NEW ENGLAND WALKABOUT

It was fall and time for a trip to New England. My great friend Craig Harvey and I landed in Boston and things went well at first. We rented some sort of Honda and pushed start but the beast refused to move. We pumped the brake peddle, and whispered incantations; we yelled threats but were finally forced to ask a young fellow in the yard how they could rent us a brand new car that wouldn’t start. He looked at us with kindness and explained that all we had to do was push on the pedal (formerly known as the gas peddle) because it was a hybrid and it was actually on all along.

Ok, Ok, let’s get out of here. So into Boston which glowed invitingly in the distance. My advice – don’t take the 90 into town. Sure it goes to Boston but it has no exits at all in Bean Town so we ended up in Cambridge and had to double back. We were headed for the North End but somehow missed it and after about an hour found ourselves back at the airport. In fact, right in front of the Hertz office. We went inside and asked directions. It turned out that the neighborhood we were headed for was not much more than a long walk, which we considered doing at that point. Finally we parked in town and tried to open the trunk. This turned out to be something of a challenge. It was cold and Craig wanted his jacket. After a careful search and an expletive-filled interval, we uncovered the cleverly camouflaged release button where we were surprised to discover that his bag was back at the Hertz counter. This was starting to get interesting. So, to the Hertz office once more where we grabbed the bag under the suspicious glare of the counterman. Safaris like this are really quite difficult and fraught with peril – so be warned. We went back to Boston but failing to find parking ended up in Cambridge where we had been seemingly days before.

We stopped at a hotel and asked for a room. The desk clerk laughed heartily and when he calmed down explained that it was regatta weekend, the biggest weekend of the year. The Head of The Charles is a boat race where folks from all over the world come to the historied river to row skinny watercraft up and down, all the time being screamed at by some angry little person with a megaphone.


Just before bursting into tears at the prospect of sleeping in the car (me, not Craig) they miraculously scrounged a room they had been saving and we were in. The next morning as we approached our demon car we discovered it was running. It seems the engine charges the battery and comes on from time to time, it you don’t shut the thing down. No matter, it gets great mileage even when it is left running all night.

The race was spectacular. On a clear cool morning from the JFK Bridge, with Harvard as the backdrop, we inspected these clever craft sliding by. It was one of those great Ivy League moments that made us – two Berkeley alums – envious until we remembered that the genius types today often drop out of Harvard and move to our neck of the woods.

Our next stop was Concord. You know, home of the Concord grape. Ok Concord, what else have you done for us? Actually they did quite a bit. Concord was the Palo Alto of its day. The Revolutionary War started there because it was a place was the big thinkers lived. At the Concord Museum they have one of the lanterns on display that were lit in the Old North Church indicating if the Redcoats were coming by land or sea. Now it might be one of lanterns but I’m in the famous artifact business too, so I wonder.

When they weren’t starting wars and inventing grape juice the local intelligencia wrote about nature and self-reliance. Emerson proposed that we have a respect for the natural world as opposed to the popular feeling that we were at odds nature so he is considered by many to be the father of the ecology movement. Louisa M. Alcott promoted women’s rights so the women’s suffrage movement has roots in Concord. And Concord was also the center of the anti-slavery movement in America. Concord was also the center of clock making in America and a country that runs on time is one that prospers.

This area, like so many across New England, is replete with closed factories left over from the Industrial Revolution. Many have been shut since WWII. There was a brief revival as the tech hub in the 60s and 70s around route 128 but we snatched much of the rug from under those enterprises and took it out west.

Craig and I drove across the Massachusetts to Great Barrington to spend the night with Bruce Kelly in his country manse surrounded a forest of trees flaunting their finery of yellow, gold and red, all screaming, “look at me, look at me!”

We then zipped down to Old New York and dropped off the devil car. New York is in a word – Fabulous. It is like landing on the moon but in a hybrid Honda. My son Dylan showed up and we joined the throngs on the sidewalks. On one excursion we spied a really clever alligator purse in a store window. We guessed 5 gs. It was $22,000. I saw a crystal chandler in one shop – a cool 140 grand, plus shipping. In another store they has just sold a 1943 $10,000 Treasury note for $55,000. We were really taken with the idea that there were several stores which sold money.

At one point we found ourselves in a Rolls-Bentley-Lamborghini-Porsche store. There were so many cars at roughly a half million that it was hard to pick just one. And who the heck buys a Rolls off the rack? After all you want the albino crocodile hide luggage to be monogrammed just right don’t you?

One of my aims was to go to Argosy Books to check out their first edition of a Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana. This is the book printed in 1840 about California that set the world’s imagination on fire before the Gold Rush. This 5-story bookstore is jammed with books, maps and prints on every imaginable subject. Another store that really grabbed us was Evolution in SoHo. There they specialize in selling the skeletons of all sorts. I really mean all sorts, mostly human fetus bones. Ugh!

We made sure to cruise the art galleries in Chelsea where we had real trouble figuring out the economic model. One gallery held a multi-ton, stainless steel tree-like structure festooned with refrigerator sized human organ-like parts also of metal. It wound throughout the many rooms and had been constructed on site. Not just unsalable but unmovable as well. The most provocative show was by Gottfried Helnweig. This is a major painter and wack job who paints photorealistic portraits of young girls. They are huge canvases and the detail is unparalleled. Many are hauntingly lyrical but a few of the kids are wearing SS uniforms and seem to have been recently gunned down. Might look good in the hall but…

On Broadway we attended a strange and ragged production of Merchant of Venice. I know, who am I to criticize Shakespeare? The one making you lunch that’s who! The recent movie is great but I think the actual story is a mess. Sure, the language is spectacular with its “pound of flesh” and “all that glitters in not gold.” but the story is …ehhhh. The production was either badly or misdirected as it had the feel of a 19th century melodrama with a lot of eye rolling and over acting. At one point I saw a fellow in the audience who looked like the love child of Yahoo Serious and Crusty the Clown. It was the orange haired head of Python, Eric Idle. We made visual contact and rolled our eyes in sync with the actors on stage. A perfect New York experience.

My favorite store was Plaza Watch and Jewelry. It’s near 57th and 7th and had stacks of rather valuable watches in plastic bags piled about a foot deep in the windows. I mean really, all these Rolexes just heaped up like junk. Inside they sold ephemera so obtuse that I was lucky to escape. Obscure baseball cards, dusty animal heads and a tiny bellman’s outfit sized for the midgets they used to employ in that trade. I really wanted it but 15 grand? Yikes! The owner was a man so rotund he couldn’t get between the counters and the floors were strewn with years of trash. And this in the shadow of Carnage Hall.

New York City is completely in love with itself and I can see why. There is a saying that if you, “Stand in front Rockefeller Center long enough and you will eventually see everyone you have ever met.” Sounds about right.

BLUE WHALE ON BEACH

Whales have been tooling around off San Francisco like they own the joint this year in numbers not seen in decades. In a two-hour period this fall at the Farallones we counted at least two dozen humpbacks. For some whales all this swimming about doesn’t work out too well when there is a contest between them and a ship. The ship generally wins and there have been at least six documented whale strikes off our immediate coast this year. It hasn’t been fully confirmed but it is likely that the 80-foot blue whale that washed up on the beach below Pescadero was the victim of one such encounter.

The mother came ashore in early October accompanied by an aborted half-term calf. This forlorn pair drew a crowd but a small one compared to a Justin Bieber sighting. After a couple of weeks there were never more than a handful of folks at the beach to look at the whale. I think this odd considering that the last blue to come ashore was in the 1920s on the Atlantic in Canada. Here is to opportunity to touch the largest animal to walk or swim on this planet since it was formed 4.6 billion years ago on, I believe, a Thursday.

In a month the whale was been reduced by sea and tide to about half its bulk and it will soon be just a few bones left bleaching on the beach. I would dearly love to scrounge a bone but they are not only quite huge but also surrounded by signs warning that to disturb any part of a marine mammal can result in a federal felony rap. I think I‘ll just leave them there.

I do have a narwhal tusk, which I was sent by the president of Iceland but it is still officially on loan and is officially their property. In Iceland they pass these out like pixie sticks and, along with fish, crushing national debt and sadness, are their only exports. Can the troubles in Iceland be the karmic result of their tendency to use whale meat in their tacos? I wonder.

DAY OF THE HORSE

Every year on the second Saturday in October hundreds of horses descend on Woodside and ride around pretending to obey the commands they have been taught. They way these horses are so lovingly cared for I wonder if it’s the rider or the horse giving the orders. The Day of the Horse is one on which you hear all sorts of unusual expressions like ramuda, belvin and corn liquor.

Woodside is a very old American town by California standards. It used to be a two-fisted Wild West town with saloons, cowboys on horseback and gambling halls (actually with all the venture capital speculating there is still a lot of gambling). I’m told that the town used to be called Whiskey Hill and with 22 saloons at one point that sounds about right. The bordellos have largely disappeared but we still have the horse. In fact Woodside is one of the horsiest towns in the world. Horseback riding today is one of the few pastimes where the participants don’t get laughed at for sporting a funny hat and leather whip…or do they?

We have a hitching post at Buck’s and it isn’t some vestige of the past but is still in daily use. A custom has developed of bringing one’s bridle into Buck’s and draping it over the Statue of Liberty. I know some will say that this is sacrilege but in spite of what you might have heard this is not the real Statue of Liberty but in fact is a rather bad casting made out of Modelo beer cans. But the horses are real enough and the town has enthusiastically welcomed the event.

In 2005 Fentress Hall and Donna Poy thought it would be fun to invite a few riders to come and ride all around the town and have a little horse fair at town hall. Now the ride is in its sixth year and the event has grown to include well over 300riders with many more coming to the fair. There are countless horse events all over the country – jumping, cutting, ride & tie, and thoroughbred racing but the Day of the Horse isn’t any sort of contest. It’s just a day in the sun with your horse and your hat riding along – spitin tabaccie and mumbling, “Gol’ dern, Effie, I can’t wait to get to the general store and get me some a that peppermint candy and sarsaparilla”.

THE BUCK’S COLLECTION

Jim Lyons approached me one day and said that he wanted to produce a book documenting all the junk here at Buck’s. I said I was flattered but couldn’t see why he would bother. After all I had just cleaned out my garage and nailed a few bits of flotsam to the walls. It took a bit of convincing but he finally persuaded me to let him loose with his team.

This book is actually the product of several collaborators foremost Jim who is retired physicist. Jeff Thomas took the pictures and there is an iphone app, naturally, which was created by Tom Digrazia. Another key person was, the brains behind Buck’s, Margaret MacNiven. Me, I didn’t do anything but wander around drinking coffee and chatting.

Jim made it easy walking me around having me talk into a tape recorder like some WW I doughboy in an old folks home. Now Jim is a very precise fellow and I think it might be his preference that I stop moving or adding things but the day the book was finished I was installing yet more stuff; so this book is snapshot of the day that it was taken and, like the tattoos on a San Quentin lifer, its bound to evolve from one day to the next.

If you use this book intending to build an exact copy of Buck’s in another town you owe me a license fee like Tokyo Disney. On the other hand just go ahead. I’ll can give you the name of my Moscow space suit guy and he can definitely kick you a suit.