Friday, January 14, 2011

Cemetery Superman

It is quiet and peaceful in these surroundings. There are only the decomposing bodies of more than 104,000 who once walked among us neatly placed into rows, but they make no sound.  

Until, bounding out of the silence is a staff vehicle. The man driving is smiling, wild yellow hair disheveled in such a way as to make you believe it would not look quite right otherwise.  He looks like Kirk Douglas circa 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea without the distracting chin cleft.  He asks if I need help.  It amazes me that in a 285 acre labyrinth he always seems to know where everyone is and where everything should be.  Ask him where a grave is located or how to find a specific statue and he’ll get you there.

He appears ever vigilant, springing from out of nowhere to assist (or perhaps keep an eye on) the unfamiliar.  He hands out his card with instructions to call his cell if you notice any suspicious activity.  If this is Gotham City, he is Batman.

Lake View Cemetery is more than a final resting place. It is an arboretum, a historical center, a sculpture garden, and an art museum.  A cemetery with its very own Events Page, weddings are held here, as are trolley tours and school field trips.  Don’t know what to get Mom for Mother’s Day? Take her on Lake View’s Mother’s Day walking tour. 

Certainly far from a city of the dead, in this necropolis the past is alive and interacts with the living.  One can find a president, an oil baron, the leader of the Untouchables, and a chapel of Tiffany.  Peaceful lakes are flanked with botanical wonders and uncommon tree species, as deliberately carved statuary beckon you to take a closer look. And one man is there watching over it all.

Part caretaker part detective, the director of security and maintenance has caught thieves and thwarted criminal vandals.  His attentive surveillance over the outdoor museum spurs encounters with excitement rivaled by action movies. Dozens of military trainees repel down the cemetery’s 80 million gallon capacity concrete-filled dam one day, while heavily made-up gothic kids are discovered posing for a nude photo shoot atop graves on another.  When six of the ground’s shrubs turned up missing, you can bet the security director wasn’t far behind.  He followed the trail to a house where six perfectly sized holes dotted the front yard waiting for the stolen plants to take root.

Then there was the sting operation.  Someone was stealing old iron benches out of the cemetery.  Working with local police, Lake View’s head security officer photographed suspicious vehicles, made trips to a local antique dealer, and located stolen goods.  Threatening the owner with criminal charges for purchasing stolen goods, he learned where the cemetery’s own stolen antiques were.  He arranged a buy for more stolen benches, at which time the thieves were apprehended in the same vehicle he had photographed in the cemetery.  Following through to the end, the everyday crusader saw the perpetrators convicted and sentenced to the maximum for their crime. The antique benches are now all back in their familiar surroundings, where they are to remain.

Perhaps more interesting than the stoic history of those under the ground is the living history of those who visit them.  Lake View Cemetery staff customarily decorates an evergreen near the grave of Heinrich Christian Schwan, the “Father of the Christmas Tree,” during the holidays.  Although visitors may not leave minced beef on the grave of James Salisbury, the creator of Salisbury Steak, they do leave sports memorabilia on the grave of Raymond Johnson Chapman, Cleveland Indians shortstop killed by a pitch, and coins on the grave of John D. Rockefeller, who used to hand out coins to those he would meet with instructions to be frugal and save.  And watching over all of the comings and goings is Lake View Cemetery security, ever ready to leap into action when the situation calls for it.   

As a side note, when you visit Lake View Cemetery, stop into the office.  They are possibly the friendliest office staff ever encountered. It must be something about walking among the dead that makes the living happy.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

An Open Letter to Trick-or-Treaters

I love Halloween.
I am happy to decorate the yard, dress up, turn on the spooky sounds, and hand out candy to all the little trick-or-treaters.
I used to go trick-or-treating when I was a child; my son will one day trick-or-treat.
I consider it my duty to continue this tradition, give back where once I took, and help to perpetuate a holiday of demons and monsters.

I scorn those houses who send their children out to collect candy from the neighbors while their own porch lights remain dark year after year.

I reserve the right to refuse candy to the following:
Those who are old enough to drive themselves to a store to purchase candy or to hold a paying job with which to buy candy- you do not need to stop at our house.
Those not in costume- you are not trick-or-treating; you are soliciting.  Please adhere to the No Soliciting sign on the front door.
Those who proceed to walk up to my stoop with an infant sleeping in a stroller while they hold out a plastic pumpkin telling me the candy collected is for the toothless baby- you will get a bottle of formula.

Thank You, and Happy Haunting.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Insane Courage

This year, women in the United States celebrate 90 years of voting in national elections.
This means that approximately 2.5 million current citizens were born at a time when women were not allowed to vote. 
One of the foremost leaders in the suffrage fight was Alice Paul, who died in 1977. 
The vast majority of those currently eligible to vote were alive during her lifetime.

Passage of the 19th amendment was not an easy feat to achieve.  It took hundreds of brave women almost 100 years of fighting, writing, speaking, marching, and protesting to accomplish the goal that would benefit future generations.
They were beaten, had things thrown at them, and insulted repeatedly.
More than 200 women were unconstitutionally imprisoned.  Many of those sent to Occoquan workhouse in Virginia were violently mistreated and abused.  They participated in hunger strikes, and Paul was sent to a mental ward and force fed raw eggs through a tube violently shoved down her throat until she vomited.
Theirs was the ultimate underdog story, and it was not until the protests created significant pressure and negative publicity during wartime that the president began to support the cause.
Ninety years out, we have not yet held the right as long as it took to win it. 
Yet, today, fewer than half of the eligible women in this country are registered to vote.
Of those registered, less than half actually vote.

So, for any who cheer when the underdog gains a victory (you know who you are if you ever shouted along with William Wallace at the end of Braveheart), spend a few minutes honoring what many spent a lifetime fighting for- even if it’s just to say Hell Yeah to a group of gals who had the guts to buck the establishment and stand up to the men who spent generations holding them down.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Fright Appetite

As I walked through the grocery store today, I noticed to my delight the old familiar faces (although in newly designed boxes) of Boo Berry and Franken Berry cereals joining Count Chocula on the shelf. 
These characters, once staples of my youth, are now relegated to an annual one month Halloween novelty display.
And just like that, I longed for those days when Elvira's Movie Macabre filled my Friday nights and monsters were a welcomed addition around the breakfast table.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Happy Birthday, John Lennon

John Lennon would have turned 70 today, and I like to believe he still would have been a valid member of the music community.  For me, that is who John is.
I fell in love with the Beatles before I was old enough to remember.  And, having always been a fan of words, John was my favorite.
I recall fighting with my best friend in grade school over who was better John or Paul (even though The Beatles had broken up long before we were born, and John was killed before we were school age), and convincing grade school administrators and teachers to participate in the world-wide simultaneous playing of “Imagine” for John’s 50th birthday.
I remember my visits to Central Park to laud his birth and commemorate his death when I lived in NYC.
It always caught me slightly off-guard how the mood differed on those two days- regardless of weather or exactly who was there.  Oct. 9 was always filled with laughter and merriment, and Dec. 8th was always significantly more somber.
Sure, birth is to celebrate and death is to mourn, for most people.  But surely, to remember the life of someone who was grievously taken too soon has to evoke some thoughts of that death, or at least what could have been.  And to memorialize a death, one has to reflect upon the amazing life that made the death consequential.  Either way, one exists within the other.

I traveled to Liverpool to visit the places John knew, to walk in the footsteps of the greats who have gone before me.

To me, John was the most extraordinary voice in rock-n-roll.  His lyrics are raw and honest.
I also respect his social activism, and shudder when I think of how he failed to show the same compassion, love, and peace in his personal relationships.
There are many stories of him being physically and verbally abusive throughout his life.  His lack of respect for his family and friends was often evident; however, his concern for society was, at times, overwhelming.  And that seems to be the only Lennon that his fans remember.  Those same fans seem to spread that image as the whole Lennon, and I’ve often wondered if it is a disservice to see a real person so one-dimensionally.  However, perhaps sometimes a myth that inspires good is better than the truth that disappoints.  Or maybe the beauty of his truth lies in the little boy who was abandoned by his parents, so instead of embracing individuals chose embraced the world as a whole.

Regardless, I like to think of John as one of the most exceptional contributors to music the world has ever known.  What he has created will live on long past the rest of us.

Through his music, he has brought generations together.
I worked at the concert that opened the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.  I had a minor position that did not allow me many perks, but my co-workers and I would take turns watching the show, from a vantage point better than first row, while the others covered the workload.  Between acts, large screens displayed clips of 10 years of Rock Hall inaugurations to a packed stadium who paid no attention at all.  The performer would walk off stage to cheers, and as soon as the video began, the indiscernible blather from the crowd was like a loud rumble through the aisles.  I stood waiting for the next performer as Paul McCartney was splayed across the screen, the white noise of thousands of conversations droned over it.  The clip ended with his proclamation “John Lennon, you made it.  Tonight you're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” And out of nowhere, the seemingly ambivalent crowd of more than 65,000 simultaneously broke into uproarious applause so astonishing that I’m convinced even the Rolling Stones fans had joined in.
From just that simple sentiment.

John, we’re still coming together -right now- over you.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Story of a Life

I love old-timers- their candor, sense of humor, wisdom, experiences, and mostly the way that nothing seems to faze them after all they’ve seen and done.
When the economy slowed down, I used the opportunity that fewer work hours allowed to volunteer at a nursing / retirement home.  Utilizing its volunteers to the best of their abilities, I was asked to write the life histories of the residents- beginning with those in the early stages of Alzheimer’s- to be gifted to their families.  Eventually, I would speak with the other residents as well.
It surprised me how many people did not believe they had a story to tell. 
They did not believe they saw, did, or experienced anything worth writing about.  
So I would just sit and chat with them, asking about details that make everyone’s life interesting. 
Everyone has experienced triumphs -no matter how insignificant they seem. 
Everyone has encountered tragedies- no matter how alone we feel while going through them.
This particular generation had also seen a world war and the great depression.
Some had achieved greatness in their industry (one had a patented invention that is still in use today).
Others had been born into a time and situation where society limited what they could achieve, but they pressed on and made the most of it anyway (one man had played for Negro League baseball). 
Some had accomplished the improbable by making the most horrific of situations a little more pleasant (a WWII vet had created his own version of a gourmet restaurant for his comrades on the front line. He refused to talk about fighting in the war, only the food he served the men after it was over). 
And some simply survived (one mother escaped war-torn Europe with her family; a struggle that took years).
There was a school teacher who traveled the world and began theater classes where there would have never been any, and a centenarian who currently spends her time in Internet chats with young students teaching them about what life was like when she was a child.
I would sit listening in awe to all of them as they spoke matter-of-factly, sometimes nonchalantly, about situations and circumstances –highs and lows- joys and pains- hopes and fears- none of them realizing how truly amazing their lives had been.
I always ended the interviews with the same question, and strangely enough I would always get the exact same answer.  I would ask, “What do you consider your greatest accomplishment?”
And these people, from different countries, different races, different backgrounds, and different experiences, all uniformly answered “My family.”

So now, in addition to everything else these individuals have succeeded in throughout their lives, they can add to it inspiring me to begin my own family. 

Friday, October 1, 2010

Music’s Greatest Decade Keeps on Truckin’

In honor of Alice Cooper’s recent Rock n Roll Hall of Fame nomination, I’ve decided to shine a spotlight on the greatest decade in music: the 1970s!

Not being old enough to have lived through the 70s, I base my opinion on completely unbiased facts. 
Not nearly as classy as the big bands or crooners of the 40s; not the 1950s witnessing the birth of life-altering rock-n-roll; many see the 70s as an extension of the youth in revolt/ sexual revolution of the 60s. 
Yet so much more than an extension, the 70s was music.

For members of my generation and those younger, the 1970s evokes yellowing photographic images of people who made poor hair choices and dressed in polyester leisure suits with wide collars and large glasses. They are often roller skating to disco music in our imaginations. Forget the Dorothy Hamill haircuts, for a minute, though, and dig this.

Music was a monarch in the 1970s; a utilitarian dictator who refused to share its reign with any particular fad or fashion.  No matter who you were- there was something for you.
Every generation has “its music,” except for the 70s, where its music was ALL music.  

Emerging from dense smoke, distorted guitars resonated hard rock through our bones. Acts like Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith, AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, Ted Nugent, The Scorpions, Uriah Heep, and UFO have remained anchored in rock n roll history ever since.
The Who went from just a member of the British Invasion to rock gods in their own right, and each of the Beatles proved that they could hold their own after the Fab Four.  Icons already, bands like The Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan released what many believe to be their best albums in the 70s with Exile on Main St. and Blood on the Tracks.
Then, there were the indefinable bands that defined a generation: Queen; Pink Floyd; Warren Zevon; Tom Waits.

Glam rockers like David Bowie, T-Rex, Lou Reed, The New York Dolls, Roxy Music, and Mott the Hoople made androgyny sexy, performing in full make-up, women’s clothing, and platform boots.

Punk rock slithered out of dirty garages to buck the establishment more than any folk song could have hoped to. Its fearless leaders- The MC5, The Ramones, The Clash, The Sex Pistols, and Iggy and the Stooges- playing their antihero roles to perfection, as The Cramps sat perched on their own rockabilly revolution.

Parliament Funkadelic, Rufus & Chaka Khan, The Isley Brothers, The Commodores, Earth, Wind, and Fire; and Sly and the Family Stone took funk into the mainstream, and brought jazz greats Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock with them as genres began to fuse and Chicago and Steely Dan made jazz radio friendly.

Musical structures, patterns, and textures were redefined by progressive bands like Rush; King Crimson; Yes; Genesis; Jethro Tull; Styx; and Emerson, Lake & Palmer.

Black Sabbath, Rainbow, and Judas Priest played dirges so heavy they shook the core of your very soul, while disco gave even wallflowers a reason to get down.
And Alice Cooper and Kiss put on shocking, bloody shows through all of it.

Singer/songwriters like Jim Croce, Harry Chapin, John Denver, and Gordon Lightfoot were taking folk music to levels it had never hoped to soar, while Cheap Trick, Journey, Foreigner, Boston, and REO Speedwagon were producing a sound so big it took an arena to contain it.

Lynyrd Skynyrd and The Allman Brothers Band steamed out of the bayou with their own brand of southern rock, while The Eagles put a western spin on it.

Curtis Mayfield and Al Green ensured the nation had soul, while Carly Simon, Carole King, and Todd Rundgren created songs for the easy listeners.
And the radio belted out new hit singles from Elton John, Neil Diamond, Billy Joel, Fleetwood Mac, Supertramp, and Tom Petty that would remain in the public’s consciousness for decades to come, while ABBA brought its brand of Euro pop to the states.

Bob Marley and the Wailers were introducing reggae to the new world, as Brits like The Specials were bringing ska over from Jamaica.

Country acts like Willie Nelson and Linda Ronstadt even saw crossover success.

Sure, teeny-boppers may have been displaying posters of The Osmonds, and The Partridge Family on their bedroom walls, but the savvier in the generation stood witness to the formation of art rock with bands like The Talking Heads, Brian Eno, Pere Ubu, Patti Smith, and Elvis Costello. 
 By the late 70s, the album Suicide was creating would inspire indie rock for generations to come.

Blondie, The Buzzcocks, and Joy Division were paving the way for new wave, and Michael Jackson was coming into his own as a solo performer.
And in New York City, a musical and artistic culture soon to be known the world over as hip hop was originating.

Music was everywhere. It was filling stadiums, festivals, trendy night clubs, classy piano bars, and sleazy watering holes. CBGBs held its finger on the pulse of a musical revolution.

The decade charged in like a freight train with Led Zeppelin III, Paranoid, After the Gold Rush, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and Layla & Other Assorted Love Songs topping the charts. 
With no signs of slowing, London Calling, The Wall, Damn the Torpedoes, Off the Wall, and Highway to Hell pulled that train into the next decade.

Many will cite the 1960s as paving the way for the 70s, and that is very true.  The 70s would not have existed without previous generations blowing the doors off of many stigmas and conventions- musical, moral, and social. However, the climb to the mountain's summit is not as amazing as the view from the top.

Music was everywhere and everyone was part of it- whether you played, participated, or just listened. It was the decade of music fans, and its legacy lives on and on.

This is, by no means, meant to be a complete list of the artists in the 70s, nor is it a reflection of my favorites. It is simply an example of the varied success of the music of a generation.