Righteous riffs

Colophon: Nov. 15-18

When my Wired Magazine comes in the mail each month, I immediately flip to the back to the Colophon, where the parties responsible list the sacred little things that helped them lug that issue to press (a wonderful reminder that the end result’s best stories reside in all that comes before ….)

Saturday mornings being a perfect time for caffeinated reflection, here’s what got me through the cold, gray week, in no particular order … 

  • popping a new CD in my car player for, like, the first time in years. Last month WQED-FM was offering as a thank-you gift a collection of music from the Mr. Rogers show. Climbing in the car and peeling the protective cellophane like unwrapping a present before I turn the key. Soundtracking a new week’s commute with Fred singing over Johnny Costa’s dancing fingers … making Monday feel like a Tuesday. 
  • staring out my downstairs morning window and watching a trio of cemetery deer give each other baths. Karry, who keeps track of such things, pointing out that they are three generations, a Mom and babies from different seasons. It’s genuinely the loveliest thing. They take turns. The one standing in the middle alternates between the one on her right and her left, who stand patient and still.  In my reverie, thinking of Joni Mitchell singing, “I want to shampoo you. I want to renew you again and again.” Nature and Joni reminding us to take good care of each other.
  • standing in line for soup at the coffee shop down the road and eavesdropping on the two young men in front of me, the one talking about the slasher screen play he’s currently working on. Hot chicken gnocchi soup on a cold, gray day. 
  • breakfast for dinner Wednesday night … Emma crisping the bacon perfect
  • first to the kitchen in the morning, the cats trailing behind, Roman, he of the greater appetite, barking hangry, and the scripted routine of them tussling, Viktor ending it (as always) by biting his little brother’s ear, as I crack open their tiny morning can and split it between them … making sure Viktor gets a little bit more, knowing that Roman will lick up all the leftovers.
  • hustling to the Mall Thursday night, for their annual holiday ‘parade,’ which was forced indoors by the cold … the melancholy of seeing an abandoned mall still decorated as if….
  • the incongruity of the setting melting when Emma brings out her tap board, places it on the slippery surface, and proceeds to throw down … a routine she choreographed herself, a practiced improvisation, me mesmerized by her flying feet and the board beneath, praying it doesn’t slip from under her, it doesn’t, she won’t let it, wow, and, as with all good stuff, over before you know it …. 
  • walking into Appleby’s (always an anthropological expedition) afterwards with Karry, and her picking up on the true meaning of the eff-bombing, outdoor-smoking dude’s comment to his colleague, “I don’t trust it until I wake up the next morning.” As we take our seats, Karry interpreting for me, “He’s talking about his weed.” Grateful for my co-pilot who has always caught the much that I miss.
  • the annual office Thanksgiving pot-luck, crock pot nirvana, me missing most of it on a call, but second-hand smoking the music of reverberating laughter
  • season 6, episode 20 of Murder She Wrote with Karry in her recliner, Emma in her chair, me wrongly guessing first the sister, then the daughter and Jessica sewing it all up, coaxing the confession from the culprit — the jilted ex (of course), before the episode ends with a classic ‘mid-laugh’ freeze. 

And … scene.


Fathers and Sons

Weekend Plans (1981)

“Knicks are on tonight, if you want to watch …? 


“Can we get some snacks?”

Gladly, gleefully he’d procure the elements 

while out on his Saturday errands

He maintained an eleven-year-old’s taste buds at fifty-three, 

and well into overtime.

Maybe Hot Fries, Flings, always Pepsi (always),

peanuts and maybe a Three Musketeers (or two) for himself

Pre-game I’d stretch for the tall glasses

from our kitchen’s 70’s green metal cabinets, 

fill with ice and slow-open the two-liter, 

drawing out the hisssssss like a long fuse

At eight we were ready for warmups, tuning in WOR-Channel 12

to hear Marv Albert’s gravelly 

“Welcome to Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks take on the ….”

How I loved hearing the starting lineups, 

how they saved each team’s best for last,

the stars of the show

For the jump ball we’d take our positions on the floor, 

he in front of his chair, 

me in front of the couch 

I’d fish the bag of Hot Fries for the reddest ones,

chase with gulps of Pepsi, letting 

the cubes rest against my lips, relieving,

and the crumbs coat my fingers spicy for licking 

Wet and stick my suction cup hoop to the beam

at the bottom of the steps, and role play along …

foul shots like Campy, who’d take the ball 

all the way back behind his head before catapulting it, 

and Big Bill Cartwright,

bowing his seven feet low to the ground 

before drawing all the way up, set, and … flick,

just the softest touch for a big man…

Michael Ray Richardson, the best for last, 

my favorite Knick, his finger roll, poetry, 

the way he turned his wrist over,

offering the ball up to the hoop like a supplicant’s prayer

Refills at half time, 

and by midway through the third,

I’d lay my head on his belly and tune in to the

transistor radio of the peanuts and the Pepsi jostling for position,

the best for last

all gurgles, bubbles popping,

a mad scientist’s laboratory, drowning out 

Marv Albert drawing out his Yessssssss like a long fuse, 

drifting me off to sleep 

Letters for Maggie

Such is 26 ….

I remember we were sitting around the kitchen table … Mom, my older brother, I think my sister Missy was there, too. I may have still been in high school. Seventeen, maybe? 

Mom was reading the local newspaper, and had flipped to the classifieds in the back where they parked the memorials. Where folks would send in pictures and tributes, often poems, always heartfelt, honoring the memory of loved ones in the wake, or on the anniversary, of their passing.

Mom found the idea of publishing these in the newspaper the funniest thing in the world.

“It’s not like the dead read the Herald-Standard,” she would say. “I doubt they keep up with their subscription.”

I forget which one of us came up with the idea, but somebody said, “You know, we’re totally going to put one in for you when you kick the bucket.” 

Mom: Don’t you dare. 

Then you can let us know if you get the message.

Mom: I will haunt you.  

It wasn’t long before we were suddenly brainstorming what we’d put in her tribute.

We began by thinking of the most syrupy things we could think of, as she tried in vain to change the subject. 

We may or may not have started rhyming next. 

The more pissed she got, the more fun we had at her expense. 

It was my brother, though, who hit the bullseye. He recalled how Grandma Johnson (Mom’s mom) always used to remind anyone who cared to listen, “You’ll miss me when I’m gone.”

With that good kindling, he offered ….

“You always said we’d miss you when you were gone…”

“… but you were wrong.”

At this the entire table erupted in laughter … Mom most of all. My brother’s retort tick(l)ed all the boxes on Mom’s funny bone. Ornery. Skewering. A bit morbid … with just the right subversive seasoning. She always went out of her way to keep sacred subjects and people from being taken too seriously, most of all herself. She passed that wonderful trait down to all of us. To this day we can’t help ourselves sometimes.

How I can still hear the mingling of our howls, which went on for a long, good moment. My brother’s giggle going falsetto, his trademark when he gets going. Missy’s laugh going silent and breathless. Mom throwing her head back and staying in her lower range … a laugh every bit as ornery as she was. 

Music, all of it. 

For years after that kitchen table moment … we’d all find excuses to reference Mom’s tribute. Whenever she’d push our buttons, get under our skin, or absent-mindedly comment on how much we’d miss her when … you know. 

After a while we didn’t even have to deliver the punchline. Just the opener: “You said we’d miss you when you were gone …” We’d finish it in our heads. It never failed to coax the echoes of our kitchen table laughter.


On the evening of our 26th anniversary a couple Wednesday’s ago, Karry and I didn’t bring much to our table as far as celebrations go. 

Just before I left the office at six for my hour commute home, Karry called, in tears. Her multi-week, single-handed Herculean effort to deliver a kitty she’d rescued from our backyard woods to a foster service had collapsed cat-astrophically. The carrier fell apart seconds before she loaded “George” into the backseat of her Jeep. Instinctively, the cat made a beeline back to the woods.

My assurances that George would come back to the warmth of her kindness and food in due time did little to quell her tears. Twenty-six years into a marriage, our worn words for each other don’t always take root the way they used to.

After pulling in the driveway, I trudged up the steps towards our anniversary with expectations set low. 

Opening the door to the hallway, however, I caught a whiff from the kitchen. Walked around the corner to see Emma at the stove, as usual in full command of the situation.  

“Is that what I think it is?” 

You know it, said our youngest, now 17.

A smile broke across my face. I knew without needing visual confirmation. Fish sticks from the bag. Kraft Mac ’n’ Cheese from the box. Peas from the can. It’s our house’s humble equivalent of lighting a campfire. Never fails to warm, and when necessary, repair our souls.

Emma is by far the best cook in the house. Prides herself in trying (and slaying) new and complex recipes. That she knew that keeping her guns in her dinner holster was just what this weary Wednesday called for was the best kind of gift. The kind we wouldn’t have even known to ask for.

Turns out, she was saving the big guns for later.

“Make sure you leave room for dessert … I made you a peanut butter and chocolate layer cake. 

“I impress even myself sometimes.”

I looked towards our tiny dining room. Plates and silverware were set. A single card sat in the center, propped against the napkin holder. Addressed to us from our chef.

Our anniversary hearts caught empty, she filled them to overflowing. I never want to forget that. 

Karry entered from the hallway. 

And? I asked sheepishly. 

George is back in the garage. Neighbors probably thought I was crazy. At one point I was layin’ on my stomach in their yard trying to fish her out from under their gazebo. 

The heart my daughter has for the kitchen, my wife has for animals. 

Peter joined us at the table, and we fixed our plates. Peppered the mac. Ketchupped the fish sticks. Gave thanks.

We didn’t talk about our anniversary, or our wedding. We caught up on each other’s days. Emma and Karry shaking their heads about customers they encountered. Peter cracking us up with tales of his recent adventures with his buddies.

The music of laughter around the table. 

After we cleared the plates Emma brought out the cake. 

There were no candles. No singing. 

It occurred to me that you don’t get a wish on an anniversary.

So, in the place where the wish might have gone, I thought back exactly 26 years … and one day. 

To the night before we got married. 

After the rehearsal at the church we gathered at Firmani’s on Rt. 51 for dinner. As we were finishing the meal (I remember stuffed shells — Firmani’s never disappointed),  I signaled to our server, and she brought out the birthday cake we’d gotten for Mom. I got everyone’s attention and explained that since we’d be kinda’ busy the next day, we’d be commemorating tonight. 

The only thing my Mom hated more than surprises was any sort of fuss, especially at large gatherings. She wanted no parts of being the center of anyone’s attention. I remember her hating it for a moment as the room erupted in song, but then giving in to the happiness of it all … the wedding … being in the company of her kids as well as her sisters who had made the trip in from all over. She was far from alone. We were all so happy. We lit the candle and sang. I remember her taking her time with her wish. While I can only guess as to the specifics, I’m pretty sure she made it count.


Before Emma cut us each a slice from her heavenly creation and placed it on our plates, we took a picture for posterity. 

Last year at this time Karry and I took probably a hundred photos commemorating our 25th. On this weary, workday Wednesday, we took just this one. Though I do regret I wasn’t around to snap an action shot of Karry on her belly trying to coax the cat from under the neighbor’s gazebo.

It’s OK though. I’ll do my best to remember. All of it.  

Such is 26. 

And even though I wasn’t authorized, I made a wish anyway. Took my time, too. 

On what would have been her 91st, I wished Anna Margaret a happy birthday.

I’m confident she’ll let me know if she got the message. 

The Girls

Standing in Line at the Blank Slate Creamery

The lines get long but they move quickly, she says 
as we join the expectant tail 
and tongues wagging from door to street.
Bourbon Turtle” I say aloud,

not to anyone really,
but because Bourbon Turtle …
and it’s the greatest of all the commandments
scrawled on the tall black slate scroll

I’m nothing but another, the nameless next
come to lick from these holy vessels,
dropping all defenses and pretenses at this altar call.
Salted Chocolate Truffle

Stop saying everything out loud, she pleads in vain,
trying to contain her teenage embarrassment,
falling sad as a scoop on hot pavement
just before the ants come.

But her words can’t bruise my unadulterated, un-adulted joy
as everything melts — in front, behind, at the picnic tables,
even the demon voices in my head, haunting.
Take a number, I say, and surrender.

Vietnamese Cinnamon

I am nine and alive and summertime,
mesmerized by the lo-fi blare of Pop Goes the Weasel
waiting for the communion waffle cone from the Goody Man’s hand.
It, too, was a long line, and moved far too quickly. 

I fold my hands together over my nose and mouth, 
whisper so she can’t hear, but God still can
Browned Butter Cookie Dough
ascend the steps, raise my hand, step into the light …

As the bell rings, my angel beckons
I reach for a sample of Bourbon Turtle
just to taste it on my tongue.
But in my heart I’ve always known my true calling.

Peanut … Butter … Cone … Crackle


Letters for Maggie

The Return

So the day started with a trip to a doctor about this thing that has overstayed its welcome on my person, though I’ve given it several months to politely excuse itself (rude). When the doctor took a look at the thing, she pointed to these other things that were in the same general area code and asked me, “What about these?” In my head, I said something like, “Oh, those? Old friends of mine. Been around for a long time. Don’t worry about those. I’m here to talk about this relatively new thing.” She then broadly waved her hand. “These are all the same thing,” and then said the multi-syllable, multi-word medical term for the collective thing.

“Really?” I said, taken aback.

While I was still mentally working my way back from aback, she rattled off the three options for dealing with the thing (all-encompassing hand gesture goes here), discouraged two of them, and offered her rationale for the one that remained, which evidently involves an hour long application of something followed by a shorter interval of something else, followed by a period of seven to 10 days where you really don’t want to be out in public, for fear of frightening the children.

“I see this a hundred times a week,” she told me reassuringly yet dismissively, and informed me the office would call me in 7-10 days after checking on the “pre-auth” — an abbreviation I’d never heard before, but which I’ve been liberally using ever since, because it makes me sound like I possess an understanding of how “the system” works (though I’m not clear on precisely what “system” is being referred to). Then the person at the desk told me the pre-auth would take “3 to 4 weeks” … prompting me to ask how the pre-auth grew 18 days in the 18 steps from the exam room to the front desk (a question I’d probably know the answer to, if I knew more about “the system”).  In response, the front desk person said she’d bump me to the “top of the list,” which she probably says as often in a week as the doctor sees the thing, and which meant that, at minimum, I was at the bottom of that week’s hundred.

I then headed home to work remotely for the day.

Within 20 minutes of plugging in, my house lost all internet and phone service.

I unplugged and plugged the stuff back in. Pressed the re-start buttons. Nada.

Instantly Amish, I threw work stuff into my backpack, hopped in the car and parked outside the coffee shop down the road so I could place a distress call to the demon Comcast.

Took me a good 30 minutes to ‘navigate’ their automated answering machine, the last 25 of which I spent alternating between screaming, “Representative!” into the phone and “F*ck!” into the crook of my arm.

When I finally got to a human, she was the kindest, most understanding, most compassionate, most helpful person, and should immediately be put in charge of everything in the world rather than having to troubleshoot with distressed individuals made into deranged a**holes by Comcast’s dehumanizingly inhuman automated system. She quickly diagnosed that my problems were not self-fixable and scheduled a technician to come to my house “between 12 and 2.”

So I went inside the coffee shop for a shot of caffeinated wifi and re-started my work day. I had a call at 11, by which time the shop was filling up for lunch … so I returned to my car to field the meeting in quiet. I put the call through to my bluetooth so I could take notes on my laptop. The call wrapped at noon, so I had to hustle back home to meet the Comcast tech. When I went to start my car, nothing happened. Evidently, in my haste to field the call from my car, I’d twisted my key in the ignition a half turn too far … and completely drained the battery (‘natch).

At this point I drew liberally from my surprisingly deep Bucket of F*cks left over from yelling at the automated Comcast system. By the time I was done, I’d completely fogged my front window with expletives.

A big, deep breath later, I snatched my backpack, abandoned my car and began the approximately 25-minute walk home in hopes of catching the Comcast technician in time. I’d made it to the really big hill that fronts our neighborhood when I spied the Comcast van turning onto the street. I waved my arms wildly to flag down the driver, who slowed and rolled down his window. I explained that I was his appointment, and asked for a ride up the big hill. He said he’d meet me at the house. “I’d give you a ride, but I’d get in trouble.”

I rolled up my sleeve, reached to the bottom of my Bucket of F*cks for a final fistful.

The walk up the hill is so steep that it commandeered my meager stores of energy, resulting in a detoxifying effect … which is exactly the medicine (both) I (and the Comcast technician) needed. By the time I got to the top, I came to appreciate the logic of Comcast’s ‘anti-hitchhiker’ policy. If one assumes that the majority of tech support customers are distressed individuals made into deranged a**holes by Comcast’s dehumanizingly inhuman automated system, I wouldn’t have scooped me up, either.

Arriving home, I let the tech into the house, showed him the router and the splitter, and turned him loose. He was a flurry of purpose … zooming up and down steps inside, climbing up and down a ladder outside at the pole, hopping in and out of his van. In about 15 minutes he returned to inform me … of my second completely incomprehensible diagnosis of the day. I so wish I could’ve recorded his explanation, which ran a good 3-4 minutes. It was glorious. You could tell he loved his job, and appreciated the rare opportunity to share passionately with an interested party. He said something to the effect of how “that’s a 23 value tap up there,” and I was “pulling 51” at my router, so I was “almost 10 db off,” … and “by the time, length and split, well ….” he let it hang in the air, as if to imply, “Do I even need to finish the sentence?”

Yes, yes, he did. 

“You’re right on the edge.” The problem, he kept saying, was “the return,” and, as evidence, he shared with me another category of numbers he recorded at the pole. “I’ve run all the math,” he said and then spewed the full sequence of data he had meticulously captured and logged, looking for affirmation and understanding in my face, apparently not at all distracted by the thing that has evidently been grazing, free-range-style, across my countenance for years. “So, you see … you’re right on the edge.”

Assuming he meant something other than The Edge of Comcast Hell, I asked, sheepishly … “The edge … of what?”

His face deflated. I could tell I’d let him down. A moment earlier he’d been thinking, “Finally, someone who gets me.” At my philistine question, he proceeded to cut his losses. Let me know that the problem’s outside, not inside, and that he’d already called in a line technician.

Me: How ….

Him: Within the hour.

Me: (letting it all sink in). Oh … so you called in the pre-auth?

Him: What?

Me: Never mind.

Evidently, it’s a different system.

Two hours later (‘natch) the line technician showed up.

I’d bore you with the complete technical explanation of the fix, but suffice it to say, he addressed The Return, and, you know, um, yanked me back from The Edge.

When Karry got home from work, she drove me back down to my car so we could jump the battery. When we arrived another car was parked in front of mine, preventing us from getting close enough for the cables.

“We’ll have to come back tonight,” she concluded and started to pull away.

Wait, I said. Let me see if it’ll turn over. I got out of hers, hopped into mine, pressed the brake and winced as I twisted the key. It gave a Heimlich-like cough before sluggishly returning to life.

I bowed my head on the steering wheel, humbled by the day’s turn of events. Told Karry I’d swing by McDonald’s for a couple drive-thru Cokes to give my battery (batteries?) a chance to recharge.

That night, while draining my bucket of McDonald’s Coke to a dry slurp and savoring the two grilled cheese sandwiches that I’d gratuitously buttered, perfectly griddled and then generously topped with layers (layers, I say) of sweet pickles and BBQ kettle chips (judge me at your own peril), I was mindlessly scrolling through the day’s news, when a byline by the wife of a friend of mine caught my eye. A local high school student with Ukrainian roots put together a website of a bunch of organizations providing humanitarian services in and to Ukraine. She knew a lot of people who were looking for ways to show support and wanted to honor the memory of her great-great grandfather who immigrated to the U.S. a century ago.

Struck between bites of a good grilled cheese sandwich, I finally grasped the concept of The Return.

By receiving a signal strong enough to overcome the noise of one hundred years and 4,858 miles to connect a great-great grandfather who fled his homeland and a great-great granddaughter re-connecting him from hers. A teenager cupping her hands and exhaling the name Dimetro Buriak … so the embers glow again … inviting others around their campfire. An undiminished signal between those we never met, will never meet. The signal still connected. Still connecting. A signal strong enough to connect me … us … in each other’s stories.

We receive. We respond. We return. 

I took stock of all the microscopic graces over the past 12 hours responsible for pulling me back from the edge. A straight-shooting doctor. The compassionate phone support person. The unplanned walk up the hill under the gift of a blue sky. The competent technician who loves running the math. Karry giving me a ride back down the hill to retrieve my car. Drive-thru McDonald’s Cokes. Grilled cheese sandwiches that always make me think of Mom. A local journalist, and a teenager whose heart is exactly where it’s supposed to be.

Humbled once again, I bowed my head on my metaphorical steering wheel.

Was reminded that, despite the eff bombs I may occasionally scream into the crook of my arm … my bad days are not bad days at all … and precious little of it is self-fixable. 

And we all possess the capacity to make someone else’s bad day a little bit better.

We receive. We respond. We return. 

As the good doctor might say, we are all part of the same thing.

(all-encompassing hand gesture goes here)

Righteous riffs

Meeting My Brother For Saturday Lunch ….

I’d like to thank Billy Collins for writing Aimless Love (you should totally look it up) and Ben Folds for saying, “At its most basic, making art is about following what’s luminous to you and putting it in a jar, to share with others. ”

Meeting My Brother For Saturday Lunch

I choose the scenic route along Route 40,

though the interstate toll road is so much quicker,

because slow driving the small towns along the National Road is worth a savor,

passing the new donut shop at the light in Beallsville that’s supposed to be really good

and that I will probably never stop at 

because I think sometimes the wishing is better

past Scenery Hill’s Century Inn, where I imagine smell its old insides, 

hear the fire place spit and crackle the echoes of two hundred years of thousands of conversations, 

how I’d like to go and sit at the bar sometime with any good friend, ask the bartender to soak a cherry in an old-fashioned for me

so our warm words can waft to the rafters, too

across the bridge that bypasses Brownsville 

and that place somewhere below with the supposedly best wings that I’ve earmarked

for a reunion with my best friend growing up, 

how good that cold beer will taste,

and finally into town …. 

but first, I have to go, so peel into the Sheetz and, 

avoiding the guilt of a pee-and-flee, stand and squeeze just $9.75 into the tank

to save a full fill-up for Sam’s Club so much cheaper, 

the stupid cold, whipping wind, me leaving my coat in the car, 

I catch sight of filled squeegee buckets for the first time in two years since Covid emptied them all, 

and, euphoric, can’t resist drawing one and sloshing it across

my salty-slushed back windshield (take that, winter) 

wiping the slates clean, back then front, before inside for a paid-for pee,

so my bladder is empty when my big brother gives me the biggest bear hug in his lobby before we retire to his office, 

and I sit across and soak in his shrine to everything he loves: 

overflowing his shelves, adorning his walls, saving his screens, disordering his desk, 

his kids as kids, their wide smiles tracing bigger and bigger over years in their rainbow of uniforms, 

now adults and their kids, still uniforms to come

and we talk big and little brother talk

and remind each other of the only things that matter.


T.I.N.P.O.B.D.N.R. Episode 2 — Entrapment

Building on the catapult-like momentum of last episode’s proof-of-concept, our hero returns, and figures out how to add whimsical music to his intro, and one transition sound effect.

Why does he do this, you ask? Absolution? Perhaps. Vindication? Maybe. To avoid shoveling snow from the driveway? Undoubtedly.

In defense of his family’s honor, our hero takes up his mallet and goes-a-smite-ing … leaving a trail of carnage in his wake, slaking his unquenchable thirst for victory at the expense of all who dare meet him on the field of battle.


Proof of Concept: Things I’m Not Proud Of, But Don’t Necessarily Regret

So, in a spasm of poor decision making, I got a microphone for Christmas. I’m fully confident the family will come to regret the decision. I started messing around with it. Still very much figuring stuff out, but it seems that one can embed audio content into WordPress. So, just, um, testing out the emergency broadcast system here. It’s occurred to me that I’ve accumulated a number of experiences in my life that fall into a very loose, and very large category of things I’m not necessarily proud of, but don’t necessarily regret. Thinking of unburdening myself of some of the poorer decisions in my life … maybe as a companion to “the blog that no one reads” as my daughter likes to refer to it. Totally just testing out the premise and the hardware here, proof of concept style, after which I’ll explore adding, um, you know, actual production value (music, etc.). I mean, who has the time for that? Anyway, as I’ve conditioned my family for decades now, set your expectations very very low.  But, let me know what you think … Pete

Righteous riffs

First Cuts ….

In the sobering light of the new year, we’ve forced ourselves to begin reckoning with our clutter. Less a resolution than a survival tactic, more akin to scooping water from a sinking ship. 

I refer to it as ‘editing.’ 

This makes Karry angry. 

We’re throwing shit out, she informs me. 

To equip you with the appropriate measure of tension in the present exercise, picture me chaining myself to a tree while Karry, in hardhat and chomping a cigar, is revving a bulldozer, committed to getting a good parking spot at happy hour.

After building confidence with my sock drawer (the sock drawer of a man who should have more than two feet), I was assigned a neglected set of shelves in our laundry room. Behind jars of canned tomato sauce and a crate of all the crayons accumulated over my children’s lifetime (an obscene number), I stumbled upon shoeboxes and cases containing old audio cassettes. 

My teenage and early 20-something music library.

I lift the lid on a shoebox like John Travolta opening that case in Pulp Fiction. 

There’s my older brother. My Dad. 

Ha, my college girlfriend. 

My altar egos. My heart. What used to pass for my confidence.

I heard a feint whisper, “Rest here awhile.” 

At least that’s what I think it said. Was kinda’ hard to hear over the bulldozer upstairs.

In any case the ensuing editing was going to be slightly more nuanced than my sock drawer.

Speaking of cases, close your eyes and listen. 

Remove. Insert. Press Play. 

Rewind. Fast-forward. Flip. Eject. Remove. Replace. 

The hard-plastic hands-on ritual. The tangible tethering between you and the experience.

I used to commandeer the back room, listen for hours. Gather with friends around their family’s hi-fi system like a campfire. Still remember the time Jeff Hughes hopped on top of his dining room table to air guitar to Ratt’s Round and Round. Can still hear his Mom’s voice instantly drowning out Stephen Pearcy’s with a rafter-rattling, “Jeffrey!” 

Pretty much until middle school, music was a purely stationary exercise. You in proximity to the console, headphone jack if privacy was required (i.e. whenever I raided my brother’s Steve Martin albums, eventually committing each and every bit to memory. ). 

Until that one summer afternoon shooting hoops at Areford Playground, when JonJon McCoy announced his presence from afar, appearing at the top of Garard Avenue, gratuitously sized boom box perched atop his shoulder, gloriously blasting Mr. Roboto from the new Styx album.

He was the modern man. 

For context, JonJon was not the tallest in our village, and he lived on Carnation Street, which was a three-block straight hill climb to the playground. Coupling his diminutive size with the enormity of his ‘portable,’ he was proportionally half-man, half-blaster.  I imagine he had to shift shoulders multiple times en route. Upon arrival on the court, he set the radio down behind the basketball pole, a conquerer from a far off land planting his flag, and proceeded to ball out (his game had sauce). 

Domo arigato. 


So much of the experience was born of expectation. 

Waiting for Friday night and a pilgrimage to the National Record Mart. If you were lucky, enough in your pocket for one good one. Heat-seeking the selections on sale for $5.99, weighing whether a $7.99 or, gulp, a $9.99 was worth the risk. 

What risk? In the days when music was doled out by the machine with an eye dropper, usually the one song they played on the radio was your only clue. Got burned often enough to make the cassingle, the cassette-ization of the classic 45 record (A and B sides), a safer, though lamer, surgical strike (I never grew tired of rewinding Real, Real Gone by Van Morrison or Every Time I Roll the Dice by Delbert McClinton). Spending precious dollars on musical roulette is also why so many of our early collections were stuffed with greatest hits. More bang for the buck. Who didn’t have the Eagles, Skynyrd, Steve Miller, the Beatles, Stones (Hot Rocks)? Homogenized like so much of our diets growing up.  

At times, though, the decision was made prior to arrival. Word of mouth was immutable law in junior high. I don’t remember a thing about a particular middle school dance, only that we gathered at Jerry Rehanek’s house first, where he played the new Quiet Riot before we walked up the hill to the school. We were all banging our heads by week’s end. And I still contend that Twisted Sister’s Stay Hungry was the best $5.99 (on sale, yes!) I’ve ever spent in my life.

The cover alone made unwitting art collectors of teenage boys.

The final confirmation, though, came when you stepped to the counter to hand your money over to Bill, the big, bearded, long-haired, dark-glasses-wearing manager, whose approval we courted and counted as much as our teachers’.

As I type this I can summon any song I want without lifting a finger. 

Meant a whole lot more when you had to wait for Friday night, make your one choice count, and big Bill affirmed your selection.   

Real, real gone.


True music liberation came with our driver’s licenses. 

Or in my case, my friends’ driver’s licenses, as our family’s 1980 Mercury Monarch was equipped with only an a.m. radio. 

That a.m. radio was tuned to the cosmos, though. After picking up my rented tux for the prom, I was sitting at Five Corners waiting for the light to change when “Everybody Plays the Fool” came on (sigh). And when the Monarch finally died in front of our house, I sat, sad, in its front bench seat and tried unsuccessfully to turn it over one last time. I gave the radio dial one last twist, and it played, “Don’t Worry, Baby,” by the Beach Boys. 

Truth be told I wouldn’t have loved that car any more had it had an enviable cassette deck. 

The absence of one added more novelty to riding with friends. 

I first experienced Dave Brubek’s Blue Rondo A La Turk riding cramped in the backseat of Lenny Baron’s VW Rabbit. Take 5 made driving familiar streets feel like discovering a new planet. 

So much of my friends’ music just sounded better on cassette over noisy engines and piped through thin car audio systems with the heater full blast in the middle of winter. Exhibit A – The Violent Femmes. 

I forget what 8 was for.


When music became portable, and (cue angel chorus) recordable, everything changed, as evidenced by the time capsule in front of me.

Run DMC’s eponymous first album, courtesy of Jeff Hughes’ dual-cassette deck. 

No better baptism for one’s boom box than Reverend Run. 

Your weekly $5.99 suddenly stretched a heckuva lot further (‘ … spreadin’ … just like the flu….’). 

A lot more of your allowance went into Scotch, Maxell, TDK, Memorex. Your portfolio diversified exponentially. More shoeboxes required to collect your treasure. 

Still, you remained so tethered to the experience. Who remembers sitting with your finger ready on the record button waiting for the radio to play that song? Who is now not smiling at that recollection? Shoot, I remember calling into Jesse Thurman’s radio show in college and snatching “Is She Really Going Out With Him?” on request. 

It was the teenage equivalent of calling in a prescription to your pharmacist. 


And when She was really going out with Me, the tectonic plates of sonic existence shifted once again. 

Um, I’d forgotten how hard I mix-taped. 

Hard not to laugh now — a lot of extra cheese sandwiched between those playlists. Some questionable choices, yes, but not a single regret (which is how I choose to remember my college years). I’m not sure I took anything more seriously in my life at that time. When ceding your heart to surrogates, you not only agonized over each selection, but their precise sequencing. The whole experience such a sweet meditation. 

Love letters to a much smaller and simpler world. 

Poring over the fossils I note we had friends play a couple of those songs live at our wedding. After all they were our soundtrack.

Ha, and staring back at me now — the last mix-tape I ever made her. 

Last played April 3, 2001. 

I’d forgotten that the birthing suites at St. Clair Hospital had some bitchin’ retro sound systems back in a day. 

If memory serves our firstborn came into the world to the strains of Running on Faith by Clapton.

“… what else can a poor boy do?” 

Cue the closing credits of our couplehood. 


As I wade into the task at hand, I feel for the fine line between careful Editing and the blunt force trauma of Throwing Shit Out. 

I text a couple friends who share similar relationships — with music and with gracious wives whose patience, um, occasionally wears thin. 

I ask them what they ever did with their old cassettes. 

Andy: I still have a bunch of them here. 

Doug: I’m embarrassed to say I still have most of them. They’re stored in various places around the house — the basement, under my bed, etc.

I ponder Doug’s squirrel method for a moment, then quickly realize I’d probably end up having to ask him if there’s enough room in his basement for me and my collection.

So I end up making two piles, the larger one honoring the task at hand, and the request of the girl who I now drive mad, but who once drove me to make mix tape after mix tape. I say goodbye to casual acquaintances I hadn’t heard from in decades. Thank them for keeping me such good company when I needed them, for helping me process, escape, remember, hope. So good to catch up. I snapped pix of a couple I may want to look up again somewhere down the road.  

The second pile I neatly consolidated amongst the shoe boxes. Will make room in some attic corner.

Because I’ve learned that sometimes it’s OK for us to leave bread crumbs. 

So we can find our way back to the campfires of our youth… 

… for when there just aren’t enough adult socks in the sock drawer to keep us warm. 


Thin Slices of Life ….

Early for a Saturday afternoon grocery pick-up, Karry suggests a quick lunch. I offer Panera, among the few destinations one of us likes and the other at least tolerates. 

En route the big hat catches her eye, and in a spasm of poor decision making, she audibles. 

“What about Arby’s? You’re always talking about it.” 

This is true. I talk a lot about Arby’s. Even though it’s been years since I visited one. 

I don’t give her the opportunity to reconsider, and we almost screech tires into the parking lot. 

We. Are. Home. — my adolescent brain whispers. 

Note: I don’t keep my adolescent brain tucked away somewhere, like, in a box in the attic, next to my before-and-after middle school orthodontic molds. No, my adolescent brain has its mail delivered to my middle-age skull, much like a man-child still living at home with his parents. Incidentally, I don’t keep my before-and-after orthodontic molds in the attic, either. I keep them on my bookshelf that leads upstairs.

Karry makes me put them away every time we have company. 

Continue reading