Monday, April 27, 2009

Sushi at Skyline Bar

Molino Stucky Hilton

I was really stoked!

The posters are up in vaporetto stops all over town:

Every Friday at 7.30pm.
Presented by Chef Aquira

I love sushi and had never been to the Skyline Bar. I couldn't wait to go. Friday at 7:30 pm.

But my work schedule is erratic and it took three weeks before I could finally arrange to meet Robin at the Zattere vaporetto stop at 7-15.

We took the No. 2 across the Giudecca Canal and got off at the Palanca stop for a pleasant stroll up Giudecca to the hotel. A gallery poster caught Robin's eye and she snapped it with her camera/phone so she wouldn't forget it. The dusk was still light and rosy, the air moist and fragrant.

Passing Fortuny we laughed about what a small world Venice is. A good friend of Robin's is a good friend of the chap who helped Richard at Fortuny when I went with him last week. She also confirmed that yes, there is a swimming pool behind Countess Gozzi's palazzina, "dug beneath the canal line to boot."

The Molino Stucky was a flour mill; it is massive, neo-Gothic, and would look at home in Berlin or Chicago. But at least the exterior has character. The interior of the hotel has none. Nor does it have a sense of place. It could be anywhere; it would be equally as bland and unrevealing wherever it was. I stopped to ask the Concierge how to get to the bar but she was too busy on the phone to answer a question, as was the girl who was doing nothing nearby.

Richard had warned me. He had gone to the Skyline Bar for a drink one evening and sat for twenty minutes without anyone serving him. He swore never to return.

We spotted the elevator and hit 8 for the bar. What we stepped out into was something else. To the west, the sun was setting over the industrial skyline of Marghera. To the east, Venice glittered in the pink and golden light. The view is stunning wherever you look.

We went from the west terrace through the bar to the east terrace. More drinkers, more gawkers. No sushi in sight.

I walked over to the empty host station and a passing waiter stopped.

"Are you doing sushi tonight?" I asked.

He looked confused.

"I saw the posters," I said. "Sushi on Fridays at 7:30."

"No," he said. "Not tonight."

The posters have been up for weeks.

"When should we come back for sushi?" I asked.

He smiled helpfully.

"Next year," he said. "I think maybe next year for sushi."

It was not April Fool's Day, but it is only April. A long wait.

We laughed over surprisingly good big 11 euro spritz al aperols with toast rounds, toppings and fat green olives. How could you do anything but laugh. It was so perfectly Venetian.



Part II was a complete misfire. On the misguided assumption that since they were open I could go and drop off the missing photocopy (see Questura Hell), I returned the following afternoon.

The Questura opens at 3pm one afternoon a week. The line was already forming at 12:30. Putting into practice what I had learned (assume nothing), I walked over to a guard and asked if I had to wait in line and get a number to drop off my document. "Yes," he said, "I would. But I couldn't do that today. I would have to come back tomorrow. That particular task could be done in the morning only. I reiterated that all I needed to do was drop off the document. He looked at me like I was stupid. In the morning, he said. You can do that in the morning.

The following morning I woke up at 4-30, hoping to get a minor jump on the line, and was on the 5-43 vaporetto and the 6-20 bus. The sky was dark with clouds, and a significant line was already forming by the time I arrived at 6-40. The window wouldn't open until 8-30.

It was the kind of line that got bigger both in front of you and behind you. A particularly verbal signora, seemingly not a straniera to judge from her idiomatic Italian, yelled at people slipping into the front of the line. She never won, but she kept it up and I admired her for it.

The pedestrian gate was closed and thus the canopied area behind it. The line formed in the open street. When the downpour started the umbrellas starting popping up, sending the line into spasms. It was empty under the canopy while people got drenched outside. Several smartly-uniformed officers watched from inside.

The gate didn't open, but there was a sudden mad surge in the crowd. The automated car gates swung open, and people ran for the canopy. Wherever you were in line, you weren't anymore. Squatters defiantly staked their new positions. Most of the people in front of me had been behind me. It was perfect chaos.

By the time the numbers began to be handed out, the line was surlier and tighter and pushier than Tuesday, which I didn't think possible. You literally couldn't move your arms and had no control over your own movement. When I got to the window I showed the officer my form. He told me to give it to him. I was so dazed I didn't get what he was saying until the lady who, seconds before had been pushing me like steamroller to get in front of me, said in slow Russian-inflected Italian, "lascia il foglio." Leave it. "No numero?" I asked. The officer shook his head. "My colleague will call your name."

Somewhere near 10 am the clerk who had processed me 48 hours earlier came out from behind the red door with a sheaf of papers. He called out names, mine among them, and we followed him down another corridor where he disappeared into another office with glass cages like a shabby bank. The door slammed behind him. From his glass cage he shouted someone's name through the door when it opened for someone else going out. A woman waved her arm, entered, and the door slammed behind her. When she left, he shouted another name through the open door before it slammed shut loudly. And so on. No one in the corridor could hear or understand him so a good-natured kid standing by the door his best to repeat the names loudly.

He called my name and I walked up to his window. He didn't ask to see my passport, or read my fingerprints, or do anything that would have required my physical presence. He asked for the document. I gave it to him, he looked at it, smiled, and said "A posto." It's fine.

That was it. I could go. It was for that I waited in line in a rainstorm. I could have dropped it off into a convenient slot, handed it to any number of guards out front, or simply faxed it. But no. I couldn't. I had to be inconvenienced to the max for no reason, for its own sake.

Why I Love JG Ballard

Max Ernst, The Whole City, 1935

When I was young Ballard not only showed me consistently perfect writing, but taught me lessons that no one else had and some that no one else ever would, certainly not half so well. Although I never knew him he was a friend, and although we never spoke, he was a mentor. He helped set the bar for what good writing is.

Every writing class addresses the ticking clock, the mainspring of suspense. It is the cataclysm we know will happen in 25 hours unless we can cripple the detonator. The strict regularity of the clock is the inflexible rhythm of all inevitability. Ballard’s clocks are never straightforward. They can tick backwards and turn inward on themselves; his characters are the dials upon which they register.

Ballard showed me that no wall divides dreaming and waking; they mutually interpenetrate. With his calm, avuncular voice he said “Given: your nightmare is reality. Task: Experience your nightmare’s nightmare." He carefully composes symbolic landscapes to reveal what we cannot otherwise see, the mystery behind the veil. Terminal Beach is the landscape of the late twentieth century.

And his meticulously detailed scientific objectivity gives wing to a soaring romanticism. When flowers sing it is with the passionate intensity of Maria Callas. A slowly drowning world, where giant lizards stare menacingly from the terraces of submerged skyscrapers, is a lurid surrealist jungle. The Wind From Nowhere comes from nowhere. The Concrete Island, in the center of London, is worse than Robinson Cruesoe’s because it is encircled not by a blank and endless sea, but by the blind quotidian world. The limits of rationality can be reached and passed, and then the most accurate description of reality reads like a nightmare or an ecstatic vision. That was where Ballard lived.

He was the scientist poet of ultimate reality.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Questura Hell

Questura, Marghera, 7AM

Every straniero -- foreigner -- has a Questura story or three. It is the straniero's nightmare: the annual or bi-annual pilgrimage to the Questura to obtain or renew your permesso di soggiorno, the document which allows you to legally remain in Italy. To get a permesso di soggiorno you must eventually deal with the Questura -- the Polizia di Stato -- at their Marghera compound. (There are other Questura locations in and around Venice, but this particular function is consigned to this particular circle of Hell.)

For foreigners seeking residence in Italy, the permesso di soggiorno is the Holy Grail. The only thing better is a permesso with indeterminato status or an eventual carta di soggiorno after many, many years of running the Questura gauntlet. Indeterminato, or the carta, simply put, means that you never have to go to the Questura again. It is like dying and going to heaven.

The attitude of the Italian government, and of most Italians, is that immigrants are a pain in the ass. Some they hate; others they only disdain; still others they tolerate because they come from richer countries. Bottom line: they are not Italian. The process of securing a permesso di soggiorno is not designed to encourage people. It is intensely bureaucratic, impenetrable at times. Nothing about it is designed to function humanely or efficiently. From the Italian side, it is a necessary evil; from the other side, it is simply evil.

That said, most of the police and clerks I dealt with were, once you were face to face with them, civil and reasonably helpful within the constraints of a Kafkaesque system. They can tell you to go to Hell with a simpatico smile.

The Questura in Marghera is across the Ponte della Liberta which connects Venice to the mainland. Once over the bridge there are shipyards whose cranes are skyscrapers on the one side and railroad yards on the other. Behind the shipyards is a Ballard landscape of derelict petrochemical plants. Beyond the railroad yards is downtown Mestre, where there are actual factories and newspapers and businesses and not one mask shop. This mid-century industrial blight is Venice's New Jersey. From the Zattere, at sunset, you get splendid views of Marghera/Mestre's monstrous beauty in a halo of bright pink and orange.

To get to the Questura before the line is maxed out, I have to get up at 5am and be on the 6:03AM No. 1 vaporetto. Venice is preternaturally silent, shimmering, gorgeous, at that hour. It makes you remember why you are here in the first place.

Grand Canal, Salute, 6AM

At Piazzale Roma I get on the 6/ bus. I ask the driver to call the stop for the Questura because, although I have been here twice before, neither time was for me and I know I won't recognize the stop. It is immediately obvious that others on the bus are going to the Questura: a middle-aged Russian in a leather jacket and cap, a Sri Lankan girl in a purple wrap, and a Chinese couple. By the time the driver signals the stop the Russian is already herding us off. "Questura," he says. "Si si si si si."

I walk a couple blocks through a quiet residential neighborhood to reach the rather Orwellian structure, modern but dilapidated, behind gates. There is already a line waiting for the gate to open to get in line. It is 7AM.

The outside waiting area, where I wait until 8-30 when the window opens, is a wide sidewalk under a canopy a couple hundred feet long. Winter or summer, driving rain or brutal heat, this is where you wait if you are lucky. Otherwise you wait without benefit of canopy, exposed to whatever the weather has to offer.

The line is six or eight people wide. Eventually it must all funnel down through a narrow gap at the window, admitting people one by one. Each person must show the appropriate document and, hopefully, get a number. When I went with Richard -- a frail, 80-year-old man -- on a freezing rainy December day, we waited, barely under the canopy, for over two hours, only two be turned away by the martinet at the window. But that's another story.

There is intense jockeying for position in the line. People employ every sort of ruse to get a nose ahead of someone else. The Russians are brazen and aggressive in their contempt for the queue. The Africans slip through any cranny to edge inches forward, secure a foot hold, and move one up in the line. Most barely speak Italian, and converse in their mother tongue with whoever they came with. Since I am alone, I observe. I think about how nice it is that I'm not on a loading platform to Auschwitz and other thoughts to lift my soul; I could scarcely be more uncomfortable. However, leaving the line poses the problem of getting your place back; the resistance can be vicious.

The line packs tighter and tighter; I find my feet are going to sleep. As it grows closer to 8-30, people squeeze in tighter, like an involuntary muscle clench. This becomes excruciating after about twenty minutes. The Indian girl behind me is giving me the full body press, but I hold my ground, refusing to be pressed into the back of the man in front of me (as pleasant as that might have been).

Your documents must be ready well in advance because by the time the window opens, everyone is packed so tight you can't move your arms. You are pushed forward by a herky-jerky sort of peristalsis. Arguments break out about who was in front of whom, and basically no one cares who was there earliest; they fight to hold any present advantage. The object is to get to the window any means possible. It's the only way out of the line.

The spiffily uniformed Police watch with a certain bemused detachment, the way -- I imagine -- Centurians watching battling slaves in the arenas of ancient Rome.

Once I present my document at the window, I get a number and go inside to wait another two or three hours. My number is 16. A guard explains that means 116, and they are up to about 67.

There are a few chairs inside, very few, and most people mill about, pumping change into the espresso machine, munching candy bars, or smoking outside on the steps. It is ironic that now the canopied cattle pen is eerily empty and the same crush mills aimlessly inside waiting for their number to flash.

[The one civilized note is that families with children are admitted first, starting at around 8AM. That courtesy should be extended to frail old people as well.]

Although it can take hours for your number to flash, it's best to be there when it does because next to it is the Sportello number, the desk you need to report to; although the number remains lit, the sportello number does not. Go figure.

Once my number flashes, I report to desk No. 4 behind the red door. A pleasant young man takes my documents. He smiles, speaking English that is worse than my Italian so I try to keep the discussion in Italian.

It was hard to be certain that I brought everything I need because most of my information is anecdotal. I didn't find a list of documents I needed for this particular appointment on the web site where I found I had an appointment. Although I should have been notified by letter or SMS, I wasn't, and were it not for the kind intervention of a friend with detailed instructions for navigating the web site, I would have missed the appointment completely. I go thinking I have everything I need.

But it doesn't take him long to find the chink in my armor. I am missing something. I didn't forget it; I had no idea I needed to bring it. My other friends have a different type of visa and wouldn't have needed this document. I certainly had no idea. I will have to come back, but only to drop off the document, I am assured. Everything else will be completed today.

"Everything else" is exhaustive scanning of my fingertips and palms, matching them up with pictures of me, and logging me into the system. A uniformed police officer first scans them at a desk adjacent to the desk where I have my interview. Set one. Then I am invited to go to another room where a plain clothes tech rescans me. Set two. He gives me a document to give back to the first officer.

As my fingers are being scanned I realize I forgot to ask if I have to get a number to drop off the document, or can I simply drop it off. The tug-of-war between dread and optimism begins.

I ask the first officer if I have to wait in line for a number and then wait my turn to drop off the missing document, or can I just show up at 8 and drop it off?


Can I fax it?


That's not how it's done.

So much for rationality.

I plan to leave at 5-30 next time and hopefully be a little further ahead in the line to get in line so that my number will come up in under two hours. I will go through all that to hand a man a piece of paper.

Total time elapsed from portal to portal: eight hours.

(NB: In most cases, the permesso is already expired by the time you get it, and you get to repeat the entire process immediately.)


Monday, April 20, 2009


I first read "The Voices of Time" in 1965.

My friend Kathy was a brilliant English graduate student at UC Berkeley; madly smart. She spent her fellowship taking speed and reading every Science Fiction book ever written -- or pretty damn close, in between the complete works of Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare. She handed me the seminal collection of Ballard stories, "The Voices of Time."

"This is very special," she said. "Ballard is a Genius."

"The Voices of Time" destroyed me as a writer for years. Everything I wrote, and everything I wanted to write was a slavish emulation of Ballard's cubist nihilistic romanticism. I was smitten. A while later the magazine he edited, Ambit, had a contest for the best story written under the influence of drugs (which almost cost the magazine its state subsidy). But Ballard was a man of keen sensibility, not easily fooled by crap and imposture. The winner wrote her story under the influence of caffeine.

I returned to those stories again and again, and eagerly awaited each issue of Ambit. He crossed the Rubicon with "Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan," staked new territory with "The Assassination of John F. Kennedy Considered As A Downhill Motor Race," and went into an amazingly distant orbit with "Mae West's Reduction Mammoplasty." But until he completely re-floored me with "Empire of The Sun" I always preferred the earliest stories.

As a body of work, Ballard's writing is one of the most singular and precise visions of life in the late twentieth century refracted through the lens of a cracked-up future. His portraits of people confronting the unthinkable in the face of the inevitable are peerless. It's all there. His brilliance was clairvoyant. Every mandala carved on the floor of an abandoned swimming pool, every singing flower and mad surgical procedure is a precisely placed cryptogram, designed by a master, for our instruction and delight.

As with Fellini, another artist I grew up on, there will never be anyone to replace him. They stand alone. Others will come, and if we are lucky they will succeed, in their own ways, as Ballard did in his. He was a true original, and they are rare indeed.


Lido, 18.IV.09

I am walking along the beach north from the Spaceport toward the jetty. The sun is bright and hot, but the clouds are volatile and when they blow over, all the ragazzi in bathing suits get goose bumps. A hundred meters up the beach the crowd thins to walkers and joggers sensibly dressed, and a random smattering of people up in the duney fringe behind driftwood wind barricades.

The sea has deposited an awesome load of shells, most with their life still in them. They are often scattered across the mounds of older, deader seashells that crunch loudly under foot.

I am an obsessive seashell watcher. When Steve and I lived briefly in St. Pete Beach we walked along the shore every day looking at them, collecting. I was the worst. I couldn't resist. When I left I sent boxes of shells to friends all over but I kept none because I was coming here.

Something catches my eye in the middle of the sandy stretch between the Adriatic and the open fields and derelict apartments and beach clubs that haven't opened for the season.

At my feet, far too deliberate to be accidental, is a round ornament the size of a canteloupe sculpted in sand and covered with a crown of shells. The design seems Byzantine. So I snap a picture and move on.

Further up the beach, there is more shell art; bold geometric patterns, shapes similar to liturgical staffs, fragments of vanishing mosaic work, and then very elaborate assemblages of shell, driftwood, and found objects. These are so large that it is often hard to tell where the art ends and the natural world begins.

It is also impossible to tell how much of them I am seeing. The wind and water and the people and animals have already changed them. They resemble the patched together remains you see so often in museums of antiquity. Our mind fills in the gap between what is there and what is no longer there.

That is precisely the realm of the imagination, the nodal point between nature and art, the reality and illusion.

I am wondering who made these? When do they work? Do these artists vagabond the world's beaches leaving behind a trail of art that tide and wind erodes?

It is very Zen and reminds me of a topless dancer I once knew in San Francisco. The dancing was her night job; she was an artist, going to the Art Institute. She had a startlingly vivid imagination; her art was sui generis and I mourn the loss of the few pieces of her work I once had; far more than the Warhol I lost. She spent a summer on the beaches of Mexico, painting the shells of hermit crabs. When she was done she would repopulate the shells and watch them walk off down the beach. Also very Zen. These shell artists are like her.

Hello, Linda, wherever you are!


Please enjoy the BEACH ART GALLERY.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

LA '65/66

We spent New Year's Eve 1964/65 at the Gaslight Club on La Cienega Boulevard near Third Street, when the Restaurant Row eateries, Lawries and the Beefeater and the Roaring Twenties and the Gay Nineties, upscale theme restaurants, were fading and you could still go for a pony ride in the amusement park where the Beverly Center now stands.

We were 20.


Thursday, April 16, 2009

Fairfax High School, Class of '62

This stuff hit a nerve. Marsha Hartman, who seems as sweet now as she was in junior high from where I remember her most, kindly sent me photocopies of my 1959 Burr, our graduation from John Burroughs Junior High School, and the Summer '62 Colonial from our graduating semester at Fairfax High School.

These were accompanied by a CD with pictures from the Class of '62 45th reunion at an anonymous looking place in Los Angeles.

Put two and two together and you get nostalgia, amazement, curiosity, and a certain elegiaic sadness, not for what was -- I certainly hated that -- but for who is no longer with us. It seems way too early for any of us to be dead.

And it is impossible for such things not to stir up some sort of emotional firestorm.

I knew that Pete Melczer had died. That angered me. How dare he check out before I had a chance to tell him about the pivotal role he played in my life, something he could not have known, I am certain. But he did die, and I never told him! Although his role was played out at JB, for the years I saw him daily at Fairfax, and when I would see him at UC Berkeley, later, I never said "hey man, your hands were on the rudder that altered the course of my life." Not the only hands, to be sure, but there nonetheless.

Too late.

If you glance through these blog pages you will notice that opera is a very important part of my life. It all started one night in 1958 when Pete, his Aunt Marge, and his cousin Marylouise were going to the opera and I went along. At that time the San Francisco Opera Company played a two month fall season at Shrine Auditorium, that horrendous barn. The opera was Tannhauser by Wagner. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair. During my junior and senior years at Fairfax I would usher at the opera six nights a week during the season and, since I didn't have a car, I would have to take a bus back from Shrine Auditorium to Beverly Blvd. and Kings Rd., a very, very long ride, often at 11pm or midnight, and go to school the next day. The things we do for love.

Wayne Shapiro had died decades earlier; seeing his name on the In Memoriam list was no surprise. He was on his way to visit me with a couple of Laurel Canyon freaks we knew in common when he drove his car off Highway 1 in Big Sur and crashed. No sweeter lad ever lived; nor one less prepared to deal with the realities of this world.

We called him Wayne Wonderview because he was living in a great house with lots of windows on Wonderview Drive near Lake Hollywood. He always found great places to live; his charm went a long, long way. We would go to his mother's condo on the Wilshire Corridor and take her black Cadillac convertible out for cruises, three or four of us, driving to the ocean in the gorgeous Los Angeles April sun; I wore a silk scarf that I let fly like Isadora Duncan; the sun was scarcely as bright as Wayne's smile.

I knew Wayne because of Annie -- Ann Gerchik, always Annie to me -- and to see her on the In Memoriam page flattened me for a while. To me, then, and to me, now, Annie had mojo. She was beautiful and rich and sweet. During high school and college she lived in a splendid Art Deco palazzo on Sunset Plaza Drive, with a sumptuous pool and pool house and a black maid named Allie Mae who made dynamite sandwiches with way too much mayonnaise because that was how Annie like them. The stuff that dreams are made of.

Beneath her dazzling surface a somewhat enigmatic darkness was married to that marvelous sweetness. She loved to flaunt what she had been dealt in spades. One night she wanted to go dancing at Whisky wearing only her string bikini and her mother's full length mink coat. More than anything she wanted to be on stage and screen. She did get to dance in the movie version of West Side Story and, for a hot minute, was a go-go girl on Hullaballoo or some such sixties dance show and was one of Catwoman's Cat Girls on the camp classic 60s television "Batman." But she became, like her mother -- a gorgeous former model -- a school teacher.

Once when I was visiting from Berkeley, Annie's parents were out of town and I spent the night, after being roundly menaced about what her stepdad would do if he came home that night. It was pure theater. Her bedroom was in the back of the house; its windows looked across the pool into the hills and if the curtains were open (and I only ever saw them open) and the lights were on, it became a magic lantern and I imagine many telescopes in the hills were trained in that direction. Before we got into bed she lifted the mattress to show me something. The 10-inch blade of a hefty chef's knife glittered in the moonlight.

She and I were knit together in a web that included Bill Sperling, my room-mate our sophomore and junior years at college. If she was perfect -- in a purely external way -- he was perfecter. His clothes were from Mr. Guy, his hair was courtesy of Sebring on Fairfax, his face was like a Rick Nelson on a good day, sullen and ineffably handsome. He too was rich, privileged in the purest sense, and also gifted with the most extraordinary intelligence, a mercilessly self-reflective high-wattage glare. He and Annie and I were inseparable for a mad season on an adolescent psychosexual merry-go-round.

Annie and Bill and I went to a party somewhere in the Hollywood hills, and I remember "jerking" to the Righteous Brothers (All hail to thee, Phil Spector, our famous fellow alumnus and trainwreck). It was Annie's twentieth birthday and she looked ineffably sad. She put her arms around me. "We're not teenagers anymore," she whispered.

We were crossing the Rubicon into the rest of our lives.

Kip was nuts about Annie as well, all through high school; and he was my best friend at Fairfax. He first pointed her out to me. "Great tits," he said passionately. It was the highest accolade. He agonized over his mad love for her, and when he finally got the nerve to tell her, writing a tear-stained love letter that said he might not be able to go on living if she didn't accept his love, the sheer volume and intensity of his passion overwhelmed her. She didn't know what to do with it, and ran quickly in the other direction. He survived.

It was because of Kip's strikingly beautiful face, which got him invited, on a Manhattan street, to be in an underground movie, that I met Andy Warhol and spent a couple years in that louche and loopy orbit. It was because of Kip that Mahanttan became a reality in my life, contemporaneously deciding to drop out of college and dive into the deep end.

Kip was Doestoevsky to Bill's Tolstoy. Where Bill's emotions were cooly hyper-intellectualized, Kip's were tumultously, theatrically acted out. The tie -- now you see it, now you don't -- between the three of us was intellect. We are all like icebergs; what we consciously know, the visible surface, constitutes about 10% of the total entity; the bulk is submerged beneath the water of our apparent motivations and emotions. We three traded records and swapped opinions of them, of books and movies and events and people with a ruthless and dictatorial snobbery. By doing so, we facilely excluded most of the rest of the world from our circle; especially Kip and me. Others were dealt with on a provisional basis -- Bill fortunately was a quick study -- but if you didn't know the opus number of Beethoven's last piano sonata or pronounced Proust "prowst" or hadn't seen "The 400s Blows" at least five times, you were scarcely worth engaging in conversation. This sort of snobbery is the defensive reaction to a context which could not value what we valued most: us.

Among the social strata at Fairfax there was an amorphous entity which, for lack of a better term, I call the "smart kids," and which cut crazily across the other social groupings, throwing us together in the same classes for years. For some reason, I was always marginally part of this group, although a consistent under-performer. Kip and Bill got great grades, like Rachel Vorspan and Carolyn Carlat and Leslie Sheffner and Joel Goldberg. I didn't. Or I did occasionally, occasionally not. I was too distracted to care.

I would ditch school almost every Tuesday during my last two years and take the Beverly Blvd. bus downtown. Stuart would meet me at the main library and drive me up to his house in the hills above Echo Park overlooking Glendale. There we would listen to music and flip through magazines and have serious adult sex. It started when I was 15 and he was a devilishly attractive 25. He was the older brother of my friend Dennis, who was, perhaps, one of the most singularly wacky kids at Fairfax, a semester or two behind me. Dennis and I would walk home from school to his mom's house on Pointsettia Place and -- when other kids were playing football or sipping malts or whatever the hell they did -- we would smoke cigarettes and listen to Marlene Dietrich records and sometimes, if he was in the mood, Dennis would put on the green peau de soie suit Stuart had given their mother.

Stuart loved to drive me around on his Vespa singing arias at the top of his lungs. We would ride into the Hollywood Hills to visit his friends -- Norm, who had an antique shop on Robertson and lived in the Ronald Coleman mansion, Kate, the dancer whose husband owned the Ash Grove on Melrose, who staged group dance improvs to Bartok and Frank Sinatra in the salon of her Spanish villa, quite overgrown and lovely, high in the hills.

It was hard to concentrate on grades. I think I flunked chemistry; I clearly remember my lab partner, Nancy Asin, bringing a small container of martinis upon which we performed quantitative analysis by drinking them. But somehow Miss Weiskopf, in her inscrutible wisdom, kept me grouped with the smart kids despite all reason.

I was certainly insufferable. In our 11th grade Advanced Placement history class, I had to read my report on Woodrow Wilson in front of the class. Afterward, Ann Pollack gasped, "but that was in blank verse..." I shrugged. "I'm surprised you could tell..."

Time came, in that class, to select our class name for our senior year. I think Carolyn Carlat was manning the blackboard, writing down the suggestions. She looked surprised when I raised my hand, my being, normally, such an obstructionist; but this had been rehearsed in advance.

"Yes, Larry?"


I got the "very good" nod of approval as she wrote "c-r-e-t-A-n-s," down on the board. Cretans, people from Crete; it had the right pseudo-mythological ring.

"No," I said. "C-r-e-t-i-n-s." Cretins -- congenital idiots.

That was me. Kip might think it was him. It was the kind of thing we generated between us on a daily, if not, hourly basis. We both cracked up. I'm not sure if anyone else thought it was funny, but it made our day.

Flash forward to 1975. Kip, now Bima, and Bill are sufis. Bill has become a physician. I am married and living in Chicago. I am a communist. I am on the editorial board of our newpaper. We are planning a demonstration against the American Nazis who are planning an inflammatory march into the Jewish suburb of Skokie. Annie is on her way to Afghanistan, where she is going to teach English. She stops in Chicago and stays with us. I tell her about the demonstration and tell her she doesn't have to come; that it might be dangerous; that the police will protect the Nazis. None of this phases her. She wants to go. She really wants to go. She does go. She grew up with a leftie. She knows the terrain. She dazzles my comrades.

And she goes on to Afghanistan. In the 80s, when I have done with my communism and we are both back in Los Angeles she tells me about being in Kabul when the Soviets invaded, taking a bottle of vodka and a vial of valium into the bathroom with the mortars exploding all around, and soaking in the tub until the bombing stopped.

A quick Google search retrieved Annie's obituary:

"Ann Gerchik Fagan McKechnie
Ann Gerchik Fagan McKechnie, 62, a Santa Paula resident formerly of Pacific Palisades, CA, passed away June 30 surrounded by loving friends, family, and soul mate Steve Lattimore. She was former head librarian at Santa Monica High School, a dancer, world traveler, teacher, writer, and beloved friend."

Sweet dreams, Annie.

Life is nothing if not interesting. It is an obstacle course but the rewards are not what you think they will be, nor are the punishments. My experience tells me that the reward for cycling through enough experience is not wealth measured in things, but wisdom, measured by the love we have given and received; and that the punishment for failure is neither poverty nor sadness, but tedium.


1.“Nobody wants justice.”
2.“You can get a lot more done with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone."
3.“By the time we've made it, we've had it.”
4.“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted.”
5.“It's not easy bein' green.”
6.“Start every day off with a smile and get it over with.”
7.“If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?”
8.“Every time a friend succeeds, I die a little.”
9.“You'd be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.”
10.“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”
11.“Wit is educated insolence.”

These were clues in a crossword puzzle. If you happened to know who said it, you could fill in the blanks and be several jumps ahead; if you had no idea, a random letter or two might be enough to give it away. I was charmed by all of them. A few of them are no-brainers; a few are illuminating. All are amusing. I had the benefit of letter clues to help me figure out who most likely said what, so I got them all. Since you don't share that advantage, I'm going to list the speakers' names below. Have fun matching them up.

A. Mae West
B. Abraham Lincoln
C. Kermit the Frog
D.Dolly Parton
E. Aristotle
F. Sophia Loren
G. W. C. Fields
H. Alan Dershowitz
I. Malcolm Forbes
J. Gore Vidal
K. Al Capone

[The puzzle was from "The New York Times Supersized Sunday Crosswords" and was created by David J. Kahn.]

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Visiting Fortuny

Task: Go to the Fortuny showroom on Giudecca with Richard
Objective: To see if they can recover his Karl Springer table

Richard bought the table from Karl Springer in 1962, before the Duchess of Windsor bought the same table and splashed Springer's name everywhere. The table is tiny and covered in snakeskin, but years ago a drunken guest spilled wine on it, and that, plus age, have ravaged the finish of the snakeskin. Richard knew that Fortuny had dealt with Springer's furniture, and thought they might be a good place to go to see about reupholstering the table.

His association with Fortuny goes back to the mid-60s when he would visit Venice once or twice a year on buying trips in his capacity as interior designer, or, alternatively, as a design editor when he would arrange photo shoots. Those were his expense-account Gritti Palace/Danieli/Harry's Bar days.

On the vaporetto to Giudecca he says, "she had more wonderful parties there! You know who I mean..."

"Countess Gozzi?"

He nods. He has told me the story many times, but it is an interestingly Venetian story. (This is all of course, per Richard, whose short term memory is in tatters but whose long-term memory is dense with detail.)

Countess Gozzi was born Elsie McNeill, an American. Her father was the chief of Coca-Cola for Europe. His offices were at the San Marco/Vallaresso vaporetto stop. He suffered mightily from the inability to get a good Martini in Venice; none of the bartenders understood that subtle art, until he met a bartender named Arrigo, who, under his tutelage, became an ace Martini maker. McNeill proposed to Arrigo that they open a bar; McNeill would provide the location and Arrigo would provide the martinis. That, according to Richard, is how Harry's Bar was born.

Elsie McNeill married Arthur Lee and they opened a fabric showroom on Madison Avenue. They were the exclusive distributors of Fortuny fabrics, which were all the rage in the world of the rich and beautiful since Fortuny created his first pleated print dress.

When Lee died, Elsie married a Venetian count, Alvise Gozzi, and took over the Fortuny Company. Her "palazzina," a lovely brick house, was in the courtyard behind the showrooms. Although I couldn't see it, Richard says there is a private swmming pool behind it; the only one in town.

Giudecca toward Molino Stucky Hilton, the green tower

The Fortuny complex was built at the west end of Guidecca, on land bought from the Stuckys, whose Mulino Stucky, a towering, monstrous 19th century flour mill, has recently been transformed into a singularly lackluster Hilton and Convention Center.

"I came here yesterday, because I didn't know it was a holiday," Richard says. "I hope they are open today."

He has the table in a canvas shopping bag. Fortuny is, indeed open. The middle-aged saleswoman lets us know she speaks no English, and goes to get someone who does.

The fabrics in the showroom are dazzling; Fortuny left behind magical formulas for colors, and the embossing is done on the finest Egyptian cotton. The finished fabric has an extraordinarily silk sheen, often gleaming with gold and metallics, but the cotton is more durable and versatile than silk. A sign inside the door says that the fabrics are 360 Euros a meter. Looking at the people in the showroom you would not know you were in the midst of a global financial collapse.

The salesman speaks perfect English. Richard takes the table out of the bag and sets it on the counter.

"It's a Karl Springer table," he says. That doesn't seem to register with Giuseppe, the saleman. "I knew Countess Gozzi," Richard says with a twinkle. That registers. "She gave marvelous parties in the little house back there."

We explain that Richard would like to have the table reupholstered in fabric.

"We have the fabric," Giuseppe says, "but you will need someone to do the work."

"Do you know of anyone?"

Giuseppe thinks. It is not a standard upholstery job. The table is small and intricate and will require the fitting of the fabric over complex surfaces. There is a man, he says, a framer with a shop not far who covers albums and picture frames for them. He is a true artisan, Giuseppe says. Perhaps he can do this? Richard asks if he speaks English, which he does not, so Giuseppe calls ahead to explain everything in advance.

Richard looks at various fabrics and makes a provisional choice. Although the piece he chooses is a discounted "remnant," it measures about a meter and is roughly 300 euros. I ask if Richard can buy less than a meter from a roll, and Giuseppe nods affirmatively. He doesn't need a meter; a third might do, which brings the price down significantly. He selects a roll from the wall which resembles the remnant we had been looking at.

The fabric is gorgeous; Richard still has a crackerjack eye for these things. It is small geometric pattern. But I suggest to him that before he buys, we check with the framer to see what it will cost to reupholster the table with the fabric. So we head back down Giudecca toward Redentore, to the framer's shop.

The framer takes one long look at the table and says no, he cannot do it. It would be too complex, the edges of the table are as intricate as elaborate picture frames. He could do it with paper, he says. But not fabric.

So we stop at Bar Palanca for a snack and heading back toward the vaporetto we run into Giuseppe and explain that the framer cannot do it. He apologizes for sending us on a wild goose chase, and suggests that Richard look for an upholsterer. But Richard has already given up on the idea and moved on. So we head back across the Giudecca Canal to the Zattere, where, overnight, the wisteria have gone bananas, blooming like mad, and the air is growing heady with their fragrance.

The mission was not accomplished, but the morning wasn't wasted.

You can see the story in pictures: [ VISITING FORTUNY]

Monday, April 13, 2009

Glass man returns

A haunting Santa Lucia; a tintinnabulating Petite Ouverture to the Nutcracker....

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Magic Easter Music

These flowers are blooming out of roof tiles.

I was cleaning my apartment. Really cleaning. Spring cleaning. And listening to "Parsifal" because it is "Parsifal" season and because it is so unfailingly beautiful.

With arms full of blanket, comforter, bedspread and tablecloth, I went outside to air them out in the warm spring sun.

Outside, not far, crowds of tourists swarmed Rialto Bridge and Piazza San Marco, but it was quiet in my garden near the Accademia. The garden amazes me because no one takes care of it and so it has evolved into one of those strange hybrid places where wild things survive. A gardener comes once a month, hacks it back a little and sweeps up after himself, but otherwise it is as feral as a moutain oasis with a dry well.

The wreaths crowning the tall palm trees are fading from bright orange to rust, no longer filled with the black berries that attracted the madcap berry-loving blackbirds.

As I hang my things in the sun I hear it, faintly at first, and then, as I sit, more clearly.

It is the man playing his glass harmonica at his usual spot beside the Accademia. He spreads the gradated glasses in neat ranks on a large table and fills them with water from the tank he wheels around with him the way the street blues singers wheel portable amps.

I have heard him playing his glasses often, but what a difference to hear him this way. There are no distractions from the crowds he attracts, but their applause and the clink of their euros keep him playing.

He plays chestnuts: Ave Maria, Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy; the most enchanting thing I ever heard him play was the Beatle's "Yesterdays" on Campo Dei Frari, which compelled me to sit on the bridge and listen. The sounds produced by his fingers on the edge of the glasses is delicate with complex overtones and unearthly registers. He plays clever counterpoint and it is fascinating to watch his hand and finger technique, but it is better here in the garden, where the music floats, disembodied, over the wall. For a moment the campanile bells drown him out with a joyous one-o-clock peal.

After a big round of applause he segues into "Strangers in the Night." It is all poetry, reverberating lightly in the air.

If this weren't a holiday, it should be; but it is, and the music makes it feel exactly as it should, filled with shimmering palpitations of spring and echoing with the gorgeous music of life.


Friday, April 10, 2009

Berlin Staatsoper | Aida | Don Giovanni

Finally! Opera. That was the ostensible reason for my trip to Berlin, if a trip like that ever needs a reason.

But the trip concretized as I was cruising the Staatsoper Berlin website, as I often do, to see what's happening, and I saw Aida and Don Giovanni back to back, Wednesday and Thursday, and the trip became a bracket around those dates, much as my very first trip to Europe was configured around the Prague Music Festival, the Vienna Staatsoper, and La Fenice here, in Venice.

And it wasn't just any Aida and Don Giovanni. Aida was the La Scala-Staatsoper co-production with Barenboim conducting. Don Giovanni was to be conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, the 26-year-old whirlwind from Venezuela who makes music with the Simon Bolivar Youth Orchestra (a phenomenon) that stands as equals with the very best, and with The Teresa Carreño Youth Orchestra. ( See for yourself if you don't believe me. ). He is also the new Music Director of the LA Philharmonic.

Barenboim doesn't need an introduction. A Jew, a citizen of Israel and Palestine, a consummate showman and brilliant musician, he is adored in Berlin. He gets long ovations walking into the pit and is the only conductor I have ever seen take a solo bow at the end of an opera, alone onstage in front of a black curtain. It was audacious and the audience went bananas.

Excuse me. A gondola just went by in a nearby canal; an on-board accordionist was playing "Hernando's Hideaway" for the hundred-millionth time. Where was I?

The audience.

You assume, if you regularly attend the same opera house, that all opera audiences are similar to that one. Not true. The audience in every house is unique. The crowd at the Dorothy Chandler Pavillion isn't the La Scala crowd. Every time three thousand-plus seats sell at the Met, you can bet your boots they are not like this crowd in Berlin. I always note the audience before a performance; who they are, what they are wearing, how they are behaving themselves; how and when they sit down; how they react when the music begins. I don't like people intruding unnecessarily on my experience.

The Berlin audience was a great audience to be in. People were knowledgeable, excited, and there for the music. They knew what they were going to see and were looking forward to it. La Scala wins hands down for style, but the Berlin audience was stylish and they dressed for the occasion. I particularly enjoyed the hair of the German women sitting in front of me, one blond, the other brunette. Both had thick hair twisted and pinned in various ways. Neither sprayed nor pretentious, their dos were artful and interesting and personal, as was their clothing.

As soon as the lights went down the shushing began. Nobody had any qualms about shushing someone else. Overall, the audience was reverentially quiet, which is how I like it. Hummers and whisperers were immediately silenced, and after the ovation for Maestro Barenboim you could hear a pin drop. That's very welcome in operas like Aida and Traviata which begin with the softest murmurs in the strings.

The minute I stepped into the auditorium I realized I could have saved myself a bundle of money. A smoking ruin at the end of the war, the Staatsoper as it stands today is beautifuly sized and best of all, it's not a "box" theater as are most of the houses in Italy and all the old houses throughout Europe. There are no boxes to speak of; the balconies are arena-style. This means that unlike La Scala, and especially unlike my very own La Fenice, you can see from most seats and hear from all. At Fenice you flat out cannot see from over 40% of the seats; I have sat in La Scala and been able to see only the people in the box across from me and a meaningless corner of the stage. You have to be very careful buying seats at these "box" houses; you have to know where not to sit. I bought the top seats in Berlin because I didn't want to take any chances, only to realize I could have paid a third of what I paid and still heard and seen beautifully. (My single ticket for Tristan at La Scala cost more than BOTH my top seats in Berlin together! Caveat emptor.)

The organization of the theater is predictably efficient. Although it was almost entirely rebuilt after 1945, it preserves its period feel (originally opened 1742) but hasn't sacrificed efficiency to historical accuracy (a la Fenice). Because there is no center aisle, you enter either from the right or the left. Therefore there are two sets of cloakrooms, Right and Left, depending on which side of the theater you are sitting on. A telling detail: when you hand your coat to the coat-check girl, she carefully examines the inner collar. I couldn't figure out why until she got to mine. They use hooks, not hangers. But they don't throw the coats onto the hooks. They find the loop in the collar that every coat has, and then hang it properly, loop over hook. It's much better for the coat.

I didn't see the upstairs because my seat was in the Parkett (stalls, platea, orchestra). Keep in mind, without a center aisle, these are very long rows. But there was no nightmare of latecomers crawling over you. It was remarkably orderly, and almost everyone was ready and in their seats before the lights went down.

Before the music begins, I must make a brief philosophical comment.

Several years ago I read "The Tristan Chord" by Brian Magee. It is an interesting book on Wagner and philosophy, but I was particularly struck with the long discussions of Schopenhauer, who influenced Wagner greatly. Here's what I took away: in Schopenhauer's world, as in Kant's, there is what we can know and what we cannot. The unknowable is unknowable because we are limited by how, or how much, we can perceive, by our organs of perception. The unknowable is out there, but lies beyond these limits. How this is argued philosophically isn't germane. What is, is that Schopenhauer, in seeking to characterize the unknowable "thing-in-itself", says that only two human experiences begin to approximate what it might feel like: orgasm and opera. He does not differentiate between them. Here, I thought, is a philosopher I can relate to!

Of course we don't invariably get the peak experience (either at the opera house or in the sack), that thing that raises your hair and sends adrenalin rushing through you. The ticket in your hand doesn't insure bliss. Sometimes all we get is a glimpse, something akin to a distant whisper of what we know it can be. And sometimes, infrequently, we get the hot breath of the universe down our necks.

So after 50 years of opera-going, I try to walk in as blank a slate as possible. I try to listen to each note as if for the first time. I could never be a critic. First, I don't know enough about music, but more importantly, it would take me out of the moment that I'm there for: as total a surrender to the music as possible. If it cheats on me, or disappoints me, I'll know it soon enough. But by avoiding quantification, comparison, I hold myself open up to revelations, even if they are small ones and not the 14-on-a-scale-of-10 experiences.

Violetta is done in by disease, Butterfly by treachery, Isolde by love. Aida is caught on the horns of a dilemma, torn between loyalty to her father, her people, her country, and love for their worst enemy, the Egyptian general Radames. The opera throughout is full of the kind of drama where Verdi soars. This production did not. During the prelude we find outselves in a Victorian Egyptology Museum with someone who is supposed to be Verdi wandering around, and various of the opera's characters ensconced as exhibits. A wounded Radames comes staggering through near the end of the prelude. It is all in pantomime; the Victorian characters withdraw just in time for the singing to begin. This framing device was both tiresome and distracting. The evening was at its best when the frame disappeared and we were in the fantasy Ancient Egypt we're supposed to be in.

None of this matters, really, if the singing is superb. Then you can forgive a multitude of sins. Unfortunately that was not the case. Scant minutes after the curtain rises Radames has to sing "Celeste Aida," and it's a ball-buster. I heard Pavarotti do it San Francisco to Margaret Price's Aida; it wasn't a good role for him, but his "Celeste Aida" was nearly ecstatic. Opera singers are like Olympic athletes in the sense that what separates the truly great from the routine is not simply getting it right, not simply the voice itself, but the appearance of effortlessness, as if this moment were spontaneous and unnaturally natural. Walter Fraccaro, the Berlin Radames, was OK, but it did not appear effortless and was not freely produced.

Aida, Norma Fantini, was like a young Gloria Swanson, both tempestuous and fragile. Her voice was big and rich and in the first act trio between Aida, Radames and Amneris only she could be distinctly heard whereas Radames and Amneris were somewhat covered by the orchestra. And Barenboim cut them no slack; the orchestra was both ferocious and tender and at its most ferocious often only Aida could be heard among the ensemble.

Amneris, Anna Smirnova, took two acts to get into third gear, but then she delivered. Her voice, especially in the second half, was thrilling-- rich, beautifully phrased and acted, and her Amneris came to life, a desperate, scorned woman.

Juan Pons was commanding as Amonasro. His character was dark and compellingly believable and although his voice is neither young, nor fresh, nor effortless, he was able to make Amonasro riveting, dramatically and musically.

It was a fine night at the opera; not the most memorable, but not without those moments where everything fuses in a blinding instant of beauty.

Don Giovanni is an entirely different kind of experience.

First of all, the audience is different. Young; really young, twenty-something young. There is a special buzz in the house, a Dudamel buzz. The audience pours in early; there is real excitement in the air. For some reason the doors from the corridors into the auditorium itself aren't opened until fifteen minutes before the performance is scheduled to begin, so people are queued up expectantly. The elegantly-suited older gentleman in front of me is reading a letter in Hebrew, while the twenty-somethings nearby are dressed for a rock concert, what "dressing up" is for teens and twenty-somethings. Lots of hoodies and bold-print tee shirts and jeans. There are famous people in the audience tonight; people whose faces I recognize but whose names I can't remember. There is another woman in front of me with elegantly twisted hair whose boyfriend has shaggy brown curls and a green tee shirt.

Dudamel seems tiny, and is greeted rapturously. When the house lights go down the only lights are on his hands and face, standing above the orchestra, so they can be seen by the musicians and the singers for the all important beat and cues and adjustments to pace and dynamics. When the music begins, he is a giant.

He is in complete control. This orchestra, which is Barenboim's orchestra, is his orchestra tonight. He may be young and shaggy and bursting at the seams, but the energy is the energy of genius as Don Giovanni opens with those dark, majestic chords.

Here, there is no production to speak-of; it is minimal to the point of non-existence, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The only set pieces are two massive black slabs that rotate to suggest settings. There are no props, either. No catalog for the Catalog aria, no lute for "Deh, vieni." The costumes are modern, simple and, for the most part, don't change. We are focused on the singers, on the music and on the drama, with nothing to distract. It's a heavy burden for the singers to carry. Everything lies on their musicianship and their charisma, their stage presence.

They are all young -- or appear so -- and quite attractive. Leporello (Hanno Muller-Brachmann) looks like Robert Downey Jr. as Chaplin. He is tremendously acrobatic, even doing lascivious pushups for Donna Elvira curing the catalog aria. He is in constant motion, balletic and appealing. He has a beautiful baritone voice, a tremendous sense of musical style, and carries it all off, well, effortlessly ;-)

Andrea Concetti as the Don looks like Nicolas Cage, not so much like he looks in his films but the way he used to look at 2am in the video store on Melrose Avenue many years ago when I used to see him there; grungy; hair needs washing; with a slouchy swagger and a long shabby leather coat that identifies him (and later misidentifies him). His voice was neither as smooth nor as lovely as Leporello's, and he was too easily covered by the orchestra. It was Leporello's night.

The first real showstopper came after Anna Samuil's bright and piercing "Or sai che l'onore." Tomislav Muzek's "Dalla sua pace" brought down the house. I must say that he sort of looked like Meatloaf, but his voice was pure gold, easy, fluid, gorgeously musical. The audience roared. He did it again, later, even better, in "Il mio tesoro." That was when I got the tingle and my jaw inadvertently dropped at the gorgeous legato on what seemed like the longest breaths I had ever seen.

Donna Elvira, Annette Dasch, had a similar problem to Amneris during the first part of Aida last night. Her voice was what I call, for lack of a proper term, "bursty." There were bursts of rich bright sound in certain areas; in others, she disappeared into the orchestra. What was there was fine enough; the problem was what wasn't there. She rallied for "Mi tradi," coming so much later in the opera, too little too late.

Of the women, Zerlina -- Sylvia Schwartz -- was the most consistently delightful, perfect in her fach, girlish and charming and sneaky, always convincing, her singing as right as her charismatic characterization.

Dudamel shaped and directed the music with pure dramatic instincts. There is plenty to quibble about, as with every musical event requiring hundreds of musicians achieving a single voice; but Dudamel is as filled with passionate intensity as panache. He models the music, like the young Bernstein; transported. The music sparkled and lilted and awed and amazed just as it should to fully realize the dark and manic score.

The magic of the theater is on the stage. To succeed, what goes on up there must make you forget everything else around you, what happened today, what may or may not happen tomorrow, if you hip hurts or your boyfriend was rude , or who is setting in front of you and what the IKKS on the tiny logo on the back of her sweater stands for. When the magic is cooking on all four burners, it takes you somewhere else. You experience other worlds, and perhaps, for a moment or two, you have that brief brush with glory. Sometimes more, sometimes, less; but it takes you to the same ecstatic place.

Just like Schopenhauer said.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

"Those days are gone..."

I stood in Venice, on the Bridge of Sighs,
A palace and a prison on each hand:
I saw from out the wave her structures rise
As from the stroke of the enchanter's wand:
A thousand years their cloudy wings expand
Around me, and a dying Glory smiles
O'er the far times, when many a subject land
Looked to the wingéd Lion's marble piles,
Where Venice sate in state, throned on her hundred isles!

She looks a sea Cybele, fresh from ocean,
Rising with her tiara of proud towers
At airy distance, with majestic motion,
A ruler of the waters and their powers:
And such she was--her daughters had their dowers
From spoils of nations, and the exhaustless East
Poured in her lap all gems in sparkling showers:
In purple was she robed, and of her feast
Monarchs partook, and deemed their dignity increased.

In Venice Tasso's echoes are no more,
And silent rows the songless gondolier;
Her palaces are crumbling to the shore,
And music meets not always now the ear:
Those days are gone--but Beauty still is here;
States fall, arts fade--but Nature doth not die,
Nor yet forget how Venice once was dear,
The pleasant place of all festivity,
The revel of the earth, the masque of Italy!

Lord Byron
Childe Harold's Pilgrimage

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Spring | Night | Walk

Spin a little Debussy for these random thoughts while walking on a mild spring night.

The No. 1 vaporetto from Salute (deserted) to San Marco (not deserted) is crowded at 9-27pm. Those with cameras hang over the railings, flashing furiously. I can't imagine that they get anything, but they seem happy with whatever they get.

There is a Babel of languages around me. To my right, a bambino perched on the luggage rack screams for biscotti. To my left, a young couple kisses. People gape at the succession of palaces turned into luxury hotels; they will only see it once or twice and it is eminently gape-able.

The best music is Venice is often the worst. The "good" music rarely measures up, but the bands on Piazza San Marco can be thrilling. "Con te, partiro" -- part of the standard set at Gran Caffe Chioggia, winter or summer -- soars on a feverish and melancholy violin solo taking the vocal line. It transcends itself for a moment.

Crowds have returned to the piazza; they come with the warm weather. Nothing like summer, of course; not a huge crowd where you can barely walk, but large enough to give the musicians a big hand and clap along with a swingy "New York, New York."

The tower of the original castle -- before the present incarnation of the Doge's Palace, back around 900 AD when it was an island -- is clad with a satiny patchwork of stolen marble. Above it, you can see the unencrusted Byzantine brick arches; atop the arches, the original dome is capped with an even more massive dome.

The Basilica astonishes. It always astonishes. It will never cease to astonish until it has completely dissolved from salty damp and time. Structurally, it stops at the Gothic period. The original cove mosaics above the doors, with the exception of "The Removal of the Body of St. Mark" above the Door of Sant'alipio, were sacrificed to poor baroque replacements, once considered restorative improvements. Only the original mosaic retains the proper Byzantine majesty. Nonetheless, it astonishes, from the clustered pillars with their lacy capitals (see masthead) to the swirling fringes along the roof line to the finials crowning the dome like airy bronze molecular models.

If you live in Venice, Piazza San Marco is a place you avoid wherever possible, or walk through of necessity on the way from one place to another. It takes a special effort to find the right moment to stop and appreciate it, because it really has nothing to do with real life, like any work of art.

But this work of art wasn't created in one stroke. It accrued over the centuries like barnacles on shells, rebuilt and renovated again and again, stopping only with Napoleon's addition of the Ala Napoleonica spanning the two Procuratie, with its suitably impressive staircase and curiously small ballroom. Napoleon's parties were imperial, but intimate.

As I jot this down, a group of young Americans careens past. A self-styled blond bimbo stops, notices where she is, points, and says "Isn't that what they have in Vegas?" A group of Germans stands and stares at the water welling up through a drain in the grey paving stones of the piazza creating a widening reflecting pool.

There is very little Venice left in Venice. The buildings stand, but what it was, and what made it what it was, has long since vanished. It is a memento mori; all that truly remains is its allure, most intensely felt in the utter stillness of small canals where the mirror of shimmering obsidian reflects the lights inside an unshuttered palace, in the unearthly silence of gondolas, in the magic of moonlight on carved stone.

I know the young Asian guys selling single long-stem roses are desperate when they approach me walking toward Accademia Bridge. Couples first. Single women, always. But a single old man on his way home? It must be a slow night indeed.


Saturday, April 4, 2009

Ich Bin Ein Berliner (4)

4. The Jewish Museum

Oranienstrasse from Moritz Platz to Manteuffelstrasse in the Kreuzberg district has an old Berkeley/Haight-Ashbury buzz.

It is a low-rent area with a mixed crowd of young people in the shabby-hip cafes, old people on park benches and at bus-stops, an eclectic potpourri of gays, students, artists, shopkeepers and a high percentage of Turks who call this neighborhood home. There are Thai and middle-eastern and tapas and Indian restaurants, an all-hemp store, fashion forward clothing and shoe stores, and a mosque; Turkish women in headscarves and long coats push strollers up the boulevard, past the the shoe stores and the Bateau Ivre coffeehouse, the newsstands and Turkish markets.

This end of Oranienstrasse seems poised for redevelopment; its grubby pre-War look will turn with the city's fortunes and, as in every other metropolis, this particular scene will move on, finding some remaining neighborhood where the rents are low and the prices correspondingly cheap.

After shopping for shoes and browsing bookstores, I lunch at Papa Nô, one of a small chain of Japanese/Asian/Fusion restaurants. My large platter of sushi rolls is fresh and tasty, with generous servings of pickled ginger and wasabi. It satisfies a craving that is hard to slake in Venice, where sushi is very expensive. I order way too much food and beer and eat for less than 15 euros. At the table next to me three white-haired women eat Thai noodles, and beyond them a mother and her four-year-old son are eating toro maki. The restaurant fills with a lunchtime crowd you would see in a university town.

Beyond the Moritz Platz subway stop, Oranienstrasse becomes more upscale; this area is part of the ongoing redevelopment of the Kreuzberg district, a vast wasteland after the war, and, since the eighties, the locus of intense residential development.

At Lindenstrasse, Oranienstrasse becomes Rudi-DutschkeStrasse. It is a short walk from there to Checkpoint Charlie, the former border crossing into West Berlin, but if you turn south onto Lindenstrasse the avenue fills with innovative, postmodern, often controversial blocks of apartment buildings arranged around gardens and courtyards. The decision was made to retain the war-ravaged Victoria Insurance Building (1906), an ornate Italianate red-stone palazzo in a style seen throughout the northern Midwest of the US, from Chicago to St. Paul. I walk through a bomb-scarred entry portal that resembles a Roman mausoleum. Across the green interior courtyard is a modern palazzo by Arato Isozaki.

The Jewish Museum is a couple blocks beyond the Victoria Insurance Building. The entrance is an elegant Courthouse built in 1735; Daniel Liebsekind's complex zinc-walled structure rises beside and behind it. The zinc, over time, will change and discolor, but for now it has a brilliant silver sheen.

Once you pass from the old to the new building, your are in a foreign and challenging geography. The building does not function like normal buildings, but it draws you into its surprising and enigmatic interior.

According to the Museum:

"The façade of the Libeskind Building barely enables conclusions to be drawn as to the building's interior, the division of neither levels nor rooms being apparent to the observer. Nevertheless, the positioning of the windows – primarily narrow slits – follows a precise matrix. During the design process, the architect Daniel Libeskind plotted the addresses of prominent Jewish and German citizens on a map of pre-war Berlin and joined the points to form an 'irrational and invisible matrix' on which he based the language of form, the geometry and shape of the building."

Initially the building is a series of conceptual experiences, "voids" in the architect's terminology. The "Holocaust Tower" is a blank concrete space. Only one thin shaft of sun falls through its high and narrow window and the sounds of traffic from outside and of children playing in a nearby park echo quietly. That is all there is. It is neither air-conditioned nor heated; today it is cold. I imagine in the summer it is hot. It resonates with prison spaces and cattle cars. Liebeskind calls it "a place of remembrance," a "voided void."

A group of German elementary schoolers enter the void with their teacher in a respectful silence. They will know what this all means by the time they leave.

The Garden of Exile lies along an upwardly sloping axis. I step outside into a grid of forty-nine tall columns filled with earth; shrubbery sprouts from their tops overhead. It is the only square space in the entire building. Liebeskind: "It represents a shipwreck of history."

The "Memory Void" is on an axis between the Holocaust Tower and the Garden of Exile. This concrete void rises over a sea of faces that cover the floor like a layer of autumn leaves on the sidewalk in October. The faces are welded from sheets of iron and as you walk over them they clank loudly, echoing on the concrete walls.

In addition to these conceptual spaces around which the building unfolds are galleries that tell a long tale of Jewish history. The walls are filled with archival historical material and family photos, inventions and portraits, books and furniture carefully assembled to tell a story of Jewish history, of German Jewish history, of Berlin Jewish history from antiquity to Kristallnacht and beyond, the mad world of the Third Reich and the historical fact now known as the Holocaust.

More German students, elementary schoolers, watch and listen as guides walk them through. It has taken a lot to reach this point; the collection, which you are at first barely aware of behind the towering voids, is vast. I can barely take it all in, and focus on the bits that speak to me most. These children are being shown everything. No punches are pulled. It is all carefully explained.

A group if Italian school kids slowly moves past me. I am writing in my notebook, transcribing the some text from a museum placard. A saucy ragazza of 16 or 17 saunters up, looks, whips out her cellphone, snaps a picture of the text, glancing at me -- the megalithic old geezer with pad and pen -- and moves on, smiling, on as I finish writing.
The typescript in the case is dated April, 1945, the month and year of my birth. The paper is yellowed; the typing, heavily scribbled over in blue ink, is in black all caps, like a teletype:


Beside the typescript is the typewriter upon which it was written and the camera with which Levin's photographer companion took first pictures of the horror.

A bit beyond, on a large flat screen, Hannah Arendt, in a 1964 television interview, describes first hearing about Auschwitz. The key date, she ways, was not 1933 -- the Reichstag Fire, the Enabling Act, the Nazi coup. The key date was 1943, when they first heard about Auschwitz and couldn't believe it. "But half a year later," she continues, "it was proven to us. That was the real shock. We knew they were capable of anything; but not that..."

""I'm not referring to numbers. I am referring to bodies."

"This should never have happened," she says. "And none of us can come to terms with that."

It is hard to remember and easy to forget. There are few living who can remember the war, and the generations since are many. I am surrounded by school children as I stand here weeping, as they are being told the same story. I can't stop it from happening again. They can. At least, if learning history prevents repeating it, they are being given a leg up.



Thursday, April 2, 2009

Ich Bin Ein Berliner (3)

3. Red Berlin: A House Divided

The Wall was a strange historical anomaly.

Berlin sits deep inside the former German Democratic Republic. After the partitioning of the city at the end of WW2, families that formerly lived in different neighborhoods suddenly lived in different cities. West Berliners who had lived in the cosmopolitan capital of Germany were suddenly residents of an island encircled by the Cold War enemy. East Berliners were now residents of another country. You could no longer simply go crosstown to visit Grandma or Aunt Josephine or your old friend from high school; at the limits of the western sector you stepped into another world.

It didn't take long for West Berlin to become the hole through which refugees not only from East Berlin, but from throughout the GDR and the rest of Soviet Europe, attempted to flee. As the Federal Republic -- West Germany -- became the much-vaunted post-war "Economic Miracle," rebuilding its economy with industry and technology and trade, East Germany began to fear a serious Brain Drain. Their best and brightest, young and eager to be part of the Economic Miracle, were fleeing west, along with those who wanted to reunite their families or simply were not interested in living in the socialist east. By 1961 almost 20% of the East German population had defected to the west.

The East Germans and Soviets called the wall an "anti-Fascist protective rampart" ("antifaschistischer Schutzwall") -- good Orwellian language here -- to protect itself from Western agents and aggression. But it was really built to staunch the flow of East Germans to the west; to keep people in, not out. The first wall, dividing the two Germanys, was begun in 1952, but it did little good as long as Berlin remained a permeable membrane between east and west. The Berlin Wall, encircling West Berlin, began as a wire fence in 1961, became a concrete wall in 1965 and by 1975 was an elaborate fortified Border Wall. A "dead zone" was created in front of the wall, houses and streets razed to create an artillery-protected No Man's Land.

The odd line of the Wall is mapped on billboards along Friedrichstrasse, south of Unter den Linden, where Check-Point Charlie is preserved, one of the openings between the American and Russian sectors. Today Friedrichstrasse is like Fifth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan, and the guard hut in the center of the intersection, once deadly and menacing, looks quaint and anachronistic.

Between 1965 and 1969, at the same time the wire fencing was being replaced with concrete and West Germany was amazing the world with its economic recovery, the GDR built the Fernsehturm by the Alexanderplatz subway station. The 1,200-foot high television tower still dominates the Berlin sky at night; it is the fourth tallest free-standing structure in Europe and was intended to be the symbol of the GDR's own postwar might.

But like all the gigantesque Socialist architecture, it hasn't aged well. It is brash and ugly and yet strangely wonderful, a glittering Sputnik skewered on a giant toothpick, and, at night, it is a thing of beauty, especially hovering like a spectral minaret behind the domes of the imperial cathedral at the head of Unter den Linden.

Because the light refracts on the surface of its silver sphere in the shape of a cross, it was often referred to in the west as "the Pope's Revenge." At night it is luminous and unearthly, high above the city. It is no longer a symbol of the East; it is a symbol of the reunited city itself, because here in Berlin not only did the Nazis fall, but the Communists fell as well, and what arises from all those strange ashes is a heady cocktail of post-twentieth century modernist politics.

The elevator to the top of the Fernsehturm is swift. On the ticket -- 10Euros -- are the salient facts: total height, 368m, Restaurant Telecafe, 207m, observation floor, 203m; there are 986 steps in the staircase up, and the elevator rises at 6 meters per second.

You step out of the elevator onto the observation floor. Walking around it, the city unfolds like a street map beneath you, the avenues and rivers etched in lights. It also gives you a greater appreciation for the extent of the 125-mile-long Wall that encircled West Berlin.

Whereas the carpet of light seemed endless from the Reichstag Dome, from the top of the TV tower you can see the dark lapping in at the edges, and you can follow the line of Under den Linden and KarlMarx Allee and Kurfurstendamm. The Sony Center at Potsdammer Platz rises like a solar flare from what was once the largest tract of urban desolation in the developed world. Beyond, the city lights edge the contours of the Tiergarten at Berlin's center.

Like all iconic high places -- the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower, the Space Needle -- the view is an end in itself; the building doesn't need any further excuse. It's purpose is to awe us, and it does.

But the interior also has that Star Trek deja vu of an already outdated future, entirely outdone by the stunning architecture that has risen since the fall of the Wall. The observation floor is filled with suitably awestruck gawkers moving slowly in the great circle; photomaps are placed strategically along the route to identify the avenues and landmarks below. Up a stairway, on the second level, is a restaurant, which -- in case you haven't guessed by now -- revolves, at the rate of two complete revolutions per hour (upgraded from the original one rph), like those atop every Hyatt Hotel in every downtown from the 1970s onward. This may have been the first, but it certainly was not the last.

The Russian Embassy on Unter den Linden is another instance of the Soviet style, which is unique and ahistorical, neither modern nor period. It lives in the netherworld of monuments to vanished history, notable not for their style but for their size, like the pyramids without their cosmic impact. What does stand out, however, especially at night when lighted from within, is the enormous stained glass mural, a view of a large steeple rising up from a city street in front of a sky of futurist clouds. A rainbow arches over the steeple. It is uniquely beautiful. Around the corner, on Wilhelmstrasse, the British Embassy is a humorless postmodern concrete fortress (opened in 2000) and the American Embassy on Pariser Platz looks like a modern five-star hotel. It is the curious interpenetration of all these elements that make Berlin what it is.

Great cities can dazzle us with their scale alone. But they are all big; what differentiates one from the other is not their size, the height of their buildings or the length of their avenues, but their unique character, that blend of the things and people in them, their pasts and their futures, their culture and their ambience.

I am sitting alone at a large table slowly revolving in space high above a vast sea of lights. I am eating something that seems German enough, delicious meatballs with sour cream and potatoes and beets and a huge schooner of beer. At the table next to mine there is a group of four German women; girlfriends, having a night out. They are almost oblivious to where they are; almost, but not quite. They are middle aged and they are having a great time. They may have eaten dinner, but now they are drinking wine and eating elaborate desserts, laughing and chatting.

Twenty years ago these friends might have been separated from each other like prisoners in different cell blocks; divided by politics and economics and ideology and border patrols. But that is no longer the case; they are citizens of the most cosmopolitan of cities, having a night out atop the tall tower that no longer means what it once meant and has become a fun if slightly camp place for drinks and conversation.