The Great Turkey Piñata

Over the years, I’ve seen some funny stuff done to Thanksgiving turkeys. Big birds with extra legs “grafted” on, toy aliens breaking through the breasts of the turkey, and birds with potent marijuana rubs. Delivered to the table for carving, these holiday turkeys distract from anything that might have been done to side dishes.

All these thanksgiving turkeys were spectacular, yes, but safe. I recall one Thanksgiving in the sixties when the turkey was weird and almost lethal.

To start with it has to be remarked that holidays were not big at the Folkie Palace. Most habitues went home for Thanksgiving or Christmas, so there was usually only a cadre on hand who couldn’t afford the trip, were unwelcome at home, or had other pressing reasons to stay on Beacon Hill. The principal winter holiday was New Year, and the less said about that, the better. Not that many of our recollections of those blowouts were very clear.

However, it looked like we’d have a pretty full house in one year. I was unwelcome at home after a fight with both parents. One of my friends had moved back in due to marital problems, and most of the other regulars similarly had reasons that they’d be around. This encouraged our erstwhile chef and sometimes spiritual leader, the Monk, to plan a great blowout of a feast. Wishing to involve as many of the residents of our little end of Grove Street as possible, he thought big. Yes, there’d be an incredible dinner, but with a crew of our “experts in spectacle,” the plan was to make an impressive thanksgiving display.

The idea developed was a gigantic turkey piñata filled with candy for the neighbors, their kids, and passersby. For days we mulched newspaper, smeared and mixed white glue, and molded the birdie. It filled the living room, and eventually, the project had to be completed on the roof because it was too large to fit through the window – our original plan.

After a while, our experts conferred and concurred that the bird could not be broken apart to release the candy by normal means. In making it so large, we had structurally reinforced the construction. It would take a bazooka to blow this birdie to bits. This was where our pyrotechnics experts got involved and the beginnings of all our woes with the project. The Folkie Palace was ransacked for every firecracker, cherry bomb, or other fireworks available. We placed charges strategically, ensuring that the birdie would blow when lit.

We stuffed the paper mache bird full of candy on Thanksgiving morning and prepared to lower it into the street below at sunset. Then, completing this task and believing we had covered all our bets, we went downstairs for the feast.

The Monk had gone for traditional for the feast, no extra legs, aliens, strange sauces, or tricky devices. So there would be plenty of leftovers for days to come. The dinner was anti-climatic, considering that all the while we were eating, we imagined the fun that turkey piñata would be.

As soon as we finished, we hurried to the roof and checked our preparations. The Canary acted as the official timer and started a ceremonial countdown to sunset. At that precise moment, we lowered the giant piñata towards the street, and the crowd waiting below to beat at it with baseball bats.
It was, of course, the battleship of piñatas and barely yielded to the assault. So we decided to ignite the charges. The following events are disputed among the witnesses, but the consensus is that fire and smoke first came out of the turkey’s mouth. Next, the wings appeared to flap, and a giant puff of exhaust was emitted from the tail. Finally, the bird seemed poised to fly off but exploded into a shower of paper mache and candy. The crowd had begun to panic at the smoke and flames but thoroughly enjoyed the barrage of candy. Our giant exploding Thanksgiving piñata was a great success.

Someone ratted on us. Later that evening, Officer Cappucci knocked on the door. While he had no proof, he strongly suspected we were behind the great piñata explosion. It was suggested, firmly, that the City Department of Sanitation find Grove Street in a state of extreme cleanliness on Monday morning, or unavoidable repercussions for littering, shooting off fireworks, creating a public nuisance, etcetera, etcetera would be lodged. And that’s how we spent the weekend following Thanksgiving, sweeping, mopping, and cleaning our block of the street. When the police cruiser swept by Monday morning, Grove Street gleamed.

Freebie

“if you don’t want to do time, don’t do the crime.” This was the advice given to street punks in New York City when I was growing up. I often heard this take on the law from Freebie, a local hustler, sometimes dealer, and loudmouthed critic of everyone else’s behavior. Freebie was called this in the Village because he always sought a free meal, coffee, place to stay, or “touch.”

Now the streets of the Village teamed with people whose intent was to make it big somehow. There were “no talents” who thought a good enough hustle would take them someplace. There were also the wannabees, who believed imitating someone else would allow them to ride the coattails to success. Of course, there could only be so many Joan Baez or Bob Dylan clones, but they seemed not to notice.

But to get back to Freebie, he had his favorite bits of advice, which he’d soulfully share while looking you square in the face. He’d get this intent and piercing look while reciting something like, “if you don’t want to do time, don’t do the crime.” Freebie, it should be mentioned, did enough time for minor offenses in the Tombs, New York City’s infamous jail, that he should have followed his own advice.

On Sunday’s Freebie could be found on stakeout in Washington Square, participating in the free-for-all music, poetry, and political rant that was the Washington Square experience in the early sixties. He’d wander the crowd looking for young people with that lost look in their eyes, offer to take them under his wing, and show them the “real” Village.

I think I fell into a different category than the wannabes or the no-talents. I eventually settled on second-rate talent performing in third-rate dives. After a few months in the Village, I had adopted the same world-wise point of view as all the other habitues of the folk music clubs and coffeehouses. We were all seventeen or so but thought we had seen it all. But at our inception into this life, we had all had our doings with Freebie or someone like him. Freebie gave us our first real tour of Bleeker Street, explained the differences between West and East Village, and introduced us around. We “outgrew” the Freebies and wanted little to do with them after we had become hip. But there was a relationship.

If we wanted a quick drug connection, we would go to Freebie. If you needed to know about local law enforcement, you went to Freebie. It wasn’t like someone like Freebie was a favorite or favored individual. It was just that Freebie was so indisputably useful.

People like Freebie came and went, just like many of the rest of us. We’d sweep into the neighborhood one fall and hitchhike out one spring a year or two later bound for Boston, the Haight, Denver, or Yorktown. For Freebie, it was the luck and bad luck of being a known conduit of information and goods. Sooner or later, something or someone will catch up with you.

In the spring of ’65, I headed for Boston. A year later, I revisited my old digs, and the word at the Rienzi was that Freebie had been caught with his fingers too deep in a drug deal. He was now doing a stint upstate in New York State’s exclusive prison for the incorrigible Sing Sing.

That Sunday, I went to Washinton Square Park to watch the performers, political ranters, and the crowd. Working the mob were Freebie wannabees, ” Hey! You from Uptown? Never been to the Village before? Wow, what a great time you can have. Hey, can I offer a bit of advice?”

Some things never get old, and some roles will always need to be filled. Erase one person filling the role, and another appears.

Scrounger

One of my first stops after getting out of the Navy was in Baltimore. Many friends lived there, and it had been a congenial haven in my earlier “on the road” days. Since I planned on returning to my dissolute ways, it was a logical place to start; good friends, good parties, and a jumping-off place for frolicking detours.

I quickly found myself involved in my best friend’s schemes. My friend was one of those artists to whom success in art came quickly. But he had a problem—no money for materials. That was where I came in. I also had no money. But I was a good scrounger.

Set loose in industrial and commercial Baltimore, I rapidly scrounged discarded costume dummies for a sculptural piece, paints for a mural, and, best of all, a discarded piano that we salvaged for its many materials and repurposed into dozens of pieces. 

I was careful not to alarm any places from which I liberated materials. Instead, I always introduced myself and asked if the article in the alleyway was free for the taking. Later, friends would come in a car to pick up the goodies.

I soon moved up in the organization and became a clipper and trimer for the complex montages that my friend created. As a scrounger, I was always looking for interesting journals and obscure print materials that we could clip for a montage.

One day I scrounged a set of carving tools from a hardware store that was disposing of old displays and odds and ends. My friend suggested that we might venture into making Tiki figures for sale at some of the happenings and gatherings. I was set the job of carving, being that I had done a few pieces in emulation of my grandfather and carved a few things in the Scouts.

About three weeks later, we had an exhibit at a buddy’s bar – my one and only “one-man show.” On display were my first works. The funds raised allowed me to patronize those in attendance with several rounds of drinks.

That was my introduction to the world of “ART.” That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Samhain

Let’s be clear. I’ve never liked Ouija Boards. I acquired the dislike while living with a group of other Folkies on Boston’s Beacon Hill in the 1960s. We lived in a four-story walk-up apartment that was only indifferently maintained. So during Halloween, we did not have to try to make it look like a haunted house. We called it the Folkie Palace, but it was more like the Folkie Hovel.

Just a few days before the end of the month, a sort of infectious enthusiasm took hold for the oncoming holiday. Decorations salvaged from the previous year were hauled out and strung up. Candles were lit, and Dougie, our resident Shaman, declared that he’d officiate at our Feast of Samhain. Beer, the beverage of all celebrations at the Palace, was laid in. But not all were comfortable with an actual official ritual for Samhain. Many of the residents were rejects from a local Jesuit college. They were on board for a party but less enthusiastic for a pagan celebration.

But after beer began to flow that evening, qualms and doubt seemed to recede. Dougie, who claimed that all sorts of shamanistic approaches were his vocation, brought out some black candles, very smelly incense, and an Ouija board.

First came much beer, a tremendous amount of beer, truth to be told! Then candles and incense. Then incantations, strings of syllables that no one could make sense of, and a flash of light and an impenetrable dark cloud of smoke. Finally, Dougie pronounced the scene set and announced that the spirits of previous tenants of the Palace would visit us to impart their wisdom. Next, Dougie began to manipulate the Ouija Board. Slowly it spelled out one word – Leave. Dougie asked for guidance, but the board spelled out – die.
At last, Mike the Vike took charge, and new words were spelled out -goodbye. Around this time, the smoke from the incense got bad enough that we had to open the windows. In a few minutes, the house seemed to wail and howl. Then there was a tremendous crashing sound, and large dark monsters lurched through the night, and began to grab our friends and haul them away.

Later on the street, we realized that seeing the smoke, our neighbors had called the Fire Department, who’d come and hauled our entire lot of drunken Samhain celebrators out into the cold late October evening. The wailing had been the sirens, the smashing had been firefighters coming through the door, and the monsters were the firefighters.

The landlord threatened to kick us out. But we vowed to replace the door and paint, so he reluctantly allowed us to stay. Dougie, his Ouija Board, candles, and incense were expelled without ritual.

We vowed oaths of sobriety that lasted until the big Thanksgiving celebration and the exploding turkey. But that’s another story.

The Debating Society

When younger, I was not known for my snappy comebacks, sarcastic salutations, or pithy badinage. It wasn’t that I was boring; just inexperienced and lacked the experience needed to elevate me to the level of my peers. By way of contrast, they were all medal holders, college-educated, and more than a bit full of themselves.

But the habitus of the Folkie Palace – its ingrained way of dealing with the world- was one of continual debate, argument, and discussion. Having learned in college courses to compare and contrast, they now could take this technique to ridiculous levels.

Much of the evening debate was over Giant Imperial Quarts of Narragansett beer. Debate and argument are thirsty work. Throats become dry. Unfortunately, there was a tendency for the debates to extend long enough into the night that supplies of lubricant would need replenishing. Long past midnight, these sessions would continue.

One morning, after a particularly boisterous debate, our conclave of genii decided to review their notes and continue the topic. But, regrettably, the letters became scribbled and illegible after a page or two. So, after consideration, they decided to borrow a tape recorder for the following get-together.

The following Friday, they carefully prepared. Beer. Yes, Food, Yes, tape recorder, Yes. They began as always. Feeling their way with preliminary statements, carefully developing logical pathways for exploration, and slowly building into the more dramatic disputes they were particularly eager to explore.
Long into the moonlit night, they continued till the last discussant passed out over the final Giant Imperial Quart. He declared himself the winner. His last conscious act was shutting off the recorder.

Sometime late Saturday morning, after the group returned from the Tarry and Taste with coffee and donuts, a sober group rewound the tapes. They eagerly listened to the earlier arguments, discussion, and carefully reasoned debate. Then, somewhere beyond the second hour of the tape, things changed, arguments slurred, slowed, and there were occasional outbursts of raucous laughter. By hour four, a grim silence had settled over the group as they listened to the unmistakenly drunken hollering and yelling.

Someone leaned over the recorder, silently shut the machine down, and ripped the tape from the reel. In moments all the evidence was at the bottom of a trash barrel, and a sober and silent group quietly made their way down Grove St. to the Harvard Gardens, where they morosely drank in silence for an hour.

Eventually, someone quietly opined that they’d never do that again, to which his neighbor promptly corrected him to wit that never was much too indeterminate a time frame. Finally, across the table, a third maintained that as it was, a non-reproducible event never was, in fact, correct. Eventually, everyone had chimed in, and without the benefit of notes or recordings, the habituees of the Folkie Palace Debating Society began another Saturday night.

Excerpt From – “The Idiots Guide To Folksinging” 1968 edition

It’s a bad boy musicians cliche. You grab a custom Gibson by the head of the neck and swing it roundhouse at your attacker. You’ve seen it in many concerts, in Hollywood films, and on TV. As I write this, you can imagine the guitar detonating. It’s enough to make me, a teetotaler, drink. But, a guitar is not a weapon.

However, almost every folkie who has wound up playing seedy bars, not-so-scrumptious play dates in basements, or facing the wrong drunk at four AM knows that the guitar is often the first contact with the enemy.
So, the question becomes how to defeat your opponent without ruining your means of making money.

Before going into more subtle techniques, let’s disabuse the more obvious method of swinging the guitar’s body. As we have already noted, while deadly, this results in a badly damaged guitar. Ouch! Consider the shape and construction of the guitar; the neck is its weak point. However, the broad bottom makes the perfect object for thrusting directly into the softer parts of a drunken home boy’s face. Strategic use of the button on the base can result in wounds requiring a plastic surgeon’s care. Use the twisting and pulling motions with caution; significant soft tissue damage is inevitable.

Other objects available to the guitarist are the strap, picks, and sheet music. First, let’s consider the strap as a quick and easy method of applying a garrot to the neck of the opponent. Next, we should consider our picks; used as sharp objects to stab or scratch. The unguarded drunk will undoubtedly have trouble explaining them at home, ” you got these how?! You damned liar!”

Even loose sheet music can be hurled into the face of an attacker to distract momentarily while you flee the stage. In short, you have many defensive and offensive options as a guitarist.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that having a friend with an escape car running is preferable to facing Sheriff Vinny, the drunks’ cousin, who happens to be the local law.

Good luck, and pay closer attention to where your bookings land you.

The Crunchies

They were just a bit too crunchy for our liking. I think the term that would eventually get coined was “granola head.” But for now, we used crunchy. Every topic soon descended into a discussion of how macrobiotics, brown rice, oats, proper addition of citrus, and kale would work to prevent all the political ills of the world; and keep you young into your eighties.

It wasn’t that I disagreed with some of their dietary intensity; I usually enjoyed eating at their place. Clare and Jules were great cooks, and in terms of diet and the environment, much of their philosophy made sense. But their continual talk about it as if it were a universal solvent for all problems bothered me. Of course, a good diet and gardening would not solve all issues without much other help. But, in our get-togethers, all discussions landed back at this juncture.

The monomania led to a backing off from social gatherings. We ghosted them. Calls went unanswered, and we avoided a favorite coffeehouse that they frequented. Finally, in the middle of summer, a bundle of kale was found on the doorstep with a note attached: ” We miss you!!!”

A couple of years passed. We had relaxed our vigilance and returned to old haunts. Then there they were at our table. Hoping for the best, we greeted them and invited them to sit and join us. At first, it seemed as though they had learned restraint, then noticing that my index finger was bandaged, a flood of advice on healing gushed forth. It appeared that they had spent the last two years at various institutes. They had transitioned through Vedic, Magento-dynamism, and naturopathic traditions in a record-breaking progression and were now practitioners.

As gently as we could, we excused ourselves; we had tickets and couldn’t miss the show. Lovely seeing you again!

A few years passed. We were older, more settled, and less likely to spend time in old haunts. But for an anniversary, we went to the restaurant where we had met, just for nostalgia’s sake. As we were indulging in an “Oh, no, we really shouldn’t” dessert, our least favorite couple popped up. Begging the server for a check, we planned a rapid exit strategy only to be trapped at the door. Clare and Jules had not aged well and they sensed we were not eager to see them. Mixing just a bit of spite into my greeting, I asked them how their High Colonic Purges and crisp kale juice cocktail regime was going. Seeming not to take offense, Clare glowed as she informed me that they had been freed from the wheel of shame after finding the true love and blessings of following the Reverend Tollofsson. Jules smiled as he pressed a brochure into my hands and asked, ” are you free on Wednesday? We have a sacred literature study session! This week it’s the Innuma Elish.”

We smiled and said another time would have to do; we were both scheduled for colonoscopies and couldn’t cancel the dates. Silently we vowed to stay clear of any of our former haunts in the future.

At this point, enough years have passed that we tend to look back on the events of our youth as mere source material for blog posts. Sadly though, the other day on NPR, I was listening to a show on counter-culture types who had joined right-wing causes like Q-anon. At one point, they were interviewing Jules.

I sighed, turned the radio off, and continued on my way to the lumber yard. So much intensity. So many searches for the truth and so much wasted effort.

Sometimes you need to be still, shut up and do one thing well.

Sojourn

One of the things I discovered in college and grad school was that my past as a folksinger, road bum, and general neer do well was not universally appreciated by professors and peers who had “played by the rules” all their lives. Time spent among the creative dregs of society was not appreciated. The better-off toyed with their hippie infatuation but returned home to Mom and Dad when reality intruded for the payment of rent, food, or treatment of social diseases. After all there are creators and then there are consumers. The more locked down you are the more likely you are to be a consumer, and not a creator.

I learned the truth of Richard Farina’s Sellout Agitation Waltz very rapidly:

Society is never geared

To people who grow a beard

Or little girls with holes in their ears

They’re liable to hunt you down

And dress you in a wedding gown

And offer substantial careers

They’ll buy you a suit of clothes

And pay to get another nose

So no one will turn you away

Well, I was through with the previous lifestyle; it had almost run through me with the final passages spent being on the run from a sociopath with a gun. So with a shrug, I stowed the boots and hid the past. Or at least I tried. Undergrad was easy. Grad school was tough; there were too many Ivy leaguers who’d never worked a day or seen the rough side of life; and thought there was something dirty about it. You consumed life; you did not create it.

By the time I left grad school, I could kind of pass. But, I was a mole in normal society…a sleeper agent for unconformity. So, I found that occasional slips ups were not too noticeable. My sojourn among what passed for the normal was pretty dull. I played games when frustrated. I tied knots in the devil’s tail and loved the double entendre and satire. 

I now find myself in the unique position of well…finding my way out of the maze. The suits and ties are in the closet, and I’m thinking of a bonfire for them one day—a symbolic gesture of peace and freedom. 

The wood in the carving shop doesn’t care about the years I spent making nice. So every night, the guitar Comes out, and I run progressions and song snippets and play around. I am done “playing by the rules.” Life is about making selections; we need to choose wisely.

For those unable to cut loose, I offer a bit more of Farina’s song:

So cut your hair

And never stare

At people who ain’t aware

That every morning they wake up dead

Take off your boots

And find your roots

And join the ranks of the young recruits

Who have a collective idea

Blueser

When I emerged from the egg and arrived in Greenwich Village as a newly minted folksinger, the streets were filled with juvenile Joan Baez wannabees and their male kindred. It was Childe ballad here and soulful lament there on the part of the young women. The earnest young men thought they could get along with old Limelighters, Kingston Trio, and the like. Each train in from Long Island and each subway car from Uptown held a new draft. 

You didn’t need Delphic wisdom to know that most of the trains heading back were equally filled. The new drafts soon realized their peers were doing the same material. All the women with ironed straight long hair like Baez and the earnest young men in chambray shirts soon returned to the burbs and the Bronx, casualties of the mass production of vinyl long-play albums by artists who’d commercialized a specific brand of folk music years before.

I survived out of luck. At that moment, there were not tons of “bluesers” in the Village, and my style was raw enough that I eeked out an existence in the second and third-tier coffeehouses. I was thrilled to do so and didn’t care that I was on the lowest wrung in the Village. Once you were a regular habitue, the real world of life in the Village opened for you. It was a round-robin of singing and playing sessions that went on all night and poetry readings in friends’ apartments. There were potluck suppers, impromptu music lessons, long conversations on Zen and the art of guitar, and plots to flee the East Coast for the raptures of LA or San Francisco.

So why leave all this? Well, the Village was always a big pot of Stone Soup. New additions are continually being made. And then, some of us would leave for other venues, experiences, and lifestyles. We graduated.

I have not returned for over a generation, but I’m sure the pot is still churning somewhere. Radically different because the additions have changed, but still a sort of Bootcamp for creativity.

It was a great place to be from.

Globally

I am innocent. No, I was not there. I was nowhere close by and probably could not have afforded to get in if I had tried to be there. Yes, I was frequently at Newport for the Folk Festival, But that weekend I was not in Woodstock.

Had I ever been to Woodstock? Of course. I used to head out on weekends to play and sing with friends. But the Festival. No. And I have an alibi. I was living in a small apartment on Lyons street in Ottowa. Hours drive away.

Yes, I know that with the addition of a few mosquitos, the mass required to totter the earth on its axis would have been reached. After all, everyone in my generation claims to have been in Woodstock that weekend.

Now it’s true I was in Newport when Dylan went electric. But that did not make the earth wobble – no matter what his fans want you to believe. Nor did it create a new crack of doom. That was the Rollingstone’s Highway to Hell.

No, the sheer mass of Hippies, stone heads, freaks, and wonks affected reality that weekend. Don’t believe the Conservative television hosts. It did not cause the decline in the Patriarchal system. That was Women’s Lib.
Are you ready for the truth? Climate Change the sheer amount of recycled weed smoke, CO2, forever chemicals from patchouli perfume, and unwashed bodies created a palpable shift in the biosphere that exacerbated changes in the local climate and gradually caused climate change. You’ve heard about the butterfly waving its wings? Same thing, just a lot of BO, bad drugs, and idiots slipping in the mud.

I want it clearly understood that I am not responsible; I had nothing to do with it. I was getting a buzz on with Labatt’s beer, and attempting to be debonair. One of the few times I wasn’t going off on some crazy frolicking detour. Now that most of my generation says they were there, may I advise you to confront your parents about their role in creating global climate change?

After all, it’s all about being a responsible adult. Right?

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