The First Glass



Sharks he calls them, this one swimming in the lane they’re about to share. He sits on the deck with his legs in the water to let her know he’s there and she moves over and flip turns at the wall. He‘s never mastered the turn, never converted speed one way to speed in the other. She pushes off with a dolphin kick and comes to the surface where she attacks with a stroke rate that’s fast and even angry.

He slides in, the water is cold, he jumps up and down, presses in his goggles. Her backpack on the deck is open to a water bottle and a collection of gadgets designed to build strength, hand paddles, flippers, snorkel, pull-buoy to lift the midsection and strengthen the arms.

By the time he ducks under and pushes off she’s lapped him already. At the far wall he comes to a stop and turns, surrendering his speed and starting from zero. His legs sink from the weight of his prosthetics, a pair of alloy hips heavier than his missing bones, or so he’d like to think. He strokes three times between breaths, head down to reduce drag but never able to keep his body parallel to the surface. Swimming is like pulling a wet log.

So effing what. He’s old and she’s  young, and even when younger he was never that good, slow on the bases, whiffed at bat, couldn’t throw a ball over the plate or into a hoop; later in life he found single sports, handball and racket ball, slow jogging , and finally biking. When his hips went south he replaced them and came to the lap pool. Swimming is low impact, the last stop on the train.

They stop at the wall together but there’s no greeting. This is protocol for serious workouts. While he catches his breath she snaps a hobble around her ankles to stop her from kicking. She starts out ahead of him and even with dead legs she knifes through, elbows high, smacking at the water.

At the end of his workout he puts on his flippers and swims two ‘fast’ laps with ten strokes between breaths. Even with flippers she outruns him, and he pulls up to the wall, so desperate for breath he could inhale water. This is near drowning, and he gasps for air and exhales under water, snorting like a hippo, his heart rate and endorphins beating, a good feeling throughout.

In the locker room an old man from the therapy pool puts aside his cane and bends over to remove his swim trunks. He pushes them to his knees and they fall to his ankles. His breath is labored, and he’s hairless from top to toe, his skin milky, all muscle tension gone. He kicks off the trunks and pulls himself erect by grabbing onto the locker door. He finds his undershorts and sits back down, then slowly pulls them up.

He  knows better than to help the old man, and he thinks of the woman swimming fast and how in the pool there’s old and young, and life and the end of life. With his own trunks pulled off and hip replacement scars on his bottom open to the world he punches the button on the wall dryer, blows the water from his ears and then from his silver hair. He thanks his genes, an uncle who died mid-eighties without a gray hair; and now in his near euphoria the hot air draws the others from the underworld — Lares and Penates like the Romans had — aunts and uncles and grandmas and grandpas tumbling out, that black haired uncle who sold cigarettes in Naples during the war, the father who lost his bar in the Harlem Riot of ‘43, a grandma he’d never known dead of Spanish Flu, history blown in like a storm as his hair flies about, and now this old man pulling up his shorts one inch at a time.

He sees her in the parking lot. Her hair is wet and combed straight down. She clicks open a hatch door and throws in the backpack. She doesn’t return his glance and her indifference reflects a world of boundaries, to each his own.

I’m with you old man.

A book review

not for nothing, by Kathy Curto, published Bordighera Press.


Kathryn Curto's memoir of a New Jersey girlhood is a dead on look at an Italian-American family working to make ends meet while trying to preserve traditional values. In a  lively writing style Curto evokes the days of Springsteen and the onset of the drug culture as her own coming of age is tempered by a Roman Catholic upbringing and an over protective father.

 While Curto's memories resonate with the warmth of life, there’s also the down side, and like Beatrice with Dante she brings us into that darker world of a family trying to settle into the permissive American landscape. Curto shows us the domineering father protective of his daughter and in competition with a rebellious son, but she also draws a picture of her mother as the force in the family. As Puzo showed us in The Fortunate Pilgrim, the Italian-American woman can be the real power, and here on the Jersey shore where we can smell the ocean and taste the clam sauce it’s the mother who shepherds the family through thick and thin.

 There’s an old saying that blood is thicker than water, and this memoir is aptly titled. ‘Not for nothing’ does one scrub and sweep and hold a family together, and ‘not for nothing’ does Curto remind us, how, like Dylan Thomas, "Time held me green and dying/Though I sang in my chains like the sea."

Speech to the congregation

Palm Sunday, 2019, Centre Congregational Church, Brattleboro.

This is my short speech to the congregation as a Loaves and Fishes volunteer.

Good morning, and thank you. My name is Vincent Panella, and I’m a retired teacher and a writer. I’ve been living in Vermont since 1976. I volunteer at Loaves and Fishes for the Friday meal – as you know we also serve a meal on Tuesdays.

So, if I were to tell you what it’s like to work there, I’d like to characterize it in a few words – so let’s say, satisfying, inspiring, and tiring. Satisfying because I’m lucky enough to be able to give up one day a week to a good cause. Inspiring because this is a tangible way of adding some good to a world lacking in compassion. Tiring because one never stops moving until the last fork is put away.

Growing up in an Italian family in which food was a part of physical and mental sustenance, it was natural when I looked around for a place to volunteer that I would gravitate to the kitchen.

So with all that said, let me try to describe my day on a job from eight in the morning to one or one-thirty in the afternoon, a job in which it’s impossible for me to describe every thing I do – but I will try.

When I arrive at the kitchen at eight or so, Ruth and Phil and John and Josie are already cooking the soup and meat courses and preparing desserts and planning for the day’s meal and for next Tuesday‘s meal as well. I have evolved into the salad bar and prep man. The first thing to do after talking with Ruth and the others about what to prepare, is to check the walk-in cooler and whatever food has been donated from the supermarkets and local businesses like Amy’s and the coop. We also set up a coffee bar for early arrivals, which are usually people who just like to hang out or come in from the cold, but who also help with whatever jobs they’re willing to do or offer to do.

Then we decide how to use what we have. Much of my work  is chopping and peeling. I may cut potatoes for boiling or cauliflower for roasting. I often prepare a mix of vegetables – tomato, zucchini, onion, peppers. By then other volunteers show up to help with my job, or to set the tables, or to put food away for next time. We also prepare meals for the four daycare groups in the church, and organize shopping bags full of food for families in need. Simultaneous with my cutting and chopping and carrying we help set up a share table with snacks and prepackaged food from local sources.

We set up the salad bar with a bowl of fresh greens and smaller bowls of grated carrots, diced peppers, diced onions, olives, cucumbers, whatever is available for toppings. We make do – if we have avocadoes we make guacamole. If we suddenly have cabbage, we make coleslaw, or chop the cabbage for a hot dish. With enough fresh basil we make pesto for freezing or for a pasta dish.    

In other words we make something with whatever we have with an emphasis on freshness and quality and with mutually made decisions. There’s a spirit of cooperation in the face of the pressure to get everything done in time.

The actual meal begins at eleven-thirty, but by ten-thirty we hope to have soup and salads ready for early arrivals. At eleven-thirty someone rings a bell – a Loaves and Fishes tradition -  and after a prayer the menu is announced and we serve the meal. People are already lined up and waiting, usually thirty or more at first, and then a steady flow for an hour. These are mostly homeless and working poor, those for whom a meal and food to go are so important to their lives. Many ask for takeout meals for one or more. Everyone appreciates the food we provide and nothing is refused.

The meal is truly a community event. It’s not hard to see how people enjoy sitting and eating with each other. At the same time others less sociable may come in by themselves and eat alone or grab one more takeout meals and leave. This is no problem.         

At twelve thirty, when we begin to close down, the real work begins – cleanup and food management, the washing of dishes and the scrubbing of the pots and pans in which the food is cooked. We decide what to save and what to throw away because it won’t last until next Tuesday. Meanwhile others are sweeping and mopping and putting dishes and pots and silverware away, managing the recycling, counting the servings and the take away meals.

As I mentioned, the work is satisfying on more than one level, one is to serve the public, the other is to work with people like myself, mostly retired, people who work with a sense of humor and a sense of purpose. We are comfortable with each other. There’s an atmosphere of humor and seriousness. We chat while we work, of family, the weather, even politics with a light touch. All of us understand without saying that what we’re doing is important and that we’re doing some good in a world that has much to be desired.

Finally let me close with a plea for volunteers. We always need volunteers, especially in the summer when the kitchen is hot and some of our full timers take a vacation or work elsewhere. So those of you who want to contribute, you don’t need to know how to cook, all you need is a willingness to help. If you don’t want to use a knife, we will find something for you to do commensurate with your skills and desires – believe me, there’s always something to do. You can just put in a few hours. You don’t even need to stay until the last fork is put away.

Thank you for listening.


[Read part 1 below — Vermont Views Magazine does not take part in partisan stances in local or national politics, but it does, from time to time, observe the state of people who vote, their knowledge and acuity, if any.]

A Beto volunteer calls.

"Have you been trained?"

"In what?"

"Phone banking and block walking. Have they sent you the webinars?"

"What's a webinar?"

"It's like an online seminar."

I watched the webinars on phone banking and block walking. For the former you log onto an automatic dialer and speak from a prewritten script. Block walking is based on the same principle: instead of phone numbers the system identifies voters' streets and houses from a smartphone GPS. The script is the same: get voters to commit.

"Will I see you in Dallas?" I ask the volunteer.

"No, I'm calling from another part of the state."

At Logan Airport I watch the Jet Blues line up and taxi, top lights blinking in the sunless afternoon. It's all New England, cloudy, chilly, ready to rain. A mental goodbye to home. Dallas will be in the nineties. I don't know what's in store. All I know is the address of the Dallas headquarters and my plan to walk in and introduce myself.

My  phone rings. Its another Beto volunteer. How am I?  Where am I? Is everything okay? I'm relieved that people are taking the time to reassure me that all is well. I tell him I've watched the webinars, that I have a smart phone and computer but would still need a little help. No problem. I begin to rest easy. He says to show up tomorrow at the headquarters.

Dallas is all sprawl. Fast food joints abound, Chick-fil-A, Whataburger, Taco Bueno, a Spanish chain supermarket called La Michoacana. My Lyft driver is an Iranian named Mashid. We have a softball conversation about immigrants coming here for a better life, my grandparents, his grandparents, all the same, all good. We speed through a maze of highways and beltways and swirling  roads above our heads, all concrete and red steel. There's no feeling of a center. We're not in Kansas any more, but I don't say this to Mashid. We talk football, Vermont, snow and seasons. Does it snow in Dallas? Hardly and when it does, watch out.

At the end of the ride I channel Polonius. When trying to find out about his son, Laertes, then in Paris, he instructs his spy to "take as it were some distant knowledge of him." I tell Mashid that I've read about a race for Senate between someone called Beto O'Rourke and Ted Cruz.

"Who do  you think will win?"


"He's a lock?"

"The Republican governor is well liked, the economy is good, the Republicans never lose."

My motel is on a four-lane in a part of southwest Dallas called Duncanville. In the morning my phone dings with a text. Come to the headquarters at ten. I pack phone and laptop into my L.L. Bean shoulder bag and mentally review the webinar on phone banking. I grab a Lyft to the headquarters where a Texas-sized Beto sign dominates the frontage of a partly occupied mall. I enter an outer room with receptionists selling Beto shirts and lawn signs. I pass into the main room, full of chairs and trestle tables, couches and sofas occupied by volunteers glued to their screens, some in positions of attention, some in semi-repose, some napping. Their computers are decorated with Beto stickers.

I make a rough count of thirty odd, men and women in equal number. Dress is casual, unimportant. Many wear Beto tee shirts - twenty-five dollars and not free to anyone. Volunteers are glued to their devices, lounging on couches with computers on their knees or phones in hand. A few dogs sleep under the trestle tables.

I introduce myself to a volunteer who is impressed and thankful that I've come all the way from Vermont. Why are you doing this? she asks. I give the answer I will repeat to others in the days to come. Vermont is solid blue and Beto has a chance to flip the Senate. Maybe I can make some small difference. I reveal a secret that I don't often share: that after getting interested in the Beto campaign I found his online statement of why he was running. He and I share the same favorite book, The Odyssey.

"Can you phone bank?"

"Lead me to it."

It's early October and the campaign is in the Get Out The Vote phase. Voter data is gathered in two ways, by phone and by foot, phone banking and block walking. The campaign has already done the initial statewide phone search to identify probable Cruz and Beto voters. The Cruz supporters have been theoretically removed from the date base, theoretically. The next step is to canvass these probable voters, not so much to convince them to vote for Beto by discussing the issues - that has been largely done. Now we need a pledge to vote. This is called "the hard ask."

The phone bank room consists of twenty odd desks, and the walls have signs in red and green marker with URLS and passwords necessary to log onto the automatic dialer. At the front of the room are stacks of laptops for volunteers and printed scripts to follow when speaking to a voter.

I practice the script verbally with another volunteer, then log onto the dialer. I watch the screen and listen for a 'ding.' This means the voter has already been called and has said hello. I jump right in. Hi, I'm a volunteer with the Beto O'Rourke campaign and I'm calling for Voter. Is this Voter speaking? I'm calling to ask if you will vote for Beto in the November election. Can we count on your vote? Simultaneously with this conversation a data box on the screen lists the voter's name, age, address, voting record from 2016, polling place location and the early voting schedule. Early voting is encouraged. All this is public record, information the phone banker tries to leverage into a solid commitment by having the voter visualize the act of voting.

If the answer is yes for a Beto vote, the phone banker pushes harder.

On a scale of one to ten, will you definitely vote? If you plan to early vote, do you know that you can vote anywhere in the county? You can also vote at your designated voting place. On what exact day will you vote? At what time of day? Do you have your photo ID? Can you get to the polls? Would you like an email reminder? And finally, if by now the voter is willing to keep talking, we point out that who you vote for is a secret, but whether you voted is public record. Can the voter share an email address so we can follow up after the election to review the voting experience? This is designed to be the final lock, but in all my hours of phone banking I've only reached this point once or twice. Most voters have been called more than once, and even if they're Beto supporters patience wears thin and they want to end the call.

The results of every call are recorded on a dropdown menu: Strong Beto, Lean Beto, Strong Cruz, Lean Cruz, Undecided, Has a plan to vote, Has no plan to vote, Wrong number, and Spanish speaker, of which there are many: they will be called back by a Spanish speaking volunteer. Many of the voters hang up as soon as they hear your voice. They will be called again.

With the exception of an afternoon of block walking I phone bank every day, nine to five or six, sometimes later if I have the energy and if my voice holds out. The headquarters are open from nine to nine and volunteers of all ages and colors come and go, some for just a few hours, all of them wanting to do something to help, all feeling the urgency of this election. I train the new phone bankers by enacting the script. I'm told that my lack of Texas twang is not a drawback. My impression is that women Beto voters seem more motivated, not only to vote, but to get other women and family members to vote. Those Cruz supporters who have slipped through the cracks are sometimes polite, but more often staunch Republicans with an angry edge, insulting Beto personally, or repeating the playbook mantra that Beto stands for open borders, abortions, free medical, free college, higher taxes, and and sanctuary cities - the last of which Beto does support. To a burst of profanity from a Cruz supporter I simply say, "Have a nice day," and put him on the drop down. Then I take a few deep breaths. To a woman voter who says she's organizing all the women in her apartment building to vote for Beto, I feel like what I'm doing has some value.

By the end of my stay I'm ragged, hoarse voiced, and realize that everyone in the headquarters works with such focus that I've had no more than one or two minute conversations with other volunteers, mostly along the lines of how much I'm appreciated. I sense no rigid structure in the organization, no personality conflicts. Everyone supports everyone else and things get done in a process of disorder and order.

During my stay the campaign has begun to open small "pop up" offices through out the state to accommodate more volunteers in the last days of the campaign. These are donated spaces in homes or stores in locations convenient for new volunteers to work from. Block walkers will be paid.

With the election imminent, Beto and Cruz have debated twice and Beto has had a CNN Town Hall which Cruz didn't attend. Conventional wisdom says that little or nothing has changed The polls still show Beto single digits behind. To win he will have to find voters in a state with a low voter turnout percentage. There's no way to project an outcome even though The Houston Chronicle, the state's second largest newspaper and a traditional Republican supporter, has endorsed Beto with a stinging rebuke of Cruz as an absentee more interested in his own career than the welfare of Texans.

I've met volunteers who have left their jobs to join the campaign. I've seen how deeply all are invested and I wonder about their reaction when it's over. When the votes are counted we'll see either grief or elation, but I can't believe that it's winner take all. Whatever the results, a movement has been set in motion. The energy of those committed volunteers will not be lost.

On my last day I sit in a restaurant in my Beto tee shirt, A woman gives me a thumbs up.

"Are you voting for Beto?" I ask.

"I'll be there on the first day of early voting, and I'll be first in line."


What made me go to Texas?

Last spring the news filtered in that a U.S. Rep from El Paso named Robert Francis O'Rourke, nicknamed
Beto, (Bet-oh) was challenging Ted Cruz for a senate seat held by Republicans since the early nineties.

Cruz was considered a lock at the time, and Texas opinion writers gave Beto no chance. Texas was flat out red. Then came a turning point. At an August Town Hall meeting Beto took a question from someone offended that NFL players could kneel during the anthem. Wasn't this an insult to the brave men and women in the military? Beto paused, said the short answer was no, then gave a longer one, relating the protest to those who sacrificed life and limb during the civil rights movement, to the killing of blacks by police, to the blood spilled by black and white alike in "places like Omaha Beach." Beto ended his answer with the phrase, "I can think of nothing more American." The applause began before he finished the sentence. The crowd was with him, many stunned by his combination of logic and passion. The NFL answer lit up the internet and spread to cable news. Beto was soon on the national stage, Colbert, Bill Maher, Ellen DeGeneris and others. Some were calling him the next RFK, and he had the look, a slightly goofy smile, a little funky, a little elegant. Cruz would seize on Beto's words to repeat his theme that Beto was out of step with Texas values.

Anti-Trumpers and a growing Texas demographic including women, younger voters, and people of color were taken by this onetime punk rocker who relaxed by skate boarding in Whataburger parking lots - duly recorded in social media, in which Beto dominates. He's posted almost every minute of his campaign Odyssey for all to share. As for Texas values, Beto pointed out in the first debate with Cruz that he'd visited every one of the state's two hundred and fifty-four counties. Behind the wheel of a pickup truck or a Dodge van he's been to the reddest. In comparison he said that soon after Cruz was elected, he visited not only New Hampshire and South Carolina, but all ninety-nine counties in Iowa. According to Beto, Cruz missed one half of his Senate votes in 2016.

"You tell me, who can miss half the day's work and then be rehired for the same job going forward. That's not what Texans want."

For Cruz there's also the well known unlikeability factor. Along with other expletives John Boehner called him "Lucifer in the Flesh." A colleague famously said that if somebody shot him on the Senate floor nobody would do anything about it.

Suppose Beto wins and helps flip the Senate?

I click on a youtube of Beto with his wife and three kids. Beto introduces himself by saying he wants to represent all of Texas, that he's running for something, not against something. He says he named his youngest son Ulysses because he didn't have the nerve to call him Odysseus, the hero of the poem that changed his life - as it did mine. Beto laments that Texas schools are teaching an abridged version The Odyssey because they need the extra time to teach to the test. He adds that if Betsy DeVos diverts one penny of public money to private schools he hopes that from Texans "there would be hell to pay."

Beto takes no pac money. He's online asking for three dollars and up. He's outraised Cruz and the right wing mega-donors. By the end of the campaign he may have twice as much in reserve as Cruz. He's even been criticized by some Democrats for not sharing it. The response is that his campaign needs every penny.

There's a place on his web site for for volunteers to sign up. It lists jobs from data entry to phone banking, from canvassing to something called a 'social media rapid response team.' The last category is 'other.' I click on that.

A few e mails later I'm on the phone with a Beto rep. I tell him a little about myself, writer, teacher, open to anything, and above all, how I can do this on my own dime.

"Why do you want to volunteer?"

"Because I've had enough."

"Where in Texas would you like to go?" 

"I don't know, I've never been to Texas."

A map is emailed. Beto has fifty-four campaign headquarters throughout the state, in places like Odessa, Lubbock, Dallas, Fort Worth, Corpus Christi, El Paso. I retrieve the road Atlas from the back seat of of my Saab. Texas takes up twelve pages.

Dallas is a one stop flight.

Dallas will work.

Now I monitor the Beto news. There's Beto at one of his three hundred plus town hall meetings, holding the mike with his sleeves rolled up and sweating through his shirt. He gestures with his free hand, reaching out to pull in the audience. He talks health care, education, immigration, the liberal playbook, but with this difference: how Texans can lead the way on these issues. Texans with their low voter turnout record, Texans needing health care and affordable prescriptions, Texans whose opioid treatment center is often the county jail. He's captivating, smooth and rough at the same time, a toothy grin out of Mark Twain, all Texan, all American. Willie Nelson hosts a rally and concert, Beto joins him on the stage. Willie writes a song for the occasion called Vote 'em Out. Cruz is worried. He says the left will crawl over broken glass to vote. He calls on Trump for help, his old nemesis, the man he called a coward and a pathological liar.

Through September Cruz is still ahead, in some polls by high single digits, but polls are slippery as live fish. Texas opinion writers say the race will be won by the undecided, who in the end will come out for Cruz. This is Republican muscle memory.

Unless Beto can get out the vote.

This is where I might come in. I'm thinking of ten days in Dallas. Can I work in early October?


It's hot in Dallas. I buy some short sleeved shirts, pack a deodorant stick, a baggie full of almonds. Friends encourage, my wife gives her blessing.

Now I follow the campaign more closely. In the first debate Cruz keeps hitting the "Texas values" theme. He links Beto to Pelosi and Bernie, to the evils of socialism. Beto reminds his audience that he's running for all Texans not just himself. Most telling about Cruz and his default to for nastiness was the last question, in which each candidate was supposed to say something nice about the other. After Beto gave his boilerplate answer Cruz gave the same but couldn't resist the backhanded praise. Cruz said he thinks Beto is "sincere in his belief in expanding government and higher taxes." Beto replies, "True to form."

"What will you do down there?"

"I don't know. They haven't contacted me."

"You're taking a chance."

"I just know I'm going."

Typewriter Days


Once long ago I needed a job. A friend had just quit as a reporter for a large Midwest newspaper and he suggested I take his place. I'd never worked as a news reporter, but I'd taken a J-School course and had recently written a piece about racing pigeons and their uncanny ability to return home from great distances at high speeds.

This friend put in a word to the managing editor and gave him my pigeon story. I soon found myself in the man's office. He'd been a combat photographer in the Second World War and the newspaper, with a circulation of fifty-thousand, was noted for the quality of its photographs. As I took a seat the editor was standing over a light table examining negatives with a magnifying glass. After ignoring me for a few minutes he moved to his desk. He was dressed in a carefully mismatched shirt and tie. His scowl was perpetual, and he held up my pigeon article without saying whether he liked it.

 "I'll give you a chance and put you on Police Beat. If you can't do the job you're out the door."

 Fair enough.

The next morning I followed the police reporter on his rounds. His name was Jim, last name unimportant, and he started with calls to the hospital for condition reports on patients who'd been in the news. Then we got into his car and drove, first to the Fire Station for anything of interest, then to the County Sheriff's office, and finally the police station. Here the dispatcher handed over a thick ream of carbon copies, one for each complaint received in the last twenty-four hours. Jim quickly leafed through the carbons and made notes on potential stories. We then met with the publicity officer and Jim asked about each incident he'd selected.

We returned to the newsroom with four stories. These were typewriter days, and Jim said to the city editor, "Four stories, eight takes," a 'take' being a single page of triple-spaced type. This information was immediately conveyed to the composing room downstairs so they could allow for the appropriate space in the Police Beat column. Noon deadline was ten minutes away.

I sat at my desk and watched as Jim lit a cigarette and began typing, hesitating between ideas. As each page fitfully unrolled from his typewriter the city editor took it up and returned to his desk to make corrections. He kept looking at the wall clock and saying, "Hurry up, Jim! Hurry up!" When Jim came to the last story he stalled. He stubbed out his cigarette. He put his hands on the keys. Nothing came. He lit another cigarette and put it down. He chewed on a fingernail. A voice from the composing room cried out through a speaker, "Where's Police! Where's the copy!" The city editor said, "Jim, let's go!" but Jim was stuck. He typed another word or two then stopped again. I was to learn that Jim was the slowest writer in the newsroom but the best news man. He had an eye for story and was dogged when he found one. "Where's the goddam copy!" cried the composing room voice angrily. "Jim, come on!" said the city editor. Jim typed a sentence and hit the carriage return. He said, "I still can't get it!" Now the newsroom, always a philharmonic of typing, of a chugging AP machine spitting photos, of static voices from a ceiling speaker wired to the police radio, seemed to fall silent as Jim struggled. Those who'd finished by deadline were nervously watching as the Managing Editor came out of his office. Late copy cost overtime downstairs. Late copy meant late delivery. The Managing Editor stood there in his natty tie and carefully mismatched shirt. He folded his arms and glowered. If steam could come out of his ears it would have.    

Jim coughed up another sentence. The city editor went over to Jim’s desk. He took hold of the page in the typewriter and began to pull. "Just write damn it! Just write it!" He pulled on the paper as Jim typed the story.

A few days later I started on the beat by myself. I made the rounds and brought back the news and estimated the number of takes with reasonable accuracy. The key sentences were already in my head when I sat down to type. I swore never to put myself in Jim's position, and out of fear I never did.

Sleeping With Herodotus

There's a Hemingway story called Now I Lay Me in which he fears sleeping at night ever since he was struck by a mortar during World War I – ‘blown up’  as he puts it. To fall asleep in darkness would cause his soul “to fly out of his body,’ that is, he would die. To stay awake he remembers a trout stream he's fished, pool to pool; he remembers fish caught and lost; he recalls looking under rocks and rotten logs for anything that will stay on a hook – grubs, worms, grasshoppers, and once a salamander whose tiny feet clutched the hook so desperately that his like was never used again. Hemingway returns to the attic in the house where he was born and examines jars of snakes and assorted specimens left by his father. Finally he thinks of the people he knows and says two prayers for each. By then it’s daylight and he can sleep.

For those of us with the opposite problem, how not to stay awake, the process is the same. In repetitious memory the insomniac must drift off without knowing it. And for those who haven’t fished for trout or observed the suffering of a salamander, who don’t have enough friends for the final prayers, good thoughts must be found. When waking up at three a.m. to the world's evil we need a strategy.

My own is to read, or even better, to think about Herodotus, the first  historian of the western world. Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus, a city in modern Turkey, in 484 BC. He is known as the father of history and the father of lies. His subject was the Mediterranean world, over which he traveled and recorded what he saw and heard. He compiled these accounts into a single work called The Histories, published in 430 BC. His story begins with the Trojan War and ends with the two invasions of Greece by Persia. Throughout he shows how western values of cooperation and adherence to the rule of law overcome the forces of tyranny represented by the Persian kings.

While current events can be downright depressing, history at a distance of thousands of years can, emphasis can, have a soothing effect. Events occurred so long ago that the greater themes outlive personal tragedies. With Herodotus we settle into the comfort of hubris and virtue rewarded, where a story teller shows us the truth while recognizing fantastic stories for their own value: they were told and therefore worth preserving. Invasions, plagues, tortures and vendettas. A man who rides a dolphin to safety, another who can swim under water for miles without a breath, kingdoms gambled for what Hamlet called “a quarrel in a straw.” A king, Croesus, asks the Delphic oracle if he should go to war against the Persians. The oracle replies that if he goes to war he will destroy a great kingdom. He goes to war; the kingdom destroyed is his own. As  he sits atop a pyre ready to be burned alive he laments his fate and repeats the words of a wise man named Solon, that one can only measure a man’s happiness after his death. Impressed by this wisdom, the Persian king lets Croesus live.

Herodotus rejects Homer's version of the Trojan War, that Paris won Helen as a reward from Aphrodite. To find the real story,  Herodotus interviews traders and wise men – Greeks, Arabs, Persians – who describe a series of back and forth kidnappings started by Phoenician traders and ending with Helen's abduction by a Trojan prince whose ship was blown off course and wrecked in Egypt. Herodotus concludes that Helen never saw Troy and that Menelaus sacked the city on false premises.

Between the bookmarks of the Trojan War and the Persian invasions Herodotus recounts the rise of Greece and Persia. He interrupts this story at many points to record the life ways of tribes and nations from the Indus River to Gibraltar. We learn the history of Egypt and the source of the Nile, we are told that Indians and Ethiopians have black sperm, that Persians maul their dead with dogs before burial, that certain tribes eat human flesh, that Egyptians embalm cats, that Scythians get milk from mares by inserting a hollow bone into the animal and blowing into it, which causes the teats to descend.

Herodotus ends with the Greek victories over Persia, first at Marathon, then in a series of battles seen as great markers of western history. Herodotus recounts how the Greeks constantly argue among themselves before coming to consensus, and how they are challenged by tyrants who not only force their men into battle, but in Xerxes case, by a king who orders the sea flogged with chains to punish the god who wrecked his bridge in a storm.

How does all this put me to sleep? This melt of fact and fiction is my own trout stream, pool to pool and story to story.


She was sitting in front of the TV, remote in hand, water, books, and pills on the side table. She lowered the sound when he came in and sat, his back hurting from the day's work.

I don't think I'll be able to get up.

You poor thing.

Bent over a sink for the last few hours.

It's so good you came.

I'm a little late.

That doesn't matter. As long as you're here.

Turn that sound off. I can't stand him.

I feel the same way.

He's ugly. He's ugly inside and out.

They'll get him.

I'm not so sure.

He had a mean father.

That explains everything.

Outside, snow, a nor'easter, moisture from the south, cold from the west, almost a whiteout. Snow on the window screens, the earth muddy and soft, it's March, the plow blade has been digging up sods.

Where's your story.

It's not ready.

Have you read mine?

Most of it.

What did you think?

He rocks back and forth, unzips his jacket. Why is all this so important? Human feelings, parents and children, domesic situations, images in silence on the screen, he said, she said, bombs and bullets, snakes and related reptiles, money in gigabytes, bluejays frantic on the feeder.

They don't give a fuck.

She laughs, the action hiking up her shirt to reveal the insulin pump and small diameter delivery tube. His father had been a Type II and he'd told her the stories, no pumps then, prick your finger and load the hypo.

It's interesting.

What about it do you find interesting?

You have a good situation.


I don't know.  Maybe you need to say more at the beginning

Then I'll give it away.

That's always a problem.

This Poet Walks Into A Bar.....

Twain didn’t like it when he had a situation but no story. Tell that to any writer.

As a college student I worked summers in my father’s bar in upstate New York. Newburgh was a poor Hudson River town with such social ills that my father’s business would soon become a victim of urban decay, which began on the lower part of town where the bar was located. Downtown Newburgh would become a plywood zone, the street corners gathering spots for drug dealers and prostitutes. While that process was taking place the business was still viable, and my job was to open the bar at eight a.m. on the dot. Three men awaited my arrival, bunched up inside the alcove to protect themselves from the blazing sun having risen over Mount Beacon. The first was the cleanup man, who without judgment and even with some pride, called himself Jake the Jew. Jake was a garrulous alcoholic who sang while he cleaned the bathrooms and swept the floor. He was paid two dollars and two free beers. I was strictly instructed not to give him a third.

The second man, looking impatiently at his watch, was a salesman in a wrinkled blue suit. I called him The Electric Bill. Smitty needed four shots of cheap rye before making his way down to the Water Street shoe store where he worked. I couldn’t be late or he would drink across the street in Santucci’s. I was reminded that over the course of a single month, Smitty’s weekday business would cover the electric bill, thus his nickname. I was also instructed never to leave the bottle on the bar while I was setting up or Smitty would sneak a shot.

Also waiting was Austin Bellows, an old man in a white golf cap. Austin’s job was to buy newspapers and Danish pastries while I took care of Smitty and made the coffee. Austin had a Boston accent but insisted he was from Woosta. He once played hockey for the Boston Bruins – something that in later years and after some non-extensive research I was unable to verify but had no reason to disbelieve.

Austin lived in a furnished room above Basso’s Lounge. He drank only once a month, on the first, when he would spend his check on the barmaid, Estelle Sparhawk, a drinker without limits who sat with him in a booth and kissed his forehead and rubbed his bald pate for as long as he kept buying.

Austin was my closest friend in the bar. Over coffee and Danish we would read the sports pages and talk about the boxing matches or baseball games we would bet on together. I would stake him if he was broke. Bets were placed with a pickup man named Fat Jack, who looked like his name. Jack would take our money and retire to the bathroom where he recorded the bet on a diner check with a carbon copy for us. Jack worked for one of the big Newburgh bookmakers, a man of few words called Chooch. Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of Italian dialects will tell you that Chooch means donkey or ass. And yet, like Jake, Chooch was not offended by his nickname and on some level must have taken pride in it.

So much more happened during those summers when I was impressionable, when working in the bar presented me with more situations and characters than memory could hold. They still bloom and elaborate themselves in my mind like some crazy flower. At that age I was just beginning to write and my head was full of poetry, about which my customers knew nothing – all except one.

One morning I was back in the kitchen mixing a tray of cole slaw. It was just after ten o’clock with the sun up strong and the first wave of drinkers having come and gone. There at the bar, alone and limned in sunlight like some apparition of Walt Whitman himself, stood an old man in a flop hat and a long white beard. He hooked his cane over the bar and looked around for service. I came out drying my hands on a towel and as he ordered a beer I told him he was the spitting image of Walt Whitman. Then I pushed his money back. He said he was also a poet and in my enthusiasm for a kindred spirit we talked poetry and literature and I bought him every beer. His name was Francis Gardner Clough and he wrote poems and reviews for the Newburgh News. He owned a bookstore out on Highway 52 and said that if I came to visit he would give me a book of his poems. I did. The bookstore was an open air, summer only operation, more like a lean to. His slender volume was printed on heavy paper with ragged edges and bound with a shoe string. The first line of his opening poem was, I have hungered before Hamsun.

On the back wall of the little shop were magazine cutouts and and photographs of notable writers. One such was an eight-by-ten glossy of Mickey Spillane, the crime writer of his day. Spillane was also a local who dabbled in stock car racing when he wasn’t churning out his best sellers. The photo was inscribed with these words, Dear Francis, I wish I could write like you.

That’s the story.


            Primo Levi’s Moments of Reprieve is a story collection based on his one-year stay in Auschwitz. The stories follow his other writings about the experience, and for those those who don’t know, Levi was an Italian Jew and trained chemist. In 1943 he joined a group of partisans in the Italian mountains and was captured and sent to Auschwitz to work at a factory camp. He used his bread rations to pay another prisoner for German lessons, and with his knowledge of the language and his background as a chemist he was assigned to a factory producing synthetic rubber for Hitler’s armies. He survived by avoiding hard labor and trading stolen materials from the factory for extra food. Auschwitz was liberated by the Russians in 1945 while Levi lay in the camp hospital with scarlet fever. The SS evacuated the camp as the Red Army approached, forcing all but the gravely ill on a long death march. Levi's illness spared him this fate.

It would be another ten months in refugee camps before Levi returned to Italy. In later writings he noted the millions of displaced people on the roads and trains throughout Europe in that period. After his experience he wrote several books, novels, collections of short stories, essays, and poems. His best-known work is Survival in Auschwitz, an account of his year in the death camp and rightfully called a work of genius. 

            Moments of Reprieve is a collection of stories, vignettes, and character sketches, a tribute to moments when man’s better angels confront living hell. Levi’s characters are based on real people, some appearing in his other works, and some fictionalized from memory. He published the stories in 1981 after thinking he was finished writing about his experience, but the memories of people and their survival strategies  - not always successful -  compelled him to honor their lives. The characters whose stories demanded to be told were eventually given what Levi called “the ambiguous perennial existence of literary characters.” 

            With the logic of a scientist and the inspiration of an artist Levi sets his stories and characters against a background of horror. Hunger, beatings, and death are part of daily life. In these tales of survival a man sings few lines of opera to lighten a situation, the gift of a turnip is monumental, a half-slice of bread can be leveraged for favors. In one story Levi risks his life by writing a letter for another prisoner, his payment a ration of bread and a small pocket knife – itself worth five rations of bread. In another, a barracks chief saves the soup ration for a prisoner who asks permission to observe the Yom Kippur fast since eating is forbidden on the day of atonement. The barracks chief, a German ex-communist now cooperating with the Nazis, calls him meshuge, crazy. He is astounded that anyone would refuse a daily ration of watery soup. Later, perhaps from his own sense of guilt, the chief asks why anyone would make such a sacrifice. The prisoner, named Ezra, a Cantor from a small Lithuanian village, tries to explain atonement as a general concept, and when the chief asks about forgiveness for his own sins Ezra tactfully refers him to the Bible. The chief agrees to save the soup for Ezra’s next-day ration.

            At the rubber factory Levi worked in a lab alongside non-prisoners with whom he was forbidden to speak words unrelated to work. One day a young German technician who appeared to like him asked - in whispers - if he could fix a flat on her bicycle. Levi considered this invitation to break the rules "potentially useful." Having fixed the flat after a risky process of finding the tools, he was rewarded with a hard-boiled egg and four sugar cubes, a treasure trove for any prisoner. In telling the story Levi remarks, “One human German does not whitewash the innumerable or indifferent ones, but it does have the merit of breaking a stereotype.”

            My own reaction to a visit to Auschwitz years ago was numbing. This was an industrialized death camp where over a million people were murdered, some shot, but most gassed and cremated. I passed under the infamous entry sign that said in German, Work Sets You Free. With other tourists I walked the cleanly swept streets in silence: how difficult to imagine or even speak about what happened here. What people, what sounds, who filled these streets at daily roll call, who sat behind desks in the broom-clean buildings, who gave the beatings and did the shooting at the Execution Wall?  It’s all there, but it isn’t. 

            I entered the gas chamber and stared up at the nozzles which sprayed the Zyclon-B gas over those who thought they were getting a shower. I exited to the ovens and rail cars once packed with bodies. In an evidence building I stood in silence before glass fronted rooms containing belongings taken from the condemned: one room packed with pots and pans, another with boots and shoes, another with luggage, the leather dried and discolored with time, another filled with crutches, wooden limbs and assorted prosthetics, another with a mountain of hair shorn from the victims.

            After the visit I rarely spoke about what I’d seen. I wrote almost nothing in my journals. On the few occasions when I mentioned that I'd been to Auschwitz and nearby Birkenau, I felt as if I was bragging, or revealing a terrible secret because to express what I’d seen would somehow profane the dead. What right did I have?

            Our present circumstance frees me from this constraint. Does one so easily jump from death camps in Poland to our own conflicted country with its nearly 200 immigration/detention facilities usually located far from major cities where they attract minimal attention? The answer must be yes. Think of our prison system, one of the fastest growing industries. Think of how we maintain the largest immigration/detention infrastructure in the world, detaining hundreds of thousands per year. These include legal permanent residents with longstanding family and community ties, asylum-seekers, and victims of human trafficking – detained for weeks, months, and sometimes years in county jails and for-profit prisons.

            So there is a parallel, and while those detained may may not be gassed or burned to ashes, other transgressions abound as their lives are taken away. Shortly after his arrival in Auschwitz, after his hair was shorn and his clothing surrendered, Levi stood naked in the snow clutching a bundle of rags and a pair of ill-fitting boots. This was the uniform he and others would wear. He wrote, “Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offense, the demolition of a man.”

            Levi died in 1987 from injuries sustained in a fall from a third-story apartment landing. His death was officially ruled a suicide, but some have suggested the fall was accidental. He leaves one answer to our current state in this epitaph to Survival in Auschwitz:


You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:

            Consider if this is a man
            Who works in the mud
            Who does not know peace
            Who fights for a scrap of bread
            Who dies because of a yes or a no.
            Consider if this is a woman,
            Without hair and without name
            With no more strength to remember,
            Her eyes empty and her womb cold
            Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,

            Or may your house fall apart,
            May illness impede you,
            May your children turn their faces from you.


John Dante’s Inferno, A Playboy’s Life - by Anthony Valerio


 In A Playboy’s Life, Anthony Valerio tells the story of an ordinary man who, almost without effort, finds himself in an extraordinary situation. This lively and skillfully written biography takes as its subject John Aimola, a son of Italian immigrants who renames himself John Dante and begins an intense relationship with Hugh Hefner, founder of the Playboy brand. The fascinating part of this book is the way Valerio relates John’s life to the great epic poem of his literary idol, Dante Alighieri, whose Inferno is based on the concept that the punishment for sin would resemble the sin itself.

John was born to immigrants who settled in Chicago in the early 1900’s. The family wanted their son to avoid the street gangs and mobsters in the Italian section where they lived and sent him to a boarding school run by Benedictine monks. The monks taught The Divine Comedy, the poem about a pilgrim – Dante himself – who must journey through Hell’s inferno before he can attain Paradise. At the school one monk would read the poem in Italian while another used a pull down screen to flash Gustav Dore’s famous illustrations of sinners in the circles of Hell.

 As John grows older he never forgets the monks’ lessons while at the same time he becomes aware after some early sexual encounters that he is attractive to women. John is handsome and good natured and smart and easy to like. After a brief stint in organized crime, and a short career as a bartender, he opens a night club in a poor area of Chicago and calls it Dante’s Inferno. He decorates the walls with Doré reproductions and places ads in Playboy – a magazine he read and collected. One night a curious Hugh Hefner arrives at the club and John Aimola introduces himself as John Dante. Hefner likes him at once and the meeting begins a decades-long friendship which ends when the two men grow older and the Playboy phenomenon subsides.

 Hefner hires John as a bartender and soon promotes him to manager of the Playboy club in Chicago. John is responsible for hiring not only the help but also the Bunnies. Later he would manage other Playboy clubs stateside and in England as the Playboy lifestyle catches on. John is given an apartment in the Playboy mansion and falls under the sway of Hefner and his hyper-sexual world. As a resident of the mansion and part of Hefner’s in-group, John meets and befriends not only the powerful men who pass through, but a train of women willing to provide sex to advance their careers, or simply to join the party. The artists and actors, the gangsters and their women, all touch John’s life, but none more than Hefner himself. The two men will take part in any number of orgies in Hefner’s bedroom. The group sex will include John, Hefner, often one or two male friends, but always more women than men. At a certain point the group sex turns ambiguous, the borders of acceptable male heterosexuality between the two men become porous, and John, who still retains his old world values, withdraws.

This might be a book about sex if not for Valerio’s ability to plumb John’s mind and reawaken him to Dante Alighieri’s system of sin and punishment,  something John has put aside until the Playboy life comes to its inevitable end, with age, with the death of his parents, and his own self-questioning. The end is hastened as Hefner himself grows older. Lines have been crossed between the two men. One day, and without telling Hefner, John packs the battered suitcase his mother brought from Italy and drives to Florida, consciously thinking of the dignity he’s lost and what he has to preserve. He settles into a rundown bungalow in Fort Lauderdale and wants to write a book about his life called Guest at the Party. His dream is to retire in Florence with the proceeds and to spend his last years in the city where his counterpart wrote the poem whose world mirrored his own. Valerio writes the biography for him, but John dies before his dream is realized.

 As Dante Alighieri peopled Hell with his contemporaries as exemplars of sin, Valerio presents John’s world in the same terms. It is Valerio’s genius to imply that humankind in our time has not changed, and those who live in excess, those who betray the public trust, have places in the underworld if only in our imaginings.

 End notes: Anthony Valerio is the author of eight books of fiction and nonfiction. His books are available online and from small presses. His short stories have appeared in the Paris Review and several anthologies. He lectures widely in the United States and in Europe and has taught writing at NYU, CUNY, and Wesleyan University.


            The house still stands, wrecked, silent, blackened and charred. Once the flames were extinguished an excavator ripped off part of the roof and flattened walls on the second floor to expose enough of the house so that the last ember could be put out. Now the second level is open to the weather. Bedding and household items have been disgorged onto the wreckage piled behind two giant locust trees that partly hide the house from view. An old cape built who knows when, a house without a crawl space, most likely with sills on a layer of stone, a house whose days were numbered. The woman who lived there has moved to town. During the fire she lost two grown daughters who died of smoke inhalation as they went back into the house to save their pets. Their bodies were found on the second floor. They were gone before the fire companies arrived and before I arrived as well.

About a year ago on the afternoon of a cold March day I came upon the house when returning from town. Smoke was pouring from a second floor window and seeping through the roof panels. No flames were visible. With no fire or smoke on the first floor, it was clear that the fire had started upstairs. Two men were already on the scene; one having called 911 waited on the road to direct the responders; the other had saved a pug dog, a pair of cats, and three pet birds. The woman who lived there had been told to wait in her car after crying out that her two daughters and more pets were still in the house. She wanted to go back inside.

            Telling her to stay put, I entered the house and stepped into the living room. A cloud of tobacco colored smoke poured down from the second floor. I called out, Is anyone up there! No answer. I called out again, Is anybody up there!  Still no answer. I called out a third time and maybe a fourth, my words lost in the dense smoke, a silent smoke, and with its muffling effect I heard no pop of kindling, no crackle of flame. No answer from upstairs, nothing but silence and smoke. So I left the house and told myself that I couldn’t do any more and that I would have heard their voices if they were alive.

            I can’t say my luck came at the expense of the family who lived there. Their story was already written. My luck was simple timing. Suppose I’d left town earlier and came upon the fire when the sisters on the second floor were still alive?  Suppose they answered my call and said, Yes come up and help us to get downstairs? What would I have done about that? Climbed through a cloud of smoke that would have killed me as fast as it probably killed them? And if, having heard their cries for help I’d have refused, how to live with that? To climb those stairs even if they would have held me, would probably have caused my own death.

            For the rest of that afternoon I’m a spectator. I stand apart as fire trucks and rescue vehicles from nearby towns arrive.  By then flames have appeared at the north gable window on the second floor. Firefighters extend a hose to a nearby pond and begin pouring water onto and into the house, especially on the second floor. Firefighters climb a shed roof on the south side and pour water through the window as an endless brown-green smoke continues gushing from the north and south gable windows. It seeps around the metal roof panels which cover a layer of smoldering shingles. Later on there’s talk among the neighbors about how little was known about the people who lived there and how it’s not uncommon for people to perish in house fires as they try to save their pets.

            Some of us on the road, including those who rescued the pets, helped the woman settle in town. Some helped more than others. The wreckage remains, a new owner will eventually clean it up, but for now the crumpled roofing and broken glass and buckets and cat boxes and bedding all recreate the tragedy. Those of us who live on the Augur Hole Road pass the house every day and review the event in the passing. The fire settles into the well of neighborhood lore along with other house fires and Irene, the flood which wiped out parts of our road six years ago.

            I was lucky then too, but that’s another story. 

Writing like a Painter 

Here’s one reaction to David Rohn’s recent show of watercolors at the Mitchell-Giddings Gallery in Brattleboro, For full disclosure, David is a friend. He’s an awfully good painter whose reputation stretches far beyond the rave reviews in the local media. I wish I could write like he paints. How I would love to give readers more pleasure than angst, but angst is part of writing, at least the kind I do. My question is whether writers work from different desires, different assumptions than painters. Does the play of light on objects and the composition of shapes and colors aim for the same effect as the written word, that the reader or observer will not turn away? Will he keep looking, keep reading, even remember a image or idea long after he closes the book or walks away from the painting?

You don’t hang fiction on your wall. Reading is an intimate act, a potential bond with the writer. Stories are often written out of pain, and about pain, based on what the writer has lived or observed, the actions of people who inspire his characters. Obsessions need to be made sense of, put into some attractive form. After that, if luck can place the work before a reader, it might be appreciated.

Images from the current exhibition at Mitchell-Giddings Gallery, Brattleboro

In David’s case you pause before rich watercolors depicting the objects of every day life, oranges, leafy greens, a bottle of water, a porch after a rain, a glass bowl on a green cloth, sketched so suggestively that you can see clear glass even though it isn’t there. The shapes are alive, they bleed colors never seen before. The eye zooms in, a prisoner, hooked like the hook in a story – Call me Ishmael! The eye travels where the artist wants it to go, no questions asked. And you say to yourself,  I’d like to have that one on my wall.

In writing you turn the page if the story hooks you. You arrive at an ending where characters either come to terms or don’t. They go on living or continue on their path until death makes its statement. Still, the question is whether a writer’s impetus is different than that of a painter. I don’t know what a painter like David starts with. Is it light and the relation of things to each other?  These watercolors are all still, there are no people – David also works in oils and the human form, and the source of that work might be another discussion.  

A writer can start with anything, a concrete image, a line of dialog, an abstract idea. Does the painter also work from that terrible freedom? Does a painter observing human folly, life and death, somehow invest that in his paintings, into his fruits and jars and plain air scenes? What does he see, and why does he see?

The answer must lie in the mystery, so I’ll settle for Henry Miller’s commandment to writers – don’t be nervous, work calmly, joyously, recklessly.... 

Finding America

            You grow up with prejudice, but that doesn’t mean you practice it. My Queens neighborhood was predominantly Irish and Jewish with an overlay of Italians. On Wednesday afternoon school was let out for religious instructions. The Jewish kids went to synagogue, the Catholics to St. Joan’s church. Stereotypes abounded and slurs were in the air, the Irish as drunks, the Jews as crafty, the Italians as gangsters. And yet so few people acted on the stereotypes despite the slogans and aspersions: Guns for the Arabs, sneakers for the Jews! Mick! Greaseball! much in jest but with that underlay of prejudice we can’t deny. In the public schools where we learned together there was rarely any ugliness, and yet as I say this, am I getting to the core, to the bottom? One day I walked into a store on Lexington Avenue wearing a suit and tie. A woman came up to me and said, “So how’s the Mafia today?” It hurt then, but am I such an angel? Do I secretly harbor those slurs and stereotypes from childhood conditioning? Do I measure each new person by that ethnic yardstick, or as I grow older and a little wiser do I ask how they don’t fit the mold. There’s still that residue of prejudice.

Ethnicity is our history, written about by each generation as they saw what was going on around them: James T. Farrell, Henry Roth, Pietro DiDonato, Richard Wright, Sherman Alexie, and now the Asian-Americans. The American story is an ethnic story, and the going was rougher for some than others. When one of our my sisters married a black man the reaction of my father and his Italian cadre was shameful, but they soon came around and welcomed a new member of the family. Why was that? Because they were immigrants too. I’m in the process of composing an email to some cousins in Sicily who want to know what I think about Trump. When I previously called him a Mussolini they weren’t so sure. Overwhelmed by refugees from North Africa, their city of Palermo has neither space nor money nor jobs. They want the refugees gone. When I answer their e mail I will explain that here in America we do have space, we can make space, those who come now will be no different than those who came before – those who made us stronger, more interesting, more daring as we learn to live with each other. There’s no backing away from that.

For the Birds

            My grandma believed that birds were the souls of the dead. She would throw out bread soaked in water for the sparrows, grackles and stray pigeons from the nearby coops. She also believed in olive oil as a universal cure and that certain people possessed “the evil eye.” When she walked around our house in Queens with the rosary beads wrapped around her fingers she prayed in a dialect that sounded like typewriters at high speed.

Our house in Jackson Heights was a block from the Roosevelt Avenue el with its periodic rumble of above-ground subway cars. The trains shook the ground and made speech impossible. The kids I grew up with were Jewish, Italian, and Irish. The Irish boys who dominated the parochial school at Saint Joan of Arc church were a rowdy bunch. They joined up with Italians like me while the Jewish boys for the most part kept to themselves and at times valiantly and physically defended themselves against slurs that horrify us today. All that is changed now. History moves fast. Visit the neighborhood today or watch the recent PBS Special on Jackson Heights and find the most diverse neighborhood in the city or even the world, from Latinos to South Asians, Chinese, Muslims, Koreans and others. Nothing looks the same except the el, and only a vestige of the European base remains.

            My grandpa made wine every year in the basement, and my three uncles would turn the press with an iron pipe to his admonition spoken through a Di Nobili cigar. “No squeeze!” Squeeze too hard and the wine will taste like seeds and stems. The oak barrels of red Zinfandel were stored in a wine cellar which also held cheeses and fresh green olives smashed with a hammer and left to marinate in brine. The olives were forever bitter. My uncles called Grandpa “The Boss” and gently poked fun at the old world ways instilled in that Sicilian town where he grew up. And when I developed an interest in family and asked why he’d come here, he had a simple answer: “There’s nothing over there!”

            The neighborhood that produced both John Berryman and Don Rickles – that master of insult comedy - always had something special, something I can’t define, an intensity and a history that provided a matrix for the diverse groups of today. Our house was a short walk to my grade school, Public School 69, it’s playground a stage for the formative drama of our lives. On the way to school I would pass the public library, and one day I wandered inside and did something that changed my life. By chance I picked up a young reader’s version of The Trojan War and read the book while standing. I read it again without moving from the spot. Mesmerized by the story of the wooden horse and the terrifying victory of Achilles over Hector, I became a believer. Now those final lines of The Iliad are with me always: Thus was the funeral of Hector, Tamer of Horses.

            There were two supper clubs within a few blocks of our house. The nearest was The Orchid Room, next door to the library and owned by a Columbo family capo named Sonny Franzese. As kids we would hang around near the door as the long black cars pulled up and out stepped our role models, the dapper men in dark suits guiding women in furs and diamonds under the awning and into the club. One night Franzese and a younger man were talking in the main room. A shot rang out and the young man fell to the floor with his cold pistol in hand. The story went that Sonny drew his pistol from under a five-hundred dollar suit and fired before the assassin could pull the trigger. The body was immediately dragged out to the street a block or so away. The blood was cleaned up and everyone played dumb when the police arrived. 

             A few blocks west was a club called The Blue Haven. This was one of the places in Brooklyn and Queens where Lenny Bruce started out, appearing under his real name, Lenny Schneider. On “amateur” nights Lenny would get up from the audience as if he’d never performed before and do his act, most likely impressions. He was twenty-five at the time and would eventually became famous for social commentary and his legal battles for protected speech now freely granted to today’s comedians.

            We moved out of that neighborhood when I graduated high school and returned for brief visits or funerals for those who stayed behind. My oldest uncle, at 97, one of those who made the wine, still lives on 78th Street, a half-block from the el track that imparts the neighborhood’s flavor and defining look, that rumble from overhead subway cars and the striped sunlight filtered onto the street below. When I was seven the uncle took me to my first baseball game and from the bleachers I witnessed the crowd going wild when Joe DiMaggio, nearly close enough to touch, made an over the shoulder catch that looked so easy that he could do it in his sleep.

            Here in Vermont with the squirrel proof bird feeder outside the window and the suet cake dangling from the maple tree beyond the reach of any bear, I sip my coffee and study the Jackson Heights of chickadees, doves, titmice, woodpeckers and the Cardinal who lights up the show with his cameo visits. So who are these birds? Is that noisy Blue jay tearing at the suet cake my father? Who are those grandpas, grandmas, aunts and uncles chomping on black oil sunflower seeds and holding innocent conversations while parts of the world are, in Lenny Bruce’s favorite phrase, in the toilet?


            I write this as the Liar in Chief with his Mussolini scowl now clogs the midtown of my city with a security zone at the base of his tower. Swat police armed like old Hamlet, cap-a-pe, head to foot, keep their index fingers on the triggers. He’s from Queens so I know the type. Go low and he’ll go lower. Ah what to do, write a letter, send a tweet, call your congressman and leave a message, post a cartoon with his hand up Liberty’s gown? I grew up with people like him who’d whack you with a Louisville Slugger and then play dumb. Who, me?

        Still, this is the hand I’ve been dealt and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

        As William Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

San Diego, Ocean Beach – November 17, 2016



            In the sweet morning air the tide is high and the surf is big and foamy. On the beach a woman in bare feet dances before the breakers, advancing and retreating with the wash, teasing the ocean with pirouettes and delicately fingered arm motions, the object of the dance to lure the water but to keep her feet dry. She spins and glides ahead of the wash, then follows it back, tossing her hair and daring the ocean to catch her, stopping, bowing, worshipping wind and water.

Out on the pier a pelican on the rail eyes me for a handout as the wind bristles the feathers of his crown. Below me a dozen odd surfers hang in the swells beyond the breakers, paddling in place. Astride their boards, they study the oncoming waves, most of which they don’t take.

            On the beach a surfer zips up his wet suit, attaches a safety leash to his ankle and bellies into the water on top of his board, paddling up and over a crashing wave, or ‘duck diving’ underneath the roll when a wave is to big to climb. Seconds later he pops up in the backwash and continues his two-handed paddle to join the others waiting for waves to break in their favor. 

            To the non-surfer’s eye all the waves look good, but a surfing wave doesn’t ‘crack’ simultaneously along the crest – it breaks from one side and builds ahead of the break. To catch a wave the surfers paddle furiously in front of the building crest, and when the breaking wave propels them forward they push up with their arms and stand on the board – this is the hard part. Now comes the balancing act, bent at the knees, hips and arms moving to maintain balance, they do their own dance as the ocean pulls and pushes on the board. With luck they can ride the constantly forming barrel and keep ahead of the inevitable breakup and roll. Those more experienced anticipate the wipeout and turn back up and over the wave when the ride is over. They remain standing until the board naturally sinks. Those with similar presence of mind fall backward when the barrel collapses. This keeps the board in front and minimizes the chance of a head injury. Those less experienced fall helplessly into the roll. Some dive off their boards at the last second while others disappear in the roll and pop up in the backwash spitting water and smoothing their hair before paddling back out.        

            This is the longest concrete pier in Southern California. At nearly a half mile, the pier begins at Newport Avenue in downtown “OB” - as it’s called – and ends in a long T. There’s a cafe and bait shop midway out. Because the pier gives access to deeper waters it’s a popular fishing spot, and even before sunup several fishermen already have their lines in the water. As a weak winter sun colors the ocean and warms the air, more fishermen come, wheeling their carts packed with spinning rods, ice chests, bait pails, and folding chairs. Gulls and pelicans on the rails look for bits of discarded bait. Many of the fisherman are Chinese and Mexican. The Chinese dress for the wind in flop hats tied under their chins, or wide bamboo hats we associate with the far east. The Chinese men, and women, tend to fish by themselves. Mexicans like to bring their families for a fishing picnic as fathers teach their kids how to bait a hook and cast a line. Rod handles are set in pre-drilled holes in the railing and the hopeful watch their brightly colored floats and wait for a bite. Others spin cast with a shiny silver spoons or live minnows tied to a hook. They retrieve the bait to imitate a wounded minnow, letting it sink, pulling it up, letting it sink again, hoping an angry bonito will take the bait in one thrilling swipe.

            At the end of the pier a Chinese man pulls up a cage net with a few small herring caught in the mesh. He saves the fish in a bucket of sea water and lowers the net back into the water. As the net sinks he throws in a few handfuls of wet dough which break up into powder. I lean over the rail and watch. The man’s friend comes along and after a few words in Chinese they revert to English.

            “Not much today,” says the fisherman.

            “Maybe later, when the tide goes out.”

            “Nothing yesterday either.”

            “How’s your back?”

            He shrugs.

            Off the pier now, I head north along the beach where the sand is good for walking. The city has pushed up a berm as protection against recent high tides. I sit on the berm and enjoy the ocean. There are more surfers, some swimmers even at this time of year, joggers with dogs, yogas, a man on a rock in bathing trunks saluting the sea with upraised arms. Sunbathers unfold their towels and blankets, beach volleyball courts are being set up. Some homeless occupy a grassy area just off the beach where the city provides bathrooms and outdoor showers. The showers have spring loaded spigots which squirt city water for a few seconds, long enough to wash the sand from your feet or your surf board. Under one of these spigots a homeless man with his possessions in a shopping cart is taking a full body shower. He knows what he’s doing. Shirtless and wearing athletic shorts, he hits the spigot button over and over to wet himself head to toe. Then he soaps and rinses top to bottom, one section at a time. This is a process of pushing the spigot over and over and gradually getting the job done. By a feat of legerdemain with a towel he also manages a complete change of clothes.

            A young man in a ball cap comes up to me and says, “I have a gift for you.”

            He holds out cupped hands. Okay, I think, this is California, no place for cynicism, no reason to think he might be holding an explosive device.

            “Will you accept my gift?”

            “Or course I will.”

            He opens his hand to a geode, a piece of multicolored quartz, cut and polished at one end.

            “Why are you giving this to me?”

            “Because I am in abundance.”

            “Thank you very much.”

            He moves off as I think of that Whitman poem, As Adam Early in the Morning, which ends, “Be not afraid.....”

Journal Entry – October 3, 2016

            Seventy-seven today. When my wife suggests a party I remind her that October doesn’t have the most positive associations. The whole month is gloomy, starting with hard frosts and dead greens in the garden. This is also the anniversary of the most horrible event in the lives of Brooklyn Dodger fans, of which I was a diehard. This was “The Shot Heard ‘Round The world,” Bobby Thompson’s walk-off homer in the National League Pennant race against my beloved Dodgers. Thompson hit an inside fastball served up by a young reliever named Ralph Branca, known as “the goat” thereafter. Adding insult to injury, news reports later said the Giants had a man with a telescope behind center field to steal the finger signals from the catcher. I was twelve and learning that boyhood dreams never die.

            This day reminds me that I’ll never shuck the weight of those early years which gave me a bank of material to process and placed me at some distance from family and friends. The writer’s curse, and blessing, is to stand with one foot in two worlds -  one lived in and one created for the sake of sanity as well as art. The only road to balance is to write one’s way out, and it helps to read about those who struggled and managed. Raymond Chandler, poor as a church mouse when he decided to write for a living, spent five months on a story called “Blackmailers Don’t Shoot,” his first and far from his best. The story was written ‘on spec’ for a magazine called Black Mask. It sold for one hundred and eighty dollars and Chandler never looked back. Stories, novels, and screenplays followed, along with a trove of essays and letters on the writing life. Chandler slaved over his prose and graced the seedy world of L.A. with his hard edged poetic style. Writing was his balancing act.            

            For writers who endure what Jack Kerouac described as “gloomier moments,” Chandler reminds us that the pleasure of crafting a good sentence or paragraph is itself a reason to live. He advises writers to analyze and imitate as the only way to learn and proudly admits that he doesn’t outline ahead of time. Plots just grow, and if they grow the wrong way he rips them out and starts over. For Chandler, any writer who hates the actual work of writing isn’t a writer at all.

In “Notes from an Unsuccessful Writer’s Journal,” Mario Puzo writes  despairingly that he might never succeed despite having published two well received novels, The Dark Arena  - drawn  from on his experience as a GI in postwar Germany, and The Fortunate Pilgrim, based on his early life in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen and called by one critic “a minor classic.” Puzo admits with pride that the central character in Pilgrim, Lucia Santa, is closely based on his mother; who raised a family in a tough neighborhood and without a husband. While writing The Godfather, Puzo claimed that whenever Don Corleone opened his mouth he heard his mother’s voice. In the journal’s record of his own gloomier days, the pre-Godfather Puzo asks himself why he's written so little. He ascribes his meager output to serious thinking: every minute of the day his mind is focused on what he’s going to write. Writing to him, like all art, is a shield against the poverty of the world as well as a force which holds our lives together.   

            That said, happy birthday to all.

Who Art In

            He was born in 1916 in a dirt road town off the Appian Way. His mother died in the Spanish Flu pandemic soon after. He came here at seven, grew up in Hell’s Kitchen, quit school at sixteen - it was the depression -  worked at who knows what, became a city fireman, then a bar owner, his first in Harlem called The Horseshoe, looted and lost in the riot of 1943; later The Marine Bar on South Street across from the Staten Island ferry. In my growing up years he kept me at home during the week so I wouldn’t quit high school and follow some of my friends into the military. In my college years he bought a bar upstate and in summers we worked it together. I opened up at eight for a customer named Smitty who needed four shots of rye before going to work. In late afternoon he took over and I napped in a spare room upstairs. We worked the night shift together and closed at four. Next came the all night diner for breakfast, after which I’d sleep for a few hours before opening up again. This was seven days a week. One night a drunk he’d kicked out threw a beer bottle from outside that hit the cash register and shattered in his face. In the course of this career his nose was broken five times. His marriage didn’t survive the temptations of the business and he left my mother when I was in my twenties. I resented him for everything. In his late forties he left the bar business and went into real estate, selling and owning property. This was work he finally enjoyed. In the end we made peace. The body that lived for work lost out to diabetes and Parkinson’s. From there it was dementia and the nursing home where he ogled the nurses and tried to sell the rooms as condominiums. He did what he could, gave me a gift, he’s always in the next room.



It’s closing time.

My father and I

pick up empty glasses

and wipe down the bar,

the door is locked and

everybody’s gone

except a heavy set blonde,

at the end of the bar

telling him all night

his son is better looking.

My father totals the register.

She watches as I untie my apron

and get ready to leave.

I have my own car.

He looks at me.



    He awoke in the back of a stolen Oldsmobile Starfire whose rapid acceleration from a red light shot fear into his heart. He'd been trying to sleep despite a stomach churning from alcohol. The Olds accelerated with neck snapping speed and sucked air like a straw sipping the bottom of a glass. The car headed west on Queens Boulevard with three boys in front and four squeezed in back, the radio tuned to the Symphony Sid Show and King Pleasure singing, My Little Red Top, its simple lyric of love driving some of them to sing along. Oh My Little Red Top/how you've got me spinning! With unceasing acceleration the Olds changed lanes without regard for the vehicles slipping by in a blur as they neared Calvary Cemetery, where his grandparents were buried. He now felt a heavy touch of shame at being drunk in a stolen car in the vicinity of his forebears, the salt of the earth, dead not two years, one having followed the other because life alone was untenable. In his mind's eye he saw the grave stone beyond the cemetery's boundary with its giant statue of Christ welcoming his flock to eternity. 

    Then a red light, but seen too late. With a screech of brakes a front tire exploded, the Olds skidded sideways, struck the curb and pitched out of control, the steering wheel spinning both ways through the driver's hands. Although the boys knew that a crash was imminent, these 'assholes' -  his father's word - yipped and yelled for the driver to go faster, displaying not a particle of fear at the impending collision. He realized at last that his father’s description was apt. These friends were crazy and reckless and stupid to celebrate as the smaller car, which they struck from behind, obeyed the Newtonian laws he'd studied. It shot across the intersection like a pool ball.

    After a brief pause the driver of the little car got out, a wiry type in his early thirties wearing a leather bomber jacket. Smiling, he approached with his open wallet held forth like a  crucifix in a vampire film. He jiggled the wallet so the police badge flashed as he neared the car to assess what he had inside.

    "Who is this mother fucker?," the driver asked. His last name was Freud, his nickname 'Ziggie.' 

    The man in the bomber jacket pressed the badge against the driver's side window, and his open jacket revealed a pistol in a belt holster, a small, nasty looking thing whose grip protruded like a cow horn, black and mean. He opened both doors on the driver's side, and with a theatrical gesture as if introducing the boys to an audience, invited them to step outside.


    "Hands on the roof of the car, fellas, then we'll see some I.D."





Vincent Panella

VINCENT PANELLA lives in Marlboro, Vermont and grew up in Jackson Heights, Queens where he attended Public School Sixty-Nine. 

He graduated from Brooklyn Technical High School and later from Carnegie Mellon University where he earned a degree in Metallurgical Engineering. After graduation he worked as an engineer in the aerospace industry and later at a New Jersey wire company.

He served for two years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam War years and then enrolled in graduate school at the Pennsylvania State University.  He received his Master of Arts degree in English from Penn State, and went on to the Iowa Writer's Workshop where he studied under William Price Fox.

He worked as a news reporter for the Dubuque, Iowa Telegraph-Herald and later as the Writing Specialist at the Vermont Law school.

In 1979 Doubleday published his memoir, The Other Side, Growing up Italian in America, with photographs by his wife, Susan Sichel. 

The first of his novels to be published was Cutter's Island, (Academy Chicago, 2000) which won a ForeWord fiction award.  Lost Hearts, his story collection, is published under his own imprint, Apollo's Bow.


Cutter's Island: Caesar in Captivity

This is a revenge tale based on a little known event in the life of Julius Caesar. When he was twenty five, Caesar was captured by pirates and held on an island for forty days. The story of Caesar's liberation and revenge is briefly summarized by historians, but Cutter's Island is a retelling in Caesar's voice and in the context of his world.

The Other Side

The Other Side is a sensitive, candid portrait of an immigrant culture from a third-generation perspective. Vincent Panella portrays his family in Italian villages and American neighborhoods, and what emerges is an critical but loving view of the Italian-American experience: its cloying love, intense frugality, obsession with security, and its strong sense of family cohesion. He writes of his boyhood in Queens, New York, his father's efforts to shape his life, and the fact that "to be a member of an Italian family is never to be simply yourself.

Lost Hearts: Stories

The twenty-three stories in Lost Hearts comprise a rich and candid account of growing up and growing old in Sicily and America. The stories may be read separately, but they are also linked. Original Sin, the opening story set in rural Sicily in 1900, pushes a father-son conflict to its tragic conclusion. The protagonist, Peter Marino, emigrates to America, where his descendants - and especially his grandson, Charlie - experience the conflicts, hopes and the needs that add up to the human condition.

Vincent Panella’s titles are available from his site

Cutter's and Lost Hearts may also be ordered from bookstores and the usual online sites. Both are available in paperback as well as kindle.

The stories from Lost Hearts have all been recorded in the author’s voice and are available on his Amazon page as  MP3 downloads for  99 cents each.

Harback copies of

The Other Side

are available