Incorrigible Bookworm

Picture of Me at the Last Bookstore, Downtown Los Angeles

Sometimes, I just have to sit up and take a good look at myself. Where in Blue Blazes did this Bookworm come from? There was no one like me in the family. I was looked at by my family with a combination of contempt and admiration. When I was doing well in high school (I was the valedictorian of my class), I was referred to as “the walking dictionary.” I was a person of whom prodigies were expected … in the normal course of events. People expected my help with their homework—even if I knew zilch about the subject.

In fact, books were for me an escape. I was a sickly child, stricken by numerous allergies and frequent and debilitating headaches. The latter turned out to be a brain tumor in my pituitary gland. When I came out of surgery in the fall of 1966, I kept asking myself, “Why me?” I went almost overnight from a devout Catholic to a lapsed Catholic. I continued to suffer various physical and mental after-effects because of the lifelong steroid therapy that ensued.

I was never any good at athletics. For exercise, I liked to walk a lot. I couldn’t even drive a car until I reached the age of forty, and I no longer had to take a blood pressure medication (Catapres) that caused me to fall asleep in moving vehicles.

And so, at an early age, I turned to books. Was it because my mother used to tell me fantastic stories about fairy princesses in the dark forest that she told me in Hungarian? I couldn’t really read English with any proficiency until the third or fourth grade.

I started to accumulate books at home, causing some friction with my parents. They didn’t like to see me spending money for books at Scroeder’s Bookstore on Cleveland’s Public Square. Once, when my cousin Emil saw me reading Tom Sawyer in the living room, he grabbed the book out of my hands and hurled it at the floor, causing it to bounce. “This is what I think of books!” he said while I wondered what was coming next.

Of course, I love books. Even though I have donated over a thousand books from my collection to the Mar Vista Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, I still read as much as ever, if not more so.

 

A Bookworm’s Day

The Westfield Culver City Mall

Today was a day devoted to books. This morning, I took a box of 20 trade paperbacks to the Los Angeles Public Library in Mar Vista as a donation. They are about to have a large book sale in a couple of weeks, and I thought these books would probably sell. After I dropped them off, I sat in one of their comfy chairs and finished reading The Best American Travel Writing 2013, edited by Elizabeth Gilbert. Travel literature is one of my favorite book categories, accounting for much of my reading during the summer months. (As well as being an actual traveler, I am also an armchair traveler.) On my way out, a picked up a free library discard copy of Fodor’s Brazil (2016).

The reason? I am toying with the idea of flying to the State of Bahia, to Salvador and Ilheus, and reading Jorge Amado’s novels which are set there.

Next, I drove to the Westfield Culver City mall, where I ate a light vegetarian lunch at the Vietnamese restaurant in their top floor food court. Afterwards, I bought some milk chocolate clusters with walnuts, peanuts, pecans, and almonds. I spent a couple of hours looking at the Fodor Brazil guide before heading home.

Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann Arrive on the Island in Hour of the Wolf

By the time I got back, Martine was gone for a doctor’s appointment, so I watched Ingmar Bergman’s Hour of the Wolf (1968), the closest the Swedish director ever came to a gothic horror film, starring Max von Sydow and Liv Ullmann staying on an island of vampires.

After preparing dinner, consisting of Hungarian fasirt with buttered corn on the cob. Afterwords, I started reading Valentin Kataev’s 1927 novel Embezzlers. All in all, not a bad day.

 

 

Memories of Cleveland

The Cleveland Museum of Art

When I was growing up on the East Side of Cleveland, there were some areas that I really grew to like. Probably I was most drawn to the area around the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve University. I used to take the 56-A bus from home to East 105th Street, where I transferred to another bus that took me to Euclid Avenue. There was a drugstore at the corner of 105th and Euclid that featured a drink at their soda fountain called a “fresh lime rickey.” I would eat lunch there and walk over to either the Cleveland Museum of Art or the Western Reserve campus (it had not yet merged with Case Institute of Technology).

I would take art appreciation classes on Saturdays at the art museum, afterwards walking around the collections of medieval armor and 19th century art, including a Van Gogh that became my favorite painting: “The Starry Night.” I wonder if Cleveland still has that painting.

Van Gogh’s “Starry Night”

After I had started at Dartmouth College, I took a course on tragedy in literature at Western Reserve University by a professor named, as I recall, Tom MacDonald. At times, I would walk over to the Museum of Art after classes before getting on the buses home.

Other than the “University Circle” area that I frequented, I was not overly impressed by Cleveland. The Downtown area was rather grim. I had saxophone lessons near the center of town. The only places there I felt I could hang out were the Public Library on Superior and Schroeder’s Bookstore on Public Square. To the west were the Flats with their large factories, through which flowed the Cuyahoga River. It was this river which had made news once for being so polluted that it had caught fire.

 

At the Fish Market

The Fish Market at Pike Place in Seattle (2009)

Sometimes I think a new anti-social Me is coming into existence. Not really so much anti-social as unfriendly to strangers. Martine and I had visited a historical site in Long Beach called the Rancho Los Cerritos National Historical Site. On the return trip to West L.A., we stopped at Captain Kidd’s Fish Market and Restaurant in Redondo Beach where we indulged our love of fresh seafood.

As we checked out the raw fish on ice, a stranger wearing khaki shorts, a T-shirt, sneakers, and those unambitious socks that never quite make it up to one’s ankles, started talking to me about the salmon in the case.

I looked at him. “Are you talking to me?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered.

With what must have been a puzzled look on my face, I asked, “What on earth for?”

And that shut him up.

This is the type of situation when I normally switch to Hungarian. I couldn’t well do that here because I had to order two fish dinners in English within the next couple of minutes.

What a snarky character I am turning out to be!

 

An American Heroine

Megan Rapinoe, the Star of the U.S. Women’s National Soccer Team

She was nowhere near the biggest bruiser on the field (that honor goes to France’s Wendie Renard, who at 6’ 1” was the biggest in the entire tournament). But when there were a few inches of daylight between her and the net, Megan Rapinoe found a way to corkscrew the ball between the defenders and past the goalkeeper and onto the scoreboard.

I don’t watch sports on television much, but I have a soft spot in my heart for what the world calls football and we Americans call soccer. That is because my Dad played for a Czechoslovakian club in the 1920s and for various nationality teams in Cleveland during the 1930s. When I was a child, he would occasionally take me to Moreland Park, where he was widely recognized by the old hands at the game. Elek and Emil Paris were the Terrible Twins of the Cleveland clubs. I heard all the stories about the players whose legs were broken by my father’s powerful kicks. These stories may have been slightly embroidered, but I ate them all up with a feeling of family pride.

The fact that Donald Trump is highly critical of her makes me admire Megan Rapinoe all the more. When asked by a reporter whether she would grace the White House with her presence, she replied that “she was not going to the f—ing White House.” That set the Donald off, he being rather thin-skinned by any kind of criticism.

There was a follow-up to that, however. “I stand by the comments that I made about not wanting to go to the White House with exception of the expletive,” Rapinoe told reporters. “My mom will be very upset about that.”

Still, during the Star Spangled Banner, all her teammates stood with their hand to their hearts—except for Megan, who had her hands at her sides. I like this girl: She’s a rebel!

 

 

Influence Numero Uno, 1960s Style

R. Crumb Was My Guru in Dem Days

The 1960s were a difficult time for me. I was all set to start graduate school in film history and criticism in September of 1966, when, quite suddenly, I was in a coma at Fairview General Hospital, with my body surrounded by ice to bring my temperature down. It was then that my pituitary tumor decided to make a major incursion on my optic nerve and brain that almost carried me into the next world. Somehow, I struggled back to consciousness, received the last sacraments of the Catholic Church (the aptly named Extreme Unction), and was ready to remove a “cyst” (that’s what the doctor called it) from my pituitary.

Did I even know what the pituitary gland was? Not really. Within a few days, my brain was hinged back to allow a surgical suction device to remove the enlarged and inflamed gland. When later I saw my neurosurgeon and asked how big the tumor was, he answered, “About the size of a grapefruit.”

When I finally made it to Los Angeles after Christmas in 1966, I noticed some changes to my ways of thinking:

  1. I felt that because of my weird ten years of illness that I was, for all intents and purposes, from Mars.
  2. Quite suddenly, I lost my faith in religion.
  3. I found myself with a really weird sense of humor.

Self Portrait of Cartoonist R. Crumb

Since I was now in Los Angeles, I drifted toward certain local influences, such as The Los Angeles Free Press, an underground newspaper that mirrored my own sense of disillusionment. Then I made the discovery of R. Crumb, whose Zap Comics, Fritz the Cat, and other series were required reading. There was Mister Natural, Flakey Foont, and a whole galaxy of characters. Admittedly, there was a lot of misogynistic sexuality, which was a Crumb trademark, but that was the way I was feeling  about myself. It rubbed me the wrong way that women seemed to lie so casually and hurtfully. It was years before I understand that was a defense mechanism from weirdos like me.

Some of Crumb’s Early Misogyny

Oddly, I never outgrew my admiration of Crumb’s work. I no longer accept all of Crumb’s own neuroses and psychoses, but I believe he was a great cartoonist, and that his work will be remembered long after I am gone.

 

The Lomita Railroad Museum

The Lomita Railroad Museum

One does not expect to see a railroad museum on a residential suburban street, yet there it was. Plus it was not built at the site of an old station or railroad yard. The station building is a built-from-scratch replica of the station in Wakefield, Massachusetts. It was built on 250th Street because that’s where Irene Lewis lived. The Lomita Railroad Museum is her creation, in memory of her late husband Martin, and it is a tribute to the love that the Lewises had for railroading.

Today was a prototypical June gloom day, so Martine paged through our copy of Passport 2 History: Your Guide to 83 Historic Sites in 9 Counties of Central and Southern California, an occasionally revised booklet that has resulted in a number of fun day trips for the two of us.

In addition to the station building with its numerous exhibits, there is a 1902 Southern Pacific steam locomotive with tender and a 1910 Union Pacific caboose. On adjoining properties, there is a Santa Fe caboose, a 1923 Union Oil tank car, and a 1913 outside-braced wood box car.

Martine with Locomotive Exhibit (Notice the Engineer’s Hat)

It’s always fun to see a real labor of love come to life the way the Lomita Railroad Museum has. Los Angeles is full of little corners where some person’s dream has resulted in a fun place to visit and be informed.

Especially now that the Los Angeles to San Francisco High Speed Railroad is in doubt because of funding woes, railroading is becoming more and more a thing of the past. Although they seem to be thriving in Europe and parts of Asia, the railroads in North America have given way to trucks (for freight) and buses (for passengers).

I will never forget the awe I felt as a cub scout waiting for a passenger train to take members of my “den” to distant Ashtabula, Ohio. As the giant steam locomotive pulled up to the station, I felt a frisson of terror at such power as we were enveloped in steam.