After the virus, there will be decorating

20 Apr

Milan_Cathedral        

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Easter came and there were no large family gatherings or in-church services. There was only Italian tenor Andrea Bocelli, who sang for free while the world  listened.

Bocelli said his was not a performance. He called it a prayer and the event was advertised as Music for Hope.  It took place in the Duomo di Milano, one of Italy’s most breathtaking cathedral. Bocelli was accompanied by a musician playing the world’s largest pipe organ. Otherwise, save for the unseen camera crew, he was alone.

Inside the cathedral, the tenor sang a few piece of sacred music. People watching live on Youtube saw a pantheon of statues, stained glass, etchings, carvings, relief work, marble, enormous pillars, icons and more. As Bocelli sang, there were cutaways to the empty streets of great cities like Milan, Paris, New York and London. After 25 minutes or so, the blind singer stop singing and walked unaccompanied down a corridor, through an enormous door and onto the Duomo steps. There was no one outside in the locked-down city, the epicenter of the Coronavirus in Italy. The small country of 60 million has reported 159,000 cases and 20,400 deaths.

bocelli new

Andrea Bocelli

Bocelli stood on the steps and returned to his singing. In English, he sang the 18th century Christian hymn, Amazing Grace. There was no music at first. After a time, the production people layered in a full orchestra. When the song ended, there was silence, and the cameras shutdown. The prayer was over.

The concert lasted 30 minutes and, so far, has been watched by at least 37 million people.

Andrea Bocelli’s music, as intended, gave us hope. Even more inspiring might have been the miracle and magnificence of the Duomo di Milano, the largest cathedral in Italy. Construction on it began in 1386, just a few decades after the Black Death killed 100 million people worldwide. Many believe the depths, damage and darkness of the plague is what spawned the creativity, commerce and optimism of the European Renaissance.

Duomo interior

Interior of the Duomo di Milano

The amazing thing about the Duomo is its utter completeness as a work of art. The virtuoso violinist Itzak Perlman has said that in the world of symphonic music there is no such thing as a casual note. With the Duomo, there is no such thing as a casual surface. Every piece of wood or stone has been slaved over and loved into a masterpiece. In Renaissance Italy, the greatest and most famed artists would fight for commissions to illustrate or decorate a surface. And great time would be spent on them. Lorenzo Ghiberti spent 27 years on the doors of the Baptistery in Florence. When Michelangelo saw those doors he called them “the Gates of Paradise.” The doors to Milan’s Duomo may not be as famous, but they are covered in jaw-dropping art work. Mark Twain, in Innocents Abroad, said this about the Duomo doors:

“The central one of its five great doors is bordered with a bas-relief of birds and fruits and beasts and insects, which have been so ingeniously carved out of the marble that they seem like living creatures —  and the figures are so numerous and the design so complex, that one might study it a week without exhausting its interest …”

            You look at a place like the Duomo di Milano and quickly comprehend that no such monument would be built today or could be built today. It’s a representation of a now unachievable achievement. The Duomo was a continuous work in progress for nearly 600 years. That’s how long it took to complete. The expense was enormous and funds were not always available. In 1805, Napoleon Bonaparte, about to become King of Italy, ordered the facade to be finished and said he’d pay for it. He never did.

Duomo doors

Door engravings, the Duomo di Milano

The art and culture of the Renaissance arose as great fortunes in banking and commerce were being made. Wealthy, influential families like the Medici and the Borgia possessed incomparable riches and used their fortunes on the arts. It was expected and something of a requirement. What was created was to be shared with regular people and offered up to God in thanks. Great new wealth also has been amassed in our era through the likes of Facebook, Google, Apple, PayPal and others. But it is used differently. There is good being done, but it’s a different kind of good.

Screenshot_2020-04-19 From Warren Buffett to Bill Gates How auto dealerships are attracting a whole new class of investor

Buffett, Gates, Soros

True, the rich create foundations to better mankind (and get a nice tax deduction for it). George Soros, Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are among a handful of billionaires who have contributed much of their wealth toward improving the human condition. The other side of this benevolence, however, are efforts to change the world in more entrepreneurial ways. The excessive profits of enormously successful companies, for example, might be channeled into no-profit or low-profit ventures, like building space ships or driver-less cars. Intentions are good and hopes for mankind are high, but the goal is ultimately money. Rarely do we see artistic creations or architecture wonders (the Brooklyn Bridge is an older example of this) that people feel part of and gravitate toward.

Apple is said to have spent about $5 billion on its campus for 12,000 workers in Cupertino, California, yet by any stretch it is not considered a great wonder of the world. (For that money is should be.) Today’s really impressive modern architecture is found mostly in the Middle East and Asia. The world’s tallest building is in Dubai. Eye-poppers are all over Singapore, Malaysia and Shanghai. Still, all this is so very different from building a church that takes 600 years to finish and is so magnificent that, even when surrounded by the sad solitude of a catastrophic pandemic, looking upon it makes us feel good.

Hearing Bocelli and seeing the Duomo I think of the Renaissance and whether a new one might be on its way. When our pandemic turns to dust, will we find a vigorous need to look upon life as new and to create things never before created, perhaps experience joy in ways that have been forgotten? Will we insist on engraving the mundane with the spectacular and seek enjoyment from even the routine?

graffiti-1

Graffiti art

Trying to fathom a modern day equivalent to the high art of the Duomo surfaces, I stumbled on a harsh and incongruous comparison  — inner-city surfaces covered in graffiti. These markings, considered art by the best of their creators, deface yet celebrate. They spring from repression but in a perverse way speak to optimism. Can anything about tomorrow be learned from the spray paint on walls, bridges and subway cars?

After the population decline of the Black Plague, wages for laborers went up (high demand, low supply) and the price of land went down (low demand, high supply). Inequality eased off. Opportunity abounded. The Renaissance (literally The Rebirth), and later The Enlightenment, burst forth, light from dark. So what happens to us and our culture when the all-clear sounds?

Duomo arches

The Duomo

This could be our big chance for change, unity and joint hope. Let Bocelli keep singing. Let the light shine each evening on the Duomo Di Milano. And let everyone else search out and lay claim to a surface in preparation for its decoration. The unadorned will no longer be accepted.

 

The origin of Johnny Four Fingers

6 Apr

Nicknames

By Lanny Morgnanesi

On Facebook, I saw posts listing 10 people “I’ve met,” with one being a lie. I decided to play and put up these 10.

  1. Johnny Four Fingers
  2. Frank “Two Meatballs” Ferretti
  3. Bing Bang Ciao
  4. Joey Lollipops
  5. Pauli “Rembrandt” Scungeel
  6. Spinach Face Tommy
  7. Tony Loud Cry
  8. Pasquale “Dog Shoes” Maroni
  9. Vincent Steam Breath Bug Eyes
  10. Nathan the Nickel

Then I realized the more curious readers might want to know how these men got their names. So here at NotebookM I’ve decided to provide that information.

Johnny Four Fingers – As a child, his big hands prevented him from reaching inside a soda machine to steal Cokes. So he used his father’s power saw to remedy that.

Frank “Two Meatballs” Ferretti – Always thin, his grandmother said she’d give him a quarter if he gained weight. To look heavier, he stuffed a meatball into each cheek.

Bing Bang Ciao – Upon leaving a drinking establishment, he would always bang his left fist on the bar, then bang his right, then say good night.

Joey Lollipops – He robbed a corner store but took only candy.

Pauli “Rembrandt” Scungeel – The best forger in Brooklyn.

Spinach Face Tommy – Chronic acne.

Tony Loud Cry – A rival gang caught him and threatened to cut off his testicles and shove them up his rectum. His lament was heard three blocks away.

Pasquale “Dog Shoes” Moroni – The heat went out at a cheap motel where he was staying with a hooker. He took her fake fur and fashioned it into slippers.

Vincent Steam Breath Bug Eyes – He survived a garroting, but it was not pretty.

Nathan the Nickel – He lived on Fifth Street, as opposed to Nathan the Dime, who lived on 10th.

On Writing and the Pandemic

30 Mar

NY-empty-streets

By Lanny Morgnanesi

I’m not sure I’m ready to write.

The Coronavirus pandemic has inspired innumerable blogs, podcasts, articles and commentaries. Photos and videos of ghostly, empty streets circulate widely and never end. Footage of people singing to each other as a salve to the quarantine are reaching large numbers in live, nightly broadcasts. And I’m empty of thought.

In such times, for writers, the bare minimum is a journal. You can start it with vigor, try to shed light on the mundane, neglect it a little then let it trail off, but – unless you are out there and in it, which means you’ve got something – you are writing whatever everyone else is writing. My journal began thusly on March 23:

It’s impossible to put today in perspective, since yesterday was bad and tomorrow most certainly will be worse. At this point, at this time, numbers cannot adequately describe what we ultimately will face and how we will get there. Instead, let a few statistics be a point of demarcation along a road of unknown length. Let them serve not as a measure but only as a backdrop for the very present.

At that time, COVID-19 had infected 292,142 people and killed 1,600. Today, a mere seven days later, there are 729,100 infected people and 34,689 deaths. Experts say as many as 200,000 could die in the U.S.

Aside from my venturing out once for groceries – noting the absence of flour and yeast and realizing that in a panic you can’t outthink people – there really was little to write about at a time when there is a great deal about which to write.

While not writing, I read a little about writing. It was a retro piece in the New York Review of Books from 2016. The author was Joan Didion, whose utter and complete immersion in the art of writing has always fascinated me, and the piece was simply called California Notes. She begins saying that in 1976 Rolling Stone magazine asked her to cover the San Francisco trial of Patty Hearst, the heiress kidnapped by political radicals who became one of them and took part (while armed) in a bank robbery. Didion is a Californian who relocated to New York, but the Patty Hearst assignment would bring her back to California. She would seek inspiration for the piece by reacquainting herself with the state and trying to revive her own emotions about it.

didioncouch

Writer Joan Didion

For me, as I sat not writing, the best part of California Notes was Joan’s confession that she attended the trial but never wrote the piece. There was no explanation, except: “I thought the trial had some meaning for me—because I was from California. This didn’t turn out to be true.”  Her California reflections, however, led her years later to write a compilation called Where I Was From and even later  California Notes.

There’s a famous Nora Ephron quote that reminds me of Joan and has been repeated in this time of crisis: “Everything is copy.” I always thought it peculiar that such a quote would become so famous, since few outside of writing know what “copy” is. The reason must be because writers are the ones always repeating the quote. Anyway, “copy” in this sense means “material” for writing, and now – with the world shut down by a virus — everything is indeed copy. You go outside for a walk and it’s copy. You venture out and drive through town and it’s copy. You cook a meal or seek activities for your kids and it’s copy.

Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne, Trancas, California, March 1972

Didion with husband, the late writer Gregory Dunne

Even without a pandemic, everything for Joan Didion seemed to be copy. (Her husband died and she got a book out of it). It might be that everything around Joan Didion, all the clouds she allowed to cover her success and notoriety, seemed like a personal pandemic, so she recorded it. In California Notes, she mentions an airline trip from New York to San Francisco in the 50s and reports that on the flight she had, “a Martini-on-the-Rocks and Stuffed Celery au Roquefort over the Rockies.” This means that while in her 20s she was taking notes on everything she did.

It’s true that in my youth I took notes. Joan got much more out of hers than I ever did. Like with her, the urge still remains with me. Recently, while in semi-retirement, I agreed to take a $25-an-hour job as a census taker, figuring I would get something out of it, a story about the real America, even though I’d only be visiting the homes of people in my mostly white, mostly affluent suburban county. As the virus spread, the government wisely decided not to send people house to house. I never went to even one.

In California Notes, there is mention by Joan of an early newspaper job at the Sacramento Union. Newspapers require reporters to learn local “style” – the proper way to refer to things in print. Joan touches on this and says,  “I learned that Eldorado County and Eldorado City are so spelled but that regular usage of El Dorado is two words; to UPPER CASE Camellia Week, the Central Valley, Sacramento Irrigation District, Liberator bombers and Superfortresses, the Follies Bergere [sic], the Central Valley Project, and such nicknames as Death Row, Krauts, or Jerries for Germans, Doughboys, Leathernecks, Devildogs.”

Patricia-Hearst-front-emblem-Symbionese-Liberation-Army

Heiress Patricia Hearst, after her kidnapping

Everything is copy. Sadly, I didn’t make any kind of record of the local style at my first newspaper, and can only remember this: “Do not use a period after the ‘S’ in ‘Harry S Truman High School.’ A period suggests an abbreviation and in this case ‘S’ is not an abbreviation because President Truman did not have an actual middle name.” In the same way I know I cannot compete with the person who thought to buy yeast before I did, I know I cannot compete with writers who know what food and drink they had on a plane in 1955, or can recite that actual constraints put on them decades ago by local “style.” Maybe Joan Didion came up dry at the utterly fantastic trial of Patty Hearst, but she found inspiration at every other turn in her life.

I’m sitting here now looking for inspiration. I suspect I’ll find it eventually. I’m fairly certain, however, I won’t be writing about my neighbors singing, if indeed they ever do. I prefer instead to write about things we fail to see. And right now, I can’t see anything.

 

On Frankenstein and its free-thinking author, the marvelous Mary Shelly

9 Sep

Mary-Shelley

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

I started reading the highly-praised novel, Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus, by Mary Shelley, and immediately thought, “Wow, I’d sure like to have known Mary Shelley.”

 

Just from reading her prose, I concluded she must have been an incredibly interesting person. That was my first reaction. My second reaction was surprise. Her story, I quickly learned, is so different from the one in the Frankenstein movies. It’s deeper, more philosophical and more scientific – and not at all like a product of the 19th century.  I guess literary people knew that, but I didn’t.

 

In the 1931 classic film featuring Boris Karloff, the hideous monster can only grunt and lumber. He is a huge child. In the book, the monster also is hideous, but after coming alive as a blank slate, he manages over time to fully educate himself. He is actually erudite. He reads and speak convincingly, with great logic and force.

Frankenstein

“Am I to be thought the only criminal, when all humankind sinned against me?” the shunned outcast asks. 

 

In the movie, the monster is without motive or even understanding. In the book, he seeks revenge against his creator for bringing him into a hostile, hateful world that abhors him. He reaches a breaking point when Victor Frankenstein, the scientist, refuses to create a bride for him that would provide love and companionship. The monster in the book kills the people closest to Frankenstein so that the scientist will know true suffering.

 

The movie has villagers killing him. In the book, he commits suicide. This takes place in the Arctic, where the monster (unaffected by the cold) has deliberately led Frankenstein, who seeks to destroy him. After the tormented scientist dies from exhaustion, sorrow and despair, the monster experiences remorse. He tells Robert Walton, an Arctic explorer who tried to save the scientist, that he will now build a funeral  pyre on the ice and leap upon it.

 

But back to Mary, whose personality seeps through almost every line of the novel. Speaking as Walton the explorer, she explains why old friends are the best:

 

“ . . . the companions of our childhood always possess a certain power over our minds, which hardly any later friend can obtain. They know our infantine dispositions, which, however they may be afterwards modified, are never eradicated; and they can judge of our actions with more certain conclusions as to the integrity of our motives.”

 

What a conversationalists she must have been – had to have been, since from an early age she hung out with master poets Percy Shelley (whom she ran off with and married) and Lord Byron. On a trip with those two and her half-sister, the group accepted a challenge to each write a ghost story. Frankenstein was Mary’s contribution. The year was 1817. She was 18. Her book, revised several times, is often called the first true science fiction novel.

 

When we think of women from that era, we tend to imagine them as passive and subservient. I can’t envision Mary being anything like that. To begin with, she was born to non-conformist parents who took issue with the norms of established society, including religion, government and morality. They didn’t believe in marriage. Mary’s father was a writer and radical  philosopher. Her mother, in 1792, wrote, Vindication of the Rights of Woman, said to be the first major feminist work in English.

 

What’s shocking to me, sitting comfortably in the 21st century, is that Mary and her parents were not, like the monster, social outcasts. They were part of society and made a living with their unconventional thoughts and ideas. This means those very thoughts and ideas, to a degree, were being at least tolerated and possibly accepted. So I must ask myself, could this also mean that the stereotype of the passive, submissive, ornamental 18th and 19th century woman is a partially a myth? I couldn’t help but wonder.

 

I’m of the belief that the people of today can’t be much different than the people of yesterday. For sure, the burden of child rearing and the need to produce many off springs because of high infant and child mortality undoubtedly kept women tied to home and hearth. Still, that is not to say they couldn’t have had a strong influence over the lives and fates of their families and even their communities. Minds like Mary’s were not easily dismissed, and she could not have been the only female of her era with such a mind.

 

Reading Frankenstein did not make me want to rewrite feminist history, or even look deeper into it. It did, however, make me realize that each century shares something with all others, and that genius can prevail even in the harshest environment.

 

 

The Quiet Presence of Celebrity

17 May

PPM-blur

By Lanny Morgnanesi

A man who sold millions of records in his lifetime and entertained hundreds of thousands sat on his guitar case on the sidewalk in front of the funeral parlor. He was about three hours from his New York home and may have been waiting for an Uber to the train station. Everyone else either went home or got in their cars for the procession to the cemetery. They walked by him and around him. He seemed old, frail and alone.

The funeral was for my friend, who was also his friend. The deceased was accomplished but not famous. This was not a celebrity funeral. It took place in a quiet suburban town. About 150 people attended.

My friend had been many things in life, most notably a newspaper man. As a journalist he met famous people. He eventually struck up a friendship with a trio of folk singers who were wildly famous in the 60s and even after. The group was so well-known it popularized Bob Dylan songs in a way Dylan never could. As I entered the narrow hallway of the funeral parlor, I saw the musician, one of the two surviving members of the trio, trying to make his way through the crowd. Even at 80 he was recognizable to me. He was being unceremoniously jostled, as was I, but with a guitar in hand and extra age on his body he was finding it difficult to maneuver. I waited for people to treat him in some special way, to acknowledge him and greet him, but at that moment no one did. He eventually made his way to a room off from the viewing area where there was coffee and snacks.

After an hour or so, the service began. All seats were taken. People were standing. A few more chairs were brought in and the singer managed to get one near me. He sat down precariously. The hand holding his guitar was shaking.

The famous folk trio he belonged to broke up in 1970 and thereafter would frequently reunite, perform and even record. Years ago, my friend wrote a lyric about the Irish-English conflict and sent it to him. The performer wrote music for it, and his trio recorded the song – Fair Ireland – in 1990. After three eulogies, the singer took the microphone, talked about our friend, and sang Fair Ireland. His shaking hand had settled.

The song opens with the verse:

They build bombs and aim their pistols in the shadow of the cross
And they swear an oath of vengeance to the martyrs they have lost
But they pray for peace on Sundays with a rosary in each hand
It’s long memories and short tempers that have cursed poor Ireland
It’s long memories and short tempers that have cursed poor Ireland

It ends with:

So we’re left with retribution it’s the cycle of the damned
And the hope becomes more distant as the flames of hate are fanned
Who will listen to the children for they’re taught to take their stand
They say love and true forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland
They say love and true forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland
Only love and real forgiveness can still heal fair Ireland

There was gentle applause. The singer retook his seat, and the service ended.

I imagine that after a life of intense fame and a loss of privacy, achieving semi-anonymity in old age is welcome. Nonetheless, I felt deep sorrow for the entertainer, possibly a carryover from the sorrow I felt for my friend, but still altogether different. I fully understand that generations pass, that what once was popular fades, and that value and esteem can evaporate. But there is this hope that dignity remains intact. Seeing the musician alone, sitting on his guitar case, waiting for something, I wanted to offer him a ride as a way to preserve his dignity. That would have meant leaving my place in the funeral procession, so I didn’t do it.

 

From my car window I could see he was weary, worn and sad. In his early years, he had traveled the world. He married and then divorced. He had two children. There was a problem with alcohol and drugs. In the 70s he was arrested on a sex charge but pardoned by the president of the United State. I wouldn’t have felt so bad if he had just come down from New York with a friend, anyone, younger or just as old. It didn’t matter. Just someone there for support.

He most certainly has people in New York. I only wish I could have seen one. To me, that would have made his past life more meaningful, more joyful. As the long funeral procession pulled away, I was at least happy that my departed friend, highly successful, had his success elevated by intense love and caring. In the end, he was not alone, and had never been alone. This, one learns, is the enviable life.

 

The Old Myths Have Faded; New Ones Are Needed

11 Apr

 

Homer

Homer, the blind poet

 

Zeus, most powerful of the Olympic gods, is the protector of guests. Remember this when you sit down at diner with enemies.

 

An ancient Greek tradition requires you to be hospitable to all who visit under your roof, be they friends or enemies. This honored and revered tradition is known as Xenia. If a guest is not treated properly, Zeus could intervene on their behalf.

abduction-of-helen

The abduction of Helen

Paris of Troy ignored Xenia and ignited a war when he ran off with Helen, the wife of his Greek host.  In recent times, a ghastly violation of Xenia was depicted in the famous Red Wedding episode of Game of Thrones, where all guests were slaughtered.

Red-wedding

Shock at the Red Wedding

Xenia and other intricate facets of ancient Greek culture come down to us through myths. The myths are extensive and far reaching. They involve great heroics, tales of morality, flawed character, the foibles of gods and humans, desire, lust, misjudgment and so much more.  The myths also help explain the world and how it got here.

Pillars-of-hercules

A statue honoring Heracles and his pillars

For example, it was Heracles (aka Hercules) who connected the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean. While traveling to the end of the known world, he reached an impasse. Rather than climb a mountain,  he broke though one and created a narrow strait to the ocean, leaving what we know today as the Pillars of Hercules. From ancient Greek stories we learn how peacocks got their colorful tails, why once-white ravens are now black, and how two people, told by the gods to build a small ark, repopulated the world after a great flood by tossing over their shoulders stones that turned into men and women.

Fight-between-lapiths-andcentaurs

Drunken centaurs creating havoc

The importance of these myths to Greek culture, and later to Roman and European culture, is shown by the art they inspired. A piece of  pottery from the 6th century B.C. shows Bellerophon destroying the fire-breathing Chimera. A first century Roman sculpture is of baby Heracles strangling a viper sent by Hera to kill him. A 16th century painting by Piero Di Cosimo vividly captures the drunken centaurs creating violence at a wedding feast.

 

That artists desire to retell these stories speaks of their value, even if we don’t understand that value today. While every culture has its stories and myths, the Greek myths are undeniably special. Their depth and originality is unmatched. They took root in multiple cultures and have  persisted over centuries. When we watch Wonder Woman and Gal Gadot, we are being entertained not so much by Hollywood but by the ancient Greeks.

Wonder-woman

The warrior Amazons were a Greek creation

As I now reread some of these tales, I sense a current vacuum in contemporary western culture. With no disrespect to Gal Gadot, or Jason and the Argonauts, or Brad Pitt as Achilles, I don’t believe the legacies of Greek mythology are doing for America what the original myths did for Greece. I don’t think they educate, inspire and set a correct path for us. And I don’t think anything has effectively replaced them.

 

Meanwhile, we are being pulled apart by forces like politics, race and class.

 

In truth, the detailed and fabulous Greek legends never fully unified the Greeks. The Greek city states were almost constantly at war with each other. Yet there is something strong, powerful and wise about using engaging stories to teach people what they are and what they should be. That someone or some group was willing to do this speaks to the inner essence of a humanness that, without help, is prone to chaos. The goal of the storyteller, of course, is to civilize.

Moses

Moses leading his people

The Hebrew prophets had this intention when they wrote and compiled scripture for an uncultured, barbaric tribe. To a great extent, those prophets succeeded and the western world, thriving today in commerce and replete with interaction and exchange, is a reflection of their efforts. Even so, the impact of scripture is waning and its messages, like the Greek tales, are being lost or forgotten. What’s needed now are new insights, new stories, new guideposts. It is time for a 21st century Homer, a modern Moses, a fresh light cutting through an old fog – a Greek revival, of sorts, if you will.

 

Our biggest problem is we have forgotten what we are and what we can be. Teaching this anew,  we can first understand ourselves, then respect and value ourselves. Once we develop true self-respect and visualize a purpose, we can, as individuals, extend respect and dignity to others. Building a culture around respect and dignity will not only strengthen us, it will unify us. And it may do so in ways the Greeks never imagined.

 

So let the stories be told. Let the heroes flourish. Let us see virtue and valor prevail. Let us know all the things that lead to failure, disrepute and disfavor so a place is reserved for harmony and peace and a new meaning is brought to life.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

The Shoe Salesman as Relic

27 Sep

846-02792528

 

He is thin, well postured and wears a fine suit and silk tie. His shoes, of course, are high quality. They are shined.

 

He is the Shoe Salesman, a man from another era. Proud, maybe arrogant, certainly fussy about footwear, he treats you, his customer, with respect and wants you to walk away in style and comfort.

 

You are seated when the Shoe Salesman approaches. He is polite and professional. You notice he moves well. There is some discussion about what you need and want. He makes suggestions and you tend to agree with him.

 

Now he must measure your feet.

shoe measuring device

The Shoe Salesman pulls up a specially designed bench that allows him to sit and you to put a foot up so he can place a shoe on it. But that comes a little later, after the measurement, which is done using a device that looks as if it belongs in his hands. He can move it about easily, flipping it to measure either your right or left foot.

 

On his request, you stand for the measurement. He moves the calibrators, touches your big toe, presses the foot flat and – regardless of what size you see on the device – tells you what size you should wear.

Eatons Shoe Salesman Chair 1970 1

Using the information from your earlier discussion with the Shoe Salesman, he goes into the back to get your shoes. A moment later he returns with three or four boxes. There are different styles and even different sizes, just in case his measurement is off.

 

The Shoe Salesman puts down all but one box. He holds it in his left hand, gracefully removes the lid and secures it underneath the box. There is a “fliff, fliff” sound as the Shoe Salesman deftly pushes aside the two pieces of tissue covering the shoes. You notice how good the shoes look.

 

He sits on his bench and takes one shoe from the open box. Then, in a move that would humble a magician, the Shoe Salesman produces a silvery shoehorn from somewhere. You are not certain from where. He manipulates the shoehorn and the shoe glides silently onto your foot with minimal friction.

 

The Shoe Salesman ties the laces like you never could. He repeats all this for the second shoe and asks you to stand. With your foot inside the shoe, he uses his thumb and forefinger to squeeze the tip of the shoe. This is to judge the distance, if any, from the top of your big toe to the leather in front. The Shoe Salesman decides if it’s enough.

 

He asks you to walk, which you do. He watches you closely. He asks questions.

 

You try on another pair or two and, upon the recommendation of the Shoe Salesman, make a decision. He expresses delight at your choice and while boxing up the shoes asks if you need socks. You say no, and then a point of importance is mentioned: Do you need shoe trees?

CedarShoeTree

Cedar shoe trees: $25

The shoe trees, he explains, are vital to the care and life of shoes. They allow the shoes to hold their shape and help to disperse odor. They come in plastic, but those are not recommended. You should only buy cedar, the Shoe Salesman advises, even if they are expensive.

 

With a degree of embarrassment, you decline the shoe trees. There is a look of disappointment on the face of the Shoe Salesman. This detracts from the near joy of the shoe purchasing experience. Something in you wants to make the Shoe Salesman happy, and you seemed to have failed at that.

 

But the Shoe Salesman rallies and the transaction finishes in upbeat fashion. There is a request that you visit again soon.

shoes-2000-dollars

A pair of $2,000 shoes

 

The Shoe Salesman may still exist at fine men stores where shoes sell for the price of a good suit. There was a time, however, when they were found in main street establishments and in family department stores like Sears.

 

It takes dignity, a reasonable salary and longevity to produce the kind of service described here. It is unfortunate these things were severed from shoe sales decades ago. So today, we are accustomed to what would have been an unacceptable horror in 1960: We must try on our own shoes and judge for ourselves whether or not they fit. In the entire shoe department, it may be impossible to find anything even resembling a rudimentary shoehorn.

 

Like in restaurants where we must serve and clean up after ourselves, we are pretty much on our own in the shoe department.

 

This is the American economy, a place sucked dry of everything deemed unessential. Remarkably, without someone trying to sell you shoes, the shoes manage to get sold. This is the miracle of our time. In a society where labor is horribly undervalued and skills like those of the Shoe Salesman will never be properly rewarded, the American public has been trained to supply free labor that previously was paid for.

 

How did this happen? Damned if I know. Perhaps it’s the results of global markets and the ability of foreign people with lower living standards to produce things once produced by those in countries with higher standards of living.

 

But I think it’s also related to the predatory nature of our society championed by corporations that want to keep an increasingly larger portion of their revenue. They succeed at this in the absence of any morality requiring a more even distribution of wealth, and with no market forces pushing up wages.

 

When Henry Ford needed to ramp up production on his new assembly line in order to meet the swelling demand for his cars, he famously boosted wages to $5 a day, an unheard of rate. Slyly, that rate was enough so all his employees could afford cars.

 

Today there are legions of undervalued workers, many at multi-billion dollar companies such as Walmart and Amazon, who cannot afford an automobile. As long as cars and other American products are purchased by consumers in the global market, this presumably doesn’t matter. It does, however, create instability, conflict and adds stress to government.

A Snug Fit

A shoe salesman attends to a customer in 1955

 

 

I say this not because I am a Bleeding Heart Liberal. I say this not because I want to penalize private enterprise. Rather, I say this because I am a person who once enjoyed purchasing a pair of men’s shoes and would like very much to someday enjoy that experience again.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

 

A Modest Place of Distinction Continues to Survive

26 Sep
2018-09-26 14.13.55

Near Broad and Wolf

 

Circumstances brought me to South Philadelphia this week.

 

For those unfamiliar with this legendary locale, it is a crowded little sub-town of look-alike row homes. South Philly probably is best known as the birthplace of the Philly Cheesesteak and as the home of 50s teen idols like Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell.

 

Traditionally, it is considered an Italian neighborhood, and although it has had its ups and down, with people moving in and people moving out, it remains intact. Its vibrancy is illustrated by the thriving Italian market that has been in existence since the early 1900s. In the movies, Rocky runs through it as part of his training.

 

The area is broken up into many neighborhoods. I was at Wolf and Broad streets, a humble section without landmarks. One day at around 1:30, I decided to find a restaurant for lunch. I knew the big name South Philly restaurants were elsewhere, but whatever place I chose had to meet at least baseline standards in order to exist here.

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The Italian Market

 

I came upon a small corner joint named Johnnie’s at 12th and Wolf. My plan was to takeout, a good idea since the place was empty save for a waitress sitting at a table. Didn’t matter. Johnnie’s was clean and decorated with wine bottles, plastic flowers and garland. There were several religious icons, including a statue of the Sacred Heart, which is Jesus exposing his bulging heart through an open robe.

 

I ordered some pasta and sandwiches, including a Cheesesteak with sauce and onions.

 

“Sauce?” the waitress said with a puzzled face.

 

“Yes, sauce and onions.”

 

“You mean red gravy?” she asked.

 

“Yes, red gravy,” I said, remembering where I was.

 

After she put in my order we chatted. Having walked down Wolf Street, I noticed a good number of the 3-story homes had been gentrified, with beautiful wooden doors and fancy nameplates displaying address numbers. I hadn’t been in one of these homes for decades, but I recollect at least two common interior features. First, all couches and chairs were protected with clear plastic slipcovers. Second, one interior wall – the whole thing — was faced with mirrors to give the narrow homes a feeling of depth. The mirrors may still be there. I’m guessing the plastic slip covers are gone.

1959_Fabian_Forte

Singer Fabian Forte, from South Philly

“How’s the neighborhood doing?” I asked the waitress.

 

“Well,” she said, “I’m not from here. I’m from the other side of Broad Street (three blocks away). But I’d say it’s doing OK. Things have picked up. For a while, I was thinking about moving. Not now. It’s pretty good.”

 

South Philly has been targeted by an army of millennials looking for a small town feel in the big city. They have made South Philly one of the hottest Philadelphia neighborhoods for rentals.

 

“What do these homes sell for?” I asked. “A good one, not a great one.”

 

She thought about it. “Maybe the low 300s. That’s what they go for on my street. Maybe the high or mid-200s.”

 

“It’s nice when a neighborhood comes back,” I said, thinking about the Chambersburg section of Trenton, which has not come back.

 

Trenton, New Jersey, was where my father was born. Our family lived there for a few years. I think we moved out when I was seven. We didn’t live in Chambersburg, but as children we’d hear talk about this very ethnic Italian neighborhood. Occasionally we’d eat at a restaurant there, but mostly we bought bread and pastries from its bakeries.

 

As an adult, while living in suburban Philadelphia, I joined my father’s Trenton-based lodge, The Roman Society. In its day it was a remarkably successful organization, and I’ve written about it here. Without repeating too much, I’ll just say the lodge owned a beautiful restaurant and banquet facility called the Roman Hall. It outlived its usefulness after the unmistakable truth became known: Chambersburg was no longer and never again would be Italian. Also, walking the streets was getting dangerous.

 

No surprise. The restaurant went under.

 

An entrepreneur wanted to turn the place into an Hispanic-style nightclub. He asked that the lodge to hold the mortgage, which it did, and our signs were taken down. For me, this was like Rome falling all over again.

 

But back to the better-fated South Philly.

 

Not far from Johnnies, a young man I know (non-Italian) lives happily with his new wife in a South Philly row home. The couple, both of whom work in Center City, got married at an old but stately South Philly high school that had been converted in a bar/banquet hall. It’s a large, slightly Greek-style building on a small, cramped side street. Hardly any parking. I’m told the wedding attendees stayed at a riverfront hotel and Ubered over.

 

South Philadelphia is an indication that things can change for the better. The defining question is how much better and for how much longer. Either way, I hope Johnnies’ dinner trade is better than its lunch trade. It’s not Dante and Luigi’s or Ralph’s or Marra’s, but it’s a nice place for quick, simple food. If you, like I, are near 12th and Wolf due to circumstances, I can recommend it. Be sure to remember it’s “red gravy,” not sauce.

 

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Acting like you’re famous and wishing you were: The Million Dollar Quartet

3 Sep
million-dollar-quartet2

Actor/musicians (from left) Brandyn Day as Jerry Lee Lewis, John Michael Presney as Carl Perkins, Ari McKay Wilford as Elvis Presley and Sky Seals as Johnny Cash

If you’ve been to a minor league baseball game, you know it’s tame fun with a hint of sadness. What’s sad is that many of the wildly ambitious and talented players will never hear the roar of a real crowd or get the glory that accompanies fame.

For me, the experience is similar to seeing a Broadway show at a regional theater. The one difference is that on good nights the actors at a regional theater do hear the roar, a sound satisfying beyond money. Still, after the curtain falls, you’re in a bar wearing street clothes and looking normal and someone asks what you do for a living and you’re afraid they’ll laugh if you say you are currently performing on stage as Elvis Presley.

At the Bucks County Playhouse this weekend in New Hope, Pennsylvania, I saw not only Elvis but actors portraying Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Carl Perkins. This 50s-era group of rock and roll royalty once came together by chance at a small recording studio called Sun Records. For a few brief hours on Dec. 4, 1956, they formed what came to be known as the Million Dollar Quartet.

Million-Dollar-Quartet-hits-high-note-at-Bucks-County-Playhouse

That was the show I saw, “Million Dollar Quartet.” It was based on the recordings the four made under the guidance of legendary producer Sam Phillips. When I walked into the theater my first impression was that the set, a recreation of Sun Records, looked really good. Knowing little about what I was to see and hear, I was even more impressed when a Playhouse employee announced that all music would be live and performed by the actors on stage. Nothing had been prerecorded.

As I waited for the show to start, I assumed the audience would be kind but not overly enthusiastic, mainly because it was a very old audience. More than a few people had walkers and canes and I wasn’t feeling too good myself. When the music started playing – there are 22 numbers in the show – I was relieved that the reaction was, if not effusive, at least respectable.  The performances, however, were so good that younger people might have been up and hollering. Even so, I was confident the people who created the show were experts at pacing and that we weren’t supposed to really let go until the end. This turned out to be true.

A few points in general about the show, which continues thru September 29: Johnny Cash didn’t look much like Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis came off too much like Harpo Marx, but as a regional show is was worth the ticket price. As one of those so-called jukebox musicals, songs dominated over plot. A minimal story line involved Sam Phillips’ struggle over whether to sell out to RCA; Johnny Cash’s worry about telling Sam he was leaving Sun for Columbia Records; and Carl Perkins’ anger at Elvis for recording his song, “Blue Suede Shoes.”

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From left, the real Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash

In the end, everyone came together in mutual respect, understanding and friendship. This fresh harmony allowed the actors to finish in concert style with three strong numbers. Right before the concert, there was a touching bit that probably doesn’t sound touching if written about. Sam Phillips, the record producer, asks the four boys to pose for what he says will be an historic photo. They pose, Sam shoots, and the actual photo the real Sam Phillips took on Dec. 4, 1956 comes down from the ceiling. Everyone claps. Some tear up.

The concert consisted of  “Hound Dog” by Elvis, “Ghost Riders In the Sky” by Cash and “See You Later Alligator” by Perkins. These numbers were clearly full-tilt/high energy and the crowd, some with walker assists, finally got on its feet and went nuts. After “Alligator,” the boys proudly marched off stage and Sam Phillips urged us to demand an encore, which we already were doing.

The boys came back. They ripped it up and shook the house with Jerry Lee Lewis doing “Whole Lotta Shakin.” Sam Phillips, who so far had only dialogue and narration, coolly pulled out a harmonic and gave an incredible mouth organ solo.

It all ends, and we cheer loudly. This was the best part because you could see the actor/musicians break character, glance at each other in unexpected ways and silently say with expressions of delight and satisfaction, “Seems like we did pretty good tonight.”

The loving reception gave them hope that even if they are in the minors now, one day soon they could be called up.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

Do robots get it?

13 May
female_robot

Image by Rhex Firemind

A story of mine was recently published in the online science fiction journal, Ripples In Space.

It’s about artificial intelligence in a young female robot and a visiting scientist who wants to determine if she is capable of comprehending unconventional thought patterns.

It’s short and you can read it in a flash.

I call it   “Learning”

Click to read. Thanks.

Lanny Morgnanesi

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