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The Shipwreck Rose: My Fickle Friend

Wed, 07/20/2022 - 11:33

A car was waiting for a break in the traffic at the corner of Buell and Main the other evening when I was walking Sweetpea, its windows rolled down and the voice of Frank Sinatra drifting out from the car window on the heavy July air. Frankie was singing “The Summer Wind,” and the lyrics floated behind the car like a beach ball on water as the driver — I could see him in profile, a young man with brown hair in a plain car — pulled away:

“Like painted kites,” Frankie sang,

“Those days and nights, they went flyin’ by

The world was new

Beneath a bright blue umbrella sky. . . .”

I once read someplace — it must have been one of the New York papers — that the popular song most frequently to be found on the jukeboxes of the Empire State was Sinatra’s “Summer Wind.” Someone had taken a poll, I think it was in the 1990s, and inspected the jukeboxes. I wonder if this is still so, or if the sentimental anthem of Massachusetts, “Sweet Caroline,” has overtaken “The Summer Wind” in the drunken-sing-along bars of night? Are there still drunken singalong bars in the Manhattan night landscape?

One time in I think it was 1995 or 1996, I heard “The Summer Wind” in its ideal setting: on a jukebox on a warm evening, before sunset, in the Mulberry Street Bar. The bar was deserted, but for four or five of us friends, a clique I hung around with then in the East Coast swing scene. These were the years when we dressed entirely in vintage clothing from the 1930s and 1940s — “down to my underwear,” I would claim, and it was true. I was slim and wore silk teddies and garters under my genuine crepe-de-chine World War II-era knee-length dresses. (This wearing of vintage was a mid-1990s rebellion against the toddler baby dolls and comfy tracksuits — the swaddling clothes — of mainstream fashion then. It was, I would explain, “adult drag.” We were consciously dressing like adults and acting out a performance of an imagined midcentury reality. In modern terms, you could say, we were LARPing.) The men in our circle wore perfectly reproduced suits and antique hats, and carried pocket squares and cigarette cases. This evening in the Mulberry Street Bar happened in summer, so they would have been wearing lightweight Palm Beach suits or a tan gabardine.

The air in the bar was perfectly still, and the street outside the plate glass was bathed in a yellow light. It was a privilege to be in that bar, or at least it felt like it. I had a nickname in the swing years, which was Sugar, and went everywhere with my friends Cookie and Lana and a couple of Italian-American guys who lived in beautiful old houses in Bensonhurst and cooked intricate dishes with bell peppers in their undershirts. (This was only a brief interlude in my biography. Oh, man, I’ve lived a long time!) I believe Michele Savoia was there on the evening I’m remembering, and the true king of true swing, Roddy Caravella.

Nobody was singing karaoke in the Mulberry Street Bar in 1995; nobody was drinking a Dirty Shirley. It felt unbelievable, even in 1995 or 1996, that the bar had survived intact as an unspoiled holy relic of the old neighborhood. It was a Little Italy summer when everything felt a little seedy, arms and asses sticking to the vinyl of the high-backed barstool, a film on everything, the garbage can in the kitchen full, that one fat fly that wouldn’t leave the room through the window left open. (A summer heat much like the heavy heat of this morning, as I’m writing this column, except the heavy heat of 1995 or 1996 felt more like an outward manifestation of a certain stylish nostalgia and lassitude than what it feels like today — which is like the awakening shrug of an apocalypse, the beast of climate change rising to his haunches. Anyhoo.)

“The autumn wind and the winter winds

They have come and they have gone

And still the days, those lonely days

They go on and on . . . ”

Driving in a car with the radio blaring is one of American life’s greatest pleasures and one of America’s greatest gifts to the world. My mother is living in Greenport these days, and has a fair bit of memory loss, which isn’t making life especially fun, and when I visit her, we have fallen into a driving-with-the-radio-blaring routine. She dresses a bit reluctantly for our outing, and we find a slim pretext to go for a long drive — something along the lines of “let’s buy a watermelon from a farm stand, then an iced coffee from Aldo’s, and then we’ll go to the bookstore, and then head to the marina and park and look at the boats!” We get in my Honda and I tell Spotify to play Frank Sinatra, and as I drive we sing along.

We have the same voice — actually, biologically, the same voice, the same voice box, I hear myself talking back when I speak with my mother on the telephone — but while she has managed to turn the voice she was born with into “a good voice” and a lifelong hobby of choral singing, I interpreted my own version of the same instrument as “I don’t have the pipes,” and “I cannot sing,” so when we drive and sing along to the radio, she takes the solos. She studied opera and performed with the Choral Society of the Hamptons for decades and still sings remarkably on key, and remembers the lyrics to most of the Great American Songbook.

Although my mother declines to admit that she recognizes the names of Mel Torme, Sammy Davis, or Dean Martin, I am aware that this is not evidence of memory loss, in this instance, but a slight, an insult, her silent comment on their artistic stylings. “Smarmy” is the word my mother used when I tried to get her to appreciate Mel Torme’s swinging 1962 hit “Comin’ Home Baby” on Spotify on Saturday, as we cruised down Main Road past the Sound View motel drinking iced lattes.

When you get right down to it, right down to the brass tacks of being almost 88 years old and less than thrilled with a fair portion of memory loss, there is only Frankie. Tony Bennett does not exist.

I asked Spotify to play Ray Charles doing “Georgia,” and I said to my mother that I loved Ray Charles’s voice. She said, “Why?” I played Nina Simone’s version of “My Baby Just Cares for Me,” and when I said, “Yeah, good Lord, Nina Simone could really sing,” my mom paused significantly and said, “If you say so.”

I put on Hoagy Carmichael doing “Stardust,” I put on Chet Baker, but she wasn’t having any of it. So it was all Frankie, all along Main Road to Mattituck and out again to Orient. We sang along to “All or Nothing at All” and “Where or When” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” (God, what an incredible country we were for a minute there! A country that could produce “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” and “Skylark,” works of purest, highest art, if you ask me, as beautiful as anything by Brahms or Mozart, in my opinion.)

Anyway, it was a very good year, 1995 and 1996. The 20th was a very good century. (Do you remember the 1990s, when everything still felt like it was going to turn out all right? Like the world was improving?) Michele Savoia, I read with regret in The Daily News one winter about eight years ago, drowned in the Hudson River near Chelsea Piers after leaving the Marquee Club. He slipped and fell stepping from the dock onto a boat.

“And guess who sighs his lullabies

Through nights that never end

My fickle friend, the summer wind

The summer wind, the summerwind

The summer wind . . . ”

One of these days, I’ll write my column about the time in 1988 that I had a Valentine’s Day dinner with my college boyfriend in an almost-private Italian restaurant farther down Mulberry Street, on Columbus Park, now closed, called Giambone. There was a knot of wise guys in the corner talking amongst themselves about something and no one else in the joint. I sat at the bar with Todd, who had dreadlocks, and the bartender laughed at us, rather kindly, and waved us away when we tried to pay.


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