Thursday, November 30, 2006

my homeless dylan

Alas, by the time I received an editorial response on this piece, the moment had passed; it's now without a home. Hope you enjoy it.

Song-and-Dance Man
Caleb Daniloff
Nov. 14, 2006

(DANILOFF) I took my parents to their first Dylan show last weekend. At BU’s Agganis Arena. Though they are his contemporaries, the last time they paid attention to Bob Dylan he was singing protest songs in Greenwich Village. Blowin' in the Wind, A Hard Rain’s Gonna Fall and as my mom put it The Changin’ Times. “Is he doing anything on Iraq,” she asked, then added “Harry Chapin – now there was a talent.”

Their impression of Dylan is that he’s an inarticulate grump, based mainly on Martin Scorcese’s recent documentary on the singer’s early years. Why so surly with the press, my dad asked. A journalism professor at Northeastern, he may have taken Dylan’s youthful scorn personally. As I listened to myself answering their questions, I realized how short my words were falling. Explaining Dylan is like trying to put smoke in a box. People have made careers out of his inscrutability. Best I could do was quote a fan I know from Iceland who said, “Bob Dylan has written a song for every experience I’ve had in my life.”

To prepare them for the show, I burned discs, emailed current set lists and loaned them the five-pound door-stopper The Complete Lyrics. “No complaining you couldn’t understand him,” I warned.

The night of the concert, people streamed down the steep concrete stairways at the seven-thousand-seat arena clutching tubs of popcorn, settling their sodas and beers into cup holders. Like they’d come for a movie. There were pony-tailed boomers with their teenage kids. Frat boys, party girls. Old hippies, young hippies. Where will the people dance, my mom asked. Where they stand, I answered.

After an ear-splitting set by Jack White’s The Raconteurs that drove my father up into the atrium, Dylan took the stage. Under a ring of athletic championship banners stood a little man in a western saloon-style suit with six hundred songs in his head, the history of America beneath a black cowboy hat. He leaned into his keyboard and began.

My dad watched intently, resting his chin on his knuckles, lacking only a pen and notepad. My mom kept her hands in her lap, even during applause. They couldn’t understand a word. Illuminated cell phones waved in the air instead of lighters.

As soon as I recognized a tune, I shouted the title to my parents. I was met with blank looks. How could I possibly explain something like set-list envy? Or describe that swoon of anticipation between songs. Would this be the night he finally played Joey or Isis or that holy grail – Angelina? To his fans, Dylan represents infinite possibility.

He flubbed a couple lines and at one point almost wandered off stage. “Something’s bothering him,” a voice next to me said. People like to say it’s hit or miss with Dylan. But I don’t mind when he makes mistakes. It’s refreshing to see him as human. And I sometimes wonder if he does it on purpose.

After the encore, Dylan came out and stood under the bright lights with his band, uncomfortably turning this way and that before the frenzied crowd. I was reminded of the packed Body Worlds exhibit I’d been to earlier that day at the Science Museum. I pictured a skin-stripped corpse hanging in a dark corner, a harmonica pressed to white lips, “Song-and-Dance Man” written on the plaque. All seven thousand of us trying to get as close as possible, eyeballing his insides from every angle. I saw myself leading my parents like children toward the glass case that contained his plump heart and cross sections of brain. To our disappointment, they appeared no different than the other hearts and brains on display. No different from our own. And that, perhaps, has been Bob Dylan’s point all along.


©2006 Caleb Daniloff

Monday, November 27, 2006

the last chapter

Click here for the final installment on the recent death of my father-in-law, Richard J. Vielmetti. Or just scroll down a skosh.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

nothingness & everything

We drove along the same country road where Richard taught his immigrant parents to drive. His Austrian father spoke eight languages. But the Depression kept them dirt poor. His mother took in laundry, 25 cents a load. Richard was their fifth child. He was now in a plastic urn under our coats in the back seat. The asphalt soon turned to gravel and the pines grew into towers, rocks crunching under our tires. The Green River glinted through the trees. After a few miles, we pulled over.

We clambered down a short embankment and made our way to a bend in the river. The water was shallow and fast-moving, the stony bed shimmering in the sunlight. A breeze pushed against our faces. Chris stepped on a dry rock and started shaking Richard from the shiny container. He poured out like a scarf. Then filled the water like a dye cloud, blotting out the bottom, blurring all sense of depth and dimension. And for a moment, Richard was the river. Then he moved on, a ghostly tan mass hugging the bank, drifting toward the waterfall above his favorite swimming hole.

“There goes a bit of his duct tape,” I joked to Chris and older sister MJ.

In his later years, Richard walked the lanes at the pool at the local Y. Instead of buying a new suit, he patched his chlorine-faded trunks with duct tape. In the end, it was covered silver. He once told the aide who lowered him into the pool. “I see you looking. You’re not getting your mitts on this suit.” Richard never paid much mind to his clothes, so long as they kept him warm. Joked that his disarray helped him sell more vacuums. “Customers feel sorry for me,” he grinned.

Richard didn’t care how anyone looked. He’d talk as easily to a homeless man as to a CEO in a three-piece suit. Richard just wanted to be with people he liked. And have a full belly. In fact, his stomach grew so big, he had to wear his trousers lower and lower. For a while, this resulted in his pants falling down. In stores, in homes. Suddenly they were pooled around his ankles. This didn’t bother him particularly. It was just life. He’d put up with worse. Decades ago, he saw his wife become trapped by his youngest child’s mental illness. Mother and daughter had become one, and Richard was relegated to a back room, often told to stay away from the house. He never talked about this. Chris bought him suspenders with multiple clasps.

Some of his remains had settled onto a flat rock like pale silt. I stuck my hand into the bone-cold water and ran my finger through the white-grey dust. A minnow had arrived and was darting and nibbling at the pebble-like shards. I looked up and watched the current. The tan clouds were gone. Richard was now nowhere in the world. And everywhere. We stood at the river’s edge a few moments, then got back in the car. Grabbed Chinese for lunch. And drove home.

Friday, November 24, 2006

the power within

My four-year-old nephew ran into the dining room while we were eating Thanksgiving dinner. He’d been playing in the living room with some other kids. My sister was giving a toast. “Mama, Mama, guess what,” Nicholas interrupted, breathless. Eighteen heads turned to listen. “I’m not shy anymore!” he declared. Then dashed off. I need to pick that kid’s brain first chance I get.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

early xmas air

Here's a link to my Christmas commentary on NPR's All Things Considered this evening (a reworked version of last year's piece on VPR). Recorded it this afternoon in Colchester, then was surprised to be told they were seriously considering it for air the same day. Better early than never.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

the dry grey state highway

The dry grey state highway I drive every day
is lined with bare, spiky trees,
each a multiplication of branches,
rendered so fine as to seem hairy.
They remind me of so many bronchi,
jutting off rows of trachea.
As I round a bend,
one pair of trees coughs up a flock of black birds
which scatter like buckshot
across the dry grey state highway I drive every day.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

a run with the hunted

The crack-crack-crack of rifleshot from the woods is unsettling during my pre-dawn dirt-road run. Even with a reflective orange vest and mini clip-on light, I expect the side of my skull to explode at any moment. I wonder if I’m ever scoped for the hell of it, the vulnerable subject of some hunter's power trip. I've had to train myself to find assurance in the sound of gunshot, for the boom always follows the bullet. Each shot I hear means I’ve been spared. Never break stride.

Friday, November 10, 2006

lunch break

I’d been feeling unsettled lately. Wondered if it had something to do with losing my watch the other week. I kept turning to my blank wrist, only to disappoint myself. I walked to Borders at lunch to read some Bukowski. It’d been a while. I strolled to the poetry aisle and fingered out Bone Palace Ballet. I read the first section without budging, poems about his 1930s childhood in Los Angeles. Spare and vivid, sloppy and neat. How he became a reader, a classical music-lover, pinpointing the moment he went from boy to man. “Can I help you find something?” a voice asked. I looked up, momentarily unsure where I was. There stood an eager bookstore clerk. I was curious why he’d interrupt someone obviously not browsing. Or did he detect something I was only vaguely aware of? That I was afraid I’d lost my way? I stared at him a moment and thought about my watch. “I’m all set, thanks,” I lied. I bought the Bukowski (you can never find him used) and headed out to Church Street. Scanning the brown brick pedestrian mall, I saw that most of the benches had been removed. No more denying the snow was coming. Down by a hamburger cart, I found a small two-seater. A man joined me. I read about strip joints and Venice beach while he forked bits of salad into his mouth from a foam container. He stood and tossed the rest in a nearby trashcan. A few minutes later, I left, too. And headed back to the office. “’tchout,” I heard a voice behind me mumble. I turned, and saw a grizzled old man in an electric scooter bearing down on me. He was grumbling something, his grey sweatshirt stained and baggy. My first thought was to ignore him and let him pass. But I leaned down close to his doughy, stubbled face.
“What’s that?”
“Didn’t want to hit you,” he said.
I could smell his breath, see the watery grey of his eyes.
“Thanks, old man,” I said.
And watched him turn down College Street, rolling uninterrupted toward the lake.
I knew I’d found something but wasn’t sure what. And it didn’t matter, names were no longer necessary.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006


Just voted, the lines were long and the communal booths shaking under determined felt-tip pens, the governor's wife was two people back. Felt good to be in Vermont.

Keep the feeling alive by casting your election-day thoughts in this blog experiment brought to you by CCTV, Candleblog and Vermont Community Access Media.

Monday, November 06, 2006

window washers

I've been watching the window washers. Cleaning the large tinted windows on the building across from my office. Two men strapped into harnesses hanging from ropes, legs dangling like children, while a third man on the roof steadies the gear. They descend slowly like spiders. Hooded sweatshirts and gloves, buckets swinging from hooks, long squeegees, the pavement thirty feet below. I admire their precise, artful wrist movements, their balance and body control, the improved vision they leave behind. I think about an office worker inside chuckling to a woman he'd like to take home, "Man, these guys are always hanging around." Or perhaps he pretends no one is out there. Goes about his work, makes his phone calls, hammers the digits on his calculator. I watch the window washers joke to each other as if at an invisible water cooler. No phones ringing, no meetings, no clocks. I long to move my desk into the sky, my computer and water bottle and job orders, an art director keeping me steady in the breeze as I chew over a headline for this week's car ad, the traffic rolling oblivious beneath my seat.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

another back-dater

Time has gotten the better of me; click here for my latest post.