As some of you may know, my partner Toby Hobbes, aka dudley ghost is a musician / artist who frequently contributes mixed media to Jonathan Russell’s quarterly Monkeyshines zine. I have joined him in contributing to the hot-off-the-press Winter 2022 issue. Here is my contribution:
In a Queens, New York row house a mother and her infant begin their daily stroll. She pushes the carriage forward embarking on their route in these trying times.
She turns right into the kitchen then right through the living room another right into the dining room where mother and child are momentarily bathed in a sunbeam through the skylight.
Another right turn and it’s back through the kitchen again.
There’s a rhythm to the carriage wheels rolling on and off the area rugs. The mother chants along in a sing-song voice: Right turn, right turn, right turn, sun! Right turn, right turn, right turn, sun!
Around and around they go through the sunlight every 37 seconds. The child squints and laughs. The mother smiles through her song.
This moment in time she will always remember how she kept her baby safe. This moment in time she will never recount to a child too young to remember.
The mother’s efforts will not be in vain. The child will live for 101 years. Ultimately exposed by a grandson who didn’t trust the science.
Lying in an ambulance headed to Elmhurst Hospital There is some cellular recall. A flicker of a memory: Right turn, right turn, right turn, sun.
Monkeyshines | ˈməNGkēˌSHīnz | 1. pl. noun: Mischievous behavior. 2. noun What is probably the finest, best example of a zine in existence.
A little backstory…. I walk my dog in the alley behind a block of these row houses in Queens, New York. In the early months of the pandemic, I would see this woman pushing a stroller around inside her house. She would repeatedly pass by the dining room window, always entering on the right and exiting to the left, moving through a sunbeam from the skylight as she walked the stroller around and around. This image stayed with me as such an interesting symbol of the strange time we were living in…. this mother did not want to risk taking her baby outside, but infants are often calmed by the movement of a stroller, so she just kept circling around in the house, day after day.
As comparisons were made to the 1918 flu pandemic, it occurred to me that my grandmother was born in April of that year in Woodhaven, Queens. This is just a mile or two from where I live now. My great-grandparents lived in a row house and, with the birth of my grandmother, had three daughters under the age of 6. And yet there was never a single story passed down about how they made it through or what life was like at that time.
Back to the present: my partner and I see this guy around our neighborhood who lives on the next block in the house where he grew up. When the pandemic hit, he was caring for his elderly mother and was especially concerned about her health. As time progressed, it became clear that he was anti-mask and anti-vaxx. “For your mother’s sake, if nothing else,” I said; “you really should get vaccinated.” We started to avoid talking to him when we would see his stupid maskless face heading towards us.
His mother died last month. I am unclear on the circumstances.
I am not alone in saying that I always take comfort in the annual repetition of the holidays – revisiting holiday-themed music, film, television… and now internet posts as well. In fact, this post is a reworking of one I posted last year, not to get meta or anything.
I find it interesting that we immerse ourselves in certain pop culture favorites for exactly 6 weeks of the year and then pack them up in mothballs with the ornaments until next year. I mean, Bing Crosby, Brenda Lee and Johnny Mathis are rock stars from Thanksgiving through New Years. Are any of them on your 4th of July playlist? They aren’t on mine.
The film A Christmas Story has an even shorter (Elf on the) shelf life. We binge-watch the repeated broadcast for exactly 24 hours each year. I own it on Blu-ray and I’m not sure why: I have never opened it. To pop it in at any other time feels like a betrayal.
In keeping with this revisiting, blog posts of Christmas past are back to haunt you like A Christmas Carol, Mr. Scrooge:
Unfortunately, due to copyright issues all the links are broken on my 60 Degrees Girl Group Christmas piece. This also keeps me from posting other episodes of my old radio show – hopefully only temporarily. However… I have this to share:
Way back in 2002, when Limewire was a thing and people listened to music on silvery discs, I started creating Christmas CD mixes that I would mail out or give to people. These were received with a combination of feigned delight, veiled indifference and deafening silence. None of these CDs had a pressing of more than 20 copies. I’d like to call them “much sought after” – but no, that’s not really the case, although every once in a while, someone really got into them and would ask for copies of other volumes.
And so, I’m offering this simple playlist…. for kids from 1 to 92. Unfortunately many of the tracks on these dozen CDs are not on Spotify, but I keep adding songs that would be on the current CD volume… if there was one. And now the playlist is over 14 hours of holiday tunes. I recommend listening on shuffle – there’s something to irritate everyone. Enjoy!
Three years ago, I posted two collections of artist / photographer Don Herron’s Tub Shots, a series of photographs featuring the famous and near famous posing in their bathtubs. This coincided with an exhibition of 65 of the images at the Daniel Cooney Gallery here in NYC. My blog posts (Pt. 1 and Pt. II) still garner a considerable amount of traffic, so I thought I would share more of these photos – ones that didn’t make it into those original posts and others that have resurfaced since that time.
Pat Loud (1926-2021) was the matriarch of the Loud family, subject of the first reality series on American television. She later recalled that she only agreed to Don Herron’s request for a photo shoot if her friend and interior designer Richard Ridge posed as well. NYC (1978)
Every once in a while I find myself accidentally humming a Garth Brooks song called “Unanswered Prayers.” The gist of this 1991 country hit is that the singer runs into a girl he was in love with in high school. Back in the day, he prayed to God Almighty that they would stay together for the rest of their lives. Now he sees that time has not been kind to his old flame. He compares her to the hot babe he’s now got on his arm and thanks the Lord that he wasn’t saddled with that old mess for all those years. It’s really quite touching and heartfelt…. unless you are the first Mrs. Garth Brooks. He divorced her to marry Trisha Yearwood.
My life was at a crossroads when this little ditty was all over the radio. I was touring the country in a children’s theatre production of The Wizard of Oz. Previously, I had been working at Tower Records on Long Island and feeling rather lost after being cut from two different drama schools in the previous two years. I felt like I had twice slipped off the launchpad of my illustrious theatrical career. So there I was at 22 years old: depressed, living at my mother’s house, treading water in the old familiar pool of a record store.
One day at work I got a phone call from a former classmate who was now stage managing children’s theatre tours. He was calling to say that they needed a last-minute replacement for The Cowardly Lion on a Wizard of Oz tour, and could I be in Philadelphia to start rehearsals, tomorrow?
I had just come out of a meeting with my supervisor in which he told me I was doing an excellent job and if I kept up the good work, I would be moving up the record store hierarchy very soon. Now I had to go back into his office to clarify that the pro-company bullshit I had just shoveled at him was no longer relevant, and that he should start spreading the news, ‘cuz I’m leaving. Today.
I took off my polyester vest with the yellow and red name tag, headed down the yellow brick road and never looked back.
The 10 days of rehearsal were a blur. This was my first paying theatre gig, hired sight unseen and thrown in with people who actually auditioned and were cast in this show. I was a wreck. I hadn’t sang or danced in almost a year. I felt like I would be discovered as a fraud and fired before we even left Philly. Luckily I was playing the Cowardly Lion, so channeling that nervous energy wasn’t a broad stretch. I didn’t exactly transform into Bert Lahr, but I held my own. I worked my ass off to prove I belonged there. And it worked. Nobody had a clue how I got the job.
We hit the road and I soon learned that traveling in a non-union theatre tour is quite a unique experience. You get to know each other intimately in a very short period of time. Relationships develop. Alliances are formed and broken. It has all the drama of a reality show like Survivor or Big Brother, but in a van. This can be a nightmare situation with the wrong combination of people, as I would find out on subsequent tours. But this cast gelled well, onstage and off.
There were 9 of us floating from town to town – a microcosm in Glinda’s bubble. Together we weathered bad hotels, truck-stop food, common colds passed around the cast. We went to museums in Chicago, partied on Bourbon Street in New Orleans, broke down outside of Memphis, hit the beach in Miami, and got drunk… everywhere. We played venues ranging from a church basement in North Carolina to the opera house in Cleveland. I had never been to any of these places – some I still wish I could revisit, others I have no desire to see again.
The Tin Man caught my eye from the first day of rehearsal. Beneath the silver makeup was a golden boy: a blond-haired, blue-eyed dancer with a perfect rack of sparkling teeth. Truth be told, the boy couldn’t act his way out of a paper bag, and his singing voice…. well … it was kind of amazing: he had this uncanny ability to sound both sharp and flat at the same time.
But the boy had charisma. And when he started to dance, he lit up the stage. Your eyes would just go to him. It didn’t matter who else was there.
Besides his moves and physical appearance, he really was a golden boy in every way – a positive energy that just lifted me up and made me feel good. I tend to dwell in darker places, so this rather simple ray of sunshine totally captivated me.
Yes, he was simple. That needs to be mentioned. There was no deep thought process going on there. Let’s just say he was unencumbered with a lot of brain activity. I tend to get stuck in my own head so this was the breath of fresh air I needed.
It’s such a cliché – the blond hair, the blue eyes… I’m sorry but I totally fell for it. Given my dark coloring and more cerebral tendencies – not that I was curled up in the back of the van reading poetry, but I knew the difference between Proust and Juliet Prowse – the whole “opposites attract” factor worked in my favor.
My odds of nabbing the Tin Man were certainly helped by our situation. But we did have an undeniable rapport – everyone could see what was going on between us before anything physical actually occurred. And it did. Before long, The Tin Man and I decided to take ourselves out of the cast’s hotel roommate rotation and shacked up together full-time.
As the tour moved on and we passed through state after state, I began to meet different people from the Tin Man’s life. Ex-boyfriends, a potential new boyfriend he had put on hold until after the tour, the best girl-friend from home who had been in love with him since 8th grade…. with each new appearance, I’d get pushed aside until we headed to the next town. I’m afraid I did not react well to these situations, as I was reminded that the boy could have anyone he wanted, so why stick with me, other than the fact that I was on the tour?
The thing was, he played the helpless card pretty well. There was a dependence on others that worked like a charm, whether counting change or picking out clothes to wear. He needed to have someone there to pay attention, to help, to do things for him. I mistook this for a dependence on ME until I realized that this parade of people that passed through had all been in the position I currently held, and they were only too happy to jump back into that role when given the opportunity.
One day, I was having a conversation with the Wicked Witch, fairly oblivious to the feelings she may have had towards me. She was incredulous when I expressed my envy of our Tin Man. She was thoughtful for a minute and said, “Don’t you see? He is like… dessert. He’s strawberry shortcake. It’s delicious. Everyone wants it. But you can’t live on that. No nutritional value. You are……… a baked potato. It’s sturdy. A staple. It’s good for you. It’s not as showy as the strawberry shortcake, and people might not think to go for that initially – they want to go right for the dessert, but the baked potato is better for them.”
Now… I have repeated this to people through the years and it is always interesting to gauge the different reactions it elicits. Some perceive it as a total insult. Others “get it.” At the time she told me this, I got it. I understood what she was saying. It was not what I wanted to hear. I just wanted to continue gorging on the fucking dessert. But I got it.
Ah, the pain of hearing things you know are true but don’t want to hear. I remember, toward the end of the tour, we were in some Super 8 dive bar and the Tin Man slipped some money in the jukebox, which then started playing the aforementioned “Unanswered Prayers.” He was laughing and boozily sharp/flat singing it to the Wicked Witch. And she’s looking at me. And I realized that, as painful as it was to admit, the tour was ending and the golden boy would be gone. There was never any delusion that we would continue on together after the tour was over. He had another theatre job lined up and I was…. what the hell was I going to do? Go back to Tower Records?
I was scared to death. This band of friends, this lifestyle that I had grown accustomed too, making a living doing what I loved… well, a children’s theatre version of it, anyway… it was all about to go away. This trip to Oz had opened my eyes to the possibilities of my life. And very soon I was going to land back in my own black and white Kansas. I didn’t want to wake up from my Technicolor dream. Wasting time in a suburban record store was no longer an option.
The tour ended, as they do. I got an apartment in New York City with Glinda the Good Witch – you can read more about that transition here. I was hired back for a Babes In Toyland tour with the same company that fall. It was a total nightmare. But while in rehearsal, I did meet The Scarecrow from another Wizard Of Oz tour. He was not a golden boy, but he did have a certain glow… He also had a brain and appreciated the value of a baked potato. We were together for 9 years.
The Tin Man and I did end up working together again in summer stock the following year. By then, the spell had been broken. I had grown a lot and he had not. I saw him for the shallow, needy person that he really was. Yes, my heart would still flutter when he would gaze with those baby blues and smile that thousand-watt smile, but now they just seemed like tools in his arsenal: tactics to lure in the next “devotee du jour.” It was not necessarily calculated – just second-nature for him. I don’t think he had the capability to put that much thought behind it, even if he wanted to.
So he turned his attention elsewhere. And as I watched him work his golden magic on someone else, I’d hear the faint strains of a familiar song…. “Some of God’s greatest gifts… are Unanswered Praaaayers.”
This is the plea of a poor little tropical fish. It’s very sad and we must be very quiet, please.
Ladies and germs, it’s time once again to visit that celebrated lady of song, Madame Spivy LaVoe. To the uninitiated, allow me to get you up to speed:
Spivy (1906-1970) was a lesbian entertainer, nightclub owner and character actress, Spivy has been described as “The Female Noel Coward” – to which I add “…. if he had been born in Brooklyn as Bertha Levine.” You can read earlier posts about her here:
Today we will focus on A Tropical Fish. As with the previously mentioned Alley Cat, this song was co-written by Spivy with Jill “Billy” Rainsford. Both songs were featured on the 1939 78 record album Seven Gay Sophisticated Songs By Spivy.
As with Auntie’s Face, Spivy begins this song with her trademark “It’s very sad and we must be very quiet” spoken intro before launching into the tune, which tells the story of a tropical fish writing a letter of complaint to Fiorello LaGuardia, the Mayor of New York City (1934-1945).
A Tropical Fish
The butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, the clerk and the trombone player,
The child on the street and the ultra-elite all write letters to the mayor.
La Guardia’s most conscientious – he tries to grant everyone’s wish
But they went him one better when he got a letter from somebody’s tropical fish.
“Dear Mayor,” the letter began, “I’m writing as fish to man.
Our tank’s overheated and we’re being treated like common sardines in a can.
The way people watch us is quaint. Our privacy’s something what ain’t.
So be a good fella, my dear Fiorella and hear a poor fish’s complaint.
“To be quite specific, the food is terrific.
We’re on the hay diet – you really should try it.
It tastes like the hook – gee, I wish we could cook.
The service is lousy – we have no back-housey.
And it’s some spot to be in with no pot to … cook in.
“The innocent faunas are hiding in corners
Their love life is wearing with human eyes staring…
Why can’t we have covers like those birdcage lovers?
They’re hidden each night ‘til the morning sunlight
Then brought out to bath with no questions asked.
“Dear Mayor, I’ve been very frank… but you don’t know life in a tank.
Believe me, it’s hellish and you wouldn’t relish to sleep in the water you drank.
Now here’s what we tropicals wish: Some bedrooms to give us ambish.
Less public relations and more comfort stations.
A. Tropical Fish”
Lastly, here’s a syndicated article about Spivy that ran in newspapers across the country in late November, 1948. Note that her last name is mispelled “Devoe” with no mention of Bertha Levine.
Artist / writer Adam Donaldson Powell asked if I would contribute to his latest project, in which he invites artists, writers, musicians, and other performing artists from around the world to contribute essays about their work and lives during the COVID-19 pandemic and aftermath. Here is my contribution:
This Mother’s Day I’d like to tell you a little bit about my mom. Three days ago she got three neighbors out of their burning house minutes before a propane tank explosion. Here she is being interviewed on News 12 Long Island, followed by cell phone and doorbell cam footage of the explosion.
This should come as no surprise to anyone who knows my mother. She is half of a dynamic duo, paired for 25 years with Mike, my stepdad. In truth, they are part of a trio of superheroes that also includes my sister Jen the Emergency Room nurse, who I have previously written about here. They are the ones running towards the danger when everyone else is running away.
All three of them have a knack for being in the wrong place at the right time. My sister runs out to the grocery store and ends up tending to someone who collapsed in the checkout line. I have lost track of the number of car accidents in which they – singly or in pairs – were the first on scene, comforting and assisting the injured. Two years ago, a trip to Disney landed the three of them in the middle of a suicide scene in the hotel parking lot. Their bill was comped.
Happy Mother’s Day to Mom and Jen – we are always lucky to have you looking out for us.
Back in 2013, I spent 6 weeks on the jury of a murder trial in Manhattan. It ended in a hung jury, which was very frustrating, although the guy was retried and convicted the following year. Throughout the trial, there was one reporter who showed up at court every day. Other reporters would come and go, depending on who was testifying, but this one woman was always there. She looked like a fragile little bird, sitting alone in the courtroom.
After the trial was over, most of the jurors were escorted out a side door to scurry away, ashamed of their inability to reach a verdict. A couple of us went out front and spoke to the press. And there was the reporter. After six weeks, I was finally able to ask what publication she worked for. When she said “The New York Post,” I let out some sort of involuntary laugh/snort. I shook my head and was speechless for a moment. I had decided beforehand that I would not speak to a Post reporter. But it was her – the one who had paid the most attention.
I wish I could remember the exact wording I used to express my distaste for that piece of shit tabloid. I remember her assuring me that she was one of the many good reporters working there – “especially in the online version.” I know the last thing I said to her was “Be nice.” Now that the trial was over, I was able to go back and read what she had written. I found her trial reportage to be accurate and fair.
She should have left The New York Post years ago, when she still had a moral compass.
As one Twitterer observed: “breaking point” implies that there were other false stories. Wouldn’t it be great if she ‘fessed up to the other news items she was “forced” to fabricate? And where is the apology to the Vice President?
“$8 of Jarlsberg” is nearly a pound of cheese on a single nauseating sandwich.
Her boyfriend is awful, and
Adrian Grenier is a terrible actor.
Note that none of these observations have anything to do with Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly, which is why we all watch the movie repeatedly and her performance is beyond criticism, ok?
There is one thing that has bothered me since I saw this movie in its initial theatrical release. It distracts me whenever I watch it and I have waited 15 years for someone else to bring it up:
In the party scene where Andy first meets writer Christian Thompson, what the hell is going on with actor Simon Baker’s face?
For a movie that has undergone so much analysis and repeat viewing, I cannot be the only person who has noticed this.
This is only an issue in the first scene in which he appears.
When he comes back later, he has been color corrected and the Botox has relaxed.
This leads me to two theories:
A) Nobody realized what a terrible styling mistake had been made with the leading man until after they looked at the dailies for this party scene. The budget did not afford a re-shoot and they all thought “Well… it’s not THAT bad… onward and upward!”
B) They HAD to re-shoot or add this scene after production was completed and Mr. Baker was off playing a bleached, frozen-faced alien when they called him back to set.
When I started to do some research for this post, I typed “Devil Wears Prada Simon Baker” into Google, which then auto-populated “eyebrows”. So… it turns out, I am not alone in this.
The Detroit Metro Times panned the film and mentions “Simon Baker, whose bushy sage eyebrows look like they might help him take flight and flutter off in search of a better role.”
Other comments I found around the internet:
“Simon Baker’s eyes/eyebrows, especially in his first scene…. there was some weird grooming/Botox mojo going on that really distracted from the narrative.”
“….overly metrosexualized with the strangest blond eyebrows I have ever seen.”
“Simon Baker plays Christian Thompson in The Devil Wears Prada. Good actor, horrible eyebrows. I couldn’t take my eyes off of those creatures.”
I also came across a 2012 interview with Simon Baker in which he says ” “I had despicable eyebrows in that film so I always get comments about that!”
As a person with ample eyebrows myself (although not bleached, as my author photo can attest), I don’t find fault with his voluminous caterpillars throughout the film. It is just that first scene, when they appear to be overly bleached and perched atop a curiously frozen face..
I was a freshman theatre major at Syracuse University when I scribbled this in my journal one bright spring day in 1988:
I’m writing at Oakwood Cemetery, where we are sitting on the steps of the Brown Mausoleum. People might think it’s morbid to hang out in a cemetery, but I love it here – so beautiful and peaceful. If we were sitting in the Quad, with radios blaring and frisbees flying around, I couldn’t relax – it always feels like a fight is just waiting to break out. There’s no judgement here. Other kids walk by every so often but it’s very quiet. I’ve heard that drug deals go on here at night though.
So young. So innocent. So little insight. Then again, I was 19 years old and this was before that kid boiled John Crouse’s head.
Oakwood is an 160 acre cemetery adjacent to the Syracuse University campus. Their website advertises “a grand array of monuments and mausoleums which form a virtual outdoor museum of funerary sculpture and architecture while mirroring the lives of Syracuse’s Victorian families.”
The cemetery was an alternative hangout for us – actors and artists clad in vintage chic attire, toting journals, sketchbooks and cameras. We didn’t come to SU for the sports or fraternity life. The typical campus hangout spots weren’t always the best places to relax so we went to the cemetery. We were respectful, but not everyone else subscribed to the ‘Take only pictures, leave only footprints’ credo and this is why we can’t have nice things.
In October of that year, freshman art student Kevin McQuain thought it would be a good idea to steal a human head from a mausoleum “to use as a model for sculpture class.” He brought it back to his dorm – the nearby Flint Hall – and proceeded to try and clean the odious noggin by boiling it with bleach in a trashcan placed on the stove of the 3rd floor common area. Residents were alarmed by the stench and even more so when they discovered the source. McQuain and two of his friends were arrested.
Two factors helped this to become a national news story:
a) It was Halloween season.
b) It wasn’t just any old skull in the trashcan.
The vandalized mausoleum contained John and Catherine Crouse and their two sons. The Crouse family was a wealthy philanthropic clan that loomed large in the area for generations. A fair percentage of the city of Syracuse bears the Crouse name. John created the University’s Crouse College to honor his wife. Their son, John J. Crouse served as the mayor of Syracuse. All of the coffins in the tomb were vandalized, but the cranium in question belonged to John Jr.
From The Syracuse Herald, 10/21/88 and a 1920’s postcard for Crouse College:
By the time McQuain and his friends went to court in early 1989, national news outlets had lost interest, leaving reportage to the local Syracuse papers. McQuain pled guilty and was properly contrite under advice of council. The charges against his accomplices were dropped, yet all three received the same sentence: 200 hours of community service.
From The Syracuse Times, 1/26/89:
Universities tend to frown upon students who cook the heads of their benefactors. Following McQuain’s sentencing his scholarship was revoked. Follow up newspaper articles state that he left Syracuse due to a lack of funds, but he did complete his undergraduate education at Alfred University, which is not exactly the Dollar Tree of higher education. Perhaps it was best for all concerned that he made a fresh start outside of Onondaga County.
There is a 2002 follow-up piece from the Syracuse Post Standard that keeps getting… ahem… dug up… every few years and reprinted around Halloween. It’s about how poor Kevin McQuain got stuck with a nickname that he could not shake. His friends dubbed him “Skully.” And he decided “to embrace it.” He went on to form a Goth/Rockabilly record label called Skully Records, which he apparently still runs himself as a side hustle to his every day technical services job.
In 2015, he self-published a vampire/punk novel under the name Kevin Skully McQuain. He also designs t-shirts.
Somehow this unavoidable handle does not force itself onto his professional resume: it just leaks into his side projects when the macabre notoriety might help bump things up a notch.
But oh, how the nickname plagues him! He CANNOT escape it.
Here’s the thing: I’ve been called several things throughout my life that I have hated. I assume that you, dear reader, have had one or two nicknames as well. But I don’t know yours and you don’t know mine… because we did not hyphenate them into our names.
How contrite is a person if he is still trying to milk the last ounce of notoriety out of something he stupidly did over 30 years ago? If you made a mistake at 18 – and who hasn’t? – would you allow that thing to be the defining moment of your life? Would you still call yourself “Farty” because you once let one rip in gym class? Is that all ya got?
McQuain is married and a father now, and I can’t help but wonder: at what point in the dating process does one explain the origin of “Skully”? Third date? Over dinner? And what is the appropriate age to sit your child down to explain that you once desecrated a corpse? “Yes, Jayden, Skully-daddy did boil the mayor of Syracuse’s head, but listen…. that was a bad idea, ok?”
Back in 2002, McQuain said “That was a mistake I made when I was young, and I’m fortunate that it didn’t stigmatize me for the rest of my life.” And yet, at 50 years old, he still holds on to the “Skully” nickname, with the backstory tucked into the pocket of his aging punk-rock jeans, ready to whip out and exploit whenever he has a new artistic endeavor that might need a little publicity boost.
In 1988, Kevin McQuain walked out of Oakwood Cemetery with the head of John Crouse in a paper bag, intent on using it as a prop for his art. Over 30 years later, he still finds it quite useful.