Losing my Aficion

In 1960, while studying at the University of Madrid, I met Joe Fernandez, a forty year-old American, who was finishing up his thesis for a doctorate he’d begun at the University of Pennsylvania. He had left the program at Penn because of its “fussiness.” We’d meet only occasionally in the cafeteria because he was so busy writing the thesis.

He was engaged to be married to his cousin, a school teacher whom he had met in his parents’ natal village in Asturias. He spent many weekends in Asturias but he remained in Madrid one Sunday a month to attend the bullfights. He was an aficionado.

color bullfighter2

I had never been to a bullfight. I did see a bullfighter, not in the bullring, but in an elegant barber shop. I had arrived in Madrid the month before needing a haircut:

“Go to the shop in the Plaza de Cuba,” said the courtly Director of the Summer Program at the University. His hair was cut nicely.

The barbershop was on the second floor of a handsome 19th century building: gleaming mirrors with ornately carved frames to the ceiling; bottles of aftershave lotions lined the shelves – jewel like greens, yellows, reds; barber chairs like thrones; tall windows overlooking the Plaza; a hushed quiet and a young manicurist who put Elizabeth Taylor to shame.

Sus cabellos son muy rebeldes,” said the barber as he ran the comb through my hair. “Your hair is very rebellious.” He wet my hair and cut it with a straight razor, the kind that looked like a long, narrow pen knife with a curlicue at the hinge for the barber’s finger. Carlo Perrone, little Chaps, getting a razor cut haircut!

On my second visit to the barbershop, the manicurist had a customer:

“An important young bullfighter,” the barber whispered into my ear.

The bullfighter’s hair lay flat on his head, like a cocker spaniel’s, with tendrils around his ears and along the back of his neck. He spoke quietly to the girl as she polished his fingernails. I could tell that he was sweet-talking her: she never lifted her head, barely nodding or negating now and then. Did she stand a chance? That hand she held, on Sundays, held a sword.

My interest in bullfights dated to my high school years when I had read all of Ernest Hemingway, but I had never been to a corrida. I was delighted when Joe invited me to go to the fights with him on Sunday. But first, he said, early Friday morning we’d go to a small building attached to Las Ventas, Madrid’s main bullring.

Inside was a circular balcony overlooking an enclosure with a hard packed dirt floor, about forty feet in diameter. We joined a number of aficionados, all men, who spoke quietly. A portion of the balcony was reserved for the bullfighters, the matadors, who were to fight on Sunday.

Each matador was accompanied by one or two members of his team, his cuadrilla, the five or six men we would see on Sunday when they’d enter the bull ring arrayed in their finery. Also stationed around the balcony were four or five men holding bamboo rods about fifteen feet long.

A muffled bell rings, we fall silent. A bull appears from under the balcony and moves toward the center of the ring. A word from the matador and one of the men holding a bamboo rod reaches out and lightly touches the bull’s right rear flank with the tip of his rod. The bull spins to his right sweeping his horns around towards an assailant that has somehow managed to get behind him. The matador watches intently. Another word from the matador, another prod of the bamboo rod and the bull spins the other way.

The matador observes closely, as if his life depends upon it. Of course it does. One of his cuadrilla says something . The matador nods. Does the bull react truly to each prod? The matador does not want a quirky bull. And so it goes all morning long until six bulls were chosen, two for each matador. These are the bulls that will fight and die on Sunday afternoon in Las Ventas, Madrid’s main bull ring.

On Sunday Joe and I had lunch at a restaurant near Las Ventas whose menu included criadillas: the grilled testicles of a bull. Eating criadillas gives you courage: cojones. As we ate – not criadillas – Joe continued my crash course in the lore of the corrida. Some years earlier, he had taken part in a bullfighting workshop in which he learned the footwork, the strategy, the handling of the capes; every thing but the sword.

He had practiced his cape work with a very young bull, a calf really, whose horns were little more than nubs. That calf would never see a bullring because he had been contaminated by the knowledge he picked up in the workshop. It was two o’clock! Time to go to Las Ventas.

color bullfighter1

I remember mostly Gregorio Sanchez, the star matador that afternoon, who was popular in Madrid because he was from Castile. Sanchez was stately in bearing as he dominated both bulls. He moved the first bull around masterfully with a brilliant display of cape work that ended with a quite, that abrupt downward stroke of the cape that transfixed the bull. Sanchez turned, to bow gravely to the crowd, the bull’s horn inches from his back. He killed both his bulls quickly and bravely, volapie, over the horns.

The other two matadors that afternoon were competent, although the younger man had trouble with the kill. Instead of planting the sword into the withers, the matador, at the last instant, flinched sidewise away from the horn, driving the sword into the bull’s ribcage. Three or four inches of the sword emerged from the bull’s side, dripping blood. It was not a mortal wound. The stony-faced matador flicked the sword out of the bull, using his cape like a lasso or a whip, and he finished the job to the crowd’s approval.

At day’s end I was charged up and tired. The spectacle was grand, the teamwork of the cuadrillas was impressive, the bravery of the matadors was inconceivable. Sanchez worked so close to the bull that he was was repeatedly bumped by its flank as it barreled past him. His shiny costume, his “suit of lights”, became streaked with blood, the bull’s, not his.

I didn’t tell Joe, but I vowed never to see another fight, never again see those bulls so tormented. I left Madrid early that summer because I realized I was no longer interested in Spanish literature: I had lost my aficion. I had rediscovered Italy four years earlier and Margie entered my life in 1959.

I never saw Joe again but we wrote, exchanging Christmas cards for many years. Joe got his PhD and he married his sweetheart. He accepted a job offer from a college in Greensboro, North Carolina where he initiated its Spanish program. He hired his wife and for many years, they constituted the college’s Spanish department. They retired to Madrid after twenty years and then we lost touch.


Winning the Cruz de Beneficiencia

Occasionally, in Spain or Mexico, a bull that is being carted to the bullring will escape for a terrifying run through the city streets. More often than not it will be an ordinary steer en route to the slaughterhouse; whichever, the bull’s taste of freedom will be cut short by a policeman’s bullet.

The tabloids, especially the sporting ones, always note these impromptu corridas, which are reported tongue in cheek, in the most arch tauromachian style. The authors of these pieces inevitably invoke the name of a long dead matador de toros, Diego Mazquiaran, El Fortuna.


Diego was born in 1895 in Viscaya where his father worked in the coal mines of Bilbao. A coal miner’s wage was hardly enough to support the family, so Diego, at age
fourteen, was apprenticed to a foundry man in the steel mills of Los Hornos. That was a soft job compared to his father’s but Diego didn’t take to it. Like many poor boys in Spain, he was drawn to los toros corridos, the fighting bulls.

By the time he was twelve or thirteen, he and a like-minded friend were frequenting the rustic bullrings in the villages surrounding Bilbao and by night they were stealing into the corrals of the breeding ranches, to run and observe the bulls. It was in Castile that he earned his nickname, El Fortuna (Mr. Lucky).

On their jaunts to distant bullrings Diego and his friend would board the trains surreptitiously, avoiding the ticket collectors by keeping on the move and hiding in the space between cars.. In Valladolid they were standing between the cars as the train pulled into the station, whereupon it was hit from behind by an errant train. His friend was killed but Diego was spared. Lucky.

Upon recovering from his injuries, Diego drifted down to Andalusia, the heartland of the corrida. In Sevilla, he became a delivery boy for a neighborhood bakery. Whom should he find among his customers: the famous Gomez brothers. Joselito and El Gallo, who were two of the stars in Spain’s triumvirate of great matadors. The third was Juan Belmonte. Lucky.

Diego revealed his aficion to the brothers and they took a liking to him. El Gallo advised him, taught him a little, and got him booked into the village ferias where
Diego fought bravely and he gained notoriety. In contrast to the gypsy elegance of the Gomez brothers, Diego had an unadorned style. He relied more on his knowledge of the bulls than on fancy cape-work, although his cape-work was more that adequate. He excelled with the sword, killing in the classic and dangerous volapie style, up and over the horns.

Foetuna in action

He fought twenty-three times in 1914 and in the 1915 season he was judged the best matador de novillos – immature bulls. Some of those “immature bulls” were really difficult mature ones spurned by well established matadors. In 1916 he received his Alternativa – bestowal of senior status: Matador de Toros – from the hand of his sponsor, El Gallo.

Diego, El Fortuna, was a headliner for the next nine or ten years, scoring successes in Spain, Mexico and South America, occasionally on the same card as El Gallo and Juan Belmonte. Joselito Gomez was gored to death in 1920.

Like many young matadors, Diego worked close to the bulls, a risky practice he should have relaxed as he got older and wiser. But he didn’t. Consequently he was gored almost every season, the most serious injury in 1921 when he took a horn in the intestines On that same afternoon the second matador was gored in the buttock and the third man stabbed himself in the foot,

Diego’s injuries took their toll. He was beset by periods of severe depression, milder symptoms of which had first appeared when he was still a boy. In the bullring his performances veered from the occasional triumph to absolute disaster. As he increasingly fell prey to fits of nerves, the disasters began to outnumber even the few workmanlike performances.

As his popularity declined, so did his bookings. He appeared in six corridas in 1926 and only three in 1927. His mental problems worsened and he spent some time in a mental hospital. Discharged from the hospital in late 1927, Fortuna went into involuntary retirement; he was available but the impresarios never called. His luck had run out.

On the morning of January 23, 1928, a bull, perhaps a fighting bull – the reporter’s account is ambiguous – escaped from the van that was carrying it to the slaughterhouse on the outskirts of Madrid. Avoiding its captors, the bull penetrated the city limits via the Segovia bridge, “sewing panic” – the reporter’s phrase – as it went. Unaccountably it roamed the streets for about five hours, trampling several people and seriously wounding a woman.

2 granvia.memoriademadrid.es

At about one o’clock in the afternoon, the bull burst onto the Gran Via, Madrid’s busiest boulevard, thronged at that hour with strollers taking the mid-day paseo. The crowd scattered but one figure stood firm. It was Fortuna, who was taking a walk with his wife. He whipped off his coat and at great risk, he drew the bull’s attention to himself, bringing it to a halt with a deft quite of his overcoat. The street was wet and Fortuna, wearing dress shoes, slipped, fell, and recovered, never taking his eyes off the bull.

By now the crowd had returned and it cheered Fortuna as if in the bullring. His eyes on the bull, Fortuna called out to his wife, asking her to go home – it was nearby – and bring back one of his swords. When it arrived, he folded his overcoat to the size of a muleta, he lined up and move in to the kill, volapie, planting the sword halfway in. In the words of chronicler: “The multitude that had gathered around him – which made his heroic act more difficult – erupted into an emotional ovation, and waving their handkerchiefs wildly, requested an “ear” for the providential matador.”

Fortuna ignored the crowd. Using his overcoat like a lasso, he flicked the half-buried sword from the bull’s withers, and retrieving it, he dispatched the dying animal with a deeper thrust into the bull’s withers. In the bullring that act of mercy would have cost him the ear, his if he had allowed the mortally wounded bull to topple unassisted. Fortuna, in the bullring and on the Gran Via,was not one to let the bull suffer unnecessarily.

He was awarded Spain’s highest civilian medal, La Cruz de Beneficiencia. The impresarios of Spain’s bullrings rediscovered him and for three seasons he fought with some success before friendly audiences. But a storybook ending was not to be.

Fortuna’s mental problems returned, in the ring and out. The friendly multitudes turned merely polite and then indifferent. He made four appearances in 1932, two in 1933, one in 1934 and none in 1935, The 1936 season found him in Peru. After a couple of disasters in Lima’s bullring, the authorities, with his wife’s permission, committed him to an insane asylum.

Oblivion. Except on those rare occasions when an errant bull roams the streets of a city in Spain, Mexico or South America.


Not Go Gentle…

The Medford Leas Bus to Wegman’s Supermarket

It costs $0.585, let’s say 60 cents per mile, to operate a car. If I drive 10,000 miles, about a year’s worth, it will cost me $6,000. If I drive to Wegman’s Supermarket, about 20 miles round trip, it will cost me $12.00.

I’ll blithely drive to Wegman’s to buy an avocado, some olive oil, a piece of cheese, a loaf of Italian bread, and to pick up a medical prescription. The bill, less the medicine, is shocking: $23.48 cents for a few items resting forlornly at the bottom of my shopping cart. The bill is even more shocking when I add $12.00 for my car mileage. Should I use the weekly Medford Leas bus to Wegman’s? Of course I should, it’s free.


I also drive to the public library in Moorestown center (about 20 mile) almost weekly to borrow and return books, to read the Atlantic Monthly and the New Yorker magazines, to pick up that interlibrary loan book I requested, and to chat with my friends on the staff. All free of charge. But it will cost me $12.00 in auto expenses. Should I take the Medford Leas bus to Moorestown center? Of course I should..

Last week I did just that: I took the Leas bus to Wegman’s which is in a strip mall about three miles from the center of Moorestown.: The bus leaves from the Main Entrance of our Administrative Offices building at 1:30PM on Mondays. The bus to Moorestown center leaves on Tuesdays at 9:300AM.

I arrived a little early on Monday and I climbed aboard, using the wooden step-up set in place by the bus driver to help us residents negotiate the high first step of the bus. (I disdained the step-up. I disdain the elevators at Medford Leas.)

The bus seats about twenty people. The back seats have been removed to make room room for the walkers of those residents who cannot walk unassisted. The bus door was open, the driver was somewhere inside the building, probably gossiping with the receptionist at the Front Desk.

Mr and Mrs XYZ climb aboard. I’ve seen them around the campus but I don’t know their names. They are about my age, tall and slender, a little stooped, dressed in good if aging clothes. His tweed sport jacket defines him, as does his wife’s page boy haircut. They look like brother and sister. They are textbook examples of my theory that says some people are attracted to and marry their doubles. They go to the rear of the bus, out of reach, for they are sufficient unto themselves.

Jean and Ann come aboard. I know Jean and I’ve met Ann, who is a recent arrival. They are childhood friends, reunited at Medford Leas in widowhood. They sit side by side across the aisle from me, just behind the bus driver’s seat.

Jean says: “I didn’t know you cooked for yourself, Charles.”

“I don’t cook for myself. I just like to have a few things in the house: a piece of nice cheddar, olive oil, some decent bread.”

“I never see you in the Colonial Room.”

“It’s too expensive. I eat in the Coffee Shop.”

“ Be my guest in the Colonial Room,” says Jean, ‘I’ve got more points in my monthly quota than I can spend.”


We residents have monthly quotas, credits, which we pay for in advance. This eliminates cash transactions in the campus restaurants. What you don’t use up in the month is carried over to the next month. Some residents pay more than others, depending upon whether they chose to eat in the Colonial Room or in the Coffee Shop or if they cook for themselves.

The Coffee Shop is cafeteria style; the Colonial Room is a sit down dining hall, served by high school kids. These students, in their Medford Leas uniforms, come in every shape and color. Some of the younger ones are still in their baby fat, eager to please; the older ones are quite cool and professional.

Residents dress up and bring wine to the Colonial Room. The room is attractive with chandeliers, gleaming white table cloths, and stemmed glassware. Many residents dress up; it’s a night out. They carry colorful wine totes. No booze in the Coffee Shop.

“I’ve got more points than Jean,” says Ann. “Come with me.”

“How can I choose between you?”

“Come with the two of us!”

“I don’t have the proper clothes for the Colonial Room.”

“Not everybody dresses up.”

“I don’t drink.”

“Not everyone drinks.”

Louisa enters the bus. “Louisa,” I practically shout, “So nice to see you on the mend. Sit by me.” I pat the cushioned seat beside me. She sits. The driver places her walker in the back of the bus.

“Thank you, Charles. I didn’t know you cooked for yourself.”

The bus starts to fill up. Ann, Jean and I enjoyed our sparring match and now Louisa tells us about her knee replacement. We scatter once we enter the supermarket. I shop quickly for my few items and then I go to the big Wine Shop in the back of the store, just to browse around.

Every wine producing country in the world has its own section in the Shop, some vast, some just a few shelves. I go to Croatia where I find a white for $6.00. It’s a mix of Trebbiano and Chardonnay grapes: the label says it goes well with ‘horse douvres”. A real find. What treasures await in Bulgaria?

I look at my wristwatch; another hour before the bus leaves. Damn! I’m stuck. I have no desire to visit the Target store next door, or go to any nearby big box store on the strip. Starbucks, at the other end of the strip, is too far a walk, and Moorestown center is three miles away.

From now on I’ll drive myself to Wegman’s – on my own schedule. I’ll drive to Moorestown where I’ll take a stroll on Main Street that includes a stop at The Pie Lady’s. I’ll buy stamps at the post office on Chester Avenue, from Edie, who will spread out the colorful checkered sheets before me. Yes, I still write letters, with a quill(!) when I write to little Gracie. I’ll go to the library to chat with my friends on the staff, hand them flowers from Wegman’s, if I remember to buy them.


Then I’ll go to Pete’s Hardware Store whose worn smooth wooden floors are creaky underfoot. Pete knows exactly where tens of thousands of items are shelved. So does Marilyn. “Where’s the Shoo Goo?” “Aisle six.” Yes, you’ll see shrink-wrapped, mass produced stuff too, but if you should need a piece of sheet glass cut to size for a picture frame, go to the back room. The equipment there looks medieval, well, 19th century-ish. The store exudes a homey smell of floor polish, house paint, cracked corn, fertilizer – licorice twirls sticking out of the glass bowl by the cash register – an aura that delights my senses and soothes my soul.


Chocolates for the Library

I remembered belatedly that I hadn’t bought Christmas gifts for my friends, the gang that works at the Moorestown Public Library. I have been a member of the library since 1971 and three generations of its librarians have spoiled me rotten. Margie would call the Reference Desk:

“Is my husband there? Is he being a pest?”

“Yes, he’s here, Mrs. Perrone. He’s no bother. He asks the most interesting questions.”

Sometimes Margie got the Circulation Desk: Cirk tracks down my many requests for interlibrary loan books:

“A bother? He’s our job security!”

In season, Margie sent the gang daffodils and irises from the garden and I brought them figs from the backyard tree. Every Christmas I gave, I give, them Chocolate Truffles from the Whole Foods store. I drive to the store by myself now that Margie is gone. From Moorestown it was an easy run, with just one left and then another left turn. It’s trickier from Medford Leas where I now live: ambiguous dogleg turns, a worrisome hypotenuse, a sudden road name change.

This afternoon I chose the more familiar route, which meant going almost to Moorestown, then driving back down Route 73. It’s longer, but less complicated. It was a bad choice. Fellowship Road dumped me into a maelstrom on Route 73: bumper to bumper traffic with both lanes going very fast. I got behind an 18-wheeler that blocked the view in my lane. Cars and trucks roared past me in the left lane. The car behind me prodded me, bullying me to keep the pace. I gripped the steering wheel hard. Was my turn-off coming up soon?

cars ub traffic

At speed, nothing seemed familiar, so I slowed way down, touching off a honking horn behind me. My turnoff! I braked sharply, I swerved right, and darted off. No turn signal. The driver behind me howled, leaning heavily on his horn as he passed me.

The Whole Foods store was boiling with customers. Everything had changed since last year; the aisles were narrower and differently orientated. I was lost. I asked a man restocking shelves for directions to the chocolates.. He shrugged his shoulders dismissively; he was a holiday hire.
A kindly sales attendant led me to the chocolate hoard, deep in the heart of the store. The display table was smaller than I remembered, surmounted by a modest pyramid of Chocolate Truffle boxes. I chose four of them and, holding them to my chest, I shimmied through the crowd toward the cashiers; then to my car in the parking lot.

I started off for my apartment in Medford Leas. There I would attach the satin bows that I had purchased, and I would sign and attach the preprinted greeting cards. I chose the less familiar route to avoid the mess on Route 73.

Unfortunately, the approaches I knew had changed: a new strip mall, a business campus, a sprawling new residential area. What used to be orderly right-angle intersections were now an underpass, a confusing intersection, and winding streets leading back to themselves. I was lost. I drove aimlessly for fifteen minutes on streets devoid of people, devoid of sidewalks, and not a gas station in sight.

My son Stephen has always said, Dad, if you ever get lost while driving, call me on your cell phone. I know I’m in California but I’ll get you home via the GPS on my iPad. How could I admit to him that I was lost on roads I’ve used all my adult life?

I saw, far off, the high-rise office buildings on Route 73, and I pointed toward them. Suddenly Springdale Road! That I knew. I turned on to it and headed toward Route 73, back to Moorestown – not to Medford Leas as I had planned. I was tired. Once in Moorestown, I’d go directly to the library and present the gifts as is, with no bows, with no greeting cards.

“The attic closet is out of bounds,” Margie would announce in November. That’s where she hid our Christmas gifts. On Christmas Eve she’d bring down the gifts and the big bag containing this year’s supply of wrapping paper and the half depleted rolls from last year.

She’d sit mid table in the dining with her scissors, the scotch tape, the wrapping paper, the flat spools of ribbon, and the loosely wound balls of soft yarns. We were discouraged from entering the dining room lest we detect our gifts in advance of Christmas morn. But her cats would enter and wreak havoc. Margie would enjoy their antics for a while and then she’d chase them and close the pocket doors behind them.

Cat with yarn

Margie wrapped the gifts beautifully: rich shiny paper that looked like patent leather. The tightly wrapped corners and the neatly folded end flaps were perfect. She tied the packages with matching ribbons or with soft yarn and she attached the beautiful bows she’d made from scratch. She wrote out the cards in her distinctive handwriting: From Margie to Carlo, From Carlo to Margie, From Nanda to Stephen, From Nanda to Huna etc, etc.

“Have you bought the chocolates for the gang, Dear?”

“Yes, I have, but you don’t have to wrap them, Margie. I’ll give them just as they are.”

“ Cialuzz, please give me the boxes.”

Margie picked up Cialuzzo from my mother: Ciali (Cholley) for Charlie, to which my mother would add uzzo, the suffix that connotes affection .

I’d hand Margie the boxes and she’d return them wrapped, with ribbon, bows and cards beautifully in place. All I need do was sign the cards.

Dear, dear, dear Margie,

Back I went into the crowded, fast moving traffic on Route 73: I planted myself in the righthand lane and drove slowly, provoking the displeasure of the drivers stuck behind me. Somebody gave me the finger as he pulled out and roared past.

I arrived at the library worn and shaken; I sat quietly in the car to pull myself together. I rehearsed the light-hearted speech I would make as I handed out the boxes of chocolate. I’d plead forgiveness for their unadorned state. The gang would laugh.

Chocolate truffles

Maria Esche was sitting at the Reference Desk by herself. Good! She smiled as I approached.

“Merry Christmas, Maria,” I handed her a box of chocolates. “Please forgive the … … please …”, I choked up. “I’m sorry, I … I …”. Maria stared as I turned away and walked toward the Circulation Desk. Ro was on duty there. Her smile fell when she saw my face.

“Merry Christmas, Ro. Please pass these around.” I handed her the big Whole Foods shopping bag, I turned, and I hurried out before she could speak.

I opened the door of my car and I slipped in. I gripped the steering wheel and rested my forehead on its upper curve:

Forgive me, forgive me, forgive me.

Not Go Gentle into That Good Night

Medford Leas


I’m in the Health Center for my annual memory test. Diane will administer it. She led me through the test last year too.

Draw a clock face with numerals from 1 to 12. Draw the hands so that the clock depicts 10 minutes past eleven:


Listen closely and remember this string of five words. I”ll ask you to repeat them later in the hour.

Listen closely and remember this string of five numbers. I’ll ask you to repeat them later in the hour.

Reproduce the image of a box:


Draw a continuous line connecting the randomly scattered numbers and letters, always connecting number to letter to number; never number to number or letter to letter:

Name these animals:


How do the ear and the nose differ?

In 60 seconds, recite as many words as you can beginning with the letter f:

“Fuck… I’m sorry, It just popped out.”

“No need to apologize,” she said coolly. “ They all say it.”

“farm, firm, form, field, fire, fireman, fraught, friend, friendship, friendless, film, frank, full, fill, fall, fell….”

“Diane, you’d love to flunk me out, wouldn’t you?; dump me into the Assisted Living Extension, into the Alzheimer Wing?

“Don’t be silly. Anyway you passed: 29 out of 30. That’s better than last year”.


5 MAY 2018

coin counter

In 2010, my local bank installed a coin-counting machine in an alcove to the side of the cashier windows. The gaily lit machine emitted a little musical jingle as it digested my coins; then it spat out my receipt. My little hoards totaled from $4.00 to $7.00 every few months. Some customers – merchants and store keepers – emptied bags full of coins into the machine weekly, to a symphony of jingling.

In 2017 I received a postal card from GCG (no other identification) informing me that my name had been joined to a class action law suit which had been brought against the Penny Arcade Company. I need do nothing until the law suit was settled. This was the complete message.

It turned out that The Penny Arcade Company was the owner of the coin-counting machine in my bank, and of those in many other locations. In 2018, I received two checks drawn on the Huntington Bank. We had won the law suit! My check was for nine cents; yes, $0.09. Margie’s check was for seven cents.

Between 2010 and 2017, the coin-counting machines of the Penny Arcade Company had made mistakes, consistently in favor of the company – to the tune of 7.5 million dollars. My share of the settlement was laughable. How much did the lawyers make?

I searched the Internet without success, so I turned to Maria Esche, the reference librarian at the Moorestown Public Library. She called back in fifteen minutes: $1,900,000, shared by eight law firms.

I’ll give my check to my daughter and Margie’s check plus two pennies to my son.

6 APRIL 2018

Two tables away, a daughter and her husband have come to have lunch with her mother, a ninety-five year old, who sits between them in a wheelchair. The daughter is a youthful seventy year old. The son-in-law is a still vigorous at seventy-five. The old woman has been primped up nicely for the visit: fluffed up hair, a flowered blouse, a bright red neckless.

The daughter cuts her mother’s food and pushes a glass of water toward her mottled hand, but it’s the son-in-law who wheedles his mother-in-law. She sits with her head slumped forward, chin nearly on her chest. He does most of the talking, enunciating carefully, speaking more loudly than he needs to.

He leaps up to retrieve her napkin which has slipped to the floor. He offers her a spoonful of creamed spinach, then a dollop of mashed sweet potatoes, extolling their healthful virtues. She clenches her teeth, she closes her eyes

Wouldn’t she be better off dead? Me too: my hands grow stiff, my legs betray me, my mind, my mind – it takes me an hour to write a decent sentence.

Undaunted, he presses a spoonful of Espresso Chocolate Chip Mint ice cream to the old woman’s clenched lips. Her mouth springs open at the touch of icy sweetness, like that of a baby bird. She devours the ice cream; she opens her eyes and she looks around beatifically: all’s well in the world.

ice cream menu
31 JULY 2018

I returned to the Main Building to pick up two books that I had forgotten in its cloakroom earlier in the day. My apartment is a five minute walk away. The books were still on the shelf, in plain view. I’ve left my laptop there more than once, undisturbed.
It was a lovely day, the books weren’t heavy, so I chose the lengthier, prettier route home, along the woods. The path that skirts the woods begins on the far side of the parking lot. I’ve negotiated that corner many times but never while reading the blurb on the flyleaf of a book. I misjudged my stride by a fraction of an inch and my toe caught the edge of the curb. I tripped and went flying through the air.

I landed on my hands and knees, luckily, on the thickly mulched border between the curb and the macadam walk. I sprang to my feet, to show that I wasn’t hurt, just in case someone had seen me fall.

“Are you all right?, a voice called out from across the lot.

“Yes, thank you.” I didn’t recognize her. A new employee?

“Did you hit your head?”

Definitely a new employee. “No, I did not.” I brushed off my knees, retrieved the books, and holding them by my side, I resumed my walk. I got home in well under ten minutes and I sat down to finish reading the blurb on the book jacket. A knock at my door. It was Linda, the First Aid nurse, dragging her wheeled duffel emblazoned with a red cross.

Firstaid bag“Are you okay Mr. Perrone?”’

“ Why shouldn’t I be?” I played dumb, feigning surprise at her spontaneous appearance at my door.

“Someone saw you fall and the Front Desk alerted me. Did you hit your head?”

“No, Linda, I did not hit my head, thank you.” I closed the door gently.

How did they get my name? The young woman who saw me fall didn’t know it, for she was a recent hire; but well indoctrinated, she had gone immediately to the Front Desk to tell Nora – a pal of mine – what she had seen:

“A short man, white hair, eyeglasses; he was reading a book.”

Nora picked up the Medical Emergency phone: “Linda, please check on Mr. Perrone in Apartment 15.”

17 MAY 2018

I joined Ruth S. who was sitting with two or three other residents at a table in the Coffee Shop. I hadn’t seen her recently because my cold and then my infected sinuses had lingered on and on. I was lightheaded and dizzy.

“Ruth,” I said, “I think I’m going to faint,” And I did. Ruth was aghast. She said my head fell back, my mouth agape, my sightless eyes rolled upward, showing whites only. “He’s dead!”

I wakened to a ring of concerned faces looking down at me. Dr. Terri was kneeling beside me: “You’ll be all right,” she said. “I think you’re dehydrated.” I tried to rise but she held me down: my fate had been sealed.

If you faint at Medford Leas, or if you fall and bump your head, you must go to the hospital: the emergency wagon was on its way. I was lightheaded, lying in a pool of piss, with a circle of rapt faces looming over me. “I want them to check out your heart,” said Terri. “And you bumped your head.”

EMT loading ambulance

The emergency wagon is a frequent visitor here, sometimes for the final act:

“Wilson?” What a shame.” “Gracie! I saw her yesterday, she seemed fine.” “He smiled up at me.” “I was the last person to see her alive.”

I spent a most uncomfortable night at the hospital, hooked up to two machines, one that dripped a saline solution into my vein, the other attached to electrodes monitoring my heart. ER had taken MRIs of my skull when I first arrived at the hospital. My room mate – our beds separated by a curtain – groaned loudly all night long, maybe because I stank mightily. They had removed my piss-sodden undershorts and pants but they hadn’t washed me.

In early morning, the cardiologist appeared briefly at the door to say my heart was fine. I felt OK, but I remained hooked up:

“For another day,” said the technician.

“Never,” I said.

“Doctors’ orders,” he said, waving a checklist at me.

I phoned my son. He said, “Just walk out.”.

“You will NEVER again be admitted to THIS hospital!”


27 OCTOBER, 2018
linden trees

The Norse Goddess of Married Love favors the linden tree. In season, its canopy harbors birds and bees and its flowers make a sweet, aromatic tea. Some linden trees live a thousand years.

Next spring I will plant two linden trees near the slope where we scattered Margie’s ashes. Her valley has become a state park: inviolable. My linden trees will be planted side by side. Their roots will mingle, their limbs will intertwine.

On Main Street

Main street

The tall trees were compelling. “It’s Moorestown and no other,” we said, as we drove through town. We found an old house on Main Street which faced a row of oaks. It had a first floor center hall that Margie loved and a garret-like bedroom (ours) under the roof’s slant; two rooms the children quickly made their own, and on the second floor, a two-room suite for Margie’s mother, Helen Headley Ridge.

Big trees graced many Moorestown streets. They dotted the park that surrounds Strawbridge Lake. A silent grove enveloped you on the winding street leading to the Middle School, an unexpected treat. Our backyard trees – two of them walnuts that Helen deemed junk trees (a death sentence) – blended into the woods that had taken over a disused apple orchard on Mrs Williams’ estate. We were drunk on trees. We took no vacation that year. We didn’t need one. Good thing too, we were broke.

My walks along Main Street, under the trees, took me past David Ritchie’s house where Harley Armstrong lived, then past Bob Smith’s tall house on the north side of Main, past Bob and Lenore’s house, past Parry Cottage where M.C. Morris lived and finally, to Molly Haines’ Hathaway Cottage. These were Quakers I had met after I joined the John Woolman Memorial Association. Our new family physician asked:

Have you made many friends in Moorestown?”. I told him.

You know the finest people in Moorestown.”

Some mornings I’d arrive at the Friends School at Chester Avenue when parents were delivering their children. I’d pause at the traffic light to watch the cars emerging from the school grounds. Some SUVs had bumper stickers which read “We support our troops in Iraq”.


This was the corner where M.C. Morris used to sit at his rickety folding table, handing out peace literature and soliciting signatures for antiwar petitions. The school’s bulletin board stood on the lawn just behind MC. The message on the board said “There is No Way to Peace. Peace is the Way.”

M.C. was tall and lean, with a mustache and a closely trimmed beard. In cold weather he wore a tweed topcoat and a black beret. In an earlier life he had taught German language and literature at Hiram College. He also knew Russian.

EPSON MFP imageMC Morris refinishing furniture

In 1930, M.C. took a job with the John Deere Company which trained him to fix, to maintain and to use the farm tractors. The Company had sold hundreds, perhaps thousands of its tractors to the Soviets. MC and Libby were sent to Moscow where he became one of the faces of John Deere in the Soviet Union.

He would visit many outlying farm areas every month. He’d make minor repairs but mostly he showed the farm workers how to do it themselves. Sometimes M.C. took a train to the end of its line, then a bus as far as it went and finally, by horse and wagon to his destination. Libby stayed in Moscow where she worked within the small Quaker presence there. They remained in Russia for about two years.

In old age, Libby and M.C. returned to Switzerland on their fiftieth wedding anniversary, to the village where they had been married. They were married again pro forma in the same town hall. The townspeople celebrated it with them. Shockingly, Libby died on that trip and she was buried in Switzerland.

Parry CottageParry Cottage

Once back in Parry Cottage, to supplement his income, M.C. refinished furniture and re-caned chairs. He did a piece for us. In good weather he did the sanding and the painting on the small terrace above the first floor’s kitchen. He’d wear his rusty black beret in cool weather. We lost touch for a while; then Molly told us that M.C. had moved into a modest retirement community in Ithaca, New York, to be near his daughter.

We exchanged postal cards: his room was comfortable, with a desk, a chair, space for his books and for his calligraphic equipment. He said there were no locks on the doors. Occasionally a sadly diminished resident would enter his room while he was working at his desk.

Harley Armstrong taught English at the Moorestown Friends School for fifteen years. She wrote an excellent sentence and she despised humbug but her tartness was tempered by Quaker forbearance.

In Harley’s time, persons eligible for food stamps collected them at the Burlington County Trust Bank, which was located on Main Street across from the Friend’s School. If they chose, Bank customers could conduct their business al fresco at a teller’s window which opened out to the sidewalk.

But food stamps could be collected only at this outdoor window, in fair weather or foul, in summer or winter. Harley put an end to that practice with a crisp letter to the bank manager.

She never earned much at Moorestown Friends School. In her day, many private schools paid badly, half-expecting their teachers, of good family, to have private incomes. Their children got a free education, but Harley had neither children nor private income. She made do by living on the second floor of David Ritchie’s raffish old house. In 1991 she entered Medford Leas on a resident scholarship. She died in 1997.

Molly Haines lived with her parents at the east end of Main Street. Her uncle, M.C. Morris, lived on West Main, about a mile and a half away. They’d take long walks together, two tall figures striding along Main Street, often at dusk. They walked in the street because the brick sidewalks were heaved up by the changing seasons and by the bulging roots of the old trees that lined the curb. On summer evenings I’d hear fragments of their speech as they passed our open windows.

Fresh out of college, Molly had worked for the GE Electric Company. Then she applied for a job opening at Philadelphia’s Quarterly Meeting of Friends.

If I get the job,” she promised, “I’ll work here for the rest of my life and I’ll never ask for a raise in pay.”

Molly got the job and she kept her word but The Quarterly Meeting did not: it included her in all pay raises. Molly earned her keep; in addition to her secretarial duties, she edited in-house publications and she adorned them with her clever illustrations.

She took the bus into Philadelphia every morning, just as Margie did, and sometimes they’d share a seat. Mollie would sit with the New Yorker Magazine in her lap while she knitted garments for her numerous nieces and nephews. She’d speak to Margie as she knitted, with an occasional glance at the New Yorker Magazine. Once a year she drove to New England to deliver scarves mittens sweaters socks and rib-cracking bear hugs.

In old age, Molly entered Medford Leas. I’d see her on Sunday mornings at Quaker Meeting in the Holly Room. The large windows there give a long view of the woods. At close of service I’d walk across the room to greet Molly.  She’d give me a powerful bear hug that lifted me to my tip toes.

Months passed. She showed up at Sunday Meeting in a wheel chair. No more bear hugs at end of service, just a hand shake. Then she entered the Haddon Court Assisted Living unit. I see her now and then as she’s wheeled down a long gallery that overlooks some trees. She looks at me blankly.

Bob Smith, ever the outsider, lived on the other side of Main Street. My friend, Bob Haines, was the newly elected head of the John Woolman Memorial Association.  I was his treasurer. He introduced me to Bob Smith who was the outgoing president. Both Bobs were graduates of Haverford College but Smith was eleven years older than Haines.

I introduced Margie to Bob Smith one afternoon while we were walking on his side of Main Street. He was sitting on his porch. I told him that Margie was a graduate of Swarthmore College because I knew that Swarthmore and Haverford College were friendly rivals. Bob’s face lit up:

Did you see the score?’, he asked gleefully. He saw Margie’s puzzled look.

We beat you!”, he crowed.

As a student, Margie had gone to the football games only because they were a part of the Saturday night dating scene. She told me a story perhaps apocryphal, but quintessential: the Swarthmore players, in the huddle, were apt to question and debate the wisdom of the quarterback’s call.

I wish that I had paid more attention to Bob Smith. He was city born and bred, he was well read. That he was ironical discountenanced some people.

After his wife died, Bob began visiting London again. He knew the great literary accounts of London and he had retraced the the authors’ footsteps. He’d see six or seven plays in two weeks while he was in London,

Stay at the William Penn Club”. He assumed every thinking person was drawn inexorably to London. The Club, a small hotel owned and operated by the Society of Friends, is located just off Great Russell Square, near the British Museum, a short stroll to Bloomsbury and not far from the theatre district. Bob was not an outsider in London.

In 1970, he wrote a book, In and Out of Town. It is poignant and tart, a clear-eyed memoir of his boyhood in the Northern Liberties district of Philadelphia at the turn of the century. Bob’s father was the beloved neighborhood physician. By 1900 the neighborhood was teetering on the edge of fading gentility. Here’s Bob in the foreword of his book:

Minor enchantments, high moments and wonder, are touch and go and hard to hold, and worth the try.” Here’s one of his tries:

And always in the late afternoons with supper cooking, the breath of the basement kitchen coming up from the dumbwaiter and the stairs. In warm weather with windows open and a wind from the river it was lager beer from Schimpf’s and a whiff of horse from the boarding stables in Perth Street and in its season, waiting for those who got close enough, the warm sweet scent of the alyssum in the flower boxes.”

In late autumn Bob and Lenore Haines used to buy a sack of unshelled pecans and stand it up in the corner of their kitchen. They and Harley, Libby and MC, and anyone else who happened to call, would sit around the kitchen table shelling the pecans. Pecans do not yield up their flesh so easily as walnuts, nor so bountifully. It took a long time to fill our bowls.


We’d dump our gleanings into a large pot. Later, Bob and Lenore would fill dozens of little bags with the kernels and tie the bags shut with red and green ribbons. These became Christmas gifts for relatives and friends.

Every year or two, Lenore and Bob, Libby and MC, and Harley attended the meetings of the Iroquois Nation in upstate New York. In my mind’s eye, I see them standing serenely among a group of Indians under a spreading tree. Across a luminous river, lions and lambs lie side by side, as in a painting of the Peaceable Kingdom.

The Peaceable Kingdom

Bob’s vegetable garden in Moorestown was a peaceable kingdom. The garden took up the entire back yard of his house. A thick layer of mulch covered the ground, sixty years of mouldering leaves were augmented by each autumn’s fall. The soil needed little hoeing; Bob merely pushed aside the mulch to expose the welcoming earth. His garden was a patchwork of plots living in happy confederation. One large plot was devoted to lettuces. A wide strawberry plantation formed the back boundary of the garden.

In mid August, Bob and Lenore departed Moorestown to visit Argonia, Kansas, Lenore’s home town, where she maintained her family’s homestead. She and Bob had first met when they were students at Vassar and at Haverford colleges. After their marriage, Lenore made her life on the East Coast where Bob took over the family paint business in Camden, New Jersey. She missed Kansas sorely and Bob knew her sacrifice; hence these late summer transfers to Argonia.

In old age they moved to Argonia for good. Their daughter had preceded them to Kansas, first to attend university there and then remaining in Kansas after marriage. She lived within driving distance of Argonia. Bob died in Argonia three years later. Lenore lived to be ninety-nine years old.

Help yourself to the garden while we’re gone,” said Bob, and I did, concentrating on the strawberries, the carrots and the lettuces.

Bob did hand-to-hand battle with the insects because he rejected chemical warfare. He picked the bugs off one by one, and he placed them in a Mason jar. He said there always seemed to be enough vegetables for his family, for his friends, and for the insects that escaped his fingers.

EPSON MFP imageBob Haines in his garden

One spring morning, I came upon Bob on his knees. He was tenderly, reverentially transplanting lettuces. He had started these plants in his battered greenhouse, from the seeds of sprouted lettuces, lettuces descended from the lettuces his father had planted in the garden eighty years before. Bob sent some of these seeds to his daughter in Kansas every year and she passed some on to her daughter. Why does this recollection give me such pleasure?

Bob and Lenore Haines, Libby and M.C. Morris, Molly Haines and Harley Armstrong – Bob Smith too – were of those Moorestown Quakers who vied only in goodness, anonymously. In their quiet way, undetected, they planted in me a bit of their peaceable kingdom.

Portions of this piece appeared first in my letter to the Friends Journal in June 2007.

Old Age is a Pyrrhic Victory

Warren Sawyer - 211 May, 2018

Warren Sawyer is sitting on his electric scooter by the elevator door. I stop to say hello. The door opens and Louise Michalowicz steps out, leaning on her cane. She has a companion by her side. Warren looks in awe as she walks past us:

“Charlie,” he says, “Louise is a hundred years old!”

“Warren, how old are you?” I know how old Warren is.


Florence, his second wife, has just died after 36 years of marriage. Ruth, his first wife, died after 36 years of marriage too.

“I’d like to find one for the next two or three years, but there aren’t any around here.”

“Warren, How can you say that? This place is full of women.”

“I don’t think they’re attractive.”


12 April, 2014

I turn the corner too fast – I have not yet learned to slow down – and I almost bump into Julian Eysmans, who is walking with a cane. I haven’t seen Julian for thirty years; he was my neighbor in Moorestown before he and Mary retired to Tennessee. They returned to be near a daughter.

I embraced him – an Italian thing – and Julian recoiled. I felt his body stiffen. This Protestant gentleman had never before been embraced by a man. He regained his poise and we exchanged recent life histories.

Julian entered the Assisted Living wing shortly after our encounter. He graciously invited me to his new quarters where we talked about old times in Moorestown. I once helped him cut down a big walnut tree on Mrs Williams’s adjoining property. Julian burned the wood in his fireplace and in his cast iron kitchen stove.


27 November, 2017

I stumbled – new sneakers with sticky rubber soles – but I kept my balance.

“Watch out!”, cried out a passerby.

“I’m fine,” I said.

“I’m glad,” she said. “Had you fallen, I would have had to report you.”


Odds and Ends4 March, 2018

The Thrift Shop is open on Tuesdays from ten til noon. Its three rooms and the hallway loop are filled with belongings jettisoned by residents who have downsized from villas and condos and the stuff donated by the heirs of deceased residents: what’s left after they cart away what’s valuable.

I feel like an archeologist on a dig fifty years in the future whenever I visit the Thrift Shop. The artifacts suggest that Medford Leas was once inhabited by a race of giants. I discovered eighty-three pairs of trousers in the men’ shop: two size 32s and four size 34s, and seventy-seven pairs with waists up to 48 inches.

I came upon sixty-six sports jackets with padded shoulders and wide lapels, a style dating to the first Frank Sinatra dynasty. I counted one Small (size 36), seven Mediums (sizes 38 and 40), and fifty-eight Large and Extra Large.

I’ll have to buy my clothes in Guatemala.

ShoesWarren Sawyer is trying on shoes. Some shoes are mildly scuffed, some are almost new, many bear the imprint of their late owners’ feet.

Warren is sitting on the seat of his walker. Toby Riley greets him:

“Any luck, Warren?”

“Not yet.”

“What size?”

“I don’t know. It’s been so long since I bought shoes.”

M stops me. She has never before spoken to me.
“See here,” she says, “ What day is it?”
“Good. I’ll be all right.”

The clothing in the women’s room overflows onto to racks in the hallway. I run my eye over the labels. I seldom see high end brands like Ralph Lauren, Giorgio Armani, Anne Klein and the like. Here’s why: the resident/volunteers, those who staff the Thrift Shop, siphon off the best stuff for themselves, for their children, for their grandchildren and for their friends.

Thrift ShopThe main hallway is a long loop that circles the core of the building. A half dozen large tables near the Thrift Shop’s front door are crowded with decorative household bric-a-brac.

Then comes the big stuff: bedsteads, highboys, book shelves, fans, armoires (that once hid large TVs), overstuffed sofas, leather recliners, mirrors, tables, floor lamps, unmatched chairs, chests of drawers, a 12 inch TV.

Suitcases without wheels abound and carry-ons. Exercise machines. A humidifier. A tall Raleigh bicycle with a thumb bell rests on decrepit, flat tires. It sits next to a stiff leather golf club bag that weighs a ton.

The last room, at the far reach of the looping hallway, is filled with kitchen wares: pots and pans, electric coffeemakers, toaster ovens, assorted silverware, waffle irons, steam irons, staghorn handled carving sets and much oven stuff. You could stock a restaurant kitchen.

The volunteers have begun to pack up the stuff on the hallway tables. Somebody shuts the door. It’s closing time.


20 May, 2018

Yesterday as I returned to my courtyard down a covered walkway, I saw Mrs. X striding along thirty yards ahead of me. She was unaware of my presence. I heard, unmistakably, the sound of a fart. It happens, sometimes involuntarily, even to Pope Francis, to Queen Elizabeth. To Meryl Streep!


2 June, 2017

We checked out of our hotel in St. Louis and we were rolling our bags to the truck in the parking lot. I grew dizzy and sat on the rear bumper. I fainted and fell to the ground, bruising my forehead, the flesh around my left eye and cutting the bridge of my nose. My eyeglasses were bent. Bloody face.

Stephen found me moments later, crumpled on the tarmac. He thought I was dead. “What am I to do with him?” But it was just a passing thing and we were back on the road in an hour. We stopped at a drug store to buy Bandaids. The young woman behind the counter stared at my battered face, at the oozing cut on my nose.

“Please call the police,” I said in a quiet, urgent aside. “I’m being kidnapped.” Her eyes opened wide.

“He’s kidding,” said Stephen hurriedly, laughing. I laughed too. The young woman smiled thinly.

In the truck, Stephen was angry: “You’ll get us locked up.”
IMG_24584 June 2017

I’m sitting on a launching apron slanting down into the water. It’s used mostly to launch inflatable rafts that ride the rapids down river. The water is cold. The Colorado River is only about forty yards wide here. Stephen is skipping stones across the water. I look down at my cold, skinny legs.

“I’m a skinny old man.”

“I’ve seen worse.”

I inch back from the water’s edge, lifting my buttocks and pushing back with the heels of my hands until I reach my socks and my sneakers. I put them on slowly because my back is achy.

I rise, fighting the pull of the sloping apron. Stephen touches my elbow to steady me. We walk back to our rented truck. The truck is full of Stephen’s belongings which he is taking back to California. I’m riding shotgun. We are thrown together twenty-four hours a day. We talk and talk. Stephen is a vegetarian; so I eat vegetarian too, mostly in Mexican restaurants. Not bad.

He climbed the backyard tree
Breasting sky, treading air
Fighting the undertow

He swung the earth below
To catapult him free
To any where

“I wrote this poem about you, Stee.”

“That’s about you, not me.”


13 May 2018.

Yesterday was Mother’s Day. Medford Leas was crowded with adult children come to visit their parents. Some of the children are seventy years old.

Judith has invited me to join the party for her mother. Ruth is ninety-eight years old, soon to be ninety-nine. Judith and Howard are in their early seventies. Jeffrey is only sixty-five. He has brought along two daughters and a grandchild to trump his older siblings.

Ruth always eats everything on her plate, out of concern for the starving people of the world. She wastes nothing, but today she is mortified because she could not finish her dessert: two large pancakes smothered with blueberries and syrup. Judith eats what’s left of the pancakes. Ruth is pleased.

After lunch Judith drives Ruth to Walmart’s, to buy panties for Ruth. She can afford Saks Fifth Avenue but that would be wasteful.


3 March 2016

I’m having my hair cut in the beauty salon on campus, in a room with six chairs, two rows of three opposing each other. I sit in the lone barber’s chair facing the mirrored wall. I see, reflected in the mirror, the three patrons behind me. They are octogenarians, perhaps nonagenarians.

One woman is asleep, slumped under the domed hair drier, seemingly held half erect by the dome. The woman in the middle chair is also asleep, her chin on her breast. Her sparse hair is in curlers. Her face has been scrubbed clean in preparation of make up: rouged cheeks, penciled eyebrows, the works. She looks like a corpse. It’s a tableau out of Madame Tussaud’s.

The third woman is having a manicure. Her aide sits in the waiting room reading a magazine The woman, wild eyed and gaunt, is restless, agitated:

“Where is my mother? Take me to my mother.”

“She hasn’t come yet, but she will love your hair.”

“Oh, Oh,. Ow! Ow! Ow!”

“I’m not hurting you. I’m just removing your old nail polish.”

“ No, no, no.”

“You’ll look so pretty for your mother.”


Nantucket Red“Nantucket red,” says a passerby, pointing out my shorts.

“That’s right,” I reply.

“Do you know how I know?”

“The LL Bean Catalog.”

She flounces off. Did I steal her punch line?


Gambarella14 May 2018

The bin for recyclables is in Parking Lot B. I dump in my bagful of plastics, juice cartons and one beer bottle. The bottom of the bin is covered with empty wine bottles, the detritus of the Mother’s Day weekend:

Kendall-Jackson Merlot, Vintner’s Reserve
Pierre Sparr Alsace Riesling
Yellow Tail Merlot
Clos du Val Cabernet
Yellow Tail Riesling
Mark West Pinot Noir
Welch’s Grape Juice Cocktail
Gambarelli and Davito Sweet Sherry, 2 one-gallon jugs.

Two gallons of cheap sherry! Who is drinking that stuff?


15 May, 2018

I am traversing Courtyard Eleven. A woman walking a few steps ahead of me stops by an open door. She speaks through the screen door: “Hi, Sadie. Are you up for wine this evening?”


5 November, 2017

Bobbie Murray and I exchange stories about disposing the ashes of our departed spouses. The boxes containing the ashes lay on our kitchen shelves for months. They were a welcome presence.

Bobbie sometimes dons one of her late husband’s fedoras when she tools around on her electric scooter. I wear Margie’s wedding band on my pinkie. Fetishes that ease despair.


14 October, 2017

I hear angry female voices as I approach the middle apartment in Courtyard XXX; the voices grow loud and clear as I reach the door:

“I don’t need your fucking food. Get the fuck out.”

“I hope you fucking choke.”

The door opens. A forty-five year old woman in stylish black slacks rushes out, slamming the door shut. She hurries toward the parking lot.

I step back to take note of the apartment number. I know the face of the tenant. She is a small, white-haired eighty-year old who smiles sweetly whenever our paths cross. I go to the library to learn more about her. Her mini-biography, which is on file there, gives no hint of volcanic passions.


Avacado22 May, 2018

Today’s dinner menu is blah. Fortunately I’m not hungry:

Beef Vegetable Soup
Tossed Salad
Macaroni and Cheese
Meatloaf w/ Gravy
Ham Salad Sandwich
Mashed Potatoes
Stewed Tomatoes
Rice Pudding

I’d rather eat in my apartment: Corn Flakes with almond milk. Stephen thinks I drink too much cow’s milk.

Then an avocado which I eat out of its half shell with a spoon. Then leftover scalloped apples, mushed up in the cereal bowl with sour cream.


7 May, 2018

We gathered on the lawn of the building that houses the office of our Republican Congressman Tom MacArthur. He loves Trump’s tax bill. He is worth thirty-one million dollars.

MacArthur is a carpetbagger from North Jersey who shopped around South Jersey for a rotten borough. He found Burlington/Ocean Counties which comprise the Third Congressional district. By spending lavishly, he had won the seat for six years. We hope to bring him down in November.

Protest Meeting

It was a 45 degree day, raw and intermittently wet. Fortunately we were dressed for the occasion. We looked like aged children in bulging snowsuits.

The first speaker was a resolute, hatless young woman whose ringing words also pleased the placid infant who gazed up from the papoose strapped to her mother’s chest.

The second speaker, also hatless, was an earnest young union leader whose three year old son wandered about in the space between the speaker and the surrounding audience. The little boy occasionally leaned against his father’s leg, or else he sought out his papoose-laden mother who was now standing among us in the audience. She patted his head while she nuzzled his sister’s cheek in the papoose.

The audience numbered about sixty, including fourteen of us from Medford Leas. Andy Kim, the Democratic challenger, was in the audience and he strode forth to say a few spirited words. We cheered and we waved banners to catch the attention of the local TV-news camera crew that was standing by. Afterwards, we waddled back to our cars, glad to have made our statement.


















Return to Sant’Anna

In 1954 I refused Dean Boyer’s invitation to repeat my first year in law school. Instead I took a job with the Westinghouse Electrical Corporation, in its Aviation Gas Turbine Division. I joined the team that had created the W19XB-2B, the first US- designed aircraft jet engine, they said. I commuted to the plant, located near Chester, Pennsylvania, as passenger in a co-worker’s car.

I was the junior technical writer. That meant I checked the parts’s lists in the latest edition of the engine’s overhaul manual. I certified that the design changes made in the engine had been incorporated into the updated illustrations and that they were reflected correctly in the updated text. That I occasionally consulted with the engineers who had made the changes – and who may have helped design the engine – did not relieve the tedium of the job.

Frustrated and unhappy, I decided to buy an used MG, a bright red one I had long coveted, and I had saved seven hundred dollars toward that end. First I’d have to learn to drive and get a license: a worrisome challenge. Maybe the car would jumpstart my life.

A year after I joined the company, Westinghouse announced that it was relocating our Division to Kansas City. The company had bought a disused World War II defense plant there for one dollar. That was about all, said the wags, that Westinghouse could afford. Move to Kansas City or leave the company. I refused to go but I was able to stay on in Chester while the move took place. The prospect of finding another job was disheartening.

Then my parents, my father newly retired from his job, announced that they were going to visit Sicily for three months, after an absence of forty-seven years. Zu Calogero, my father’s eldest brother, jumped at the chance to go with them. (Zu is short for Zio in Sicilian. Zio which means uncle. Zia, aunt, becomes Za. The Z is pronounced ts: tsu, tsa. ) Many older men and women were addressed as Zu or Za, even when not related to you. If not yours, they were bound to be somebody’s uncle and aunt.

My parents 1918

My Parents, 1918

My mother had immigrated to the United States in 1912, when she was seventeen years old. She was sponsored by Aunt Jennie’s grandmother. My father arrived later that year, on his own. Well, his older brother Calogero had preceded him here by two years. He was twenty-two years old, recently discharged from the Italian army.  Leonardo and Giuseppina were as yet unattached, but they had traded significant glances in the village.

Their decision to return to Sicily, and Westinghouse’s removal to Kansas City, served to clear my head. Did I really want an MG? Did I want to look for another dead-end job? Italy beckoned. I had more than seven hundred dollars.

I’d go to Italy a month ahead of my parents, to study Italian at the Universita Italiana per Stranieri di Perugia. That’s the Italian University for Foreigners. Then I’d join them in Sicily for a summer-long visit in the natal village of Sant’Anna. The village would become my base for visiting tourist sites in Sicily and Italy.

I got to Perugia in time for the spring semester at the Stranieri. The tuition, subsidized by the Italian government, was about six dollars a month. I found a pensione for fifty dollars a month, room and board. I was the lone American in the house. My fellow boarders were enrolled at the other university in town, L’Universita degli Studi. Mario Gentili, an Italian, was studying medicina; Giorgio Basso (Italian), agraria; Jorge Flores (Honduran) veterinaria; and Gianni Zanakis (Greek) veterinaria.

At the Stranieri I met students from all over the world, including American exGIs who were using their GI Bill benefits to study abroad. The GI Bill? I had some GI Bill left. Was this a way out? A way out to where? Who cared! I’d remain in Italy for as long as I could. I’d tell my parents later in the summer, before they returned to Philadelphia. In mid-April I left Perugia two days before their ship was to arrive in Palermo.

I wanted Palermo to myself for two days, unencumbered by old folks. I found a cheap room in a squalid boardinghouse on the third floor of a decrepit apartment house near the port. The staircase climbed round the walls of the inner courtyard but it was roped off short of the fourth floor landing. Beyond the rope was a yawning drop to the courtyard. The fourth floor had taken a hit during the American naval bombardment in 1943. The neighborhoods facing the water were studded with shattered buildings. The rubble had been cleared but the gaps remained.

At noon I saw a man cooking at a two burner stove in the foyer just inside his front door. A bench and table were on the sidewalk. I had a plate of perciatelli daubed with a splash of sourish tomato sauce, and a piece of oxtail for about thirty five cents. Move over George Orwell!

I couldn’t sleep that night in my windowless room which was in a dead end hallway. In the morning I saw several bright red spots on my chest and legs. The spots itched. On the second night, at the first pinch, my fingers flew to the spot and I captured what I knew had to be a bedbug. I abandoned the hovel and moved into a modest hotel. Later that morning, deloused and showered, I walked to the port where the M/N Vulcania was waiting at its pier. I joined the crowd massed around the gangplank.


I stood at the rear edge of the crowd looking over the heads of those who were scanning the faces of the passengers at the rail. About twenty feet in front of me I saw a group of people with sun darkened faces and starkly white napes, freshly exposed to view by artless haircuts. These were the markers of poor peasants. Under their clothing, the flesh was white, almost luminous, like that of cave dwelling fish. I recognized a face, a face I had seen among the photos at my mother’s house.

It was Zu Paolo Colletti, my mother’s youngest brother, who was about fifty-five years old. He was wearing my chalk-stripe, grey flannel suit. I loved that suit, a well bred Oxford I’d picked up at Pierone and Bruns in Spokane, Washington while I was in the Air Force. A longtime customer had rejected it after it had been altered for him. It fit me perfectly, at half the price! I gave it hard wear and it was clearly past its prime when I relinquished it to my mother. She added to one of many packages of food and clothing we used to send to Sicily before and after the war.

Carlo and Uncle Paolo 1955

Carlo and Zu Paolo, 1955

Suddenly, Zu Paolo and those clustered around him, spotted my parents and my uncle. They cried out to them, gesticulating, shedding tears of joy. My father and Zu Calogero responded vigorously. My mother waved wanly as she searched the upturned faces in the crowd. She found me and our eyes locked.

My relatives noticed my mother’s riveted gaze and they turned to see its object. They recognized me – from photographs – and they pushed through the crowd to engulf me. There were seventeen of them. They hugged and kissed me. My face was wet with their tears. The conjugations, the precise pronunciation I had begun to learn at the Stranieri abandoned me. I lapsed into dialect.

My cousins, like me, had come in Palermo two days before the arrival of the Vulcania. They were staying, several to a room, in a boarding house run by Santo Tamburro, a former Sant’Annese. Some of them had never been to Palermo before. They had come to the pier each morning, just in case they said, the ship should arrive early. They knew that was unlikely, but the weather was fine and the port life was interesting. They were enjoying a rare holiday.

Two days earlier they had met my ship, the overnight packet from Naples. Of course they were unaware that I was on it. I had recognized them as I started down the gang plank and I turned back. I found the cargo ramp in the ship’s aft and I exited, slipping behind a large container being offloaded. I disappeared into Palermo. Now, two mornings later, I had strolled over to the Vulcania.

My parents and my Uncle Calogero disembarked without incident. My mother was uneasy about the large steamer trunk full of dutiable items: two dozen cartons of cigarettes, a bottle Four Roses – nobody drank whiskey in Sant’Anna! – and many, many bolts of cloth for women’s dresses. She hoped to avoid declaring these goods. My Uncle Calogero told her not to worry.

I took my uncle to the Customs’ Office where he tendered an envelope addressed to a man inside. Zu Calogero was illiterate, but he could count; don’t try to cheat him. The letter was from old man Maggio, the South Philly cheese maker – Yes, that Maggio. He was one of Zu Calogero’s many compari.

Presently a man emerged from Customs Office. He embraced my uncle, kissing him on both cheeks, left, right left. I soon learned that drill, left, right left so as not to bump noses. The three of us returned to my parents who were standing guard by the luggage. Kisses all around. Zu Calogero’s new friend pulled out a piece of chalk and he boldly anointed the luggage and the trunk. A folded banknote changed hands.

I hailed a ragged man from among those crowding near with their two-wheeled handcarts. Mindful of the presence of my elders, and of the conventional wisdom which in Philadelphia had said: “Watch out. They’ll cheat you,” I offered the man two hundred lire less than his price. Two hundred lire was worth fifty cents. He accepted my offer without comment. Shame! Shame! Shame! I have never forgiven myself. But I was newly arrived in Europe; it had much to teach me.

The carter loaded the luggage onto the flat bed of his cart and he took his place between the stays, like a donkey, He trotted ahead of us to Tamburro’s. It was now mid-afternoon.

My father and cousin Calogero 1955

My Father and Cousin Calogero, 1955

Santo Tamburo found accommodations for my parents and my uncle. My father and Zu Calogero instructed Santo to buy roast chicken for everyone. Santo’s wife would cook the pasta and make the salad. Meanwhile, Santo phoned a man in Caltabellotta, instructing him to send a small bus to take us to Sant’Anna in the morning.

Caltabellotta is a big town near Sant’Anna. From afar, Caltabellotta seems carved from the rocky summit of its mountain which is 2500 feet high. It has a famous view: Menfi, Sambuca,Villafranca, Burgio, Ribera, Sciacca and a dozen other towns are scattered in a broad landscape to the sea.

Tamburo’s dining room was festive. Many people in too small a room make for a good party. Zu Calogero entertained us with stories of his youth in Sant’Anna. The Sant’Annesi marveled at the accuracy of his stories, his faithful description of places, of his memory of notorious incidents, his shrewd appraisal of the paisani. Little had changed in Sant”Anna. He was very funny, especially with a few drinks in him; that is, if you could understand his nearly toothless speech. My cousins understood him; half the people in Sant’Anna were toothless.

I’d raise my eyes to catch a cousin staring at me, at this wondrous creature whose skin was fair, whose hands were not thickened and coarsened by field work. My mother faded quickly and she went to bed. I too tried to leave the party early, to pack I said, but really to explore the streets along the way to my hotel. My Uncle Paolo and young Peppe Colletti – he liked to be called Joe – insisted on escorting me. In turn, I worried about their finding the way back to Tamburro’s.

Next morning the bus from Caltabellotta was waiting for us at curb side. Our driver intuited the way out of the tangled center where the transit buses bullied their way through dense traffic. In Palermo the buses spewed dark, pungent fumes that turned daylight to dusk. By nightfall my shirt collar was ringed with black. In Perugia my shirts lasted three days.

As our bus approached the perimeter but still well within the city, we encountered, indeed our way was blocked by a man leading twelve or fifteen goats. He carried a short slender crook in one hand and a three-legged stool in the other..

The goats wore bells whose jingling summoned housewives and children who emerged bearing jars and pitchers. The goatherd milked the goats and filled their containers. How bizarre! Palermo seemed like my idea of a North African city, with its palm trees, its churches with multiple red domes, its crowded streets and sidewalks, its air of dusty disrepair. And now the goats. Then I realized that the goats were an elegant – elegant in its simplicity – solution to the problem of delivering fresh milk daily to inhabitants who lacked refrigeration.


A church in Palermo

Once past the goats, we drove through a wide swath comprised of rundown housing, large and small garden plots and a patchwork of shabby industrial and agricultural buildings. Then the countryside. We skirted hills whose rising flanks were yellow with the stubble of harvested wheat. High above the stubbled fields were pale green meadows.

We sped through mean, dusty villages whose main streets were barely wide enough for the bus. I could have touched the people drawn back against their front doors. They regarded me blankly as we hurtled by. Peppina, my father’s niece, his brother Giuseppes’s only daughter, was my seatmate.

She was tall for a Sicilian woman, about five feet eight. She was gaunt, with that pinched look of the undernourished, skin drawn tightly over hollowed cheeks and temples. She was twenty-six years old and, unhappily, unwed. Peppina’s front teeth were gapped and they protruded her thin lips. Her teeth, together with her close-set eyes and her aquiline nose, gave her the look of an angry, cross-eyed hawk. She was snappish.

Her two elder brothers had married and multiplied. Peppina was named after her father’s mother, like my sister Peppina, who died an infant during the Spanish Flu. Peppina’s younger brother, Calogero, like me was named after Zu Calogero. Peppina told me, pointedly, that Calogero was engaged to be married.

Peppina asked me about our cousins in Philadelphia. She was surprised to learn how little I knew about them. South Philly was like a village when I was a kid: we were in and out of each other’s houses. But once married, they had scattered to distant neighborhoods and to small towns in South Jersey. We had little in common. I was a bookworm; none of them made it to high school. I saw them only at weddings, at a few christenings and at funerals.

“Our cousins?”, she was amazed . Yes Peppina, our cousins.

The word for cousin in Italian is cugino/a. The word for brother is fratello ; a sister is sorella. In Sicilian dialect, a male cousin is called un frateddu. The double L in fratello becomes a double D in frateddu. Think of Turiddu (short for Salvatorello) in the Cavalleria Rusticana. The final O often becomes a U. A female cousin becomes una soredda, a sister. Cousins were as close as brothers and sisters.

E tu che vita fai a Sant’Anna?“ I asked her, “What’s life like in Sant’Anna?”

Dalla casa alla chiesa. Dalla chiesa alla casa.” “From the house to the church, from the church to the house.”

We made a rest stop in Corleone. Did King Richard, the Lion Hearted one, pass through Corleone? Maybe not, but The Godfather’s Al Pacino did, famously. Corleone, a dreary dusty town, was a Mafia stronghold.

Our impromptu stop was a windfall for the fly speckled bar-caffe. We drank sweet, watery soda pop while we waited our turn to use the toilet, a fetid hole in the wet concrete floor. The driver called us back with a blast of his horn. Italian bus drivers, careening toward blind curves, rely on their horns to alert oncoming traffic.

An hour and a half later, almost four hours out of Palermo, our bus entered Sant’Anna with the driver leaning heavily on the horn. We were the first bus, the first vehicle, ever to arrive by the still incomplete mountain route. The unfinished portion looked like a deeply plowed field, not of forgiving clods, but of split, broken, sharp-edged rocks. The driver had refused to risk it. A folded bank-note changed hands. Our entrance into Sant’Anna was historic, our welcome was tumultuous.



Our relatives crowded the piazza which was a widening, a distension in the stark, treeless main street. A long outcropping of bleached, stratified stone rose up out of it, like a boulder in a stream. We quit the bus and were manhandled anew. My mother fainted and she sank to the street in a sitting position.

Somebody called for the doctor. He was nearby, sitting at the cafe’s rickety table, playing tre sette with Zu Pino Colletti. Dr. Nuzio dropped his hand and hurried to us. He examined my mother and pronounced her fit.

My father and I helped her to her feet. We gave ourselves over to Za Vita, my mother’s sister, who, though born after my mother had left Sant’Anna, had become her chief correspondent. The knot of people, no longer exuberant, opened before us and Za Vita led us to her house, trailing a gaggle of Collettis.

Aunt Vita 1940

Aunt Vita, 1940

Zu Calogero was enveloped by a happy swarm of Perrones which carried him off to his brother Peppe’s house, as had been pre-arranged.




Bermuda Cruise

Last summer I decided at the last minute to accompany my daughter on a seven-day cruise to Bermuda. We had never been on a cruise ship before. I had vivid memories of my 1955 transatlantic crossing on the MN Roma of the Achille Lauro Line, a 15,000 ton Italian passenger liner that had been nicely converted from a World War II freighter.


On March 12, 1955 I departed New York City in a snowstorm, and we were punished by high winds and hard rain for days. I’d go on deck, mesmerized by the mountainous waves and by the wind shrieking through the lines. I held on tight. Now I longed to have a deck under my feet again.

The S.S. Summit of the Celebrity Cruise Line weighs 90,000 tons, six times as big as the Roma. A thousand feet long, the Summit barely fits the shortest lock in the Panama Canal. It looks like the Empire State building on its side, or like a ten story 1970s Miami Beach hotel sitting atop a hull. We’d be sailing in late July, well before the hurricane season. The thirty-six hour run to Bermuda would be a breeze.

My daughter phoned three days before departure to remind me to bring my passport.

“A passport? To Bermuda?”

“Yes, Daddy. Bermuda belongs to Great Britain.”

I knew that. Vaguely. Still, I was offended. No wonder Spain resents an English Gibraltar. I went to the desk and dug out my U.S. passport; it had long expired.

To renew it quickly would have cost me $155. Eureka! my Italian passport. The maroon one, stamped in gold. There it was, lying in the desk drawer since 2009, never used. I was eligible for an Italian passport because my parents were still Italian citizens when I was born in Philadelphia. I’d be welcomed aboard the Summit as Signor Calogero Perrone.

Calogero? Who’s he? In 1934 when my mother signed me up for kindergarten, the school secretary, spying the name Calogero printed on my birth certificate, casually registered me as Charles. “You don’t want your son growing up as Calogero, do you?”

Calogero derives from the Greek: kalos geros. San Calogero is the patron saint of Sciacca, a big town in the province of Agrigento. It means a good or a beautiful old man. Or a monk. The secretary changed my name to Charles and it has remained Charles – on my report cards, diplomas, social security card, military discharge, marriage certificate, my driver’s license. Fraudulent documents all.

In the Fifties, Charles became Carlo while I lived in Italy for three years. (In Sicily my cousins called me Calogero.) I returned to the United States in 1958, bearing a black beret and my new name, Carlo. I lost the beret – nice hat, it had caught Margie’s eye – but I kept the name. Margie always called me Carlo, or in jest, Chaluzzo, which was what my mother called me, a form of ‘little Charlie’, akin to Cholly.

Nanda and I embarked in Bayonne, New Jersey. The check-in area was a vast hanger-like room, hard by the water, with the ship berthed alongside. The ship overhung the pier like a cliff, eleven decks tall. It blocked the view to the bay.ss summit

We joined the long line of passengers snaking through the room. A Customs officer, checking passports, circulated among us. Her name was Mary Ann, a genial Italian American from Jersey City. When she examined my passport, she called me Signor Perrone. I was thrilled. However, she pulled me out of line.

“Your passport lacks a visa.” She saw my puzzled look: “There’s no indication in your passport how you entered the United States,”.

I laughed: “I was born in Philadelphia and I live in Medford, New Jersey.”

Mary Ann was very patient, she was serious. “This passport says you are an Italian citizen who has somehow, somewhere, entered this country, perhaps unlawfully.” She spoke firmly but not unpleasantly. She sensed my rising panic. I wasn’t afraid of being deported – deported to Italy? Lovely! No, I thought I’d have to cancel the cruise, lose my money.

“Don’t worry. You can download a document in lieu of the visa.”

She led us to a computer in a side room where she gave Fernanda the pertinent information. Twenty minutes later and sixty-five dollars lighter, I had the required document which I handed over to Mary Ann. In exchange, she stamped a visa into my passport.

“Buon viaggio, Signor Perrone,” she said lushly, with a hint of Naples in her accent.

Soon after I was in my cabin unpacking my bag: two pairs of Bermuda shorts, the older pair was nicely faded to Nantucket Red. . A pair of sandals and a pair of dressy moccasins. No socks. Some shirts, a pair of slacks, one necktie and my linen sports jacket.

My linen sport jacket is forty-five years old, double-breasted, double-vented in the back, not unlike the one the Duke of Windsor wore in Bermuda when he was its governor. I hadn’t worn it for years but I threw it into my bag anyhow – it’s style cried out Cruise Ship. I brought no books; I’d find something to read in the ship’s library. I knocked on Nanda’s door when I finished unpacking and we left our adjoining staterooms to explore the ship before lunch.

I have elsewhere described my brief encounter with a Las Vegas casino hotel. Aboard the S.S. Summit we seemed to have landed in Las Vegas again. Ah, but now I could turn my back on that grossness and face the sea, with the wind in my hair. The ship sailed past the Statue of Liberty with a long curving flourish. The open sea was placid. Ahead of us was a day and a half sail to Bermuda, then three days in the port of Hamilton, and finally a thirty-six hour sail back to Bayonne.

A ship’s architecture imposes a class system upon its passengers. The distinction was vertical on the old transatlantic liners: the uppermost decks comprised First Class, the middle decks were Second Class, and deep in the hold was the Third Class. Steel doors separated the three classes. In the evenings, attractive girls traveling Second or Third Class might be invited to the First Class deck to fill out the dance floor in the arms of the ship’s junior officers.

Today, those parameters – different decks for different classes have disappeared. The S.S. Summit was one-class, but distinctions prevailed, not vertically as in the old days, but concentrically. The inside cabins, with no windows, were cheaper. The outside cabins facing the sea, with balconies, were larger and they were dramatically more expensive.

We had inside cabins on Deck 9, toward the rear of the ship. It was a long walk – about 400 feet – to the elevators and the staircases. The opposing walls seemed to meet in the far distance. We searched for, but failed to find a deck that was open to the sea. Did ocean views come only with outside cabin balconies? We’d search again after lunch.

Lunch was served buffet style, in a big room that spanned the width of the ship. The food counters were in the center of the room. They formed a large oblong, segmented into stations, each offering the main cuisines of the the world. The stations were manned by servers of various nationalities. One could sample all the world’s cuisines by circumnavigating the stations. Their concoctions were heaped for the taking, or handed over by the happy servers. At breakfast, short-order cooks dished out eggs any style, pancakes, or waffles, you name it. I filled up on oatmeal and a bowl of fresh tropical fruit.

Many diners were in poolside attire because the swimming pool was just beyond the dining room. Earlier that morning these diners had claimed the coveted poolside deck chairs by leaving a towel, a book or some personal item on the seat – arrogant ploys that enabled them to hog the chairs all day long. We ate quickly and left the noisy, crowded room.

We did find the open deck, not easily, because the unmarked door leading to it was gained only by passing through a gambling casino. This deck was about eighty yards long, running under the brow of the outside cabins stacked above. We walked around and under lifeboats hanging from massive davits. These were large powerful motor launches that accommodated 200 people each.

This stretch of deck was the only area on the ship where smoking was permitted. It was the ship’s smoking lounge, so to speak. Some smokers were scattered along the rail, others occupied the five or six deck chairs. An unoccupied deck chair was festooned with the artifacts of an absentee squatter. Fernanda and I walked the length of the deck several times, passing through the wafting cigarette smoke. We returned later that night when the deck was deserted and smoke-free. We took a few turns while the ship glided through a calm sea.

“Suitable attire is required in the full service dining rooms”. I put on my olive colored slacks, my subtly striped shirt and my paisley necktie. I slipped my bare feet into my elegant loafers and finally, I put on the linen jacket. I glanced at the tall mirror by my door: very nice. I tapped Nanda’s door to indicate that I was waiting in the corridor. She emerged, looking equally nice.

“Daddy! You can’t wear that jacket, it’s filthy.” I looked down my front. Yes, there were a few spots and some wrinkles, and the lapels drooped a bit, but the overall effect was fine.

Windsor jacket

“The light will be murky in the dining room. Nobody will notice.”

“Daddeee, there’s a big sweat stain across the back!” I removed the jacket and took a look. Yes, there was a stain, but it was more like the shadow of a stain.

“This all I brought, Dear. Nobody will notice in the darkened room. I’ll sit with my back to the wall.” We started out, she keeping a half step ahead of me.. A tall man approached us as we neared the elevators. He was about sixty years old. He wore a dark business suit, a solid citizen. He spoke to me.

“Excuse me, Sir, may I ask you a question?” He had a folded newspaper in his hand. The Wall Street Journal?

Sir? Nobody had called me sir for years. “Of course,” I said, “ What can I do for you?”

“I wonder if you would advise me about my investments?” It was the Wall Street Journal.

I was astounded. Somebody asking ME about the stock market! I looked him over. Was he a con artist?

“You could not have asked a worse person about investments,” I said. “I don’t even believe in the stock market. I’m a socialist.”

He was taken aback but he kept his cool. “Thank you,” he said politely. “I’m very sorry,” and he walked past us. I looked at Nanda, smiled but said nothing. Was it my jacket? We entered the restaurant; it was dimly lit. Nobody would notice my jacket. The maitre d’, a South American from Colombia, met us just inside the entrance.

“Good evening, Sir. May I have your cabin number” He consulted his iPad.

“Ah, Signor Perrone, buona sera, a table for two.” The table was the size of a large handkerchief, twelve inches away from its twin. I sat with my back to a pillar.
Our neighbors were sitting inches away. We exchanged greetings, little more. After all we and they had requested tables for two. We wanted privacy.

They were in their late-forties, well dressed in a showy way. Her dress was appropriate enough but he wore slacks and a polo shirt, no jacket and tie. The dress code? I looked around the room in vain; then back to their fingers and wrists which were weighed down with jeweled rings and bracelets.

She was picking her way through a large salad out of which reared four colossal shrimp. He was eating a double order of roast beef, two thick slabs of rare meat. She was drinking white wine, he red. I don’t recall what Nanda and I ate, some kind of seafood.

The food was good enough. The waiters, drawn from the Second and Third Worlds, were pleasantly solicitous. Their banter was studied, the set pieces of their trade. The sommelier, a Balkan woman, was knowledgeable, with a nice touch of hauteur. Nanda finished her wine and we left the restaurant. Our verdict: bountiful banality. What next? Should we follow the other diners? To the night clubs? To the casinos? To the discos? To a blaring, copy-cat Broadway stage show?

We sought out the library. We found it, suspended between decks, reached by a circular staircase – a kind of eyrie, an architectural afterthought, with three glass walls and the fourth lined with shelves. The shelves held about 400 books – mostly mysteries and bestsellers, some of them quite old. Nanda had been wise to bring her own books. I, unexpectedly, found an old but lightly read collection of Thornton Wilder’s letters. I took it without bothering to check it out. Who’d miss it? We sought out our stretch of open deck, took a few turns, we stood by the rail and studied the moonlit sea. It continued calm. We retired to our cabins to read our books.

Next morning we attended a lecture given by the ship’s captain. Captain Leo, thirty-nine years old, seemed young for the job. His seafaring family had him sent to a marine academy when he was thirteen. He’d been at sea ever since. His talk was a highpoint of the trip.

He marshaled a great deal of information about the ship’s history, its technical specifications and its daily operations, interspersed with amusing asides. By the time he turned us over to one of several subalterns, I was convinced that the ship, our fate, was in good hands. Nanda and I chose the tour of the kitchens, that is, a tour of the food distribution system.

Below deck, out of sight, was a sprawling beehive of activity, a series of interconnected work spaces: storerooms, large refrigerators, food preparation stations, kitchens and bakeries, each area enveloped in the steamy effusions of its distinctive activities, all manned by a host of food preparers.

The cooks wore their tall, stiff hats, the others wore soft white berets with headbands of different colors, depending upon the nature of their activity. They wore identity badges dangling by ribbons of matching colors. They worked as teams, efficiently, quietly and in good humor, with the usual banter of happy co-workers. They came from all over the Second and Third Worlds. Our meals-in-progress traveled over moving belts that led finally to dumbwaiters that lifted the plates to the various serving stations of the ship’s restaurants. Where did these hundreds of hidden workers go when they were off-duty?

Our “smoking deck” had a seven foot barrier at one end. I heard voices spilling over it and I pulled myself up to take a look. There they were, the below-deck workers, taking their ease on their own stretch of deck which was better equipped than our barren strip. Their living quarters must have been located at that end of the ship too. Did they have a swimming pool tucked away somewhere?pool in modern cruise ship1

Nanda was determined to have a swim. She had brought her bathing suit but she had been repelled by the ship’s crowded, noisy pool. We signed up for a tour that took us to the private beach of one of the island’s big hotels. Our tickets entitled us to an umbrella, two beach chairs and about three hours on the sand. I brought my book – good thing too – because it was a bad day for people watching. The beach was deserted, but Nanda was happy. It was to be her only ocean swim of the year.

On our last morning in Bermuda we took a bus tour to St. George, the old fishing port on the far end of the island. Our ship was departing at four o’ clock that afternoon. The bus was waiting on the pier but Nanda and I were the only passengers. No matter, said the driver. He phoned his office and within minutes a six- passenger van appeared, driven by a woman in her mid-twenties. We’d have, virtually, a private tour, an outing with the well-informed Diana, our driver, who chatted happily as we drove along.

She told us what it was like to live in idyllic Bermuda. Not so idyllic for many Bermudans because there were few jobs for the young. Some of her friends had found work in London and New York. Diana was lucky to to be part of a family business. She worked long hours when the cruise ships were in port but in the off season she’d fly to New York and to London, on shopping jaunts mostly.

St. George was settled in 1612, coeval to Jamestown, Virginia. However, St. George had survived even though few of its original buildings remained. An important survivor, much transformed, is St. Peter’s Church, the oldest Anglican church in the Western Hemisphere, continually in service since that year. Within this large, evolved building stands the wooden skeleton of the original church, a baldacchino of rough-hewn oaken beams.

The docent, an elderly parishioner, was pleased to show us around the church – we were the only visitors. She opened her heart to us when we told her that we had had tea the day before with Anthony Hollis, the Bishop of Bermuda. We had been referred to him and his wife by my daughter who is a parishioner of Trinity Episcopal Church in New Brunswick, New Jersey. Its minister, Joanna Hollis, was the Bishop’s daughter
The streets of St. George were deserted. The St. George Cricket team, with the bulk of St. George’s citizenry in tow, had gone to Somerset town to play against its arch rival, the Somerset Cricket Club. The match could last for hours. We strolled the town center which included a small 18th century square and little else. Many shops were closed.

We rendezvoused with Diana and started back to Hamilton. She made a detour to show us the little church where Bishop Hollis had begun his career. Then another stop to show us the Bishop’s house. I was concerned about the time. She wasn’t. Bermuda, population sixty thousand, has a small town mentality. Everybody knows everybody. If we should have been delayed I think Diana would have phoned Captain Leo. “We’ll be a little late, Leo. Please hold up the ship for ten minutes.”

The Cafe Normandie was the ship’s best restaurant. Its entrance was preceded by a large display case which contained artifacts from the S.S. Normandie, the great French transatlantic ocean liner of the 1930s. The most striking items in the case were two decorative wall panels which were deeply etched and painted, depicting life sized male figures against a maroon background.

We looked into the dining room. It was decorated in the art deco style – a 21st century idealization of a first class restaurant aboard the old S.S. Normandie. The lighting was discreet and the tables were widely separated. It was quiet. Nanda said let’s do it and I agreed. It was expensive but heck, it was our last night at sea. We reserved a table for two.

The Serbian maitre d’ was polished and the elegant Romanian wine steward, a woman, was urbane. Nanda ordered a rum swizzle cocktail – the best she ever had she said – and she ordered a white wine to go with her fish. I ordered Ginger ale. Romania didn’t flinch.

The décor, in ivory and brown, was very formal. It looked like a set in a 1930s Hollywood movie. The ceiling light was a great white disc about six feet across. The wall panels depicted classically robed figures gazing nobly into the distance. Sconces shaped like conch shells lined the walls and vintage bronze portholes stared blindly.

The Cafe was an oasis of civility. The room was very quiet – no piped in music – and our waitress was reserved. The food was good. The understated décor was boring. The room was lifeless. I couldn’t picture Marlene Dietrich sweeping into the room and calling out to Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence sitting over there, or to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sitting tete-a-tete in that alcove. Back in Medford, New Jersey, a few months later, I googled the S.S. Summit and I learned that the Cafe Normandie had been dismantled and that it had been transformed into a rustic Tuscan inn, a “fun” place to eat.

Nanda finished her wine and we left. We sought out our open stretch of deck and we took several turns of its length. We stood by the rail and looked out over calm sea. Nanda remembers it being a little rough but then she has never crossed the North Atlantic in winter. We returned to our cabins, to our beds, to our books. No more cruise ships for us. The QE2 to England might tempt us, but not in winter.