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THE FIRE ESCAPE...IN MY MIND by Mike Burns

     
THE FIRE ESCAPE...IN MY MIND
  by Mike Burns         
     Yes, it is hazy, that fire escape, but it is real. The smell of the grates is real. The rust that stuck to our shirts is real. The rickety stairs leading to...who knows? The street? Trouble? Danger? Safety? I never knew for sure. I still don't know. But it is real. Hazy...but real.

     I still visit it...in my mind. Still scan the blocks of the neighborhood from it. Hear the a cappella voices rising from the corner. Wonder about what was said, what we did, why we did it, how we laughed, how we argued, how long innocence lasted, when it left exactly. The stairs shook when we walked on them. They creaked, they felt as though they might give way at any moment, a structure meant to protect could destroy with a single step. But it was, ultimately, our step to take or not to take. Hazy even then, I guess.

     We leave people and things behind, but some remain. They are not always clear. They are not always exact. They are often flickering replicas of what we once knew. But they are real. The people. The decisions. The results. The remnants.

     Hazy...but real. Like that fire escape in my mind.

Read The Fire Escape Stories, Volumes I and IIamazon.com/dp/1537411128 

© Copyright Chuck Cascio. 2016. All rights reserved.

 

Sally-Boy, Mikey, and Robert Frost

 

In my books, The Fire Escape Stories, Volumes I and II, neither Sally-Boy Boccanera nor Mike Burns is likely to wax poetic. However, in Volume II, as they grow and become more aware of the world swirling around them in the early 1960s, the political turmoil, the overt racism, and the drumbeats of war, they might well relate to the concerns some people feel today. And perhaps, while sitting on that rusty Brooklyn fire escape trying to make sense of the world, this final stanza of  Robert Frost's poem "Reluctance" might help the boys identify something that is emerging inside them. Does it do the same for you? Let me know your thoughts at chuckwrites@yahoo.com 

Ah, when to the heart of man
   Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
   To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
   Of a love or a season?

Jonathan Edwards on Bob Dylan

My friend singer, songwriter Jonathan Edwards (www.jonathanedwards.net) had these rather eloquent comments in reaction to my Blog about Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize for Literature. I think Jonathan provides a unique insight as to what Dylan meant not only to a generation with his social commentary through song, but also what Dylan meant to artists themselves:

Bob was the guy who spoke for us, gave voice to our ever-churning, urgent desire to have things make sense, for our burgeoning culture to achieve the peace he let us know just might be possible. I don't think any of us really knew what each and every song was about, but he engendered in us the will and the curiosity to endeavor to find out and to see ourselves to be as little like Mr. Jones as we could. And he did it all within  a range from smirking satirist to humble servant of the truth and everywhere between and beyond. And all of this contained and illustrated with a reverent music accessible to us all...an entire grateful hungry generation. Thanks Bob, you're the best!

Your thoughts are, as always, welcome by writing me at chuckwrites@yahoo.com. Be sure to check out Jonathan's ever busy concert schedule and new releases at www.jonathanedwards.net.  

© Chuck Cascio

Bob Dylan--Found In Translation

BOB DYLAN—FOUND IN TRANSLATION

By Chuck Cascio

     Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature recently, and some people raised their eyebrows a bit at the news. Dylan? The raspy-voiced musical icon about whom my mother once said, “If he can make a record with that voice, then so can you!” (which I am not sure was intended to be a compliment to me or a criticism of him...or perhaps a criticism of both!). In any event, I think the award was completely appropriate. No, Dylan is not an author, nor is he a poet in the traditional sense, but if you believe—as I do—Robert Frost’s comment that “Poetry is what is lost in translation,” then Bob Dylan is truly a master poet.

     Frost’s comment has been kicked around by many masterful literary scholars, a group of which I hardly consider myself a member.  However, I have given it considerable thought over the years, and I believe the idea was captured perfectly in the 2003 movie, Lost in Translation.  If you haven’t seen the movie, starring Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson, I won’t give away the ending, but it does an excellent job of conveying the essence of what I think Frost was saying…and what Dylan captures in his lyrics, voice, and music.

     In his most powerful songs, Dylan seems to be striving for something unreachable, something that goes beyond his words and his own attempts at musical adaptation. The result is a genuine sense that he is straining for some explanation or description that he feels he cannot fully express. Like many artists who live with a persistent sense of uncertainty about how their work is understood and accepted, Dylan’s voice and words often resemble a plea of sorts, and in his best works, it is a plea for something bigger, something more than what we already know and experience. Consider this verse from Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”:

Oh, what did you meet my blue-eyed son?

Who did you meet, my darling young one?

                                                                            I met a young child beside a dead pony

 I met a white man who walked a black dog

        I met a young woman whose body was burning

                                                                            I met a young girl, she gave me a rainbow

                                                                            I met one man who was wounded in love

       I met another man who was wounded in hatred

      And it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard, it's a hard

                                                                            And it's a hard rain's a-gonna fall.

     If “poetry is what is lost in translation,” then this is truly poetic. It allows the reader to see clear, somewhat painful visuals, while simultaneously understanding that Dylan’s imagery represents something more, the “white man who walked a black dog,” the “young woman whose body was burning” contrasted with the “young girl” who “gave me a rainbow” and so forth. Yes, put to music, it is a song, but even in that format, it is lends itself to many personal interpretations, individual experiences, and societal commentary. Or…perhaps it’s simply a folk song, or a poem.

     The same is true of so many of Dylan’s works, works that truly touched a particular generation now known as Baby Boomers, a generation to which I belong. There were plenty of voids for Dylan’s words to fill for us, many real life events that seemed to defy translation, logic, and individual rights. So along comes Dylan to tell us to look for the answers that are “Blowin’ In The Wind” and to assure us that “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”  In those confusing and tragic events of the Sixties and Seventies, the images were real, the opportunity for translation significant, the application of the words to personal circumstances plentiful, and, consequently, the impact genuine.

     For anyone too young to have experienced the full impact of Dylan, or for anyone who may need a reminder of the lasting power of poetry—whether applied to music or taken in isolation—consider the following, which is the first verse of Dylan’s “Chimes of Freedom” and see if there is a void today that it addresses, a void that perhaps has been lost in translation in the 52 years that have passed since this poem was first sung by Bob Dylan, Nobel Prize winner:

Far between sundown's finish an' midnight's broken toll

We ducked inside the doorway, thunder crashing

As majestic bells of bolts struck shadows in the sounds

                                                                  Seeming to be the chimes of freedom flashing

Flashing for the warriors whose strength is not to fight

Flashing for the refugees on the unarmed road of flight

                                                                   An' for each an' ev'ry underdog soldier in the night

                                                                   An' we gazed upon the chimes of freedom flashing.

(Readers thoughts always welcome at chuckwrites@yahoo.com)

©Chuck Cascio, all rights reserved.

THE LIGHT OF BROOKLYN (a reflection)

THE LIGHT OF BROOKLYN

(a reflection)

by

Chuck Cascio

     At first the only light would be the final ivory beams of moonlight, blurred by my still sleepy eyes, and then came the traffic lights of Washington, DC, flashing yellow because it was too early for traffic. Maybe dawn's first light or the roar of a truck or my parents' whispers in the front seat of the car would eventually fully awaken me, and then I’d remember with a rush of excitement that we were headed for New York—Brooklyn to be precise.

     Brooklyn, where the talk was tough and the hearts were tender, where bagels were soft and pretzels were hot, where porches were "stoops" and base­ball was "stickball'' and where the "yard" was no half acre—hey, what half acre? who you kiddin’?—it was a fenced lot behind an apartment building, just a short drop off the fire escape steps.

     Trips to Brooklyn, where I was born, were filled with so much. Grandparents, aunts and uncles, and so many cousins who taught me the games of the street like stoop ball, stick ball, and fire escape jumping, and, when I was a little older, dance steps that were almost suggestive enough to get me expelled from school back home in Virginia.    

     I could always find a cousin to ride with on the subway to Ebbets Field or Yankee Stadium, or to rate lemon ice shops, or to pick up a “slice” on almost any corner. The reunions with relatives, all of whom spoke at the same time at staggering volumes in a combination of Italian and Brooklynese, were festivals of laughter, lasagna, cannoli, chianti (which you took at least a sip of no matter how young you were), and stories of questionable origin and veracity.  But I ate and I sipped and I played and I listened…and I believed it all.

     We'd arrive in Brooklyn at mid-morning. Daylight always exposed the city's scars—overflowing trashcans, multi-lingual graffiti, and odors so distinct you could taste them.  But none of that bothered me, because I chose to delight in Brooklyn’s charms—the gesturing people, the corner candy stores, and the sense that every resident of every block was part of a family.

     The corridor to the old first-floor apartment where my mother's parents lived was always dark. I'd knock on the door and listen for the comforting sound of Grampa's slippers scuffing across the floor, and then I'd hear his asthmatic cough and his familiar wheeze grow closer.  Grampa unlocked the door, and the apartment light sliced through the hallway's darkness.

     The thin little man with the sleeveless undershirt smiled. He spoke sparingly because his English was still awkward despite his years away from Italy, and the effort to speak was especially great on days when the asthma was bad. But the smile on the well-creased face was genuine, and so was the surprising strength of the hug. Then he would return to his seat at the table next to the window where he would smoke, sip vermouth, cough, and call out in an Italian rasp to friends who walked by.  If the asthma was bad, he would just wave.  But everyone stopped at the screened-in window to say “buongiorno” or “buona sera” or just to tip their hat.

     I would stare at Grampa—his little chest heaved as he sat.  I knew of no one else like him, no one so frail yet so essential to everyone and everything.  There were never any easy, involuntary breaths, only what seemed like conscious efforts to suck in air. Often, his Italian words would come in barely audible snatches, but no matter how noisy the room was, when Grampa spoke, people listened. He could start my parents and aunts and uncles talking by uttering just one throaty syllable. But then he could stop an argument with one gesture and a stare.

      Despite the visible strain of every breath, Grampa was steady with his hands. He would take a pencil and make strong delicate lines freehand on any nearby piece of paper—a napkin, a shopping bag, or the back of an envelope would do. I would watch him as he looked upward at the cracked ceiling, his mind creating a distant picture, and then his pencil would duplicate that private vision. Sometimes it took a few minutes, sometimes many, but he would eventually motion for me to come closer to him. He would then hand me the drawing—a clown or a cathedral from his beloved Italy or a smiling boy on a bicycle—and he would smile, his face a roadmap of lines, hug me, and dismiss me with a kind look or a squeeze on the shoulder.

      When the asthma wasn't bad and his stamina was good, he would make paper puppets for me, clever ones with sharp faces and clothing drawn in detail.  He would cut out the arms and legs and magically arrange threads so the puppet's parts would move. Sometimes he'd play with me by being the puppet's voice in Italian. I couldn't understand the words, but I understood the affection.

      Grampa combed his straight, thin hair with a tortoise-shell comb about three-inches wide and three-inches long. His clothing hung in an old wooden wardrobe where he also kept mints that he shared with me. Sometimes, after I had gone to bed at night, he would leave a stack of coins on top of a piece of paper with my name on it so I would find them in the morning when I awoke. They were mine to keep and to take and spend at the corner candy store.

     Grampa was the first to die. I was eight. We had been to Brooklyn for Christmas and a few days after returning to our home in Virginia, we received the phone call. We traveled back to Brooklyn by train instead of car. The train smelled musty, and the frost on the windows allowed me only a few glimpses of the water, tenements, and towering buildings that comprised the East Coast landscape.  My mother, whose was known as Blanche but whose birth-name Bianca, didn’t speak or cry during the entire trip, staring straight ahead, saying a rosary quietly. My father sat with his arm around her the whole way. 

    When we entered the little Brooklyn apartment, my beautiful Aunt Anna opened the door, and my mother, the youngest in her family, wept openly in her sister’s arms as we stood in the dark doorway.  Aunt Anna kept repeating through her own tears, “What will we do, Bianca, what will we do without Papa?”  Their brothers, my Uncle Joe (actually “Giuseppe”) and Uncle Gig (actually “Luigi”), discretely dabbed at their own red eyes as they attempted to console their mother, my wailing Nana Emma.

     Years later, Nana Emma described Grampa’s death to me, struggling with her English:

     "You Grampa, he sitting on his chair by his window, and he say to me, ‘Emma, where are you?’ I say, 'I’m-a right here, Michael.  But why?  Can you no see me?'  He say, 'But where? Everything is dark, Emma, I no see nothing.'  You Grampa, he’s-a breathing so hard, so I run out of the house; I looking for help; when I coming back inside in one minute…he's-a dead."  Confusion and loss and the resignation that life somehow moves on through death flashed across her kind, round face as she reached for my hand.

     I continued to go to Brooklyn until almost everyone else had either moved or died.  But I was growing up a child of the suburbs, and very gradually over the years, Brooklyn became a world apart, a world where apartments shrank, sky disappeared, and some family stories became too awful to believe…even though they were true. Then there was the car ride—it grew longer as I grew older and there was definitely no more thrill in starting the trip in darkness. Especially when I knew it would end that way too.

© 2016 Chuck Cascio.  All rights reserved.