Remembering Moondog and Some Others on a Sunday morning in Istanbul

I was remembering Moondog this morning, this blind musician/poet who dressed as a viking and wandered the city streets reciting poetry, playing music, and scaring the wits out of drunk teenagers like me who just happened to bump into him when rounding a corner in the West 50s. The first time I was with Henry Munoz and Alvin Miller and we had spent several hours after acting class in the Blarney Stone eating those greasy cornbeef sandwiches and drinking draft beer spiked with rye whiskey that Julian Richards always smuggled in under his coat. Anyway, Alvin was going off to catch the D train to Carnesie, if I remember correctly, and Henry was walking with me to 34th Street where he would get the E or F train back to Jackson Heights and I would catch the LIRR home and boom. Right smack into this viking. I mean, man, that’ll sober you up pretty quickly. Of course, later I found out he was a sort of West Side celebrity and even appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson playing some of his compositions. And since so much of my time was spent in the West 50s because that’s where the acting schools I attended were located, I ran into Moondog on more than a few occasions and, like all New Yorkers, quickly accepted all strange and unusual things as normal.

But this is about more than Moondog, naturally. It’s about the faces I woke up this morning staring at me from the various corners of my rooms. I mean, I literally trip over these people and playing You Were On My Mind by the We Five on repeat mode on my compact stereo system in the den doesn’t help matters. I will, no doubt, before I finish with this piece switch to Go Now by The Moody Blues and then some early Kinks like You Really Got Me because I really am going somewhere in my head.

Now my senior year of high school changed the trajectory of my life and I wrote about this previously in a piece called, quite appropriately, My Senior Year of High School, but I’m going to revisit that year and a few prior to it and maybe one or two afterwards because they all explain how a working class kid like me ended up not just here in Turkey but at the end of what could only be referred to as an eventful life, one I probably wouldn’t have lived if it hadn’t been for those rock & roll shows at the Brooklyn Fox that Murray The K put together and where I saw Stevie Wonder for the first time do Fingertips Parts 1 & 2 , Ronnie & the Ronettes swing their long hair as they sang Be My Baby, the Shangri-Las doing Leader of the Pack, and countless other acts that graced that stage for a song or two. ‘Cause it was my clowning afterwards that led Jimmy Hanley to suggest I become an actor which led to that year commuting into the city at night to not just attend classes but to become friends with people like Henry and Alvin and fall under the influence of Lee Stanleigh, fall hopelessly in love with Karen Deene and get drunk too often with Big Ed and Julian. Life is pretty funny, isn’t it?

So here I am on a Sunday morning in Istanbul postponing packing my carry-ons for my week’s vacation starting tomorrow in Izmir thinking about these ghosts from my past and listening to the We Five singing “I got wounds to bind”.

So here’s the dog story ’cause no early morning or late night stroll among these ghosts is complete without my dog nudging my elbow and climbing into my lap. We had just adopted him from the ASPCA on 91st Street and drove over in my Volkswagon to visit my brother George and his girlfriend, eventually to become his first wife, Lily, in their apartment on East 5th Street. Frodo, the dog named after yes, the trilogy George and I read together, is maybe 8 weeks old and not in total control of his bladder so George is laying down parts of the Sunday NY Times on the kitchen floor while Frodo is looking for a place to do his business. And, of course, he backs up next to George and lets go on George’s brand new desert boots which, of course, made us all laugh, including George, and endeared us all to what would become, before this damned cat came into my life, the number one animal in my life. Now this cat, Noir, has not displaced Frodo in my heart but he has somehow managed to settle in next to him. Anyway, I was thinking about Frodo this morning, too, and almost tripped over him in the hall going for my second cup of coffee of the day.

But back to the mid sixties, not the early seveties, and there’s Steve Cohen asking me who Wiley is. You see, I kept mentioning Wiley in conversation and he couldn’t quite figure out who this woman was, and I had to explain it was Jane, Wiley being her last name, which, after we were married I insisted she keep. Maybe because I liked the sound of it on my tongue but actually because of Steve’s mother Grace who said over breakfast at his parents’ house that she went from being her father’s daughter to her husband’s wife without ever having an identity of her own. And that so impressed me that I swore I would never let any woman I loved ever lose her identity in mine. Now I have a lot of memories where Jane is concerned and some have worked their way into some of the poems but this is not about her because if any woman hovers over my shoulder this morning it’s Karen Deene. She tousles my hair as I sit studying my lines for my scenes with Ed in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof and she will be the vision of Maggie the Cat in my mind even though I’ll play it with another actress named, quite coincidentally, Jane and who would French kiss me when we did the Rainmaker together and run her hand across my crotch in rehearsal and I often wonder why I didn’t follow up on those leads, her being a good ten years older than me but quite willing to initiate me into the joys of her bed which, I might add, the owner of the school enjoyed himself, so age was not something she seemed to care much about. But I was hung up on Karen and when I am hung up on a woman, whomever she might be, no one else can distract me, especially if it’s reciprocated. So Karen was, in my eyes, Maggie and I played it for her. I remember holding hands with her, having her lean into me on the street, in the seat next to me in class because she always managed to sit next to me, the whiff I would get of her perfume, the way her long hair almost touched her waist, her laugh, that smile that lit up a room when I gave her the Worry Stone I bought for her in The Village so she could rub away all the things that were troubling her.

I don’t know how I lost those people, how they slipped away and now only return in those hours between 12:00:01 am to midnight, which, as you can see, pretty much covers all waking sleeping hours of my life. My college friends are still with me for the most part, but these people from my high school years are gone, only Maureen somehow managing to reappear many years later in LA but that is, as they say, another story.

Where’s Joey Parker, for instance? Or Kevin Mahoney? The last time I saw Joey he stopped his car in front of Temple Emmanuel to say hello to me as I crossed the street and he knew I was in college, something far from any dreams of his, and he said, on parting, “Make it, man. Just make it.” And to this day I wonder just what he thought making it could be. Would he think I made it now? Here, in self-imposed exile, far from the people who care for me because the wounds, those still open wounds, are a long time healing. And you, Joey, sitting in your car, blowing air bubbles with your tongue, the muffler needing to be replaced, your right hand resting on the Hurst shifter, ready to roar off down whatever streets you roam looking for peace in your soul, where are you now? You the most loyal of friends, who took 43 stitches in the face standing up for a friend of mine. You, Joey? And Kevin, looking up surprised in the auto parts store when I came in with my brother Johnny who was trying to repair that damned van I bought to go camping all over the West in. That baby-faced smile, that little laugh you always had when the world surprised you, still with the hair curling at your collar, the sweatshirt and jacket not able to conceal the brawn of your body, the tension in your neck. Where are you, Kevin, old friend?

I don’t know. I bump into these people in my hall, in the elevator at school, while walking the ancient streets of Balat, sitting on a bench looking out at the Sea of Marmara, thousands of miles away but they still find me. Still vivid and young, still staring life in the face. Some other blogger wrote you can’t live in the past or the future but only in the present, as if those other times were a waste of energy and took us away from the moment we should be cherishing. But the past is always there, coloring the present, affecting the future. We can’t avoid it, nor should we. It is what has made us who we are and if we are not displeased with what we became, then the past is something we should not only acknowledge but embrace. And my past, these ghosts that follow me halfway around the world, are not intrusions. They are part of me just as the books I have read, the films, the plays I’ve seen, the music I’ve listened to, the art and photography that have moved me, the eyes of the people I have known, the sound of voices, laughter, tears, my father’s lost dreams, my grandmother’s espresso, my grandfather’s love of cherries, my mother’s collection of odd shaped bottles, and Joey’s scars, Karen’s long hair, Ed’s drunken ramblings about the Old West, Lee’s passion, Henry’s guilt, the musical lithe of Julian’s speech, all are embedded in my heart, my mind.

And so here, on a Sunday morning in a city 2500 years old, I, too, try to come to peace with my past. Wounds. Troubles. You on my mind. Yeah, don’t we all have these?

15 thoughts on “Remembering Moondog and Some Others on a Sunday morning in Istanbul

  1. Just beautiful! Awakened a lot of memories in me although on a different trajectory. Most memorable will always be that backdrop of music we all inhaled, like smoke, only to release when the pain made its demands. Thanks for sharing your memoir…

  2. Wow Len, please continue to ramble on about your past as it brings back so many memories of mine. Although, I don’t think my experiences can compare to yours as far as diversity. We each have our own and, yes, they do shape us in many ways. As Bob Hope used to sing, Thanks for the memories!

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