Mind Games, From Texas to Brooklyn

On a recent visit to the Brooklyn Museum, I checked my backpack. When I retrieved it several hours later, I noticed a piece of paper tucked into its outside webbing. The page had been torn from a museum map and said this on it:

I caught you staring at me from across the room but you didn’t come right over. Were you being coy, well it worked. Maybe you felt the need to see the others, knowing that I would seize your full attention. You held your hands behind your back, resisting your desire to touch me. I longed for you to come close but we had to keep our distance under the watchful eye of another. You slowed, staying long enough to see all sides of me. You quietly traced my contours with your looking. I am wondering how I appeared in your eyes. I don’t know if I am projecting but you seemed to be trying to uncover something, as if I held a secret for you. So did you get what you wanted from me? Course I am left with the lingering feeling of our encounter.

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That’s all. No address, no name, no closure. After my pulse returned to normal, I wet a finger and ran it across a word to see if this was, in fact, an actual written note and not a pre-printed piece of performance art that some transgressive artist had photocopied and stuck into my backpack as performance art.

The black letter smeared slightly. The writing was real.

I thought about this mind game of a note, which did not match any reality that occurred that evening at the museum, where I strolled with my girlfriend the whole time. The only time a note could have been slipped into my backpack was when it was in the check room. Not even a Mossad super-agent could have done the drop in the seconds between the time I got the backpack and when I noticed the note.

I’m left with a mystery of identity and intent that cannot be solved.

This comes about 40 years after other mysterious notes blossomed in my locker in high school. The similarity in anonymous, teasing targeting is remarkable. Somebody knows how to get inside my head, first in 1975 when I was a teen, then 40 years later when I’m past middle age and relentlessly approaching senior citizen status. Times change, but the mysteries of human contact linger on.

I still have the notes from the years of high school confidential. They bore the initials “M.R.” The apogee came with the piece shown below. I thought I had saved them, but I can’t find them. Somehow I expressed my curiosity to M.R. and she responded with loopy adolescent female notes that eventually make references to her buck teeth. I’ve turned over every file and yearbook I have but can’t find anything but the piece de resistance, a piece of heavy mat card, colored on one side in a stylized “W” and written on the other.

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The back of the card said, “Someone lost something, all yours, FINDERS KEEPERS. This is a suviner from an admirer ‘M.R.'”

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I never heard anything else. I doubt M.R. used her actual initials. It could be one person, it could have been a group project from kids who wanted to see how I’d react. I imagine I reacted exactly the way they wanted me to.

Forty years later, the note in the Brooklyn Museum sent my musings backward to M.R. For all I know M.R. and I are connected on Facebook, or I’ll see her (and never know) at my fortieth high school reunion next summer in the pulsing humid heat of Hidalgo County, Texas. Maybe she’ll read this and come clean, if she even remembers.

In the age of Facebook, Twitter, instant messaging and the other digital toys, I wonder if the art of the handwritten anonymous mash note has been lost, dissolved and made beyond quaint in the waves of the Web. The Brooklyn writer must at least be in her 40s to have the wit and drive to actually write an anonymous note. I can’t see somebody raised on iPhones doing that. Writing a note and sticking it in a book bag or in a locker — that’s basic training in the emotional arena of mind games. The impulses must play out online, but I just don’t know. I can safely guess, however, that nobody is going to hang on to a tweet or IM for 40 years.

A Farewell to Camo

I couldn’t sign in to Gmail. I couldn’t check street directions. My cell phone photos were lame. I couldn’t IM on the run.

In short, I had a very old cell phone that worked well for calls and texts and not much else. While my LG Chocolate had served me loyally since early 2010 (early Jurassic period in cell phone years), I felt increasing pressure to trade up (way up) to a new-fangled smart phone. Every time I looked at the Verizon Wireless site, I promptly got emails and even calls enticing me to get something fresh and new.

Finally, something clicked, or snapped, and last weekend I became the proud owner of a Samsung Galaxy S5 from Costco.

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The oddest part of the change involved not the phone, but the cell phone holder. While the Galaxy is my fifth cell phone since 2001, I have had the same cell phone belt holder since 2003. It’s been a faithful companion, literally by my side for 11 years through untold tens of thousands of miles of train commuting plus trips to Brazil, Mexico, Canada, Cuba, the Czech Republic and Germany. Cell phones came and went, but that cell phone holder remained.

I can still remember when and where I bought it during a visit to my brother in Houston May 2003. We visited a Fry’s Electronics store to take care of my digital lifestyle needs. I walked out of the store with two epochal purchases. First, I got a Vivitar Vivicam, a one-pixel (!) camera that marked my entry into digital photography (and not a bad little webcam, either). My 20-year old Canon AE-1, purchased at infamous 47th Street Photo in New York in November 1981, immediately became an antique.

And I got what struck me as a funky and anti-East Coast accessory for my cell phone, a camo pouch with a Velcro flap that came down to keep the phone in place. I liked it and it liked me back. The holder held my phone well, back in the era when cell phones were not multimedia slabs the size of roof tiles. The camo especially appealed to me, redolent of the huntin’ and fishin’ culture I grew up with in Mission, Texas, on the Mexican border. With my camo, I felt a tiny bit like a real Texas bad-ass when it hung off my belt, an incongruous sight on the 7:17 a.m. train from Fairfield County, Connecticut to Grand Central Station. TSA airport security guys especially eyed it. Fortunately, they never got nervous and Tased me as a suspicious character—but I learned to calm them down by taking the holder off at security screenings, along with my college ring, wallet, shoes, keys and any other items they wanted to finger.

When I got the Galaxy, I knew it was far too bulky to fit in the camo holder. Could I at least maintain this odd-ball style element? I looked around online for suitable camo or western-style holders, but nothing looked sturdy enough. Meanwhile, I heard sensible advice from smartphone veterans that I should skip the outdoorsy fashionista posing to get a sturdy case that covered the delicate glass corners of my smart phone. Some day, they said, I’ll drop the phone and I’ll want its delicate innards and outtards protected.

That made sense. I nosed around online and got a feel for what I needed. Then I went to Staples in New York and got the biggest, baddest, blackest holder I could find, a rugged Otter Box that swaths my sensitive Galaxy in rigid plastic that looks like it could withstand a direct hit from a sledgehammer. When I snap it on my belt, I feel like RoboCop.

So, farewell my camo companion. We had a great run all over the world, lots of memorable calls and texts came my way from those buzzing little flip phones you so ably cradled. But I’ve got a new techno fetish object hanging off my belt now.

1969, the Summer of the Astros

Think Major League Baseball in 1969, and everybody rightfully remembers the Amazin’ Mets who went all the way and won the World Series. For me, however, 1969 was the glorious summer of the Houston Astros. The apogee of their great ride for the year took place exactly 45 years ago today, July 30, 1969 — more on that in a moment.

The Mets and the Astros grew up together as expansion teams in the National League. The Astros began in 1962 as the Colt .45s, then changed their name when they moved into the Eighth Wonder of the World, the Astrodome. I remember going to the Dome in 1966 and being stunned at the enormous structure with the colorful seats, air conditioning and soaring rounded roof. Coming from Mission, Texas, pop. 11,000 at the time, this first-hand exposure to the Big Leagues made me a confirmed Astros fan.

I had an Astros poster in my bedroom, and I read the Street & Smith Baseball Yearbook cover to cover. For my 12th birthday in 1969 my mother delighted me with the massive first edition of the MacMillan Baseball Encyclopedia, which I scoured the way Baptist preachers turn to the Bible for inspiration. Look, there’s Babe Ruth! Old Hoss Radbourne! Baseball replaced cars as my adolescent obsession, although girls soon replaced both. And baseball was more than a reading interest; I played for four years as a bench-warming near-sighted right fielder in Farm League and Bronco League. In 1969 I played for the Lions Club team, doing what I could with my beloved Rawlings “Brooks Robinson” glove. Like Calvin with his Hobbes, I will always have my battered, frayed, faded but undaunted glove.


Transistor radios gave me access to the Astros games, beaming through the humid Texas atmosphere almost 400 miles from Houston to Mission. The tinny sound took me to the big cities and the famous stadiums where the Astros played—Wrigley, Candlestick, Busch and Shea, the home of the Mets. I especially remember listening to Astros games when my family returned home on a Sunday afternoon from vacation in San Antonio. My mother would tune in the game on the 250-mile drive in our 1968 Chevy Impala (with the white vinyl roof) and we’d listen to the game as we passed through the flat brush and farm country interrupted by the towns of Pleasanton, Campbellton, Three Rivers, George West, Alice, Falfurrias (home then and now of the Border Patrol checkpoint) and tiny Rachal that separated the rest of Texas from the Rio Grande Valley across from Mexico.

The great thing about baseball was that the games just kept on coming. As much as I loved the Dallas Cowboys (Mission was the home town of coach Tom Landry), they only played 14 games in the regular season. The Astros, however, played 162 games, with the scratchy sound flowing for hours most nights from the little radios around Mission. Like a true kid fan, I couldn’t wait for the games to come on, and to check the box scores and standings the next day in the McAllen Monitor or Corpus Christi Caller. I can still hear the announcers’ voices in my head.

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Looking at the 1969 team roster, all the memories flooded back with names that I learned by heart 45 years ago. I couldn’t name a single player in the current Astros roster, but I can reel off plenty of players from the ’69 Astros: Larry Dierker, Jack Billingham, Wade Blasingame, Don Wilson, Jim Ray, Fred Gladding, Jim Wynn, Dennis Menke, Johnny Edwards, Doug Rader, Joe Morgan.

The Astros and the Mets crossed paths in memorable games that season. One bump on the Mets’ improbable road to glory came when the Astros swept two three-game series. I remember the apex, the very apotheosis, of my Astros summer came on July 30, when the Astros took a doubleheader at Shea Stadium, 16-3 in the first game (Jim Ray got the win, Fred Gladding the save, Jerry Koosman the loss) and 11-5 in the second game, Larry Dierker with the win and iron-man reliever Gladding picking up his 21st save, Gary Gentry took the loss..

The first game especially stands out in my mind because Gladding batted twice and got a hit. Now, a pitcher getting a hit in a major-league game is always notable. For Gladding, that hit against the Mets marked the only hit in his major league career with the Tigers and the Astros, giving him a lifetime batting average of .016, 1-for-63, the lowest non-zero batting average in MLB history. And I can say . . . I was there listening when he got that one hit. The Astros announcers were suitably giddy and stunned when Gladding unleashed the heavy lumber for his shining moment as a batter.

Gladding led the majors in saves that year, with 27. The Astros finished at .500, 81-81, for their first non-losing season. The legendary Mets—they beat the Orioles in the World Series. In the decades to come I would attend games at Shea Stadium, and during return trips to Texas I’ve seen an Astros game or two at Minute Maid Park, which replaced the outmoded Astrodome. The Mets won the World Series again in 1986, and the Astros won the National League championship in 2005 but lost the World Series in a sweep to the Chicago White Sox. Recent Astros seasons have been horrendous, although I read in Sports Illustrated that the team has embarked on a statistics-driven rebuilding campaign; I wish them well.

My interest in following any pro team with boyhood zeal faded long ago, when I moved from Texas to the Northeast. I politely cheer on the Mets and the Texas Rangers in their pennant runs and I cringed when the Rangers lost the World Series in 2010 and 2011. Games are too loud, too long and too late for my preference. No sports event should last longer than parts one and two of “The Godfather.” I like watching the plays of the day on ESPN when I go to the gym, but that’s it for the regular season.

Still, nothing will erase the memory of the Astros summer of 1969, when a boy, a transistor radio and a team combined for sports magic.

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Jack Brabham and the Car-Crazy Kid

I read recently of the death of Jack Brabham, 88, a renowned Australian race car driver who was active from the 1940s to 1970. The name and the news took me way back, 45 years at least, to when I was a car-crazy kid who avidly read Car and Driver, Hot Rod and other car magazines to keep up with the racing news.

My father, a racing enthusiast who named my brother Cooper and me after cars or drivers, must have influenced this interest, although he lived far away. As a somewhat-typical American boy, cars fascinated me, anyway. I built plastic and metal models; my mother used to take my metal parts to the Tipton Chevrolet dealership in Mission, Texas, where the guys in the repair shop would happily prime the pieces before I painstakingly painted them (a big thanks to my friend Renee Zamora-Hernandez for confirming that Tipton was the name of the dealership in the 1960s). I avidly collected the glossy marketing brochures from Tipton and Spikes Ford in Mission. Salesmen sometimes found me in their showrooms sitting in the cars, dreaming.

On the long drives to San Antonio for family vacations, my brother and I competed in car-counting games. I took Cadillac, he took Mustang, and we kept track of the number we saw to see which was the most popular car on the 250 miles of highway going up to the Alamo City.

I never cared so much for the mechanics of cars as for the culture, especially the speed side of cars. Indy racing, Can-Am, Formula 1, drag racing with the long pointy vehicles and the tire-spinning burnouts before the staging lights counted down from red to green to start the five-second races along a quarter-mile strip — I remember all of that.

The high-glamour world of Formula 1 especially caught my attention and Jack Brabham was a great driver of the era. The photos with the memorials showed a man I instantly recognized, square-jawed, determined, ready to put his pedal to the medal.

Back in those days I avidly tracked the standings and teams with the enthusiasm I would soon show for baseball, my next kid obsession (I can recite the names of most of the starting line-up of the 1969 Houston Astros and a good chunk of the pitching rotation, but that’s another column).

I became a big fan of Texas’ own Team Chaparral, owned by Midland oil executive and driver Jim Hall. His low-slung white cars burned up the track in the Can-Am series of races in 1966 and 1967. I remember being thrilled by the daring design of the car. Hall rolled out the 2E car at exactly the moment I went car crazy and photos online indeed show the look I remember from the pages of Car and Driver. The details:

The 2E was based on the Chevrolet designed aluminum 2C chassis and presented Jim Hall’s most advanced aerodynamic theories to the racing world in the 1966. The 2E established the paradigm for virtually all racing cars built since. It was startling in appearance, with its radiators moved from the traditional location in the nose to two ducted pods on either side of the cockpit and a large wing mounted several feet above the rear of the car on struts. The wing was the opposite of an aircraft wing in that it generated down-force instead of lift and was attached directly to the rear suspension uprights, loading the tires for extra adhesion while cornering. A ducted nose channeled air from the front of the car up, creating extra down-force as well. By depressing a floor pedal that was in the position of a clutch pedal in other cars, Hall was able to feather, or flatten out, the negative angle of the wing when down-force was not needed, such as on a straight section of the track, to reduce drag and increase top speed. In addition, an interconnected air dam closed off the nose ducting for streamlining as well. When the pedal was released, the front ducting and wing returned to their full down-force position. Until they were banned many sports racing cars, as well as Formula One cars, had wings on tall struts, although many were not as well executed as Hall’s.

In layman’s terms, the Chaparral 2E had a “spoiler” on the back, and that’s forever imprinted on me as the ultimate in car design, other than gull-winged doors from a 1950s Mercedes-Benz. Every time I see a modern car with a spoiler — Subarus — I’m transported back to the days when I saw myself as an honorary member of Team Chaparral.

Other bits and pieces of racing lore stayed in my brain from 1967, the year I turned 10. I must have kept up with the news in Car and Driver and newspapers like the McAllen Monitor. The horrific accident at the Grand Prix of Monaco on May 10 that killed Lorenzo Bandini sank deeply into my subconscious. Photos of the crash, in which Bandini was terribly burned, soon appeared in Car and Driver with an angry editorial; 47 years later, I instantly recalled his name and scenes of the crash that I read about. The violence and nature of Bandini’s death must have shocked me.

A happier racing memory came from later in the same month. I’m thinking back on the Indianapolis 500 of May 1967, when Parnelli Jones shocked the traditionalists by almost winning in the STP candy apple-red gas turbine car, which led most of race until it broke down with three laps to go after a $6 ball bearing failed. To this day I associate the letters “STP” with game-changing innovation — which ultimately went nowhere in terms of impact on Indy racing, although it caused a massive stir that year. A.J. Foyt won the race — he’s just one of the familiar names from that era that leaped back into my awareness from that era; I couldn’t name a single driver from any circuit of today, but names like Dan Gurney, Mario Andretti, Graham Hill and, of course, Jack Brabham feel as familiar to me as Bronx kids in the late 1920s recalled Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and their Yankees teammates.

Of course, I clearly remember my family’s own cars. My mother had total loyalty to Chevrolets that she bought at Tipton Chevy throughout the 1960s. She first bought a rear-engine Corvair in 1962 or so, then traded three years later for a sporty 1965 turquoise Malibu that, truth be told, I wouldn’t mind driving today. Following the pattern of the day, in 1968 she bought a yellow two-door Impala, with the popular option of the era, a white vinyl roof. She stopped upgrading after that, and the yellow Impala was the car my brother and I drove after taking Driver’s Ed in the mid-1970s.

Hands down, though, the hot wheels in the family in the 1960s and 1970s belonged to my mother’s Aunt Sue in San Antonio, a retired teacher. She tooled around the Alamo City in her early ’60s white Thunderbird, a bitchin’ ride with creamy leather bucket seats and the power windows. Power windows! I had never seen those before. In the late 1960s, alas, she traded the T-Bird in for a boat-like Lincoln Continental, painted gold, with plenty of room. I liked riding in her Caddy when we visited San Antonio on family vacations, but she just couldn’t top the T-Bird.

My interest in cars and racing faded away, replaced by baseball and girls and other primal quests. I bought my first car in May 1979 for a summer job as a reporter for Newsday on Long Island, a rusty 1971 AMC Hornet station wagon. Desperate for the required transportation for the job, I bought it for $500 from a graduate student. It served its purpose but I never drove it unless I had to in that gas-crisis summer, when long lines snaked around service stations nation-wide. I took it back to Princeton and parked it behind my eating club during my senior year. I used it to move to Brooklyn after I graduated and heaved a sigh of relief when I donated it to Goodwill as soon as possible.

I didn’t own a car for 11 years, until my wife and I moved to the suburbs and we bought a tan 1984 Saab two-door. It had a manual transmission, so I had to take driving lessons to learn how to drive the thing. To my surprise and pleasure, I actually learned how. Three years later we bought a red four-door 1986 Saab when our son was born. The tan car died in a train station parking lot and we got a Taurus station wagon. After we divorced, I got the red Saab, which proved increasingly unreliable. I liked the unique look of Saabs and their solidity but 1986 was a wretched model year and the car became a terror ride as I wondered when it would stall at a stop light or just not start, as once happened after I picked up my son after a Labor Day sleepover with a friend in Westchester County. A $200 AAA pick-up to my repair shop in Stamford ensued.

Fed up with Saab’s clunkerness, I got to the point where I rented cars on the weekends my son was with me so I could have reliable transportation. In April 2005, that year of miracles, I made the best consumer purchase ever when I bought a 2004 Hyundai Elantra at the short-lived Hyundai dealership in Stamford, Connecticut. The dealership closed a month after I bought the car, but I’ve had nine years of trouble-free cruising.

My silver four-door blends into every parking lot in total anonymity. Nobody’s going to be impressed by the tape deck it still has (how’s that for old-style technology?) but it gets me around the suburbs and handled ferocious New York blizzards, so long as I don’t actually drive during a snow storm. As much as I dream of late-middle-aged-life crisis Corvettes and T-Birds–my car fantasies always involve classic American Iron from Detroit–I’m sticking with the utilitarian services of my Elantra and its tape deck.

Truth be told, even expensive current models fail to impress me. The Westport train station parking lot packs in row after row of grey, black and silver sedans from BW, Audi, Volvo and Mercedes-Benz. They all look alike and I stroll past them. I only nod and gaze with passion with longing at the stray Corvette or curving Porsche. If I see a low-slung piece of superpowered road-candy, or an antique. I’ll whip out my camera to get shots from different angles.

Still, I can look back on my days as the car-crazy kid following Sir Jack Brabham and the home-state Team Chaparral. And sometimes where I accelerate through the mild uphill curves of the backroads of Westchester and Fairfield Counties, I grip the wheel of my Hyundai, feel the wind in what’s left of my hair and think, “Ja, fine European road handling.”

Junior High Confidential: Teenage Dance Party, 1971!

Hormones + a dark room + Jackson 5 records = a fun evening for all, according to my notes from autumn 1971, a Facebook ThrowBackThursday special.

November 6, 1971. Tonight is Lois’ party, + I guess I’ll go. It’s from 7:30 to 11:30 pm, at Lois’ house (I guess) + I’m looking forward to it. The only problem is since I’ve never been to a party like this, I don’t know what to expect, what to wear, + how to get home. Mom says I can call her, but getting her up from bed at 11:30 (if I stay that long) or later isn’t too appealing.

November 7, 1971. Last night I went to Lois’ party + had a lot of fun. Good many people there: me (of course), Daniel, David, Joe Sietz, John N., Tito, Abel, Johnnie Martinez, Ridling, Dean Williford, Pee Wee, some high school guys, Robert Rojas, Joe Gonzales, Ricky Garcia, Eli Ochoa, + others I don’t know or remember. Oh, yes, Larry Bray was there, as was Gabby Garza + Ricky Hinojosa. The girls were: Lois, Angie, Sylvia, Dee Dee, Dalia Martinez, Janet, Stephana, Sandy Miller, Mary Ann, Cynthia Nelson, Raynell, Hilda Perez, Teresa C., Rachel Currie, Sheri, Bertha Hernandez, Joe G’s sister, Rhonda, Sandra Kemp and some more I can’t remember.

Anyway, I got there about 7:45 pm at Lois’ house at 16th + Conway. I walked to the door + peered thru the darkness + saw that it was the right address (1623 Conway) + told Mom + Coop who where parked on the curb, told ’em it was the right house and to leave. So I walked to the door.

The 1st time I went up to the door I  knew it was the right house because I could hear young voices inside + an Osmonds song on a record player.

As I walked in the room where the action was was in almost total darkness, illuminated by a candle at each end of a room 7 yds wide + 15 long. The walls were jammed with people. The 1st person I saw was Daniel + Charlie + Ricky Garcia, by the door. We talked a bit + they told me David was at the far end of the room.

He was, with Joe, John + Belinda, Ricky + a few others. We sat + talked a while, every so often someone moving to a refreshment table at the corner of the room across from us.

After an hour or more (Time got too fuzzy to remember when things happened) I danced with . . .

The music was well fitted for the occasion, lots + lots of slow 45s like the Osmonds, Jackson 5, Carpenters, etc. They must have a huge collection of records but only 1 album was out “Cosmo’s Factory” + it was played for only parts of 2 songs. I left a little before 11:30. All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

“The Son” Also Rises

When last I wrote, I lamented the difficulties I have finding books I really like. I struggled through sci-fi, winners of glittering international awards, Jewish historical fiction, Latin American books. The list of grim hikes through trails of directionless prose discouraged me.

But, with hope springing eternal, I rolled the reading dice on “The Son,” by Phillip Meyer, published last year and weighing in at 561 pages. The book gripped me from the beginning, as it rolled across 170 years of Texas history, seen through the eyes of members of the McCullough family, with tortured and violent interactions with their neighbors, the ancient Garcia family, on ranches in South Texas.

How firmly did the book hold my attention? I stayed up, fully awake, until 2:30 a.m. one night last week to finish it, and I wasn’t just skimming the pages either, as I have with other massive recent tomes. No, Meyer’s clear style , sure sense of landscape and unblinking view of his subject material took me on the reading ride I crave and so rarely encounter.

The book follows three main characters from the McCullough, starting with patriarch Eli, born in the day the Republic of Texas was proclaimed on March 2, 1836, and kidnapped by Comanches in 1849. He becomes a member of the tribe, its leader, as warfare and disease shrink it down to nothing. He goes back, reluctantly, to white society, where he doesn’t fit in. But as a Texas Ranger and Confederate he makes his way in life and finally a fortune in land and oil. The family seems cursed, and that’s told through the stories of his son Peter and great-granddaughter Jeannie.

Wending through the narrative, especially of Peter and Jeannie, is the specter of the Garcias—I’ll leave that angle to your own reading. The prose is biting in the way it captures the attitudes of the power elite. Here are Jeannie’s childhood musings on her neighbors’ ancient destroyed home:

Only the children had interest in the casa mayor. The Mexican hands, if forced to fetch cattle from the pastures nearby, always crossed themselves. They could not help being ignorant Catholics. And the Garcias had not been able to help being lazy, cattle-stealing greasers and she felt sorry for them, even if they had shot her uncle Glenn.

The book could have used a genealogy table to keep the characters straight. Other than Eli, the main characters spend most of their time moaning about fate and their lot in life (fabulous riches be damned, they want to suffer), and minor characters keep getting shoved on-stage even to the end. I could see another, more compelling book carved from the material, more on the Garcias, less on the McCulloughs. The issues become a little too trendy in the last years covered. Quick appearances by Lyndon Johnson and an unnamed woman writer (obviously Edna Ferber, when she was researching her Texas epic, Giant) suggest another plot direction that never develops.

Still, the book did a great job of communicating a sense of place. Having grown up in South Texas, I know that territory on an instinctual level, even if I haven’t lived there in almost 40 years. References to Brownsville and Hidalgo County jumped out at me, as did the bloody guerilla warfare along the border during the Mexican Revolution. The Texas Rangers, so revered in Anglo society, look very different through the eyes of the Hispanic families that had lived in the region for centuries. They were the Rangers for one population, and the dreaded “Los Rinches” for another.

Peter kept a diary of his life on the Rio Grande, with this September 17, 1915 entry:

Trying to console myself that we aren’t alone in our suffering. Two weeks ago the railroad bridges to Brownsville were burned (again), the telegraph lines cut, two white men singled out from a crowd of laborers and shot in the middle of the morning. About twenty Tejanos killed in reprisals—twenty that anyone heard about. The Third Cavalry has been in regular fights with the Mexican army all along the border, shooting across the river. Three cavalrymen killed by insurgents near Los Indios and, across from Progress, on the Mexican side, the head of a missing U.S. private was displayed on a on a pole.

June 19, 1917: [After Hispanics move north to Michigan to work in car factories, and a local Anglo finds this amusing] Considered mentioning that several of the “greasers” (Vargas and Rivera, at least) had gone to college in Mexico City while Gilbert and his cross-eyed brothers were diddling heifers in Eagle Pass.

Meyer captured the attitudes of both viciousness and generosity that I heard growing up. After Jeannie’s husband Hank dies, she finds this type of response from her business circle:

The Texans had been relentless; they might hate the blacks and Mexicans, they might hate the president enough to kill him, but they had not let her alone, they had cared for her like a mother or daughter, men she barely knew, men whose absence from their offices cost thousands of dollars an hour, and yet she would come downstairs and find them asleep on her couch, and call their drivers to pick them up.

This is Meyer’s second book, very good but not quite great, and I predict he has other major works ahead of him, on topics I cannot even imagine. I’ll be waiting for them.

Rolando Hinojosa’s Valley, and Mine

I can read, say, Philip Roth or Chaim Potok novels about Newark and Brooklyn and enjoy the literary qualities and the cultural sense of Jewish life in the New York region. I can hear the people talking, sense the family dynamics. But in reading Klail City, one of the short novels in the Klail City Death Trip series by Texas writer and academic Rolando Hinojosa, I’m reading about something more visceral and evocative — the Rio Grande Valley of Texas, where I grew up, in Mission. Even if, as Thomas Wolfe wrote, you can’t go home again, Hinojosa gets me close enough to feel the Gulf winds blowing across the fields.

Set in fictional Belken County, Klail City’s short, kaleidoscopic chapters recount the Hispanic experience in deep South Texas from the 1940s on, with historical glances even further back. Hinojosa grew up in Mercedes, Texas, about 25 miles east of my home town, Mission, both in Hidalgo County (I associate Mercedes with its annual Livestock Show and Rodeo, held every March for going on 75 years). Hinojosa describes a world that surrounded me every day but unfolded at a distance from mine. He writes

The number of Texas Anglos to be seen here is scant, but perhaps, understandably so. These fellow Texans of ours are out of place here; out of their element, so to speak. So to speak. The Belken County Texas Mexicans, on the other hand, are the majority, but this doesn’t mean they ignore the other population; they can ill afford to do so. For their part, the mexicano are usually ignored, although not always, true, and not forever either. (After all, what physical pain is there that lasts a hundred years?)

The geography hit me, with the Missouri-Pacific railroad tracks dividing towns into the Anglo and Mexican sides (I’ll use the terminology found in the book), with their own elementary schools. As in Mission in the 1960s, those schools’ pupils came together in junior high and high school, years of tensions and explorations.

Hinojosa carefully delineated the gradations of religion that are essential to Valley life. Catholics predominate, but Mexican Protestants are fully recognized as a culture of their own. Masses, revivals, Bibles, scriptural references weave in and out of the stories, as common as the carnal side of life seen through beer joints, pool halls, shotgun weddings of teenagers in the family way, the soldiers killed in Europe, the Pacific and Korea, war veterans gunned down by unrestrained and unpunished police, crooked politicians, curanderas (healers), the old men selling things on the street, seasonal migrations Up North. Hinojosa packs an enormous number of familiar touchpoints into the short book.

And I reflected on the names he summons from the depths of memory. Rafe Buenrostro, Bruno Cano, don Celso Villalon, Manuel Guzman, de Anda, Viola Barragan, Horacio Navarro, Maria Lara, Dorothea Cavazos, and the dead-accurate Anglo names like Liz Ann Moore, Lulu Gottlieb, high school librarian Miss Mary Jane McClarity, Choche Markham, the kind and good Tom Purdy of Michigan, and Sheriff Big Foot Parkinson. And, in an amazing bit of prophecy, Sofia Vergara — exactly like the actress. These just sample the roster of names. Many of them resonate with memories of friends and classmates and their parents, local characters from my version of the Valley. Dorothea, Maria, Elizabeth Ann, Horacio, Navarro — they’re all mental bursts of associations going back a half-century now.

I’ll see if I can find other books in the series to find out what else goes on with the characters simmering and stewing under the South Texas sun. My Klail City Death Trip is just hitting the road.

My Favorite Oswald

[I wrote this in 2005. It has never appeared until now. I’ve updated some references but otherwise it still holds up.]

Classical actors are judged according to how well they play Hamlet. After seeing for a second time Gary Oldman’s bravura turn in 1991’s JFK, I’ve decided that modern actors must be judged by how well they play Lee Harvey Oswald.

What other character in recent American history, other than Richard Nixon, has been more complex and confounding, bullying his way into our nightmares and turning history? With his bayou-coonass and Bronx accents and shifty-eyed demeanor, Oswald presents physical and psychological dimensions that would challenge the most accomplished actors.

I was barely six years old on November 22, 1963, so I won’t claim I shared the nation’s grief and shock, other than being peeved at the pre-emption of Saturday morning cartoons on KRGV and KGBT in the Rio GrandeValley. Still, I grew up knowing Kennedy’s assassination was an intensely Texas affair and taint. I followed the twists and revelations in the case over the years, usually around anniversaries. My attention spiked when Oliver Stone directed JFK and I found myself both repulsed and fascinated by Oldman’s Oswald. Who was this guy? A few years later, Gerald Posner’s epochal investigation Case Closed: Lee Harvey Oswald and the Assassination of JFK satisfied most of my questions.

But different questions arose after I recently watched JFK for the first time since the movie’s release. I knew the facts about the assassin, yet I wanted to see what I call “Oswaldiana,” the cultural interpretations of Oswald, beyond Stone’s movie. I was curious about the bizzaro-world version of all the films and books about John Kennedy, from PT 109 to the latest revelations of his times and floozies. How does the entertainment industry view Oswald?

Stone’s movie was frustrating, as it left me longing to see a lot more of Oldman’s Lee Harvey Oswald and a lot less of Kevin Costner’s New Orleans DA Jim Garrison in smoke-filled rooms. Stone teased the audience with fragmented McNuggets of Oswald, and left me panting for a big juicy steak of the Marine-Commie-Castroite-defector-killer.

Using the Internet as a resource unavailable in 1991, I clicked and trekked to discover my favorite Oswald. There must many films about Oswald, I thought, beyond the Kennedy biographies and factual records of the assassination. Oldman set a very high thespic bar, but I was determined to find challengers to the throne of Oswald interpreters.

To my amazement, almost nothing exists. Nada; zip; bupkis. While bookshelves groan and the Internet crackles with details on Oswald and the whole sordid mess, the creative film effort is pathetically small. Fortunately, the creative catalog grows when books and other art forms get thrown into the mix. Thus, the Oswaldiana shelf of a well-stocked library would minimally contain these works:

Oswald, Up on the Silver Screen

Here’s the rundown of Oswald performances or appearances by the mid-2000s; others no doubt exist but these caught my attention.

  • Gary Oldman, JFK (1991). It covers the highlights of Oswald’s assassination-related life, some that really happened and others in dream-like uncertainty. Whatever one thinks about Stone’s politics, he created a hard-charging film brimming with colorful characters. Thrill at the opportunity to hear Oswald say, “I emphatically deny these charges;” “I didn’t shoot anybody, no sir;” and of course, “I’m just a patsy.” Plus, Stone made good use of cute-as-a-button Quitman, Texas native Sissy Spacek as Liz Garrison. And in one easily missed line, I think I found a South Texas connection to the intrigue, when Costner refers to McAllen as a center for gun-running.
  • Willie Garson, Ruby (1992), Willie Garson plays a colorless throwaway role as Oswald, while Danny Aiello stars as Jack Ruby. Oswald doesn’t appear until an hour into this sluggish but sporadically entertaining piece of speculation, in which Oswald isn’t even the shooter. Forget about any major Oswald angle here. Watch for X-Filer and Princeton graduate David Duchovny in a minimal role as Officer Tippit, the Dallas cop killed by Oswald after the assassination. Sherilyn Fenn (post-Twin Peaks, pre-anorexia) is as delicious as her name as fictitious Carousel Club stripper Candy Cane. Aiello’s Ruby gets some amusing lines. In one scene, Cane’s abusive rodeo-rider husband attacks her at the club. Tough-guy Ruby intervenes and then beats the tar out of the husband, bellowing, “You make that the last time you take out your disappointments in life on Jack Ruby!”
  • Two movies bear the proud title The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. The first appeared in 1964. Director Larry Buchanan explores whether Oswald was mentally ill. The film appears in video with another Buchanan take on Texas terrors, titled The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde. Specialty house Something Weird Video in Seattle marketed this twin bill. The other The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald appeared on TV in 1977 and clocks in at an agonizing three hours and 12 minutes in length with John Pleshette as Oswald.
  • Love Field (1992) deserves mention not so much for its Oswald presence (just the standard TV scenes to scoot the plot along) but the way it uses the assassination as a mechanism to propel a Jackie-obsessed Dallas hairdresser played by Michelle Pfeiffer on her odyssey to Washington, D.C., for JFK’s funeral. On her trek she meets Dennis Haysbert (he plays President David Palmer on the Fox series 24) and they eventually enjoy some amor prohibido. The film shows nothing more explicit than a hug, but Pfeiffer does appear with a lovely post-coital glow on her face.
  • The PBS program Frontline did an episode in 1993 called, “Who Was Lee Harvey Oswald?” Frontline rebroadcast it in November 2013 with an extensive website with more details about its content. While it’s a documentary, the teacher’s guide on the PBS website suggests that students watch the program and then stage their own trial of Oswald. The guide helpfully notes, “The teacher should allow some latitude in legal tactics. The purpose of this exercise is not to teach courtroom strategies. It is to explore the motivations and life of Lee Harvey Oswald.” I hope some of the trials were filmed. I fantasize the videos show students hamming it up as Oswald, while no doubt defended by Johnny Cochran-wannabees shouting, “If the Mannlicher-Carcano don’t fit, you must acquit!”

 By default, Oldman wins the nod as my favorite Oswald, in the acting category. Oldman’s a great performer in a tough role. Challengers will be minimal until, oh, 2060, when some bright-eyed director, now in diapers, decides the 100th anniversary of the assassination will be a swell time to finally film an Oswald biopic.

The Books of the Dead

Beyond the big and little screens, Oswald’s malign presence festers and sloshes. On the printed page and Internet, anything goes. Norman Mailer wrote the non-fiction Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, while Don DeLillo wrote the novel Libra. Hard-boiled crime novelist James Ellroy’s American Tabloid explores the down and very dirty side of organized crime and the FBI and much more in the years leading up to November 22, 1963, with conspiracies, Oswald, and lots of Cubans. Fans of stomach-churning sadism will especially delight in Ellroy’s novel; consider yourself warned.

All Singing, All Dancing, All Dallas

Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman added music to the mix with Assassins. Oswald joins other killers and contenders, such as John Wilkes Booth, John Hinkley, and Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, the Charles Manson acolyte who tried to kill President Ford, to do a little song and dance. (Interesting note: Squeaky Fromme was released from prison in August 2009 after 34 years in prison and lives in Marcy, New York, east of Syracuse. )

Staying on a musical note, Dallas musician Homer Henderson wrote one of the great transgressive songs of all time, “Lee Harvey Was a Friend of Mine.” The only rival inn outrage is Kinky Friedman’s “They Ain’t Makin’ Jews Like Jesus Any More.” Henderson’s lyrics include:

I was born in Dallas in 1952,

Lee Harvey moved across the street on Bentley Avenue,

He used to throw the ball to me when I was just a kid,

They say he shot the president—I don’t think he did.


And Lee Harvey was a friend of mine,

He used to take me fishing all the time,

He used to throw the ball to me when I was just a kid,

They say he shot the president but I don’t think he did. 

Staring at Shadows

If you wallow in Oswaldiana for any length of time, the ambiguities and slippery connections start to play games with your head. Shadows and coincidences merge into confounding patterns. For example, Willie Garson of Ruby also played Oswald in episodes of “Quantum Leap” and “Mad TV.” John Pleshette of 1977’s The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald also had roles in the 2004 version of Helter Skelter (about Charles Manson) and the 1998 TV movie The Day Lincoln was Shot. Coincidences, you say?

The strangest dot-connecting pulls together JFK, Field, and the terrorist-battling series 24. Hang with me here: JFK cast Donald Sutherland in a pivotal role, as the ghostly government operative who steers Costner’s Jim Garrison toward the conspiracy. Then, Dennis Haysbert plays a lead role in Love Field. Finally, in 24, Haysbert played President David Palmer, while Donald’s son Kiefer Sutherland plays the anti-terrorism operative Jack Bauer, who works for Palmer.  President Palmer was assassinated on 24’s fifth day. You figure out what it all means, there in the shadows.

Head On Back to Tennessee (Williams)

Lately, people have been talking about their binges of watching Breaking Bad. I’ve never seen a minute of it. Instead, here’s my binge-lite story.

I recently saw Blue Jasmine and liked Woody Allen’s reworking of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire. Having seen the play at least twice, I could pick up on the references. Last night I went back to the cultural output of Williams himself with The Night of the Iguana, directed by John Huston, with Ava Gardner and teen hottie Sue Lyon melting the DVD with fine support from Richard Burton.

This marked yet another checkmark on my list of Tennessee Williams’ plays and movies I’ve seen. Over the last six months, I’ve done my own slow-mo binge watching of his films and found them all riveting. I didn’t set out to do this; the works just crept up on me like a sinuous southern vine wrapping itself around my Netflix list and, with a drawl and flirtatious glance, beckoning me to abandon myself.

The addiction must have begun in my early years, as so many addictions do, when I saw a high school or college production of The Glass Menagerie. I’ll pay it the highest compliment I can for a literary work: I remembered part of it almost verbatim, the lines that say,

“The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise. Perhaps it was a familiar bit of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass.”

The current Williams kick began about six months ago when I pulled Suddenly, Last Summer off the shelf of my local library, mostly because I was going through an Elizabeth Taylor movie binge. While I didn’t know what to expect, I was familiar with the iconic beach photo of La Liz, with her wind-tossed hair and tight one-piece swimsuit.

What a treat awaited me! The film’s over-the-top Southern atmosphere (always appealing to me) with high-voltage performances by Taylor and Katherine Hepburn, haunted by the mysterious death of Hepburn’s son on a European vacation, drew me in. Mental illness, asylums, lust-crazed patients, the final confrontation that explains everything and plenty of shrieking and emoting by Taylor made the movie appealing.

I checked out other movies as some buzzer went off in my head in response to external stimuli. When Scarlett Johansson played Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on Broadway, I decided to see the original film with Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Newman. This was one of those plays and movies I had always heard about but never seen. The title and general outline are so much a part of American culture that I had a sense of deja vue—like I had seen it, but I really hadn’t. And as I did see it, I felt I wasn’t seeing what I expected. Taylor delivered all the voluptuousness I expected, but the undercurrent of childlessness deeply moved me, as her yearnings collided with her husband’s drinking and unspoken feelings about a friend’s suicide.

Night of the Iguana took the basic elements of regret, alcohol, confusion, male dissolution and repressed female yearnings in a Mexican setting, with Richard Burton the fallen minister leading a tour group from a Texas Baptist college on a tour of Mexico. He’s got a troubling penchant for young women, and Carroll Baker steps smartly into the role to show that you don’t have to be unclothed to be steamy.

She soon leaves the stage as Ava Gardner’s Maxine, a hotel proprietor, takes the stage. I had never seen Ava Gardner in a movie before, and let’s say she made a big impression with her tousled hair, forward style and glimpses of longing and vulnerability. She plays off another female character, Deborah Kerr, as a hotel guest. I had to chuckle at the scene where Gardner romps in the Mexican surf with two shirtless Mexican houseboys at her hotel – the scene reminded me of Kerr’s aquatic embrace with Burt Lancaster in the Hawaiian surf 11 years earlier in From Here to Eternity.

Iguana rolls to an explosive end (typical for Williams material) with Burton trussed up in a hammock as he roars through his alcohol addiction. The romantic hopes and tangles sort themselves out and the movie concludes with a tentatively hopeful note.

I’m already looking forward to the next entries in my Williamsfest s drawn from this best-of list – Baby Doll, Summer and Smoke, The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone. I may not score many points in the pop-culture department, but I know what I like when I see it. Call it the writing, the late 50s-early 60s acting style, the Southern settings – whatever it is, I’m ready to curl up with some more Williams. And based on what I’ve seen, I’m going to spin off into more of Liz Taylor and Ava Gardner.

The Bobby Pickles Podcast

Podcaster extraordinaire and t-shirt design maven Robert Piccirillo, a/k/a Bobby Pickles, interviewed me on the steps of the New York Public Library recently for his podcast program. This marked the first interview I’ve done in a public setting and it went well. Bobby had the questions, the technology and the knack for connecting that makes for a fun give-and-take.  Give it a listen — it’s one of the best (and unlike my last interviewers, some radio shock jocks, no Holocaust jokes!).

Who the heck is Bobby Pickles? I’ll let him explain:

Robert Piccirillo, better known by his nom de plum, Bobby Pickles, is a professional podcaster/tee shirt peddler. Pickles began his rise to prominence in 2013 when he appeared on the TLC reality series “America’s Worst Tattoos”. Bobby is Co-Founder and CEO of FAT ENZO, a brand of satirical graphic tee shirts depicting people of history, literature and pop culture, which he peddles at Union Square in New York City. He is the host of The Bobby Pickles Podcast, which can be downloaded for free on iTunes. And he has a BA in English from the University of Florida.

So give my interview a listen, check out his other programs, and if you want to be really fashion forward, buy some of his t-shirts. Support Staten Island entrepreneurship.