall out of popular favor in a New York minute. The title migrates from borough to borough on the breakneck bandwagon of fickle fancy. If there’s any consolation in all this churn, it’s that your average New Yorker can wake up to discover that he or she is suddenly only two or three stops away — on the best subway system since the official opening of the Handbasket to Hell — from the best pizza (at least according to Yelp) in the history of Western civilization (at least for a month or so).

Okay, next we have the rules. Listen up.

Anywhere else in a world of less-famous pizza, you go inside, grab a table, order your pie in a size that matches your appetite (small, medium, large) and blithely consume it any way you want, with or without implements.

Not in New York, where a block-long queue (which New Yorkers call “standing on line” and everyone else calls “standing in line”), largely composed of review-reading 20-something hipsters, is the telltale hallmark of culinary conquest.

When you finally get to the counter, your choice of sizes comes down to one: Huge. You don’t order by diameter, you order by the “slice.” To the outside world, this seems a queer, nebulous measure. In New York, “slice” and “pizza” are synonyms so freighted with meaning that the hardcore New Yorker seeking his pie anywhere west of Delaware Gap has difficulty being understood.

“Whaddya mean, how many slices? Who the hell counts?”

The immense wedge that eventually shows up, ideally lapping over the perimeter of of a paper plate that has the tensile strength of a handwritten sonnet by Mrs. Browning, is gooily overflowing its crust and feloniously hot. A prudent diner would set it aside briefly, ’til the sauce ceases to bubble and the cheese de-liquifies.

Not in New York. That would be chicken.

Your redblooded New Yorker addresses this seething slab by folding it upon itself, then elevating it ’til the pointy end aims down, toward his or her mouth. The slice thus becomes a slippery slope. As the slice enters the consumer, a molten river of tomato-flavored lava and boiling mozzarella separates itself and plummets toward the tender tissues of the inner cheeks, the vulnerable tongue and the delicate surface of the ill-named hard palate. The subsequent second-degree burns and loss of all sensation — except pain — are every New York pizza-lover’s red badge of blistered inflammation.

Ideally, the altar where this ceremony climaxes is a Formica counter or a tiny round stand-up table —  ideally on the sidewalk — shared elbow-to-elbow with a host of strangers whose urban solidarity is implicit in their rudeness. Just as only an apostate or blasphemer would touch a pizza with knife or fork, only a sissy would eat it sitting down.

There is, fortunately, an antidote to this hidebound adherence to form, conformity and fleshly mortification. It’s called takeout. Once you grab the box, overtip the kid and shut the door, you’re free — even in Soho, Chelsea or TriBeCa, even in the darkest ethnic dens of Corona and Rockaway. In sinful privacy, without fear of public censure or big-city ridicule, you can pull up a chair, open a napkin, pick up a fork. You can even say Grace.

If only the pizza were better.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#815)

What if Mrs. Murphy had been there?
by David Benjamin

“… Trump’s senior advisers fear leaving him alone in meetings with foreign leaders out of concern he might speak out of turn. General McMaster, in particular, has tried to insert caveats or gentle corrections into conversations when he believes the president is straying off topic or onto boggy diplomatic ground…”
                              — The New York Times
, 17 May 2017

MADISON, Wis.— I picture her as short, plump and huggable, in a print dress with support stockings rolled down to just below the knee. Her hair, gray and frizzy, is constrained with rubber bands in a disorderly bun. Her eyes are cloudy and she suffers from her feet, but complains only a few dozen times a day. Her demeanor is tirelessly sunny and sympathetic. She makes lovely tea and always has cookies.

Her name is something like Mrs. O’Toole or Mrs. Murphy. Nobody is quite sure of her first name, or even if she has one. Ideally, she was hired from one of Boston’s timeless proletarian enclaves — Jamaica Plain maybe or, even better, Southie — where her sort of woman is still abundant.

She would have been appointed, ideally, before her rambunctious ward was inaugurated, so she’d be waiting for him at the White House, telling him to wipe his feet and for Heaven’s sake, sit up straight. “Why are you crouching like that, with your arms hanging down? You look like an overgrown chimp in a blond wig.”

We couldn’t call her the National Babysitter. Although accurate, this would offend his eggshell sense of manhood. The transition team would have chosen a title less obvious, like “handmatron.” Better yet, he would probably love being waited on and watched over by a “factotum,” because it’s Latinate and multisyllabic — and he has no clue what it means.

She would be a paragon of kindly solicitude but with an adamantine air of motherly authority. To her, after all, would fall the responsibility of babysitting— during his every waking hour — the most capricious prince to ever wander the White House corridors. She would have a certain way of saying his name, in her Boston brogue, that freezes him in his tracks — a heavy emphasis on the first syllable and the hint of suspicion in the question mark at the end.

“DAWN’ld?”

Of course, as a widowed granny with a sentimental side, she would often call him “Donny.” She would know him by no other name, nor by any title other than her precious little darlin’.

A few scenarios come to mind.

It’s past midnight in an eerily empty White House. The uproar of a television, accompanied by the beep of a cellphone, breaks the silence. “Oh, dear Lord.” With an audible “oof” (Oval Office Factotum), Mrs. Murphy rises from her bedside chair, sets aside her Bible, puts on her slippers and waddles off to see what the little rascal is up to now.

“DAWN’ld? What are you doin’ in the window? Jesus, Mary and Joseph! Without even a bathrobe to cover y’self? What if one of those darn, nosy shutterbugs sees? Oh, I know you’re proud, little guy, but I ain’t the one to be showin’ it off to. I raised six strappin' boys of me own, y’know. Now, tuck it in and — what’re you doin’ with that phone? You know what I said: no tweetin’ ’til after breakfast. And turn OFF that darn TV. It only gets you aggravated, especially that sharp little lesbian gal on… oh, what is it? MBTA? And another thing. Where’s your homework? No, don’t you try to pull the wool over my eyes, young’un. I know your teachers! You were supposed to be readin’ the AHCA weeks ago. No, I don’t know what it is, but neither do you. And you won’t know it if you don’t study! Well then, have someone read it TO you. It ain’t as though this big ol’ barn isn’t just full of educated folks without much to do all day long except beat their gums and leak wild stories to the Washington Post! How about asking that nice, quiet Reince boy? No, not Stevie. I tell you, sweetie, that one’s up to no good. And I wish to the Lord Jesus that he would just get a haircut. He looks like something the cat dragged in after the dog peed on it. That boy! I swear, he’s a worse influence on you than Micky Flynn was, you poor little thing. Oh, I know, you miss him. Mick was a hot ticket, bless his heart, but crazy as a mouse in a toaster. No, you can’t tweet him. DAWN’ld! Give me that phone!

Or this.

“DAWN’ld? How many times I have t’tell you? Get that girl off your lap! I know she’s your daughter, but — Vanka, honey-bun? Go play with Jared on the lawn. He’s trying to hit the croquet balls with the wrong end. Donny, darlin’, look at you now. You’re all warm and damp now. What WAS she sayin’ t’you?”

And then…

“DAWN’ld? Who’s that with you now? Where do you pick up these strange boys? Who let them in? Well, I don’t care what the Secret Service says. Aren’t I the one who bakes your cookies and tucks you in? Sergey and Sergey? Really? You couldn’t even make up two different names? And where’re you boys from? Really? Well, that does it. Does nobody around here remember Joe Stalin and that Cuban with the beard who gave poor sweet Jack Kennedy so much grief? Okay, let’s go. I’m sure you mean no harm, boys, but if you think you’re gettin’ you into Donny’s office, after what Khrushchev did to the Hungarians, you’re whistlin’ up the wrong skirt. Lord knows my little darlin’ is lonely since they sent him here. Breaks my heart. The poor dear just wants everybody to love him and whisper sweet nothins in his ear and tell him he’s just the best thing that ever happened since St. Patrick drove out the snakes. But I can’t just let in any ol’ riffraff that comes in off the streets from Moscow. I’m the one who drives out the snakes here. So, let’s go, boys. Out, out, out! And Donny, you go sit down over there. Don’t you move an inch ’til I get back. Sit. Up. Straight! And not a word — to anybody… DAWN’ld! Give me that phone!

And finally:

“Comey? Is that an Irish name? Well then, I’m sure his mother brought him up  right and she’s proud as punch. Don’t be silly, Donny. Jimmy can’t do you any harm at all, long as you tell the truth and wash between your toes. He’s a nice young man from the neighborhood, and you’re just gonna get yourself in trouble if you start pickin’ on — DAWN’ld! What now! Jesus, Mary and Joseph! What on earth are you tweetin’ now? Honest t’God, you’re gonna be the death of me. Who gave him that phone? STEVIE!”

Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#814)

“Keeping a book”
by David Benjamin

“A neighbor had a score sheet from the last game between the New York Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers. He recalled the whole game inning by inning, just looking at the scorecard. It was almost like watching a rabbi read scripture. Here he was recalling the whole game. It was kind of magic.”
                    — Paul Dickson, The Joy of Keeping Score

MADISON, Wis.— At the ballpark yesterday, a passing Red Sox fan noticed the scorebook I’d been marking (and occasionally messing up) all through the game. “That’s great,” he said. “I haven’t seen anyone keeping a book for years.”

I said, “Well, thanks,” and “Go, Sox.”

Poets and pundits and have said much and written more about the arcane art of keeping score, on a sheet, or in a spiral-bound book full of fine lines and boxes and six-point type. They praise the book’s power to perfectly recover a long-past moment. They talk about how the act of scoring epitomizes a game so intellectually demanding that it has a written cipher all its own.

Tom Boswell, in the Washington Post, once wrote, “No other American sport has anything that genuinely approximates the scorecard — that single piece of paper, simple enough for a child — that preserves the game both chronologically and in toto with almost no significant loss of detail.”

For me, keeping score has always been a form of therapy. I tend, especially when it’s the Red Sox — especially when they play the Yankees — to get a little jumpy. However, when I’m  keeping an eagle eye on every ball in play and recording its fate, in code, in its own square in the holy book, accurately and legibly (so my grandchildren can someday relive the game), I attain a tenuous serenity that wouldn’t be possible without a pen in my hand.

I know, I know. I should use a pencil.

Scoring has another salutary effect, lately even more important. Ballparks nowadays are infested by fans who can’t seem to focus. They thrive, normally, in a breakneck realm of sound bites and “instant messaging,” of 20-second, 10-second, five-second bleats, tweets, hoots, texts, sexts and vanishing photos. For one such twitchy spectator, the leisurely and thoughtful progress of nine innings on the diamond can be more ordeal than pleasure. Most contemporary stadium operators, aware of this disease, provide evanescent stimuli. A ballpark visit brings down a barrage of diversions, shiny objects and assaults to the senses. Among the distractions, you get dot races, “kiss cams,” t-shirt cannons, quiz games and the odd aerial bomb, all of it scored relentlessly, at 100 decibels, by — for some reason — a medley of the most godawful pop songs recorded between 1970 and 1990.

At the ballpark I visited yesterday, Miller Park in Milwaukee, the piece de resistance of the non-baseball mishegoss is a daily sausage race, run by costumed minions of the Miller Brewing Co. It’s cute, it’s commercial, and Max Patkin is rolling in his grave. Preoccupied with my scorebook, I missed it. Had to check the giant TV above the outfield to see who’d won (Italian sausage).

Admittedly, after a couple of years between live games, I was a little rusty. Early on, I had to cross out an at-bat recorded in the wrong box. Later, I added a question mark to a double-play in which the Brewers second-sacker fumbled a low liner but then doubled up a Sox baserunner who scurried back to first just as the first baseman was catching the throw, at which point the batter belatedly met the runner and the first baseman there, along with the relevant umpire, prompting the Sox first-base coach to join the crowd and starting hollering in a what-the-hell? sort of way. Hence, my notation, which isn’t so much a question (I know the answer), but a spontaneous diacritic in tribute to the play’s lovable, bumbling weirdness.

Elswhere in the book, I had to overwrite a mistaken “4-3” (groundball to second base), with “6-3” (grounder to the shortstop) — because of the Beer family.

The Beer family, as Gaylord and I got to know them, are the kind of easygoing Wisconsinites who — in their leisure time — never think of doing more than one thing at a time. So, right around the bottom of the second inning, they all got up to hit the concourse, for beer. This forced their whole row to stand up and let them pass, thus blocking the field from everyone in the three or four rows behind. This “obstructed view” lasted for the better part of a minute, as the entire Beer family squeezed through the narrow passage allowed between seat-rows by the thrifty folks at the Miller Brewing Co. Two or three outs later, the Beer family, now provisioned (loyally) with cans of Miller Lite, trooped unanimously back to their seats, blacking out the game (locally) for another 45 to 60 seconds.

Inevitably, about five outs later on average, the Beer family — having drained their cans — needed to evacuate. So, up again, inching their way toward the Men’s. (The Beer family left its women at home, another Dairyland tradition.) A few outs later, they returned, beerless. They hadn’t thought to load up while tending to their bladders.

Of course, a mere half-inning hence, the Beer clan sensed a mounting, importunate thirst for another seven bucks (each) worth of Miller Lite. So, “Excuse us. Sorry.” “No, it’s okay.” “Well, thanks.” “Hey, no problem, pal. Go, Brewers.”

Eventually, during one Beer-family blackout, there occurred a groundball, unseen. I guessed 4-3. Gaylord gently corrected that to 6-3, leaving an ugly blemish on my sheet. There’s a relevant passage about Yankees broadcaster Phil Rizzuto, in Paul Dickson’s book, The Joy of Keeping Score. Once in a while, on the Scooter’s scorecard appeared the mysterious abbreviation, “WW.”

This stood for “wasn’t watching.”

Baseball had to devise a scoring system and code more elaborate than any other sport because it’s the essential game of situations. “Action” can disappear for hours. Baseball’s long ebbs can lull you into a pleasant stupor that sends the mind wandering, toward your personal sea of troubles, or over to the aisle to watch that girl, descending the steps in shorts so short they might constitute a felony in Utah.

Yesterday, the Red Sox starter, a Jekyll-and-Hyde lefty named Rodriguez, got into one of those rhythms that rendered him, for thirteen straight at-bats, untouchable. The Brewers were hapless. Every out was a can of corn.

But then, from a slough of tranquility, a moment explodes so sudden, convulsive, transcendent that you sit back, smiling, and forget that you’re holding a pen and trying to keep track. So it went, in the 9th inning of a 1-1 pitcher’s duel from which, alas, the dueling hurlers had been already removed. The marvelously named Red Sox rightfielder, Mookie Betts, timed a 98 mph fastball from Neftali Feliz and powdered it — you knew it was gone when you heard the crack — in a low-arcing white contrail deep into the left-field bleachers.

“HR, 3bi, R.”

If you can read a scorecard, whether from yesterday or 1927, you can discern the game’s interplay of right and wrong, of injustice and vindication. It ain’t fair, for example, that the starters, Rodriguez and Jimmy Nelson, left without a decision. Nothing won, nothing lost. Just few numbers strung out under IP, H, BB, SO, and nary an HBP. But each pitcher, by ruining his arm for the next three days, kept his team in the game. Only baseball has a notation for the word “sacrifice.”

The scorecard illuminates how hard Nelson worked, throwing 108 pitches to get 19 outs. It shows that Feliz was overmatched from the moment he stepped on the mound, and that Betts was a bolt of lightning waiting to strike.

It’s all there, in the book, even the anticlimax. That’s when Sox closer Craig Kimbrel, kept in the game by something called a double-switch, struck out five Brewers so brutally that you thought of little kids, blindfolded at a birthday picnic, attacking a piñata with a broomstick.

I marked Kimbrel’s last “K” with a star. Had to.

Saturday, May 6, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#813)

Why I read fiction
by David Benjamin

“The alarming flaw in his psychological equipment — although in the American history he would write with his life nothing would appear to be flawed — was that the terrain he viewed and judged and acted upon could have been that of another planet. It had no connection with what was really there, with what needed to be coped with in other people’s reality…”
                                    — Richard Condon, Mile High

MADISON, Wis.— Piety, especially of the false variety, is perhaps the most time-honored tradition of American politics. On the other hand, real piety — genuine and humble religious faith — tends to trigger squeamishness amongst the congregation.

William Jennings Bryan, for example, was an evangelist of conviction so preachingly devout that, finally, he gave folks the creeps. Our only truly faithful president, Jimmy Carter, confessed — without shame — his heartfelt faith, his hope and charity, plus a few sins. This performance got him laughed out of office.

The public was far more comfortable with his successor, a darling of the  “religious right” despite a barely elliptical acquaintance with the inside of a church, whose best impersonation of a God-fearing Christian required a microphone and a makeup girl.

Our current Oval Office occupant has never in his life been remotely God-fearing nor is he demonstrably Christian. A thrice-married satyr who doesn’t know the Song of Solomon from The Story of O, he boasts about his sexual predation, cheats serially on all his wives and joshes on TV about committing incest with his daughter. If he were to encounter Jesus on the street, he would avoid a handshake and then order his bodyguards to spray the Son of God with Lysol. And yet, the religious right loves Trump even more than they adored the Gipper.

Pundits and sociologists have struggled to plumb the raging paradox of a Moral Majority blindly devoted to the most indecent, amoral pagan to ever pursue public office in America. I’ve tried to understand. But I found expert analyses of this Trump conundrum pretty much frustrating ’til I read, last month, Mile High, by Richard Condon — one of the 20th century’s more underappreciated novelists.

Condon’s protagonist is a heartless oligarch, Edward Courance West. He masterminds the pious political movement to pass the 18th Amendment, banning booze in America. In a mid-book monolog, Eddie West explains this diabolical scheme. Americans, he says, see themselves as originating in a sort of immigrant martyrdom. We all descend from destitute refugees, outcast paupers whose only defense against bigotry, squalor and oppression was a sustaining faith in God. In a ruthlessly capitalist society, which measures success almost exclusively by wealth, this peasant faith clung stubbornly to the America subconscious. But it required a metamorphosis that re-defined Christianity in a way that consoles the prosperous and exalts the filthy-rich. West says:

“Poverty may bring faith, but riches bring things. We must have faith, so Americans have achieved a faith in things. Therefore, what the American people are faced with is a craving for reassurance that they have kept the true faith, the universal faith, the faith of loss and deprivation —which is prohibition. Simultaneously the other half is a quivering maw of national sensuality — sensation, tactilities, gluttony, satiety — the essence of total self — all making us dependent upon our riches, faith’s opposite…”

Donald Trump emerged almost organically, from our American midst, as the transubstantiation of piety into cupidity, and of greed into virtue. He embodies our faith in things and he symbolizes, in the word become flesh, the purifying power of wealth. He is the prophet of excess, and Mar-A-Lago is the new Jerusalem.

Since Trump announced his candidacy, political historians have kept busy proposing historical forebears. Most often suggested, and hastily retracted, is Adolf Hitler. Obviously, this shoe don’t fit, if only because Hitler could read and write and he demonstrated a vocabulary well in excess of 100 words.

Others have suggested Huey Long and Joe McCarthy, both professional politicians — which Trump is not. Trump prefers comparisons to Andrew Jackson, another stretch, if only because Old Hickory deplored debt and never went begging for a note from the doctor when Uncle Sam said “I Want You.” The most popular contemporary analog is Silvio Berlusconi, an Italian prime minister arguably more vulgar than Trump. But the similarities are superficial, especially given the vast political differences between Italy and the U.S.A.

Which is why I read fiction. As he crafts a novel, the writer remembers people he has known intimately. He studies figures in both reality and fantasy who embody certain qualities and ideas. He mines his own experience and examines the quirks and corners of his own mind. He builds a set of ideas and attitudes that he can fit into a character who blends all of the above, a character palpable, believable and alive to the reader — although the character is unique to this one, new story.

Above all, the well-drawn character is inexplicably familiar. We’ve seen him, or her, before. He — or she — was in school with us, or in the office. He’s an uncle or she’s an aunt. We’ve listened to him, or her, speak in church or in the assembly hall, on the radio or on TV. Somehow, we know this person, who is no person at all, but merely a figment of some storyteller’s fevered fancy.

Pretense has an uncanny power to reveal us to ourselves. No social scientist has ever explained teenage angst as truly and engagingly as Holden Caulfield. No real woman trapped in marriage and driven to adultery is as vivid and sympathetic as Anna Karenina. No clinical analysis of paranoia depicts this disorder as chillingly as does Dostoyevsky in Notes from the Underground, or Kafka in The Burrow. No biography has limned the magic and terror of childhood as lovingly and credibly as did Ray Bradbury in Dandelion Wine. Each of these stories — and thousands more — perform the everyday miracle of truth through fabrication.

So, if we read made-up stories instead of just sticking to the history books or watching cable TV as pundit after pundit tries to justify Trump’s ways to men, we recognize this guy.

To a far greater degree than he is Hitler or Huey Long, Trump is Edward Courance West (God help us). Sinclair Lewis — in Elmer Gantry’s counterfeit piety and sexual hunger, and in the cynical bombast of Senator Berzelius Windrip (It Can’t Happen Here) — gave us a clearer foreshadowing of Trump than Joe McCarthy’s erratic antics ever could. Put together a composite of Shakespeare’s characters — a little Lear, a touch of Falstaff, a pinch of Richard, a dash of Othello, and a whining soliloquy from a self-piteous Hamlet — and you have Trump all over again.

So, we’ve been warned. Trump, by any other name, would smell as foul — or fair. He was thought of long ago and he’s been with us ever since, lurking in the library, or strutting and fretting his hour upon the stage.

Friday, April 28, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#812)

Back home, in the
Shinjuku death maze

by David Benjamin

CHIGASAKI, Japan — On the streets of Tokyo, population 20 million, facing waves of 80-year-old kamikaze bicyclists wearing surgical masks and wielding umbrellas like bayonets, watching with wonder as an office lady in a pencil skirt sprints through traffic on three-inch heels with a stack of fourteen bento boxes and a half-gallon bottle of oolong tea — without breaking a sweat or showing a glimmer of facial expression — I’m strangely at home. And I think of my stepsister Vicki, who gets nervous as soon as she’s even a few miles outside of her lifelong hometown, Tomah, Wisconsin, population 9,000. I know how she feels.

It’s all a matter of turf.

Tomah was my first turf. I knew it better than Vicki by my tenth birthday, when I got my first bike and started using it to stretch the town, beyond the lake, halfway to Tunnel City, and out past the VA Hospital along the Lemonweir.

When Mom moved us to Madison, population, 125,000, I was suddenly 100 miles out of town, as twitchy as Vicki in Vladivostok. This was all somebody else’s territory and I didn’t even know who.

But I had my bike.

A few weeks later, I’d found a new kemo sabe named Greg who had the charming habit of buying Coca-Cola by the quart, like a wino stocking up on Thunderbird. Pretty soon, I was sponging off the rich folks who lived on Lake Monona, and I’d stretched my territory as far as Olbrich Park to the east and Langdon Street downtown, where I zipped along fraternity row figuring out the Greek alphabet. I didn’t claim all of Mad City (the West side was a mystery) but I knew a few of its best secrets — the fishing spot behind the Fauerbach Brewery, the ice-cream parlor at Bancroft’s Dairy, the little beach on Waunona Way where Donna Wind went sun-bathing now and then in her itsy-bitsy teeny-weeny yellow polka-dot bikini. I had new turf, bigger than Tomah.

I had undergone a sort of Darwinian miracle, like a fish crawling onto the sidewalk, sucking in a lungful of slightly polluted city oxygen, feeling a little tipsy and deciding, suddenly, to never go back into the swamp.

Since Madison, I’ve evolved similarly in a half-dozen polyglot cities on three continents, plus three hamlets and a peninsula. I’ve gotten to know the best spots to eat, drink, hike, browse, take pictures and stand on the corner watchin’ all the natives go by. I know (mas o menos) how to get there, what to order, how to ask and where the toilets are. I know the best views, where to buy the news, who’s on the make and who’s on the level. All this local savvy applies to Paris, Brooklyn, Boston, Beloit, Manhattan, Tokyo and even a few pieces of Barcelona.

It’s also good to know what you don’t know.

Like Tuesday in Tokyo. I decided on an excursion to Shitamachi, the “Low City” of the Edo period and the only part of town not reduced to ash by General LeMay’s B-29s. Trouble is, there are corners of Shitamachi I hadn’t seen in years. I needed to hit a a bookstore and buy a map.

Tokyo bookstores are surely my turf. I used to browse Jimbocho, a warren of alleys where every other storefront is crammed with books. Most are in Japanese, but you need to go inside, because suddenly against the back wall, yellow-edged and stacked precariously, a trove of 25-cent pulps from my dad’s generation — Zane Gray and James M. Cain, Hammett and Chandler, Spillane, Benchley, Heinlein, Wyndham, Wodehouse, Erskine Caldwell and Grace Metalious, Hesse, Broch, Mann, Camus, Gide and Bonjour Tristesse. In Jimbocho, Charlie Tuttle used to run a store (maybe he still does?) that contained the whole staggering backlist of Japanese lit translated into English, from Genji to Dasai and Oe, to The Joy of Sumo (by me).

But Jimbocho isn’t where you hunt for a map. Nor is Takadanobaba, one of my old literary haunts, if only because I loved to announce, “I’m going to Takadanobaba.” (Go ahead, try it. Three times fast: Takadanobaba-takadanobaba-

takadanobaba). So anyway, Tuesday, from Chigasaki-by-the-Sea — where we stay nowadays — I aimed for Tokyo Station and its nearby megastore for books, Maruzen. I changed my plan, however, at Chigasaki Station, because the next available train was to Shinjuku, which has two bookstores, both called Kinokuniya — one tall and shiny, one old, grubby and packed into a building with an arcade full of fish-fragrant nomiya and beery akajochin.

An hour later, rising from beneath the station, I looked around, spotted the Takashimaya department store on my left and said, “Ah, my turf,” and headed for Kinokuniya (tall and shiny).

But gone. Gone? Yes, supplanted by some sort of fashion outlet called Nitoya. Cities change, without warning, no apologies. Adapt or die! I was going to have to either find the old, grubby Kinokuniya in the maze of streets around Shinjuku (which is only barely my turf — I’m cozier in Ebisu, Shibuya, Nakameguro), or ride across town to Maruzen. Meanwhile, there was Tokyu Hands, Japan’s quintessential do-it-yourself, all-purpose dry goods store. I headed to the top. The Japanese have always loved paper, so they have office supplies, pens, ink, inkpads, brushes, rice paper, parchment, calendars, notebooks, files, folders, stickers, staplers, staples, clips, doo-hickeys, gimcracks, thingummies and stuff you can’t figure out what they do, in richer variety than anywhere else on earth. I indulged myself, spent five grand (yen) on clerical toys and headed back out into the warm warren of Shinjuku in search of either lunch or Kinokuniya.

By and by, I managed both. But afterward, there I stood, on that sidewalk, staring into the teeth of the perpetual stampede. The sidewalk of Kabuki-cho was typically sticky. The neon was dulled by daylight. The barkers were perched on stools eating cold fish. The jostling pedestrians regarded me as invisible ’til contact and a doormat thereafter. The sun was out after a wet week. I was hot and sweaty, my dogs barkin’, at home, in Tokyo. My turf. And tired of it.

I called it a day. Shitamachi (Yanaka Ginza! Ame-Yoko! Shinobazu Pond! Say ’em fast, three times) could wait. I slunk into an underground realm of Shinjuku called — for no knowable reason — Subnade. I should’ve stayed aboveground, where the megalith of Shinjuku Station serves to orient (even if you’re on the wrong goddamned side of it — which you always are). Underground, though, the tiled tunnels of Shinjuku are seemingly endless and eternally incomprehensible. Directional signs, Japanese or English, are a mean trick. At any given junction, they’ll point three different arrows at the same train line, Keio East, Keio West, Keio All Around the Town. The only destination you’re sure to reach is Isetan. But Isetan won’t take you anywhere. It’s not a train. It’s a department store.

As a Tokyo veteran, I should lament my confusion beneath Shinjuku, but this is my turf, too. I’ve always gotten lost down here. Everyone does. Shinjuku Station devours the unwary. I’ve always believed in the Black Hole of Shinjuku Eki, a sub-basement that houses forever the hopelessly lost — from Chicago, Shanghai, Dusseldorf, Johannesburg, Tohoku. Unable to ever find the way out, they sleep on cots, eat porridge and hardtack provided by mute Zen monks, braid lanyards, smoke Golden Bats, and read old copies of Collier’s and Popular Mechanics, living out a pale, troglodyte subsistence like the wretched relicts of an atomic war.

Yesterday, wearily, after my usual half-dozen U-turns, just before resigning my future to the Black Hole, I spotted a subtle left turn beneath the strange device, “Excelsior!” (immortalized by Longfellow), followed a hunch and found the Tokaido Line (immortalized by Hiroshige). From there, elbowed by salarymen and squeezed ‘twixt schoolgirls disguised as sailors, I bade the silver streak to carry me off, safe at last from the jealous claws of the ten-headed bitch goddess Shinjuku.

We flew through Ebisu, my old neighborhood. Through Oosaki, where you can find the best tonkatsu in Tokyo (or get lost looking). Through Yokohama, where Kimie and Kennedy live and where the baseball Whales, in a spasm of incorrect political correctness, changed their name to the BayStars.

What the hell is a BayStar?

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#811)

It’s a holey whole hole
and it just - plain - isn’t

by David Benjamin

“For one who reads, there is no limit to the number of lives that may be lived, for fiction, biography, and history offer an inexhaustible number of lives in many parts of the world, in all periods of time.”
                                ― Louis L’Amour

TAIPEI — Whenever I’m in one of these farflung outposts, I eventually turn to myself indignantly and say, “Hey, Gomer! What the hell are you doing here?”

I know it’s a lousy excuse, but I’m probably here because of the library. In the little town where I grew up, it was the only place for miles and miles around that could even be remotely regarded as a portal to the world. I had no idea of its power. The library ruined me.

It actually started with Dr. Seuss. One day, my first-grade teacher herded her whole class down the hill to the Tomah Public Library, up the stone steps, through the doors, where suddenly you could smell books like the breath of ten thousand dead philosophers, and then down the wooden steps to the “reading room” — I mean, what the hell was I doing there? I couldn’t read yet. And what’s a philosopher?

They sat us down in front of a librarian, who read to me — well, us. But I took it personally, because she was reading Dr. Seuss — Horton, Bartholomew or If I Ran the Zoo, one of those contagious concoctions of verbal melody and subversive fancy that whispered to me, “This is what you want to do.”

I do? Me?

Well, I did. I started writing my first novel in third grade, but it wasn’t exactly my idea. I was mimicking Beatrice Dwyer, classmate, nemesis and sweetheart, who was writing stories and reading them aloud. I said, “Wait a minute. I can do that.” So I did. Forever after. To my mother’s chagrin.

By then, I’d made the library my refuge. Life elsewhere in Tomah was small and hard — my parents busting up, Mom moving us around, my sister Peg hogging the bathroom, other kids kicking my ass in school, the TV on the fritz.

My library card, bent and dog-eared, was my ticket out. Dark wood and a constant hush, except for the creak in the staircase as you climbed, until the altar became visible, librarian presiding with stamp and inkpad. More books than I could ever read, but I could try. I squandered the shank of my childhood in that bar, partly to escape my home, but mostly to discover — and confirm with every book I read — that my destiny wasn’t Tomah at all, but out there. Someplace else.

I escaped for a long stretch into the lyrical South of Joel Chandler Harris. The drawl and blend, peppered with apostrophes, in the voices of Uncle Remus, B’rer Rabbit, B’rer Fox, B’rer Bear, challenged and captivated me. Harris has long been a controversial figure — a white author exploiting the vernacular of just-freed slaves and illiterate field hands, taking credit for their rich oral tradition and the magic fables that sprang therefrom. But my God, if no one capable of writing them down had listened to those folktales, found a way to translate their dense and musical argot into prose and share them with the world, what a loss to human culture— as though The Iliad and The Odyssey had perished on Homer’s deathbed.

During and after Uncle Remus, I prowled the library like Frank Buck in the jungle. I harvested eight, ten books at a time, devouring and digesting them, overnight. The first few times I appeared behind a stack of books half my height, the librarian said, “Are you sure you want all these books?” After a while, she understood, stamped the return date (ironically, because I was supposed to keep them two weeks) and sent me along. I was back the next afternoon.

I sailed the wine-dark sea with Robert Lewis Stevenson and went beneath, at least once a year, with Jules Verne. I read all the Landmark biographies, from Ben Franklin to Bob Hope. I tramped the Yukon with Jack London and Dangerous Dan McGrew. I spent Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo with General Doolittle and six hellish months with Richard Tregaskis on Guadalcanal. When I read Holling Clancy Holling’s classic history of a fictional snapping turtle, Minn of the Mississippi, I fell in love with natural history and checked out every field guide in the library, from bugs and arthropods to birds, mammals, fish, trees, flowers and fungi, reptiles, amphibians, cetaceans and crustaceans, including Pagoo, the hermit crab immortalized by, yes! Holling Clancy Holling. I lived the life of an otter, a cougar, a wolverine, a beaver and a wildlife photographer.

H.G. Wells launched me into space years before Gagarin and Shepard got there. Natty Bumppo led me through the Adirondack woods with Chingachgook and Uncas, and Mark Twain led me away from them with a blast of mockery. But Twain restored my wanderlust, with Tom and Huck on Minn’s Mississippi. A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court made me a time traveler and sent me into the history stacks, where I stumbled across the inimitable Hans Zinsser — Rats, Lice and History — whereat, also, I became a lifelong disease buff.

As a good Catholic, I knew my proper place of worship was St. Mary’s, up on the hill. But I looked around the church, every day (I had to) — whether I was in the pews, serving Low Mass or up in the loft singing the High Mass Agnus Dei with my classmates — and there was damn little to read. The joint had no books.

Okay, that’s not entirely accurate. Every Catholic church has three books, if you count the hymnal in the pew. There’s the Bible, but only one copy, it’s on the pulpit and you don’t dare borrow it. Finally, in St. Mary’s, every kid shlepped around his (or her) Daily Missal, which you used to follow along. It was “required reading,” so nobody actually read it. It contained no adventures and scant romance. There appeared no pirates, no prisons, no Indians, cowboys, soldiers, gangsters, no jungles, no mountains, no guns, not even any missiles, in the Daily Missal.

Which is why inexorably, irreversibly, the Tomah Public Library supplanted St. Mary’s as my place of worship. Because it had books, piles and piles —

There’s this scene in Centerburg Tales. A story called “Pie and Punch and You-Know-Whats” starts out with a mysterious figure entering the lunchroom of Homer’s Uncle Ulysses. He deposits in the jukebox a tune that he warns Homer to never play — which Homer and his pal Freddy immediately play, turning all of Centerburg into a community of compulsive crooners who can’t shake this contagious, maddening song about the holey whole hole in a whole doughnut.

The library looms as the town’s salvation when Homer recalls a book with an earworm antidote, a tune in which you must “punch, brother, punch with care, punch in the presence of the passenjare.” But Homer can’t remember either title or author, only — vaguely — the color of the cover. And so, a great, desperate, caterwauling throng descends upon the Centerburg Public Library, yanking books from shelves, appalling the librarian (until she starts singing, too!) and leafing frantically through every blue-backed or brown-backed book in search of relief.

A towering heap of discards accumulates, creating a scene the reader needn’t imagine because the storyteller, Robert McCloskey, is also a crack illustrator. When I was a kid, I lingered over that image — a mad Babel of flying fiction and exhausted singers — and pictured myself leaping, from the library balcony into that mountain of books.

An ocean, rather, where a fervent reader could paddle and dive, drinking in a paragraph, spitting out a pithy quote, spotting Moby Dick, frightening Pagoo, peering through a porthole of the Nautilus, where Capt. Nemo beckons me inside. Takes me around the world, 20,000 leagues or so, and drops me off… where?

Taipei? Cool!

On the waterfront, if they ask for a ticket, I reply, of course! Right here, in my Roy Rogers wallet, bent and dog-eared, punched with care, hundreds of times,  60-odd years ago in a little brick building — still standing and full of the world — in the 700 block of Superior Avenue.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Weekly Screed (#810)

Open Sesame
by David Benjamin

WASHINGTON — I thought it would be tough getting onto the White House grounds until I asked for help from the sneakiest political insider in D.C., an old friend from the Nixon/Agnew days who goes by the name of Kafka.

Kafka said, “Hey, no sweat. We’ll just waltz in through Devin’s door.”

“Devin?” I asked.”You don’t mean Devin Nunes, the disgraced chairman of the House Intelligence Committee?”

“That’s the one,” said Kafka. “He’s a good soldier. And give him credit. He might’ve spilled his guts about everything else, but he didn’t tell anybody about the door.”

National security prevents me from saying exactly where “Devin’s door” is, but there it was. “Voila,” said Kafka. “Hidden in plain sight.”

Just beyond this ill-secured wrought-iron gate, I saw the Rose Garden and the stately columns of the White House. The only evident sentries were two clean-cut kids, dressed like Mormon missionaries, who looked no older than 16.

“Hi, guys!” said the girl effervescently. “I’m Brenda!”

“And I’m Skippy,” said her young male counterpart.

“Wait a minute,” I said, as Kafka tried to hustle me through the gate. “Where are the White House guards? Where’s the Secret Service?”

“Oh, well, we’re, like, honorary Secret Service,” said Brenda, flushing proudly.

“Honorary?” I said. “But you look like you’re still in high school.”

Skippy took this one. “We are! We’re both honor students at The Blood of the Lamb Christian Academy in Methane, Iowa. We won the essay contest.”

“Essay contest?”

“Yes, the National Defenders of The President Essay Contest. It was sponsored by the Young Republicans of the Upper Midwest,” said Brenda. “And Skippy and me, golly, we had to enter because we’re, like, officers in the Eichmann Faction of the Young Republicans at school.”

“Yeah, we’re, like, role models,” said Skippy.

“ Wait! Eichmann?” I said. “That rings a bell.

“You really don’t want to go there, pal,” whispered Kafka, trying to nudge me along.
 
“You mean,” I said, “Adolf Eichmann?”

“Yeah, that’s the one,” said Skippy. “He was, like, the President or something in the Forties or Fifties, when everybody was, like, ‘I like Eich.’ Y’know?”

“Wait a minute, I think you kids have your Ikes mixed — ”

“Anyway,” Brenda said. “The essay topic, well, we loved it, ‘cause we’re, like, huuuuge Trump fans, y’know? Bigly!”

“Well, what did you write about?”

“The title was, ‘How the Sun Rises Metaphorically Out of Donald Trump’s Ass,’” said Skippy. “You see, a lot of the contestants didn’t get the ‘metaphor’ part. You’d be surprised how many of our friends really think the sun — ”

“But we weren’t, like, fooled,” boasted Brenda. “I mean, really. We might be just high-school students, but we weren’t actually, like, born yesterday.”

“I see,” I said. “So, you’re well-informed?”

“Oh, yes! We, like, read a lot. Y’know?”

I couldn’t resist a little quiz. I said, “So, how many people attended the Trump inauguration?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” said Skippy. “Seven million. The crowd stretched all the way to Maryland.”

“And Barack Obama was born…”

“In the village of Hugga-Bugga, in the Marxist jungles of darkest Kenya,” piped up Brenda, knowledgeably. “His mother was a race traitor from Kansas and his dad was a silverback lowland gorilla named Coco. I bet you don’t even know what the name ‘Barack Obama’ means in African.”

“In African? No, can’t say as I do,” I admitted.

“It means ‘Melvin of the Apes,’” said Skippy. “If more people only knew this, the American people wouldn’t have suffered through, like, eight years of, like, living hell, y’know?”

As Skippy was making this extraordinary assertion, I saw, approaching, two burly Secret Service agents decked out in black suits and Ray-Bans. I said, “Uh oh, the bulls.” Brenda and Skippy were unfazed.

They raised their hands, halting the agents. Brenda said, “Back off, boys. We got this.”

“Don’t worry, boys,” added Skippy. “We’ll get the signatures.”

“Signatures?” I asked, as the two agents meekly withdrew.

Kafka, obviously embarrassed, said, “Well, the only condition, before you can enter the White House grounds nowadays, is you gotta sign a Loyalty Oath.”

“A Loyalty Oath? Like the red scare in the Fifties, with Tailgunner Joe and the HUAC idiots?”

“Different times, different idiots,” said Kafka. “That was loyalty to America. This one’s more, well, personal.”

“Personal?”

Skippy, glowing with loyalty, held out a clipboard. Already signed by many others, the oath read, “I hereby swear absolute, heartfelt fealty, even unto death by horrible, horrible torture, to Donald Trump, smartest guy and greatest dealmaker ever in the world who got, like, thousands of electoral votes in history’s biggest landslide — ever — and never, ever, not once, laid a finger on a woman who wasn’t asking for it, passionately attracted to his bod and already starting to take off her clothes. So there. Sign below.”

“I have to sign this?”

“If you want to get in,” said Skippy.

“Don’t worry,” said Kafka. “Everybody signs. Look, here’s that Egyptian guy, Sisi. And Xi Jinping. Look here, even Ivanka has to sign in, every day.”

“Yeah!” said Brenda. “And she’s, like, a relative (but, like, Jewish, y’know?).”

“See here,” said Kafka, running his finger along the humiliating column of signatures. “Even Paul Ryan, the Speaker of the — ”

“Wait a minute,” I said. “isn’t that him? Paul Ryan? Over there?”

It was. Hastily, I consigned my soul to Trump and led Kafka by the sleeve, to Paul Ryan, who was rubbing a chamois cloth diligently over the finish of the presidential limousine.

“Mr. Speaker, my God!” I said. “What are you doing?”

Ryan rolled his eyes and spoke to Kafka. “Who is this guy? And what?” he said. “He was taking Moron Lessons from Brenda and Skippy?”

Before Kafka could answer, Ryan said to me. “What’s it look like I’m doing, dumbass?”

“Well, it looks like you’re detailing Trump’s ride.”

“Bingo,” said Ryan. “If I do a good job, then I’m a loyal do-bee. And I get a ten-minute private audience with His Imperial Tremendousness.”

Kafka whispered, “Hey, these days? It’s all about love, man.”

I shook my head. “Well, waxing the car,” I said. “I guess that’s better than having to kiss his sunrise ass, huh?”

Both Kafka and Ryan turned to stare at me, piteously.

“You mean?” I asked.

“You actually want to meet the guy, right?” said Kafka. “In the Oval Office?”

 The Speaker of the House handed me a tube of Chapstick and a Kleenex.

“Pucker up, dude.”