Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Sea of scholarship

Dick is on the right.

Yesterday I went to the UB Music Library where the librarians were nice to me. All of them were! I am thinking this might be because they do not get the weirdos hanging out at UB that they get in the downtown library. Or maybe the librarians at UB get paid better. "Oh, who knows?", as our sardonic friend Dick likes to say. One of these days I am going to describe him. Perhaps Dick will make it into our cast of characters.

The librarians at UB did only one thing wrong: They asked me about Leonard Pennario. They asked me why I had chosen to write about him. Which you do not ask me because I will pontificate for hours. This is not a mistake the downtown library would have made.

I now have roughly a million books on loan, all relating, in some way or another, to my work in progress. "Double Life," the memoir of Miklos Rozsa -- he is the film composer who wrote the music to "Ben-Hur," and he wrote a concerto for Pennario -- turned up under my pillow the other night. I was wondering what was making me uncomfortable and that was it.

The last memory I usually have of ever day is a dim memory of Howard taking the book I have been reading out of my hands. And what he does is drop it onto the floor on his side of the bed. Lastnight when it was time to turn out the light, I guess he decided to clean up, and he started tossing all these books over at me. Artur Rubinstein's "My Many Years" and "My Young Years"... "Priest of Music," about Dimitri Mitropoulos, "Heifetz as I Knew Him," "Wondrous Strange: The Life of Glenn Gould," etc., etc., etc. That was when I realized the extent of my holdings.

Imagine the fines that will accrue when these books inevitably become overdue! Everything is overdue in my life right now including my electric bill and my gym membership.

They will be naming libraries after me.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Conan the Librarian

Librarian portrayed by MKG's Not Ready For Major Media Players actor Ron Moss.

Yesterday I did what you are supposed to do on a rainy day, which was go to the library. Sometimes, going to the library now, I think of how much it has changed. You used to have to be quiet -- now it's loud, with people talking in normal voices, laughing and carrying on. They even have that cafe. Who would have imagined that?

Librarians, though, have not changed. They are still a funny bunch. Some are helpful and some are downright hostile.

Experience has taught me to approach a librarian the way you'd approach a strange dog. I am humble, wheedling, conciliatory. I always think I should be holding out my hand for the librarian to sniff. Maybe I will do that next time. Anyway, a good rule seems to be to go for the younger one. So yesterday, I zeroed in on a young man behind the information desk. He was reading Dostoyevsky. And I pegged him right, because he was kind to me. He helped me find the back issues of Musical America I was looking for. Musical America, from 1959. I am such a geek!

As I waited for my back issues, I was sure glad I didn't go to the other guy, the older guy on the other side of the desk. Was this guy mean!

He just sat there, glaring. I watched with pity as another library patron approached him. The patron was a tall, nicely dressed black guy with a shaved head. Like me, he approached the librarian with deference and excessive politeness. We always talk about librarians being weenies. Wrong, wrong, wrong! The truth is, they turn the rest of us into weenies.

The conversation I overheard went something like this:

Patron: "Excuse me, sir. I was informed at the desk over there (pointing) that this-or-this reference would be available to me if I asked at this desk..."

Librarian: "No, that does not circulate." (Looks away with vast indifference.)

Patron retreats, salaaming. As I would have done, in his place. What choice do you have?

But my luck continued. My best find, yesterday: In the Grosvenor Room, another helpful staffer, finding that I was researching Leonard Pennario, pointed me in the direction of their Scrapbooks. My brother George has told me about these scrapbooks, which he says were a WPA project. You can waste hours with them. The librarian found four stories on Pennario for me, in four separate volumes.

There is no rhyme or reason to these scrapbooks. Next to a story about Pennario ("Buffalo-Born Artist Rose Swiftly To Fame") was pasted a story headlined: "Blind Miller Keeps on Job, Making Flour, Selling Seed." Another Pennario story shared a page with a story on a Pearl Harbor veteran. Under the main headline was a sub-headline: "Organized Loyal Japs."

No end of treasures in our library. The challenge is just finding them.

Good luck!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Piano blues

BuffaloBloviator Publishing newsroom. Click for full resolution.
The author's desk at left; the publisher's desk is at right.

A clammy day! Cold rain, plus I have an old house and can't close this one window in my upstairs "office." (I put the word in quotes because the room is such a mess.) On top of all that, when I brought in the paper at 5:45 a.m., Bishop Kmiec's picture was on the front page. It is bad luck to see a picture of our bishop, especially when you haven't had your first cup of coffee.

There is one solution to this morning chill and that is to start playing the piano again. This will be the week I pick it back up.

Our German piano tuner Mr. Hatzenbuehler tuning the Welte Mignon at Big Blue.

I am actually a very good pianist when I work at it. I gave a recital a few years ago and played Beethoven's Op. 109 and the Alban Berg Sonata. But I fell off the piano wagon last fall. Number one, I met Leonard Pennario and decided to do the book, so I ran away to California for a few months, and I didn't have a piano there. (I did have a hot tub. You can't have everything.) And number two, my longtime piano teacher, Stephen Manes, left town. His wife died a couple of years ago, and he got back in touch with his high-school sweetheart, and they got married. We were all surprised and delighted for him. The whole affair was written up in Oprah magazine. I believe it was the December issue.

The only trouble was that Stephen's new wife, Marta, lives in Los Angeles, so now Stephen lives there too. So I have no teacher. I am a runaway train. I am a ship without a rudder. I am an overused metaphor. The worst thing is, I don't want another teacher. Stephen was my professor back when I was a student at UB. He began teaching me again nine years ago, when I entered the first Van Cliburn Amateur Competition as a way to get away from a bad boyfriend. It wasn't easy to call Stephen after all that time and ask him to teach me again. I was afraid he would remember what a loser student I had been at UB, cutting classes and not practicing. Finally I had to tell myself, "Mary, you have to call him. It's not as if he's going to call you."

Well, he was nice and took me back. And I got very good, thanks to him. Taking piano lessons as a grown-up is the best. It is so much more fun than studying when you're a kid. Once during one of our big Buffalo snowstorms I even violated the driving ban so I could get to my lesson. Because I had been snowed in all by myself for a week, I was very good that day. Stephen said, "What a difference a snowstorm makes."

How am I supposed to switch to anyone else?

Maybe I can get Leonard to coach me. That has crossed my mind. But I don't know how I would ever ask him and besides, he lives in California too. It is so ironic. I have so many great pianists in my life I am tripping over them. But I have no one to teach me.

Well, as "The Joy of Cooking" says, "Stand facing the stove."

Today's resolution is, "Sit facing the piano."

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Yuri and me

Lillie - from Lenoard Pennario's private photo collection.

This morning I set the alarm for 5:30 a.m. I am not sure how early I can push it, because my job sometimes makes me work nights, but I worry that I'm getting so behind. My friends are getting mad at me because I can't make time to get together. I have a new nephew I haven't even seen since I got back from California. I mean, I saw him before that, but only once.

Right now I am looking into a summer Leonard Pennario spent at Tanglewood where he gave recitals and had a hilarious conversation with the composer Olivier Messiaen, who was the big composer in residence that summer. I love how Pennario goes through life. His sense of humor will be the big reason this book will not be stuffy like other books on music I have run across.

Working on this chapter, one thing I did was call this conductor with an extremely long Russian last name who was studying conducting with Bernstein at Tanglewood the summer Pennario was there. I would need another cup of coffee if I were going to try to spell his last name this instant, so let's just go with his first name, which is Yuri. Come on, what else would it be?

Yuri and I ended our phone interview with this exchange:

Me: "Maestro, thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me."

Maestro Yuri (In devastating accent): "Madame, the pleasure is all mine. You have allowed me to relive a part of my life I have not thought about for a very long time." He accented the second syllable of "Madame." I was swooning.

I called Pennario. He said, "Yep, that's him." He said Yuri has always been a big charmer.

I'm thinking Leonard, what about you??

I guess it is worth getting up at 5:30 a.m. if I am going to have conversations right out of "Dr. Zhivago." This book is turning my life into a movie.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Midnight in the garden...

Photo by Howard Goldman

The good news: My tulips are in bloom.

The bad news: They're surrounded by an acre of bishop's weed.

When I walk past my garden, I actually have to turn my head away. It is that bad.

Sure, I have an excuse. I am a schlep of a gardener, I can say, because I am, ahem, writing the biography of one of the great piano virtuosi of the 20th century. But the truth is, even in the best of times, I am a bad gardener. There is a lot of traffic in front of my house and on summer days that means tons of boom cars. I have trouble gardening when it sounds as if the War of 1812 is being fought 10 feet away from me. Also, people in Buffalo like to look at you. They like to yell at you, too. I am always getting things shouted at me by strangers in cars. Sometimes I am in the mood for that but sometimes I'm not.

Well, hope springs eternal. Maybe instead of renewing my gym membership I will start to garden. To get myself in the mood here are 10 plants I have that I like.

1.) Zinnias. That is the splashy flower in the picture above that Howard took of my garden last summer. (A very flattering picture, I have to say.) Zinnias are the best. The seeds are super cheap, about a dime a package, and you get so much bang for your buck. Zinnias are named for a German scientist whose last name was Zinn. I would never have guessed that.

2.) Dandelions. I'm serious. I eat the greens. Don't you love how magazines try to tell you that the dandelion leaves they sell in stores are better than the ones in your yard, because they're cultivated? Isn't wild always supposed to be better?

3.) Sage. This herb lasts through winter. I went out when the snow was a foot deep and I started digging around for it and there it was.

4.) Mint. It takes over, and I want it to. You can make mint juleps and tabbouleh.

5.) Chocolate mint. I put this in two years ago and it smells fantastic. I wish it would take over.

I am realizing that aside from the roses all I have been doing is listing things I can eat. Hmmmm.. Well, let's continue.

6.) One year I grew Sweet Million tomatoes. They were wonderful. When you're getting into your car you can grab one and eat it like candy. Another year I grew about 20 tomato plants on a sunny, rocky pile of dirt behind Howard's garage. I had an excellent harvest. I wish I could summon up the physical and mental wherewithal to do that again. That is a word I love, "wherewithall." Here is a picture of our gardening under way behind Howard's garage.

7.) Cabbage. A couple years ago I had a cabbage patch. It's amazing to watch them grow. For weeks they look beautiful, like big green roses and then suddenly, at the last minute, they curl up into cabbages.

8.) Pansies. They come in the most amazing colors and they will usually come back without your doing anything, which is the way into my heart.

9.) Black-eyed Susan. When they show up in the late summer, all of a sudden I don't look like such a loser.

10.) Bishop's weed. If you can't beat it, join it!

Friday, April 25, 2008

Midnight at the Hyatt

Last night I went down to the Hyatt and heard Jackie Jocko. Howard went too. Erna Eaton was there. We did much discussing about the state of the world and, as usual, the old songs.

Jocko met Leonard Pennario when LP was in town in October. When Pennario came into the Hyatt, Jocko serenaded him with "Midnight on the Cliffs," which Pennario wrote when he was 17 and giving a recital in Newport, R.I. He couldn't sleep that night so he ended up wandering on the beach with some friends of his and that is when he came up with the idea for this big, romantic piece of music. Later it was used as the theme for the Doris Day movie "Julie," which starred LP's buddy Louis Jourdan (pictured below from LP's private photo collection) as a murderous concert pianist.

Pennario got a kick out of Jocko playing "Midnight on the Cliffs" for him but he laughed that it was a simplified version. Of course, it was. But then, no one could play "Midnight on the Cliffs' the way LP could. LP played it for Horowitz and even Horowitz said it sounded terribly difficult.

Pennario kept referring to Jackie Jocko as "Bobby Bonzo."

I wish that could go in the book.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Another one rides the bus

Ari Silverstein Bus driver portrayed by Ari Silverstein.

Thanks, Chris Byrd, for your erudite observation on yesterday's rumination, "The Nut, at His Nuttiest!" (I stole that title, by the way, from an old ad for a Jerry Lewis movie, "The Errand Boy.")

I like how Chris looks at life, which is often through a camera. Once, on an ordinary Sunday morning, he shot a video on his way to Mass at Corpus Christi. The video showed the quaint but run-down houses of the East Side, the Broadway Market, all kinds of haunts that Chris and I both love -- which is how we know each other -- before winding up inside the church, with the statues and candles. I know great art when I see it. I watched that video three times.

About riding the bus, I have logged a lot of miles! Out of pure laziness, I didn't get my driver's license till I was 26, and then I got it only because I got a night-shift job in Niagara Falls, a situation where public transportation was out of the question.

Being good at riding the bus is a skill that serves you well in life. I still take the bus sometimes on terrible winter days when I think if I drive, I'll die. Once I took the Metro Rail to meet friends at the Anchor Bar. You would be surprised at how many people have never ridden the Metro Rail. Howard never has.

A few of my top public transport experiences:

1.) Riding the Grant Street bus with friends from my old job. We'd put our arms up in the air as if we were riding the Comet, and everyone on the bus would crack up. That No. 3 route is no joke. Once, someone actually saw the bus go up on two wheels and go down again.

2.) This is my sister Katie's story but it is too good to omit. She was standing at a bus stop and this guy was pacing back and forth, apparently rehearsing a speech he was going to give to tell someone off when he got to his destination. "Kiss my a--," he said, emphasizing the last word. Then: "KISS my a--." He kept trying the phrase different ways. We have never forgotten that.

3.) I dated a guy I met on the UB shuttle bus.

4.) Once I ran into an unpleasant social situation in Hamilton, Ont., and had to make my way home. I found the bus station, grabbed a bus, arrived back in Buffalo, boarded the Grant Street bus and -- there was my sister Katie! On that bus! What are the odds?

5.) Those steep Metro Rail escalators in their long tunnels, they're like something out of "Batman." And when schools let out in the afternoon, the schoolkids are wild and crazy and they love to ride the handrails and scream and hurl themselves all over the place. Once, after work, I thought I was going to die, I was so tired and the place was such a zoo. Then the gentleman on the step ahead of me turned around. "This," he told me, shaking his head, "is why I hate working this shift." His sympathy cheered me up and made me laugh.

6.) A bunch of us were in Paris a few years ago and riding the bus through some suburb and when our stop arrived, my brother George got up, went to the front of the bus and announced loudly: "All Americans off the bus. All Americans, disembark now." All the Parisians were dying laughing.

Perhaps there is a touch of Ron Moss in everyone!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The nut, at his nuttiest

Ah, spring. Even when it's rainy, it feels good. The drifting of the smell of the zoo across the park, the cooing of the morning doves, the firing up of the neighbors' grills, the emerging of the peppermint in the garden, the gamboling of puppies, the blaring of the boom cars, the sitting at my desk for seven hours .... oh, wait, those last two were cons, not pros. Well, still.

Cousin Ron is feeling especially frisky.

This is Howard's cousin, Ron Moss, introduced in this blog a few days back. He is out on the streets again. He got thrown off the Elmwood bus. He was mouthing off about the PA primaries .... Moss loves to get on a bus and just make his voice heard ... and the driver told him to get out. Which is what Moss thrives on. He loves that.

He disembarked peacefully. He always does. The driver was black, so Moss' loud parting words to her were a good-humored: "What, can't a white man ride?" Everyone on the bus, black and white, was laughing.

Ron Moss is considered by many friends to be the "original blogger" except instead of using a computer he shows up in person. I personally think of Moss as "the human pop-up window." He is like one of those obscene pop-up windows that surprise you when you are least prepared. But by the end of the rinse cycle, my day is always richer for it.

He has been asking for a megaphone for his birthday. Hmmm ... I wonder if that would that be considered upgrading to broadband?

We will be introducing a Family Nut feature. Every family has one. Admit it! Revel in it!

Please send us your nuts for future publication to

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Why Pennario matters to Buffalo

Heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been commenting and encouraging me in my novice blog! It's especially generous seeing that a lot of you are new to the world of piano and have just a sketchy idea of who Leonard Pennario is. Here we all are at the Hyatt, by the way: the author, LP, and Howard. We have all had a little bit of wine.

Writing about LP is important to me as a Buffalonian. I don't know if I have explained this yet -- I usually write my posts in a pre-coffee haze -- but Pennario is from Buffalo too. I think he is the greatest musician to come out of Buffalo. Here is a pianist who played Carnegie Hall with Jascha Heifetz, the greatest violinist of all time, and the legendary cellist Gregor Piatigorsky. They were historic concerts. They marked Heifetz' return to the New York concert stage after something like 10 years of silence. Heifetz could have had any pianist in the world -- his last pianist for the trio had been Artur Rubinstein -- and he chose Pennario.

Van Cliburn wanted to play with Heifetz but Heifetz never asked him. That is something to think about.

Plus, Pennario dated Elizabeth Taylor. Between husbands one and two, when there was something like a five-minute window of opportunity. That is something else to think about.

LP lived in Buffalo till he was 10 and his family had to move because his father's Niagara Street shoe store failed because of the Great Depression. He gave his first recitals here, and he still credits the nuns at Holy Angels School for making his mother buy him a piano.

What is really great about Pennario is that his records, his bios, his programs, everything always said he was from Buffalo. Not like Grover Washington, who always said he was from Philadelphia. Thanks a heap, Grover! When Pennario was on the jury for the Van Cliburn Competition -- he was one of only two permanent jurors -- his nationality was listed as "American -- born in Buffalo." (The other American jurors put simply, "American.") By the way, LP laughs that his mom hated the phrase "Buffalo-born." She said it sounded as if he came from the animal. Ha, ha! Now he has me laughing about it, too.

Last fall, Pennario (above, with Howard, in the lobby of Shea's Buffalo) was inducted into the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame. He has Parkinson's and he is in a wheelchair but still he managed to make the trip from California back home. It shows how much Buffalo means to him. I met him the night of the Hall of Fame ceremony. He let me sit next to him. We had to yell into each other's ears like college students because Bobby Militello's band was so loud but that just made it more fun. You can see pictures of me with LP on the Buffalo Music Hall of Fame's excellent Web site.

Buffalo Rising did a nice writeup about LP.

It's easy to talk about the book! Now I actually have to write it...

Monday, April 21, 2008

My sister, the left-winger

A few days ago when I introduced a bunch of people in my life, I forgot to introduce my sister Katie (above left, with author). She lives in East Aurora and is a left-wing liberal. I live in the City of Buffalo and am a right-wing Republican. Naturally we are best friends. I mean, we slept in the same bed -- that bed you see in the picture -- till we were 14. That was back when kids didn't have their own separate suites the way they do now.

Anyway, I can write freely about my relationship with Katie because she will never see what I write. "I've got this new blog," I told her. But when I tried to give her the address she put her hands over her ears. "Everyone's trying to get me to read someone's blog!" she yelled. "Margie called up and told me to read one of her friends' blogs. I told her no." Margie is our other sister. She lives on a cul-de-sac in New Jersey and is a whole other story.

So, about Katie. There are topics we have to avoid. Global warming is one. Wal-mart. I don't tend to shop there but I back its right to exist. Urban concerns, like our church closings. When I got mad about the diocese closing my church, Gerard's, she said, "Well, our church (in East Aurora) sends money to a church in Haiti and that's more important, so Buffalo's East Side can go to hell." OK, she didn't put the part about the East Side exactly in those words. But that is how I heard it. Oh, and I prefer not to talk about East Aurora. East Aurora gets on my nerves, I'm not sure why. And I think my sister prefers not to talk about Leonard Pennario. I tend to talk too much about Leonard Pennario because he is on my mind all the time with this book I am writing. I think that's why my husband bought me this blog.

The good news is sometimes I am amazed by how much Katie and I agree on. We hate kids having I-Pods and having their own separate suites. And we think Williamsville was crazy to make its Main Street into a five-lane superhighway. We have long discussions on how to keep trashy music at bay. We deplore how our mom has been known to recycle coffee grounds.

Perhaps when the presidential election gets even uglier than it is now all the candidates could be made to sit down and confer on subjects like that.

Maybe we could also ask them what they think about Leonard Pennario.

Why didn't someone warn me that writing a book would give me a one-track mind?

Sunday, April 20, 2008

The great wall

Leonard Pennario once toured Communist China, to great acclaim, and I have new insights into what he experienced there now that I have frittered away half my morning studying my box of Chinese tea.

I am normally a coffee person, but I love this stuff. I discovered it a few years ago when I was dining one night, before the opera, in Toronto. They had ginger tea on the menu and I tried it, and it was so good -- fizzy and delicious -- that I bugged the waitress after dinner into telling me where it could be had.

She looked around as if to make sure no one was listening and then she said, "You can get it in any Asian store. It's called a honey ginger drink. You can get it anywhere."

To which I now add: "It's really cheap." Especially if you get it where I do, on Bailey near LaSalle, at that International Market. It is my secret belief that you can find anything they have in Toronto on Bailey Avenue, if you just look hard enough. The tea comes in a big orange box and it's not even called tea. It's called Instant Honeyed Ginger Drink. It costs something like $2 for 24 packets.

The tea comes from Zhejiang and the packaging clearly dates from the not-so-distant past when no one in Red China spoke any English. It says: "Instant honeyed ginger drink, a specialityof China, is scientifically processed from choice ginger,honey, that are rich in protien, glucose and vitamins.Nourishing, Delicious and with strong flavourof its own. It is an ideal health drinks for home and travel." I have tried to keep their spelling, punctuation and spacing intact.

And the best... the best... is in very small print, so small that I never noticed it before this morning's intense scrutiny. It shows a pair of hands, and what looks like a garbage can. There are eight tiny Chinese characters, and beneath them, it says:


I will have to go to Zhejiang sometime and see if this is so.

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Which witch?

Fox News gets weird on the weekends. They like to replay loops of stories the rest of the world has forgotten, like the one about that party girl who disappeared in Aruba. I think that story is still going.

But lastnight's story was the best.

"Missing Witch," the screen blared. It seems a witch had vanished into thin air and we were supposed to call a phone number if we had seen her.

Howard said: "Maybe she was experimenting with spells. Was there a cat around? Was there a toad?"

Maybe she is one of the ducks asleep in the swimming pool next door to us!

I had just been thinking about the occult because one woman I had to get in touch with for my book on Leonard Pennario is this English socialite who is the daughter of a woman LP took out once, and ... oh, it's a long story. My point is, this socialite was quoted in some newspaper as saying she has a magic nightstand. It is covered with crystals and talismans and tarot cards (which always gave me the creeps). She studied tarot cards with a witch in London. Which (witch) seems to me not only an indication that she has too much time on her hands, but also an invitation to trouble. Hello! Stay away from witches! Didn't you learn anything from reading Grimms' Fairy Tales?

The fact that my path has crossed this woman's is typical of the way in witch writing about a great concert pianist has made my life richer. OK, I will stop the which/witch business, before someone puts a hex on me.

Meanwhile, I will keep watch for this missing witch.

Why is it such a surprise when a witch disappears? Isn't that what you expect them to do?

Friday, April 18, 2008

Down by the riverside

This is a picture postcard our creative friend Steve Szpakowski came up with in 1985 to publicize Buffalo and its charms. That is the icy Niagara River you see in the background. That is not the author in the picture!

But it almost could have been. Every spring, the first warm day, you can't wait to get out and you can almost see putting on a bathing suit and diving into that water. It is hard to sit inside and work at this time of year. We have waited too long for spring.

Yesterday my friend Michelle and I went on a picnic at Isleview Park. I should probably have stayed shackled to my desk but the idea of eating dinner at a picnic table while watching chunks of ice rushing past on the Niagara River was just too good to pass up.

I am not good at packing picnics but this will be the year I get better at it. Here is what I made: ciabetta bread, hummus (I like hippie food), chicken quarters with orange and red and yellow peppers, because I found those ingredients cheap the day before at the Broadway Market, and roasted asparagus (really easy -- just toss it with olive oil and salt and stick it in a 400-degree oven for 10 minutes or so). Then I threw in a few oranges for dessert.

I am proud of myself for doing all this because at the same time, I was working out this complicated chapter in my book about LP's doings in 1952. That was when he made his debuts in Paris and London and Italy. In Paris, Artur Rubinstein came to his concert and they had a funny conversation backstage afterward. In Italy the conductor yelled at him because LP was stealing the spotlight too much. This particular conductor is a major figure so that will be a funny story in the book.

It's odd how I get a bigger sense of accomplishment for pulling off the picnic than I do from untangling that chapter. Well, the chapter's not finished yet. The picnic is.

In Buffalo, in the spring, there is nothing like being the first people out there with a decent picnic, and Michelle and I did it up pretty well, with a cloth tablecloth and napkins, plastic goblets, real plates and both of us wearing skirts and sandals. We grabbed a great table. In high season, Michelle says, you could never aspire to this table, which gives you a panoramic view of the river rushing past and an endless parade of walkers and joggers with their adorable puppies. Everyone noticed us and everyone envied us. We loved that.

The best was a little boy about 3, walking past with his dad. He looked at us and said -- we could hear him -- "Why can't we eat with them?"

And the dad, smiling embarrassedly at us, said: "Come on, your mom is getting us hot dogs."

"But I want to eat with them!"

Michelle and I loved that. We imagine this kid 20 years from now, with his own show on the Food Channel, talking about how his admiration for fine food began when as a kid he saw these two women enjoying this incredible-looking picnic, whilst he was condemned to eat hot dogs. I like that word "whilst." An English woman I was interviewing about LP used it, and I am going to start using it too.

Now it's back to 1952, to iron out the rest of that chapter. Today I really do have to stay shackled to my desk.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Adios, amigos

"But I was just there! I was just there!"

That is Howard, wailing like a figure out of the Old Testament because his favorite Mexican restaurant was closed because, authorities say, it was owned and operated by illegal aliens. We never learned the name of the restaurant for all the times we went there but now we see it is -- was -- El Caporal.

"I think it was Tuesday, the day before they were raided. I think I was there Tuesday," Howard agonizes, retracing his steps. "I had to go sign my tax returns... Tuesday was the 15th... I think that was why I was in the car. And I think on the way home I thought I'd stop at Harbor Freight, and I was getting pretty hungry by then, I hadn't had my lunch, and I stopped in for a burrito ... I probably have the receipt somewhere." Howard begins to scour his desk. He comes up with a receipt not from Tuesday but from November, which is impressive considering that his desk is like an archeological dig, the stuff in recognizable layers.

A few times I accompanied Howard to El Caporal, which was on Union Road in Cheektowaga. They had this flamboyant gay-acting host who wore '70s blazers and shirts and would go prancing around asking you about your food and service. We loved that guy. We also loved the big mural showing what was probably supposed to be a typical Mexican family at home. The man was wearing a huge sombrero and there was a woman scrubbing the floor, falling out of her dress. I remember I told my brother George about that mural, told him he should go to El Caporal because it seemed like a genuine mom-and-pop Mexican joint, the kind we don't get very much in Buffalo, with family members hanging out outside the doorway smoking.

This situation shows us the illegal-alien question from a new viewpoint. This must be what people go through in North Carolina or California. At this Mexican restaurant, we got used to these people around, and we got to know them, and we liked them as well as their (boo hoo) burritos. It was horrible to see images of the host, in his '70s clothes, being hauled away in handcuffs. But the law is the law. We all have to make personal sacrifices to maintain our border security. So we put that burrito on the altar and set it aflame. As my mom is always telling me, "Offer it up."

It's not fair if Mexican Restaurant A is following the rules and Mexican Restaurant B is not. I did not take Macroeconomics at UB for nothing. Perhaps the greatest good is being served, even if we, alas, no longer are.

I wonder who's getting that mural? Maybe we can get it for Big Blue.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cast of characters

With taxes out of the way, today is the day I get organized and introduce a few people who will figure in my blog. They do that in "The Forsyte Saga," a book that I love. The very first chapter, the book throws it at you who's who, and you can keep referring back to that if you get confused.

Here are a few people in my life:

1.) Howard's cousin, Ron Moss. (Shown above, with author.) Back when Moss's wife used to let him out of the house you would see him pushing a shopping cart down the middle of Elmwood Avenue, yelling at cars. Now she lets him out, but not as much as she used to. In a movie, we could imagine Moss, a former career cab driver, being portrayed, inadequately, by John Belushi.

2.) Moss's wife, known as "The Wall," short for "The Wall of Sound."

3.) Byron Brown, mayor of Buffalo. We have a dapper mayor who always dresses nice and looks good, and sometimes we run into him in coffee shops, at which time I like to drop his name.

4.) My brother Tony. Up till now I have mentioned only my brother George. George is my little brother. Tony is my older brother. He pops up in my life at inconvenient times.

5.) Jackie Jocko, lounge pianist. Pictured above. He plays at the Hyatt downtown Tuesdays through Saturdays. Jocko fascinates us with tales of "the era of the great lounges," during which he knew people like Marlene Dietrich and Richard Nixon.

6.) Erna Eaton. Pictured above. Recently retired as society editor of The Buffalo News, Mrs. Eaton is the ultimate arbiter of what is correct and what is not. We hang out with her at Jackie Jocko.

7.) Larry Solomon. Pictured above. I already mentioned him in connection with the wallpaper he stripped off the bathroom walls without telling me. Larry lives in the suburbs and every time he comes to visit our city home, which he does with trepidation, he never leaves without making sure that I am securely locked in.

8.) Leonard Pennario. The pianist I am writing the book about. We have known each other just about six months now.

9.) My husband, Howard. Pictured above. We have been married three years. A year ago last Christmas, he bought a building we call Big Blue, a Civil War-era pile of bricks right off Niagara Square. The place used to be the Round Table Restaurant, a famous steakhouse owned by George Steinbrenner, and was more recently a series of gay bars. Howard just finished taking back all the beer bottles that were in the basement.

10.) Howard's and my respective dead uncles, Uncle Jake and Uncle Bob. They died before we met each other, but we discuss them and their pre-P.C. pronouncements as much now as we did when they were alive. Surely they have met in heaven and are standing next to each other, looking down and criticizing the world. Uncle Jake is pictured above:

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Groped in the shadow of the Pope

With Pope Benedict coming to America, I thought I would tell my own personal pope story. It involves John Paul II -- well, all I mean is that John Paul II was there when it happened. It always gets me laughing when I think of it.

I went to Rome with my mom a few years ago as part of a retreat in honor of the canonization of St. Eugene de Mazenod, the founder of the order of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. My great-uncle, Father Andrew Kunz, who died when I was a little girl, was an Oblate and he was a very big deal. He was the treasurer of the Oblate order. He was also a Father What-a-Waste, a very good-looking man. Anyway, so there I was in Rome with my mom and we were at Mass in St. Peter's Square and the pope, John Paul II, was maybe 25 feet away from me. I don't really know how far away he was, because I was so distracted. The reason I was distracted was, there was this pervy guy pressing up against me in the crowd. At first I thought he had wanted to look over my shoulder at my prayer book but when I found out that wasn't what he wanted, it was too late and the crowd situation was such that I couldn't get away from him. What do you do? I actually remember starting to laugh. The situation was just so ridiculous.

My friend Lynn who is insanely funny came up with that phrase I quoted when I got home and told her about the incident. "Groped," she exclaimed, "in the shadow of the Pope!"

I am still laughing about that.

I admire Benedict a lot, not least because he plays classical piano and I'll bet he has a way or two with Beethoven's Op. 109. He is supposed to be flying in today. I hope he has a safe trip. With nobody groping anybody in his shadow.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Teething again

Today I arose at a more decent hour. Another thing that woke me the other night was this teeth situation. They don't exactly hurt, but with my new -- ta da -- braces, my teeth tense up. So I have to work on that. I don't mind. It's all part of the adventure.

The other day I was on the phone with LP. That's how I refer to Leonard Pennario in my notes and sometimes in person -- I got that from his close buddy Robert Wagner, the actor ("It Takes a Thief," "It Takes a Reverse Mortgage"), whom he calls "RJ." Today's picture shows the two of them on an outdoorsy fishing trip they took to Aspen, along with RJ's wife, Jill St. John -- who, come to think of it, may have taken the picture. You cannot see it in this particular shot but LP is wearing these huge, hilarious boots. I have teased him about that.

Anyway, on the phone with LP, I mentioned how I'm not the only one with braces, that JoAnn Falletta, our symphony orchestra conductor, has them too. Pennario adores JoAnn. He was her soloist about 25 years ago, when she was with the Denver Symphony. She said because she was right out of Juilliard and it was the first time she was conducting with a soloist, the orchestra broke the bank and got someone they normally wouldn't have been able to afford, someone great who wouldn't give her any problems. Leonard laughed when I told him that. But he sounded distressed when I told him that JoAnn and I are now both running around with mouths full of metal.

"Oh, dear!" he exclaimed.

I said, "Oh, Leonard, it's really more funny than anything."

Still, I appreciate his sympathy. Even though when I go back to see him next month I am dreading that first time he makes me laugh and he has to see this, um, appliance in my mouth. Not pretty!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

The food of love

I got up this morning and the birds were singing. The strange thing is, it was only 3:45 am.! Who knew birds were singing that early? I must have known that back in the days when I was hanging out at the Central Park Grill until dawn, but now it took me by surprise.

Sometimes I can't sleep because I have too much on my mind. When that happens, I just figure I should go with it, get up, there aren't enough hours in the day anyhow. One of the things on my mind lastnight was, you guessed it, food. We were going out to a concert lastnight and I was making dinner beforehand and I realized I had hardly any vegetables in the house (unless you count me, parked all day at my desk ... AHAHAHAHAHAHA) Very unusual for me, because I'm always flirting with the South Beach Diet and it is not unusual for us to have seven different vegetables in one dinner. I will have to go food shopping.

Here are six places I like to go food shopping.

1.) The Broadway Market, except during Easter season when it's too crowded. Before I and everyone I know got cell phones, we would sometimes leave messages for each other with the butchers. As they were wrapping up your soup chicken they would tell me, "Your brother was here and he said he'd meet you at St. Louis for 4:00 Mass." You don't get that at supermarkets. You don't get soup chickens, either.

2.) The Clinton/Bailey Market. Gritty and urban and so much fun. Daniel Leader, the baker who owns the chic Catskills bakery Bread Alone, said in a book of his that he was inspired to get into the food business by going with his grandfather to the giant food distribution warehouses across the street. "The energy was intense," he wrote. His grandfather was in the burlap bag business, which he explained is how food was packed before plastic came along.

3.) Guercio's. I love Grant Street even though it can be pretty run-down. (Those words look funny together, but I am still half asleep.) Produce is cheap at Guercio's. And the ambience is such that people sometimes yell at you. I got yelled at once for taking my purchases out of my basket for them to ring up. They like to do that themselves. Roman Mekinulov, the Buffalo Philharmonic's principal cellist, once was looking for some fresh herb or other at Guercio's, and a staffer told an attendant to get it. And the attendant yelled: "I'm supposed to be going on break! God damn it!"

4.) Lorigo's Meating Place down the street from Guercio's. My brother George, the one who looks like Mozart, buys pies and cakes here for something like 50 cents. Spices are incredibly cheap and you can buy a pound of yeast for $2.15, I think it is. I used to bake bread before this concert pianist ate my life. Now all I do is work on this book. But when it's all wrapped up I will go back to that jar of $2 yeast in the fridge. It'll be there!

5.) Trader Joe's. When I go back to California to see Leonard (Pennario, the pianist I am writing the book about) I am looking forward to going back to this marvelous chain. Great cheap hippie food, plus in California they let you buy wine in supermarkets and Trader Joe's has great inexpensive reds from Argentina and Chile. Would that we could buy wines in supermarkets here.
6.) My garden. I have a very sloppy slapdash garden and believe it or not, there is already something to harvest --this mystery plant called sorrel. I put it in last year and totally forgot about it -- but there it is, this green leafy thing that seems to be some kind of a cross between an herb and a vegetable. Luckily I put this tag in the ground that said "Sorrel" or else I would have thought it was a weed, like most of the plants in my garden. The next challenge is to figure out how to use it.

Now I have to eat something. There was a French chef, Pierre Franey I think it was ... his daughter wrote in the preface to one of his cookbooks, "He always awoke thinking of what he was going to be cooking and eating that day." Sounds like me!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Mozart and old mansions

Interesting stuff this morning in the Wall Street Journal. Their drama critic, Terry Teachout, reports on a new Mozart portrait that has turned up. It proves something that will revolutionize music scholarship: Mozart looks like my brother George. I am going to have to run pictures of them side by side, so everyone can see what I mean.

Meanwhile, there is the matter of Greenwich, Ct., behaving like Buffalo.

The Journal reports on the front page that some creep has knocked down a mansion called Greyledge built by an aviator killed in World War I. Designed by the same firm that built the New York Public Library, it had 13 fireplaces and a shooting gallery. The guy who tore it down had bought the place a few years ago for $7.6 million. His reason for razing it? "Planning on building a house," he emailed the WSJ.

This is apparently one of many such cases in rich old Greenwich, which judging from this article is losing its old buildings even faster than we are. Developers are buying them up and razing them to make way for new houses.

We have to do something about this worship of the new. We can't just let it continue. Here in Buffalo, too, people are always believing that new is better. I've noticed it especially applied to poor neighborhoods, such as the East Side. People want to give the neighborhood a boost, so they put in something new. As if to say, "You deserve the best. We're going to knock down this old school (or church, library, firehouse, whatever) and give you a brand new one."

There is something nice about that brand-new feel. Driving your new car home, you revel in the new-car smell. Living in a brand-new apartment can make you feel pristine and pampered. I lived in a new apartment in San Diego recently for a few months. Well, it was slightly used... somebody had died in it. But that's another story for another day. I enjoyed the newness, is the point. The white tub, the Home Depot tiles in the kitchen, the sliding patio doors.

But that newness wears off fast. And once it's gone, you're often left with something blah, dated and, possibly, cheap. Look at those slightly-used new-build McMansions you see for sale in the Home Finder. They look so forlorn! Even my nearly new apartment in San Diego, by the time I left, was hitting the skids. The towel bars in the bathroom were wobbly, an electrical outlet had come out of the wall and -- this was the worst -- I found a worm on the living room carpet that had apparently crawled in under the patio doors. Ugh! Oh, how I want to go right back to Buffalo! Oh how I want to go home! Because back in Buffalo, my 1920 house just keeps chugging along, forgivingly, requiring minimal maintenance, looking good despite the scant attention I pay it. You can't beat the old. Trust me.

How is that for a brooding thought for a rainy Saturday? I think I'll turn back to that portrait of Mozart.

Who knew he looked so much like my brother George?

Friday, April 11, 2008

Iron maiden

I just got braces on my teeth so I am hoping that slows my life down. With braces, every little thing you do every day becomes more important and more significant. You eat more slowly, because you have to chew carefully, if you can chew at all, which is a big if. In the morning, waking up, the braces are the first thing you think about. It feels as if your mouth is in a cage.

And brushing your teeth? I have officially moved into the bathroom. I have a radio in there and everything. Now I have to figure out how to make the bathroom habitable. About a year ago Larry Solomon, the friend of my husband's who helps me clean the house from time to time, stripped the wallpaper off the bathroom without telling me. I had mentioned it was getting raggedy, and then I came home one night when he had been there, and it was gone. I was halfway through washing my face before I noticed. Then I stood there going, "Uh...."

So now here I am every day, with my Water Pik (I actually like the generic term, which is something like "electric water irrigator"), splashing around in this bombed-out-looking bathroom. And with a Water Pik you do splash. You think the thing's out of water so you take it out of your mouth and suddenly it's as if you're holding a garden hose. What's really funny is the thing has a warning, "Do not handle with wet hands." Hahahahahaha! Water, water everywhere!

I think about my braces a lot because my mouth is always reminding me they are there. Why is it the technology has not changed since I was a kid? This appliance I have (they call it an "appliance," another term I love) looks just like out of one of those Dave Berg cartoons in Mad magazine. Heck, they can correct near-sightedness now with laser surgery. You would think they would be able to beam a couple of lights into my mouth and bingo, teeth fixed. Then there is the question of orthodontic wax. A postage-stamp-sized, one-eighth-inch thick square of it -- just this ordinary soft wax -- costs $3.79! What in the world? Why can't I just melt down white crayons or birthday candles and use that? I'm tempted to try it.

But there is one great thing about getting braces. You can't bite your nails. You just can't. Case closed. A lifetime nail biter, I now have beautiful hands for just about the first time in my life. I got new pink nail polish to celebrate. Plus, you can't eat. My ortho says, "Everyone loses weight."

With that in mind, I have to see beyond the watery bathroom mirror. Besides, I am in good company. The other day I was on the phone with JoAnn Falletta, the conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic. She has braces! I couldn't get over it! "JoAnn, you're kidding!!" I said. Neither of us could not get the stylish, invisible Invisilign -- those plastic braces you supposedly can't see -- so we are both running around with mouths full of metal. So are other people we know. One of them is a co-worker of mine, and she said something that keeps me smiling (even though it sometimes hurts to smile). "Just think," she said, "when this is all over, we're going to look like supermodels."

Thursday, April 10, 2008

The unscrupulous blogger

I had a couple of weeks off from work so my husband bought me this blog. The idea is that it's supposed to relax me, because I'm not away on vacation or anything -- I'm home, working away at this book I have to have done by next month. The book is the authorized biography of a great concert pianist, Leonard Pennario. (That's him in the picture, playing the piano for Judy Garland.) I just spent three months in California with Mr. Pennario, and I promised him I would fly back with the book in May. We do not want to work on it for 10 years the way other biographers do. I see that all the time on the back covers of books I read: "In the making for 10 years..." Forget that. We prefer instant gratification.

So I am spending my vacation at my desk sifting through hundreds of newspaper clippings I have unearthed about Leonard, reviews of his concerts at places like Carnegie Hall and the Hollywood Bowl, interviews with him over the years, mostly by starry-eyed women (I get the idea I am just the latest in a long line of them) and pictures of him, often with people he worked with, like Fritz Reiner and Jascha Heifetz. Looking at the pictures, I am glad I am writing about someone so great looking. A dumpy pianist would not be as much fun. Leonard is also brilliant and funny and outspoken, which I love. And the biggest reason I'm enjoying this is that I love music and I love unlocking the mysteries of a great musician's life. So for me this book is a tremendous thrill.

Once in a while, though, it's good for me to step away and switch gears for a few minutes. Hence, this blog. I am drawn to the art of blogging. I like how you can go back and revise what you write -- and don't think I won't. If anyone wants to catch me making a mistake, he or she had better be ready to check up on my blog every day and print out what I write. I like that about blogging.

What else do I like? That I can write what I want, and not only that, I can delete it. Hmmm. If someone writes something negative about me, can I change it and make it into a positive? I will have to look into that. Meanwhile, another thing I like about my brand-new blog is I can write about personal things. Such as my braces. I think I'll start tomorrow by blogging about them.