— Photo by Matt Collamer
A man named Michael holding this sign in a Boston subway station told photographer Matt Collamer that human kindness meant giving without expecting anything in return.

If we use the final days of the Roman Republic as historical precedent, or cultural backdrop cum mirror, to understand what’s taking place in the United States today — politically and socially — honesty forces us to conclude that the Republic of the United States, as happened to Rome, is done for.

No one wants to be the bearer of bad news but the similarities between the two Republics are overwhelming, especially when it comes to the violence and deceit associated with elections toward their end. And anyone who dismisses the parallel because Rome was way back in B. C., is a fool. Theodor Mommsen’s five-volume “The History of Rome” says why.

In early summer 2021 A. D., turn on the TV any time of day, listen to the radio, read the papers or what’s posted on social media: There is an endless flood of fearful cries foreboding the end of U. S. democracy, the demise of the Republic, while a violence-driven faction — even inside the government — spews trash-talk against the “collective” and creates legislation and propaganda networks that hack away at the social bonds a republic needs to stay alive.

A republic is not just a type of government, it’s a community where people bind themselves through mutual aid, knowing well that such an ethic is the first step toward preserving collective social life.

And the capitalist economy that runs through America’s veins like plasma in the blood, is hastening the demise of the Republic as its richest people propagandize that to be rich you cannot contribute to the collective; paying taxes is a waste of personal funds.

Indeed a few years ago, a former president of the United States, a billionaire, got on television and told the American people that anyone who contributes to the collective by paying taxes is a damn fool. He said it grinning with satisfaction, calling collectivists suckers. He said he beat the system and that’s how he stays rich.

Indeed, through the support of the rich, a tax code exists that ensures that they — and those of their ilk — remain above socio-political upheaval, untouched by the volatile ups-and-downs that invade the lives of the poloi.

Such engineering masks the connection between the “collective” and repaired roads, collected garbage, van drivers taking old and lonely seniors to the doctor, dog-control officers, and new desks for a rural elementary school that just might spark a child to take his studies seriously.

Part of the deep-seated animosity that exists in American society today arose when a significant number of Americans adopted the anthem of the rich but failed to achieve what it promised — and became infected with a virulent hate. On Jan. 6, 2021, that hate became lethal through an armed insurrection. Of course the country’s Capitol building was overrun but what was stormed as well was the bastille of community, of mutual-aid-based relationships, of a Republic that says the well-being of every citizen deserves equal attention.

By storming the Capitol, therefore, the rioters were also hacking at the life of the municipal minimum-wage van driver who takes old folks to the doctor, helps them out of the van, walks them up the steps to the office, insures that they get logged in, helps them settle in the waiting room, and then goes out to the van to wait until the appointment is over.

He then goes back in and collects his charge, asks the receptionist if there’s anything they need to know, walks the 93-year-old Widow Vanderpool back to the van, eases her into a seat, and chats with her on the way home, the only real conversation she had all week.

Understandably a happy van driver makes all the difference in how a mother is treated when her son can’t get off work to drive her himself. And the people carted in the van might not be old but have mental problems, a leg in a cast, or no one else in life to take them.

The community van-driver — metaphorically and actually — earns “nothing” because he is an expression of the collective, of community life where citizens provide for each other, as in taking the Widow Vanderpool to the doctor because she had no one else to call upon.

I’ve found nothing so far that says Bezos, Buffet, Trump, and others on their rung funnel funds to towns and villages to provide rides and services for people in need. And, as the Republic disintegrates, the number of people falling through the cracks of needs-unmet keeps growing.

A woke person might say disregard for the collective is a form of violence (at a distance), which an economist can make a case for with numbers. And those who war against collectivity are successful because they propagandize with an ideology of scarcity, a gospel of fear, that says there’s not enough to go around — and a horde of dirty Mexicans is hurtling toward the trough. Eat that dog before he eats you.

Because of such thinking and the hate it rewards, the United States is dying not from a heart attack — as was the case in B. C. Rome — but from congestive heart failure; the Tin Man of Oz, who finally found a heart, is watching it die before him.

When I hear the jeremiads on cable news saying the Republic is done for, I hear the voice of Cato the Younger — the Stoic philosopher who became a Roman senator to resist monarchy — and that of Rome’s most famous barrister, Marcus Tullius Cicero, both decrying the power-based hustle and violence that autocrats like Caesar championed. That nation inflicted death upon itself that a modern-day coroner would call suicide.

Look at the texts; in the early Fifties (B. C.) candidates running for office in Rome campaigned with gangs by their side, commanded paramilitary units who engaged the opposition on the street.

Things got so wild in 52 that no consul was elected. In the United States, that’s like saying social upheaval was so severe no president was elected.

The Roman senate called in Pompey the Great — the adulescentulus carnifex, the boy butcher — who got the name because he knew how to handle problems. The senate made him sole consul and provided him with an army to keep things under control.

The Greek-born historian Plutarch says, during elections, candidates presented themselves “not with votes, but with bows and arrows, swords, and slings.” He said they in fact, “would defile the rostra with blood and corpses before they separated, leaving the city to anarchy like a ship drifting about without a steersman.”

After a while, Plutarch says, “such madness and so great a tempest” wore people down so they were ready for a dictator to calm things. Being a political automaton — forget republican citizen — was better than being a billiard ball careening against the cushions of fractured social life.

Is that the ethical choice facing Americans today: political automaton or billiard ball? Years ago Robert Putnam, in his classic “Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community,” said America’s greatest fear was folks living in isolation; today that isolation has morphed into confused and hate-driven souls spraying the collective with AK-47’s — 247 times in 2021, and the year is hardly half done.

— Photo by Wolfgang Sauber

Heracles slaying the Hydra is depicted on Etruscan pottery.

Psychologically-speaking, when the human creature — a person — has a hard time dealing with some ugliness in himself — and does not have the strength to deal with it directly, that is, absorb it into consciousness — he spits it out. Psychologically-speaking, he projects.

The process is not unfamiliar; people accuse each other of doing it all the time — if not face-to-face, they’re thinking it. A cheating husband starts calling his wife unfaithful; a pathologically-lying politician calls people who challenge him, liars. It’s what sociologists refer to as “labeling theory.”   

Projection is a handy psychological tool because the actor casts his “problem” elsewhere: It’s now outside, in the external world; the projectee is bearer of the ill.

These days, we think of “projection” in terms of people, one person projecting onto another, but, in many traditional anthropological cultures, people projected their ills onto things like sticks and stones. A man who had a fever would rap a stick, toss the stick away, and the fever would be gone. The traditional biblical image of “scapegoat” is the tip of the iceberg.

The maddening paradox about projection is that, regardless of the ailment a person projects, no real transfer — psychologically-speaking — takes place. The problem, the ill, still resides within the projector; the pathological liar is still a liar; the cheater, still cheating.

Projection is hydra-headed in that it includes the ill the projector is trying to get rid of; the act of projection; the reception of the weight by the other; the ill-will created; and the low-level depression it causes.

To force potential projectees to submit, as well as punish those who refuse to accept the lie, the projector develops a vocabulary of “bully-talk.” It reflects a radical shift in the person’s cognition-network and explains why it’s near impossible to get projectors to confess; they refuse to give account.

Projection is economic in the sense that it involves the redistribution of worth; the projector enhances his own worth by getting rid of negativity and the dumped-upon is diminished by the burden imposed.

In his famed “Golden Bough,” the brilliant social anthropologist J. G. Frazer provides endless examples of tribes in all parts of the world getting rid of physical and psychological ills through custom protocols such as rapping a stick or bathing in a river.

In ancient Rome, Frazer says, a sick person cut his nails, rolled the clippings in a ball of wax, then stuck the wax to a neighbor’s door (in the dark of night) — whoever opened the door first got the fever.

Thus projection is a form of the Pontius Pilate Syndrome because the projector refuses to accept the negatives life has assigned him or that he brought upon himself — as when he chose to become a liar for the sake of power. Abdication is a powerful drug.

In the United States today, the projection process has become so rampant that people see evil everywhere. Social resentment is white hot.

The most glaring example is the Jan. 6 extravaganza when a mob of disaffected arch-projectors raided the United States Capitol and beat with a pole — attached to the flag of the country they live in — those the country had hired to protect “them” from people like themselves.

What is most alarming is that the mob of arch-projectors had redefined projection to mean eradication. A simple transfer was no longer effective, the other had to be eliminated; a goodly number of the assailants wore shirts celebrating the Nazi extermination of six million Jews: fascists!

But there is another process — psychologically-speaking — that goes in the opposite direction. Instead of (even while) spitting out unwanted parts, the ailing person takes in, ingests, borrows, something from the outside to enhance his worth; it’s called introjection.

The most brilliant among Freud’s original circle was the Hungarian-born psychoanalyst Sándor Ferenczi who took great interest in this process. He was not an economist but did pay attention to his patients’ feelings of worth — and why they felt compelled to borrow strength.

Freud said the borrowing is part of human nature in that everyone at some point in life, in some way, feels unequal to what life has set before him, and has to borrow strength. The archetype, Freud said, is when the child “ingests” the father (or some other person in power) to bolster the self; their power is transferred to the borrower.

It’s like Popeye with the spinach; he can’t handle Bluto so he borrows strength from the outer world; the can of spinach is his father.

Every sane being — and that distinction has to be made these days — believes that pain diminishes the value of living and, even when a person has techniques to absorb the pain, he might decide it’s cost-effective to dump it on someone else — there’s a wide spectrum of how people do it.

And though projection connects people, it’s so aggressive that it reinforces the gap between self and other; good and bad; mine and yours; worth and worthless; inner and outer; you and me. It’s where churches develop their sense of hierarchy.

When projection reaches the name-calling stage and then extermination, everywhere the projector looks he sees evil — Paranoia is born.

Alfred Heilbrun, a psychologist at Emory University, et al., had a paper published (in 1985) called “Defensive projection: An investigation of its role in paranoid conditions.”

The last lines of the abstract read, “Process paranoids demonstrated the most idiosyncratic free associations to verbal cues suggesting the autistic (self-preoccupied) quality of their thinking and delusions.”

Which I translate as: Projecting paranoids become so divorced from reality that a password can set them off; “most idiosyncratic free associations” means folks are willing to deny the physics of their being to live psychotically autonomic lives.

Years ago, the sound of “Hillary Clinton” produced, “Lock her up!” On Jan. 6, there was “Hang Mike Pence!” and “Kill Nancy Pelosi.” Psychotically autonomic responses.

Great power-projector-players like Donald Trump are well-schooled in how to shape autonomic Pavlovian responses; they know how to foster a shift in consciousness where the only choice is A or B, the same choice facing those contemplating suicide.

By “the autistic (self-preoccupied) quality of their thinking and delusions” Heilbrun and his colleagues are saying that the cognition network of such people is a form of autism.

Two great 20th-Century French philosophers — Gaston Bachelard and Jean Hyppolite — were interested in the cause of this, Bachelard in his “La Poetique de l’espace” (The Poetics of Space).

Their thinking was: “Le premier mythe” of humankind is “du dehors et du dedans” and our aggression toward each other “se fond sur ces deux termes.”

Which I translate as: When we accept the difference between you and me as unbridgeable — dehors et dedans — alienation is born, and why so many people in the United States go nutso these days with guns; bullets are the only words an A or B option offers. Suicide is homicide inverted; homicide is suicide projected.

The United States of America is a very sick puppy. I wonder if we’ll ever find a couch big enough where we can all lay ourselves down and confess our sins therapeutically.

In two recent columns in The New York Times, Tom Friedman says the War Between the States: II has begun.

He must have been reading about the end of the Roman Republic when, on election days, armies flooded the forum — a very scary time, and very sad — and very much like today.

— From Cornell University

Only about 12 copies of “Tamerlane,” the first published work of Edgar Allan Poe, are known to exist. This is the most recent one found — in 1988 in a New Hampshire antiques sore, purchased for $15. It is now in the Susan Jaffe Tane Collection at Cornell University, the largest privately-owned Poe collection in the world. 

At the end of February 1988, a Massachusetts man, a fisherman — who would not be identified — came upon a copy of Edgar Allen Poe’s “Tamerlane and Other Poems” in an antiques barn in New Hampshire. He had been looking through stacks of ephemera — pamphlets, catalogues, and the like — and there was “Tamerlane.”

The man recalled having read about it and thought it worth something. At the time, he told The New York Times, “It rang a bell in my head. I was alone. I got very excited.”

It cost $15.

The next day, he was off to the Sotheby’s office in Boston, book in hand, to ask the staff of the elite auction house what they thought. They said he had a gem; in March, they were telling reporters they thought the book would bring in the many high thousands.

In June, “Tamerlane” came up for sale and went for $198,000, dirty cover and all; it has a ring on it as if someone used it as a coaster.

The buyer was the well-respected New York City antiquarian book specialist James Cummins. He never flinched at the price; he said he already had it sold.

Cummins is among those book specialists around the world who view “the book” as a cultural artifact, a work of art, and the more unique the work — limited signed first edition, jeweled cover — the more a certain subset of book-lovers are willing to pay big prices for it — to a known dealer or a scout who found it in an attic or barn, like the fisherman — but they know what they’re looking for.

Almost as if to defend that genre of bibliophile, the artist/writer Maurice Sendak said, “There is so much more to a book than just the reading,” which explains the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School. There, they offer courses like “Introduction to the History of Bookbinding,” “The History of the Book in America, c.1700–1830,” and “The Handwriting & Culture of Early Modern Manuscripts.” Twenty-two hours of class cost $1,000.

But there is another subset of book phile, says the late A. S. W. Rosenbach — considered the greatest antiquarian bookseller of the 20th Century — whose members are taken over by circean lust. In his semi-autobiographical “Books and Bidders” (Little, Brown, 1927), Rosenbach says he had “known men to hazard their fortunes, go long journeys halfway around the world, forget friendship, even lie, cheat, steal all for the gain of a book.”

Cummins, Rosenbach, Tamerlane, and every facet of the rare and antiquarian book trade are presented in D. W. Young’s recent (March 2019) enchanting documentary “The Booksellers,” available on Amazon Video.

Greats from the antiquarian book world show off gems like proud parents. They describe the psychology of what hooked them as well as that of collectors who live for “the find.” But everyone in the movie is so disarmingly honest, they seem like simple monks. They have no filter.

Of course they’re involved in a business but their fascination with and love for books govern their being. It would not be the same with baseball cards.

They know everything about a particular title or even the entire oeuvre of an author: the editions of each book; the paper quality; the stitching of the binding; cover-design; even the watermark — the image a paper mill presses into each sheet that’s (mostly) unnoticeable until you hold it to the light. Today, it’s mostly the company’s logo or percentage of rag in the paper.

For my graduate degree in classics (Greek and Latin), I had a course where we spent considerable time examining the watermarks of atlas-folio-size sheets hung on a line the teacher strung across the room. [A Jesuit from Fordham.] [I could not get enough.] [I was in my twenties.] [Giant sheets of Gregorian chant.] [Incunabula.] [Appreciation of the beauty of the package words come in.]

I’d recommend “The Booksellers” to every booklover there is, but I do not because there are so many strata in the category of “booklover” today.

I know readers of Danielle Steel and James Paterson who say they love books. I know people who read Orwell’s “Homage to Catalonia,” Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation,” and John of the Cross in Spanish and say they love books.

And I know, and have met those — I owned a used-books store once — who lust after jeweled bindings and first editions and say it’s because they love books — the text incidental.

I suppose the crooks who made off with the great Gospel of Columbkille in 1007, its cover bedecked in gold and jewel, considered themselves booklovers too. But when the tome was recovered, the gold and jewels were gone — the crooks hadn’t read the words within.

The cognoscenti say “Tamerlane,” 40 pages long, was expensive because it came out in 1827; only 50 copies were made; it was Poe’s first work; he wrote it as a teen. And only a cognoscentus would know it was by Poe because the author page lists the poet as “a Bostonian.”

For those who like the money part, in 2009 Christy’s sold a copy of “Tamerlane” for $662,500. It was the most ever spent for a book of American literature; James Cummins called it a “black tulip.”

I love books; I’m not a collector but I buy only cloth, and those fitted with a jacket; I want to know how the publisher depicted the author’s vision.

I also look at the paper quality of a book; I consider how the binding’s stitched; I assess the index, and how easily the print sits on the page; I love words, and especially those clothed in beauty.

For some time now, a cadre of booklovers have been saying they fear the book is done for. They point to computers, Kindle, Facebook, and other paperless engines of information. They say the physicality of a text, the turning of pages — and how such a simple act allows for a second of reflection — are anachronisms.

I used to hear people say, “I’m gonna curl up with a good book tonight,” which I took to mean they were going to create a space in which they and the author would sit in a kind of bubble and converse about life — no interruptions — and explore — when books are at their best —issues of human redemption.

People say they love movies and TV because they allow for escape. But the book, thick with pages and a cover of record, does the opposite; it asks the reader to engage the world, and intimately; even with Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man” somebody’s got to find out who done it.

The saddest thing about the book’s lessening presence in our lives is that reflective reading is passing as well; those words, sentences, paragraphs, whole texts that encourage a person to find his purpose in life, sit on the shelf.

For centuries, Christian monks have called reflective reading lectio divina — texts that move a person to assess what he does for others, how much joy he creates, whether he helps to relieve pain and suffering — it’s really lectio humana.

Such reading requires time-away, a break from the day, a time and place to sit and think and ponder — curl up, as some say. You cannot buy a spiritual life.

In “The Booksellers” the three daughters of Louis Cohen, the late founder of the great Argosy Books in New York City — Judith Lowry, Naomi Hample, and Adina Cohen — appear as angels. I hope they live the way I think they do; then they’d be poets too.

If you’re a booklover who can look in the mirror and say: I want to know all there is to know about books, Ms. D. W. Young made “The Booksellers” for you. As they say in French: Point!

Photo courtesy of Seed Savers Exchange.

“You like tomato and I like tomahto” is how a line in the old Gershwin brothers song goes but, pronunciations aside, all a good gardener cares about is seeing a slice of a big fat red juicy tomato, with a touch of salt and mayo, spread across a slice of white bread.

It’s a summer thing in the Northeast that I put atop the gardening experience which includes, of course, growing the big fat red juicy things in the first place. Good gardeners are drawn to the process like moths to a flame.

But good gardeners never rush, gardening is a delicate art that requires novice and aficionado alike to find out all that’s known to produce the best-tasting tomato there is.

I always say, if you go to Webster’s, right under “tomato” you’ll find a picture of a good gardener showing off a gem that defines “tomato-taste.”

I know gardeners who make fun of the homeowner who says, “Well, I guess I’ll throw a few tomatoes in this year” but good gardeners welcome anyone into the fold who plants something in the earth and cares for it till fruition. And tomato-loving gardeners are a genus of moth who take to the flame with abandon.

Every year for many years I start tomato seeds indoors on St. Patrick’s Day in hard plastic trays whose cells I fill with the best potting soil available.

I love the day because it’s the beginning of the gardening season, but I rue it as well because I must father those seeds, help them sprout and, when they reach a certain size, set them in pots so their roots can spread.

When the seedlings are ready to go outside, I put them in the sun for an hour then bring them back in. The next day it’s an hour and a half, and after a week, two hours, then longer in mottled shade until the strips can withstand June’s blaze without their leaves turning white from sunburn.

That is, the good gardener accedes to what nature allows or demands. Acclimating the plants to the sun — called hardening off — is a tomato’s sun-tan lotion.

Because of my dedication to tomatoes over the years, I sometimes feature myself a Johnny Tomatoseed, but Double-A at best because I’ve met Babe Ruth Tomatoseed and Willie Mays Tomatoseed.

They didn’t say so directly but I learned from them that the good gardener’s relationship with the tomato (as with every fruit and vegetable) is an act of health: food-health, mental-health, physical health: gardening rearranges the emotions, it’s an epistemological revolution; the good gardener is a seer.

I’m forever upset that wine drinkers can describe the taste of a merlot with the nouns and verbs of poetry. The same is true for olive oil: floral, grassy, robust, polyphenols, are all part of the patois. Such chauvinism might seem chi-chi but, as with the tomato, people want to know what a fruit really tastes like, the gift nature intended — tomato qua tomato, the Standard of Perfection.

In every seed catalogue I come across, the owners of the company try to provide an accurate description of each variety they sell. There are thousands.

No company wants to be seen as a three-card-monte grifter in its sales pitch. They say what science says: The biology of genetics but also the biology of the tongue, the gustatorial judge of that big fat red juicy slice (maybe with salt and mayo) as it slides into the mouth.

That is, with their window-shoppers the catalogue-makers are sharing what the tongues on the street are saying. A few hyperbolize but there’s never a need for caveat emptor.

If I were to use the old man-on-the-street-interview technique — with respect to a tomato — I’d say to the next guy who comes along, “Sir, we’d like you to try this tomato and say in your own words what you think. What are your nouns and verbs? A little salt and mayo maybe?”

The catalogues describe a variety’s sweetness and acidity, how the plant responds to diseases, and how many rosy red jewels to expect in a season. (Some varieties are stingy despite the love.)

A phrase often used with tomatoes — and good gardeners listen — is “old-fashioned flavor” referring to the way tomatoes tasted before agribusiness butted in. Old-fashioned-flavor is a dog-whistle good gardeners can translate.

For example, page 10 of the 2021 Tomato Growers Supply Company’s seed catalogue says of the “Rutgers” — a lost treasure now back in favor — that gardeners everywhere are “rediscovering this old-fashioned classic for its terrific flavor and productivity.”

It says the “Rutgers” is “bright red,” disease-resistant; its skin doesn’t crack when it rains; and has that “delicious old-time taste.”

Old-time-taste means old-fashioned-flavor, which means the taste of the tomato on the vine or a few hours later spread across a slice of white.

On page 6, Tomato Growers describes the “Abraham Lincoln” as “old-time” with a “fair amount of acid  … nicely tempered with sweetness” and “packed with great tomato flavor.”

I’ve read hundreds and hundreds of such descriptions over the years but I’d like to introduce you to — to stay with the idiom — the Willie Mays of tomatoes: the “Dester’s Amish.”

There’s a story behind how I got the seeds from Missouri farmer, Larry Pierce, who told me in an email once that “Dester’s Amish” was the greatest tomato he tasted in 50 years.

What a dog whistle.

I got the seeds, I planted them, and every year I share strong “Dester’s” seedlings with family and friends; I turned on the tomato-guru, the late Carolyn Male, to “Dester’s” which is saying something.

A local better-than-good gardener, Don Meacham, told me “Dester’s Amish” is his Willie Mays.

I went wow, when Willie first came up in ’51, when few knew who he was, after a game I walked across the Polo Grounds parking lot beside him, then up a steep flight of stairs (110) that led to Edgecombe Avenue as my father waited below.

I have to agree with my gardening neighbor: “Dester’s Amish” is Willie Mays. How many get to have two heroes in a lifetime?

And there’s still time to get to the ballpark.

— Voorheesville Public Library Archives 

Fryer’s Grove Hotel — also known as the Honeymoon Hotel —was a busy place in the late 19th Century, just yards from the railway station in Voorheesville.

Dedicated to Alan Kowlowitz

Years ago, when I was putting together a book on Voorheesville, New York — the small upstate village I live in — I scoured every text I came upon to find its “founding fathers,” of course, but also, and especially, to see if there were citizens who helped transform the “place” into a community.

That is, had the people of Voorheesville developed a shared identity, what sociologists call “a sense of community?”

I also wanted to see if there were souls who urged the community to adopt an ethic of mutual aid whereby every person in the newly-incorporated-self would stand by every other when times got tough.

Such people are able to foster an appreciation of living together that’s bigger than neighbors shopping at the same store, having kids in the same school, or using the same garbage-disposal service.

The government of the village of Voorheesville published the results of my efforts in 1989. Mayor Ed Clark, and especially trustees Susan Rockmore and Dan Rey, had a keen interest in their constituents knowing about their forebears. They saw it as an act of communal health.

They believed people show greater respect for the place they live in if they know who lived in their house 100 years before, or shopped in the same stores downtown — though every store in old downtown Voorheesville is gone now.

For the bibliophiles in the ranks, the history book is called “Voorheesville, New York: A Sketch of the Beginnings of a Nineteenth Century Railroad Town.” It’s a 180-page, 8 by 10, loaded-with-graphics (photos, maps, and store-ads), serious narrative about how Voorheesville became a thriving railroad town and assembled a collection of energetic souls who developed a common purpose. Every page is based on primary sources.

I think it’s sad so few Voorheesvillians I’ve met over the years have shown an interest in the roots of where they live, in how our 19th-Century Victorian counterparts morphed from a collection of people living near each other to a “people” with a vision.

The place had a downtown with four grocery stores, a butcher shop, a funeral parlor, a factory that made quality cigars, a shirt-making operation, and a tomato-canning plant whose tins were shipped from the station daily.

Frank Bloomingdale — our first mayor — sent tons of hay and straw to Brooklyn and Boston; there was a coal business, a grain manufacturing plant, a slate company where the Cummings brothers peddled bluestone hauled down from Reidsville.

The place had two foundries, one a major leaguer. Its owner, Frederick Greisman, was a visionary; he built 10 houses on North Main to attract middle-managers; he underwrote the first library; started a bank — the Voorheesville Savings and Loan Association — where he made his sweat-filled laborers deposit their paychecks before hitting the saloon on the way home.

Mott’s apple juice had a plant on Grove Street where hundreds of workers pressed apples in the fall for quality cider and vinegar and later made jellies and prune juice encased in a beautiful green bottle.

The place had three hotels and dozens of B&B-type operations that each year graciously welcomed families to stay the summer; eat home-cooked meals; and, when the sun got hot, sit beneath a tree or head to the Vly to watch its 100-foot waterfall crash upon the shore.

One of the hosts, Mr. William Relyea, held a kite-flying contest on Saturday nights so his guests could try to reach the Helderbergs with string.

Every year, regional teacher groups returned to the village to hold their annual conference, most often in the social hall of the Methodist Church on Maple, whose congregation offered warm Voorheesville hospitality.

The Grove Hotel had a baseball diamond out back, a race track, a picnic area, and a bandstand where thousands — literally thousands — came from the surrounding cities to eat oysters, drain a tin of beer, dance, and watch a Fourth of July fireworks show.

Albanians could jump on a train and three stops later be sitting on the porch of the Grove — 100 yards from the track. So many newlyweds came to share marital bliss in one of the 35 rooms upstairs that folks called the place Honeymoon Hotel. (The Blue Book for 1886 says rooms were $1.50, guests having the option of the European or American plan).

And the Grove had culture. Its boarders — and any villager who stopped by for a beer — might catch on a given night the vaudevillian Madame Celeste doing her bird and musical instrument imitations. When the weather got warm they headed outside to see Howard’s Big Show, Doctor Gray’s Wonderful Wonders, and the Great New Orleans Show — all from the old vaudeville circuit.

Across the tracks was the equally-famed Harris House, run by my favorite Morris Harris, whose guests could catch semi-pro wrestling one night and the next, the grand vaudevillian ventriloquist Professor Button.

But with so many folks moving from place to place these days — COVID has slowed it — I understand why people show little interest in the place they live in. They’re from somewhere else heading to some other somewhere else — why bother with in-between?

As the official historian of the village of Voorheesville, I’ve attended conventions with municipal historians from around the state who came to learn new things about New York’s history but also to share the story of the place they were from.

I always wanted to know: Did they live in a “place” or in a “community?” Was there mutual aid? How would they describe it? And did their research include how benefits and burdens were distributed?

I had a chance to answer these questions myself somewhat when our regional library system a few years ago created a contest — they called it a challenge — whereby every patron of its 36 libraries was invited to visit every place in the system within four months. Library-lovers saw it as an offer they could not refuse.

And to show that they visited all 36, they brought along a master sheet they got stamped at every stop. I did the 36 in four days.

Moving at that pace, my conversation at each stop was brief but I kept looking at how each library’s shelves were stacked, what the sitting area looked like, was anyone at the reference desk, and how the person stamping my sheet viewed my interruption.

Like a mantra I kept asking: What does this library say about the town? Is it a place or is it a community?

At every library I came to, the staff were excited about the contest and every librarian who welcomed me offered a ready smile. 

At the Berlin library, after I got my sheet signed and was heading toward the door, the librarian at the desk, a middle-aged woman, asked in a kind and friendly tone whether, before I left, I might like to use the restroom. Her sincerity was overwhelming.

In Poestenkill, as my sheet was being stamped, the librarian asked if this was my first time there. When I said yes, she brought out from beneath the desk a small paper gift bag with handles that contained a mini-bottle of water, a mini-bag of popcorn, and I think there was a chocolate.

I said: Wow, Poestenkill knows hospitality. It must be a community.

And because at different times I’ve worked with historians from our county, I rooted for all the towns and villages they came from; they are Voorheesville’s neighbors.

And neighbors of The Altamont Enterprise as well. As its editor, Melissa Hale-Spencer, has said, “We try to hold up something to the community that reflects it, and we try to shine a light in dark places . . . And just because you’re small in terms of circulation, doesn’t mean you can’t be big in the sense of the issues that you tackle or look at critically or in a way that sheds light on whatever the particular problem is.”

Hospitality, a sense of community, in print.

— Photo by William P. Gottlieb, Library of Congress Music Division

“In her presence on those tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny,” Elizabeth Hardwick wrote of Billie Holiday.

During Mel Brooks’s revelatory interview with Conan O’Brien on Conan’s spectacular TBS series “Serious Jibber-Jabber,” the two comics start talking about the comedic greats of 20th-Century America and quickly agree that comedy and Jew(ish) were one. (Any soul into comedy knows it’s true.)

But then Mel turns wistful, sounding like someone who lost something or hadn’t measured up to expectations.

He tells Conan that, when it comes to putting words down on paper, nobody beats the Irish. “Between Juno and the Peacock or Sean O’Casey, just between Beckett and maybe Yeats,” he goes, “I mean when I discovered that these were all Irish writers, James Joyce, the best fucking writers in the world ….”

But then he adds that, when he saw that none of those great writers “was a Jew, I just had a nervous breakdown ... I cried for about a month.”

It’s a most interesting cultural statement but this is no time to psychoanalyze Mel Brooks. Suffice it to say he said the Irish have a way with words and put them down on paper well. He called them “the best fucking writers in the world …. ”

Conan — whose face is the map of Ireland — shows reverence for Mel throughout the interview, despite disparities, working with the advantage of a cultural overview. (Parenthetically, neither mentions that, when the Irish start with that sweet Gaelic lilt of theirs, they’re spinning a web, often of Brigadoon. The truth must be ferreted out.)

Because of his penchant for the Irish tongue, I hope Mel (he’ll be 95 in June) has seen the new book of the Dublin-born writer, Brian Dillon, out last September. It’s called “Suppose a Sentence,” a line Dillon took from Gertrude Stein’s poem “Christian Bérard.”

Stein’s line struck Dillon because he had “supposed” sentences for years, that is, had collected every great sentence he came upon in his reading — those that knocked him out. He jotted them down in the back of his writer-notebooks, which came to 45.

For Dillon, the sentences were objets trouvés, found things, which he wanted to share with the world the way Marcel Duchamp shared the things he found through art: an ordinary snow shovel becoming “Prelude to a Broken Arm.”

Dillon went through all the notebooks and picked 27 sentences he wanted in his Hall of Fame, then created a plaque for each in the form of an essay explaining why the player deserved to be there. The essays reflect a deep anarchic discipline.

As we might expect, Joan Didion, Janet Malcolm, Elizabeth Hardwick, and Susan Sontag — the murderers row of 20th-Century American literature — all have a plaque in Dillon’s Hall. Ironically, there are only three Irish — two women and Beckett. Nine are Brits and 10 are from the States.

To show what Dillon got enthralled with, here’s his sentence from Elizabeth Hardwick:

“In her presence on those tranquil nights it was possible to experience the depths of her disbelief, to feel sometimes the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.”

It sounds like a script from film noir posing questions for Hardwick not only about what she means but also about the oxymoron “mean, horrible freedom.”

The “her” in the sentence refers to the grande dame of the American blues-soul-jazz scene, Billie Holiday, who hip-music-folk know had a fondness for (government-banned) intoxicants.

As the soulful songbird lay dying in a hospital from pulmonary edema and heart failure, at 44, a gaggle of narcs barged into her room, searched her and her bed, handcuffed her to the bed, then stationed two mugs at the door: for what? To snag a dime bag from a nickel-and-dime connection from 125th Street? They found a stamp of smack in her room which they planted there — as she lay dying.

You can understand her disbelief and “the mean, horrible freedom of a thorough suspicion of destiny.”

Hardwick’s sentence is so beguiling the reader wants to lay Holiday down on a Freudian couch and ply her with questions of destiny — but Dillon doesn’t go there, he stays with Hardwick’s writing.

He says of her sentences, “There is a sense always that Hardwick’s sentences stand alone, pay little or no attention to one another, that each is self-involved and sufficient whole.”

Hardwick would’ve loved that, knowing how hard an art it is. It’s like listening to someone say one thing, a minute later the opposite, and then something new, while managing to convey meaning through a cohesive narrative the listener wants more of.

Dillon then turns to Hardwick’s view of her calling: “To wake up in the morning under a command to animate the stones of an idea, the clods of research, the uncertainty of memory, is the punishment of the vocation.”

I fully understand what this means but it’s Emily Dickinson’s loaded gun. “Command?” Who’s commanding? Was not the author in charge?

And to use “punishment” to whine about the price for doing the work one loves — maybe she was tired of her craft or feared she had no more to say.

As a writer for a small-town paper I suppose sentences all the time. Indeed, I juxtapose, interpose, even repose them, while I impose upon myself the rigor of exactitude.

Many years ago one of my teachers used to quote Francis Bacon: “Reading maketh a full man; speaking a ready man; and writing an exact man.”

I took it to mean that the serious reader develops confidence enough to speak to others without resorting to violence; the ready-man’s ideas are well-thought-out. And when he puts them down on paper he’s exact, refusing to speak in abstractions. The full man is gentil.

Violent language is the language of abstraction; it plagues those who refuse to examine their beliefs and thus never get to develop the words, vocabulary, idiom, to speak in sense-tences. The worst among them mouth a fascist babble.

In one of her essays, Annie Dillard tells a story about “a student [who] grabbed hold of a writer and asked: ‘Do you think I could be a writer?’”

The writer, not knowing anything about the person, says, “I don't know. . . . Do you like sentences?” 

And with that the writer “could see the student's amazement. Sentences? Do I like sentences? I am 20 years old and do I like sentences?”

Dillard says, “If he had liked sentences, of course, he could begin, like a joyful painter I knew. I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, ‘I liked the smell of the paint.’”

How sad that today so many despise the smell of the paint of exactitude. For Irish writers — despite all the talk of Brigadoon — exactitude is second nature. That’s what Mel loves about them and why he and they share the same Hall of Fame.


Abraham Lincoln, photographed by Alexander Gardner on Nov. 8, 1863.

Abraham Lincoln, photographed by Alexander Gardner on Nov. 8, 1863.

In an Aug. 7, 1863 letter to Horatio Seymour — the fractious governor of New York who opposed the Emancipation Proclamation — Abraham Lincoln stated with resolve, “My purpose is to be, in my action, just and constitutional; and yet practical, in performing the important duty, with which I am charged, of maintaining the unity, and the free principles of our common country.”

I wish Lincoln were alive today so I could ask him whether his definition of common country included meeting the needs of all, the enduring question of political economy.

“Common country” had been on his mind from the beginning of his presidency. On Nov. 20, 1860, two weeks after winning an election with less than 40 percent of the vote — a civil war waiting in the wings — he addressed a group of “Friends and Fellow Citizens” in Springfield, “Yet in all our rejoicing let us neither express, nor cherish, any harsh feeling towards any citizen who, by his vote, has differed with us. Let us at all times remember that all American citizens are brothers of a common country, and should dwell together in the bonds of fraternal feeling.”

Unity. Common country. Dwell together. Fraternal feeling. Treating others with “patient tenderness and charity,” a trait one biographer linked to Lincoln.

Any soul who’s been to therapy and cleansed his mind of the ideological constructs that sabotage happiness and drive wedges into relationships, tends to treat others with patient tenderness and charity taking their needs into account.

As a patient — coming from the Latin patior, to suffer — the “cured” soul had his story listened to with an open heart, his needs had been recognized as worthy of attention so, when he meets travelers of divergent points of view, he is able to open his heart and see their stories as valuable as his own, their needs as important as his.

When a person’s story is not heard, when his needs are denied or minimized — certainly not met — an enduring wound is inflicted on the psyche. Oftentimes the wounded soul angrily deflects the pain by projecting the hurt onto others, making them pay for the loss.

Vindictively, he speaks in ways that are divisive and argumentative, adopting what the late clinical psychologist Marshall Rosenberg called, “jackal language.” Justice for him is not meeting the needs of all equally but getting even, often in oblique ways. For decades the esteemed Brandeis sociologist David Gil pointed out how this kind of invective incites retributive counter-violence.

Carl Rogers, one of the pioneering psychotherapists of the 20th Century said on many occasions that, when people come to therapy seeking help, they arrive emboldened by a façade.

The façade was a tool, a strategy, they adopted to insure that their needs were met but they had reached a point where such walled-in existence and its accompanying jackal language were debilitating. Disunity and division were killing them.

They did not know, when they first entered the therapist’s office, that they were searching for a new identity that required digging deeper into the self. Freud described the procedure as, “one of clearing away the pathogenic psychical material layer by layer”; it was like “excavating a buried city.”

The excavation allows a patient to let go of the ideas, acts, ideologies, and all the tools that support façade-based living. All he wants is to stop the mind from warring with the heart.

The great 20th Century thinker, Norman O. Brown, was possessed with understanding what caused people to adopt divisiveness and rage as a way of life and whether such sufferers might find release through renewed consciousness.

In his 1966 classic, “Love’s Body,” Brown titled the fourth chapter “Unity.” The first sentence begins, “Is there a way out; an end to analysis; a cure; is there such a thing as health?”

That is, can a person, a society, ever heal from the wounds it has inflicted upon itself by disregarding the stories of some, by denying that their needs have validity?

Brown asks that question on page 80 and by the final page of text we see (1) there is a way out of disunity, out of psychological and societal suicide; and (2) there is such a thing as health and it can be practiced and achieved.

Brown also concludes that there is no end to self-reflective analysis and, as far as a “cure” goes, the wound never fully heals. But the struggling soul realizes, like Lincoln, that, when he recognizes the needs, stories, and history of others as equal to his own, he welcomes even those outfitted in rage into the common country. Personal value is based not on what one deserves but on what one needs.

But such an ideal is achieved only when we forego jackal language and begin to speak to each other nonviolently. The Center for Nonviolent Communication, which Marshall Rosenberg founded decades ago, offers four strategies to help a society move in that direction.

The first is to speak to each other about what we are seeing, hearing, and touching without making a judgment or evaluation. Rosenberg says, “When we combine observation with evaluation others are apt to hear criticism and resist what we are saying.” Generalizations like “You, right-wingers ...” only add to division.

The second practice is to develop a vocabulary of feelings where we point out where our needs are being met or not met. If we “clearly and specifically name or identify our emotions,” Rosenberg says, “we can connect more easily with one another.” Abstractions like “I feel I never got a fair deal” intensify anger.

Third, everything we do must be in the service of needs. Rosenberg says at the level of needs, “we have no real enemies, that what others do to us is the best possible thing they know to do to get their needs met.”

Miscommuniqués, therefore, do not call for blame or shame or hate but for reclarification. The focus should remain on the source of the hurt and the wish to be treated more fairly. Within such a framework we are all likely to express feelings and needs and forego recounting tales of past injustices and hardship.

The final prerequisite for nonviolent communication is that, when speaking to others, we make requests as opposed to demands. When a person hears a demand, he sees submission and rebellion as his options. Rosenberg says, “Either way, the person requesting is perceived as coercive, and the listener’s capacity to respond compassionately to the request is diminished.”

How well the members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa knew that, if a common country is a goal, the stories of all must come out.

President George H. W. Bush understood this even in the face of defeat. On White House stationery, in pen and ink, he wrote to his successor on Jan. 20, 1993:

Dear Bill,

When I walked into this office just now I felt the same sense of wonder and respect that I felt four years ago. I know you will feel that, too.

I wish you great happiness here. I never felt the loneliness some Presidents have described.

There will be very tough times, made even more difficult by criticism you may not think is fair. I'm not a very good one to give advice; but just don’t let the critics discourage you or push you off course.

You will be our President when you read this note. I wish you well. I wish your family well.

Your success now is our country's success. I am rooting hard for you.

Good luck — George

Forty-One like Sixteen knew all about common country.

— Library of Congress

Federico Fellini in 1965.

A few minutes into Federico Fellini’s “Amarcord,” even the casual viewer comes to see that the kids the director portrays — in his hometown of Rimini, Italy in the 1930s when he was a teen — were smart-ass airheads, without vision or purpose, unable, or unwilling, to transcend the roles history assigned them — as was the case with their mothers and fathers, and their parents before them.

You’d think Fellini had read Paul Goodman’s “Growing up Absurd” or Émile Durkheim on anomie.

But “Amarcord” is not a small-town biopic; it’s an artistic projection of Fellini’s heart as a kid, a feeling-memory projected onto the screen when Fascism had control of Italy’s mind. Compelled to escape the roles society allowed, Fellini left for Florence in 1937 at 17.

And though the movie is the work of an exile, it is an homage of deep feeling to the life he once lived. He treats each “character” of his youth with the vivid imagination of a poet-philosopher; he wanted them all to live forever — even the prurient parish priest and his teach-by-the-book teachers who took up the garb, and saluted with the vigor, of Fascists. (No resister is portrayed.)

And because Fellini allows each character — high and low — to have a say, “Amarcord” is an expression of dignitas. Each person comes on screen, tells his story, and waits in the wings until called again. And, after you’ve seen the movie a few times, you realize the town is a character as well. She draws you in.

“Amarcord” is more than a memoirist’s dream then, it’s ethnography; Fellini catches each person in his living-day-to-day, speaking-unselfconsciously self — alone or with the family, or maybe with a smart-ass peer group who embrace the Nazis in their Fascist youth uniforms.

“Amarcord” fits into the category of movie-making I call autobiographical comedy. Woody Allen’s “Radio Days” fits as well. Both films create a vision of a past when a person’s moral consciousness is born.

I love “Radio Days” and I love “Amarcord” but, in the personal memoir category, I vote for Fellini; Woody’s lingua franca has an edge, Fellini speaks in softer tones and treats his peeps with compassion. The viewer wants to visit Rimini but not the Rockaway Beach of Woody Allen.

Every time I see “Amarcord” I’m drawn to those subculturally-predelinquent, smart-ass teens who find fun in sadistically teasing the vulnerable — and they’re always fired up with sex.

“The Maestro” says in his memoir “I, Fellini” that, “I would stand with my young friends and we would study the women and speculate on who wore a brassiere and who didn’t. We would position ourselves at the bicycle stand in the late afternoon, when the women came for their bicycles, so we could watch from behind with the best view as they sat down on their bicycles.”

At some point in “Amarcord,” we’re introduced to those rears as they squat down upon the seats and morphously slide down their sides. Fellini says, “The sharp saddles slipped rapidly under the shiny black satin skirts, outlining, swelling, expanding, with dazzling gleams and sparkles, the biggest and finest bums in the whole of Romagna.” All fodder for future sexual fantasies.

Fellini thought the paths society offered did not extend beyond the ordinary. He says when he was leaving town he thought his “friends would be envious because I was leaving, but far from it. They were perplexed. They didn’t feel the drive to leave that I did. They were content to live in Rimini and were surprised I didn’t feel as they did.”

The word “Amarcord” comes from the dialect-Italian m’arcôrd which means “I remember” so we tend to think the movie is about memory.

But, in a 1980 interview with “Panorama” magazine, Fellini said no, “It is not memory that dominates my films. To say that my films are autobiographical is an overly facile liquidation, a hasty classification. It seems to me that I have invented almost everything: childhood, character, nostalgias, dreams, memories, for the pleasure of being able to recount them.”

But that’s not exactly true, and why the Canadian-born filmmaker Damian Pettigrew called his feature documentary: “Fellini: I’m a Born Liar.”

The undying adolescence of Fellini’s smart-alecky posse bored into his consciousness as well.

Twenty years earlier, he lit up the screen with a vision of what those guys looked like in their late-twenties in “I Vitelloni.”

“Vitelloni” in Italian means little bullocks, overgrown calves, little-boy-bulls — that sort of thing — and metaphorically means layabouts, lazy loafers, do-nothings. Italians have a name for that type today, “Mammoni.” Mommy’s pets.

Fellini’s “Amarcord” co-screenwriter Ennio Flaiano (the third was Tullio Pinelli) said that he thought “vitelloni” came from “vudellone, the large intestine, or a person who eats a lot. It was a way of describing the family son who only ate but never ‘produced’ — like an intestine, waiting to be filled.”

Fellini said the title came from what an old lady called him when he got caught pranking as a kid: vitelline! He said the vitelloni in Rimini shined “during the holiday season, and waiting for it takes up the rest of the year.”

He returned to Rimini in 1945 only to see a town torn to pieces. He said it “looked like a sea of rubble. There was nothing left. All that came out of the ruins was the dialect, the familiar cadences, a call of ‘Duilio! Severino!’, those strange names.”

And those who have such names in “Amarcord” did live in Rimini.

One was the beautiful, “sexy” hairdresser, Gradisca, who, when she walked down the street, the teen bullocks get “hot and bothered” and started making sexual gestures with arms and hands.

Titta, the boy who plays Fellini in the movie, puts the moves on Gradisca one day when he finds himself alone with her in a movie theater; she looks down at his hand in condescension.

The historical Fellini could not escape her scent; he says, I “went looking for Gradisca many years later in the country near Comasco.”

He was told she got married to a sailor (a cousin) and moved to “a wretched little village, then a muddy part of the river.”

When he drove there (in a Porsche), he came upon a little old lady hanging out wash in her garden. He got out and said, “Excuse me ... Where does Gradisca live?”

The old woman said, “Who’s looking for her?”

Fellini said he was, that he was an “old acquaintance: ‘Can you tell me where she is?’ ‘I am Gradisca,’ said the old woman.”

There before him stood the burning sexual flame of his youth but she “had lost every single trace of that triumphant, carnival glitter of hers. When I came to work it out, in fact, she must have been sixty years old.”

The Gradisca of “Amarcord” is beautiful, vivacious, and a “teaser” robed in red, whom every man in Rimini wants to “have a chat with.”

In real life, “Dressed in black satin that flashed in a steely, glittery way,” Fellini says, “she was one of the first to wear false eyelashes. Inside the café [Commercio] everyone has his nose to the glass. Even in winter Gradisca looked as if she has just stepped out of a band-box, with curls, the first permanent wave.”

In “Amarcord,” Gradisca and all the townspeople she lives among, live without wrinkle or care. In “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” John Keats says that’s one of the benefits of art:

She cannot fade, though thou hast not thy bliss,

For ever wilt thou love, and she be fair!

With such thinking, no one loses.

But one wonders — with the coronavirus running rampant — to what extent Keats and Fellini, and all their talk of art, can help assuage the sorrow weighing on the American soul.

— Photo by Caleb Zahnd

Bobbing for apples is a messy business.

People of a certain age will recall with fondness that, when the extended family gathered on Halloween night for food, conversation, and games, some of the kids got carried away with laughter. You could hear them across the room.

One of the games our family played on the hallowed eve — of el Día de los Muertos — was ducking or bobbing for apples. When I tell older folks about it, they say their family played it too.

Several dozen apples were set afloat in a large metal wash tub filled with maybe a foot of water; one of the adults overseeing the project — while the kids turned their backs so as not to cheat — pressed a coin into the flesh of one of the apples, covered the scar and set it afloat with the rest; you couldn’t tell which one it was. Back then, the prize was a dime or a quarter, which everyone liked.

One by one — I think by age — we kids knelt beside the tub and plunged our head deep down under to pin the winner against the side or bottom of the tub with grinned teeth.

It wasn’t easy; there was a time-limit; some of the kids couldn’t hold their breath and quickly shot back up gasping for air. The sorry soul took two or three deep breaths and was back under.

Part of the giddiness came from how crazy a person got, getting wet — hair, shirt, the floor — some panicked when they hit the water but it never stopped them. An aunt or an uncle stood by with a towel to help mop the sops off.

And someone always got the coin. Everybody was happy, not just the person who “won” but everybody because it was such good fun. I know it had to do with — at a subconscious level — reaffirming family. Plunging into a tub of water was a small price to pay.

No one in the family’s collected data on the event and I don’t recall anyone who won, or even if I did, but there was no envy; winning was luck.

And at no time were we told that a win signified something more than the coin, for example that the game foretold something about the future.

But for centuries in Europe, communities believed that that game, and divination games like it, foretold what was in store for the winner — he would be first to get married or the first to have a child. At some weddings now, the bride throws her bouquet into a group of “eligible” women and the person who catches it will be the first married.

Games of future-telling on Halloween are remnants of the life of herd-tending communities who considered it the eve of a new year — on November First, a new life-cycle began.

The famed Irish writer, Patrick Joyce, says in his beautiful two-volume classic “The Social History of Ancient Ireland,” that the herd-tending communities divided “The whole year .... into two parts — Summer from 1st May to 1st November, and winter from 1st November to 1st May.”

On the eve of the new year, when the light of day had already shifted, the pensive mind attended to the other world and the soul grew open to the future.

Even kings wanted to know. Ireland’s fifth-century Dathi, when visiting Sligo one Halloween, told the local druid to find out his future.

The story says the priest went up a hill and spent the night thinking; when he came down, he told Dathi what he saw — ancient sources say it all came true.

For those of lesser means, and without a druid to call upon, bobbing for apples and the “nut game” were their Halloween seers.

In the nut game, a young couple wanting to know what was in store for them, placed two nuts by the fireplace; the woman was one, the man, the other. How the nuts behaved in the heat foretold things to come. Friends and family looked on with delight.

If the nuts burned together, the couple would be married; if it took a long time, their marriage would last; and if the fire burned bright, happiness would be theirs.

But if one of the nuts got too hot and jumped away from the other, the pair would go their separate ways  — there’d be no wedding — and the nut who jumped away was responsible!

One of the paradoxes of Halloween is that its “ceremonies” have long dealt with not only the future but the past as well. The hallowed eve was a time when the community thought about the dead: friends, relatives, and saints who helped along the way.

Ethnologists say on Halloween the spirits of the dead came around the house looking for warmth, a cup of tea, and conversation, and then they’d be gone — the extended family in attendance.

Nobody ducks for apples any more. At some point, parents didn’t want their kids sticking their salivary mouths into a pool of water where other salivary mouths had been, even those of kin.

The game changed to chasing an apple on a string but the giddy laughter of diving into a tub of splashing water was gone — plus (sociologically) the family had radically changed.

Now, with the coronavirus upon us, bobbing for apples will never be played again, and disappear from cultural consciousness, except for the ethnologists. The human family has one less tool to consider its future.

In the old days, the ghosts wanted to come inside for warmth but now, with the virus, “inside” is a place of danger, an enemy, and, with winter coming (we’re told) it will worsen. Where will the dead go?

And what other means do we have to consider our future: as a family, a state, a nation, a species? We’re still struggling to talk to each other without ill-will and rancor — wasting precious psychological energy.

Halloween? Every day is Halloween now. Every day is the eve of a new dawn. Some of us have learned the benefit of wearing a mask but a lot are still having a hard time speaking with an open heart.


— Photo by Brian McMillen

Willie Dixon at the Monterey Jazz Festival in 1981.

Let’s start with a short culture quiz.

The first question is: Which is the greater work of art: Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Box” (1964) or Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” (1937)?

You have until the Final Jeopardy! song ends to give your answer.

And the second question is: Which is a greater song? Franz Schubert’s “Ave Maria” (written in 1825), or Willie Dixon’s “Back Door Man,” which Howlin’ Wolf premiered in 1961? 

With respect to the first question everybody of a certain age knows who Warhol and Picasso are, so their choice of painting might be more or less à chacun son gout.

In terms of the two composers, Schubert is 99 times better known than Dixon and his song has been played in practically every church on Earth. With Willie Dixon people ask: You sure you don’t mean Willie Mays?

How a person responds to both questions is a measure of that person’s view of “the sacred” and “the profane,” a division that derives from the value a person puts on people and things when constructing a vision of the world. Despite the denial of many, it’s a primary category of thinking.

When those in the “sacred” camp hierarchize, they use metaphors like holy, God, divine grace, and virgin birth. The images are so powerful that sometimes people forget they’re economic variables reflecting the price put on something. Concepts like value, worth, compensation, payoff, and “equity” are part of it.

Incidentally, when ordering their world, some people decide to reject hierarchy altogether — the basis of anarchist thinking — which means a person is equal to God. Holy God is holy Me and holy Me is holy All — what Allen Ginsberg announced in his footnote to “Howl.”

The major problem with Schubert’s “Ave Maria” is not that it’s soppy with emotion but that, exegetically speaking, it does not reflect the story that happened: the story of an angel appearing to a young woman telling her she will have a child, not only that but the child will be a god, and not just any god but the savior the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures longed for for centuries.  

Even taking into account à chacun son gout — how many people can say that “Ave Maria” changed their lives or shook up the way they think?

On the other hand, Willie Dixon is not just one of the great songwriters of all time but a man who penned words that allowed Black men to speak about their identity in direct and truthful ways. He said, men, we have a need to express our love just like white men.   

Rolling Stone magazine ranked Willie 51st on its best-ever-songwriter list — Dylan is 1, McCartney 2, Lennon 3, and Chuck Berry 4 — but Willie deserves to be right there with them because he helped restructure identity.

As a performer, Willie — all six foot, six of him — could put a song across, but the singing of his songs is most associated with Muddy Waters, the greatest blues artist of all time. He’s as good as Sinatra.  

In January 1954, Chess Records came out with a forty-five with “Hoochie Coochie Man” on Side A — Muddy singing and on guitar; Willie is billed as Songwriter/Composer.

The song starts with a stop-and-go bump-and-grind heavy bass rhythm and then words flow, telling Black men they no longer have to hide their manhood. It’s an anthem of liberation.  

On YouTube, you will see Muddy proclaiming the message, not strutting up and down the walk like a banty rooster but laying out the facts of Black identity as if making a presentation before a Fortune 500 company — but is in no way matter of fact.

Muddy begins:

The gypsy woman told my mother

Before I was born

I got a boy child’s coming

He’s gonna be a son of a gun

He gonna make pretty womens

Jump and shout

Then the world wanna know

What this all about

And who’s that son of a gun?

Muddy says:

But you know I’m him

Everybody knows I’m him

Well, you know I’m a Man

Yeah, everybody knows I’m him

And when you hear his emphasis on eev-ree-body, you realize Mr. McKinley Morganfield — Muddy’s birth name — is not singing “Hoochie Coochie Man” he is Hoochie Coochie Man. 

Dixon wrote more than 500 songs. Two others he gave to Waters are “I Just Want to Make Love to You,” and “I’m a Natural Born Lover,” and to Wolf he gave “Little Red Rooster,” which the Stones shared with the white world in November 1964 — introducing that world to Willie Dixon and the electric blues of Chicago. 

By saying how a little red rooster handles the barnyard Willie was giving all men a context to explore their sexuality.

The world is a strange place though for, as “Hoochie Coochie Man” was making the rounds at Chicago’s radio stations, Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy from that city was visiting his relatives in Money, Mississippi — 100 miles north of Lynchburg where Dixon was born — and, while there, was beaten, shot, and submerged in a river tied to the fan of a cotton gin to keep him down.

The facts reveal that, when Emmett went into town to buy a pack of gum one day, the 21-year old owner of the store, Carolyn Bryant, said the boy got sassy, he whistled, and on the way out shot back, “Bye baby!” Carolyn’s husband, Roy, and his half-brother, J. W. Milam, showed up and took the story from there.

Sixty-two years later, the lady-judge storekeeper whose words sentenced Emmett to death, said she made it up; there was no sex-stuff. It was her white supremacy speaking, her repressed-sexual libido was pining for a Hoochie Coochie Man.

When the United States established a draft in World War II, Willie got messages to come get fitted for an army hat but he threw them in the trash, forcing officials to come to one of his gigs and arrest him. 

Willie told the draft board it was nothing personal; he couldn’t serve because he was a conscientious objector — 30 years before Muhammad Ali!

Willie said that American society said he was a non-person and a non-person can’t fight in war because there ain’t no one there!

He was put in jail but raised such a ruckus that the draft board classified him 5-F and set him free; the whole story is in Willie’s riveting, and disarming, autobiography (with Don Snowden), “I Am the Blues.”

How can a person, Willie kept saying, help a system stay afloat while it’s dragging him down tied to a piece of a cotton gin?  

Toward the end of August Wilson’s “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom,” Ma Rainey declares, “White folks don’t understand about the blues. They hear it come out, but they don’t know how it got there. They don’t understand that’s life’s way of talking. You don’t sing to feel better. You sing ’cause that’s a way of understanding life.”

And that’s what Los Angeles Clippers Coach Doc Rivers was trying to figure out last week, speaking about America’s treatment of Black men: “We keep loving this country and this country doesn’t love us back.”