Archive for the essays Category

Interview With Neal Casal

Posted in books, essays, music, photos with tags , , , , , , , , , on Wednesday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

In 2010, singer/songwriter Neal Casal released his photo book chronicling his time with Ryan Adams and the Cardinals, A View of Other Windows. We were fortunate enough to catch up with Neal recently for an intimate conversation about music, photography, and the Cardinals.

Todd Levinson Frank: You’ve obviously been documenting the Cardinals for a while, when did you think it could and would make a decent book? If the Cardinals hadn’t “ended” in 2009, would this book have still come out this soon, or did the timing work out that this book would put a nice bow on the Cardinals era?

Neal Casal: I didn’t know these photos would make a decent book until the book was about 90% finished. I doubted the quality of the work until very late in the game. Once it was finished though, I knew it was up to standards and that we had achieved something special.

I didn’t start taking the photos with the intention of making a book, I was just doing it because I loved to take photos of my band mates. The idea of the photos being a book came much later.

TLF: Both a guitar and a camera are instruments of art, tools of trades, and are dependent on their design and the technology utilized to bring them to life. But a song or a jam can be made up out of thin air, whereas a picture has to be taken of something. So playing music is creating (or recreating) something while photography is capturing and freezing something. What are some similarities and differences between how you approach the guitar and how you approach the camera?

NC: Music and photos are the exact same thing for me. A photo has to be taken “of” something, and a song has to be “about” something. A photo is a song and a song is a photo. They both come out of thin air, and they are both about capturing and freezing something.

There’s a dual action that exists in both of these mediums, and in all things when they’re operating at their best. If you look at the photographs I take, and the music that I make, you’ll see and hear very similar qualities in both. My individual aesthetic is applied to whatever instruments I’m utilizing at the time.

TLF: Musically, the Cardinals have been known to start at a jumping-off point, say, a song like “Easy Plateau,” and then just ride it where ever the jam goes. Have you ever (knowingly or accidentally) had a similar experience with photography? Like you set out to photograph a sunset and ended up finding a bunch of cool birds and bridges instead? Or maybe just head out for the day with your camera with no plan and see what you end up with?

NC: My photographic life is nothing but one jumping point after another, that’s all there is for me. I never plan photos or set anything up, so I just head out for the day and follow where the light leads me. Some days it’s great, other days not at all. You have to be prepared to roll with the ups and downs.

And if I am called to do a specific thing, it always ends up being something different than was originally planned. That’s what keeps it interesting for me.

TLF: Was this book already completely finished and “in the can” by the time bassist Chris Feinstein passed away, or was it a conscious decision to just celebrate the Cardinals and let him live on through the images and music as opposed to turning it into some sort of memorial?

NC: The book was finished and printed before Chris passed away, I want everyone to know this. If there was a chance to say something about his passing in the book, or to have made a dedication, or some appropriate gesture, we certainly would have. There are no words that can ever do justice to the way we all feel about this, but we certainly would have tried, or, at the absolute least, acknowledged it in the book.

TLF: I’m sure there were plenty of albums and bands that inspired you to want to play music. Are there any photographers that made you want to pick up a camera?

NC: The best thing about photography for me is that, unlike music, I started doing it with no influences at all. It was a totally free flowing thing and I wasn’t trying to emulate anyone. I had no idea who anyone was, I had no aspirations other than to just enjoy the incredibly liberating feeling it gave me. Well, I probably had some influences because of how much photography influences all of us, but it was a subconscious thing.

I didn’t study photography, I had no knowledge of it, I started doing it by accident. After I got better at it, I began to discover photographers, and now I collect books and try to see as much photography as I can. But in the beginning, I was truly working in a blissful little void of my own making.

TLF: Can you compare holding the final version of this book, all printed and ready, with holding your first real CD you recorded, complete with cover art as a finished product?

NC: There’s nothing like holding your first record in your hands for the first time, it’s such an exciting feeling that’s never forgotten. But honestly, this book gives me an even better than my first record did.

I guess it’s because photography was so much more of a long shot than music was for me. It’s the high point of my creative life so far.

TLF: A couple guys who I assume are heroes of yours, Bob Dylan and Jerry Garcia, both dabbled with painting. Ryan Adams recently had a well-received art exhibit of his paintings in NYC. What do you think about the connection between music and the visual arts, or is it just natural that the creative mind of a musician is drawn to other artistic avenues?

NC: It kind of goes back to the thing we talked about before, which is that, in a way, all art is all the same. Guitars, cameras, and paintbrushes, are very similar instruments when you get right down to it. They’re just conduits to bring out your feelings and your point of view about the world and your life. This is an oversimplified statement, but I don’t like to over think these things. Just grab an instrument of your choice, dig in, and see what you can extract out of yourself.

TLF: In 2007, the Cardinals played a bunch of acoustic shows as Ryan recovered from an injury and couldn’t play guitar, he only sang. How did that challenge you guys to re-imagine the music and the live show? And is there a photographic analogy? Would it be like switching to a different camera, or lens? Or shooting in challenging light or capturing something in motion?

NC: Those “Blue Cave” shows in 2007 were great because it forced us to focus on details that had been passed over previously. It gave Ryan a chance to really concentrate on his singing, which was always great, but leaped to an entirely different level at that point. It forced the rest of us to really learn those songs, and come up with airtight arrangements that would translate in any live situation. It forced me to step forward on guitar, and for all of us to work on our harmony singing, and tighten down our playing. It was a very strong, hard working, era for us, and we made a huge progression as a band in a short time. In photographic terms, it’s like switching to a macro lens so that you can photograph the tiniest veins on a leaf.

TLF: Other reviews and interviews have mentioned that your inside access as a band member made this much more interesting than simply a book of tour photos captured by outside photographers. When did you start to feel like you were on to a real photo-journal that would capture a band and its moment in time, and not just taking a bunch of personal pictures of what you were doing (which happened to be touring with a band)?

NC: I’d been approaching my life as a real photo journal/journey long before I joined the Cardinals. I photograph almost every day of my life, so when I joined the band, I just continued doing what

I was already doing. It’s just one continuous stream for me. I don’t think of my photos as personal. I take them quite seriously and think of it more as documentary work. Even if no one but me ever sees them, that’s how I’m thinking of it.

TLF: Could you imagine touring with a band and capturing them just as an outside hired photographer? If you could go back in time and chronicle any tour as a photographer, what band/year would it be?

NC: I’d love to hang around with a band and photograph them as an outside guy. I think I could be really good at it. Well, I say that now anyway. Maybe I wouldn’t like it once I started doing it, but I’d love to give it a try anyway.

If I could go back in time, I’d like to be in the deep south, particularly Mississippi, in the early part of the 20th century, photographing the early blues music that was created there.

TLF: One thing captured in the book is some of the time you guys spent recording with Willie Nelson. what was that like?

NC: Working with Willie was an honor of course. Pool was played, whiskey was drank, joints were smoked, shit was shot.

Oh yeah, we recorded some music too. One of the highlights for me was sitting at the piano and teaching him to sing “Songbird.” He would ask me “Ok, how do you phrase this next line?” I’m thinking to myself “Willie Nelson is asking ME about vocal phrasing. Wow, is this really happening?”

TLF: Did you ever feel a bit more conscious when photographing Willie and Ryan? Like “okay, I’ve GOT to get some good pictures of them together, but still have it be natural and casual”?

NC: I’m always thinking that I’ve GOT to get some good photographs no matter who or what I’m shooting. There’s no difference between Willie Nelson and a leaf on a tree as far as that goes.

TLF: What are some of your favorite rock photos? There was always something about that one of Jimi Hendrix’s shadow on his amplifier that I thought was great. Are there any photos (or album covers) that you love or think of as the perfect link between music and photography?

NC: For me, Jim Marshall is the king of all music photography. His photo of early Dylan kicking the tire springs to mind immediately.

TLF: Can you envision doing another photo book? Say, just on scenery, or a random collection of photos?

NC: Music photos comprise only a fraction of my work. I have thousands of photos of other things and dream of one day creating a book out of them. It’s just a dream, but it feels good to dream it once in awhile.

TLF: The title A View of Other Windows comes from the Cardinals song “Evergreen.” How did you come to use that and what does it mean to you in terms of this book? Or was it simply an easy Cards-related title with “View” in it? What others did you consider? Any others from Cardinals song lyrics or titles?

NC: I searched around through Ryan’s deep well of great lyrics and came up with that title. It was the first name I came up with and much to my surprise, the publishing company accepted it immediately. It just works y’know?

I love the title because it suggests being able to see many different layers, or angles, of a particular thing. There’s mystery and depth there, and it’s kinda thought provoking in a way. It takes a minute to really think through all of the different things the title could mean. I like that.

TLF: It seems a lot of critics and fans see this book as a great snapshot (pardon the pun) of the Cardinals as a band. It provides both closure and tangible evidence of the memories. Do you know if there might be a live DVD and/or live CD that might also put a bow on the Cardinals era?

NC: I have no information about any of that.

Neal Casal captures Ryan Adams shamelessly showing off his Black Flag tattoo to one of his heroes Henry Rollins (who manages a casual, I'm-not-flexing flex).

TLF: I’ve read (usually direct quotes from Ryan) that there was a chunk of “rock” material recorded before and/or during the Easy Tiger sessions, tentatively titled Cardinals III/IV. What can you tell me about those sessions and the prospects of them seeing the light of day? (Does this crop include stuff like “Arkham Asylum,” “Trouble on Wheels,” “Typecast,” “Breakdown Into the Resolve,” or is it an entirely different crop that wasn’t played live?)

NC: There’s a truckload of great songs from both the Easy Tiger and Cardinology sessions that haven’t seen the light of day yet. We recorded so many songs, 4 or 5 records worth of material. We were pretty unstoppable there for awhile, pretty amazing when i stop and think about it. I have no clue what will happen with them. “Breakdown Into The Resolve,” I think we may have played that one live a few times. Yeah, we played “Arkham Asylum” a lot in 2006 too. I remember that now.

TLF: Wilco, Drive-By Truckers, Avett Brothers, Magnolia Electric Co., Jack White and his various bands, Bright Eyes/Conor Oberst, Ryan Bingham… these are some of the more popular contemporary artists that have a lot of fan-base crossover with the Cardinals. Do you dig on any of their albums, or ever have a chance to check some of them out live?

NC: It’s a great time for music these days. I listen to all of those records and try to keep up with what everyone is doing, there are so many good bands out there. As for songwriters, I think Conor Oberst is a really gifted lyricist, he’s always blowing my mind with some amazing turn of a phrase.

TLF: I know you’re primarily a “Stones guy,” but what are your favorite Beatles and Dylan albums?

NC: Well, I’m a Dylan guy first and foremost, and so is every other rock musician whether they know it or not. He’s the one who wrote the book for all of us, and that’s an inescapable fact.

Blood On The Tracks is the Dylan album that changed my life forever, but lately I’ve been listening to New Morning a lot. I go through different phases with all of his records. I listened to that song “Up To Me” the other day and wondered how a song so great could have ever been left OFF of a record. Dylan is the real king.

As for the Beatles, I heard the last few songs on Abbey Road as I was walking around in an antique shop today, and it really captivated me. Talk about putting a bow on the end of an era, a decade, and a band. What an incredible way to wrap things up. So sad, majestic, melodic, and poignant. A lot of people like to trash the Beatles but they really were such an extraordinary band.

TLF: Finally, what are your plans, musically, for the near future? Will you be getting back to doing solo albums/tours; will you be forming or joining a new band? Will Ryan or any of the other Cardinals figure into those plans?

NC: I figure I’ll always be out there making music in one way or another. Either as a solo flyer, playing guitar for someone else, taking photos, whatever it may be. I’m into it as long as it’s up to standards y’know? Cardinals family always figures into everything I do. Whether they’re actually there or not makes no difference. We all bonded in a way that will never change. We’ll be making music together in some way or another, that’s my prediction.


Generation X: the Last Cool Generation

Posted in essays, misc.blurbs, music with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on Wednesday, 2010 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

There’s been much ink spilled (back when ink and paper were still widely used) about Generation X (my generation, born in the mid-60s thru early 70’s). And then I think they named the next one Generation Y (or Generation Next or The Millennials), and now they’re up to Generation Z, or the iGen (ugh, talk about forcing it).

But long after Douglas Coupland’s novel of the same name put “Generation X” on the map, I’d just like to say: We are the last cool generation. For many reasons.

We remember life before Xbox and Wii. I played freakin PONG with two "paddles" (lines on the screen) hitting a "ball" (a dot) back and forth. That was it. That was the whole game. Now, just the commercials for video games look better than the movies we grew up on.

Not only did we wait for our favorite song to come on the radio, but we did so with our cassette players setup to record and then tried to release the Pause button right away to tape the song. In fact, I used to blast records through an old stereo, with a boom box sitting in front of the speakers so I could copy it to a tape.

We wrote letters on paper and sent them through the mail to be read three days later. We used phone books. We used payphones. We used maps. We had to research our school papers at the library, with encyclopedias. We had to look shit up in books. The internet didn’t exist or was still in very early infancy when we were in college. We weren’t sitting around in class with our laptops.

We watched three TV channels plus PBS and waited until the 11pm local news sportscaster came on to show us highlights, until, if we were lucky, we had parents who could afford cable if and when it was finally available in our neighborhood. And we were already 12 by then.

So yes, we are the last cool generation. And all the little whippersnappers who followed us think they are the cool ones.

They can kick our ass at Playstation but they never played outside in the yard until it got dark enough that you could only see the ball when it was in the air. They make fun of clunky out-of-date CD players; I actually owned an 8-track tape player. They started drinking coffee when they were 15 and now they think drinking crappy beer like Pabst Blue Ribbon is cooler than being accused of being a “beer snob.” They think everything is overrated, underrated, or just totally random.

And of course they only like bands you’ve never heard of.

I think it’s funny how all these emo hipsters love to love anything that’s underground indie lo-fi crapola and it’s cool to say U2 sucks or Radiohead’s not great anymore or the White Stripes aren’t cool cuz Jack White’s gone Hollywood and sold out cuz he’s done a film soundtrack and been in a movie with The Edge.

Meanwhile, all these crappy bands sound like early U2 (but not as good) or wanna-be Radiohead or minimalist retro White Stripes. Ironic. Oh, wait, but being “ironic” is the coolest thing, right? I don’t know, I’ve lost track.

They cry and cry and cry that "oh you should check out THIS band and too bad THIS band isn’t as famous as Coldplay!" But then soon as 42 other people start agreeing and liking that band, they jump ship cuz "they suck now."

You suck. Go fix your eyeliner.

And now’s the part where I end the rant and you fill up the comments section (or the emails you use to forward this to your hipster buddies) saying how I’m just a bitter old man who doesn’t get it and I’m a hypocrite cuz I wrote a condescending blog post admonishing the cooler-than-thou people who do stupid shit like write condescending blog posts. That’s cool. I know I’m gonna drive home in my Honda from my day job and probably just go to sleep early. And you’re gonna peep your iPhone for some new App that plays old games like PONG or helps you organize all your stuff that makes you uniquely you. Just like everybody else.

Freedom IS Free

Posted in essays, misc.blurbs with tags , , , , on Friday, 2009 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

Well it’s July 4th weekend. Independence Day. Not really my favorite holiday. Of course, I’m an anti-American commie liberal hippie blogger so whattaya expect. Not really. I’m not actually anti-American. I guess I’m just kinda anti-YAYAMERICA!! Just not gung ho about wearing a stars’n’stripes shirt, sayin “happy fourth” like I mean it, and settin off fireworks. I don’t mind hanging out and watching professional fireworks if they’re good. Never quite understood the draw of spending a bunch of money at those fireworks stands that pop up in every parking lot come June.

I guess it’s fitting that America celebrates itself by blowing shit up. I mean really, what are the mainstays of this holiday? Not working, gorging on grilled meat and beer, and setting stuff on fire that makes loud noises and flashy lights. Aint that America.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy my freedom and I appreciate my freedom and all that… but I guess I just don’t fully buy into the rah-rah holiday about it.

I see these bumper stickers that say “FREEDOM ISN’T FREE.” Really? It isn’t? I mean, I know that people have made great sacrifices for me to be here and other people have fought and died in wars that allegedly preserved our freedom. But I think freedom is free. Essentially shouldn’t we all be born free? Like that 70’s TV show with the theme song “born free….. as free as the wind blows.” Of course, the people who made the sacrifices to ensure that I would not only be born free, but be born at all… they were Russian and European. And the 50k + who died in Vietnam…. Did they really protect our freedom? Ditto for pretty much all the wars in my lifetime right up to and including Operation Iraqi Freedom. Damn, there’s that word again. What kind of freedom are we “spreading” in Iraq? Freedom to have Burger Kings and Best Buys and “democratic elections?” like that one we had in 2000? That was a nice little slice of democracy wasn’t it? Of course, I don’t remember any of us taking to the streets and risking our lives over it like the people are doing in Iran.

Ah, but I’m dwelling on the past. Bitching about a stolen election that altered the course of America and human history. I need to just get over it. I need to just Shut The Fuck Up and Love My Country. As do all the freedom lovin flag waving real Americans who think that Barack Obama is some secret Muslim socialist.

Okay I’m babbling. And obviously I hate The Troops (I’m kidding!).

Actually the 4th of July, to me, will always be my dad’s birthday. That’s right, falls out on the holiday every year. So, here’s to my dad. And here’s to your freedom, and my freedom, and to the idea that freedom IS free. So maybe we do need a little reminder to appreciate abstract concepts we take for granted like “independence” and “freedom.” So feel free to eat a bunch of burgers, drink some beer, and blow shit up. Just make sure you use sun screen. And Happy My Dad’s Birthday.

The Death of Michael Jackson

Posted in essays, music on Friday, 2009 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

So there was Johnny Carson doing his nightly show up in heaven. He was particularly giddy to have been recently reunited with longtime sidekick Ed McMahon. Then they were joined by the incomparable Farrah Fawcett. She was the hottest woman on the planet back when that title was only held by one person. Back before the internet and Maxim magazine plastered half-naked chicks all over the walls of society to the point that we stopped noticing. No, back then, it was just Farrah and that over-the-top white-tooth smile shining down from the infamous poster of her in that now-modest one-piece bathing suit.

Johnny was cracking jokes about yet another disgraced and disgraceful politician who’d cheated on his wife. This time another Republican who’d previously railed against gay marriage and how it would allegedly “destroy the sanctity of marriage.” Ha. Well that South Carolina Governor was soon the happiest man in the world: he was quickly pushed off the front pages. They say things come in 3’s, and sure enough right after Farrah and Ed had joined Johnny…the surprise musical guest showed up: Michael Jackson was dead at the age of 50.

I’ll never forget watching that Motown 25th Anniversary TV show when MJ and the Jacksons rocked the house and Michael in particular was off the hook, performing “Billie Jean” with that moonwalk and the other dance sequences. It was amazing.

Watching it now, he’s obviously lip synching. I can’t remember if I knew that then or even cared. His stage presence, the buzz from the crowd, the fact that he was basically just dancing and pretending to sing along with a pre-recorded track, and yet he connected with both the live audience and the TV viewers. That just doesn’t seem to happen like that anymore. People are spoiled. They DVR it or wait to catch it on youtube or they read on the internet ahead of time what songs will be performed. But that night we were all glued to the TV “live,” and the actual live audience was on their feet, clapping along, screaming at the very beginning like “holy shit we’re about to watch a dude who does what he does better than anyone does anything!” like Michael Jordan was about to hit the game winning shot or Joe Montana was gonna drive the 49ers down the field to win the Super Bowl.

And then, toward the end, he goes into some dance moves and all of a sudden he’s just inexplicably gliding backwards in that moonwalk. At the time it was like “WHAT? I didn’t know humans could do that!” It was like someone had just levitated on the street before our eyes. He even hit the moonwalk again a minute later. As if to confirm, yea, you saw that right…. I’m magically gliding backwards. And then eventually the track starts fading and he’s still sorta lip-synching along. Like they didn’t even need to try to pretend that it wasn’t a lip synch. Why bother. It didn’t matter. He’d nailed it.

I was never a big MJ fan per se…. certainly appreciated the hits from Off The Wall and Thriller (and of course the timeless Jackson 5 hits) as an impressionable young music fan at the time. So I’m not terribly sad or shocked today. I’ve made plenty of Jacko jokes in the past and perhaps will again in the future… but this isn’t really the time for that. It’s nice to reflect a bit on the talent that made him such a big deal before all the weirdness happened and the Thriller went from Bad to worse…

I recently saw the bust of O.J. Simpson at the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He was an amazing football player, but then he became O.J. from the movies and Hertz commercials, then the O.J. we all know and loathe now. Like different people. Similar type thing with Michael Jackson.

The Michael Jackson that everyone is remembering and celebrating today has actually already been gone for a long time.

Dulles to Munich

Posted in essays, travel on Thursday, 2008 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

Wow, what a plane. Excuse me, AIRBUS. After an impressive-looking first class area, the rest of the plane had a front and back section, each almost as big as regular planes. There were 2 aisles separating the sets of 2, 4, 2 seating in each row.

I’d been on a plain like this as a kid when my family took a trip to Israel and Egypt. But that was 25 years ago. Jeez… back then I used to think just being 25 was old, or old enough. Now somehow I’m old enough to remember something I did 25 years ago.

I’ll tell you what, Lufthansa has nice service. Each seat had a fresh pillow and blanket it in plastic waiting for our heavy heads and weary bones. The plane started moving very soon after we all boarded. None of this shit we usually get on AirTran or Southwest where you sit there for a half hour in the stuffy air while the captain tells you that we’re waiting for other planes to take off so we can first start taxiing down the runway.

No, these Lufthansa peeps are all business. Once we took off, the little TV screens showed maps with a little airplane icon tracking our progress. It would zoom in on the DC area and then zoom out to bigger pictures showing the ocean we’d cross and marking our final destination of Munich.

Quickly, the efficient staff was serving drinks and some strange cheese-stick crackers. They didn’t have Jack Daniels, but I can’t complain: the drinks were apparently free. I opted for some Warsteiner premium verum: German beer. Pretty good.

It’s something like 10pm and they’re serving a hot dinner meal after coming around to give us hot/moist towels. Dinner came in little foil containers with either a veggie/pasta dish or chicken, green beans, and mashed sweet potatoes. I got the chicken. They came with a roll, a surprisingly nice salad and some tiramisu cake that was really good.

After dinner, the beer and Zanex team was starting to win the battle against the cramped seats and nearby crying children. It was time for Radiohead’s Kid A album to take me off to sleep among the clouds. I faded in and out, changing pillow positions and shifting in my seat and apparently sleeping for 2-3 hours. I’m really not sure.

Soon the house lights were back on, people were stirring and bright sunlight came through the few windows whose shades had been opened.

My eyes hurt, barely encouraged by the sight of the coffee and breakfast carts coming around. Didn’t we just eat dinner? It’s 3am, but with the time change it’s 9am. I’m tired.

As we approached Munich, we quickly realized we’d be landing at about the time our connecting flight to Athens would be boarding. Looks like we’d have to do an O.J. Simpson through the airport to make it to our gate on time. (Keep in mind, in this context, to “do an O.J. Simpson” means running and jumping over luggage if necessary to hustle through an airport like the old Hertz commercials, not stabbing and killing our ex-wife and her friend and dropping our bloody glove near our house and not going to jail and then coining a new euphemism: “Looking for the real killer,” which actually means “Playing golf and making smarmy comments at money-making appearances.”)

I’d heard how nice and modern the Munich airport was, and it was, but we didn’t have time to linger. We negotiated all the escalators and corridors following the signs for Gate G20. We got there just in time to join the end of the line of people boarding the flight for Athens.

Thank god. I don’t care how nice the Munich airport is, the next flight to Athens wasn’t till 7pm and the thought of sitting around for 8 hours in another airport was unappealing to say the least.

A smaller, regular-sized plane this time. Just a 2-hour flight. But once again, Lufthansa hooked it up: lunch was a hot rice dish and 2 more free Warsteiners.

Waiting at Dulles

Posted in essays, travel on Thursday, 2008 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

We only got to the airport 6 hours early.

Better early than late, of course, but I don’t think I’ve ever checked in and gone through security a full 6 hours early. Talk about having time to kill… I needed an arms dealer and a warehouse full of explosives to carry out the bloodbath necessary for this wait.

We got to our gate, 45B, and it was crowded with people waiting to board a flight ahead of ours. I pictured them safe on the ground at their final destinations, knee-deep in their vacations, before we would even board our plane.


We sat at the next gate over, adjacent to ours. There were plenty of seats. We figured we could just shift over to our actual gate sometime in the next few hours once it cleared out.
Within about 12 seconds we were ready to take a walk. Find a snack, some drinks… maybe some window shopping.

My 75-year-old Greek father-in-law stayed sitting at the gate. We surrounded him with our carryon luggage and set off to explore what Dulles Airport had to offer.

The Tequilery, a small bar that served Mexican food. Dan’s Tap Room, a restaurant/bar that looked to have basic American fare: burgers, grilled chicken salads. A kiosk selling countless items printed with USA and America! Even shot glasses, nail files, towels, and toilet paper with the White House logo printed on it. How ridiculous. Who would want that shit? Even if you gave it as a gift, would anyone really think you stayed at the White House? Seems to me that commercialized crap like that does as much to soil the alleged sanctity of the office of the presidency as anything Bill and Monica might have done after a late-night pizza.

On we walked, passed a magazine shop with a Starbucks in it, a small Borders bookstore, and your other basic airport/pseudo-mall offerings.

Outside, the rain continues to pour down for the fourth straight day. It seemed like it had been raining for weeks. Between the rain and the waiting to board a 9-hour flight, I felt like a giraffe or zebra waiting for Noah to give me the “All aboard!” onto his ark.

Got a slice of pizza, sat around, took a walk, sat around, went for drinks, sat around, took another walk, stood around cuz we just couldn’t sit anymore.

At some point, I went for drinks with my brother-in-law. He ordered a rum and coke, and I got a Jack Daniels and ginger ale. For the extra $2 we both upgraded to “doubles.” So our $8.50 drinks had almost as much liquor in them as what a regular single drink should. Pretty soon the father-in-law shows up. If there were 2 things he could sniff out in an international airport, it’s a bar and his sons.

He’s an Ouzo man of course, but most American bars, especially these small airport/mall joints, usually don’t have Ouzo. So in restaurants he usually gets beer. Budweiser is his brand. Not Bud Light, or Select Ice Draft or anything, just “Gimme one Budweiser,” he says.

But now, here, in the midst of a 6-hour wait… after driving 2 hours in the rain from our house to his son’s hotel… after sitting in the hotel restaurant/bar for a 2-hour lunch that featured 2 Budweisers for him and the worst service known to man… after all this, and an 9-hour flight ahead of us, Budweiser wasn’t gonna cut it.

“You have cognac?” he barks quickly in his accented English.
The waitress says, “Sure, Courvoisier or Hennesy?”
“It no matter, just make-a for double!”

We drank our drinks and watched Spain and France play World Cup soccer, tied 1-1, and tried to pretend to recognize tripping fouls and show mild excitement if/when the ball neared the same zip code as the goal.

The waitress came back around and asked dad if he wanted another drink. He declined and she gave the clichéd flirty-waitress smile and said, “Oh well, I tried…” After she walked away, dad commented that she had a beautiful smile. He’s 75 years old. Tired. Impatient. But he still knew when a cute waitress had a nice smile.

On our way out, he even went so far as to stop her and tell her how beautiful her eyes and smile were. When guys half his age or younger pull that shit it’s usually somewhere between sad and desperate, and not far from creepy. But when he did it, it was as cute as her smile.

Back at Gate 45B, we were still serving out our sentence as other inmates began to fill in the seats around us. Outside, the rain pounded the runways and the sky darkened.
Soon we’d be taking off and joining the rain, clouds, and darkness up in the sky. Obeying that little light that tells us when we could unhook our seatbelts… about 362 passengers and a large crew would crowd onto this big plane… this giant tube with engines and wings… and trust the physics and technology that most of us don’t understand and hope we can safely sail 50,000 feet above the ocean and cross the whole damn thing.

Next stop: Munich.

Unwritten, part 2

Posted in books, essays on Wednesday, 2008 by Todd.Levinson.Frank

I read a lot. Mostly novels, contemporary stuff. Some quasi-hippie neo-classic shit like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. Strange rambling epic stories like all of Tom Robbins books. Loved John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany, but also A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers.

I’ve always found excuses to wander into a bookstore and just sniff the spines. For different reasons, I have the same love for danky oddly-organized dimly lit underground used book stores that I have for the bright huge chain stores that offer best sellers, a warehouse-sized store full of every book under the sun, and a mini pseudo coffee shop in the corner.

While you can’t beat the mystique and value of a mom’n’pop used book shop, I also love the smooth new books. You can just pull them off the shelf with that ffft sound and gently imitate it by wooshing your palm across the cover. Ffft.

Sometimes I’ll visit books I’ve loved… just to touch them again. Remind me of the feeling I had when I was with them. And to make sure certain title are there. Are they in the right place? On the proper shelf, waiting to be chosen so they can give those same feelings to someone new.

I love to pick up nice crisp new books, even if they’re old titles new in paperback, the actual book itself is new. Pages unruffled, spines unbent. Like a little gift waiting to be unwrapped; to share its story and dreams and imagined worlds.

If I haven’t read it, it’s new to me.

Even books I know nothing about by people I’ve never heard of attract me. I like to turn these books over and read the glowing quoted snippets promising “a journey like no other,” and “a mesmerizing tale” or “a world of infinite possibilities playing out in a small town.”


“A tour-de force.”

My favorites were the quotes about the author. “As compelling a first novel as has ever been written.” “A strong new voice.” “Perhaps the first great voice of his generation.”
That’s what I wanted to be.

But I was a sham. All my unused pens, still full of ink, and stacks of empty pages were proof that I was nothing. I wasn’t a writer. I was the first great waste of my generation’s voice. But slowly I was forcing myself to speak.