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. 

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Postcards

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. 

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Letters for Maggie

The Picture of Kindness ….

Got to chat with my oldest sister yesterday morning … something we’ve been making more time for on our Saturdays the past few months. We’re not religious about it, but it’s something I think we’ve both grown to appreciate a lot (I know I have). We catch up on each other’s worlds and weeks, compare notes on what we’re both reading or watching, stuff that’s caught our attention, recent updates on our other siblings, our occasional health dust-ups, our erratic sleep habits, etc. Yesterday she mentioned looking into a volunteer program (she’s done a ton of volunteering over the past several years) that visits with veterans, just to listen and chat, and, if they’re up for it, to have them share their stories. I told her she’d be perfect for that program. She’s a veteran herself, having joined the marines out of high school, which to this day makes me so proud and in awe of her. And she’s always had a heart for spending time with older people. This past week she visited daily with the mom of one of her oldest friends to help with eye drops for cataracts. As has become part of our conversational ritual, I had a smile on my face by the time we said our good byes and I Love Yous. 

I was running errands when she called me, and as we wrapped our conversation I pulled into a parking spot outside the tiny little coffee shop off North Main Street. I’ve been dropping in Saturday mornings for a here’s-to-the-weekend espresso, and the accompanying smile and kind word from whoever’s working behind the counter. When I walked in, an older gentleman with a Hemmingway beard was warming himself by the fire with a tall to-go cup of coffee. A shopping cart with his belongs sat next to him. After placing my order I sat down at the table across from where he was, taking the chair near the wall, putting the table and its other chair between us. 

He let me know I could move his cart if it was in my way. 

“Totally fine,” I said. 

“I refer to it as my portable RV,” he said, with a soft laugh. 

After a couple seconds, he added, “Sometimes in life it’s important to know how to improvise,” and, after a few more seconds, “One thing I’ve always believed is that you never stop learning, no matter how old you get.” 

For the record I am awkward and awful at small talk in all its forms, and generally avoid it at all costs. So much so that in my prior visits to the coffee shop I’ve carried a book with me to fill the few minutes it takes for the barista to make my to go order. Yet ….

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Postcards

Whispers and Remembering

Spent the past seven days in isolation after realizing, embarrassingly after the fact, that my taste and smell had abandoned me.  I was sitting around a fire in our backyard when it occurred to me I couldn’t smell the fire. Was really taken aback that it took me that long to notice. Then it occurred to me in retrospect that I couldn’t remember tasting my dinner. I think I was tricked by my stuffed nose to believe congestion was the culprit. A positive test the next morning sobered me to the reality. 

__

I spent most of the day after my positive test sitting alone in one half of our garage, isolating. I’d backed out my car for space so I could sit and catch some fresh air from the gray rainy Sunday. Set up a little white folding table and the red camp chair the kids had gotten me for Father’s Day.  Lawn equipment and our overstuffed garage pressing in on either side of me. Couldn’t help but think what a sad spectacle I made. I could see through to the woods between our parked cars in the driveway. Spent the entire afternoon in the garage, first listening to the rain, then when it got dark, the crickets. I was listening contentedly to their Sunday night chorus when I caught a glimpse of the damndest thing — a lone lightning bug dancing in front of the woods. Couldn’t believe my eyes. Here it was October, and there he was. Still had some business to tend to, yet and still. Both of us all by our lonesome. One of us oblivious to the other. The other suddenly caring about nothing else in the world.

Made me remember the time I dragged Emma to a theater performance of a Sherlock Holmes play being hosted on Pitt’s campus. I remember little about the production itself (it was pretty awful). What I recall is Emma, in her theater best, spending the entire intermission chasing lightning bugs across the lawn outside the hall as the fireflies danced among the old oak trees. We were both so enchanted I remember us cursing the building’s flashing lights that beckoned us back to our seats when it was time for the second act. 

All alone in my red camp chair peeking out from our overstuffed garage, all I had was time. 

So as long as the season’s last lightning bug wanted to dance to the crickets, I was staying for the entire encore. 

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Letters for Maggie, The Girls

Speed Dating 25 ….

I figured we had about an hour’s drive to make our 7:15 reservations. 

I had the car out of the garage and air-condition-cooling by 6 p.m. 

Married twenty-five years, she knows how much I hate to be late. 

I hold the car door and she lowers herself into her seat … at promptly 6:35 p.m. 

Married twenty-five years, I know she’s never ready on time. 

She: Wait a minute. Forgot my cheaters. Can’t read the menu without ‘em. 

I get back out to hold the door a second time, and give the bridge of my nose a deep tissue massage until she returns and floats once again into her seat. 

As we pull out of the driveway, we Google Map our drive to check traffic. 

ETA: 7:37 p.m. 

My chest tightens. 

“Don’t drive like a maniac or you’ll make me sick.” 

Ah, the sweet nothings of anniversary date night. 

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Fathers and Sons, Righteous riffs

Wing Man

He’s always the initiator, as I’m reluctant to impose on the 20-year-old’s social calendar. 

Over Friday lunch he asks … “Drover’s tomorrow night?”

Me: You work? 

He: ‘Till seven. 

Me: (calculating drive-time) Might make us a little late. Proly crowded on a Saturday night. 

He: I could see if I could move my shift up an hour. Leave at six? 

Me: You can do that? 

He: I can ask. 

Me: I’m game. Just let me know. 

For the uninitiated, Drover’s is a most sacred place. 

The one constant on our family’s annual summer to-do list — its bona fides spoken of in unequivocal and reverent tones. 

Best Wings on the planet.

There is no debate. There is Drover’s. And there is everyone else.  

Consistently fried to crispy perfection. Every time. Never under- or overdone.  Sauces sublime.

 And part of a larger ritual born of, and bursting with, expectation. 

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Letters for Maggie

Remembrance: Mom in relief ….

(Mother’s Day, 2021)

Ever since Mom’s passing, whenever I find myself missing her, I walk my memory back to being nine years old and standing in our kitchen.

I was sad as hell. 

The way you get when you’re nine and you have no one to play with on a school’s out, full summer sun, Mullen Street morning. The kind that, when you’re a kid, is just too good to let go to waste.

No Danny. No Jeff. No Jerry. No Amy. No Billy. 

Not a single soul to pass ball with. 

If you were nine in our neighborhood, this was a crime against humanity. 

Standing in the kitchen, I made no secret of my discontent, moping around in all my misery. 

Mom finally asked what was wrong, and I told her. She ran down the full roster of my friends. I shot down each one with a “Not home … not answering the phone … car’s not there ….”

Moved by equal parts not wanting to see me sad and finding me annoying AF, she disappeared into the dining room, opened the closet, and reappeared wearing a ball cap and holding Dad’s baseball glove. 

“I’ll pass with you.” 

This was not a solution to my problem. 

For starters, she looked absurd. 

This is the lamest idea ever, I remember thinking. I’d never seen Mom throw anything other than fits at my Dad. 

That’s all right, I said. 

“Come on, let’s go,” she persisted, popping the ball from her right hand into her gloved left. 

No, really, I deflected. 

This went on for a good couple minutes. 

In recorded history, though, no one ever won a test of will against Maggie Riddell. 

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Fathers and Sons, The Girls

Picture Day Redux – No Strings Attached

Mercifully (for me), this year, proceedings returned to their normal rhythms. Held at the respective studios. A two-day affair. Saturday = Waynesburg. Sunday = Washington. 

Last year quarantine forced the stay-at-home edition of Picture Day, whose gravity I was unable to escape. 

This year called for less desperate measures, leaving Karry and Emma to tag team this, their 12th edition of the annual amalgam of yelling, hair, make-up, costumes, and teenage angst. 

Preparations began weeks in advance. Came home one day to find Emma outside in the driveway with a pair of tap shoes and a can of neon pink spray paint. 

“Don’t ask,” was all she said. 

My Karry radar began ringing in my head. 

Me: You’re taking precautions, yes? 

She: I’m not making a mess if that’s what you’re asking. 

Emma has convinced herself that she rarely, if ever, makes messes. 

Her conviction is strong. She’d probably pass a lie detector. 

In truth — and I say this lovingly — she’s a disaster. 

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Excursions

Treasure Hunting ….

I’ve spent exactly one day in London in my life.  It’s been a couple decades now. I was part of a group at my company attending a conference in Amsterdam (a story for another time).  We had to connect through London so ended up taking a day there before continuing on. I believe it was a Saturday. We spent the entire afternoon walking the city, and at some point happened upon an outside street fair.

I only remember two things from that afternoon.

One, an older man playing violin in the square. His hair long, gray and wild, his beard shaggy. Wore a white, long sleeved buttoned shirt, open at the chest and a little grimy, deep burgandy pants that billowed and made his long legs seem longer. He played with passion, his eyes wide when they weren’t closed in communion with his instrument. I took him for a regular, if uninvited, character of the grounds. He was both oblivious and superior to the townspeople and tourists milling about. He danced as he played, in essence commandeering the entire square as his performance space. I was bewitched by his power and presence. He said not a word, yet the square was his.

The only other thing I recall from the street fair was a vendor standing behind a few really long tables of used books. Being a provincial kid from Uniontown on my first trip abroad, I remember being drawn to something familiar in this otherwise exotic place. While my colleagues explored elsewhere, I lost myself rooting through the tables. After a bit, my eye caught something by Kurt Vonnegut. I didn’t recognize the title. It looked to be some sort of television screenplay. I immediately thought of my friend, Bill, who was absolutely mad for all things Kurt. I forked over a couple pounds, put the treasure in my coat pocket, and went to find my colleagues. 

When I got home, I wrapped up the book and sent it to Bill, along with a note of how I’d happened upon it. 

A week or so later, he wrote me back. Evidently, he’d heard of the screenplay, but it had long been out of circulation. It was the one piece of Vonnegut he’d never been able to track down. He was absolutely over the moon and profuse in his gratitude. 

Reading his thank you note was just the best feeling.  To this day, I count it among the best gifts I’ve ever given, everything about it pure serendipity.

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Rearview Mirror

The Colonoscopy Chronicles

(Don’t worry, nothin’ oogie ….)

Around St. Patrick’s Day, someone at work mentioned that the odds of finding a four-leaf clover are something like 1 in 10,000. I have no idea if that’s accurate. I just know two things. 

1.) I don’t think I’ve ever found one in my life.

2.) My mother-in-law Betty found them all the time.

Before every one of Karry’s nephew’s baseball games, Betty would arrive at the ball field early and, pluck a four-leaf clover from the grass and give it to Justin before warm-ups. He tucked ‘em in the inside ring of his ballcap. By the end of the season, his cap was lined with four-leaf-clovers like Stargell Stars. Though I never asked him, I bet he felt invincible taking the field.

That story encapsulates everything you need to know about Betty Fordyce. She made everyone she met feel lucky for knowing her. 

Our hearts broke when she passed from colon cancer in 2006. 

When I went for my annual physical this year, my family doctor informed me it was time for a colonoscopy. Wasn’t psyched about the prospect, but I thought of Betty when I scheduled it. Since her Mom’s passing, Karry’s been begrudgingly vigilant with her screenings since she’s deemed higher risk.

March was Colorectal Cancer Awareness month. As the CCA reminds, about 150,000 will be diagnosed this year with this highly preventable disease. In 2018 a large study found that “colonoscopy was associated with a 61% reduction in colorectal mortality.”

Those are much better odds than finding a four-leaf clover. And, statistically speaking, much better protection, too.

Many of my friends have either turned or are approaching a big, round birthday milestone this year. If you haven’t already done so, I encourage you to get your screening. FWIW, the wake-up music is spectacular.

They say you always remember your first time. Just in case, I figured I’d capture a few things for, you know, posterity ….

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