Downtown Trains

To Rod Stewart, His Trains
& the Holidays in New York

When ‘Maggie Mae’ burst through my mini transistor radio in 1971 its circuits coughed and fried a bit. The dawn of the singer-songwriter era and yet, here’s this punch of a voice drawing blood from the heart of teen lovers. It wasn’t to last but still.
Now Rod Stewart has introduced the world to another hit of his: an epic, 23-year in the making, scale model of a U.S.-like metropolis and its trains. It’s enormous and it’s a beauty. It’s also related to the subject of this letter for some mushy reasons.

See, from 1996 to 2008, New York had a third holiday train show, The Station at Citicorp Center. The Botanical Garden’s twig and plant-made trains and railroads, and the Metropolitan Transit Authority’s subway and commuter train show are the other two.
It took gall for that little train show that could to challenge such centenarian institutions. A quarter of that time for the most but it did arrive there and it was on its way to becoming a permanent feature of the holidays in NYC. But it wasn’t to be.
Now for the record: Colltales has nothing to do with that or any of the places mentioned here. I don’t know the creators, artists, associates, or anyone connected to that show. This post is all about the raw sentimentality implied above.

PICTURES IN A GASOLINE ALLEY
Then lack of funding allegedly closed down The Station. I couldn’t put up with that kind of bite on my apple. Broke, as usual, I did the only thing an orphan could: I plead for help on the Website of little-known model train enthusiast, Station Master Rod.
I don’t regret it; the former gravedigger assistant has by now an entire team tending to his site and career so it’s hard to imagine that he never read my appeal. Or that they didn’t check to see whether I was legit, or had ties to the Dunham Studio – again, I don’t.
I was just one of the many eight-to-80-year olds going berserk over those Gulliverian scenes. That includes my own little ‘Thomas,’ who now claims not to remember it. It helps to have a taste for miniatures with a huge serving of wonder to appreciate it.

So, ‘Dear Mr. Stewart

Congrats on the completion of your spectacular model city said to be inspired by New York and Chicago. Your passion is shared by millions and I, for one, used to spend hours watching mesmerizing train shows on TV. They all live on the Web now.
I’ve heard that you’ve spent almost a generation composing your tiny city and that you did most of the work by yourself. Impressive and probably quite rewarding in a Zen kind of a way. Now, about that message on your Website: did you get to read it then?
For this is now beyond that particular train show, as great and popular as it still is. No, now this would be a gift, your holiday gift to the kids of the city to where you’ve come visit so often. In the 1980s, you actually walked into the restaurant I used to work at.

Whoever you’d hire to set it up, where or, grasp, whether it’d be a traveling version of your own display, it’d all be of course entirely up to you. It’d be an awesome gesture to be credited only to you; seriously, I’d put it on writing for your legal council.
Wouldn’t that be great? This city glows during the holidays and memories carved in childhood during this time remain cherished throughout life. Along with your songs, a train show could be yet another touch of magic you’ve been providing the world for decades.
New York also welcomes yet another community that now you belong to: that of cancer survivors. With your gift, by this time next year we’d all be in those lines full of happy faces, eager to ride those tracks with their minds while dreaming of day trips to Manhattan.
Come, let’s see the trains Uncle Rod has set up for us. Thanks.’

Scary Clowns

But What Is He
Building in There?

Psychopaths believe in a world of order, hierarchy, chains of command. They sit atop; everybody else is food. They’re not above a compliment if it comes from those who share similar obsession for rituals and lethal games. But despise sympathy from those they consider prey.
Donald Trump is not a psychopath. He’s a dangerous buffoon, but short of his bounty, won’t last a minute among beasts. Minions at his disposal make him high, but as a predator, he’s like a hyena: rather than mastering the a killing hunt, he’d hide and steal the lion’s catch.
Unsavory creatures crave attention but shun the spotlight. While the orange clown works the crowd, an army of crafty shadows pick pockets. Let a raging fool bark, and his unhinged white noise will provide cover to hungry wolves, sinking fangs on flesh and bones.
Germans once picked a psychopathic mass murderer to lead them out of chaos; Nero slaughtered his way to the Roman throne. But neither soaked their hands in blood alone. Amoral commanders love medals and insignias, but worse monsters dwell in gallows, wearing no uniforms, or titles.
Naked rulers are always troubling; but watch out for those who lurk in the background. Many an once proud nation fell under the spell of mad kings and deranged dictators. But it was their enablers who carried out the wreckage of millions of lives left on their wake.
Spoiled child or a wretched demon, worse than Trump is the nutty platoon behind him, holding the launching buttons of U.S. nukes. Statistically, every outfit has a psychopath or two in its midst. But unlike TV series about serial killer, (more)
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* Worse Than Thou
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The Letter Carrier

Bukowski, the Skid
Row Hero Who Did Try

Charles Bukowski would’ve been 95 today. But it’s doubtful he’d have like it. In fact, the writer who reluctantly embodied the outsider, hardly ever noticed by the literati world, spent his life as if he didn’t give a damn about much. But he actually did.
‘I have met more men in jail with style than men out of jail,’ wrote the on and off postal worker and regular menial job specialist, who had bouts with the FBI and the draft board, and developed a not quite accurate reputation as a drinker.
Heinrich Karl, who was born in Germany and moved to the U.S. in 1923, could’ve fooled anyone as just another destitute drunk, who didn’t belong anywhere or cared about having a career. On the outside, he seemed content with a bottle of cheap wine and a whore or two.
But despite his epitaph – Don’t Try, in a reference to advice he once gave to young writers – and fortunately to us, he did care enough to create a vigorous body of work, existential, visceral and deeply American, just as one of his heroes Henry Miller had done.
50 years ago this Aug. 22, Miller wrote Bukowski, ‘I hope you’re not drinking yourself to death,’ echoing concerns shared by his handful of friends and former lovers. He needn’t to worry that much: Bukowski died of Leukemia in 1994. He’d been sober for several years.

But there’s no misreading about his characters, a sore collection of cynical barflies, dirty hotel room dwellers, despised by anyone who loved them. Consumed by self-loath, they longed for (more)
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* Medieval Crafts

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The Standards

Songs That Make You Long For
What You’ve Hardly Experienced

For the generation that grew up during the cultural turmoil of the 1960s, a lot of what it was determined to break free from was the placidity, conformity, and political conservatism of the U.S. in the 1950s. The rock’n’roll explosion only made that rupture more visible.
But there was a world that preceded it, marked by two wars, where ideological conflict, social hardship, and technological impact, helped shape a musical tradition that proved itself as one of the greatest cultural achievements of our era: the American Standards.
2015 may turn out to be a landmark year, as milestone anniversaries are bound to shed light on such a rich tradition and its main protagonists. Billie Holiday, Billy Strayhorn, and Frank Sinatra, are just but three of such luminaries who would’ve been 100 this year.
And so would Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, and Les Paul, all giants on their own, whose association with early country, blues, and jazz insert them, permanently, into the mainstream of American music. But it was the deceptively lowly popular song format what helped usher the Standards into an art form.
To many, the addition of Eastern European Jewish melodies, the Klezmer and other Gipsy traditions, to rhythms and syncopations of African tribal beats, converging for two centuries to the U.S., was what created the two main streams of American music, Blues and Jazz. The Great American Songbook is a worthy heir to those two.
It was also a rare combination of a few generations of extremely talented composers and musicians, with race and immigrant blood running in their veins, that took advantage of a nascent record industry, and offered the perfect antidote to the bleakness and economic despair of the early 1900s in the just industrialized world.

ALT-PORTRAIT OF A WORLD AT WAR
Armed conflicts helped spread that sense of urgency – French songbird Édith Piaf would also be 100 this year – with vaudeville, music hall, variety theater, and a general cultural miscegenation of sorts, all fit snugly into 3-minute songs that encapsulated a badly needed sense of hope for the era.
Even though such gems were not exclusively American, it was in the U.S. that the genre thrived and produced some of the most memorable and enduring melodies and lyrics ever written in English. Then, they were supposed to be about escapism and romance. Now, they can be enjoyed for their distilled wisdom and artistry.
Which is odd, since those Tin Pan Alley composers were working overtime to meet an inflated demand for hits. But what their produced then, under pressure, now betrays none of the rush with which they were writing them at that time; the craftsmanship of some of these songs still has few peers compared with much of those that came after.
The songwriters created an alternative universe, where longing, redemption, and the allure of romance is always within reach, even when they refuse to concede the singer the grace of happiness and fulfillment. At times, the world these songs promise or allude to was the only world worth living for, even if only for a few minutes.

AN ENTIRE NOVEL IN A FEW VERSES
Lovers who wished to be reunited with their dears, warriors whose losses made them cry silently for the first time, common people who saw their world coming apart right in front of their eyes, found comfort in these lyrics that invite them to dance, to dream, and to remain hopeful for another shot at life.
Thankfully, the great majority of American Standards stayed clear of any exacerbated patriotism or xenophobic Continue reading