The Ghost of Bobby Burns
The ghost of Bobby Burns shambles along, flashing a sweet, missing-teeth, wasted grin, hollering across the street: ‘Yabba Zabba, Baby!' his signature hepcat greeting shouted with magnanimous wave and flourish, maybe a little mock jig, in loud plaid pants and shiny white shoes. Yeah, there were always vague rumors that he had been a session man on the drums for the likes of Sinatra and Tommy Dorsey. The facts of his biography mattered less than how a whole crowd of kids a quarter his age adopted him, drawn to his singular genius for life, a particular vintage alcoholic, swaggering enthusiasm.
He's a ghost now, and every year a few guys go drink whisky on his grave. Midtown is full of ghosts now—all the stuff that’s disappeared or left behind: The Sam’s Hofbrau sign just got pulled down this year. Odd to see that neon icon unceremoniously hauled away on a flatbed truck, the pudgy, pink cheeked man in a chef's hat still offering up a piping hot roasted ham. And that friendly little spot hidden in the concrete bowels of the downtown shopping mall, with it’s unlikely transportation backstory. In the dark subterranean catacomb of the Preflight Lounge the swingin 70s were archivally frozen in time. It was just razed to make way for a glass basketball arena that will resemble a spaceship.
The list goes on: a secret lunch counter in the produce docks, the Beat Records, finally swamped over by the inevitable wave of digital music…now it's a suburban chain store. And the Monte Carlo, little corner tavern whose sign boasted ‘Open at 6 am.’ Where are the haunted winos who sat in those dive joints? Sunk deeper into dementia? Or finally reached the last call?
Our crowd of janky midtown punks, scenesters and art freaks rails against the new luxury lofts, high concept eateries and bro bars. But we are getting old and fat, clinging to our antiquated eccentric, late century, counterculture memories. History doesn’t give a shit about our finely honed vintage aesthetic. Time churns and swallows us up as we puzzle over why the things we treasure just don't matter to the newcomers. This is their time, and we have crossed over, the way Bobby Burns did, to some sort of far side from which things must have looked a little strange and unrecognizable. Say it now, with a knowing, wasted sort of enthusiasm: ‘Yabba Zabba Baby!’
Footage of the fabled Doo-Dah parade, circa 1993, in which Bobby and his drum kit are carried down Capital Avenue on a litter by a worshipful pagan troupe. Video by John Milne.
Picture of Sarah in a Garden
This is a photo of Sarah many years ago in a little garden in Bodega Bay, at Kelly and John’s wedding. They were so happy that day, Kelly who babysat our kids and worked for Megan’s sister. Kelly who found the man of her dreams after so many years playing an extra in other people’s dreams.
Megan captured this image of Sarah, from behind, the half silhouette of a little girl in her party dress, walking through a spot of sunlight, framed just so by bushes and evergreen branches and flowers, her right arm slightly extended in a wayfinding gesture.
Photographers spend lifetimes waiting for a shot like this, this particular digital arrangement of pixels, proxy of the unexpressed universe. Sarah was maybe five or six, like Alice walking through the tangles of a monochrome wonderland.
John left us way too early, just a few years after their marriage. He had a heart condition, and one day he just pulled over on the side of the road and died, their little daughter Vivian in the car with him. The last thing he did was roll up the windows and lock the doors so she would be safe.
Now Kelly is raising Vivian. Sarah has grown into a beautiful young lady ready for high school. I wonder if that garden is still there? Megan captured this precious moment—some things happen exactly once.
Halloween Ghosts & Magic
Our youngest is in high school, the last kid in the nest. But tonight she is out with her friends, so Meg and I are sitting around the house like lonely old people waiting for the next ring of the doorbell.
On a night like this I can't help drifting back to those times we had, racing around the neighborhood at dusk, the kids in Target costumes clutching pillow cases, animating their carefully chosen alter egos. And my mom, “Mimi,” would make her annual appearance in that goofy outfit, some kind of a mis-mash craft store sorceress. As much as she looked forward to her star turn with the kids, they just couldn't wait to get through the preliminaries and race out the door.
We hit the streets with the efficiency of a door-to-door sales operation, trying to maximize the candy haul. At the end of the night, the kids would dump their bags on the carpet in the front room and commence the serious task of sorting...and gorging themselves on high fructose corn syrup. Like any self-respecting dad, I’d beg for morsels and poach unguarded treats, rebuffed by Audrey’s withering stare.
There is a primal magic about Halloween—the joy of the costume ritual, the flirtation with human terror in a kid’s heart, the departure from normal school night rules. But that magic was a bit obscured from me back then, because we were so caught up in the chaos of managing the whole thing.
The house feels lonely now, but all evening I get a glimpse of that magic framed in the front door: all the runny nosed devils, the wide eyed princesses, trading in the currency of Baby Ruth bars and Starbursts, begging to stay up just a little bit later.
Tonight, the ghosts are real. Memory fills in the missing pieces, and conjures up the things that had been obscured from view—but not until after those things are long gone.
Vote for Crazy Uncle
Campaign speech to the family on Christmas Eve
Earlier this year, Uncle George suggested I might be a frontrunner for the role of Crazy Uncle in our family. Initially I was resistant, thinking, "how dare you suggest that! I am a normal guy, a low key guy. I'm not that guy."
But the more I thought about it, the more the idea has grown on me. Crazy Uncle...it has a nice ring to it, and it might give me that sense of purpose in life that I've been seeking.
So, I have come around on this question, and am now actively seeking this role. And to be clear, this isn't about me... I'm thinking about the kids, these precious children here, who need a crazy uncle. After all, imagine the thought of growing up without a crazy uncle. What a tragedy that would be.
If you elect me Crazy Uncle, I make the following pledge to you:
I will try to increase my alcohol consumption, and be visibly drunk more often;
I will make more ill advised remarks, will blurt more things out; will downgrade my table manners;
I will tell politically incorrect jokes, and recommend age-inappropriate content. I will make fun of serious things...and I will reserve the right to mock sincere, well meaning people.
I will be that middle aged guy trying a little too hard to be hip and youthful;
I will finally pull the trigger on matching track suits for Megan and me.
If you kids seek my counsel, I will be there for you with questionable advice and get-rich-quick schemes. I will be there for you with apocryphal stories (I will use big words needlessly). I will recommend shallow solutions to complex problems...trust me on this.
If you elect me to the position of Crazy Uncle, we will make this family crazy again! It's going to be tremendous, gonna be really fantastic. I guarantee it. Thank you and God Bless!
Coach John Stone
Hey Sean, I just heard from Bill Rapp about the passing of your dad. I’ve been thinking about John all afternoon. I pulled out some of the team photos from when the three of us coached together, and that brought back great memories. He was a steady presence in the dugout and at practices. He gave a lot of his time to the boys...during a period when he was struggling through some health issues.
On the exterior, John was a hard-nosed ball coach. You and I used to chuckle when we heard him grumbling or launching into a rant about the umps. We gave each other a knowing look whenever we heard his ever present advice to the kids to ‘bring a jacket to practice’ so their arms didn’t get strained in the early season weather. But underneath the grumbling exterior he had a lot of love for those kids. I remember him pulling kids aside and asking about how school was going, and telling them that studies came first. And asking about their families. He had a genuinely warm, caring side.
You are I were new to coaching—we were just trying to figure out how to be good coaches. He had coached for something like 30 years. But he didn’t try to pull rank. He let us run the show...making sure he always gave us his opinion (actually the three of us were mostly on the same page in terms of practice and game decisions). He had a real love of the game, and a sense of respect for the game. That’s one of the big lessons he taught me...respect for the game and the right way to do things on the diamond.
I am looking at the team pic from the 2007 season. It seems like a long time ago. The kids are tiny. The grass is so green in the springtime when team photos are taken. And there’s John in the back row with a River Park Indians cap on. The more years that go by, the more I treasure that time period—when Evan and Jonathan were learning the game. There was a purity to those few years compared to the hyper-competitive sports leagues the boys are now in.
People read a lot of things into the game of baseball. If it gave me a chance to coach with a man like John Stone, then it’s a helluva game for that reason alone. Peace and prayers to you, Johnny and your family. Your friend, Justin.