Category Archives: Film

As Beautiful as a Day Can Be

…when the calendar page flips over and suddenly you’re older by a year.

But let’s take stock. Here on West Street there is a tumbling breeze and the sky is robin’s egg blue–what a cliché, let’s just call it cliché blue –with streaky white clouds and sunlight that bakes us all but perfectly.

The men frame up curbs by laying boards vertically in a trench, a long pink string stretched taut. Everyone is already dirty, first thing in the morning. The backhoe hauls up chunks of the old pavement.

A movie shoot has come to Greenpoint today, The Deuce, for HBO, and the little old factory streets are crammed with orange cones and film trucks. Kids go by carrying styrofoam shells of gourmet commissary food. They wear skinny T’s and skinny jeans on their skinny little bodies and clipped to their clothes are the tools of the trade, buckskin gloves, walkie-talkies.

Our commissary is a quilted metal truck  with spigots built-in for hot water and coffee. It’s 8:30, time for “coffee” which really means a sandwich. When you work this hard you need two lunches. These guys wear rawhide toolbelts hung with hammers and wrap their heads with bandannas like pirates.

Standing to the side I am ignored by the youngsters for whom my age and vest make me invisible, and by the laborers, for whom my sex makes me a cipher. What am I doing here anyway? On this birthday I float in the middle of everything. The millennials,  the laborers, the sunshine, the breeze.

A young man leaning against the same wall asks me what is going on with the construction. He is perfectly adorable, adorably perfect, dark blue eyes and wavy hair. Smoking a cigarette, badly. His name is Adam. Adam tells me about the rentable green space in the building, the CrossFit club and the mega storm that hit the city at 5 o’clock yesterday. With a small trace of pride he mentions that he left his motorcycle parked up the street.

In his company I forget all the skinny minis and instead admire the  thudding, wide-eyed, all-inhaling heart of youth. I’ll never be there again, sure. But I can see it better than ever.


Filed under Arborist, Culture, Fashion, Film, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, New York City, Trees, Writers, Writing

Wolf Boys and Girls

Feral children, wild children, human beings raised by wolves… or bears… or goats… or rats… How credible are the stories of their existence?

They’ve inflamed the popular imagination for centuries. Surely it is impossible to believe that a mama wolf will take in a human baby and suckle it with her own. Surely it is outlandish for a little boy or girl to come in from the wild, hale and fed if not very well groomed, with the claim of having been nurtured from infancy by animals. Yet their demeanor would seem to lend credence to the claim – no human language of any kind, an alien affect, absolutely zero table manners.

Stories of feral children surface up to the present day. The archetype might originate with Romulus and Remus.


Roman legend has it that the twin sons of Rhea Silvia, a priestess, and the god Mars were raised by wolves. When it was found that she had been pregnant and had children, King Amulius, who had usurped her father’s throne, ordered her to be buried alive and for the twins to be killed. Instead, they were set in a basket on the Tiber, where a she-wolf found them and raised them until the boys were discovered as toddlers.

Probably the best known wild child today is fictional. Mowgli, invented by the protagonist of Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book stories in the 1890s, became a contemporary star with Disney’s 1967 massive hit animated film of the same name. According to Kipling’s hugely successful telling, Mowgli lost his parents in a tiger attack in Central India and is adopted by Mother and Father Wolf.


A tiger wants to adopt him, a panther befriends him, and Mowgli wins the respect of all through his unique ability to extricate thorns from the paws of his wolf brothers.


He is ultimately adoped by human parents and brought into civilized society.

In the Disney version, Mowgli, “man-cub,” wants nothing more than to remain in the carefree forest among his baboon, elephant, sloth and panther friends, even after he has been told by many that he must return to the Man-Village. He only goes when he becomes smitten by young girl and follows her back to civilization.


A similar feral child novel from slightly later than Kipling is Shasta of the Wolves. In Shasta, a boy raised by a pack in the Pacific Northwest goes back and forth between a human tribe and his wolf clan… ultimately deciding to stay with the pack.

shasta illustration

Mowgli has always been seen as a major influence on Edgar Rice Burroughs in developing his own feral child story Tarzan.


Appearing first in 1914 and followed by fully 25 sequels, Burroughs’ Tarzan of the Apes captured the American imagination. The movies expanded the franchise — Between 1918 and 2008, 89 movies starred Tarzan, with the most famous portrayal being that of Olympic swimmer Johnny Weissmuller. Tarzan is the quintessential noble savage, a man who manages to navigate two worlds with ease.

Orphaned as a child, Tarzan finds himself adoped by the leader of the ape tribe that killed his father – while Tarzan is his ape name, his English name is John, Clayton, Viscount Greystoke. As a young adult, Tarzan falls in with Jane, an American whose father and the rest of their party have been marooned in the jungle. They fall in love and he follows her back to the United States, marries her and the couple return to Africa, where they have a son. Intelligent, handsome, athletic, Tarzan lives up to his noble background though in the guise of a forest creature. His loin cloth is all he needs for clothes, a tree branch his preferred bed, raw meat the nutrient he favors. His upbringing represents the opposite of deprivation – this child of nature gained agility, speed, endurance and strength from his ape family – and yet, when he returns to civilization, he is able to adapt, learn languages, speak grammatically and make his way in civilized society.

Before the mythic creations of Mowgli and Tarzan, other, real, historical feral children fueled the public imagination. One related phenomenon is that of people afflicted with the genetic condition known as hypertrichosis, which causes an individual to resemble an animal in the growth of fur all over the body. Many children with the condition were exhibited in American side shows in an earlier period.


But non-hairy wild children fueled public fascination the world over. The best known, Victor of Aveyron, lived at the turn of the nineteenth century in rural France.


He was prepubescent when he emerged from the woods near Saint-Sernin-sur-Rance in 1798, having been spotted by a trio of hunters. How he had lived during his childhood was unknown, but that he only grunted, that he showed no modesty about his nakedness, that he periodically returned to the forest, that he had numerous scars on his body, that he seized potatoes hot from the hire, told his captors that his was a feral childhood. Shortly after he came in from the woods he was seen frolicking nude in the snow – a sign that he could tolerate exposure.That and the central feature of his existance, his lack of speech. It was clear that he could hear. A young physician named Jean Marc Gaspard Itard adopted the boy and worked with him for five years to teach the boy and the case became a cause celebre.


Whether the boy could learn language inflamed the debate over what distinguished man from animal. Did the Wild Boy of Aveyron exist in a pure state of nature? Could he be civilized? Ultimately, Victor learned only two phrases : lait (milk) and Oh, Dieu (Oh, God). Itard published his A Historical Account of the Discovery and Education of a Savage Man in 1802. Today we know of Victor and kindly Dr. Itard through L’Enfant sauvage, The Wild Child, Francois Truffaut’s masterful 1970 film.

Peter of Hanover wandered out of the woods near the town of Hamelin, near Hanover in Germany, in 1726 — or was hunted down; accounts differ — and soon became the talk of Europe. He was around fourteen, naked, mute, and resistant, when he arrived in London and came under the protection of King George I and his court. The child had a predilection for acorns, and was fascinated upon hearing a watch strike the hour for the first time. George I did not speak English himself, and hailed from the same part of Germany as this mysterious wild child, explaining some of his attraction.

NPG D3895; Peter the Wild Boy by John Simon, after  William Kent

Plus, anthropology had come in vogue, with people bringing back accounts from foreign lands about savages, Hottentots, children reared by animals. Was Peter truly human or was he more along the lines of an orangutang? The media went wild over Peter, commenting on his primitive demeanor, wondering at his forest upbringing, marveling that the King adopted him as a kind of court pet. Writers hailed him as a wonder of nature and his likeness thrilled visitors to a celebrated was museum. Daniel Defoe proclaimed him the only truly sensible person alive. Peter never learned to utter a word, and eventually spent a long life being cared for on a farm in the country.

Another feral child was even more mysterious. Kaspar Hauser simply appeared one day in 1828 at the city gate of German’s Nuremberg, strangely dressed and, once again, mute.

kaspar hauser

He was around 17, and he carried a letter asking that he be given a place in the calvary. He could write his name, but he would eat only bread and butter and preferred to spend his days seated on the floor playing with toy horses. Philosophers visited him to try to understand what could have caused his strange, dull behavior (no swinging on vines for this one). The fascination has continued up to our time, with a 1974 movie done on his life, The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser by Werner Herzog.


The foundling did manage some speech, developed a love for music, and became a skilled horseman, and eventually the memory returned of his childhood, having been imprisoned in a dark room, fed by a man he never saw. Not a child raised by wolves, but by a predatory human. He was eventually murdered in a public park by a stranger at the age of 22.

Feral children are not all boys. One famous wild child of the eighteenth century was Marie-Angélique Memmie Le Blanc, who was born in 1712 and became known as The Wild Child of Songy. Born into a Native American community and brought from Canada to Marseilla during the bubonic plague epidemic of 1720, the girl survived for ten years walking through the forests of France.

feral girl

She survived not by living with wolves but by battling them with a club. Captured, she went for ten years without speaking but eventually did take up words. Accounts of her life were widespread – popular pamphlets, books by historians and naturalists all fed the maw of interest in her feral upbrininging.

Of the many more instances of children who managed to survive in the wild, some have been discounted outright. Still, it is fascinating to see the interest that embraces those nurtured by all different sorts of animals. Nineteenth-century men and women devoured tales about the Lobo Girl of the Devil’s River, captured after her wolf sojourn, who managed an escape in 1846 and was last spotted at age 17 in 1852. Earlier, people hungered for tales of an Irish boy brought up by sheep, recorded by Nicaolaes Tulp in 1672. There was the Bear-Girl of Krupina, Slovakia, dating to 1767. The Ostrich Boy, named Hadara, lost in the Sahara by his parents at the age of two and reclaimed ten years later. The Chilean boy raised by pumas. Robert, who lived with vervet monkeys for three years when orphaned during the Ugandan Civil War. A Peruvian boy nurtured by goats. I have even heard of a girl raised by rats.

So nothing in Savage Girl should inspire disbelief, no matter how farfetched it sounds. No, nothing at all.

Leave a comment

Filed under Culture, Fiction, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Wonderful Characters

It’s the time of year when literary critics tote up the outstanding reads of the previous year, as well as some of the failures. I’m never into ranking books, though I might at some point on this site share a few of those that really knocked me out in recent months. For now, I thought I’d recommend — strongly recommend — something you won’t find on any of the 2013 best books lists. Yet there’s nothing else remotely as charming as a title issued in 1869 in London under the byline of one J.C. Hotten.


The Book of Wonderful Characters, Memoirs and Anecdotes of Remarkable and Eccentric Persons in All Ages and Countries, now digitized, was the fruit of many years of enterprise for Hotten, who had begun publishing illustrated books about remarkable persons in 1788 and continued through the early decades of the nineteenth century.


More than 40 years after his death this volume was republished. Engravings illustrate some truly amazing characters, like a woman who lived upon the smell of flowers and a man who died at the age of 152.

pig face

Hotten begins “With a few Words upon Pig-faced Ladies,” then goes on to an “extraordinary Stone Eater” with a detour for fire eaters and knife swallowers. I think you might be glad to make the acquaintance of the Vain Dwarf or the Man Who Crucified Himself. Or a particularly creepy ghost.

ghostWe all still like to creep out, I think, we just do it via TV and movies rather than encyclopedic illustrated weirdfests. Maybe some genius will rise to the occasion and we’ll see a book like this in 2014.


Filed under Art, Culture, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Publishing, Writers, Writing

The Roaring Twenties

Put yourself on a New York City streetcorner on a summer afternoon in 1929. You can imagine it, sure, but can you really hear it? No?

Betty-button256Now you can.

Emma Thompson, a MacArthur-winning professor of history at Princeton University, has constructed a digital time machine that allows you to experience the jack hammers, fog horns and splashing fire hydrants of New York’s yesteryear in a web site called The Roaring Twenties.


The way the sound specialist did this is ingenious. She paired actual noise complaints from the files of New York City’s Health Department with  a detailed block-by-block Google Map. It’s a digital interface that covers all five boroughs of the city in the years 1926 to 1933. You can click on one of 600 pins and call up an image of the original complaint – plenty of complaints about noise, then as now – and the official response, if any.

N. Schmuck of Greenpoint, Brooklyn, for example, was being driven nuts by factory noise from the nearby Colonial Pickle Works. Another complainant, attorney H. Bartow Farr, said his sleep had been disrupted by a racket on the East River — nighttime dredging close by his Gracie Square home. One function on the site allows you to search by type of complaint, so you can find out exactly how many foghorn complaints registered in a certain time frame. You might not have thought you wanted to know about foghorn complaints with this degree of specificity, but I think you’ll be surprised.

“My first impression of New York was its noise,” said a Japanese governor visiting the city in 1920, cited in The New York Times.

As an aural historian, Thompson believes that it’s important to understand the context of sound, its meaning as well as the sound itself. And that is why this fascinating project incorporates not only paper evidence, the complaints, the maps, but the actual noises of New York themselves, unmediated.

F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in  My Lost City in 1932:

“What news from New York?”

“Stocks go up. A baby murdered a gangster.”

“Nothing more?”

“Nothing. Radios blare in the street.”


How to capture those radios blaring in the street? Well, sound cinema was just then taking off. Thompson and web designer Scott Mahoy assembled images sourced from Fox MovieTone newsreel footage, pictures that once filmed were often left on the cutting room floor. The technology was still crude, but watching a snippet is amazing. Select one newsreel icon on the Roaring Twenties map and you find yourself in the hubbub of Times Square, cruising among the grand marquees.

times square

Another takes you to Central Park and the cheeky frolic of a crowd of kids shooting marbles. Or go visit with a ukelele strummer on the beach at Coney Island one hot day in 1930. The newsreels are not matched precisely to the noise complaints, but close enough. It’s sound-around. For a taste, listen to the NPR segment about the project.

I swear, The Roaring Twenties is as close as you’ll get to Fitzgerald-era New York. (I only wish such a vehicle existed for the 1870s when I was getting into the head of Savage Girl.) The only thing that’s missing is the ripe smell of horse manure and hot dog stands. Those  will have to wait for a new generation of smell engineers, but this web treasure will help in the meantime.


Filed under Culture, Fiction, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Photography, Writers, Writing

Tra La La La La (La La La La)

I breezed through the local shopping mall yesterday on my knee scooter, only mildly terrifying the people directly in my path. I felt good. I had completed all my shopping days before. There would be nothing to buy in the future. And the Christmas tunes swelled loud and corny and hypnotic all around.

Peter Zimmerman keeps forking over bales of posts my way, generously, during this rather sedentary time for me. So here is another:

My sister and I have debated (Peter writes) which one of us fixated the most on The Little Drummer Boy when we were children. The most famous version of the Rumpadumdum was recorded by the Harry Simeon Chorale in 1958.


The story depicted in the song is somewhat similar to a 12th-century legend retold by Anatole France as Le Jongleur de Notre Dame (Our Lady’s Juggler), which was adapted into an opera in 1902 by Jules Massenet. In the French legend, however, a juggler juggles before the statue of the Virgin Mary, and the statue, according to the version of the legend one reads, either smiles at him or throws him a rose (or both). The song was originally titled Carol of the Drum and based upon a traditional Czech carol.

As for the most depressing – and, Jean says, most wonderful – Christmas song, she votes for Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas, introduced by Frances Gumm (Judy Garland) in the 1944 film Meet Me In St. Louis.


Next year all our troubles will be miles away, until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow. Magic lyric, says Jean. While I would choose Perry Como’s Home for the Holidays (you can’t beat home, sweet home) with its manic bridge.

I met a man who lives in Tennessee

He was headin’ for, Pennsylvania, and some home made pumpkin pie

From Pennsylvania folks are travelin’ down to Dixie’s sunny shore

From Atlantic to Pacific, gee, the traffic is terrific…

Oy, the traffic!

Andre Kostelanetz’s famous Sleigh Ride pulls on my heart strings. You can hear Santa repeatedly whipping the poor reindeer.


Leopold Mozart’s Sleighride is more to my liking. Lots of jingle bells, no whips. THE Mozart was Leopold’s father.

Some of my other favorites include Doris Day’s Toyland, Fats Waller’s Swinging Them Jingle Bells, Liberace’s Jesu Bambino, and Tammy Wynett’s Away in a Manger.


The most beautiful song is Harry Belafonte’s We Wish You a Merry Christmas medley.

My brother Andy’s favorite Christmas song is We Three Kings. Not to be depressing but here’s one of the verses.

Myrrh is mine

Its bitter perfume breathes

A life of gathering gloom

Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,

Sealed in the stone cold tomb.

If anyone can update the tune, it’s the psychobilly musician Reverend Horton Heat.


A very merry Christmas to all!


Filed under Culture, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music

A Grimm Tale

Recently I checked out my reader reviews for The Orphanmaster – not always a good thing for a writer to do, but Amazon makes it so easy – and after the wonderful, wonderful, wonderfuls I was stopped short by this extremely erudite criticism: Yick. One of my readers actually had to put the book down and erase it from her e-reader, she was so offended by the novel’s instances of violence and depravity.

Alright, you got me. Loving, brave Blandine and valiant, dashing Drummond and adorable little Sabine aren’t the only beings in the story. There are bogeymen lurking in the New Amsterdam shadows, crouching in the forest, maybe even hiding somewhere in your house, perhaps inside the groot kamer itself.

O-Master P-Back Cover

No one in The Orphanmaster is entirely safe. It’s our job (through the actions of the characters we adopt as our totems) to crush those towering monsters and let the light shine in for another day. There’s a crack in everything, wrote Leonard Cohen, That’s how the light gets in.

Why do some writers, like me, want to show the monsters, expose them, and crush them? Why are some people drawn to a TV gorefest like The Walking Dead? I know I am. Monsters are with us at the core of our psyches. A lot of viewers are eating up the NBC prime time show Grimm, which puts a procedural spin on nailing fairy-tale creatures.


It’s actually amazing that we manage to find anything remotely more interesting to tell stories about.

Today is the anniversary of the first publication of Grimm’s Fairy Tales. This literary landmark, originally titled Children’s and Household Tales, first appeared in Germany on December 20th, 1812 – just in time for Christmas shoppers, right?


Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm were not the first to publish fairy tales, but their versions enshrined the “folk” aspect of the material – the down and dirty part, the cruelty, the yick factor. The brothers went out to the countryside and collected folk tales from peasants, unsanitized, terrifying and utterly compelling.


Many of the details in the original versions of the stories were more ghastly than those we recognize from Disney – for one minor example, in the Grimms’ Cinderella, two heavenly doves help the heroine get dressed for the big ball in a gold dress and slippers – then fly down to peck out the eyeballs of the evil stepsisters.


Yick. But brilliant. The tales have found their way into 160 languages in the last 200 years. A recent translation of 50 of them by children’s writer Philip Pullman manages to be as elegant as it is gory. As far as I know, there is no witika in Grimm, no towering, green-skinned, long-fanged, cannabilistic spirit of the woods such as the being that torments 1663 Manhattan in The Orphanmaster.


Yick. Yum.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fiction, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Publishing, The Orphanmaster, Writers, Writing

Making Book

Frank Stella’s splashy, enormous constructions line the walls of the lobby where my book publisher has its offices. Three collages, to be precise, of mixed media on a base of etched magnesium. Standing in front of one, you have to crane your neck to see the top of the piece. Standing there, I try to imagine creating something so large as the exploding Stella’s, so imposing. My mind wanders – outside is a dumpling truck with the snazzy legend: “Who’s Your Edamame?” It’s a New York morning, and art and food and commerce jostle for attention.


Books, books, time to think about books. Or one book: my book. Stella’s work depicts the inside of my head as I take the elevator to the fourth floor. We’re going to talk about how to introduce Savage Girl to the world. How can I describe the feeling? Heart-pounding excitement. Trepidation. All shades in between.

Savage Girl comes out March 6th. And all the people at our meeting, editor, publicist, social media pro, literary agent – all of them are invested in making sure that my novel reaches a wide reading public.

So we talk about strategies. Bound gallleys, called ARCs in the business (for Advance Reading Copies) – who has received them so far, who gets them next? Print is no long king when it comes to reviewers – we want people to blab online about the book, on Goodreads, “where bookworms congregate,” as someone at the meeting says, on blogs, everywhere. We want the twitter-sphere to sing its praises. We want the people who read this blog – yes, you! – to get ahold of a copy and make their friend read it too. We want it to be consumed and consumed some more. Come up for air! Someone will say. It’s time to do the dishes. To go to the dentist!  But I can’t possibly, you say, I am too immersed in the adventures of Hugo and Bronwyn.

Savage Girl cover-final

Booksellers who received their early copy are liking Savage Girl, it seems. (Some Hollywood producers are too – shush, don’t jinx it by talking about it.) Authors have weighed in with comments that will appear on the back of the dust jacket. I like this one from Da Chen, the lyrical novelist:

The best historical fiction brings the reader back to a bygone era and  the depth of humanity then.  Jean Zimmerman does all that and more in her elegantly written new novel.  I simply could not put down this this tale of sweet and painful love, of a savage girl and her encounter with modernity.

All I have to do between now and March is a hundred things. Suffice it to say I’ll be writing more here and elsewhere about the Gilded Age, sharing what I learned in the process of researching Savage Girl. Debutante rituals, fashion, feasting, feral children, nineteenth century medical practices, mansions that are architectural marvels… I hope that people who don’t know much about the period will find out something new, and that I’ll satisfy Gilded Age aficionados’  yearning for more on the subject.


Say you enter your favorite independent bookstore, where the management has carefully curated its collection. You inspect the table when you come in the door and find scads of titles that tantalize you, that beg to be picked up and perused. It may seem that they found their way there by some kind of magic. Not so. Behind every glossy jacket is a team of geniuses who have pondered and sleuthed and brainstormed a way to bring that wonderful volume to you. Like an explosion, like the mixed-media Stella on the wall, the planning all comes together to unveil a bound book.

Riding the subway uptown, I notice a man standing next to me with headphones. Dancing, and not so demurely, either. He is rocking and rolling. He is happy. So am I. I remember a couplet by one of my favorite poets, another Frank, Frank O’Hara, who made New York City the star of many of his poems in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

How funny you are today New York

like Ginger Rogers in Swingtime

Sometimes, when you’re in Manhattan, everything can seem so right. I get off the train at my stop and look from one side to the other, not sure which direction to head on the platform. A woman in black-framed glasses and long black hair touches me on the arm. I don’t even have to ask. She points with her finger and softly, kindly says, This way. This way.


Filed under Culture, Dance, Fashion, Fiction, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

An Evening of Stand-Up Tragedy

The art of complaint never sounded so un-peevish. Almost noble, actually. We went to hear Tony Drazan perform his variety of standup, a part scripted, part improvised monologue, at Nuyorican Poets Café on East 3rd Street. Known for its poetry slams, the institution has been there since buying the rundown building for $10,000 multiple decades ago. It can accommodate all kinds of talents, and Tony is one of them. No matter that it was the coldest night yet this fall – that wouldn’t hold back New Yorkers. A motorcycle roared past us down Avenue B, and a guy walked by with a surfboard perched on his shoulder. Comedy should be easy. Or would this be comedy? Time would tell.

We started out at a ramen joint around the corner, Minca, on East 5th Street. A waitress named Kyoko in a Hello Kitty sweatshirt served us steaming bowls of pork broth with all the fixings.


What makes me happy in this world? A bowl of soup with charshu. Slow-roasted pork, to you. I am a hungry simpleton when confronted with ramen, and I also like hot plain tea.

minca ramen

Tony sat down for a pre-show cup and laid out some of his strategy for these stand-up routines. He performs once a month. It’s not his “real” job, he’s a screenwriter and film director with lots of credits. He’s a hockey dad, with a nine-year-old son, Leo.

He told us some of the things that had happened at past gigs.

“I used to stop and apologize and say I don’t know what I’m doing here. It would relax me.”

tony tea

Around us, the young men have van dyke beards and deep black eyes, the girls have long black hair, and it looks as though everyone’s related. Above us on the wall, some intriguing artwork. We’re looked down upon by kings.

minca kings

At Nuyorican Café, people started showing up. A cognitive scientist named Amol Sarba fixed a black contraption called a halo around Tony’s head. Its low-level electrical charge is supposed to boost brain function, and the process recently had a write up in The New York Times. Sarba told us he himself wasn’t convinced until he tried a video game he’d never played before after wearing the device and “absolutely crushed it.” Tony got interested when he heard that traffic controllers and jet jocks were trying out the device. “Don’t let this discourage you,” he offered to audience members as they settled themselves.


Bare bones, this was, ancient brick and a graphite-colored curtain, with a mike stand in the center of a faded oval rug. That was the space. Two dozen people trickled in, some all the way from L.A. Many of them knew the performer. It was intimate. You could almost forget Tony was  wearing jumper cables.

He commenced. Talking about good intentions gone bad. He wandered. Circled around to the point. To another point. “This is about survivor envy,” he said. Not survivor guilt. A friend, a music composer, got sick with cancer, fell into a coma from November to March. Woke! Rapidly regained his strength. And as strange as it sounds, “I was envious that my friend had survived brain cancer.”

tony piece

Sarba stepped up to remove the headgear. “I’m trying to be more game in my life,” Tony deadpanned. Lenny Bruce was brave, but Lenny Bruce never wore a rig like that on his head during a performance.

More meandering. Probing. Tony’s father, before he died, “had primary progressive aphasia – he couldn’t find the word. It wasn’t Alzheimer’s – he could always recognize me as his asshole eldest son up until the end.” Back to the recovered friend: “He woke up and started pulling out the tubes. He felt renewal in his life and that’s when I began to feel jealous. Somehow he was the better for it. He came out stronger than me.”

In the audience, there was a shift. I was thinking of a phenomenon from a number of years back called the Apology Line, open for business 24-7, which allowed callers to leave a message in which they detailed all they were sorry for. You could also call and listen to other peoples’ woes.

Tony spoke, a stand-up, sit-down tragedian, about having always believed that bad experiences shape you. He lost his mother when he was ten, he said, and that loss always gave him the sense  that “any special achievement I had was because I had survived her death, was honoring her death.” He picked up women by confessing his tragedy.

tony standing

“Does this make any sense?” he asked us. The anecdotes twined around, curled, unfurled, from Long Island to Beverly Hills to Manhattan. Dark. Funny. To now, when he admitted to feeling paralysis and sadness even as he was performing. He stood, moved the chairs around from place to place, sat in one, sat in another one. He picked up an enormous piece of paper with scribbled notes, folded and refolded it and consulted it now and then – part performance, part origami. Told us about a Barney’s Warehouse Sale in Santa Monica where he had his first of many panic attacks. The thread… it was so loose, so elastic, but might it not break? The audience roots for the performer to tell his story as he needs to tell it.

Looking for answers, he visited a sikh internist, a cardio guy, a homeopath, an autoimmune specialist. Most recently came Tai Chi, the horse stance, internal energy training. More loss. More venting. Not everyone can make a complaint emerge this fresh. Make it not just a run of the mill kvetch. And, at the end, something new:

“We’re all vulnerable. It occurred to me that my old way of being was misplaced. I didn’t need to be a champion for any of it.”

Silence. In the end there was only the sound the heat made in the metal ducts.


Filed under Culture, Film, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry, Writers, Writing

Chocolate Poems

“Where are the reptiles?” the adolescent boy asked the guard at the door of the convention center.

“The what?”

Both heads swivelled to look inside at the crowded arena.

“The reptiles – are they here?”

No. The reptile show was last weekend. Here at Chocolate Expo there were only the chocolate fiends.

At two minutes to eleven, the lines stretched down the steps and around the sidewalk. “My friends are at the Marathon and here I am at chocolate world,” the girl behind me said wryly. “Stupid chocolate,” said a husband. “It’s gonna be fun, honey,” insisted his wife.

It was the annual gathering of people intent on buying and selling cacao-based products in all shapes, sizes and flavors – the more novel the better. I thought I’d see what the fuss was about.

I love chocolate, of course. Gil says my three major food groups are chocolate, coffee and milk. (That puts mocha at the top of the pyramid, I guess.)

In the convention center, people jostled to get free tastes. It seemed to actually be about half chocolate and half every other kind of artisenal food product, from honey to wine to dill pickles to maple syrup. I was surprised to find Cap’n Crunch gelato.

cap'n crunch

But there was also every kind of truffle under the sun.


Alicia at Two Chicks with Chocolate fed me a taste of rosemary lemon truffle, handpainted with colored cocoa butter, one of 60 different flavors, and I was on my way.

Pumpkin was big in everything. I saw chocolate-dipped waffles.


Chocolate-dipped fruits of all kinds.

choc dip

Kids and adults alike with sticky hands, sticky faces. There was an awful amount of plastic wrapping, it seemed to me.


Chocolate culture is very high–low. I saw the most exquisite Indian truffles, created for the New Year, Dawali, by Aarti at Le Rouge in the shape of a “diya,” or lamp.  Truffles with ganache came in exotic flavors with amazing “mouthfeel,” as the technical term goes. I tried the Kiser Pista Ganache, made with saffron.


Ethereal, I thought. So I couldn’t resist making off with a single specimen, the Paan Bahar truffle, made with betel leaves and rose petals.

More spirituality lay around the corner, where half-pound, solid chocolate Buddhas were cheerfully peddled at Oliver Kita Fine Confections, by a salesperson who told me, “Most people break them up to share when they chant with friends.” Okay.


Chocolate has only been the recognizable treat that we go crazy over for a relatively short chapter of human history. The Aztecs downed it as a cold, bitter, spicy brew – Montezuma alone was said to drink 50 cups a day. It became a sweetened beverage in the 17th century, flowing from the cacao plantations of South America to France by way of Louis XIV’s Spanish bride, Princess Maria Theresa.


She gave the Sun King a chest of chocolate in 1643 for an engagement present, and his avid consumption of the beverage was said to fuel his ability to pleasure his wife twice a day even into his seventies.

Chocolate then emigrated to London, where chocolate houses became the fashion. Sir Hans Sloane, an esteemed physician, declared that milk afforded the delicacy special creaminess. New York philanthropist and bibliophile James Wadsworth, in the nineteenth century:

Twill make Old women Young and Fresh

Create New Motions of the Flesh,

And cause them long for you know what…

If they but taste of chocolate.

Samuel Pepys noted in 1657 that it was available.


“In Bishopsgate Street in Queen’s Head Alley, at a Frenchman’s house, is an excellent West India drink called chocolate, to be sold, where you may have it ready at any time, and also unmade at reasonable rates.”

Michael Pollan writes in his book In Defense of Food about a group of Americans being shown the words “chocolate cake” to discover their word associations. “Guilt” was the top response. The response of French eaters to the same prompt: “celebration.”

Everyone, no matter how-guilt-ridden, knows that chocolate is the love food. Someone should write a love poem to it.


I did feel love in the air today, at least love of chocolate, so it’s sort of a closed loop.

A company calling itself Rescue Chocolate offered vegan, organic, fair-trade, kosher chocolates, with all profits to be donated to animal rescue groups.

rescue choc

I thought I’d purchase one but the line was too long.

Masks, with a chocolate base, from The Chocolate Box NYC. Everything about their decoration was edible.

mask 1

The proprietor, Sabrina, looked more like a ballet dancer than a candy maker.

mask lady

Less artistic but just as tempting, hand-dipped Twinkies from a booth that won an award from Hudson Valley Magazine for its pies last year.


The Twinkies are one of their best sellers — since the confection was off the market for a while it drove up the demand. “We ran out last year, Gina Solari told me. “Anything Nutella is also a best seller,” she added.

Sick of chocolate, finally, incredibly, I retired to the stage area with two non-cocoa nourishments, strong coffee and a lemon-and-sugar crepe.

In the distance, convention-goers slurped up Cap’n Crunch gelato and sugar-dipped waffles. I recalled one of the most striking film food scenes in recent memory, in Hayao Miyazaki’s animated Spirited Away, when the 10-year-old Chihiro’s careless parents sit down at a counter restaurant for a snack and get turned into munching, slobbering, devouring giant pigs.


A chef-lecturer delivered informational nuggets about the subject at hand. Chocolate falls to the ground in South America, she said, after the monkeys have eaten the fruit around it. It’s a seed. She confided in the people whose sweet tooth had driven them to the convention center even before lunch on a beautiful Sunday in fall. “I know I’m probably wrecking your world, but white chocolate is not chocolate. It’s fat and sugar. You could call it fat-sugar!”

1 Comment

Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Poetry

Victorian Waltz and Tea

Writing a novel in which Gilded Age debutantes dance with their swains in the gaslit ballrooms of fashionable New York made me want to get some nineteenth century dance moves under my belt. Or, rather, under my crinolines. So I brought my best Tigger kicks in to Manhattan for an afternoon of 1-2-3, 1-2-3.

Tigger kicks

Susan de Guardiola, our elegant yet earthy instructor, came down from Connecticut. She generally teaches what she calls Jane Austen classes – picture Keira Knightley in Pride and Prejudice, sashaying down the line, all aglow.


I always preferred Matthew Macfadyen in that movie. Does he show up at any of Susan’s classes? She teaches not only English country dancing but about 12 other kinds and is a true authority in her field, with a website called Capering& Kickery  that gives all kinds of background on Victorian and Regency-era dance.

“If everyone’s good enough,” she told us at the start, “we’ll progress to jumping.” Such, I will tell you now, was not to be. It was baby steps for many of us, even as we behaved very well and tried very hard.


The last time I waltzed was in seventh grade cotillion, wearing a micro-mini dress and short white gloves. I loved it. But that was a long time ago. And a far cry from a tiny dance floor in the back room of a tile shop, in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.


Today, some women wore black dance shoes and a man came in wearing a steampunk-style leather top hat. You don’t see that every day on the streets of New York. “Shall I put my hair up because I’ll get all hot and sweaty?” asked a curly-haired woman. “I usually do,” said Susan.

This class was offered under the auspices of the New York Nineteenth Century Society, an outfit that takes seriously its mission: it  “unites historians, scholars, artists, philosophers, dreamers, and impresarios inspired by the 19th century.” Recently they had a Nineteenth Century Extravaganza, for which everyone put on their full Victorian regalia. Next up is an archery event. Yes! Perhaps I’ll attend. Savage Girl is an expert archer, as were many young ladies of the late 1800s.


“The 1880s, 1890s were the root of modern ballroom dance,” said Susan. It turns out that the waltz changed seven or eight times in the course of its development, becoming faster, closer, more stylized. The dip back we expect from the female partner now didn’t used to exist.


“I’ll tell you the secret of this kind of dancing,” said Susan. “It works if you do it on the balls of your feet.”


“When this waltz gets going,” she said, “it flies around the room.” She might have been a tad optimistic.

This was a lesson in shoulder blades. The man should place his hand on the woman’s left shoulder blade (“that’s the sharp thing sticking out of her back,” said Susan) though in Victorian times when everyone wore corsets and your posture was therefore better, your partner could put his hand farther down your back. The woman holds her left hand against the man’s right shoulder, above his chest, to help push him around during the turns.

We learned the gavotte glide, a slide to the right followed by a turn, and we learned the importance of leading with your toe, Victorian style. Susan suggested we lean in and not worry about the various “bits” of us that might touch. We passed partners around the circle, dancing with utter and complete strangers, experiencing waves of cologne, perspiration, different kinds of breath, good and not-so-good manners. Everyone tried hard. I got one partner, Jake, a couple of times, and we shared laughs over each other’s clumsiness. He suggested we hold a hand behind us, as I might do holding a bunch of petticoats.

hands cocked

Jake high fived me when we came to a halt semi-successfully. Very Victorian.


Lesson over, Gil and I proceeded outside, where a young dancer waiting for a tango class advised me that rubber soles such as the ones I had on might cost me an ankle. “I hope you keep it up,” she told me and Gil kindly. “Maybe I’ll see you on Dancing with the Stars.”

On the street, I asked Susan how to improve. “Practice five minutes every day,” she said. “Go to a supermarket and practice down all those wide aisles.” You don’t need to do it all at once. “Sleep on your lesson,” she said, “and you will do better the next day.”

We hadn’t had enough Victorian flavor so we went afterward for high tea at a place called Lady Mendl’s Tea Salon. It was on the first floor of a Gramercy Park hotel, The Inn at Irving Place, carved out of two adjoining brownstones that date back to 1834. Washington Irving was said to have spent some time in a house down the street, enhancing the old-fashioned aura of the neighborhood. The online reviews I read said a man would not be welcome at the establishment, so of course Gil wanted to go.

jz tea

Lights were turned down low and the whole effect was gracious and mellow and ladylike, even if there were a few male interlopers.

tea room

We chose our freshly steeped tea from a menu of 27 varieties. The “Lady Mendl,” which I selected, was hot and heavenly, especially after waltzing for two hours.


Darjeeling scented with bergamot, it was named after Lady Mendl herself – none other than the society woman Elsie de Wolfe, one of the first people to make her fame as an interior decorator. It’s said she had the expression “never complain, never explain” stitched on her throw pillows.


There was an amuse bouche consisting of a butternut squash tart with crème fraiche. Tea sandwiches. We were rolling. Everyone in the room appeared happy, or rather, high. High on hot, fragrant tea.

We reminisced about the banyan I made Gil one Christmas. Banyans are the “exotic” silk robes colonial men wore when they were at home at leisure, with their temporarily unperiwigged pates covered in caps.


There were, of course, scones and clotted cream. I ate some of the cream on a spoon to make sure it was property clotted.


As if that wasn’t sweet enough we had millefeuille cake with more cream, and chocolate-covered strawberries. In my opinion the strawberries are a specious addition, since a century ago you couldn’t get the kind of giant fruit they dip now. Not that I’m complaining.

choc strawberry

“It’s good to do something you don’t ordinarily do,” I opined with Victorian superciliousness. “It makes you grow.”

“It makes you groan,” said Gil, ready to go back to the Cabin, put his feet up and his banyan on.


Filed under Culture, Dance, Fashion, Fiction, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Publishing, Savage Girl, Writers, Writing

Freaky Filmography

There’s only one Halloween night, but you can scare you’re self silly any old time. It’s as much fun to scare as to be scared, said Vincent Price, who should know.

These are eight movies that had me literally hiding my eyes for large stretches, beginning with when I was a child and probably too young and vulnerable to be watching anything so chilling.

They all bespeak the creepiness of tight spaces, of claustrophobia. I guess that’s what horrifies me, and maybe it horrifies you too.

1. House of Wax.

house of wax

An indelible experience, watching Vincent Price go mad in my grandmother’s rambling old house, the image of wax figures coming to life in a dank, dark cellar. It appeared on TCM the other day and I could barely be in the same room as the TV.

2. Funny Games.


In this 2007 version (a shot-by-shot remake of Michael Heneke’s earlier German film, by Michael Heneke, which Gil much prefers) with Naomi Watts, Tim Roth, Brady Corbet and one of my faves, Michael Pitt, two very cleancut young men come to the door of a cabin and take the family hostage. Don’t do it! Don’t let them in! A friend of ours still hasn’t forgiven us for exposing her to this nightmare.

3. Texas Chainsaw Massacre. I’m in college, very blasé, watching the new flick from a seat at the front of a crowded auditorium. Just as Leatherface appears on screen with his saw, two students leap up onto the stage, their own chainsaws revving.


Hearts stopped.

4. The Last House on the Left. The first and best of the home invasion flicks, shot with terrifying hand held cinematography, in which teenage girls undergo unspeakable terrors. By master Wes Craven.

last house on the left
5. The Strangers.

(2008) The Strangers Screenshot 1

More home invasion, from 2008. Do I detect a theme? Except here we have teens in masks terrifying other teens. Liv Tyler attempts to fight them off.

6. Games, from 1967, with James Caan, Simone Signoret and Katharine Ross, a period piece which involves kinky “mind games,” an ultra modern living environment and a dead body encased in a cast.


When I was an adolescent this messed with my head big time. What I remember most is murdered people stashed in a crawl space and telltale blood dripping through an immaculate white ceiling.

7. The Descent, 2005.


There’s a deep, twisted cave into which a group of reunioning young women have spelunked. It’s dark and dank.  “Hey, there’s something down here,” says Holly. Yes, there is.

8. Saw.


I have almost successfully blocked out the one that started them all in 2004. It may be trite to cite Saw in a list of the best. Still. I can’t imagine how people watched any further movies in this franchise. It was so awful! And so great.


Filed under Culture, Film, Home, Jean Zimmerman

Arrr, Matey

Biker-pirate crazies rumbling through Times Square, tossing eyeballs into the tourist throngs?

I admit, that’s a concept. One, once I heard about it, that got me out of my house and into Manhattan.

It was the annual Talk Like a Pirate Day, which I first heard existed when we received an amusing card in the mail marking the occasion. It sounded like a joke, but the holiday is celebrated on September 19th by wannabe Johnny Depps the world over.


I did some research into seventeenth century pirating when I wrote about New York’s Philipse family for my book The Women of the House a few years back. Merchant Frederick Philipse was one of the richest gentlemen in Manhattan. He had a cellar full of wampum in barrels and a 52,000-acre estate that comprised much of today’s Westchester County. For years he pursued trade with corsairs off the coast of Madagascar, a place only a little bit wilder than New York City in that day.

First of all, there were some crazy animal species there that didn’t exist anywhere else in the world.

Elephant birds, artwork

The elephant bird, a flightless giantess, always intrigued me, and I looked around for evidence of historic human encounters with the beady-eyed long-extinct creature, but all we have today are fossil eggs like cement volleyballs.

Then there was the indri, a still-thriving lemur with lemon drop eyes, whose wail carried across the nighttime countryside, and a pygmy hippo and a panther-hunting cat-dog.


Pirates, yes, I was discussing pirates. Sheltered coves around the Madagascar coast offered private places to careen an ocean-damaged hull, to harvest scurvy-preventing lemons, to provision a ship with oxen, sheep and poultry.


A charismatic buccaneer named Adam Baldridge came to Madagascar in 1691 and transformed an island off its coast called Sainte–Marie into a pirate paradise inhabited by as many as 1,500 sailors at a time. A trading post/resort, Sainte-Marie offered up Malagasy “brides” and a locus for business between merchants and pirates.


This is where Frederick Philipse saw his opportunity. Baldridge proposed a transaction that would furnish Philipse with two hundred premium Malagasy captives at thirty shillings a head, well below the going rate for African Gold Coast slaves. Also, Philipse was welcome to unload merchandise on Sainte-Marie in exchange for pieces of eight, India goods, or whatever currency best suited the ship merchant. This was all quite nice for Philipse, who was just starting to trade in human flesh but was finding it hard to break into the Africa market, which favored English men. “It is by negroes that I finde my cheivest Proffitt,” wrote Philipse in a letter to Baldridge. “All other trade I look upon as by the by.”


Ships went back and forth, and Philipse’s reputation didn’t suffer through the nature of his Madagascar business—his cohorts in Manhattan welcomed the cargo. Enslaved Africans were bought and sold on wharves along the New York waterfront, at the foot of Wall Street, and out of taverns. But finally, Britain put the kabosh on the activities of pirates around Madagascar and those who interacted with them in Manhattan.


Philipse brokered one last deal, to bring a load of seventy Malagasy slaves into New York Harbor, whereupon he got spanked. He had a ship impounded and was forced to resign from a post with the governor’s council.

So pirating was not quite so charming as they make it out to be in the movies. Still, Thursday’s Talk Like a Pirate motor escapade was to have its beginning at the historic tavern the Ear Inn, one of my favorites, so I thought I might go check it out.

ear inn outdoor sign

The Ear Inn began its life long after Frederick Philipse’s heyday, though in the mists of time for us: it was built as a residence in 1817 for an affluent African-American tobacco trader named James Brown, who had been an aide to George Washington. If you look close you can see him in the famous painting of Washington crossing the Delaware.


The house stood on Spring Street, in present-day SoHo, and when it was constructed the waters of the Hudson River lapped at its door.

Marks outside show that Hurricane Sandy brought the shoreline back to what it was centuries ago.

hudson river

Later the building became a sailors’ tavern, then a speakeasy. There’s still a flavor of the nautical in the place, with brass portholes here and there.


It’s dark and a bit dusty.

ear inn indoors sign

You don’t go there for the food, but for the flavor of history. When new owners wanted to avoid a drawn-out landmarks review of their BAR sign in 1977, they changed the name to the EAR – but old-timers still call the place the Green Door. It’s the oldest working bar in New York City.

It was a logical old-timey place to begin a pirate romp, sponsored by  a gonzo motorcycle group called Biker Entourage, one that would assemble at the old bar, make its way up the West Side Highway to Times Square, toss those eyeballs, conduct some kind of crazy mock-swordfight in front of the no-longer-existing house of Captain Kidd on Wall Street and wind up at South Street Seaport. The perfectly logical premise: “Had these wheeled dragons been invented say 400 years ago, pirates’d be roarin through the streets with these wheeled dragons between their legs ‘n pegs sure as a shark loves a chumbucket.”

The only thing was, we found at the Ear Inn, the ranks of contemporary pirates were sparse. If dramatic.

pirate bike

There were a few individuals in leathers and pirate garb. Most of the patrons out on the sidewalk preferred the uniform of SoHo skinny chic.

two pirates

We saw a few cutlasses and some Halloweeny dangling skulls.

But no one threw an eyeball our way. The real New York pirates were, as always, down in the financial district. Everyone here was too busy lifting a brew to do much pirating, anyway. Much as it probably was back on the island of Sainte-Marie.


Filed under Art, Culture, Fashion, Film, History, Jean Zimmerman, Nature

Pop Up Rules of the Game

I wore my jacket for so many years the buttons started to blow. There was only one thing for it: pay a visit to Tender Buttons, just around the corner from Bloomingdale’s on New York’s Upper East Side.

tender buttons

I collect buttons myself, the kind you happen upon at tag sales. None suited my jacket. Tender Buttons, named after an obscure volume by Gertrude Stein, stocks fancy buttons – something of an oxymoron, wouldn’t you say?

architectural swirl

You may browse as long as you like.

pink buttons

Until you are bewitched, bothered and bewildered.

yellow buttons

There are too many choices. You may be tempted to take some of the children’s beauties home even if you don’t have a child.

child buttons

Bone, horn, leather, plastic, wood. Maud and I tried to take it all in. What is the fanciest button you sell? I asked. That would be the Swarovski crystal, said the sales clerk a little primly.

store interior

I loved the scrimshaw, carved scenes on aged walrus tusk. Price point out of range for me however. And who wouldn’t like the limited-edition artist-painted scenes from Alice in Wonderland, one to a button. You’d be telling a fantastic story as you walked down the street.

I settled on the finest buttons in the store, fortunately less fancy than some but French, crafted of glass.

jean buttons

We had fortified ourselves for this venture, Maud and I, with a stop at Serendipity 3 just down the street, which was serving up frozen hot chocolate in giant goblets. Worthy of many photos.

serendipity picture

We shared the over-the-top, whipped cream crowned confection over laughs and confidences.

Then stole away for a treat, lipstick from the people who know how to make lipstick, carefully chosen with our particular lips in mind by a greenly eye-shadowed Bloomingdale’s salesperson.


A woman needs a French lipstick in her arsenal. Maud’s made her look more mature, mine made me look less mature. Perfect.

Dinner was a celebration at a pop up steak restaurant that had been relocated while its premises were renovated.

redfarm blackboard

To a laundromat downstairs.


Gil has a new project, a collaboration. So we toasted him with hot crunchy egg rolls stuffed with pastrami from Katz’s. Chicken-fried chicken stuffed with shrimp. Baby shitake mushrooms, nude and slathered in a slick garlic cream sauce. And a blazing red shellfish casserole roasted in a banana leaf tureen.

banana leaf

I don’t eat crawfish.


So there was plenty for Gil and Maud

gil maud redfarm

And perfect steak, of course, all served around a farm table with dish towel napkins that were quite well used by the end of the meal. If the place reverts to a laundry they’ll have their hands full.


We had cooked up a plan to go try “spaghetti ice cream” at a place down the street – ice cream forced through a culinary fun factory, with ice cream  meatballs.

enhanced-buzz-16071-1378422061-10But a downpour hit as we stepped out the door at Redfarm. We quickstepped by the illumination of lightning flashes to the car. Oh my aching foot.

Later, sunk on the couch at home with my leg up, I watched Renoir’s Rules of the Game, the story of rich Parisian twits and their foibles in a country house one fateful fall weekend, putting on amateur theatricals, falling in and out of love, shooting rabbits as well as each other.


Elegant buttons, luscious ice creams, lobster, premium lipstick… these are all things Christine, the protagonist, would be well acquainted with as often as she pleased. Run of the mill, ho hum. For us, a one-day treat was extravagant… and enough.


Filed under Art, Cooking, Culture, Fashion, Film, Jean Zimmerman, Photography

Art for Art’s Sake

When was the last time you thought about Art Garfunkel? His angelic tenor, his sensitive beak, his fallouts/reunions with Paul Simon, his blond ‘fro?


Probably, like me, not recently.

Which is why I jumped at the chance to see him solo in a tiny venue in the middle of New Jersey, in a performance that was being billed as an “open rehearsal” – for what, somewhat unclear. Anyway it would just be Art and a guitar up on the stage, with a group of several hundred devotees.

Three hundred fifty, to be exact, because that was the seating capacity of a hall called the Tabernacle in a magical, historical community called Mount Tabor that originated as a Methodist summer camp meeting ground in the late nineteenth century.


People live there now, in houses, not tents. Our friends Eric and Mary Ann have been Mount Tabor-ites for decades.

eric and maryann's home

Walking to the Tabernacle for the show has an element of the mystical, along the small, civilized paths.

magical tabor

When the place originated, tent properties (leased from the Camp Meeting Association of the Newark Conference of the United Methodist Church, never bought outright) stretched back from the central building and its green, with the more prominent families closest to the preaching. People came here for a month in the summer to get their evangelical fix much the way they did at Ocean Grove, Tabor’s Methodist sister town on the Jersey shore. It all depended on whether you wanted the mountains or the sea, both were equally soul-restoring. The movement faded at the turn of the twentieth century, with houses  eventually built to replace tents, and 212 of the ornate gingerbread-decorated originals remain. National landmark status for the district is imminent. Quiet streets wind throughout this other-timely locale.

tabor homes

Eric and Mary Ann, who raised three kids here, have a property of “six to eight tent plots.” They are “the landed gentry,” Mary Ann wisecracks. She tells me that unlike other towns, here you actually tell your kids to go out and play in the street – because yards are postage stamps if they exist at all. It used to be canvas abutting canvas. “You sneeze in your house,” Mary Ann tells me, “and they say bless you in the next house.”

Mary Ann 2

There’s history here, multiple generations living on in one house. A descendent of the original farmer-landowner named Dickerson still runs the supermarket down the hill. Mary Ann orchestrates a longstanding local holiday (like, a hundred-forty years long) called Children’s Day. “You could be a benevolent dictator,” suggests Gil. “There are certain people you must dictate to,” says Mary Ann archly.

We wait in line for Art Garfunkel. Hydrangeas glow in the dusk.


Time expands. The line stretches, people who have journeyed to this little enclave to see a great singer.

There are perks of being a Mount Tabor resident, and since Mary Ann and Eric know George, the organizer of the event, we go back to the green room half an hour before the performance. It’s located in an adjacent historic building that is usually bare, filled only with folding chairs, where various committees hold their meetings.


“This is why they come,” says George, referring to the other big-name acts that have appeared in small-town Mount Tabor, Hot Tuna, Arlo Guthrie and Donovan among them. The green room features low, romantic lights and rich burgundy tableclothes and a line-up of chafing dishes in this quaint building that transports you to another time. They had to peel Donovan out of here to get him to the airport after a post-show Buddy Holly singalong.

“Art is sleeping on the ground floor beneath us,” George tells us. I think about that.

art garf

Ssshh. Outside, we inhale the late summer air, cool and warm breezes intermixed, the scent of late roses from people’s tiny garden plots.


We’re standing next to what everyone likes to call the 1873 condo, a building of connected homes where three tent sites originally stood. Slate and gingerbread! Some of that detail might enhance the Cabin.


The Tabernacle, built in 1885, is a wooden octagon topped by a cupola. It has no heat, just hardbacked benches with plenty of leg room.


The interior paint is original. No joke.

inside tab

Giant poles hold the roof up.

tab inside

It’s time. George, at the mike, gives fair warning: Art detests gadgets. Phones and cameras throw him off his game. Turn everything off. Everything. Now. A big change for those of us accustomed to concerts with everybody waving their units around in the air, with everything instantly You Tubed. What kind of curmudgeon makes these rules?

And Art does turn out to be a bit curmudgeonly,  approaching the front of the stage to lecture someone rude enough to attempt a picture. He looks the curmudgeon too, his nose sharpened by time, his height perhaps decreased, his pate and his frizz, a plain checked shirt and jeans, a man in his later years.


He begs our forbearance. He has been struggling with his “damaged voice” for three years, he says. (He cancelled a tour last year, I heard.) He just now feels he can bring it out in front of a crowd, but he is self conscious. Between songs, he thanks listeners graciously for their support. He reads to us from writings on the backs of white envelopes, poems, he says, he wants to test out on us, from a collection will be published next year by Knopf.

He recites a poem he originally read for Paul Simon on his 70th birthday:

For 70 years his arm has been around my shoulder,

He’s dazzled me with gifts.

I nurtured him in his youth.

He brought me into prominence.

I taught him to sing.

He connected my voice to the world.

I made him tall.

All of our personal belongings are intertwined.

We say it’s exhausting to compete,

But we shine for each other.

It’s still our favourite game.

tall art:simon

He tells us a story of living on Amsterdam Avenue when he was in architecture school at Columbia, living among roaches. Simon came over saying he thought he had a song that might be worth something and it was Sounds of Silence. Garfunkel sings Sounds of Silence for us. Haunting.

He shares an anecdote about Jack Nicholson’s acting chops when they did time together in Hollywood on Carnal Knowledge.


A story about the “bird in his throat,” and singing Ol’ Man River for a herd of cows as he hiked in the country one day.

As for the singing… the angelic tenor… well, the instrument is indeed broke, in part. Still ravishing, sometimes. It is an amazing performance, though, just because it is so raw, because his voice is imperfect, because of the notes he can not hit and the notes he snags, better in the lower registers. Bookends, a capella. Cathy’s Song. The Boxer. Parsley, Sage, eliding over the rosemary, but bringing the song home, ultimately.

There in Mount Tabor’s intimate, historic Tabernacle, all is forgiven.

tab night


Filed under Culture, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Music, Nature, Photography, Poetry, Publishing


I made a list. The things I’d do if I were going out and about this weekend. The free-of-leg-cast things.

There’s the NYC Unicycle Festival, which kicks off with a 13-mile single-wheeled parade across the Brooklyn Bridge to Coney Island and which includes a bout of unicycle sumo wrestling.

UniFest2012 photo creditKeithNelsoniphone_1654

Then, the art installlation by Olaf Eliasson, called “Your Waste of Time,” in Long Island City, at MOMA PS1, with chunks of Icelandic ice in a refrigerated room.


I could visit the Wolf Conservation Center north of the Cabin. Sit behind protective glass and watch a pack howl. They even offer overnights in a tent. The Center has babies, like Zephyr, born April 20th.


There’s a tug boat armada on the Hudson, more accurately the Great North River Tugboat Race & Competition, complete with a Popeye-themed contest for spinach eaters.

Jones Beach, its tawny sands burning hot in August, its crashing waves filled with quarter-size quivering jellyfish. We don’t care about jellyfish, though. It’s the last swim before fall. But no room on that crowded strand for a fiberglass leg cast.


The Breaking Bad exhibit at Museum of the Moving Image in Queens that displays the costumes, props and other accoutrements of everyone’s latest streamed addiction, one that has smoothed the way through these mellow weeks post-foot-surgery. The arc of the show was contrived as carefully as Walt crafts his blue rocks, not surprisingly, and “From Mr. Chips to Scarface: Walter White’s Transformation in Breaking Bad.” will show you how. The stuffed animal that splashes down into the Whites’ swimming pool was specially commissioned, it turns out.


Do you care to see the tighty-whities that Walt wore in season one, episode one? For some reason I do, but I don’t know if the terrain is maneuverable for me and my scooter.

I missed the Battle of Brooklyn last weekend – reenactors assembled in what later becamethe famous Green-Wood Cemetery – out of a dread of uneven grass and pebbly stretches.


There was supposed to be cannon fire and I know people were boiling pots over smoky campfires.

I must eschew places that wouldn’t easily accommodate what Gil calls “Jean’s crutches, sons of butches, or the Bloke, no joke.” What the ladies at the nail salon called my “motorcycle.” One was so nice she gave me an upper arm massage. I never knew that crutches kill your triceps.

Jean on crutches

But it’s all in the name of pampering that tiny metatarsal in my right foot, the one that needs some extra help to mend so that I can go on ever greater adventures. Who knows, next year a pair of hiking boots that actually fit. Kilimanjaro.

I am most definitely emerging today for a time to “help” cart Maud’s things for the year to her new dorm. She makes up in leggy activity, just back from sunny Spain, what I currently lack. Out catching drinks with friends, seeing music, buying notebooks, all new things, looking to the future.

maud spain

I am also looking to the future, though a ripple of boredom is creeping through me like a sweet rot. Day to day, I dive down into the Revolutionary New York research for my next novel and come up with gorgeous crumbs. And you need crumbs to make the rich loaf that is a historical novel. But that’s just a start.

I’m going to need a new couch after this recuperation, the indentation in the current one might not plump back up.

A walk down to the garden to dig potatoes would be great. Fingers — toes! — in the dirt. I remember the loam of mid-summer fondly.

potatoes soil copy

Oh, forking over potatoes today… would be amazing. The just-deceased Nobel-winning poet Seamus Heaney’s poem on the subject, “Digging,” is one of the great works of modern literature. Have a seat on my couch. Take a listen.

Between my finger and my thumb   

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.


Under my window, a clean rasping sound   

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:   

My father, digging. I look down


Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds   

Bends low, comes up twenty years away   

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills   

Where he was digging.


The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft   

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.


By God, the old man could handle a spade.   

Just like his old man.


My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.


The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.


Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.


Filed under Culture, Fashion, Film, History, Home, Jean Zimmerman, Nature, Poetry, Publishing, Writers, Writing