Room # 8

There was an old man, kind and wise with age

And he read me just like a book and he never missed a page

And I loved him like my father and I loved him like my friend

And, I knew his time would shortly come but I did not know just when…

–Gram Parsons “In My Hour of Darkness”

We were driving a little slower than anyone else on that clear cool Friday afternoon.  It wasn’t because we were pulling the r-Pod, although that didn’t help matter very much…no, we had a destination.  I wanted to see where a man died and I didn’t want to miss a turn.

But, we did just that, in a manner.

“There it is,” said Mariam.  “The Joshua Tree Inn.”

It took me another ten minutes to find a way to make a u-turn and pull into the crescent-shaped drive way.  The Inn stood close by Highway 62.  We were on our way to the next stop in our journey, Twentynine Palms, California.

But, first I wanted to see where a man died.

The front door was locked.  I peered into the window. No one was behind the desk.  To my left, I saw an open gate.  I boldly walked into the courtyard expecting to be stopped by a clerk or manager.

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“Are you staying here?”

I was waiting for that question, but it never came.  There wasn’t anyone around.  I opened a door that had a sign stating that it should be kept locked at all times.  Inside was a charming sitting room.  Comfy chairs and a few tables.  In the courtyard, cacti grew.  A fire pit had a ring of chairs…waiting for a night-time fire and stories and legends and ghosts.

Yes, this Inn is reputed to be haunted.  I wouldn’t be staying the night so I wouldn’t know who or what spirit resides here.  I spotted room # 1.  I continued along the tiled walkway, reading the numbers as I went.

I stopped in front of Room # 8.  This was the place.  This was the room where the legendary Gram Parsons put enough morphine and alcohol into his system to kill three men.

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Keith Richards commented that Gram knew very well the dangers of mixing opiates and alcohol (Keith should know, they both hung out and got high in the late ’60’s).  Friends said he simply miscalculated the dosage and failed to realize the potency of the mix.

He also failed to wake up.  He died at the Hi-Desert Medical Center just after midnight, on September 19, 1973.

I mentioned that he was “legendary”, but he never achieved the fame and success of those he worked alongside.  He was one of the Byrds (not officially, however) and he hung out with the Rolling Stones when they were recording “Exile on Main Street” in the south of France.  He co-founded the Flying Burrito Brothers (with Chris Hillman).  He toured with Emmylou Harris (who continues to sing his songs when she tours).

He was “legendary” in the sense that he put country music into an entirely new realm.  His recording output was “minimal” according to most sources.

But, his spirit lives on in contemporary music.  Films have been made about him.  Books have been written.  Tributes are made.

He didn’t live long enough to see his career flourish…he seemed to be on the verge of some success when he and some friends headed to the Joshua Tree Inn that day in September of 1973.  He loved this desert and wanted to retreat here before starting a tour.  He was only 26 years old, missing his place in the “27 Club” by a year.

Gram Parsons had long declared his desire to be cremated at his death.  He had his wish…as a result of a bizarre and controversial effort on the part of his friends.  I won’t go into details except to say that his body was stolen from LAX before the remains could be flown back to New Orleans.  He was taken to a place in what is now Joshua Tree National Park, placed on a small hill, and his casket filled with three gallons of gasoline.

With the strike of a match his dream came true…so did the police.  You’ll have to check Wikipedia for the grisly details of the outcome of that well-meaning adventure.

I stood in the courtyard of the Joshua Tree Inn and looked at his memorial.  I thought of the early days of Jim Morrison’s grave in Pere Lachaise Cemetery in Paris…before they gated it off from fans.

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Here, items were left in bowls and jars.  I saw two violin bows.  I put a shiny penny into one of the dishes that was filled with coins.  A large slab in the shape of a guitar stood before Room #8 like a tombstone.  Four clay figures that stood about a foot tall, were placed across the courtyard.  In the scrubs behind the figures was a white stone that read: All Things Are Possible Through God.

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I thought about what little I knew of this man’s life.  The suicide of his father when Gram was twelve years old.  His little sister drinking herself to death.

I thought of his substance abuse…his doomed attempts to keep his demons at bay.

I said a quiet little “thank you” to Gram Parsons for the songs he left us.  I am grateful to my son-in-law, Bob Goldstein, who brought Parsons back into my life with the comment: “Oh, you would loves Gram Parsons if you like Townes Van Zandt”.  I’ve purchased “Grievous Angel” on iTunes and I intend to listen to his words tonight…under a nearly full moon and in the chilly desert air.

The air of night…about fourteen miles from the Joshua Tree Inn, where Gram Parsons took his final breath before vanishing into the desert he loved.

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[Parsons in 1972. He had a year to live. Source: Wikipedia]

Her comb still lies beside my bed

And the sun comes up without her

It just doesn’t know she’s gone

Oh, but I remember everything she said.

–Gram Parsons “Brass Buttons”

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The Albatross And The Vulture

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What’s it like to float upon misty air?

Way up there upon winds of turbulence,

where your wings tame them, 

as a cowboy does the wild Stallion.

–Dara Reidyr from “On Flying

Four hours ago, I was finishing my iced coffee at the Java Cafe in the Outlet Mall.  Even with the AC, the plastic cup was dripping on the article in the local Fort Myers newspaper.  I was totally absorbed in a breaking story about an 18-year old guy who was arrested for roughing up his girl friend because she refused to go out and buy him some “clean” urine.  He was on probation and he apparently needed to pass a random drug test.  The water drops from my coffee obliterated some of the story, but not the part where he pushed her head and then threw bananas and a metal comb at her.  More wet newsprint.  Then the story ended with his breaking down in the kitchen, crying, and grabbing a carving knife, threatened to kill himself.  It seems that a friend captured the whole thing on a cell phone.

It’s good to have friends.

Now, I was in the pool at the RV Resort where we are staying.  I was leaning back with my head against the rim.  I was intent on getting some exercise one way or another, and since its way too hot to go bicycling, the decision to go to the pool wasn’t hard.  I was doing a peddling motion with my legs and practicing the scissors kick.  Nearby, at the shallow end, there were a dozen seniors doing water exercises.  A woman’s voice was telling them what to do.

“Now, turn around and lift your left leg–that’s right, just like that.”

“Okay, now run in place–do the best you can.”

I looked at each person in the group trying to identify the speaker with the tiny headset microphone.  I couldn’t find her.  She seemed to be joking with someone in the group.  I looked again and still couldn’t find her.  Then I spotted a cable from an outlet.  It led to a small boom-box that was placed on a pool chair.  Everyone was listening to a tape.  But, how could she banter with the group?

I was puzzling over this when I looked directly across the water and noticed that a man was staring at me.  He had on sunglasses, so I couldn’t be sure it was me he was watching.  He looked exactly like Colonel Sanders, the founder of KFC.  Same hat.  Same white goatee.  I would have bet my last fiver that it was the Colonel himself.  I didn’t place any bet– there was no one to place it with and besides I remember that Colonel Harland D. Sanders died of leukemia in 1980.

The clouds were slowly thickening.  The forecast called for late afternoon showers.

I looked up.  There, in the pale blue of the sky was a soaring bird.  I looked at its wings.  It wasn’t an eagle–it was a turkey vulture.   Both are built for soaring.  Both are symbols–metaphors to us.  So is the Albatross.TurkeyVulture

I looked over at the seniors who were busy treading water and then back to the turkey vulture, making slow circles above my head.

You do not want to know what goes through my head at times like these.

I’ve always found the Albatross very interesting and enigmatic.  I’ve never seen one in the wild but from photos, they have an outstanding appearance.  But, the poor bird is cursed by being a symbol of  “a burden”.

“Oh, he has to carry that Albatross around his neck–too bad for him”.

We have Samuel Taylor Coleridge to thank for that.  One of my favorite poems is “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”.  In case you don’t remember your 10th grade English class, a sailor shoots an arrow into the sky and kills an Albatross.  This brings really bad luck to him and his crew.  He is condemned to carrying the dead bird around his neck while the voyage of his ship wanders the seas.

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He is the ancient mariner who stoppeth one of three…

Sometimes, I feel like I am like the pitiful sailor–condemned forever to carry the wrongs and sins of my youth around my neck.  It can depress a recovered good Catholic altar boy like me.

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However, there are many times in my life that I’ve felt more like the Albatross and not the archer/sailor who killed without thinking.  These great birds (some with a wing span of twelve feet) are designed to soar–to ride the thermals–for unbelievable lengths of time.  Some say that these birds can go weeks (or longer) without landing.  They eat by swooping and catching the unfortunate fish who came too close to the surface.  They don’t need much food because they don’t expend much energy.  Their wings are engineered by nature to lock in place.  When you watch a skein of migrating geese, they flap their way from horizon to horizon.  The Albatross hardly ever uses its wings, except to stay aloft.

It has also been said that they only land to rest briefly, on a calm portion of ocean.  And, more importantly, they need to alight on a solid surface to find a mate and procreate.  The Albatross generally mates for life.

But, to soar above it all–only coming to the ground when necessary–seems like an amazing way to spend a life.  I feel the need to wander, sometimes far from home (like Florida), but I’m held by gravity to the surface of the earth.  Yes, I can take American Airlines to Puerto Rico, if I choose, but you get my point.

To soar above the aches and pains and heartbreak of life–to dream with your eyes open–of faraway lands and people who fill this world.  To soar and day-dream about the minute life below me and the sky, so blue and intense, above me, is enviable.  I would make an extra circle high above that red-haired woman who is crying on the empty beach.  I would make two extra circles around the Eiffel Tower and hear the cries of the Parisians.  I would soar above the lonely man, broken by war, meandering a boardwalk and thinking of ending his life.

But, I would make sure that I soared low enough so that the dim eyes of an old person could see me.  I would soar slow enough so the children, playing in the fields, would stop and point at me.

All this I would do, If I had the wings of an Albatross.  I wonder if that is what death is like–we can soar around the heads of the loved ones left behind?

All this I would do, even knowing that I would never be totally unencumbered and without the dreams that live in the living.

Are birds free from the chains of the skyway?

–Bob Dylan

[Images: Google search]

68 Steps Along The Nave Of Wells Cathedral

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Three hundred and sixty-five days ago, I was climbing the endless steps of Sacre Coeur in Paris.  My wife was at my side.  We paused on the 67th step, and, in the warm Parisian sun, we turned and looked back at the City of Lights.  We kissed on that 67th step.

It was my 67th birthday.

Today, I am 68 years old and we are sitting in a cafe in Wells, England.  This is in the county of Somerset.  I think that’s a beautiful name…Somerset.

A few minutes ago we walked down the middle aisle of the nave of the Cathedral.  We were approaching the great arches that somehow set this Cathedral apart from the other massive Gothic buildings we’ve seen.

I looked up at the simple vaulting on the ceiling.  At my feet were large slabs of marble that marked and described the dead who are buried beneath the church.  Organ music played quietly and with a simplicity that reflected the architecture.  This place totally lacked the high grandeur of a Westminster Abbey.

We paused—68 steps along the nave.  We happened to be standing on the grave of a married couple, dead now for centuries.  They would rest beneath the floor until the Cathedral walls crumbled to the ground.

I turned and kissed my wife.

We would be together until the stones of our lives crumble.

I wonder where we will kiss when I turn 69 years old in 2016.

Forever and a Day

 RomanticLove

Absolutely nothing lasts forever.

Nothing lasts forever.

There may be some things that last forever.

One thing lasts forever.

You’re waiting for me in the cafe.  The place beside the old church and next to the cemetery.  The only place in the city where I can sit next to the fire and feel warm…on a night like this.  We have so much to talk about.  It’s been so many years since we’ve had a chance to sit and think of the days gone by.

You’re waiting in the cafe–I just can’t remember how to get there.

I was very young and you had an uncanny ability to determine when my diaper would be wet.  You would change it for me.  I couldn’t talk to you.  You just knew when it was time.  You held my hand when I could barely walk.  I never said a word.  You cooked my food for a thousand dinners.  You sent me off to First Grade with a clean, freshly ironed hanky in my pocket.  No matter what my grades were, you dutifully signed my report card.  On those many nights when I couldn’t sleep, too many times for a child to fear closing his eyes, you would allow me to sit with you and we would eat crackers with chives and cheese.  The black and white television blinking away in the dark living room.

You were in third grade when I looked over at you–two rows away–and watched while you tried to open an ink bottle.  You pressed it hard against your green school shift.  You’re bangs fell away from your forehead.  Years later, you allowed me my first kiss.  Still later you wore my corsage on your taffeta prom dress.  Then you would find someone else and you broke my fragile teenage heart.

I was curious about the color of your hair beneath your stiff white habit.  Your black rosary hung from your black belt around your black dress–your habit.  You taught us to be kind.  You taught us to feel guilty.  And once, you told me: “Don’t ever be afraid to say no.”  It’s taken me many years to really understand what you meant.

I lit your cigarettes.  I bought you drinks.  I slept in your bed.  We made love under three quilts when the winter was cold and dark.  We sweated on the sheets in August when it was bright afternoon and hot.

I kissed you only once.  I kissed you many times.  I kissed you in my daydreams when you were thirty feet away on the Boardwalk.  Your hair was blonde, then black and red and brown and straight and wavy.  Your eyes were blue, gray, brown, hazel and green.  You were older.  Then you were younger.

You walked down the aisle of a church to meet me at the altar.  We were happy, sad, angry, contented, miserable, joyful and jealous.

We came and went through each others lives.  My hair slowly turned from brown to white.  Your’s from jet black to salt and pepper.  You sang to me.  I couldn’t carry a tune.  We sipped ale in England and wine in France.  We walked on muddy glacier ice in Alaska.  You watched me watching the topless twenty-somethings on a beach in Jamaica.  You never missed a trick.

You said you loved me when I didn’t think I would ever be loved again.  You saved my life, not with a toss of a rope but with a phone call.

You’re waiting in the cafe.  I’m trying to hurry.  I can hardly walk.  When we sit next to each other you will somehow know if I have wet my trousers again.

Is this a hallway or a street in Paris?  I can’t remember.

But, all those memories are so sharp and clear, like everything happened yesterday, or this morning.

You will still be waiting for me, won’t you?  I remember what I said so many, many years ago:

“Nothing lasts forever.”

I was wrong.  Love lasts forever.  We love each other, don’t we?  Still?

Love last forever.  Forever and a day.

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Passports 15: Good-bye England [I Want You]

We sat in an Irish Pub, O’Neills, in the west end of London.  It is my last night in England.  I can see Bushmills Irish Whiskey etched into the glass of the large window.  The letters are backwards.

Two singers–one on an acoustic and the other on an electric guitar.  They are playing a Beatles tune when we enter.  Then they switch to a Dylan song as we sit.  The singer says the next one was penned by Robert Zimmerman.  They play I Want You.

Through the window and across the street is the massive and glorious St. Pancras Station.

It is my last night in England–until the next time.  But, then there will be another last night…and another.

I recall the hills I walked, the rocks where I rested and the hedges where I conquered my fear.  I think of my British friends, people I’ve known for thirty years.  People who have aged and matured and moved homes and raised children.  I am thankful for the friendship these people have shown me.  I think of Tim, Jo and their family in North Dorset.  I think of Marion and Bill in Purbeck.  Bill, the old quarryman who cut Purbeck marble since his youth.  I think of Alex and Janice in Hampshire.

They are the best of mates…all of them.

Tomorrow, I will climb the steps of the Basillique du Sacre-Coeur in the Montmartre section of Paris.  I will climb to the last step and turn around to look at the magnificent City of Light.

There, I will celebrate my 67th birthday.

I will ache when I climb those steps.  The ache that comes with age, old bones and unused muscles.

But, I’ll be happy…happy just to be alive.

Then I will descend the steps, one by one.

I will reach the bottom step a year older, but a thousand years wiser.

 

Non, Je ne Regrette Rien.  

–Edith Piaf

 

 

 

 

Passports 7: Last Thoughts on Listening to “Bohemian Rhapsody” in Pere La Chaise Cemetery

I find Queen’s Bohemian Rhapsody to be a sad song of life, mistakes, loss and death.  Freddie Mercury was a beautiful man who died too young.  His vocals are pure and haunting:

Is this the real life?

Is this just fantasy?

When you wander Paris and take time to look, really look around, you find yourself caught in a blizzard of classical art.  Every street, every side street and plaza is architecturally unique.  The statuary on countless buildings depict beauty in all forms.  I found myself feeling melancholy as I stared into the marble eyes of a statue of a woman who was so beautiful it hurt my eyes…like looking into the face of the sun.  You want to look away, but you can’t.

Beauty.  It touches your very soul.  Your arms ache to embrace the woman of stone.  You want her to come alive and walk with you through the gardens or along the Seine. You want to tell her what you are feeling…and hear her story that has been held in her crystal brain for 700 years.

Too late, my time has come,

Sent shivers down my spine,

Body’s aching all the time.

Why am I so restless?  I don’t feel like I belong in this skin that has been mine for 67 years.  I yearn for other times and far off places.  I am an actor on one stage of one theater in a continent of tragedies.  I always want another part to play.

What am I waiting for?

The answer appeared before me when I passed under a stone arch and climbed stone steps…to stand at the edge of a stone city of the dead.  This was Pere La Chaise Cemetery.  It is the resting place for thousands of French, notable and unknown.  But the visitors come here to gaze upon the stone and marble slabs of the famous.  Here lies the mortal remains of Chopin, Collette, Jim Morrison, Piaf, Poulenc, Moliere, Victor Noir, Marcel Marceau, Abelard and Heloise, Proust, Oscar Wilde, Yves Montand, Bizet, Dore, Trujillo, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Sarah Bernhardt, Isadora Duncan, Delacroix and Rossini.  This is just a partial list.  You won’t find many Captains of Industry or the Super Rich who have left no legacy.  No, this cemetery has more than it’s fair share of the artistic souls.

I stood by Piaf’s marble stone and, in my head, sang “Non je ne regrette rein.”

I placed a tiny yellow flower on Proust’s grave.

I read Francois Villon to my wife while looking at the two effigies of Abelard and Heloise.

I stood by Jim Morrison’s grave and felt the waste of a life.

None of these beautiful and artistic people really wanted to die.  I hope they didn’t.  Because as tortured as life is, it’s only a waiting game.

I don’t wanna die

I sometimes wish I was never born at all

Nothing really matters,

Anyone can see,

Nothing really matters,

Nothing really matters, to me.

I walked the avenues of this necropolis and I began to fear death less.  These sensitive souls wait in peace.  If Proust can lay there, if Piaf can rest here…then there’s hope for the likes of me.

Nothing matters…everything matters…to me.

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Tomb of Abelard and Heloise

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Monument for Jim Morrison

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Edith Piaf

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Shaded walkway among the crypts

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It’s easy to get lost here.

Grief

Grief…plain and simple

Passports 6: The Quiet Skulls Beneath Paris

A small quiet square, Place Denfert-Rochereau, in the 14th Arrondissement of Paris looks like so many such places.  Beautiful and expensive apartments line the streets that radiate out from the plaza.  Small gardens and vest-pocket parks abound.  The locals and tourists hurry along…heading into the Metro or hailing a taxi, catching a bus…or simply strolling along the nearby Rue Froidenvaux or Blvd Port-Royal.  Outside a nondescript building, a line has formed.  People are waiting for something.  They wait quietly, chatting with each other.

They are in line to buy a ticket and descend into the bowels of the city where the dead dwell.  It is a subterranean cemetery.  It is the Catacombs de Paris.  And it is a very intense experience.

Several signs warn that the tour may be upsetting to young children or “people with delicate nerves”.

This will be a brief post.  I will let the dead do the talking.

One day in the 19th century, a hole opened up in the middle of a street nearby.  This prompted the authorities to descend and investigate.  What they found was a vast subterranean graveyard that had been forgotten for many decades.

The story is quite simple, really.  In the center of Paris, there are few cemeteries.  A family cannot purchase a plot, bury the dead and walk away.  No…you ‘rent’ the plot for twenty years and then…then to make room for more of the dead, the bones are dug up and collected.  And the plot is then available for someone else.

What to do with the bones?  The solution was simple.  Find an underground chamber…a very large chamber and place the bones (and skulls) there.  Do the math.  This is going to amount to a sizable number of bones when you consider the number of dead and the number of years involved.

This, then, is the reason for the Catacombs.

I descended a winding staircase that seems to be dropping into the lower levels of the Underworld of mythology.  Finally, a level surface to walk.  A long tunnel.  A very long tunnel.  Other visitors spoke in hushed tones.

Then the Ossuary.

I had read about this place and I knew what I was going to look upon…I just had no idea of the scale of the place.  You cannot count the bones or the skulls.  They number in the millions.  Each small alcove had the femurs stacked as neatly as firewood, thin firewood.  After a certain number of bones were the skulls…all in a row.  On top of the pile were scattered spare leg and arm bones.

And this went on…and on.  It went on until you became overwhelmed by the sheer number of skeletal parts you were walking past.

Touching the human remains was strictly forbidden.

I stood at eye level with a skull.  I looked into the sockets.  Nothing fearful filled my heart or head…only my attempts to imagine this individual as a living entity.  Was it a female?  Was she pretty, young, in love, lonely, broken-hearted, happy, a mother, a daughter, a wife, a lover?  Was this skull once a young man, brave, lonely, wanting love, feeling desire…fearing death?

Some may call this place macabre.  Some may say it’s morbid.  Some people miss the point.  I found this place to be the most intense celebration of human existence and death that I have ever came upon.

How often does one get to commune with a million relics of a million lives?  The detritus of mortal bodies after the soul has taken flight.

 

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