Category Archives: Pointless Nostalgia

The Snark, Hunted

You may recall that a while back, I wrote a post about a failed attempt to do a “dramatic reading” of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, “The Hunting of the Snark.” Nevermind; you don’t recall that. Nor should you.

Regardless, the reason I made that failed attempt is because Jean Shepherd used to read this poem on his radio show, and his recitations of it were one of my dad’s favorite things. He would attempt to recreate the effect by repeating certain lines in his best Shepherdian low. For the snark was a boojum, you see…

I could only guess at what Shepherd’s own version sounded like, because even though he reportedly read the poem on the air many times, there were no examples readily available. I scanned the darkest depths of the interwebs for months until I decided that alas, all of Shep’s readings were lost to the mists of time.

And then this morning, a man named David Director emailed me. He had a college roommate who taped many Shep shows in the early 1960s, as Shep fans often did back in the day. He had the foresight to make copies of some of his roommate’s tapes, including a series of shows from January 29-31, 1963, during which Shepherd read “The Hunting of the Snark” in its entirety.

David was kind enough to send me an mp3 of Shep reading the introduction to the poem (“Fit the First”) and to also give permission to share it here. So now, thanks to David (and his erstwhile roommate, David Singer), I present to you Jean Shepherd reading the opening to “The Hunting of the Snark.” Enjoy.

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Jean Shepherd on New York Baseball Fans, 1963

On the way to work this morning, I listened to a Jean Shepherd radio show from April 1963 in which he discussed the attitude of New York baseball fans in general and Yankees fans in particular. The reason I listen to 50-year-old radio shows is because of how amazingly prescient Shep was, especially when discussing philosophy or commenting on media and show biz. He was no less insightful on the “lesser” topic of sports and fandom.

In this clip, you’ll hear Shep (a Chicago native and lifelong White Sox fan) talk about how nutty the WIN NOW! attitude of New York fans looks to outsiders. He relates the grumbles of a Yankee fan friend who couldn’t stand the thought of his team not winning a pennant in 1959. He also shares memories of a trip to Yankee Stadium with his old pal and fellow Chicagoan Shel Silverstein, when the two of them witnessed Mickey Mantle get booed for the audacity of not hitting a home run that afternoon. Shep provides a passable Shel Silverstein impression to boot.

Shep tops things off with some thoughts on the then-fledgling Mets, the real reason the Dodgers’ and Giants’ move to California was lamented by the press (their gravy train stopped running), and how the New York WIN NOW idea extends to all sports.

I find this fascinating because it is a contemporary account of what fan attitudes and fan experiences were like during the late 1950s and early 1960s. In our cemented memories, this era is rendered in Ken Burns-ian sepiatone nostalgia. But when Shep was speaking, the era was still The Present, and thus could be discussed in an unvarnished way.

When studying most aspects of history we accept that, in order to really understand a time, you have to get as close to contemporary accounts as humanly possible. When it comes to sports, however, we often let ourselves be swayed by myth-making. That makes this Shep clip even more rare, and valuable. I hope you enjoy it.

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The Bootleg Circus

circus030The circus was coming to town. Some bootleg circus. I was only seven years old but I could spot a bootleg circus. A bootleg circus tries to fool you with names that sound vaguely like “Ringling Bros.” A bootleg circus sets up in the rocky, swampy field across the street from your future high school, behind the lot where the town kept its busted school buses and surplus road salt.

My dad was excited about the bootleg circus, way more than he was for most anything. He did not often express enthusiasm for anything. Especially not for something as corny as the circus. His default expressions stayed within the narrow range between sputtering anger and sarcasm. Even the things he liked were approached without much visible delight, with an unspoken acknowledgment that said I have seen this a million times before.

However, my dad would periodically latch onto something and decide we must do/see/hear it as a family. Every six months or so he’d declare I feel like having a steak. Whereupon we’d find ourselves at Loughran’s, an Irish pub like every other Irish pub you’ve ever seen except that it had prime rib and it was a 5 minute drive away. Once that desire was sated, he’d revert to his usual smirking ways until another six months had passed and the prime rib bug bit him again.

So it was with this bootleg circus. He proclaimed he wanted to see it, so we would. His level of excitement for such earnest entertainment was remarkable in itself. What made it even crazier was his enthusiasm was inspired by the bootleg circus’s featured performer: Tiny Tim.

Continue reading The Bootleg Circus


As the subway doors unlatch, someone shoves me in the back, hard. This is more than the usual L train jostle. It is especially aggressive even for the Union Square stop, where the “I’m ignoring your humanity to make my commute slightly easier” brush-by is standard operating procedure. This move must have sinister purpose behind it, I assume. And so I pivot from my 7:30 am perch on the overhead bar and turn to face my aggressor. I have nothing planned other than a dirty look. I do this all the time even though it’s a move with no upside whatsoever. At best, I will get to see the face of someone who regards me as little more than an insect. At worst, I will find myself in a fistfight.

When I turn, I see the man who shoved me. Shaved head, black windbreaker scuffed with sheetrock dust and eggshell paint. He has the lumbering gait of a drunk launching himself from one parking meter to the next on the long walk home. He may very well be drunk, for all I can tell. This wouldn’t be the first guy I’ve seen stewed to the gills at this early hour on the subway. Then he careens into a woman much smaller than him, his shoulder stooping to her height. It doesn’t look intentional. He’s fighting something, and losing. His knees buckle beneath him, and his head begins to twitch and jerk.

“He’s having a seizure!” a woman yells. It sounds like dialogue from a script that doesn’t trust its director to explain things visually. I almost laugh, and yet I understand the urge to yell out something the second it hits your brain at a weird moment like this one. The crowd parts around the man, and the sudden lack of bodies speeds his descent. However, he has enough control of his facilities to lower himself, first sitting, then prone as he continues to shake.

The train remains paused. Not to address the man’s condition, but to let out the large crowd of people who depart at Union Square. Some of those who remain stare, while others look away, embarrassed. No one is quite sure what to do. We’re all spooked, myself included. But I’m spooked for a different reason. This all feels too familiar to me.

Continue reading Seizures

Jean Shepherd: Strange Tales of New York

shep2I have often waxed at great length about my love of Jean Shepherd’s radio show, here and elsewhere. I’ve written about and shared many kinds of programs of his over the years: nostalgic, anti-nostalgic, childhood tales, army tales, philosophical meanderings, and various combinations of the above.

Another thing he did well on his shows—something I haven’t really touched on before—is his ability to convey a mood of eeriness, of creeping, unnameable terror. Around Halloween, he loved to dedicate shows to stories about the Jersey Devil (and occasionally its lesser known cousin, the Kentucky Devil). He did many other shows about the pull of the supernatural and the fear of ghosts. But more often, he would talk about the terror of the everyday, the weird, creepy things happening right under our noses.

For no good reason at all, I want to share one such show, which aired on April 14, 1970. It starts with Shep sharing a bone-chilling news story from New Orleans, where creepy things tend to happen with some regularity. But then he shifts into a tale from the days when he first moved to New York, and his somewhat desperate attempts to find friendship in a city that can make newcomers feel crushingly alone. The story starts out amusing, involving wild parties, random encounters, and lapsed drunken monks (really), but it quickly deteriorates into a sad and chilling arena. Shep closes out the show with another story, this one about helping a friend investigate an apartment he’s interested in renting. Finding a place to live in New York is terrifying enough, but this story goes beyond even the usual level of terror and into a special, weird place.

Though Shep’s stories in this show refer to things that happened in the 1950s and 1960s, there’s something eternally New York about these stories, a very New York brand of loneliness and sadness and squalor that few people wrote about then and even fewer write about now. I found it genuinely unnerving to listen to because it all felt so real to me, and I find it amazing he was able to convey this feeling with only his voice (although a creepy Stockhausen composition helped, I suppose).

Enjoy (if that’s the word). Just don’t listen to it with the lights off.

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Your Future in Pictures

This is a picture from my grandparents’ wedding.


In the middle, you see the happy couple. To the left, my grandfather’s family, the Leykamms. Most German last names have literal meanings, but I’ve never been able to determine what “Leykamm” means, if anything. What I can tell you, and what you can surely see, is that the Leykamms are having a blast.

The woman you see in mid-uproarious laugh is my great grandmother. When I was little, she used to steal my blanket and hide it, usually by sitting on it, because “you don’t need that thing.” She found this very funny, mostly because Little Kid Me didn’t think it was funny at all. She would eventually give it back, with the admonition that I “should learn take a joke.” That may seem cruel, but looking back on Little Kid Me, I know I was an uptight kid, too uptight for my own good. She thought she was doing me a favor.

My mom describes the Leykamms as “beer garden people.” Fun loving types. My grandfather’s father bartended at a local joint, the Eagle’s Nest, on the weekends. That wasn’t his regular gig; I think he did it partly for extra dough, but mostly for kicks. My grandfather used to say of his parents, “they never left us at home.” In other words, when they went out for a good time, they took the kids with them. Fun was a family affair.

On the right, you’ll see my grandmother’s parents, the Bauerleins. Bauerlein means “little farmer” in German. The Bauerleins appear very different from the Leykamms. They look a lot like little farmers, actually. Stoic. A bit uncomfortable indoors. Though they are smiling, it seems rather forced, almost through gritted teeth. My great grandfather’s suit looks old fashioned, even for the era. It’s closer to The Jazz Age than The Swing Era.

My great grandmother looks like it’s taking all her strength to smile. She had a tough life. Nowadays, someone like her would be treated for clinical depression. In those days, you were told you suffered from “nerves” and would also be told to just deal with it (especially if you were a woman).

My grandmother was a very loving, nurturing person, but there was an edge to her. Her favorite phrase was this too shall pass. She loved to ask you how much you paid for something so she could be annoyed by the answer. She had this syllable she would frequently intone–if I had to spell it out, I’d choose uy, though that’s a poor approximation. Basically, uy meant, Here we go again. Whenever she said something a little harsh or mean, my grandfather would say it was her Bauerlein coming out.

To be fair, there are extenuating circumstances to this scene. You’ll notice my grandfather is wearing an army uniform. He was on leave and would ship out overseas soon after this wedding. I know he made it home in one piece, but no one in this picture could know that. For all the Bauerleins knew, their daughter might soon be a widow. I’d have to think that has at least a little bearing on their expressions.

Then again, the Leykamms had to be just as concerned for their son, but you don’t see that on their faces. These were just two different kinds of people. The Leykamms couldn’t help but have a good time, no matter what. The Bauerleins couldn’t help but worry about what might happen down the road.

I’ve always felt within me this war between two impulses: the desire to laugh and crack wise and have a great time, and the tug of worry. I’ve never really been able to narrow down what I do and choose one thing in which to specialize. One minute, I’m writing something dumb and silly, the next I’m getting angry about the world or wondering what the hell will happen next. Whenever I’ve pushed one aspect of myself down, it just pops up, bigger and angrier, in another spot. At times I’ve thought this was a bold choice on my part, an unwillingness to be pinned down, man.

And then I look at this picture, and I think that maybe this wasn’t a choice at all. Maybe I had to be this way. And it’s not even due to my own upbringing, but the meeting of two people well over 60 years ago.

All of us like to think that we’re our own people, that we define our universes and chart our own courses. In reality, so much of what we are was set in motion decades before we were born through the union of two people, the clash of two viewpoints, the mingling of two sets of DNA.

The difference, then, is what you do with your raw materials in those tiny spaces that are only yours.

Ishmael vs. Ahab vs. Jean Shepherd vs. Myself: One Night Only!

To my father, the height of art was Jean Shepherd reading poetry. Shepherd often read poetry on his radio show–performed it, really, as vaudevillians once did with famous verse of their day. The poems could be genuinely great writing like classic Japanese haikus, or melodramatic slop like “A Drunkard’s Dream.” He made no distinction between high and low art, and recited both with equal fervor.

Of all the poems Shepherd read on the air, my father loved most his reading of Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem “The Hunting of the Snark.” He spoke of it rapturously, as people often do of things they know they’ll never see or hear again, and was fond of repeating the poem’s last line, in a Shepherd-esque low, For the snark was a boojum, you see…

I’ve been listening to old Jean Shepherd radio shows for well over a decade now, ever since new interweb technology allowed people to digitize their old reel-to-reels of his broadcasts. And yet, it was only some time last week, while listening to one of these shows on my commute home, that I realized I’d never heard Shepherd’s rendition of “The Hunting of the Snark.” My father always spoke as if this was something Shepherd did regularly, and yet I’d never heard it? I felt personally insulted, as if the thing was hiding just to screw with my head, and determined I must find it.

Anecdotal evidence indicates that Shepherd read this poem annually in the early 1960s. But when I searched The Brass Figlagee—an enormous cache of Shepherd shows in podcast form—I found nothing. The fansite has listings for a few programs from 1962 and 1963 whose titles fit the bill, but none of these are available in any form (begging the question how anyone knows the content of these shows in the first place). Max Schmid, a DJ at WBAI and old time radio enthusiast, has literally hundreds of Shepherd shows available for sale, but near as I can tell, none of them contain The Snark.

I plumbed the depths of the internet for days, poking around the scary corners where I sometimes venture looking for old baseball games on DVD, into long-dead Angelfire sites and LiveJournal pages. No dice. I begged on various social media, hoping someone would know what I was talking about, and received some helpful suggestions and offers of help but no paydirt. I pursued dead ends far longer than I should have, unable to convince myself that this thing was lost to the mists of time.

I couldn’t bring myself to concede defeat, though, at least not entirely. Since I couldn’t find this recording for love or money, I convinced myself to do something I’m almost too embarrassed to write down: Record a reading myself. My insane thought was, if all the Shepherd versions were lost forever, perhaps I could do a rendering that would approximate the feel and intent of the original, or at least what I imagine the original was like. It was such a idiotic and childish notion, I simply had to do it.

Continue reading Ishmael vs. Ahab vs. Jean Shepherd vs. Myself: One Night Only!

If You Need Any Clues…

It is an odd bit of coincidence that the whole @TimesPublicEdit thing blew up this time of year, which is when my dad is on my mind the most. He had a love/hate relationship with the New York Times. Or perhaps love/snark is more accurate.

My father read the Times without fail every day, devouring what he could on the train to work and finishing it up on the couch once he returned home. He did the Times crossword with monastic dedication, particularly on Sundays, when he would fill in all the squares with his own strange brand of calligraphy. On weekends, Dad would often copy the puzzles so my mother and him could have competitions to see who could finish them first. (They didn’t waste their time on the Monday-Thursday puzzles; too easy.) Whoever won would throw down the completed puzzle in front of the other, saying “If you need any clues, just let me know…”

I joined in on the puzzling when I was old enough to figure out that finishing Times crossword puzzle has nothing to do with being smart. Through repetition, you’d figure out recurring ploys and frequently used answers. “Baseball family” was always Alou. “Pitcher” or “vessel” was almost always ewer.

Dad would work away at a puzzle for a while, trying to figure it out, then suddenly say, “Oh, stupid…” in this annoyed tone of voice. We knew that meant he’d discovered the “trick” of that week’s puzzle. But for some reason we’d always ask what his groan meant anyway, and he’d in turn always say, “You’ll figure it out.”

When he died, it came as such a shock that there were many details of his funeral we didn’t know how to handle. But we knew one thing for sure: he should be buried with a book of Times crosswords, clutched in his arm like a Bible or a rosary.

As religiously as he read it, the Times annoyed him thoroughly. In my own budget analysis, I think he had the resentment found in many smart people born to relatively humble circumstances (something I would know nothing about…). I think he believed that if he’d just been born in, say, Greenwich, he would’ve had access to the world of class and sophistication (and bucks) found in the pages of the Times. Instead, fate conspired to see him born in crushing poverty in Ireland, then move to Queens as a kid, and grow up the son of a baggage handler. He wasn’t ashamed of any of this, but I think maybe some part of him wondered what if…

He also had pretentions of his own, or did once upon a time. He wrote poetry as a young man. He used to try his hand at gourmet cooking. By the time I was born, he’d abandoned all of this, save for making trays of stuffed mushrooms at holidays. In the Times, I think he saw something he’d either given up on or decided was now worthless to him. A piece of himself, really.

So while he continued to read the Times to the end of his life, he also loved to point out its ridiculousness. If he found some especially pretentious piece, he would say, in his best Larchmont Lockjaw, “devastating article in the Times” (a line I’m almost positive was cribbed from Woody Allen’s Manhattan, though I haven’t seen it in forever). He loved to mock the recipes in the Sunday magazine with ingredients that were completely unavailable to anyone not within walking distance of Balducci’s. (“Wild boar pancetta?!”) And he loved to read out the bitchiest capsule movie reviews from the TV insert, often trying to find the ones with the least amount of words. Nothing cracked him up more than to see a film summed up simply with “Drivel.”

I didn’t start @TimesPublicEdit with him in mind, but as I continued to write jokes for it, his memory kept popping up. I’d write something about hipsters in Bushwick building tree forts and I’d see his disbelieving smirk at a sophistic essay or his eyes rolling at a trend piece that tried way too hard. Eventually I realized that @TimesPublicEdit was, basically, a high tech version of what he used to do on the couch after work, Times in his lap, brow furrowed.

I never quite articulated this feeling until last week, when my wife voiced it for me. As the Anderson Cooper tweet spiraled beyond my control and “tricked” a few news outlets, she said to me, “I think your dad might be proud of you for this.” And for a moment, I allowed myself to think, “Yeah, he might have been.” I thought the man who exposed me to Monty Python and George Carlin at a criminally young age might have taken some kind of parental pride if he’d been alive to see it.

In order to think this, of course, I’d also have to think that he’d have had any use for social media of any kind, which is highly unlikely. And naturally, within minutes of me allowing myself this hubristic thought, @TimesPublicEdit was shut down.

Last weekend, while the account remained shut down, I found myself back at my mom’s house. On Sunday morning, we divvied up the Times and read it silently around the kitchen table. For a moment it felt like I was back in high school, reading the Book Review and the Metro section, dreaming of escaping to the city.

But that was long ago. Now, my eyes just skimmed over the words. I tried and tried to take them in, but nothing registered. It was like the paper knew I’d been mocking it, and was refusing to be understood in protest. You think you’re funny, huh? Well, guess what: This is gonna be weird for you from now on. Even if you get your little Twitter account back, you’ll never be able to just sit here and read this paper and not feel vaguely guilty and punished. Happy now, smartass?

No, I was not happy. After a few feint stabs at trying to get through the Book Review, I accepted that yes, this would be weird from now on.

Still finished the puzzle in 20 minutes flat, though.

Embracing the Audience of One

Years ago, I worked on a biography of Jean Shepherd, performing research and doing interviews with people who worked with him. As I’ve written on this site many times, Shepherd is one of my artistic heroes, someone whose craft I admire as something uniquely his own which has no real parallel before or since. But the more I delved into his life, the more it seemed he was a damaged, strange man.

It was difficult to find people who knew Shepherd in his heyday and were also willing and able to talk. Many of his contemporaries and friends had died; others, like Jules Feiffer and Paul Krassner, proved difficult to contact. The same went for people I knew or suspected were influenced by him. I was aware Terry Gilliam had been a Shep fan in his youth, and I even had some contact info for the man, since the company I worked for had done a few books about his films. Alas, he did not return my faxes. (Yes, this was a long time ago.) Garrison Keillor wrote me a brief but polite letter in which he stated he grew up in Minnesota and therefore Shepherd–whose primary radio work was done in New York–didn’t really have any influence on him.

One of the few people who’d worked with him whom I was both able to get in touch with and wanted to talk to me was Fred Barzyk, who had produced most of Shepherd’s television work for PBS. At Barzyk’s invite, I was able to go to the WGBH archives in Boston and view some of these shows, most of which have not been seen on TV in decades. This included an odd show where Shep stood on a dock in Boston Harbor and delivered a version of his radio show there directly to the camera, monologuing for half an hour and then abruptly stopping.

Continue reading Embracing the Audience of One

A Sample

My roommate had an odd look on his face. It was an unsettling mixture of trepidation and something close to embarrassment. I thought either someone was dead or I’d won a lottery I didn’t know I’d entered.

“You have a voice mail,” he told me, “from Kathleen Hanna.”

Kathleen Hanna had called me because I’d emailed her about doing an interview for the zine I had just started. I named it Jes Grew, after a “disease” in Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, a novel about race and the influence and spread of black culture into the mainstream. Said novel was one of my many obsessions and a driving influence behind Record Ignite!, the band I’d formed a while ago. But that band was no more, and so this zine was where I thought I should channel my creative energy.

I’d emailed Kathleen at a generic info-type address on her website, so I didn’t have a huge expectation I’d actually hear from her. It felt like asking for a million dollars–this probably won’t work, but it’d be awesome if it did. When I’d formed my now defunct band, there were a select few groups in my pantheon of what I wanted it to be, and Bikini Kill was one of them. I admired their commitment to doing something that was genuinely dangerous, and was also sympathetic to their brand of feminism, though I realize now my understanding of exactly what feminism entailed was rudimentary at best. (Now that I have a daughter, I feel like I understand feminism better than I ever did before, but that’s another post entirely.)

In other words, getting a call from Kathleen Hanna was an enormous deal in my universe. My roommate left the room so I could listen to the voice mail, sensing that this was something he should allow me to enjoy by myself. Hearing a recording of her voice address me was enthralling and terrifying all at once. She sounds just like she did on that Mike Watt album!

I eventually reached her on the phone in person, which was even more terrifying, and we arranged to meet at a coffee shop in Soho for the interview. The day we met was a gorgeous late fall afternoon, just the faintest chill in the air, summer stubbornly hanging on. At this point in my life, my only interviewing experience came as part of a group affair when Jello Biafra came to speak at NYU. Me and another editor at the school’s humor magazine lobbed questions at him along with 20 other “reporters,” one of whom took a good 10 minutes to ask Jello if he would lend his time to something called the Million Marijuana March.

I did plenty of advance work to prepare for this interview, and yet was still frightened beyond comprehension before it began, afraid that I’d say or do something unspeakably wrong. That feeling faded quickly once I actually met Kathleen, because she was unbelievably warm and engaging, completely putting me at ease about talking to someone I considered a hero. (I imagine she had extensive experience doing this.)

We talked for 2 hours, in large part about her new artistic direction, since her first solo album Julie Ruin had just come out and was quite a musical departure from Bikini Kill. But we also covered the gamut of politics and feminism and music, and I somehow managed to sound coherent on these subjects while cognizant of the fact that I was discussing them with Kathleen Fucking Hanna.

Before we parted, I gave Kathleen a bunch of 7 inches from the label my friends upstate had started, including my old band’s sole release (seen to your left). I can’t say why I did this. Perhaps because I felt I should offer some kind of token of appreciation for taking the time to talk to me, and I had nothing else to offer. I think my rationale was, We all love you, so here’s something you, in essence, helped make. She demonstrated far more thankfulness than she needed to, and left. I hadn’t the slightest idea, really, of what I’d just done.

Continue reading A Sample