Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The Dreamers of Tierra del Fuego

I recently saw an article about a sense of real-life awareness during dreaming. And all at once I remembered having dreams when I was seven or eight, frightening dreams about large birds sitting on me in what I would later hear called the incubus pattern. 

And on the heels of that remembering was the memory of a series of nightmares I had shortly after I lived alone in an apartment for the first time: sparks blowing up a curtain in front of a closet; a War-of-the-Worlds-like red-lighted periscope peering into the room where I slept, which was otherwise exactly as the room actually was at the time; the sense of an intruder rapidly going through my bedroom toward the kitchen, but without having been, exactly, visible. 

And then, more memories. Somewhere around my thirtieth birthday, the dreams involving threats that I had began to develop a porosity into the real world, in that I would recognize a repeating pattern and diagnose it as dream content, and hence something against which I could literally invent an opposing and overwhelming force. I would be retreating down a cave of diminishing size away from some invisible threat, where as the cave became impassable, the dream would have ended; but now, seeing a pattern, I suddenly realize I can simple turn back, think a large club, ray gun, or whatever seemed effective - and suddenly the point of my weapon is gone, suddenly there is no more threat. I just go back up the cave toward whatever foolishness was the dreamlike order of the day before the appearance of the threat.

After that year's dreams, I almost never had nightmares that would wake me up. I had repeating dreams of impassable or barely passable sequences of rooms and passages, or shaky floors, or repeating needs for Sisyphus-like effort - but they all represented frustration rather than fear, annoyance instead of terror.

And so I wondered - is this something that most people experience, and if they do, when? Does it ever go retrograde? Can a person be reliably trained to get that awareness? Was I extraordinarily lucky?

Saturday, June 30, 2012

Conversations May: In League With the Gainful

I should have seen the pattern coming, I guess.

What I remember is hearing, perhaps approaching summer in my junior year, that a friend of a friend was leaving his job at the independent market in Fair Oaks Village. (The store has long since become an antiquery, which somehow seemed inevitable, along with the rest of this.) He worked in the meat department, cleaning up at the end of the day. A couple of days after I heard this, I was talking to him, and we arranged to meet at the meat that Friday. I felt a slight sense of dread amid the excitement, but it wasn't the one I should have been feeling.

We both arrived on time, the butcher gone, and he began showing me what he did, at a lightning pace: here are the knives, put them in this sink right here, then take this towel and wipe down the block; you need to remove the band from the saw and clean it (screw, screw, flip, twist, somehow the band comes out); take these trays and put them here (into the walk-in refrigerator, perch several trays with some sort of meat unsteadily on some upended produce boxes); these trays go on the floor (back and forth from the refrigerator, trays now cluttering the floor and requiring a kind of terpsichore to bypass); sweep here, put some fresh sawdust here and sweep it around - and before you know it, about ninety minutes are gone and he's saying "so you're doing this Monday, right?" And I'm looking at him like an oncoming freight train, frozen in incomprehension. And he's out the door.

So Monday arrives, after school and an improbable span of time both fretting and celebrating, and I find myself again at the meat counter, the butcher again gone, completely, utterly alone despite stocking activity elsewhere in the store, perhaps someone counting money in an office, little care I. Let's see, there was the saw, that's right, now what did he do again?

I somehow managed to coerce the band out after twenty minutes or so, and moved some knives from point A to point B. Let's see, sawdust now? the hamburger trays? those boxes or these?

When all was said and done, I managed to find a home in the fridge for all specimens of meat, and got some proportion of the tools of the trade fairly clean. Sawdust was scattered everywhere, on the edges of trays, up the sides of the produce boxes, all over me. I remember going home around 9, exhausted and befuddled, expecting really nothing at all but bedtime.

Next day at school felt like a busy day, and I don't remember anyone asking about what happened on my first day, and so I lacked the appropriate trepidation when I arrived Tuesday afternoon to find the butcher beside himself, pressing money into my hand, and ensuring me my services were no longer needed. He began a litany of what was wrong, then gave up in disgust as I fixed him with the oncoming-train look.

Amazingly, I actually landed a job that sort of worked the next summer, at the still-extant Capital Nursery on Sunrise, watering, cutting cans and loading plants for customers, moving things around, finding approved hiding places if there was insufficient work. The highlight was driving the electric flatbed carts around, surely a pastime all boys would love, even with the occasional collision with a bed border. I already had taken my mother's suggestion to apply to take the federal and state civil service tests, and in the fullness of several years they would both bear fruit. But apart from the slings and arrows of a stint making Christmas decorations at Cal Expo (regards here to the dauntless Paul H.), I would be carefully protected from areas out of my depth, and really all other things save boredom, as I made my way into the employment realms of my twenties.

Friday, June 22, 2012


“…Who are we?
Are we fictional? We don’t look
like our pictures, don’t look like
anyone I know…
Time is the treasure, you tell me,
and the past is its hiding place.
I instruct our fictional children,
The past is the treasure, time
is its hiding place…”   
Forbidden City, poem by Gail Mazur

“When I’m calling you-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo
Will you answer too-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo-oo…
Then I will know our love will come true
You’ll belong to me; I’ll belong to you”
Indian Love Call, popularized by Jeannette McDonald and Nelson 

“I'm the urban spaceman, I'm intelligent and clean
Know what I mean?
I'm the urban spaceman, as a lover second to none
It's a lot of fun
I never let my friends down
I've never made a boob
I'm a glossy magazine, an advert in the tube
I'm the urban spaceman, baby; here comes the twist:
I don't exist”
Urban Spaceman by The Bonzo Dog Doo Dah Band

At about the one year mark, Bongo resigned.  This was the guy who, from the very beginning, was our unofficial “leader”, keeping the place humming with his wacky zen/surrealist take on things, inventing most of the lexicon we used and encouraging everybody there to push their particular creative boundaries, no matter what musical style they presented.  Shortly before he left, he announced that he and his wife were relocating to Canada.  For reasons that are still unclear to me, we found out after he left that he was lying, and in reality, they had purchased a geodesic dome in the desert near Flagstaff.  Of course, when we figured out that he really wasn’t that far away, a group of us felt compelled to embark on a surprise pilgrimage to see him; we had to make one last connection.  (And perhaps that is an explanation for his original story?)

At the time, none of us really had a reliable vehicle that would without doubt transport a half dozen people from Sacramento to Flagstaff.  The closest thing to it was an old, green, sluggish ‘63 Chevy station wagon that Donna and I owned.  There was no choice but to make this journey, so we agreed to drive our car.  We somehow managed to all get time off together: along for the journey was Bongo’s closest friend at the Northern, Ichabod, his partner, the incredible singer Egg, Bo Richards, Happy Jack, and a non-Northern friend who we picked up in Los Angeles called Flaphoot.  How we actually made it to Flagstaff and then the dome is at this point unclear to me, but needless to say it involved a nearly non-stop 15 hour drive to get there, at least several frayed nerves, and a couple of road challenges that had us literally pushing the vehicle over semi-steep “hills” along the way.  

We finally arrived somewhere on the Colorado Plateau and could see his dome in the distance.  It was the only visible structure; everywhere else was desert and some distant hills.  We stopped our vehicle about a half mile away.  Deciding to make our arrival as dramatic as possible, we quietly approached and surrounded the dome.  When we were all in place, we broke the calm silence with a chant of “Bongalo-o-o!” over and over, seven wasted, exhausted travelers calling out to their friend.  A half-naked Bongo eventually came running out of the dome with a baseball bat, a crazed semi-maniacal look on his face.  You could see the anxiety slowly turn to disbelief and then to joy when he realized it was us.

Bo Richards and Happy Jack
We only spent a couple of days there, but it was an amazing 48 hours.  I hadn’t ever been interested in the desert (the ocean’s more my thing), but the calm, the glorious evening beauty, the sunrise, the stillness, exploring and finding beautiful pieces of indian pottery scattered about, it all was intoxicating and inspiring in many ways.  We sang and talked about future plans and of course agreed to stay in touch and see each other in the near future.  (I have not seen or heard from Bongo since.)     

A few months later, about eighteen months after it opened, I left the Great Northern.  I can’t exactly remember why.  As I recall, there were several things in my life at the time that were pushing me in some other directions.  But there were also some “issues” at the restaurant, I believe concerning the working conditions, that Antoinette (who I think was managing at the time) was trying to solve, and it was affecting the workplace “vibe”.  I believe she quit over it and I quit too.  I think she was re-hired a few weeks later, but I stayed gone.  For me, it was time. 

Ich and Egg
My last night there was somewhat typical (with one major deviation).  I played Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1 and Urban Spaceman early on, when there were only a half dozen C’s in attendance.  The place started filling up and Kevin really got things rolling: most of the night he always wore a short hair wig, but when it came time to perform, he would tear off his wig, spilling beyond-shoulder-length hair down his back, grab a guitar, and start pounding out Johnny B Goode, running and leaping around the room like a man possessed, belting out the lyrics and driving the C’s wild.  Dennis Broadway played his absolutely gorgeous version of Somewhere Over the Rainbow.  And the rest of the crew exploded with their most high energy songs.  After a particularly poignant a capella Indian Love Call duet with Antoinette, I started my introduction to Hank Williams’ I Saw the Light, which consisted of a nightly stream-of-consciousness “rant” before the song itself, usually delivered with the outraged intensity of a particularly volatile preacher, or a carnival barker off his meds.  Gray started playing the piano, Ozone joined him on guitar, and then, one by one, the entire waiter/bus/twinkie staff left their posts and came over, the musicians joining Gray and ‘Zone and the singers waiting to join in on the chorus. 

My final rant was about the evils of materialism and the almighty buck, so of course I had to prove my sincerity by giving away my tips that night.  I went from table to table, staring each C head on, bellering and fuming and leaving a couple dollars or more at each table, relinquishing my hard earned tips until my pockets were empty.  My fellow performers were aghast, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.  When the money was gone, we launched into a splendid version of Hank's song, one of the best, I think.  It was a great way to end my Northern career.

It has been my pleasure to reminisce these past few weeks (and I didn’t even get to some things, like The Lost Great Northern Album!) and hopefully I have not mangled too many facts.  In any case, it was the spirit I was hoping to somewhat capture, because at least most of my time there, the spirit was joyous and inspiring.  Not that there also wasn’t emotional danger and tears because there was, but in the end, the camaraderie and creativity were without equal.

“I was a fool to wander and stray
For straight is the gate and narrow the way
Now I have traded the wrong for the right
Praise the lord, I saw the light
I saw the light, I saw the light
No more darkness, no more night
Now I’m so happy, no sorrow in sight
Praise the lord, I saw the light!”

(Note: All photos taken by Donna Copeland-Fuller on the Colorado Plateau.)

Saturday, June 16, 2012


“Sitting on a park bench
Eyeing little girls with bad intent.
Snot running down his nose
Greasy fingers smearing shabby clothes.”

Aqualung by Jethro Tull

“One of these mornings
You're going to rise up singing
Then you'll spread your wings
And you'll take to the sky
But till that morning
There's a'nothing can harm you
With daddy and mamma standing by”
Summertime by George Gershwin

“See the sun on his space suit
See the death in his eyes
He’s a starship trooper, an interstellar mover
Better get out of his way and run run run for your life”
Starship Trooper by Happy Jack

(picture: Lanny on piano with Linda S, Cathy, and Antoinette)

Mid-June, 2012: In my attempt to recreate the Great Northern days, I have communicated mainly by email with several of the former staff, most of whom no longer live in Sacramento.  For one incident, I wanted a more detailed account, and luckily the person involved is currently living here.  So on a sweltering, triple-digit summer day, I took a little hike to the home of Happy Jack Hastings, where we talked about his brief three night stint as a busser.  Happy Jack is a very tall fellow, about six and a half feet, a striking figure with a stocky build who back in the day had a shockingly wiry and long head of hair.  He greeted me at the door and we sat at a small table in his front room.  On the table were several books, a stack of cd’s, and a bottle of Jameson with two glasses.  We spoke briefly about our families, he poured a couple of drinks neat, and the discussion began.

Wild Bill: Can you remind everyone how you ended up at the Great Northern?

Happy Jack: I needed a job after quitting as Campus Pizza’s least aggressive and only pacifist bouncer.  Of course you were working the Northern at the time and I had met several of the amazingly gracious and talented folk who comprised its “cast” of singing hosts, hostesses, waiters and busboys, including the lovely and talented Antoinette, who was in charge of scouting talent for the restaurant.  You convinced me to audition so I wrote some kind of comedy blues piece, got my crappy guitar, and did that and the Ozzie hit single, “Android Love”, and Antoinette gave me a gig as a singing busboy.

WB: Remember that crazy uniform they made us wear?

HJ: Yeah, there was a dress code for the wait and bus staff that included knickers and headwear.  Maybe suspenders or a vest and a bow tie too.  I’m not sure.  Anyway, all I had was an old pair of blue jeans that I cut off, rolled up and pinned to approximate knickers.  I think I wore a beat-up “pimp” hat and ill-fitting gold satin vest and whatever else I could throw together to approximate the appropriate apparel.  I only hope to God that there are no photos of me as this shabby travesty of a 6-foot, 5-inch London street urchin.

(Jack pours us another drink.)

WB: So how’d it go?

HJ: The first night is a total blur.  I don’t think my song went over very well and it was crazy busy all night.  I felt totally outclassed by the talent and professionalism of the “real” waiters and such but I do remember enjoying the free employee meal and getting a share of the tips, having cash in pocket at the end of the shift and washing it all down with beer and Cuervo Gold at the bar.  That last part may have been later - I spent much more time at the Great Northern after I got fired than I ever did on the job.

WB: I seem to recall some outstanding performances!  You did a great version of that song you wrote, “Starship Trooper”.  People couldn’t believe what they were hearing.

HJ: I remember one kick-ass version of “Android Love” where a bunch of the staff joined in and either Gray or you played the piano.  I also remember pouring ice water down the back of a lady’s dress because I wasn’t paying attention and also a rather stern critique of my “uniform” from one of the Beach brothers, or possibly Redwood. 

(Jack pours us another drink.)

WB: You were only employed three or four nights, right?  What happened?

HJ: You mean what was my crime?  Other than being generally and obviously unfit for the role? 

WB: Yes, exactly.  Let’s go back to your last night.  As I recall, shortly before “the incident”, we pulled Walter out of the swamp to debut his version of “Aqualung”.  I think Ichabod was playing the piano.  Remember how Walter looked?  He was covered in rib sauce; it almost seemed like he was splattered with blood.  This must have been a horrifying sight to some of the customers!  Here’s this rib-sauce-soaked ogre-like figure in a white chef’s uniform emerging from the swinging doors, literally lumbering over to the piano.  Ichabod starts playing and then Walter starts “singing”, which is being charitable to Walter.  I thought he was tremendous!  But I remember Redwood glaring at him the whole time, looking from him to some of the tables, where the typical reaction seemed to border on terror.  When he was done, I think Redwood rounded up Lanny, Antoinette and a couple twinkies for a “refreshing” take on “Summertime” to kinda cleanse the place.  And then something happened to you in the swamp?

HJ: Yeah, no doubt, Walter was awesome.  As was that “Summertime” version!  I think it was right after that some of us were returning one of the “planks” used to serve mounds of comestibles to our worthy customers, or stinking C’s as we tended to refer to them.  I noticed an almost-full and frosty bottle of beer still on the plank, so as we were passing the plank back to the kitchen staff to get hosed down or whatever, I grabbed the bottle and drained it in one long pull.  Apparently in full view of Redwood.

WB: Oh, man, he was already having fits that night!

HJ: As my shift was drawing to a close, I was approached by the head waiter - I don’t recall who it was, only that it wasn’t Tennessee – who informed me, sympathetically, that my services were no longer required.  I was kind of annoyed as others had committed similar offenses and had not been punished.  It was an embarrassing thing to be fired, so I took to telling others the reason for my dismissal was simply that I was taller than Redwood.

(Jack pours us another drink.  As he puts down the bottle, he accidentally knocks over the stack of cd’s on the table in front of him, spilling discs of various prog rock, English folk singers, ABBA and Melanie’s Greatest Hits around the room.  I start to pick them up but he tells me not to, that he’ll take care of it later.)

WB: But you’re right; a lot of people “scavenged” the leftovers, so to speak, especially the drinks!  I don’t know, Jack, I can’t believe Redwood was so petty, I think it did have something to do with “tall man envy”.

HJ: They were right to fire me even if the offense didn’t merit it.  The only thing I added to The Northern was maybe a bit of comedy relief and Wild Man Fisher surrealism.  Not the kind of thing that brings in the stinking C’s or complements the other staff members whose talent far outshone mine.  It was fun while it lasted and even more fun afterward.

(So ended our conversation.  I feel Jack was way too humble in his final assessment.  During his brief but legendary Northern stint, he amazed and thrilled not only the C’s, but the other performers as well.  It’s a shame he couldn’t have worked there longer.  As I left his front room table, I think I accidentally stepped on and cracked his Dancin’ Queen cd, but I can’t be sure.  He did not say a word.)


Wednesday, June 13, 2012


“You can see me tonight with an illegal smile.
It don’t cost very much but it lasts a long while.
Will you please tell the man I didn’t kill anyone?
No, I’m just trying to have me some fun”
Illegal Smile, John Prine

About nine months into the Great Northern’s life, business was still booming and the staff had its routine down pat.  There was a bit of a revolving door regarding the staff, but a strong “core” of regulars insured a very enjoyable and eclectic night’s worth of entertainment.  And even with a full load of tables and a song every 10 or 15 minutes, somehow time was allotted for various traditions.  One of these was a “doob in the stein”.  For many years prior to The Great Northern, before it was a singing waiter mecca, this had been the site of Scheidel’s German Restaurant.  Herr Scheidel had a giant beer stein (see picture) that he would take to parades and other events to publicize his place.  After the restaurant changed, the stein, which was on wheels, stayed behind the building, awaiting an eventual permanent move. 

On one particular night, the atmosphere seemed odd, even by Northern standards.  The C’s were restless and full of more liquor than usual.  Marty had performed a particularly spirited “Ribbon of Fat”, and whether or not that had anything to do with it, a couple at one of his tables was extra surly, taking great delight in letting him know how awful the food was.  Marty didn’t suffer fools lightly, grew tired of trying to calm them, and finally let them know that if they didn’t like it, they were most welcome to get up and leave – which they promptly did, amid a flurry of further recriminations.  Redwood got wind of this and pulled Marty aside, but to his credit, only gave him a light warning and sent him on his way with a parting, "Could you please not make a habit of that?"

Meanwhile, most of the rest of the staff were accompanying Jesse in his almost operatic version of Sinatra’s “My Way”.  Jesse was about five feet tall with an odd but somehow endearing demeanor.  His voice was bigger than the room and on this song, he was accompanied by several musicians playing piano, guitar, kazoo (that would be me), fiddle (that would be Nancy, an accomplished and striking player who always dazzled) and flute (that would be Alice, our token flute player; for a small fee, she could also make you a vest sewn entirely out of men’s ties, a vest [and knickers] being a requirement of the waiter’s “uniform”), and anyone else who could spare some time and join in the chorus and Big Ending.  As usual, the song was a huge hit, everyone dispersed, the C’s would be happy for at least a short while, and some of the waiters needed a break.

A doob in the stein was so-called because as you can see from the picture (the actual stein, by the way, is now located in Rancho Cordova at Rudy’s Hideaway), the beer stein out in the parking lot was big enough for a couple of people to stand in unobserved while taking a “smoke” break (Antoinette would liken it, usually right after being out there, to “little gnomes out in the forest”).  I wasn’t generally into that routine, but on this particular night I allowed Gray and Linderoo to lure me out back.  By the time the three of us got there, Nancy and Bors (her partner and a great guitar player), were already in the stein; we convinced them to join us in a Volkswagen so we five waiters could all partake in a more communal fashion.  The car doors were shut, windows rolled up, doobs set in motion, chattering commencing, when all of a sudden, there was a loud knocking on a side window.  This was not good: thru the smoke we could see a police officer.  Where had HE come from?  How could we have missed him?  (How indeed?)  Gray rolled down the window with a “Yes, officer?” and we were commanded to all exit the car and line up in front of him.         

So there we stood in our vests and knickers, reeking of doob, befuddled and busted.  The officer stared at each one of us and told us to extend our arms.  At that point, the only person holding anything was me: I still had my kazoo from the song we had just finished.  When he saw what I was holding, he said, “What is that, a pipe?”  Without thinking, I said, “Of course not, it’s a kazoo!”, and started blowing on it, strangled, screeching sounds from a desperate, frightened mouth.  “Stop that right now!”  I complied and incredibly, miraculously, at that moment around the corner came General Manager John R.  Exactly how he knew what was happening is unknown to me.  The officer informed him that we were caught in the act and consequences would follow.  In what must be some of the most eloquent words I’ve ever heard, John pleaded our case, explaining in very stern terms how he would make sure this never happened again, and more importantly, if the officer took the five of us away, the restaurant’s ability to function that night would be severely crippled, possibly necessitating a closure and the loss of much money and good will.  Not finding a bit of it amusing, the officer turned his back on us and spoke briefly and privately with John.

A few tense minutes later, the officer drove away, John R paraded us back into the building, and the Great Northern stayed open deep into another Saturday night.


Tuesday, June 5, 2012


(photo: some GN staff off-site at a fund-raiser)


“Well we all entertain you while the chef and food are found
We got clowns, jugglers, musicians, singers to help that food go down
And we’re running around the tables at a frantic pace
Trying to keep that smile on our haggard face”

Ribbon of Fat written and performed at the GN by Marty Cohen
The Grand Opening was a huge success and the restaurant immediately flourished.  As long as the C’s showed up and the money kept flowing, the staff was allowed tremendous leeway in its behavior.  General Manager Scarne was brilliant at card magic, and considered himself quite the bon vivant, an LA “playa” who evidently had been allowed to get away with just about anything down south.  Scarne theoretically ran things, but when he was around, he was either amazing C’s with his card tricks or chatting up the female performers.  Within the first week or so, it was rumored that on one memorable night, he had given everyone in the swamp (our affectionate name for the kitchen) a hit of acid.  Things turned out okay, but this group did NOT “need” any mind altering drugs.

Like the performers, the swamp staff was a colorful bunch, and perhaps the most memorable one was its lead line cook.  Walter was the one we communicated with the most, the one who directly dealt with the front house staff.  He was a smallish, goatee’d, gruff reprobate who didn’t take any crap from the bunch of egomaniacs who waited or bussed tables, and if you were one of the fancy-pants twinkies (that would be a “host/ess”), you were almost beneath his contempt (and a pretty ingenue was no exception).  Heaven help the poor fool who tried to hurry the swamp, or who thought about giving anybody in it some lip.  With an alligator look that could decimate a politician and a tongue that could tear your heart out, you only made a mistake like that once.  And yet - some of us loved Walter.  As a matter of fact, we loved him so much that several months down the line we actually convinced him to perform a couple of songs – but that’s a story for next week.

Scarne was getting more and more out of control.  This was probably fueled by a reckless abandon when it came to certain recreational substances.  For better or worse, this stuff was not hard to come by at the Great Nothing (as it was eventually referred to by its workers).  So you had a packed restaurant, alcohol flowing to C’s and staff, various “recreational” drugs around every corner, and a young group of talented, preening musicians.  What could go wrong?  For Scarne, it was probably the night he ran out of money in the middle of what was rumored to be a savage cocaine binge. 

Early on, the waiters had to pool tips and Scarne would dole them out at the end of the night in envelopes.  This was NOT an insignificant amount of money.  The tab for a night at the Great Northern did not have to be extravagant, but it wasn’t “cheap”.  It was a medium priced place, so the tips were okay to begin with – and when you added the “extra value” of the songs, you were looking at a VERY good night’s pay.  As a matter of fact, if you happened to be waiting a table whose patrons loved whatever you were singing, the tips could be unbelievable.  After the restaurant closed on this particular night, Scarne told everyone that because they had done such a lousy job the previous night, he was confiscating all the tips.  That’s right: that night, NO tips.  This was unforgiveable and probably the last straw.  Within a couple of weeks there was a major change.

The Great American (in LA) and the Great Northern were both owned by Redwood and the Beach “boys”.  Shortly after the confiscated tip incident, the owners (who had rarely been seen) came to town and Scarne disappeared.  The Beach brothers were Dave (a commercial airline pilot) and Rick (a doctor).  (There was a third brother, Tennessee, who was not an owner, but who would later join the staff as a singing waiter.)  Redwood wasn’t a brother, but he was pretty much the managing partner.  He got his nickname because he was about six and a half feet tall, slim, trim and imposing, the owners’ “enforcer”, a man who enjoyed his “height” and literally “looked down” on most people.  He was usually a reasonable man, but if you crossed him or got on his “bad side”, he was ruthless.  Scarne was out, replaced by new general manager John Reynolds.  Dr. Rick was not often there, but it seemed like Redwood and/or Dave (when he wasn’t flying) usually were.

Shortly after the grand opening, I decided that being a twinkie was not for me.  When I began to grasp just how much the waiters were making, I switched to a busser and before long was waiting tables.  For a few hours a night, the work was grueling and almost non-stop, but the money and camaraderie were worth it.  I found out that different groups of waiters had their unique non-musical “rituals”, and one of them was the “Doob in the Stein”.  I didn’t usually partake in this particular “back of the restaurant” gathering, but one of the times I did, events went terribly wrong and almost shut the place down in the middle of its busiest night.


Conversations - May: In League With the Gainful

In the days before singing waiters, I was a sixth-grader in Sonora, California, with a weekly root-beer-and-comic-book habit to support, especially with the advent of summer. Memory doesn't serve on how I arrived at my first run at the world of employment, but it's likely to have been my mother's suggestion. Money was tight then; my father had moved to a yet smaller town, and wasn't going to be providing much, and the income from my mother's secretarial job put us in the dry milk and beef kidneys set, and allowed little elective spending on clothes or auto repair.

In any case, the predictable idea of a paper route came up. In the sixties, it was very common for boys to mow lawns or have paper routes, and girls to babysit, for pocket money to buy magazines or treats or clothes. And our neighborhood was "downtown", gold country style, and didn't really have cars parked in driveways, so car washing or lawn mowing was somewhat less obvious. (My brother had fared pretty well there as a gas station assistant, for his grease monkey cred was unassailable.) So I made my way a few doors down to the offices of the Union Democrat, Sonora's evening daily, where as it happened, a seventh grader was itching to get out from under his route. We were to meet on a given Friday after school to review the route.

I met him right after the stack of papers was delivered, and we began folding and banding them, adding them to one of the double sacks used both as panniers and for street sales around the country. Then he had me follow his bike on mine as he traversed his side of the hills of Sonora. It took about forty minutes, as I recall, partly because there were some uncollected payments, but I can't remember whether he was successful in getting them.

When we were done, he took off before I quite realized that we may, in fact, have completed my apprenticeship. I was horrified to realize that I would have to deliver Monday, and he would not be available to clarify the twists and turns, subscribers and nonsubscribers, particularly of the neighborhoods I had seen for the first time that day.

I don't remember what kind of documentation was associated with the route, but I retain the impression that all that was available was what he told me, and you were notified on the fly of those who had begun subscribing or dropped. I remember that I tried on Monday to talk to him, then someone at the paper, about a map, or a list, in the scant fifteen minutes or so that preceded the necessary start time after school, but no help was available. I folded, stuffed, rode, and delivered, with no assurance whatever that there was even 50% accuracy in the direction of my tosses.

And, of course, it was on Tuesday that I learned of the exception mechanism, yellow tags which were put in a mail slot in the office for each delivery boy. My slot was an infestation of yellow, an embarassment of non-vindication, an indictment of my lack of readiness and memory. And, inevitably, the harbinger of the end of my first job. I can't remember if I rode the route alone more than once before the end, and in fact I don't even remember what the terms on the way there were - were errors deducted from your take somehow? I sort of don't think so, because it seems like you were getting back front money you paid to get the papers to deliver when you went to collect. And did they get rid of me, or did I realize that it was a hopelessly losing proposition? All of those details are a blur - but not the sense of humiliation, which would turn out to be a repeating theme.

(to be continued)

Wednesday, May 30, 2012


“Straight from the shoulder I think like a soldier
I know what’s right and what’s wrong.
He knows what’s right and what’s wrong!
I’m the original discriminating buffalo man
And I’ll do what’s wrong for as long as I can.
He’ll do what’s wrong for as long as he can!”
The Minotaur’s Song by Incredible String Band

Having never worked in a restaurant before, I had the choice of starting out as a busser or a host.  Cleaning up tables seemed like too much work, whereas greeting people at the door and escorting them to their seats (punctuated by periodic bursts of song) sounded like just the kind of breezy job duties I could handle.  As we rehearsed for the opening, like minded musicians found each other and duos and trios began forming.  This was especially helpful to someone like me, who could marginally provide my own piano accompaniment, but who would be much better off singing while one of the other far better pianists (or guitarists) played.  And I was hoping I could convince some other people, musicians and singers, to join me on a couple of “group” numbers.  I was very lucky early on as there were many brave souls willing to help me in what would turn out to be somewhat whacked out, peculiar performances.

Opening night arrived; the joint was PACKED.  Here’s an encapsulation of the Great Northern experience, which repeated itself in one form or another for the 18 months I was there: The “C’s” (a not exactly affectionate term for “customers” coined by Bongo) would come in the front door to be greeted by one of the four hosts: two attractive young women (think “American Idol”), one who mainly sang “show-tunish” numbers and another who was more pop influenced; a tall, handsome, blond haired country singer (think TV network CMT); or a long-haired, bearded, wild-eyed “outsider” type (uh, that being me).  To the right was a full bar with a copy-playing rock band.  To their left was the restaurant.  One of us hosts would escort the party to their table.  The chances were high that there would be someone performing.  The chances were also high that the signature dish, The Plank, would be making its way to one or another corner of the room.  Food, liquor and music were served up non-stop throughout the night.

The Plank was an attraction unto itself.  It was a maybe six by three foot long piece of wood piled high with barbeque-sauce slathered ribs, various other meats and cheeses, and a selection of fruits and vegetables.  It actually came in several sizes depending on how many people were in the party that ordered it.  It brought a sort of medieval, bacchanalian edge to the whole proceedings.  Two people had to carry it out of the kitchen, and it was usually greeted with as much (if not more) enthusiasm as a well-played musical number.  (The waiters tried to be careful regarding just when they brought it out – its appearance could absolutely destroy some of the quieter musical numbers.)

In between a mouthful of ribs, a shot of whiskey, and raucous table conversation, here’s what an unwary C might experience those first few months: Bo Richards blasting through the Stones’ Heartbreaker with a voice that filled the always noisy space (there was no amplification); the breathtaking vocal magic of Sears, Seely and Nitz on Home to You; the folksy roots music of Marty C; the show-stopping beauty of Antoinette, Nancy and Alice’s Soft Spoken Man/Desperado medley; the Nicky Hopkins/Elton John-like brilliance of Ichabod’s piano playing; the calming beauty of Gray and Cathy’s Bluebird; the rhythm and blues piano playing Lanny supporting the raunchy decadence of Lindaroo as she stopped the show with Don’t You Feel My Leg.  The list could go on, and will, but for now, suffice it to say there was a mighty, mighty, array of amazingly talented performers who made strong impressions and immediate repeat customers out of the folks who came to visit.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012


“I grew up, like many people, believing memory to be a sort of hologram stored in the brain.  An accurate image of what was once perceived, once felt.  Of course that’s not true.  Memory is a reconstruction, and frequently a faulty one.”  Max Cairnduff

Way back in 1973, I was working part time as a DJ at the local “underground” radio station.  Going through various written Public Service Announcements and such for an upcoming break, my girlfriend, who had joined me that day (and who would later become my wife), found an interesting one.  It was for a new restaurant that was looking for musicians to fill host, bus and waiter positions.  Evidently, the staff would supplement their usual duties with periodic songs for the benefit of the customers.  The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” ended, and before I started The Incredible String Band’s “You Get Brighter”, I read this solicitation during the break.

Up to this point, I had played piano and sang intermittently, and also had done some acting.  I was just beginning to “get serious” about the band I was in (one of the musicians is the “co-writer” of this blog).  I hadn’t really performed “professionally” or in front of that many people.  But I needed another job, and this sounded intriguing.  So I took note of the audition date and decided to give it a shot.

I think there were about 50 of us auditioning for some 20 positions?  We were all in a large banquet room adjacent to the actual restaurant, sitting around the perimeter.  There was a piano (with an accompanist if needed) and three people who were going to listen to us.  Running things was Gerald Scarne, whose father had written the classic SCARNE ON CARDS.  Evidently he and a few others had opened a similar establishment in Los Angeles that was wildly successful, and they wanted to expand the empire.  The audition would proceed with everyone there listening to everyone else.  It was a colorful and diverse crowd: fresh-faced young ingĂ©nues singing show tunes, grizzled old guitar players singing Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and everything in-between.  We were each asked to perform two songs.  The only one I remember playing, at the piano, was John Prine’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore”.  The only other individual auditioner I remember was this insane, wild-eyed percussionist who did a surreal, Ricky Ricardo inspired routine on congas – absolutely incredible.  As with any audition, there was a wide range of talent, and of course only so many “slots”. 

Along with a couple dozen others, the percussionist (who became known as Bongo) and I were hired to open The Great Northern Food and Beverage Company a few weeks later.  Little did I know that this would be the beginning of an intensely productive, creative and insane 18 months, and that I would stumble into at least a half dozen friendships that have lasted my entire life.  But at that point, with an LSD dosed kitchen staff, barbeque drenched ribs on huge wooden planks, and initiation to the proper way of drinking tequila still around the corner, I was clueless.


Thursday, April 5, 2012

Conversations/April - Signals of Spring

There's a word in Spanish, Italian, and German
In sign language, Morse Code, semaphore and gibberish...

"Pidgin English", Elvis Costello

Samuel Morse was born into a world, in April 1791, whose best long-distance communication motif was semaphores or smoke signals, or possibly mirror manipulations on a sunny day. He probably had no sense, as a child, of the possibility that two people could communicate over a distance; his developing artistic sense was probably what he thought of as an efficient communication approach. But forty years later, most people were probably aware that there was an impending revolution based on beeps being transmitted over a wire.

In the Spring of 1959, twenty years after the first TV broadcast, when not in school, I was likely to be lodged in front of a built-in 45-rpm player, marching repeatedly through my sister's singles, which were dominated by Elvis. I mastered his phrasing, albeit an octave higher, and memorized all of the lyrics of many of the most popular songs of the era. I had begun to be aware the year before that the guy on the radio, whoever he was, seemed to be listening to the same stuff I was, but wasn't sure what to make of it - did my sister talk to him, or he to her? Was he more of a record, or was he somehow yelling somewhere in a way that got to me through that radio?

When Morse died in an April in the 1870's, Guglielmo Marconi hadn't yet begun trying to figure out how to take the wire out of the telegraphy equation - he would not be born until an April two years later. And the Pony Express was only a memory ten years distant. But if wires produced communication scenarios previously unthought, beeps through the air broadened in a way that must have been unimaginable the logistics of the proposition; you could be just sitting out in the desert, or on a boat, and if you had a box full of a certain kind of electronic stuff, you could find a way to converse with someone a long ways away - in real time. For the people of the world before 1900, that sort of proposition must have had much the same sense of mystery that the radio did for me in the late fifties.

It's likely that most boys of that era - the fifties, that is - sooner or later, as they looked at comic books, became enamored of something sold on full pages crowded with Wonders to Behold - X-Ray Specs! Black Eye telescopes! Transfer tattoos! And though most were deceptively marketed and overrated, one which I ordered, even with its limitations, was a true wonder. It was a germanium diode radio. The user simply had to go out, as I did in Alleghany, CA, to find any expanse of metal of reasonable size, a cyclone fence, some corrugated steel, and attach the alligator clip of the device to that metal, put the earphone into your ear, turn the dial, and - wow! - you could hear KXOA playing the Byrds' "I'll Probably Feel a Whole Lot Better."

Did you have any interesting tales of emerging awareness of communications? Do you have any thoughts about what the relationship between our assumption of TV and our kids' assumption of continuous availability of texting might be?

Fuller: My father was an electronics nerd and worked in the field for years. He built a television set in the early 50's and was often glued to his ham radio. The first big time awareness I had of a communications device was a record "recorder" he also built. It was about the size of a medium turntable, but instead of playing records, it recorded sound onto acetate "platters", one at a time. I'm not sure how many of these things he made, but I don't think there were too many; he wasn't interested so much in WHAT was recorded as he was in HOW it was actually accomplished, so cutting a few of these would probably have sated his appetite for this sort of thing. He played the guitar and piano, but didn't record "songs" per se; his recordings were more the "slice of life" stuff you might get from a home movie. So the only remaining recording I have, which was put on cd by my sister about six years ago, is of her and me and him and my mother, and I think a couple of relatives, jibber jabbering on, perhaps, Mothers Day. I think my sister and I must have been around seven or eight? I may have sung The Ballad of Davy Crockett (acappella), and he may have accompanied himself on guitar singing "On Top of Old Smokey"? Perhaps this early foray into recording is what set me on my wayward path thru life attempting to duplicate it, albeit in a little more refined way? And of course I was more interested in the "what" rather than the "how". When was the first time you actually were recorded and heard yourself? Was it a "big deal"?

Spence: The first time I was recorded - and remembered it! - was probably around 1959. My father had acquired an RCA portable reel-to-reel machine, and at the point I remember, had apparently had it for awhile, it looked used. The two reels spinning were of interest to an 8-year-old regardless of the audio capabilities, and I'm sure it took me awhile to realize that it was capable of "remembering" sounds.

He recorded us all talking, as I recall, perhaps to send the recorded reel to his father in Massachusetts, perhaps to just stow away for posterity, I don't recall what might have become of the immortalization. But on the heels of that, I had him, or perhaps my brother, show me how to thread the tape and begin recording. Not long after the conversation recording, to which I had paid little attention at the time, I set about recording myself singing an Elvis song, perhaps "Good Luck Charm", which I was taken with for awhile. 

I threaded the tape identified by someone as erasable, got it properly hugged around the take-up reel's hub, plugged in the stubby microphone, and pressed the button to record. I remember being somewhat hypnotized by the spinning reels for a second or two, then started singing. I figured just the chorus would be good, not very long, but long enough to get a sense of what the machine did.

I pressed the stop button, then the rewind button; of course I went too far, and the tape came to the end and the tail flapped on the full reel - I don't think they had a mechanism to detect that the tension was released and stop the motor. But I wasn't frustrated; I enjoyed the idea that I had figured out how make the machine yield up its secrets. I again threaded the tape, snugged it on the take-up, and pressed the play button.

- and was greeted by an absolute horror. I understood that I was doing a creditable job of imitating The King, but what came out of the recorder's speakers was a ridiculous representation of some little kid trying to sing "Good Luck Charm". I went in high dudgeon to the first person who would listen, though memory doesn't serve as to who the lucky soul was. I complained that the machine was broken, it had to be playing at the wrong speed, like when I used to forget to change the speed when I went between 78'a and 45's on the record player. And I suspect that it was no mean feat to finally convince me that what I was hearing, however unfairly, represented in fact what I sounded like.

At some point not too much later, there was an occasion when a microphone was plugged into a P.A. system, it may have been at a party, or at school, and someone encouraged me to speak into it. I was having none of it; it was bad enough to know how bad I sounded without broadcasting it.

I managed to resign myself to my spoken voice while deejaying in college, figuring that the point was sharing music after all. And the voice in the headphones then was somehow not as trauma-inducing as what came though that player's grille all those years before.

Friday, March 30, 2012


It Seems to be Down to Poverty

(Image: Frank Gorshin as Bele on Star Trek)

Exactly! It's about the economy, stupid, it's about the classes, it IS about class warfare, but the bastards don't want us to believe that. So here we are, again. I swear, we could have talked about prejudice any month we wanted and there would have been some totally worthless piece of violent hatred perpetrated against someone here in these United States. And it's not going to change any time soon. To think that some of us actually believed we were progressing after the civil rights struggle 60 years ago! Vigilance must be never ending.

So on this final post for March, I have to admit that I'm filled with trepidation because of my own prejudice and an upcoming social obligation. If you've been following one of TV's greatest current shows, "Justified", based on an Elmore Leonard story, you realize that Harlan County, Kentucky is filled with oxycontin dealing semi-crazy power hungry cracker halfwits, the kind of people who don't think twice about serving up a healthy beat down or worse to anyone who might be crazy enough to think differently than them, disrupt their business, or upset the Dixie Mafia (do they go into Arkansas?) in any way. They don't take kindly to outsiders, especially the kind of toities who wander in from one of the coasts or any big city for that matter. And of course, this depiction must spread to the whole damn South, right?

Well in a coupla weeks, for the first time, I'm heading to a very small town in Arkansas for a family wedding. Despite my ability to blend in physically with the locals, I only hope certain beliefs and or comments can be contained for the duration of my stay. From what I've seen of the South portrayed in Justified, I'll be one step shy of an ass-whoopin' at any given moment. Wish me well and keep me in your heart.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Conversations/March: Prejudice II

Is it Not so for You?
(see end of previous post)

(Image: The Hate Monger by Jack Kirby)

Happy St. Patrick's Day, from one Italian-Irish-American to anyone reading this!

Somewhere in the mid-nineties, while working at The Sacramento Bee, we were obligated to take a two-day diversity training course. This particular course was unlike any I have ever taken. The trainer was Asian, and I wish I could remember his name. It was a hugely eye-opening experience, probably best summarized by an exercise he administered within the first couple of hours. My class was hugely diversified, which represented The Bee at that time. My own department, Customer Service, where I was one of the people responsible for hiring, probably had a 45% "minority" workforce. The newspaper in general was pretty mixed, perhaps with the exception of the news room and the very white (and male) members of upper management (what a surprise, right?) I suppose my "willingness" to hire all types of people had its roots with my parents, as these things usually do. Despite growing up in such a very white neighborhood, I don't remember either one of them ever making a "racist" statement in my presence, and while we disagreed about many things, civil rights wasn't one of them. (I think I was also "lucky" to have spent my 9th thru 12th grades in a VERY mixed student population.) The racial diversity of people in my department also spilled over to how they chose to present themselves. At first, one of my managers was dead set against tattoos, piercings, dyed hair, etc., but luckily for many of our staff, I was able to convince him that these "peculiar" fashion choices did not necessarily indicate a poor employee. By the time I left the paper, the department looked more like a collection of record store employees than a white collar call center.

Anyway, back to that exercise in our diversity class. As I recall, there were about 25 of us in the class, close to half were black, and all of us from a very mixed bag of jobs/pay scales/etc. The Asian instructor was incredible in that he managed to convince most of us that we could freely speak in the class about some of the most sensitive issues that had shaped our lives. He asked the class for a show of hands for who had been stopped, at some time in their life, in a car or on foot, by the police. Just about everybody raised their hand. Then he asked how many people felt "frightened/intimidated" (he probably used a different word) when that happened. Virtually everyone who was not black pulled their hand down. He then went to each of the people with their hand still in the air and asked them to discuss their perspectives on this issue, and it was a real eye opener. Their stories about the police and that person's relationship to them, and their family's relationship to them, were quite a surprise to the non-black "students". And this was how the whole class proceeded, as he skillfully got us to "reveal" the cultural events that shaped our perspectives, and it was amazing how different the various "races" in that class looked at things.

So today, I still work in a very diverse work environment, but my friends are mainly white like me. My son married an incredible Hispanic woman. My neighborhood is mixed: it's mainly white, but includes Hispanics, Asians, and has in the past included blacks. About half the households on my block are gay couples, mainly white women. I think it is paramount that for almost anyone to begin to grapple with prejudice, there's gotta be some contact with different types of people. I'm very much for integration, though not so sure about "forced" integration. But if it's not "forced", how can it possibly occur?

Your thoughts?

(Spence replies)

Actually, the "intimidation" factor you relate from the nineties diversity session was an eye-opener for me.

I thought immediately of John Howard Griffin's book Black Like Me, and how profiling emerges between then and now. Questions leap out: Does the current Trayvon Martin case reflect an utter lack of change since your session? A CNN piece seems to say so. Would that author's appearance invariably produce a sense of threat in whites, particularly in a dark setting? But, further, what does it mean that most of us probably need to know that the victim was black before we feel like we _really_ know the story? 

Then, locally, why do stories like  this (hooded sweatshirts) and this (Onesto, Reyes...) and this (gang members) provoke such a weary here-we-go-again from the middle class where I live? Are the suspects somehow self-profiling, and have they always been? And what would happen if they got plunked into my neighborhood instead of a dense, decaying, and dark neighborhood near the strawberry fields or the Boardwalk?

And why does the Toulouse gunman Toulouse gunman apparently feel a similar sense of threat, but react to it more terrifyingly? 
Is there somehow a codified relationship between, say, these identifiers these identifiers , turbans, and tattoos that might be seen on the average black or brown NFL or NBA player?

I guess the good news is that, in contrast to Griffin's experience, that intimidation or exclusion is much more likely to be associated with police, as part of semi-sanctioned profiling, than it is to be with a clerk in a store, or a server in a restaurant, or a voting registrar. But even where the "markers" - tattoos, hoodies, shaved heads, even oversized jerseys or head scarves - don't effectively invite the stereotypes, it appears we have a long way to go. And I suspect that enforced integration might not be the answer, simply because it seems to be down to poverty in as many cases as not - the people with those looks just tend not to either be able to afford more racially monolithic middle class neighborhoods, or want nothing to do with them.

Saturday, March 10, 2012


Senior year, high school. I guess nowadays, I should stipulate a very public school. The previous summer, for reasons that are inexplicable to me, my friends decided it would be funny to start calling me a wop. I'm not sure how they knew I was half Italian; my name wouldn't have told them because that particular heritage came from my mother's side. I don't suppose it matters; it wasn't a secret, it wasn't like I tried to keep it from anyone. The taunts weren't constant, but often enough to sting. There was one person in particular who seemed to get a big kick out of it. He was Irish, maybe full Irish from his name, maybe his glee had something to do with the way the Irish had been treated.

In any case, it was a peculiar feeling. When I was in kindergarten and 1st grade, I was fat, not obese, but hefty, and I can remember being made fun of then. The only thing that saved me was a girl in my class who was even bigger, so she got the brunt of the comments. Then in 2nd grade or thereabouts, I slimmed down, and it all stopped, at least for me. I guess we were the main targets people could actually see, as I grew up in a VERY white neighborhood. As a matter of fact, for years there was a clause in the homeowner contracts saying the houses couldn't be sold to blacks. At an elementary school reunion I attended a few years ago, the sole Chinese student in the class told us a few stories about what his family went through growing up in our hood - ugly, despicable stories, all unknown to the rest of us.

When I was in the 9th grade, the lily white junior high school I attended went through a big change. The previous summer, some kids had burned down their own junior high, so the students had to be bussed to various other schools. This caused a huge influx of a new, extremely diverse student population. This turned out to be advantageous, because the high school I was going to attend the following year was one of the most diverse in the city, so this preliminary mixing of the cultures was an introduction to a world I didn't really know or understand. Despite the lack of different cultures in my hood, I guess because of the way I was raised, I never really thought about "looking down" or discriminating against other people. It wasn't unknown to me (this was, after, the Sixties), but I tended to side with underdogs in any case, and definitely sided with the civil rights movement.

Anyway, one beautiful October day around lunchtime during that senior year mentioned above, I had taken one "wop" too many. I was incensed, embarrassed for myself AND my mother AND my grandparents AND I suppose my pride was taking a beating. I wasn't exactly a fighting kind of guy, but I had tried "reasoning" with my tormentor, and he just didn't get it. So I took the pre-packaged pie-like dessert treat out of my sack lunch from home, throwing away the rest of the food. I went into the cafeteria and smeared the thing with katchup. Then I went to the quad where the guy was having lunch with a bunch of friends, most of whom I knew. Without hesitating, I walked toward him; I could see his smile start to turn into something else as he realized he didn't really know what was coming. I smashed the ketchup smeared pie in his face as hard as I could and walked away. I believe the quad suddenly became very quiet, but I didn't really know because I was shaking and too oblivious. From that point on, he left me alone.

So: have you ever been the "victim" of prejudice? Or, conversely, have you ever been the one to perpetrate the prejudice? When did you first realize that prejudice was rampant in this country? And what do you think is the state of race relations now? Can I get any broader with these questions??? Feel free to be as narrowly focused as you wish!


My school experience was almost completely suburban or rural, and running through the high school yearbook it's hard to find someone who seems Jewish or Asian, let alone someone who is black or brown. And the lower grades were much the same; all Anglo, not much sense of the difference of lineage, although people were aware that, for instance, the Sbaffi family in my rural town were perhaps a generation or two out of Italy, I never heard discussion that wasn't in a self-deprecating mode, Mike Sbaffi maybe offering an Italian Joke. 

On the other hand, especially in that town, Polish jokes and Irish jokes were popular, if invariably trumped by some racy or scatological element. And given that I had at that age an unfortunate resemblance to Alfred E. Neuman, it was an advantage to have a stable of jokes to rely on. And given that my father ran a bar, it seemed like jokes were fairly easy to come by. And further, I suppose it's not unlikely that in the midst of the jokes I spouted to curry favor were some that offended someone I may not have even known was Polish, though I would have desisted in humiliation if I had been called on it. I'm pretty sure I offered an Irish joke to a boy with a speech impediment who happened to be Irish and had only me as a friend, and tend to think he didn't feel belittled - partly perhaps because he was too young to drink, and I think they all involved drinking.

A telling episode there, though, was probably my first exposure to actual bigotry. A rumor spread through town one summer that a black family was moving into a decrepit house near the substation. Several people who never came to the bar showed up expressly to advertise their determination to pack up and leave the next day should it be true. It turned out not to be. But I probably noticed from that point that my mother especially tended only to use denigrating, and in today's terms, emphatically politically incorrect terms for almost every possible ethnicity that could be imagined.

It was in college, and not before, that it became a point of contention. I had met a black girl named Ashley, the second black I had spent some time getting to know (the first being an exceedingly tall and scholarly looking boyfriend of one of the gaggle of Catholic school girls that frequented a card-playing group in the cafeteria.) She was cheerful, thoughful and kind, and we talked about music and religious kooks between us and among a group of six or seven who tended to hang out on the quad in good weather. No one at school would have dreamed of saying anything unkind of or to her. But my mention of her to my mother was enough to get a running argument going which was part of the larger narrative of rebellion and disaffection that were the themes of my approach to twenty. It didn't matter that there was no romance involved for her - it just wasn't appropriate. 

But that said, I ended up spending most of my life in almost exclusively white company, and apart from rampant local racial profiling of Latinos based predictably on a continuous parade of stories about gang violence in our county, I have continued to have the sense of bigotry as a remote phenomenon. Something you see on the news.

Is it not so for you?