My wife and I were in a large multi-story loft in a room full of dead people and animals that we we loved who are now gone. It wasn’t heaven, unless heaven is a loft on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. There were also unfamiliar faces and animals as well as people we know that are still with us. I remember a hybrid monkey / cat coming in the window from the fire-escape who had long, crooked fingers like roots that crept up beside me and slowly, very deliberately felt the contours of my face as though it was blind. We became friends.
The dead people were mostly relatives and all looked youthful and healthy as though they were at their prime age in life. My mother was busily zipping around getting things in order. Kristen’s grandmother and grandfather sat in ornately carved wooden chairs next to each other holding hands. Of note was my wife’s very cheery and youthful uncle - looking dapper at perhaps 30 years old. (Who just passed away earlier this year at age 71.)
There were numerous people and cats running amok from room to room in some kind of odd celebratory chaos. I remember wanting to ask my mom a question about Shakespeare but she held up a finger and dashed off. I walked about the place - which had cavernous, high ceilings and massive, castle-like doorways 10 feet high - all trimmed with elaborate wood finishing. Every room was abuzz with conversation. The cacophony of voices made it difficult to discern what it was all about.
Some dirty faced red-headed kid tapped my hand and indicated that he could probably get my car started; that is, the ’73 Galaxy 500 with side-pipes parked in the alley. The same one I took to the junkyard in high school after the engine blew on the highway. I told him to have at it.
Finally it was time to leave and I descended via the fire escape, a couple of cute girls smiling through open windows as I passed down by their lofts. One asked me if I knew any magic tricks. I responded that I did, and reached into my pocket for a deck of cards, but my wife nudged me to keep moving. I indicated that I would show them some magic on my way back. The younger one laughed and said, ‘Oh, silly! You’re not coming back.’
My first meaningful exposure to David Bowie’s music was in 1975 when at the age of 10, I became transfixed with glee every time Fame played over the car radio or stereo speakers. I had the benefit of having three older sisters who’s love for music provided my budding eyes and ears with easy access to a bountiful selection of records and music magazines (Creem and Circus, anyone?) But it was seeing Bowie perform on Saturday Night Live in 1979 that really knocked me out of my Buster Brown shoes and bell-bottomed, red corduroys. David wore a dress and was accompanied onstage by backup singers in drag (Klaus Nomi and Joey Arias) moving like robots in and out of sync with one another and the music. In the middle of the stage stood a pink, stuffed toy poodle with a mini- television clutched in its teeth, broadcasting the performance in real time. The band played Man who Sold the World, TVC 15 and Boys Keep Swinging. During Boys Keep Swinging, Bowie’s body was superimposed with a marionette, an odd TV trick which, in contrast to his over-sized head and the mimed movements of the puppet, gave the scene a truly creepy feel. The whole thing was incredibly bizarre, surreal and completely enthralling. In the coming weeks and months, I would spend any and all cash that I could muster buying Bowie records, old and new. My indoctrination to his musical genius had begun. Little did I know then, that one day I would have the incredible honor to meet the man...
When you are employed at Zabar’s on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, crossing paths with celebrities becomes a commonplace occurrence. Over a decade in the nineties, I brushed elbows with the likes of Paul Simon, Art Garfunkel, James Taylor, Tracey Ullman, Geena Davis, Tony Randall, Robin Williams, Bruce Willis, Cindy Crawford, Tom Hanks, Cindy Lauper, Meg Ryan, Meat Loaf, Mary Lou Henner, Laurence Fishburne, Woody Allen, Tiny Tim, Rupert Holmes, Randy Travis, Jane Pauley, Diane Sawyer, Lauren Bacall, Lauren Hutton, Carol King and more. With a few exceptions, I was perfectly content to have little or no interaction with these individuals, outside of brief observation from a comfortable distance. Once in a while I sought out autographs for friends of mine who were fans. James Taylor graciously wrote a nice note for my friend Alice, never mind that his arm was in a cast from thumb to elbow. Robin Williams delightedly signed a paper bag: ‘Dear Lisa, don’t kill him – he got the autograph,’ after I had indicated that Lisa would indeed kill me if I didn’t ask for it. But for the most part, I didn’t want to bother anybody – so it was a stretch for me to pursue attention or time from these individuals, who most assuredly just wanted to do their shopping and be left alone.
The paramount exception to all of these encounters was when I had the great fortune to meet and talk to David Bowie. It would not have been possible without the efforts of my good friend, Mr. Scott Goldshine, Zabar’s General Manager. Scott and I became fast friends after we realized that we shared common musical interests. He was an uber-fan of all kinds of music, and sought it out with a voracious appetite, buying more CD’s every week that he could ever keep up with listening to. His apartment was literally overflowing with prodigious volumes of discs – so much so that practically all the furniture throughout the place was cleverly outfitted to either display CD’s or serve as cabinets to house them. Scott was also a huge supporter of the band I was in at the time, and as it happened we had recently completed our first CD recording, pressed to disc, packaged and ready for distribution to a waiting world. Scott was always looking for ways to promote us, and via the position he held and the numerous potential contacts that came through the door, he had the means to do so.
The evening I met David Bowie was not unlike any other: I was working in the back food-prep area, cleaning up and getting ready to go home. I heard my name over the intercom – it was Scott, his voice tinged with a devious tone which I had grown accustomed to over the years. I picked up the phone and he instructed me to come to the front of the store with a copy of the new CD. When I arrived there I could tell by the smile on his face that there was something up – and that something was going to be good.
When Zabar’s locks its doors for the day at 7:30pm, the sidewalks of the Upper West Side are normally still bristling with customers, often in full sprint to the entrance before Scott turns the key and waves away those arriving a moment too late. He was particularly vigilant about closing time. When half past seven struck, the double doors of the entrance were shut and bolted no matter who may have been in the process of trying to get through them. Over the years I had seen him close these doors with no exceptions, on surprised and defeated faces, and not reopen them; no excuse, no pleading cries of ‘I only need one thing!’ no tales of how far one may have traveled to get there, no manner of imploring whatsoever changed the fact that once the door was bolted – entrance to the store was prohibited, denied, out of the question, until the next morning. On one occasion I happened to accompany him to the doorway and watched as he shut and locked it in the face of then comedian, Al Franken. Mr. Franken paused, looked at me through the glass and remained standing there - miffed and perplexed. I turned to Scott who was already walking away.
“You just shut the door on Al Franken!” I shouted.
Scott casually waved his hand in the air and replied: “Al Franken, the comedian? So what, he’s not fucking funny.”
I turned back to Al, still standing there, and shrugged my shoulders. Scott had worked at Zabar’s his entire life - since a teenager. He was un-fazed by celebrity.
But on this particular rainy night in Manhattan at 7:30pm as Scott turned the key in the door – he recognized a face approaching through the glass that made him turn the key back, perhaps for the first time ever. It was David Bowie – arm in arm with his stunning wife, Iman. The bolt was thrown as the couple was approaching – and after a momentary pause – Scott reversed the action and allowed the two to enter. He made certain they realized what had just taken place. It was a subtle, but meaningful gesture.
When I reached the front, Scott took the CD from me, then grabbed my arm and led me across the main floor of the store. His head turned from side to side, searching, as he indicated that there was currently someone in the store that he was sure I would be most interested in meeting.
And with that – I recognized and slowly approached David Bowie as he was looking over a vast selection of coffee beans. Iman was off in another part of the store, no doubt in an effort to complete their shopping in the short time allotted to them.
David was wearing an auburn trench-coat, wet from the rain, and a black scarf. His blonde hair fell about his face as he looked our way – and though I’m not at all sure how tall he is, he seemed to tower over the two of us as we stood in front of him.
Scott managed the introduction with a smile.
“Mr. Bowie, as you saw, the store was closed prior to your arrival. I made an exception for you, one which I rarely, if ever make. In lieu of that, I was wondering if you might consider a small favor in return.”
It was a bold play on Scott’s part, but not out of line with his character. The look on Bowie’s face was classic; a mix of unshakable ease, uncertainty and mild amusement.
“Oh, dear,” he said, the unmistakable voice like a velvet lather, filling the space between us. “You’re not going to ask me to sing, are you?”
Scott held out the CD and tilted his head toward me.
“My friend, Joe here is a musician – and I’m certain he would like nothing more than for you have this. Will you listen to it?”
“Well, goodness. That’s easy enough.” David put down his basket of groceries, took the CD and looked it over, front and back, then up at me. I reached out my hand and shook his. We exchanged pleasantries and spoke for a few moments during which I’m certain I effused about his greatness like a schoolgirl. It was all happening so fast, but after those first few foggy moments – I remembered to breathe and thought to myself that an autograph from Mr. Bowie would indeed be one I would treasure.
At the time I was reading a book called ‘All You Need to Know about the Music Business,’ by Donald Passman. Mr. David Bowie waited patiently in the coffee section of the store, while I fetched the book from the back room. I asked if he had any objection to signing my copy. When he read the title he raised his eyebrows, scrutinizing it cover to cover as if unsure whether or not this was something he wanted to grace with his pen. I can’t say I blame him. I was simply looking for something outside of a shopping bag for him to sign. A book I knew would stay in safely tucked away in my possession for years to come. And in some way, it was completely apropos for a man who knew as much as anyone on planet earth about the music business to be signing a book on the subject.
“Who is the author?” he muttered to himself, looking at the cover once more. “Passman eh? Hmmf. Very well then.”
As he put his pen to the page I relished with delight the final moments of being in the presence of a such a tremendous musical persona. We parted in what were mere minutes that seemed like only seconds. I watched him tuck the CD into his jacket pocket and gave him a final salute of gracious thanks for his time. Where the CD ended up beyond that moment in time – I cared not. To me – it left the store in the possession of Mr. David Bowie, certainly something to write home about. And so I did.
In November of 1989, after residing in New Jersey for a number of years, I decided that I simply had to live in New York City. I opened up the New York Times classified ads, circled three places hiring and called the first one - which was Zabar's. Oddly enough, whoever answered put me right through to Saul Zabar - whom I spoke with for some time. He told me to come in for an interview. Though I was young and full of confidence - and had plenty of food retail experience, the store's general manager, Harvey, at the time wasn't too keen on hiring me, but Saul was. Harvey was concerned about what they may have to pay me - as I had come from a local union and knew full well what my fair wage should be for the job advertised. After talking with both of them for some time I watched Saul as he turned and for several minutes explained to a disgruntled looking Harvey why it was a good idea to hire me. One of those reasons was that I was from the Midwest, Saul liked that. They finally agreed to have me work for a two-week trial period, after which they would assess how much they could compensate me. I was out of work and had nothing to lose so I took the offer.
The store never seemed to slow down and though the work was hard - I was surrounded by an amazingly diverse group of co-workers who were helpful and kind and whose lives interested me to no end. There were mostly Russians, Chinese and Dominicans. I listened to their stories and learned from them, and I saw that their work ethics were in fact a lot stronger than mine. Many had recently emigrated from overseas - and to them - this work was as vital and important to them as breathing. You could see in their eyes that their jobs were serious business to them - not to be taken for granted. They all had families to feed, whereas I just wanted to be a rock ’n roll star.
The 2 weeks went by in a blur and Saul called me into his office. Though Zabar’s was happy to take me on as a permanent employee, he explained that they would likely not be able to pay me what I had been making under union contract at my previous employer. My disappointment was evident. I couldn’t gauge if Saul was simply being a shrewd businessman or if Harvey’s influence had taken hold. Either way, my dreams of living in Manhattan were going to be crushed if I couldn’t get at least a relatively decent wage. I told Saul as much - and he leaned back in his chair and asked if I thought living on the Upper West Side appealed to me at all. I indicated that it didn’t matter where in the greatest city in the world I was - as long as I could call it my home - and I most certainly had no reservations about living on the most charming Upper West Side. Saul picked up the phone and after a brief conversation turned to me and said: “What if I told you that though I can’t pay you what you were making at your previous employer, perhaps I can offer you a studio apartment across the street - and I can adjust the rent so that as long as you are working for me - we can make it affordable for you.” Those were magic words to my ears. The apartment was 2245 Broadway, Apt 2B - on 82nd street in Manhattan. I graciously accepted the offer. I didn’t even need to see the place first.
In the coming months - Saul took me under his wing, challenging me, teaching me and always giving me newer and more responsibilities. He apprenticed me in the fine and delicate art of buying smoked fish for Zabar’s. We’d drive out to several Brooklyn smokehouses each week, placing orders for thousands of pounds of lox, smoked salmon, whitefish, sable and sturgeon. Eventually the inventory of the entire appetizing department was in my hands. The studio apartment gave way to a proper, albeit modest 1 bedroom apartment. And my pay soon far eclipsed what I had ever before made in my life.
I was continually intrigued by Saul himself, as he is truly unlike anyone I have ever met. He was often difficult to please, meticulous and demanding and naturally he expected hard work and dedication from his employees. You might expect that a man in his position wouldn’t bother getting his hands dirty with the menial labor that is required to run a store which makes upwards of 60 million per year. But Saul is as much in the trenches and on the front lines as his employees are. He is not afraid to get his hands dirty - indeed he will work elbow to elbow with anyone - anywhere in the store. When a refrigeration units breaks down - he is the first one on his hands and knees on the floor, in the grime with a flashlight and screwdriver taking apart the console to see what’s wrong.
Over time, I realized that the store was to Saul Zabar what music was to me. An art, an inspiration, a craft, an adventure to be explored, savored and cherished. It doesn’t matter what form it takes on - our art feeds our souls. The store is Saul’s art.
To say that I grew up in those years, treasured and learned from those experiences is an understatement. Zabar’s, Saul Zabar himself, the job and the people that I worked with day in and day out were, and remain the pinnacle of all the work experiences I’ve ever had. My co-workers became my lifelong friends - and even after leaving them after many years, we still pick up right where we left off last. The friends I made at Zabar’s would take a bullet for me, there is not a question in my mind about that. I have never come across such devoted, passionate people who care about one another so fiercely and with such determination. It is a family in the strongest sense of the word. I worked with these people, but we also celebrated together, ate and drank together, they invited me into their homes and embraced me as not just a friend, but one of their own family.
When I add up all these experiences in my mind they fill me with an unending supply of good memories and happiness. I wonder how different my life may have been had I not opened up the New York Times classifieds that day. I am fortunate. I was able to live my dream - work and live in New York City - and work on my music and feed my creativity with the countless stories of the individuals that surrounded me.
I attended writing school at night for many of those years and I remember sitting at a bar late one evening after class and telling my creative writing professor this same story. I told it rather casually, he seemed interested in my background. When I finished he reached across the table and grabbed my wrist tight in his hand. He said: Joe, let me get this straight: you came from the corn-fields of Iowa to New York in order to pursue your dreams of being a part of the music scene of this city - to be in a band, and you’ve done that. Along the way, you’ve become a smoked fish buyer for the premier gourmet food store in Manhattan, secured a comfortable apartment on the UWS, and you still have time to take creative writing class two nights a week. My god man - most of us struggle to tell a story so rich even in fiction.
It really is a wonderful life. Thank you Saul Zabar and all my Zabar’s friends and family.
Zabar's Celebrates 80 Years on Broadway | NBC New Yorkhttp://www.nbcnewyork.com/entertainment/the-scene/287141971.html via @nbcnewyork
F**k the police - in with the Peace Officers
December 4, 2014 at 12:34pm
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I wrote this a while back - seems pertinent to post today.
Isn't it time that we re-assess our approach to upholding law and order? What we need are "Peace Officers." IE: cops who can properly assess a situation and diffuse it with the appropriate actions - the least of which should be the use of force - especially as in this case where there is absolutely no need for it. This example took 3 officers away from possibly preventing or assisting elsewhere, where they might really have been needed. And for what? To remove a harmless individual - doing nothing to interfere with anyone or anything. It's a failure of leadership from the top down.
I don't want to have cops go through sensitivity training. Why are we even giving a gun to someone who needs 'sensitivity training?' I want to hire cops that don't need sensitivity training. We need to stop giving policing jobs to personality types that thrive on being figures of authority - and are inclined to abuse the power that comes with it. If I were a cop - I would call every day that I came home without having to draw my gun or beat someone's head in a victory. I'm afraid that a lot of cops these days prefer it the other way around.
I get it; it's a tough job - in the big city you have to be assertive - tough. You cannot show weakness. You have to take control. This does not mean you have to show callous indifference and apathy to those you are supposed to be protecting and serving. It has turned into an 'It's us against them' mentality when cops hit the streets. The lack of respect officers are shown these days is directly related to exactly this kind of abuse of power and lack of discretion. From the relatively benign scenario of removing someone from a specific location all the way up to unleashing a hail of bullets when likely one bullet would do. We need to empower and urge our police force to exercise the freedom to decide what should be done in a particular situation - with a focus on the least disruptive and most peaceful outcome.
This effort would likely mean paying cops more - to do less enforcing and more policing. The first step should be putting in place personality testing requirements to screen out those individuals that display a tendency towards violent resolution / excessive force. If one has an inferiority complex - they have no business being a cop. (These are probably the only personality types applying for the job these days.) And a serious effort made to hire police directly from the communities that they reside in. They need to be a part of the community and have a vested interest in it - rather than being an outsider looking in.
I realize this is utopia-like pipe dream - but we've got to get a handle on this. I'm sick of former high-school bullies walking around with guns and nightsticks - and looking for any opportunity to use them. They start out on the street and before long they are promoted to leadership positions and hiring more bullies just like them. These are not the type of individuals who should be charged with keeping the peace.
Regarding the story of the extremely rare albino deer recently shot dead by an 11 year old kid in Michigan: I don’t think it’s any mystery that I have an acute distaste of humanity’s mistreatment, abuse and exploitation of animals. A story like this one seems to, on the surface, make that case for me. Humans thrive on killing beautiful, magical creatures right along with the rest of them that aren't as beautiful. It doesn’t matter how rare a beast it may be - 1 in 20k or 100k. This number, the rarity of course, does not give hunters' pause - it gives them a more appealing and desirable target. What a trophy that will make hanging in the living room, right? (For the record, though rare, if you believe killing an albino deer is uncommon, just google images of albino deer and count the dead ones.)
But I continually question why is it okay to teach our children that there is no value in an animal’s life - aside from the need to kill or exploit it for our own personal gain or satisfaction. The slaughter of elephants, lions, whales and other majestic wonders of nature takes place regularly - and a great number of people seem to show genuine distaste for this sort of thing.
And that there is a degree of outrage in these cases would be commendable - a spark of optimism on an otherwise bleak and hopeless wasteland of humanity’s lust for complete annihilation of everything that moves. I say it **would** be commendable - if meat eaters themselves weren't a high percentage of those outraged by these events. If this story, a kid killing a rare deer, or a cheerleader bagging a lion and other similar stories like these disgusts and dismays you - keep in mind that there are over 150 BILLION - (billion with a B) animals slaughtered for food **every year.**
So what is on your plate? If you eat meat, milk and cheese - you are a consumer and hearty supporter of this slaughter - which includes the torture, abuse, mistreatment and suffering of billions of innocent animals annually. I’m not suggesting that one couldn’t or shouldn’t be genuinely outraged by the killing of a rare deer and still eat meat. Humans are chronic speciesists. But this in of itself is something to think about. What’s that old cliché about walking the walk?
If you really love animals - then do so.
May 2, 2014
Without the Sin
May 9, 2014
Dusty Old Towne
May 16, 2014
Unfurl My Soul
April 4, 2014
April 11, 2014
Without the Sin
April 18, 2014
Will to Win
First Step’s a Start
April 25, 2014
Angel at the Door
I wanted to kill Glenn Gallee with my bare hands. A blunt instrument would do, or my bare hands. But snuffing the life out of Glenn was going to be difficult as long as I was sitting in the backseat of a police car. My only hope was that perhaps they’d put us in the same holding tank once we were officially arrested and thrown in the slammer.
We drove through this land of blackened barns
Smoldering on the horizons
And the murderous stench of death smoked our eyes
As the houses stood slaughtering silence
Oh factory, factory
It will not close
To bring unto the waiting world
The foaming froth of tortured life
Salted flesh and milky swirls
These eyes don’t lie
These are forsaken lives
You turn your back
You can hide your head
You can claim ignorance and play mute
But the horrors take place even with your back turned
On your plate is served up the warm truth
There is no disguising the certain slow death
Exacted upon the downtrodden
Dancing in the pools of the killing floor splashing
As the money and the blood
and the innocent come crashing down
As they pick up their knives
These are forsaken lives
It’s no sacrifice to save a life
You can savor the taste of choice
Look into the eyes of those condemn to die
Rise up and give them a voice
These cries don’t lie
These are forsaken lives
These eyes don’t hide
They are forsaken lives
Somebody please ask Mr. Richard Kimball whatever happened to this gem.
Time, I absolve myself of your vow to vanquish me.