Archive for August, 2006

Marshall Garcia

There are only five people in the world who still call me "Joshy," and the Garcia family has four of them. In turn, I believe I am one of the very few folks who still call Marshall Jr. "Marshallito" -- as he was known when we were both kids.

His dad, Marshall Sr., died last week at the age of 77. He was one of my late father's dearest friends, and he was one of my heroes.

Marshall was a longtime organizer with District 1199 of the SEIU -- a health-care workers' union (in fact, it was the union that Martin Luther King Jr. had once called his favorite). I hope and trust that Marshall, during his long battle with throat cancer, received loving and respectful care from the workers for whom he had battled for so many years.

My father and Marshall both grew up in the Bronx, at a time when the Young Communist League brought together energetic young people who -- in another time and place -- might have joined the Boy or Girl Scouts instead. The son of Cuban immigrants, Marshall was passionate and joyful and fierce and playful -- a mensch among men.

When I was a child, Marshall was between union-organizer gigs: he owned a beauty-supplies shop in Spanish Harlem, and I loved to visit him there. His clientele (mostly women) would come in and order his famous shampoo, said to be exclusively ordered from a foreign company, which was supposedly made with placenta (whose placenta? I never thought to ask!). As I recall, the shampoo came in many variations, and often the one being requested was not on the shelf. In those cases, Marshall would excuse himself for a moment, so he could go check for any extras "in back" -- at which point he would quickly mix up a new batch, bottle it, affix the appropriate label, and take it out to the customer: "Found one!"

Often I would be joined at the store by Marshallito, who was my age and yet was better than me at everything. (The one time I beat him in a game of H-O-R-S-E, we both treated it as an anomaly of historic proportions.) In fact, all of Marshall's children -- Marshall Jr., Maria (slightly younger than me), and Carmen (a few years older) -- were (and remain) beautiful and brilliant ... which probably has something to do with their mom, Edith, an extraordinary woman who -- as wife, compañera, and fellow 1199 organizer -- complemented Marshall in so many ways.

Edith also made the meals that ensured I would become an overweight person. They were feasts! Huge trays of lasagna, and spaghetti, and artichokes, and cakes, and ... The food was endless! And you didn't want to miss the parties at the Garcias': not just the food, but the jokes, and the singing, and the dancing -- watching Marshall's hips gyrate as he danced with my stepmother, Sue, and the other women, I began to understand the crucial roles of flexibility and torque in the sensual world.

Marshall said and did some things that have stayed with me all my life. At one point his beauty shop was being robbed repeatedly. This was in a neighborhood that did not receive the most excellent service from the New York Police Department, so Marshall took it upon himself to stop the break-ins. The thieves had kept busting a hole through the brick back wall of the store, which was next to an alley. One night Marshall took a baseball bat and just sat in the store, with the lights on, from dusk to dawn, letting any potential burglar know they'd have to deal with him. "But what if they have a gun?" I asked him, terrified. Marshall was undeterred: his work at the store supported his family, and he'd do whatever he had to do to defend it.

Not that Marshall was at all tough when it came to deriving income from his business. As Edith and others would often lament, he was amazingly lenient with the customers who owed him money. As I recall, family members would have to pratically beg him to try to collect; when it came to asking people for what they owed him, as well as loaning money to people when he himself was strapped for cash, Marshall was the ultimate softie. ...

I mentioned that he also said things that have stayed with me. Here's a story he told me that has become a touchstone in my life: Marshall spoke of a man he knew, living in a lower-class tenement in New York, whose teenage child was the only kid in the building not hooked on drugs. Drug pushers would hang out in the lobby of the building with impunity, as they did in the rest of the neighborhood. But this dad decided that, whatever it took, his child would not become another addict -- so each night, he stood guard in the lobby with a baseball bat (you can tell that bats were popular defensive weapons in those days), greeting any pusher who entered the building with the threat of a bashing. I remember sitting in the Garcias' living room, full of Edith's great food, with Marshall leaning in to emphasize this point: "The real heroes, Joshy, are people like that father."

And also, I would add, people like Marshall Garcia. In his last years, even though he had to receive all his nutrients through a feeding tube, he marched in antiwar demonstrations. That's the kind of fighter Marshall was.

In his final days at the Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center, he was surrounded by family (he and Edith also had nine grandchildren), who regaled him with "Joe Hill" and other songs of protest. “Marshall was an amazingly loving husband, father, and friend,” Edith told the District 1199 newsletter. “Near the end, I spoke into his ear, and I told him he gave every bit of himself for what he believed in -- and what life could be better than that?”

The generation that helped defeat fascism also included people, like Marshall, who continued fighting for peace and freedom into the 21st century. Goodbye, Marshall, and thank you.

7 comments August 28th, 2006

Getting To Know Jack

Jack PalladinoTonight's program is a rebroadcast of an episode in which I interviewed famed private investigator Jack Palladino -- and, for good measure, got gumshoeing tips from Dashiell Hammett expert Don Herron. You can find more details in my original blog entry. ...

I also want to note, with pride, that -- given explicit instructions by my Benevolent Webmistress -- I have, for the first time, inserted a photo in this blog all by my own self! This newfound skill -- combined with my recent purchase of a digital camera -- opens up infinite graphical possibilities for future entries. The mind boggles! ...

2 comments August 28th, 2006


Our apartment is currently filled with the sound of simulated gunfire -- tons of it -- as my son and his best friend engage in a multi-computer world-domination game. Now, these are both really gentle Berkeley kids -- my son's even been a vegetarian since he was four, for purely ethical reasons -- but what boy can resist a cool war game? I certainly couldn't. I can remember coming home from anti-Vietnam-War protests and then running outside with the BB gun my dad had given me -- I believe it had been confiscated from a member of the Royal Bishops, then the largest gang in New York, which my dad was monitoring as a social worker for the city.

Those were good times, though in retrospect they were possibly also bad times: our neighborhood, on the Lower East Side, was sliding from lower-class to hopeless -- drugs and gangs everywhere, chubby kids running around with BB guns ... But to me, it was wonderful: fascinating people, unpredictable action (including frequent busts of our neighbors), and -- mostly -- my dad and his friends. One of his best friends, the Rev. Chuck Yerkes, lived down the hallway; he and dad had met when Chuck also started working with the Royal Bishops, trying to get at them from the spiritual angle. How an atheist Jew could get along so well with a fifth-generation Presbyterian minister can be explained by (a) the amazing diversity made possible in multicultural America, especially among those concentrated into urban areas, and (b) the fact that they were both adamant leftists who came from extremely troubled families. (Also, they were both great people.)

Chuck ended up presiding over the wedding of my dad to my stepmother, Sue. I still remember the horrified look on Dad's face when Chuck showed up at our apartment (where the ceremony was to take place) wearing a black turtleneck and love beads (this was in 1968). My father, the atheist, was aghast that Chuck wasn't wearing his ministerial garb. Chuck quickly put Dad at ease by showing him the dry-cleaner's bag with his freshly pressed vestments. In the preceding weeks, they had gone through tortuous negotiations about how often God could be mentioned in the ceremony (Dad insisted on "never," but allowed Chuck to sprinkle in some vague references to the importance of a couple's spiritual life). Yet now, when the pedal came to the metal, Dad wanted his minister friend to be dressed ministerially, goshdarnit! The Lord indeed works in mysterious ways. ...

I was thinking of both of these fascinatingly self-contradictory men (both now gone, sadly) yesterday, as I biked to the first "Wandering Josh" shoot for our upcoming second season. Chuck bicycled everywhere -- often shuttling between our apartment and the Union Theological Seminary, where he spent many years procrastinating on his doctoral dissertation, about something called "the I/Thou relationship." (This experience probably helped introduce me to the myriad joys of procrastination, which remains one of my few skills.) As for Dad, in the very early mornings, he'd ride his green Raleigh folding bike to Harlem, where he'd climb the steps to the platform of the commuter train to his teaching job in Connecticut. ... My own bike is a folding bike as well -- which came in handy yesterday, as I was able to take in on BART during rush hour when all normal bikes (ha!) are prohibited.

But in the back of my mind, I knew that my biking days might be numbered -- since my destination was Ann's Driving School, where I was to receive my first-ever driving lesson (on camera, no less -- we taped it for a "Wandering Josh" segment). Let me tell you, after 47 years of being a passenger, it felt weird to be behind the wheel. Also, I'd like to mention that the difference between the gas pedal and the brake is not intuitively obvious. (My apologies especially to our sound technician, Hugh Scott, who was essentially curled up in the trunk.) Still, after a few minutes my incredibly soothing instructor, Judy Lundblad, had me feeling, if not actually relaxed, then at least in a state of edgy enjoyment. I wanted to keep driving! I wanted to drive to Reno! (Wherever that is.) I wanted to buy a big bottle of Mountain Dew and drive for 24 hours, listening to random tracks from my iPod!

Who knew driving was so much fun? Why didn't anyone tell me? (Then again, next time we have to cover parallel parking, so things could get worse really fast.) ...

Ah, well ... That was Tuesday, and now it's Wednesday -- and there are two hungry cyber-warriors to feed, and DVD's for me to watch in preparation for our first in-studio taping of the new season (on Sept. 1), so I will sign off for now and move away from the computer -- the old-fashioned way: on foot. ...

3 comments August 23rd, 2006

Feel the Burn …

Tonight's episode (at 7:30; repeated on Friday night at 10:30) is a rebroadcast of an interview I did with Burning Man founder Larry Harvey -- accompanied by a "Wandering Josh" segment in which I get inducted into the Flaming Lotus Girls (not as painful an experience as you might imagine). Harvey is a fascinating guy, and I came away from the interview determined to make it to Burning Man myself one day, in the event that I ever become a grownup. ... You can read more about the show in my original blog post. ...

I'm back at home today after doing ADR ("additional dialogue recording," I think) on a film that I acted in last year. It's a dark, dark, dark comedy titled Faith, shot mostly in and around the Mission and Castro Districts. We had to do some ADR on one of the exterior scenes because a really grouchy elderly gentleman kept circling the block and yelling (unscripted) profanities at us; also, they seemed to be digging up and entirely rebuilding the other side of the block at the same time. Oh, let me tell you, independent filmmaking is fun! ... But actually, it was lots of fun: I got to play a middle-aged Jewish guy (quite a stretch!) who gets assaulted by a crazed anti-abortion activist and then seeks his revenge by transforming himself into an Orthodox Ninja Fighter (armed with razor-sharp flying disks shaped like Stars of David). I did mention that it's a dark comedy, didn't I? ... When you do ADR, you stand in a little booth, repeating your lines over and over while trying to match your lip movements on-screen. It ends up being a musical challenge, in my experience, as you strive to imitate the exact pitches and rhythms of your original performance -- including all stutters, snuffles, and throat-clearings. ... The director (and co-screenwriter), Lewis Morphew, currently has that pasty, unshaven aspect that I remember sporting when my brother Jake and I were in postproduction on our own film, Haiku Tunnel; eventually, you reach a point where you're just hoping to have one meal a day that isn't pretzels and Diet Coke. ...

Riding BART back to the East Bay, I listened on my iPod to a beautiful new record by a Canadian musician named Christine Fellows. The album is titled Paper Anniversary, and you can hear a few of the songs (in streaming audio) by clicking through to her website. The first song I fell in love with is an elegiac waltz called "Phantom Pains" -- like many of her tunes, a little short story in itself. But I'd noticed, even while I was doing the Faith ADR, that another song from the CD, "Vertebrae," kept running through my head -- especially the refrain, "Why, when you know you should go / Is it so hard to leave?" -- a phrase that, as the song progresses, is freighted with more and more instrumental (and thus emotional) weight (to the point that, as I played it this morning while preparing breakfast, my son asked, tactfully, "Um, Daddy, do you have any happy songs you could play now?"). ... I haven't even taken in all the song's lyrics -- not in any conscious way, at least -- but that repeated phrase, along with the lovely shifting modulations of the music throughout the tune, became my mantra today: ADR -- "Why, when you know ..." -- make call from cellphone -- "... is it so hard to leave?" -- down into BART station -- "... when you know ..." -- switching trains at 12th St. Oakland -- "... is it so ..." Thank you, Christine Fellows, wherever you are. ... Maybe she'll be at the in-store performance by my current favorite band, The Mountain Goats, at San Francisco's Amoeba Records tomorrow evening? She's opening for the Goats on their current tour, so I live in hope. ...

I'm hoping to attend that in-store tomorrow -- assuming that I survive the morning, which will see me take my first-ever driving lesson (accompanied by a "Wandering Josh" film crew). Given my distractable nature, if you have any loved ones in San Francisco, you may want to advise them to stay away from the streets until the evening -- or, at the very least, to dress brightly. ...

August 21st, 2006

A Moment in the Morning

My son recently taught himself how to ride his bike without training wheels, and ever since then he's been tearing around the neighborhood like a (totally safety-conscious and under-control) madman. It's been a joy to watch, even as I keep shifting my own bike into higher and higher gears in a futile effort to keep up with him (his bike is gearless, by the way).

This morning he was already quite a bit ahead of me when I noticed that he was approaching an elderly woman, who was moving very slowly along the sidewalk, huddled over her walker. There wasn't time for me to yell out a fatherly "Be careful!" or "Watch out!" to him -- but no matter: as usual, he politely slowed down as he approached her. I was relieved, but still concerned that the woman would be irritated by this sidewalk encounter. And what did she actually do as my son coasted past her? She looked up from her walker, took in the sight of happy boy on brightly colored bike, and, beaming, gave him a big thumb's-up!

As I went past her a few seconds later, she was still smiling. A lovely moment, as -- at a somewhat constant speed -- I continued along the continuum from my son's age to (hopefully) hers. ...

August 19th, 2006

To the Limit, One More Time …

I'll be performing my one-man show The Mathematics of Change -- a comic meditation on calculus, college, and catfish-sitting -- at the lovely little 142 Throckmorton Theatre in Mill Valley next Thursday through Saturday (Aug. 24-26) at 8 p.m. You can click here for tix and info. ...

On the subject of higher math, a level I never quite attained, my brother Jake recently called my attention to the mysterious disappearance of Russian mathematician Grisha Perelman, who recently seemed to solve the vexing "Poincaré conjecture" but hasn't been heard from since. Sounds like a bit of a weird duck, this Perelman: looks like a disheveled version of Rasputin, loves math, disdains material possessions, has a history of turning down lucrative awards ... in short, he sounds like the person I aimed to become in 1976, when I entered Princeton as a bearded radical out of the Bronx High School of Science. Then, during my freshman year, a bunch of stuff happened: I "hit the wall" at my calculus midterm, found out that the women at Princeton were unimpressed by my intuitive understanding of Marx, and felt my energies to be sapped by an unrelenting terror of my own, newly discovered mediocrity. ...

I ate plenty of bagels, though. There were many students earning money in those days by pushing around "bagel wagons" -- which was kind of cute, considering that less than a decade earlier Princeton had routinely restricted all its Jews to eating lunch in a single building, albeit one with the hopeful name of Prospect House. (The story went that they had forced a brilliant young undergraduate named Ralph Nader to eat there as well, on the theory that, even though he was actually a Lebanese-American, this was close enough to Jewish for him to qualify.) So I note with amusement that the Poincaré Conjecture apparently proves that, when you get right down to it, there are essentially only two shapes: a sphere or a bagel. Despite my math struggles, I had long ago come to the same conclusion years before my Princeton travails, during interminable waits at the take-out counter of Zabar's deli. Where's my prize?! ...

August 18th, 2006

Heart of Gold

I first heard about the Jonathan Demme concert film Neil Young: Heart of Gold from a great interview Terry Gross did with both men earlier this year. It's an amazing story: Young learned that he had a brain aneurism, which would require surgery. Before the surgery, he got together in Nashville with some of his favorite musicians, writing a song each night in his hotel room and then recording it with them the next day. Those songs became last year's lovely, wistful Prairie Wind album. Following Young's successful surgery, Demme persuaded Young to perform the songs from that record -- plus a selection of earlier tunes from his "Harvest" trilogy -- with those same musicians at Nashville's storied Ryman Auditorium. The resulting movie -- which I ended up renting for months, as I traveled the country with it -- provided a rich and loving emotional backdrop for my entire summer. It's beautifully shot and carefully mixed -- you really feel the vibe of the space, the electricity between audience and performers, and especially among the performers themselves -- and somehow manages to make experiences like aging and loss seem to add up to something hopeful.

If you've seen any of Demme's previous concert films -- and I own all of them -- you know about his uncanny knack for bringing all the movie's elements (sets, lighting, editing) into deep affinity with each performer's aesthetic. Stop Making Sense (1984) echoed the art-school, punk and funk impulses at play in a legendary tour that brought the Talking Heads together with some Funkadelic virtuosos. Swimming to Cambodia (1987) captured the genius of the late monologuist Spalding Gray at the height of his idiosyncratic powers. And the (as far as I can glean) underappreciated Storefront Hitchock (1998) offered a spare presentation of a concert by the great singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock (in what was literally a storefront) that was almost Luddite in its simplicity -- and perfectly attuned to the artist's quirky sensibilities. (By the way, I consider the Hitchcock tune "Let's Go Thundering" from that movie -- also available on the accompanying soundtrack album -- to be an exhilarating affirmation of the joys of middle-aged relationships. Though, given that I tend to float in and out of the lyrics of almost every song I listen to, conceivably it's actually about the weather. ... And while I'm being parenthetical, I also want to mention that Hitchcock's long spoken ramble -- there are many in the film -- about religion vs. spirituality has had a major impact on my thinking.) One thing that amazes me about all these movies is how the film techniques on display in each one (and there's a lot of exquisite filmmaking going on) almost never call attention to themselves: rather, they're about unifying all the elements into an experience that brings you deep inside each artist's sensibilities. (The same, by the way, is also true of the beautiful Louis Malle semi-concert film Vanya on 42nd Street, which I watch whenever I want to be elated by the possibilities of theater and movies at the same tame.)

Maybe there should be a category for filmmakers (Demme, Sayles, Mamet) who live double lives -- "commercial" and non-. My sense of Demme's big-budget films, ever since the enormous success of 1991's The Silence of the Lambs, is that he's continuing to pour out his soul in "small" projects like these concert films -- along with other docs like 1992's Cousin Bobby (about Demme's radical-minister relative) -- in ways that the business and mechanics of major-studio filmmaking may impede. I still remember being blown away, years back, watching a blurry print of Demme's Handle with Care (1977) -- can still feel the delicious shock of discovering a new voice, a new way of telling movie stories. That's the Demme I feel behind Neil Young: Heart of Gold -- call him "Cousin Demme" -- and I look forward to his next low-budget, lovingly put-together celebration of the performing arts' ephemeral beauty.

August 17th, 2006

Back at Work

It's very exciting to be back in KQED's San Francisco offices, after a summer spent traveling. We're in pre-production for our show's second season -- and (in contrast to how I felt at my old day jobs, mostly as a really bad secretary) it's really cool to have a cubicle waiting for me. My newly acquired organizing skills will be tested in the coming days, as I make my way through piles of wonderful-looking books and press releases and such.

My series producer, Lori Halloran, is across the way from me, tapping away at her computer; perhaps, at her relatively advanced stage of pregnancy, we finally have the same waist size! (That's what happened to my wife in her ninth month carrying our son -- one of the few occurrences that wasn't predicted in our copy of What To Expect When You're Expecting.) My executive producer, Michael Isip, is meeting in his office with one of my former guests (I hope they're not complaining about me). ... This building (KQED's) is like a small city, and after a year here I still feel like I'm just learning the terrain. (One thing I can state with certainty, though, is that our station must have the best-dressed HR staff in the industry.)

So everything's cool. But I'm still having my usual trouble with transitions (beginning with each day's devastating transition from sleep to [relative] consciousness). Even though virtually all the tasks ahead of me are delightful ones, I keep obsessively turning over certain minor-ish dragalicious details in my greenhouse-effect of a brain: Like, for example, the problem I've been having with Earthlink. I wrote a whiny blog item about it, and actually got an incredibly kind comment back from a real-to-life Earthlink blogger, asking if my problem had been resolved. Since then, I've been corresponding with him via email -- but still, frustratingly, my issue remains unaddressed (on July 25, without any warning, all my incoming email was deleted, all the drafts and copies of sent emails were wiped away as well, and -- for good measure -- the extra storage space I've been paying for was taken away). Ever since that day, Earthlink has been promising me that my problem was being "escalated" to an "engineer," who would soon be calling me. Finally, last week, that call came -- on my home phone's answering machine, when I wasn't there -- but the engineer left neither a name nor a phone number for a callback. And this is from a company that has consistently provided me exemplary customer service -- I'm not talking about a nightmarish, MySpace-type situation here!

Anyhow, with this relatively small but irritating matter continually tickling at my thoughts, I've found a great deal of solace in a book titled Dreaming in Code. You can't get it yet, because Crown Books won't be publishing it till next January. But I've read it in manuscript -- and even though its author, Scott Rosenberg, is a dear friend of mine, I can honestly and objectively report to you that it's an incredible book. The subtitle may or may not be "Two Dozen Programmers, Three Years, 4,732 Bugs -- and One Quest for Transcendent Software" -- but in any case, that should give you a sense of the ambitious task Scott set himself: to somehow weave a page-turning narrative out of the -- to most of us -- absolutely forbidding subject of all that mysterious software that our lives currently depend on. I imagine that, as the pub date approaches, Scott will be writing about some of this stuff in his amazingly eclectic blog -- but in the meantime, I just wanted to give a head's-up about Dreaming in Code to anyone else out there who, like me, has sometimes been made to feel helpless and/or hopeless about aspects of our marvelously computerized existence. ...

I have to (actually) get back to work now, but I feel moved to add at least one gratuitous Scott Rosenberg story from back in the day -- so here it is: I used to host a radio show in Boston called "The Urban Happiness Radio Hour." We broadcast from the radio station at MIT (where I was working as a really bad secretary in the Biology Dept. office), and our engineer was always stoned and usually quite surly (perhaps he should have been more stoned?). My all-volunteer cast included Scott, then a freelance critic at the weekly Boston Phoenix (we'd met when I was a copy editor there). Scott's main role was as the "Urban Happiness Film Critic," who invariably would digress from his film review and begin ranting about his relationship problems. (I hasten to add that I wrote the scripts, which were totally -- totally! -- fictional, and which were, I'm ashamed to say, mostly written during my secretarial hours.) Our show was broadcast live, and inevitably there were glitches. For instance, on the episode when I was introducing Scott's critic character, we both realized -- at the last moment -- that I hadn't yet come up with a name for him. As Scott stood next to me at the microphone and I began reading the introduction, we both were wide-eyed with wonderment as to what name I'd come up with. (What came out -- after an uncomfortable pause -- was "Fred Schmertz." Who knows where from?) ... Another time I was trying to show the engineer how we could get the door-slamming sound I wanted for a sketch by slamming the actual door to our studio. The engineer was pretty fried, so I had to repeatedly open and slam the door, over and over, by way of illustration. I didn't realize that, at the same time, Scott was repeatedly trying to enter that same door from the other side, too polite to point out that it was being slammed in his face. ... And then there was our Election Day sketch -- an elaborate routine that, at its climax, called for my character (the outgoing mayor, I believe) to pull a gun on Scott's character. Perhaps chastened by the door-slamming incident, I had given a sound-effects record to our engineer, showing him which track had the sound of a gunshot -- but, in his usual state of surly vagueness, he had placed the needle on the following track -- so that when I announced, on live radio, that I had finally had it with my nemesis, our listeners (if, in fact, there was more than one -- we didn't have access to the ratings) heard, instead, the sound of a file drawer opening. Scott and I stared at each other, initially at a loss. Finally, in my desperation, I blurted out: "Okay, I'm opening this file drawer and am pulling out a bang-bang gun! Bang bang! You're dead!" To which, I believe, Scott responded with some of the most grateful death gurgles that have ever been broadcast. ... Good times, good times! ...

2 comments August 16th, 2006

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