January 2018




A Subway Ride in… The Twilight Zone



With its vintage fleet of eight subway cars that were once in service from 1932 to 1977, the train emerges from the tunnel, as if out of a time warp. Then as I board, I see a sign and a gentleman at the far end of the car, attired in as if in the 1940’s. What’s going on?



I expect at any moment, that Rod Serling will appear. And with upper lip stuck to teeth, will introduce another train story. But this time it’s about a subway train. And it’s going in an opposite tense, than that which once headed toward Willoughby; an archetypical Main St. town.



A hokey reference perhaps, but this really does feel like time travel. In reality? It’s the “MTA Holiday Nostalgia Train,” scheduled to run for a small window of time leading up to Christmas.


And that fedoraed gentleman, caught up in the spirit of it all and dressed for the occasion, when later recaptured on my iPhone (and slightly Photoshopped), re-emerged as if in a Hopper painting.



Unlike a trip through a history book, an old magazine, or something virtually delivered, this experience is in real time, three-dimensional, and decidedly not some theme park simulation. I cannot think of any such opportunity in another realm. You can’t ever go back again for a Sunday ride in the family station wagon (“Are we there yet?”). But on this ancient yet still functioning transport, on one particular Sunday, “We are there. Now.”


The senses all come in to play, excluding taste of course. Though that old subway fragrance— call it Eau de Industrial Metallic— assails the nostrils in a way, as to almost make its way down to the tongue.


Once in motion, the ears remember that familiar old sound of OARRRRRRRRR; shaped by the tubular underground hollow. And a wind shoots through open windows and doors, to enjoin with the air being churned by overhead fans on this unseasonably mild day. Just contemplating a world once without air conditioning, is enough to make one sweat.


As I run my hand along a cane seat, I recall an association I once made in a stanza within a poem I wrote long ago.

Then picking at the cane seat on the uptown IND
as it drills through the yellow teeth of stations—
a blur out each window and yet not fast enough—
I head up to the Stadium with my dad.

The right-angled layout of some of these seats in smaller spaced cars, could potentially lend itself to some unwanted intimacy during cattle-car hours. That would never fly, in the heightened sexual harassment awareness of today.


However, the infringement on space was an issue even then. Though for different reasons, than say, backpack rudeness (Give Us This Day Our Daily Backpack, NOVEMBER, 2017 MUSE-LETTER). But a 1935 recommendation as to how to deal with one particular problem, is startling for its bluntness and political incorrectness. Even the font seems confrontational. Though accompanied by quaint sort of Monopoly-game style graphics.


Such action today could be dangerous. A woman was recently punched in the face by a guy, because she complained he was “manspreading” on a rush hour subway.


The eye is drawn to such original posters and ads that run the length of each car. In fact, they soon upstage the train itself, to whose cacophonic rhythms in movement, one has become reacquainted.


Most aspects of daily life experience are directly or indirectly represented here. Economies, lifestyle, aesthetics, social mores, and particularly poignant to me, political sensibilities. And for better or worse, they speak to an America that no longer exists.


A sampling.


Take the feasibility of advertising a five-cent pack of chewing gum or candy, to an essentially adult audience. Could such ads for something so mundane really have any impact? And worth the cost to an advertiser? Especially given the absurd claims (with no legal substantiation required), as to the benefits of the product, that anyone would realize can’t be true. And there would be no disclosure of ingredients upon purchase, as mandated today.


“Perfect Gum in the Perfect Package”? Jelly candy loaded with corn syrup and sugar is “Wholesome”?


But all “candying” aside, we have always been concerned to some degree with good health. Smoking was suspect even then. Though it seems tuberculosis was once rampant, and apparently of more concern than cancer. An appeal was made to riders to get a chest x-ray; a photo-op I somehow missed in my snap-happy delirium.


Along with spitting, apparently a nasty habit of past baskets of deplorables, smoking was specifically forbidden on board. But if you had to have a cigarette after getting out of the train station, a bold ad told you there was a healthier way to do it.


Then right alongside the “healthy cigarette smoke,” is another wondrous “health-benefit” ad for a commodity, costing just a nickel— though apparently for women only— let’s hear it for a bar of soap!



Accompanied by a come-hither portraiture bordering on fine art, the safety claim is unclear. Safe from what? (An unwanted pregnancy?). And I guess my mind is in the gutter (as Sarah Huckabee Sanders might have it), but ‘neath this guise of good health, in this ad’s totality, I detect sexual innuendo.


Following good health, was good grooming. And here’s where the men come in. Nothing was once more important to a man then a good shoeshine. And I can’t help but think that with all our “business casual,” sports fitness wear, and just prideful sloppiness in general, where is the pressing need for polish today? Literally and figuratively? On this subway car and out in the world at large?


But maybe if I knew I could get something that was “2-in-1” as promised here (a leathering equivalent of e=mc2 ?), I might start to reconsider.


And dare I once again wax philosophic on the death of the tie? (That the Tie Has Died is News? AUGUST, 2016 MUSE-LETTER). Or the “cravat,” as it was apparently referred to in Arrow-shirt circles. That a knot will fit perfectly with a Gothic collar, is a moot point these days, no?


And what more can you say about the benefits of a hat, than that which was allegedly said by 84 out of 100 women? This following ad goes beyond innuendo and into #MeToo territory. (Who knows what Matt Lauer would have done back then if he was wearing a hat).



But now it’s time for a return to a hero of yesteryear. For in an adjoining car, “The Lone Ranger rides again!” On behalf of a brand of bread, that died with its bleached-floured boots on, about 45 years ago. A bread I made my mother buy for the “Hi-yo Silver!” picture premiums offered for a while, on the end of the wrapping. And whatever did happen to our good old American giddy-up anyhow? The last man I saw on a horse was Roy Moore. But more horseshit; a zero hero.


Patriotism was always at the forefront of American life. Especially during the war years. Or at least, “The Greatest War” years. Everyone who sat on this train when it was still the big engine that could, seemed to be on the same page (or “the same cane”).


Polarization? Would that be something having to do with Admiral Peary? Or Santa? Though now, that word seems to have given way to tribalism. (Can Our Democracy Survive Tribalism? A recent article from New York Magazine asks).


Anyway, there it is. Unabashedly out there. Not something you’d see any more on public transportation.



I expect James Cagney to come stiff-legged dancing through the cars, deftly avoiding a collision with Rod Serling, still standing in my mind’s aisle.


On one last walk through the train still in motion (something no longer allowed), I am caught by an appeal for funding a library to honor “our” president, Kennedy. Was Obama “our” president? Was he honored? The two Bush’s? Clinton? And it would be ludicrous to even ask those questions about the current guy.


This PSA assumes a bi-partisanship we haven’t seen since, well, November 22, 1963? A concept that is supposed to guide governmental affairs, and to be practiced even among the public at large, is now beyond our wildest imagination. The speculations for that, which have been debated ad nauseum, need not be rehashed here.


Suddenly with a jolt—the last stop. The doors have opened. Time to get off.


To paraphrase—with a twist— that familiar quote that “sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” (which by all accounts is incorrectly attributed to Freud)… “sometimes a train ride isn’t just a train ride.”


Back to the present. 2018. Happy New Year!







Picture a Palindrome #7








“Coney Island Baby”: The Poem


Coney: a spiny-finned fish
found on the western coast of the Atlantic


I took my girl to Coney Island
when the moon was in its infancy.
And we swam in its newborn light
        just like
those at one with this specific ocean,
the spiny-finned fish.

Then finding sea legs and exhaling,
we emerged to walk
        the boardwalk
one plank at a time
to the b-side of The Excellents:


You’re my Coney Island baby
You so precious, so sweet


Endless nights of cotton candy
melting on tongues
        a wheel of wonder —
the challenge of the Cyclone
that very first deep drop
(                                )
off the heightened edge
        of anticipation—
               catching our breath
                     hanging on dearly
in a free fall to where?
How her honeycomb hair


flared so madly behind her;
        shrieks and squeals of delight
in that park of no apparent theme
but indulgence in Doo-wop desires


that went the way of Steeplechase.




                                Ron Vazzano






2018: A Year of Notable 50th Year Anniversaries



“There you go again.” Time passage.


As I just went through a train ride going back over eight decades and in un-rounded numbers, what is so special about 50 years? And why a need for some specific half-century shout-outs to what will be arriving this year?


Fifty years seems expansive enough to be called history. Yet well within an average human life span. Therefore, the possibility of personally recalled experiences. Some of which might be applicable to today, considering some of the current social and political upheaval.


I can’t help but think at times, of the opening lines from Kipling’s If.

If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you

But we’ve been there before. Seen worse. At least these eyes have. And have survived.


The year was 1968.


It was packed with events that still seem to reverberate in some way. For one thing, they demonstrated that what was unimaginable… could actually happen. Much the same way that fifty years from now, people of all political persuasions will still be dissecting how a man without any prior political experience, could make the leap from reality TV host to the presidency. And the profound change it made on the nature of that office.


Just as they might one day still be referencing the #MeToo movement.


Time’s “Person of the Year” (though I don’t think calling them “The Silence Breakers” will have any legs), could turn out to have created a Defining Moment. Time, not the magazine, will tell.


It need be said at the outset, that 1968 was not all doom and gloom. There were some events which were unequivocally positive. The first human heart transplant (Christiaan Barnard on scalpel), and astronauts orbiting the moon for the first time on Christmas Eve (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.”), readily come to mind. In fact, that Apollo 8 crew was Time’s “Men of the Year.” Name drop alert: I once got to meet Jim Lovell. Good guy.


But in the main? In bullets points (certainly no pun intended), and without need of Googling…

• March 31st: Lyndon Johnson announces he will not seek another term.
• April: Martin Luther King is assassinated.
• June 6th: Robert Kennedy is assassinated.
• August: the Democratic Convention in Chicago.
• November: Richard Nixon is barely elected.


Johnson, who upon announcing he would not seek another term, became the first president to suffer a TKO while in office. (An equivalent of “No mas,” once uttered by Robert Durán from his corner). Technically, it was not a resignation. That would come seven years later. Nixon would be the first to actually resign. (Under the dangling sword of impeachment, of course).


Watching the telecast that April Fool’s eve, you couldn’t help think at first, ”Is this a joke?” It wasn’t. In the growing vocal disgruntlement with Nam (even Walter Cronkite became disenchanted), Johnson became another casualty of the war. This was unprecedented. It meant that people taking to the streets in protest, could make a difference in an immediate tangible way.


And it seems today, that there are more people, taking to more streets, about more things, than I can recall since.


Soon after, Martin Luther King was gunned down.


Upon his assassination, there was much rioting and looting. I can remember seeing damage done on the subway in angry response, later that night. And soon thereafter, being approached on another dark night by “merchants” forcing on me—at super bargain basement prices— the spoils of the rioting. Call it Close Encounter of an Urban Kind.

Me: (playing dumb) “How can you sell it so cheap?”


They: (in exasperation) “The riots man! The riots!”


Me: “I’m sorry. I’m broke right now” (holding my breath that they would let me be).

Less than two months later, Robert Kennedy, who had quelled the anger of one crowd over King’s assassination, suffered the same fate.


Following a brief victory speech after the California primary, when at around 2 or 3AM (EST) Kennedy concluded, “Now on to Chicago,” I went to bed. I was awakened the next morning by my mother telling me he had been shot in the head.


Moving on to Chicago, the Democratic convention was the scene of a first: America beating up on its people on live TV!


You might have been watching something coming out of a third world country, with protestors chanting, “The whole world’s watching! The whole world’s watching!” And it was. Questionable excessive police force is still an issue today.


Another first, was a member of the press, CBS’s Dan Rather, getting roughed up by security in the midst of reporting from the convention floor. What the hell is going on? The First Amendment was seemingly being trampled on, both in and outside the convention hall.


That November, I stayed up all night watching the election returns drip in. Too close to call. I had my army physical coming up that very next morning. And as I was likely to be drafted, I had a dog in the hunt. Yes, it was all about ME, as is often the case of youth. (Not to mention, the case of beer).


The implications of a Nixon victory over Hubert Humphry were critical: a more prolonged, intense and expanded war. For certain. (Not to mention all that would transpire during his truncated tenure, which we had no way of anticipating).


“I” would lose the election, pass the physical, yet avoid the war. A story too long to tell, that seemed to include some form of divine intervention.


My draft card was ultimately reissued with a deferment designation, and in my new name (at the time). I still have it. Not the name, but the card. And for those who might have never seen one of these things and are curious, “submitted for your approval” (or disapproval), Exhibit 3A. Many of course did not defer, and my hat remains off to them (A Year in Nam: Fifty Years After, MAY, 2016 MUSE-LETTER).


Every generation will have its events, that 50 years later, will still be talked about as if they occurred last Tuesday. Often because they represented something bleak and unimaginable. Those who came before, had their Titanic, their Black Tuesday, their Pearl Harbor. Gen X’s and Y’s, on September 11, 2051, will recall where they were when they heard the news. And how it affected them.


Such anniversaries become meaningful as a reminder of how they altered the way one comes to look at things, and literally at times, altered lives. Hopefully in some positive way. But I guess as always, when trying to impart the importance of the tales older folk tell from long ago, say 50 years ago, well…”You had to be there.”







Quote of the Month









Extraterrestrial Life: An Alternative Question


UFO’s. They’re baaaack. In the news. And this time it seems different, as the government has gone public with documents that for years were kept under wraps. And those documents reflect some serious attention to the issue.


Recently on CNN, a former Pentagon official, Luis Elizondo, said he believes that there is evidence of alien life reaching Earth. This in conjunction with a video just released by the US Department of Defense purporting to have spotted a UFO off the coast of San Diego in 2004. Why not? Great weather! That’s where I’d go if I was an ET.


Beyond such intriguing sightings, there is always the “mathematical-probability” position for life elsewhere. As expressed in laymen’s language by a Propulsion Systems Engineer at NASA, Robert Frisbee (an ironic name given the subject matter at hand) it goes like this: “Given the 100 billion stars in our galaxy, someone out there somewhere, is gotta’ be kicking around on other planets.”


Then there’s something called the Drake Equation consisting of seven variables, that attempts to predict the chances of advanced alien life existing, or having existed at one time in the Milky Way galaxy.


Don’t ask.


But tweaking that formula (among other things), a new study published two years ago by a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Rochester, concluded that:

"Our result is the first time anyone has been able to set any empirical answer for that question, and it is astonishingly likely (italics, mine) that we are not the only time and place that an advanced civilization has evolved."

“Astonishingly likely.” Never heard anything phrased quite that way before.


54% of Americans believe ET’s currently exist, according to a new poll also taken couple of years ago (Newsweek, 9/29/15). I am personally, astonishingly open to the possibility.


But the more astonishingly hypothetical question for me, is not about ET’s existence, but lack thereof. To wit (with poetic line breaking for emphasis):

What would be the implication(s),
if against all probability,
it was ultimately determined
beyond a shadow of a doubt,
that we are alone
and always have been?

Just saying.







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