Author Archives: Bill

Digestion in the Pasture

A cow in the pasture,
Turns grasses to methane,
Then passes those gasses
Without blush or apology, 
Explaining with a wink,
It's microbiology.

Winter Nights, Otter Pelts and, Poof, He Was Gone

Miss Cavort in the Snow, 
Was an Ojibwe lass 
With whom a French trapper had his way, 
By promising her a few otter pelts 
And French lessons. 
She got the pelts, 
But he disappeared into the woods 
And was long gone 
Before any but the word 
Passed between them.


3 March 2020

There are strange things,  unimaginable things, seemingly impossible things beyond explanation…things that seem supernatural…like the illusions a mentalist conjures. But a mentalist is a magician and his illusions are tricks, practiced and refined and then repeated again and again…tricks that can be learned by others adept at the darkish arts…to dazzle and amaze.

A coincidence, however, can’t be replicated, can’t be predicted, can’t be created, though it, too, defies explanation. It’s a chance encounter that brings together two people with shared experience. I have had recent exposures to both. First the illusion, then the coincidence.

Roberta and I recently went to a magic show at a small, cramped, seen-better-days theater in Greenwich Village. The emcee, also a magician, came out and did a few illusions to draw us into the “how’d he do that?” world of magic and right away I said, I know him. Not that I have acquaintances in the prestidigitation community, but I recognized him as the strolling magician at my grandson’s bar mitzvah party. After the show, he and I talked and, indeed, it was he (a small coincidence in itself, since he only appears once a month at the magic show…the night we were there).

In any case he introduced the mentalist, who invited two women in the audience to the stage…had then stand ten feet apart, eyes facing the audience…and then had each extend an arm toward the audience and keep the other arm at their sides. He had one of them hold a bell in her extended hand and went about his patter. At one point he nudged the extended arm of the non-bell woman. The bell held by the other woman rang immediately. Another nudge, another ring…no wires, no visual or audio communication. Mental telepathy? I don’t know, but the bell rang.

The coincidence, as coincidences go, was even stranger. We recently went to California and met friends of Roberta. At one point in the innocent talk of strangers, getting to know each other (her friends and I had never met), we talked of travel. I recounted a trip four years before, when I went to eastern edge of Slovakia, near Ukraine to find the town where my grandfather was born and departed from at 14 years old to find his way to America. The wife intrigued, said her bother-in-law did the same thing two years before…oddly in Slovakia, a land of wooden churches and non-existent road signs, where most don’t venture.

Kidding, I said, you’re not going to tell me the town was Medzilaborce. She reflexively put her hand over her mouth to stifle an “oh, my God, that’s the town.” Medzilaborce is a town without a drawing card, although it has a large, quite beautiful Eastern Orthodox church. But it is offset by a few boxy Soviet-style apartment blocks, a few boxy Soviet-style municipal buildings, a railroad station, a police station, a rusted newsstand and a slum for the Roma and not much else. It is a few miles east of the equally drab towns of Svidnik and Stropkov. But oh, rose among the thorns, it has an Andy Warhol modern art museum, a paean to his mother, who was born not far from Medzilaborce. It is a place to visit to show you where you don’t want to live.

But there is no better way to become acquainted with strangers than sharing an experience few others can relate to.

Eschatology at Work

Last call folks,
Said Joe, a weary 2 a.m. bartender.
It’s really, the last call…
Being End Times, Last Days,

The Rapture, the Sorrows.
So order a last glass of Guinness
To carry up to the Hereafter.
I still had a foamy upper lip
From a previous Guinness
And wasn’t thinking about another.
Judgment Day,
I said skeptically,
And you’re telling everyone here
To show up to heaven with a glass of Guinness…
In one stroke irritating
The bureaucrats of heaven
And mega-church preachers,
Who preach End Times for a living.
Now apologize,
I suggested
And tell everyone you were kidding,
That you’re tired
And the last round is free.

18 February 2020

Hummus in the Suq…almost sounds like an Agatha Christie novel that begins with an unexpected cloud of suspicion, descending on all the passengers in a first-class mahogany compartment on the Orient Express.

But, nope, this hummus in the suq is a restaurant in the Arab suq (market) in Akko, Israel, where mahogany-posh and silver-tray elegance would be as likely as a French chateau in Secaucus. Hummus Said (pronounced Sah-eed) is a high-ceilinged gray place with naked neon lights and a grayish, indifferent wait-staff born of too many years staring into plates of hummus and hoping to see something a little more exotic that a taupe-colored mass of pureed chickpeas with an eye of olive oil staring back.

We asked to see a menu. As if we were interrupting some seminal nuclear research he was doing in his head, the waiter answered with a bored exasperation in accented English, thick as the hummus he was serving. “We got no menu. We got plain hummus. We got hummus with whole chickpeas. We got hummus with ground lamb. Which you like?” You’ve got no falafel, I asked. “We got hummus.” Talk about a menu long on simplicity and short on choice, this was it. But, hey, if hummus is your strong suit, why play baba ganoush. What your customers expect, that’s what you give them. Besides, the kitchen was too cramped with vats of  chickpeas cooking and mixers to mash them for any increase in entrees. Without consultation we chose plain hummus which came with a pile of pita which was also unequalled and a generous plate of olives, tomatoes, onions, pickles, red peppers, green peppers. “The best hummus in Israel”, they say and with one dip of pita in hummus, I was convinced.

There are restaurants everywhere that claim to be “the best”. But it shouldn’t be a license to do without grace or apology, when they put down a plate with a bounce on synthetic marble-topped tables with the indifference of tossing a live lobster in boiling water. Hey, where does it say great service. You’re here, the hummus is great…so why complain. You want the best hummus in Israel…you come here. It’s not chic, especially when little separates the kitchen from the diners and the sweaty charms of the cooking staff with their perspired, napkin-wrapped foreheads…all part of the ambience.

The same thing happens everywhere. When the Stage and the Carnegie delis touted their pastrami and corned beef, immodestly, as the best in New York, the waiters knew that being pleasant was a waste of time. The tables were filled anyway.  So what if they bounced the plates of cole slaw and pickles. They were free, so who’s going to complain? It was just New York waiters being New York waiters…part of the story you could tell, when you got back home.

But a word to the wise. Things change. A so-so review in the Times, a raise in the rent, the creeping spectre of vegetarianism and iconic New York delis could and did find their way into the history books. So be careful Hummus Said, you wouldn’t be the first “best of” to be recorded  as “remember them?”

Water Woes In My Water Closet

Serious as a surgeon,
The plumber spoke those fateful words…
It’ll have to come out,
There’s a fatal weakness in the flap.
So just the flap?
I asked.
He said,
Too embarrassed to look me in the eye,
The whole thing.
Oh, my God, I said,
That’s a major removal.
As bad as it gets, he said.
When can you start?
I got a new toilet in the truck,
I can do it now.

The Czar of Crazytown

A bouncer-big doorman,
The czar of the gate,
Let in those in the waiting crowd,
Who seemed ready for a letting go,
And were clad in tattoos more than clothes.
The czar let in a blend
Of long legs and libido
To mix with the perfumed drinks
And snow that sparkled in the flashing strobes.
Pinky Osman, more Fit-Bit than glitz
Finally got to the czar,
Who gave him the once-over.
You got ID, asked the czar.
You’re kidding,
This gray in my hair isn’t ID enough?
Sir, we’re not checking too young to let in,
But too old.
There’s cardiac music in there
And sweaty dancing
And vulgar lyrics…
It’s not in your sweet spot,
You gotta be young.
Down the block
There is a low-key boite…
Chardonnay, soft music, pressed slacks.
But this was the place,
So Pinky peeled off a c-note,
And slipped it to the czar of the gate.
The velvet rope disappeared
And Pinky left the night for Crazytown.

In Israel

5 July 2019

We were in Radauti (pronounced Radautz), Romania a couple of years ago, where my grandmother was born. For me it was closing the circle, started three years before, when I found the town where my grandfather was born…Medzilaborce, in Slovakia (formerly Czechoslovakia and before that Austria-Hungary). And so, Roberta and I found ourselves in Romania (near Ukraine) in an area called Bukovina…a land of painted monasteries and shuttered synagogues. My grandmother, whose family was nearly wiped out in the Holocaust, had come to America in 1900 for reasons unknown, since life in Radauti seemed to be less threatening than in other areas of central or eastern Europe. But life obviously deteriorated and by the end of WWII, most of the Jews in the region had become victims of the Holocaust or had emigrated.

Searching through pictures on the Internet, I had stumbled on a picture of a memorial in a cemetery to the Jews of Radauti on which names of some of those lost were inscribed. It seemed to us that it would be in Radauti. But no, we found, after the trip that the memorial is in Israel in a cemetery in Holon, south of Tel Aviv. Some Radauti Jews left for Palestine in the early decades of the 1900s and built a memorial to the ones who didn’t leave. It seems only right to acknowledge people who were the victims of savagery, more poignantly since there is a family connection to many of them. And so we turned through an entrance in a nondescript stone wall, blinking into a noontime, sun-scorched hillside of above-ground graves…areas separated by the narrowest of lanes for cars to maneuver…not a place to take a rented car, but we did. It is the largest cemetery in Israel, so it’s not to be trifled with on foot with temperature in the mid-nineties.

Of course, there was no one at the small entrance building to give us an idea where the memorial might be, so, Lewis and Clark-lite, we set out to find it ourselves. We were armed with a picture in memory of what it looked like…how hard could it be. After the better part of an hour, nearly skinning the paint off the car on gravesites that defined the edge of the road, we admitted defeat and sullenly found our way to the entrance/exit. But now we saw two people there, one with a hardened face of a pirate, the other a youngish ultra orthodox, who had shed his coat, but not his hat and looked the worse for the heat. The pirate, who earlier had motioned us away from a place where we idled the car, came over now offering help…but in Hebrew. English he understood only a few words, but they, luckily, were the ones needed to tell him what we were looking for. He in turn translated to the Haredi, who made a couple of calls on his cell phone and then motioned us to follow him.

So here was an ultra orthodox twenty-something presumably there to help lost visitors. Nearby was a modern electric bike, lying on the sidewalk that turned out to be his…the embrace of modernity by one whose community questions things extensively to make sure there is no biblical trespass. In this case our cemetery guide (who volunteered enthusiastically to help) had an unusual Haredi look…undershirt fringe and peyot, trailing in the breeze behind him, hand on hat, so it wouldn’t blow off…in pursuit of the elusive memorial. Even more dissonant, the bike’s motor stopped working a few times and he got off, smacked it…a true technocrat…and got it going again. I’m not sure why it worked, but it did. The Lord’s ways are indeed mysterious.

The whereabouts of the memorial still eluded him, even with the calls. So he stopped at a caretaker’s shed and in 10 minutes emerged armed with new directions and took us to a memorial that looked like the right one, but wasn’t. Some things aren’t meant to be. So I thanked him and watched as he flew off, pleased I’m sure for the breeze in his face. But two memorials from the wrong one we found the right one. We stayed for a few minutes to bask in victory and  to be respectful. We took pictures and finally succumbed to Mideast heat and sought water and a breezy beach in Tel Aviv.

Technologically, We’re a Tad Incomplete

Sometimes talking cell-phonically,
There’s a time with no clue
That my co-talker is lost
In a cellphone dead zone.
Naturally, he missed
My cleverest jests
Which I kept spewing
With Shakespearean regularity…
Puns’ Labours Lost, as it were.
So they fell on disconnected ears,
And my remembrance of them…
To repeat them,
Once the circuit was restored
Was milliseconds long
And, therefore, long gone.

Light Was My Concentration

The news I read
With light concentration,
An article, page one, to the bottom…
Continued on page such and such.
So I turned to that page
And read more,
Becoming aware the subject had changed…
From Mexican pesos to dikes and the Dutch.
And so, continuity missing,
It finally dawned, half a page on,
I had turned one page too many.