Bobby Burns, Time Traveller
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—a time traveller from the black and white age of ballrooms and natty suits. The facts of his biography mattered less than how a whole crowd of kids a quarter of 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 out more things; 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 and 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.
In web design, a breadcrumb is that little string of text at the top of the page that shows where you are in the overall site navigation. It’s a listing of each previous page in the organizational hierarchy that you travelled across from the homepage to get where you are. Each page name is connected with a text character called a caret (>) to show directional flow.
The breadcrumb as a navigational reference dates to the early nineteenth century German fairy tale Hansel and Gretal. Like a lot of Brothers Grimm tales, this one follows an absolutely savage premise wherein two kids have been abandoned deep in the forest by their parents. Things go from bad to worse when brother and sister then encounter a cannibalistic witch who lives in a gingerbread house. But the protagonists are clever, and manage to outwit the witch and return home by following a trail of breadcrumbs they had dropped on the journey in.
The concept of finding one’s way home is loaded with all kinds of deeper existential meaning, the purview of storytellers and crooners and deep thinkers across centuries and cultures. Going home is the mythical human journey, essential element of all story arcs—to make one’s way out and away from home, out into the wide world, to quest and seek and explore...after which the questing hero attempts to return back to the homeland, real or imagined. The catch is that the return home is a futile mission in psychic terms. The word “Hiraeth” is a Gaelic expression for this futility: Homesickness for a place that no longer exists.
This most human of plot lines is found in so many literary examples, from Homer forward to Wolfe’s telegraphic title “You Can’t Go Home Again.” It is summed up with all necessary optimism in this little quatrain by the poet T.S. Eliot:
We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
In the maudlin canon of all things concerning “returning home,” there is a more contemporary example from the pop song Fix You by Coldplay, the chorus of which suggests “Lights will guide you home.” But if they’ve forgotten to turn on the lights, here’s hoping you are clever enough to follow the breadcrumbs!
Thru the Windows at Capitol & 21st
Our office windows look out at a bus stop shelter along 21st Street where yesterday morning there was a typewriter sitting there on the sidewalk. I puzzled over the abandoned obsolete machine for a while. Just one random thing in a menagerie out this window...the lost souls and crazy naked people, the hipsters and fashionistas, the purposeful walkers...all manner of relationship drama. “Young lady, forgive him. He didn’t mean it. Oh, he did what? Well Godspeed young lovers...” And the regular appearance of the brew bike people...loud enthusiasms, contrived celebratory madness. Party on Wayne!
For a while in the late afternoons there was this stylish older guy who sauntered along singing opera. He looked like the kind of maestro you might see on a great Italian stage, the gravitas, the mustachio, the silk cloth in his hand as he belted out soaring arias and made supplicant gestures to the heavens. Who is Opera Man, sent to entertain us mortals? There is this other guy who propels himself on a long skateboard via a tall staff, working this novel transport solution like a latter day gondolier. He is a singular figure gliding down the street with long hair, sneakers and mirror shades.
Later in the day the typewriter was gone. I am amused and haunted by all the strange and beautiful scenery thru this urban portal. It fills the space between writing articles and proposals and the other mundane toilings of the information worker. Keep Midtown Janky indeed!
We Were the Honkys
Of my 664 Facebook friends, exactly two are Black. I’m a middle aged white guy who has watched the explosion of racial injustice from the comfort of an affluent neighborhood full of people unaware of the privileges that history has given them. It is not uncommon to hear from neighbors the whisperings of old law and order arguments that verge on blaming the victims of racism. We’ve all heard these before.
But it wasn’t always this way in my life. I grew up in a series of diverse neighborhoods in the city of Pittsburgh. We swam at public pools with lots of Black kids, kids from all over the city. We rode city buses with a wide cross section of people. We hung out at the East Liberty YMCA, where you would see dudes wearing African tribal shirts, called dashikis. The era of Black Power was in full effect. In 1973 my well-meaning parents signed up for a voluntary program where for two years I was bussed into the low income housing projects in the eastern part of the city. The progressive idea of that era was that this would speed the integration of society.
We white kids were a tiny minority in an all black school. We were the honkys. We played kickball on the asphalt and had friends from the neighborhood. In the age of big afros and soul stylings we white kids carried hair picks in our pockets and wore platform shoes. You gotta fit in. It was a tough school, and we navigated the bullies just like at any tough school. A third grader doesn’t understand all the racial dynamics...he just wants to be a kid.
After that, we moved to a different neighborhood and my brothers and I went to a different multi-racial school. Then in 5th grade, our mom moved us to an all white working class neighborhood along the river. We ran with this crowd of river rats, kids of the factory workers and tradesmen. It was a typical racist culture of that era and that region, with N-bombs dropped all the time. At that time, Pittsburgh was still very much a melting pot city where you didn’t want to get caught across the wrong neighborhood boundary. Although our family was more educated than that, I joined in on the racism at times to fit in. This gang of kids would venture into Black neighborhoods looking for fights. I am ashamed to say I joined in on one of these terrible missions.
After college I moved to California, partly to get away from the old entrenched harshness of the industrial east coast. And Cali has proved to be more chill and progressive and sunny. And for the past decades my wife and I have raised our family in this white neighborhood and sent our kids to private catholic schools. In this culture, when race and political stuff comes up, I usually just shut my mouth. I know that’s probably not right, but it’s been important to me to live in harmony with my neighbors and allow my kids to fit into this culture.
I just wanted to share my experience with race. These tragic murders of Black people at the hands of the authority structure go back to the Civil War and beyond. Real culture change won’t happen until bad cops are punished severely for violating the public trust (currently 99% are never charged). That won’t happen until we elect leaders with real moral courage. And that definitely won’t happen when the right to vote is being systematically taken away from Blacks and minorities all across the country. Black lives matter.
Every so often I'll be driving down J Street, past the hospital, and catch a glimpse of the sidewalk along there. And I flash back to so many years ago when we would walk down that sidewalk to the coffee shop on Saturday mornings, a chaotic family unit of three small kids and two big dogs, sometimes with strollers or kids in backpacks. There was the sense of an outing, and dogs, kids and strollers would get tangled up periodically. At the time I probably wasn't thinking about the experience—I was just trying to keep our forward momentum.
I'm not so much for predetermination, but looking back, those were the times in my life, walking with Meg and the kids on that sidewalk, when I was right where I was supposed to be. This is one of the few things amid the vast absurdities of life that makes perfect sense to me.
Pandemic Part 1