Letter From The Berkshires: Mostly Lite August 1, 2007
© 2007 by Joel

Summer Present

My sunnier gift to you is a (mostly) lighter letter that you can read on skiff, sand or in the tree you have climbed to escape a bear. My next letter will come from Manhattan sometime in October, as I am giving my publishers, the Carises, a vacation with all expenses paid–by themselves. [editor’s note: the next letter will be posted sometime during the first week of November] Relax, then, and enjoy some of the usual complaining along with zany humor and personal stories. Let's get the tears over with right up front.


Farewell to Bubbles, colloquially known as Beverly Sills, who arts administered, sang gloriously and knew about living. A woman I met was once invited to her friend's friend's for dinner. Imagine her surprise when the hostess, Beverly Sills, not only answered the doorbell but cooked and served dinner herself. The mother of an autistic son and a deaf daughter, Sills was asked if she were happy. No, she replied, "Happy women have everything they want," and then asserted that she was, however quite content. We were more than content with her.

If I make it to that wildflower garden in the sky and sit down for coffee with Lady Bird Johnson I would ask her, "How did you ever put up with him?" Same with Hillary, Pat, Eleanor, Mamie, Bess.....

Finally, we mourn for the commutation of Scooter Libby's sentence (and no doubt future pardon), and that the Computer in Chief has cheapened his presidency once -more.

To Be Read Only by Those Who Are Sick or Well

See Michael Moore's Sicko, Quicko!

Unfortunate Cookie

A Jeff Danziger political cartoon (New York Times 7/15/07) features signs for Chinese take-out dishes, including Happy Shoebox, Chicken Anti-freeze and, my favorite, Sweet and Sour Phonebook.

Somewhere (My Summer Reading)

Dancers, directors and choreographers do; biographers write, often superbly. For dance and golden age of Broadway buffs, I cannot recommend Amanda Vaill's Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins too strongly. More than the story of a brilliant artist and tortured soul, Somewhere is a history of dance and musical theater in the latter half of the twentieth century. Vaill has the unique gift of taking the reader through the creative process underlying each of her subject's works. I had always regarded dancing as more or less filler in musical shows. Not any more.

Attention San Francisco Baseball Fans

Among the treasures in my Berkshires attic is a 1954 New York Yankee yearbook. Among the team's scouts is a John J. ("Paddy") Cottrell, then at 203 Castro St., S.F., with an Underhill telephone exchange. I remember a Cottrell's used furniture store in the Mission when we moved to the city in 1976. Any relation, I wonder?

Sgt. Pepper at Fifty

I may be the only person alive who has never been charmed or moved by that twentieth century phenomenon known as the Beatles. And as sorry I was over the murder of John Lennon, I have never felt that a part of my world had gone.

The Beatles–Ed Sullivan sharply emphasized the "t" as Bobby Kennedy did in pronouncing "ghetto," an affectation of those times–were a harmless quartet of young men who have made a lot of people very happy. Contrary to those who have maintained that the Beatles' music represented the Second Coming of Beethoven, I find their songs vaguely pleasant and interesting only in understanding their cultural context.

The Beatles were the mold out of which over half a century of singing groups have been poured–the line of long haired manboys with guitars and drums, in perpetual motion. They shook their bodies and their hair lightly and cutely, and they shook up a great deal more as well.

At a time when our world was (justifiably) serious and we began to discover that our leaders had often let us down, the Beatles brought back Peter Pan, the boy forever who famously proclaimed, "I am youth! I am joy! I am freedom!" The correct response to disillusionment was to become sassy and silly. In the preceding decade they had discovered the Salk vaccine and a new consumer group called teenagers. Suddenly, as I was trying to grow up instead of down, the less one knew or had experienced, the more arrogant and flamboyant one's affect, the somehow wiser and more virtuous one had become. A rediscovered essential ingredient, childlikeness, had become the entire cake, with historical and cultural consequences that stun. Having arrived early for Sicko the other day, I spent time in the Triplex theater lobby observing, all right, laughing at, the difference between those meandering toward Moore's movie and those headed for Harry Potter. The youngsters all had their signature clothes, hairstyles and slightly hearing impaired loud voices, while we older types all pretty much looked alike, too. Kids, (im)maturity, novelty and tradition are recurring themes of my letters, but getting back to the Beatles, I regard them as a triumph of their times and the art of promotion; not great but certainly good.

Joel at Sixty-five

As friends have taken pains to remind me, putting on their Elder Face to so do, carrying a Medicare card means my life is forever altered and, you know, I have to agree.

I know I have to give up what I had taken for granted in years gone by. The luxury of riding escalators and lifts, for instance, must give way to climbing flights of stairs if I am to remain well. Bitching and moaning because most pediatricians won't accept Medicare payments yields to the stoicism of the wise. Blowing up isn't as neutral for the blood pressure as it once was, though getting even is always in style.

Gone, too, is the excuse that I have forever to take classes, discover new perspectives, tackle projects or read certain books. What have I left but to express gratitude for my health, my stamina, my accomplishments, my relationships and my growth?

In no way am I denying the special challenges that aging people face, but I know exactly what my friends meant: Poor Them, and Poor Me. With due respect to gentlewomen of a certain age, that is what I call Old Lady Talk.

A fortune cookie I opened last week says it best. "Any day above ground is a good day."

Restaurant Manners 101

Servers! In my day they were waiters and waitresses, though I'm glad to call both sexes the former. Few things drive me crazier than the intrusive, jolly "servers" in middle brow restaurants who act like characters from a bad t.v. show and feel obliged to do a song and a dance for their tip.

Recently, a female waiter (!) in a Berkshires fish joint consistently addressed "eaters" of both sexes at our table as "guys." A comic routine attended the pouring of water. We were frequently interrupted to reassure our "server" that "everything was o.k.." (At Max's on Geary in San Francisco, the meal is on them if anyone asks if everything's o.k.) Once, the owner of another restaurant up here saw fit to sit at our table and join in our very personal discussion. Guess who rapidly dismissed him and has never returned.

Call Joel retro, but he does not collect and hand waiters the menus, and he especially does not take plates from their hands. Another hanging offense is when my fellow diners' empty plates are removed from the table before I have finished. I have seen a lady friend in S.F. lightly slap a busboy's hand for doing that. Did their mother's zip away their plates at hone the moment they were done?

Though "thank you," "please" and basic consideration are always in style, I never try to establish rapport or ingratiate myself with those who serve. I know who does the pleasing and who is to be pleased. I don't give a rats about the server's name, and I gave holy ned to a friend who introduced everyone at our table by first name in return.

Do any of you want to eat out with me ever again?

Playing Favorites

And now, some of my favorite doctor, actor, medication and cop stories, all funnier for being true.

My Favorite Cop Story

During another summer, thirty-five years ago, on the street outside our hi-rise at Broadway and 70th Street in New York, I tossed the wrapping from a candy bar in a public receptacle and started on my way. Out of nowhere, it seemed, came a police officer who sternly asked, "Did I see you throw that wrapper in that can?" A Dragnet "Dum Da Dum Dum," ran through my head. What, my barely thirty year old brain wondered, had I done wrong? How many years would I get?

"Er, come again?" I asked. The cop patiently repeated his question. "I...I suppose I did, sir," I confessed. Out cane his ticket book, and from his mouth, "In that case, I'm going to have to give you...this!"

He broke into a smile and handed me a gift certificate for a free cone at Baskin and Robbins because I had obeyed the littering law. Now that I had regained my composure I inquired, "If I buy ten candy bars and throw all their wrappers in a can will I get...?" I didn't need to finish asking. The policeman's slowly shaking his head from side to side was his reply.

My Favorite Doctor Story

In San Francisco, I was referred to a neurologist who correctly diagnosed my migraines and started me on a lifelong medication which has kept me symptom free for over twenty years. Our start was frosty, though. The doc didn't as much as make eye contact until the detailed case history he was taking was complete. His fatal mistake came when we went from the examining room to the doctor's study, or office room, itself, the orderliness of which rivaled anything I had ever seen. "Doctor," I blurted out to this dour soul, "You're anal!" quickly adding, "Just like me." He roared, and I can't remember his ever saying a serious word to me from then on. Once, after a checkup, he took me to the adjoining doctors' offices and introduced me by name, adding, "I give him only another thirty or forty years." (Of course that was thirty or forty years ago....)

My Favorite Dentist Story (not for Prudes)

No one's skipping this one, I see. To a kindly, excellent dentist of long ago who bemoaned incessantly about his having gone bald, his son's going bald and this patient's going bald, I sweetly played homonyms and declared that "I just love being bald." As his face went from red to some shade of purple, his hygienist dropped her tray of instruments and fled the room screaming with glee. We never played bald again.

My Favorite Medication Story

This true story appeared in my high school alumni bulletin a year or two ago. A teacher had injured her shoulder, not seriously, but enough to tell the head of school, Dr. Mullady, that she needed to go home early and take the following day off. Mullady's response rattled the teacher to the core. "Well! Why don't you just take a leave!" How cold, thought the hurting teacher, how heartless and cold.

That night at home, our heroine was too obsessed with worry and anger to sleep. Her husband, coincidentally a school trustee, asked what was troubling her, and he was told of Dr. Mullady and the "leave."

The teacher recovered promptly and fully, and the next time her husband met Dr. Mullady he politely told of his wife's unease. Dr. Mullady laughed so hard she almost burst her sides. A new painkiller had just come on the market, and what the boss had recommended was simply that the teacher take–Aleve.

My Favorite Autograph Stories

Actors aren't spared my nonsense any more than anybody else. We have collected actor's autographs, as you may know, for so many decades that our books containing them are prudently stored in a vault. It hasn't always been easy, for the actors, I mean.

To Eva Marie Saint (autograph c. 1970) I said, "Let's see. You're beautiful, talented, accomplished, intelligent, and (she had just done something or another that was noble) a very good person, too. Aside from that I can't think of anything nice to say about you." I loved the huge smile in return.

I got Petula Clarke laughing hard when she paused from signing my Blood Brothers program to rub her eye. "I always have trouble with mascara," she confided. "I live in San Francisco," I added, "and I often have trouble with mine."

After seeing Katherine Turner and Bill Irwin in that heaviest of heavies, Who's Afraid of Virginia Wolfe? I waited for both to come out. As Bill Irwin signed he observed, "I saw you," as I had sat in the front row. "I saw you too," I shot back, and went on to ask, in a playful manner, "But weren't you supposed to be concentrating?" "Weren't you?" he not so playfully shot back. During one scene I had dozed off and teacher must have seen.

I was barely out of high school when we went to see Maureen Stapleton and Jason Robards, Jr. in Lillian Hellman's Toys in the Attic. Stapleton, not yet forty, her figure quite ample and her hair still dark, signed my program gladly and listened to what I had to say. "I loved you and everyone in the play, but my God! That was my family up there, (which was not a good thing)" "We all have families," she confided with a sardonic smile.

I've gone after some of the toughest. Jack Paar made it quite clear on his late night television show that he hated autograph seekers, so I was amazed at his kindness when I asked him to sign. Do any of you remember the Irish playwright Brendan Behan (Borstal Boy, The Quare Fellow) who died of the drink while still quite young? He was known to scare the pants off everybody, but was as gentle as a lamb about signing for us in Manhattan in 1959, directly outside the bar he was about to go in. Elizabeth Ashley, known for being outspoken, met her match with me. She asked my name, then how to spell it. "J-o-e-1," I told her; "Just a four letter word." "Honey," she answered, "I know plenty of four letter words," not a one of which she used. Ethel Merman brushed us off with a "Not now, honey, give it to the (stage) doorman," and ignored this eighteen year old's "I don't want his autograph, I want yours." On a less hurried day she was patient and sweet. I neglected to mention that her second husband had once been my mother's beau.

Sylvia Sidney was the stinker of them all. She left the stage door carrying two pug dogs who closely resembled her and wouldn't even turn to tell me, "No." Lotta Lenya had me hold her poodle's leash while she (Lenya, not the dog) signed.

I'm such an autograph hound I wait after movies for the cast to come out. Someday I'll have to tell you more about that.

Finally, My New Favorite Quote

The late Senator Frank Church was once cornered by two fellow senators, one of whom was Lyndon B. Johnson, with some wild, impractical scheme. "I feel like I'm a penis," declared the embattled Church, because "I'm between two nuts."

Coming Soon (Really)

"Muffy's Mommy," a slam on the culture of mommies, daddies and their precious little kids.

A scorcher on New Money, Old Money, Some Money, Little of the Stuff and None.

Iraq updates, my take on what is wrong with our public schools, and, as the political season continues to wear us down, words on passionately held beliefs vs. agendas, a long deferred piece on the primacy of winning, and an object lesson in respecting the other fellow's point of view.

Archive 2007