Thank you, Jacques Brel

August 20, 2014

My Dear Jacques,

Did you ever think that when you started to write songs in far away Belgium in the 1940’s that an ageing Baby Boomer would adopt your songs as his shtick and hawk his version around a west coast city in America.

BrelIt must happen to a lot of writers. I mean, who sits down to write and says to themselves, “I don’t care if no-one ever reads this or uses it while I am alive; this is for that person who has perhaps not even been born”? No, most of us work for the time in which we live and act. And yet by far the bulk of any writer’s fans will be those who find his or her material long after their remains have rotted away to dust. In his lifetime Bill Shakespeare could probably count on a few hundred, maybe a thousand folk of his acquaintance who would dare to say they liked his work and would defend it against whoever reigned. And now Bill has a fan club of possibly billions.

And so, Jacques, I wonder if it ever occurred to you that your work had more staying power than you thought at first?

I have to say that when I first listened to the “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris’ album I was not immediately bowled over. I did not go, aha, this is the kind of music that I can get into and through which I can reveal my own true character and musical aspirations. Well, I was only 28. But over the years as I listened again and again something happened and when I was in my fifties I suddenly found that your songs had gotten into my psyche and would not go away.

It did occur to me that I was only affected by the English version that Blau and Shuman had produced in New York in the 1970’s. So I bought CD’s of you actually singing your own work, and found yet more depth and interest in the music; and the discovery that the NYC review had sampled only 22 examples and there were so many more.

So how is it that your music is the vehicle for my musical aspiration? You are not the only other writer I admire. Somewhere in your work there must be the connection with my mind that pushed me. Something that said, Bob, you can do this, it is you. Whereas I feel somewhat out of place and uncomfortable singing Leonard Cohen or John Lennon, I feel absolutely at ease when I sing your work, and feel thoroughly connected to it.

I do sing others songs, and with pleasure, but it has been your work that gave the platform from which to begin. And so I thank you, Jacques, from my heart, from the stage where I am and hopefully from the stage where I want to be…

Your late, very late fan,

Bob Sterry

This week someone close to me sent me a joke about Mexican immigrants. I did not find it amusing. Here is my response.

“Dear X,

 know you are only trying to amuse me, but I find these kinds of jokes just a little hard to swallow. So please forgive me if I sound a little upset in this response. I send it with love knowing you will read and accept that you and I cannot always think alike. But you knew that anyway!

Every time I ride my bike past a field of beans or berries or corn, in my leisure, I can see groups of twenty or more Mexicans working producing food that will appear later in my local Thriftway. It was 90 Deg. F. today and will be the same for the rest of the week. They work for minimum wage or less and live in conditions that neither you nor I would tolerate for a day. Most of them go to local Catholic churches, and they bring their children too. They encourage those kids to go to school so they won’t have to work in the fields when they become adults.

Neither you nor I can imagine the conditions in Mexico and Central American countries from where so many try to escape. You would have to go back to the late nineteenth century in Italy, Sicily and Poland and Russia to find an equivalent. It is not just poverty from which they are fleeing. It is extreme violence. Violence; much of which is caused by drug trafficking. Drugs that many white Americans seem to be happy to buy. Parents have no hope for their children in their own country and so they send them to the one place they desperately hope might help them. Would you or I do that? Under what terrifying conditions would one say goodbye to a ten year old daughter knowing you might never see her again? Under what terrifying conditions would an adult leave his family behind knowing that he or she might never see them again and that their lives remained in danger.

The recent crisis of children crossing into the US pales in comparison to other refugee issues around the world. Jordan, (a country the size of Massachusetts) has absorbed 600,000 Syrian refugees. Lebanon (the size of Connecticut) has absorbed as many. A new wave of Iraqi refugees is about to hit neighboring countries. In North Africa there are millions of displaced people moving from one country to another to escape religious violence or famine, often both.

Fifty thousand Hispanic children is a drop in the bucket. Double it and it would still be a small number. America can absorb these children so easily. And would it be different if they were Chinese, or Korean, or Indian, or Vietnamese, or any other race? Not in my eyes. The idea that any race other than white Europeans has any merit is utterly unacceptable. I think, I know, it might even be a Christian ethic.

The idea that Mexico and Central America is full of freeloaders looking for a handout, a free ride, is unacceptable. Of course, not every one of them is as upstanding, moral and hardworking as the next man or woman. But then neither were many that had their names changed as they passed through Ellis Island a century ago. And neither are so many whose antecedents arrived long before that. No race is born lazy; none.

A better solution to the problem is for the richer countries of the world to help those countries change. America has a great record of trying to do that, although political meddling has tarnished it often (Chile is an example). Sure millions of dollars have been spent to little effect and yet our standard of living is affected less than that than by the trillions we spend on our defense budget; to little or no effect. Iraq remains a total disaster, Afghanistan the same. Do not misunderstand me. We do need defending, seriously, but not against a few children.

When I decided to stay in America it was in very large part thanks to the generosity of my future in-laws, their family and their friends, and the feeling that I was welcome. My contribution to the common good of America in the last forty years will be no larger than some of the men I see working in those hot fields. It is no larger than the dedication of the Mexican mothers I see shepherding their children to school before they go to work in cleaning, retail, food prep., and all the dirty jobs no-one else wants. Who exactly is lazy now?

I hope you can see why I don’t care for the joke you sent me. As I said, I know you were trying to amuse me, but it can’t. It’s not that I am entirely guiltless myself. I have my own learnt reflexes to people who seem different. It is more that as I get older I find it harder to accept that I am any better or worse than any other human on the planet.

And so I hope you will understand if I ask you not to send me these kind of jokes.

Sent with love and respect.

Bob”

Here is the ‘joke’ they had sent me.

Tough shit, Amigo

A beautiful fairy appeared one day to a destitute Mexican refugee outside an

Arizona immigration office.

“Good man,” the fairy said, “I’ve been sent here by President Obama and told

to grant you three wishes, since you just arrived in the United States with your

wife and eight children.”

The man told the fairy, “Well, where I come from we don’t have good teeth, so

I want new teeth, maybe a lot of gold in them.”

The fairy looked at the man’s almost toothless grin and — PING !– he had a

brand new shining set of gold teeth in his mouth!

“What else?” asked the fairy, “Two more to go.”

The refugee claimant now got bolder. “I need a big house with big three-car

garage in Annapolis on the water with eight bedrooms for my family and the rest

of my relatives who still live in my country.. I want to bring them all over here” —

and PING– in the distance there could be seen a beautiful mansion with a three-car garage, a long driveway, and a walkout patio with a BBQ in an upscale neighborhood overlooking the bay.

“One more wish,” said the fairy, waving her wand.

“Yes, one more wish. I want to be like an American with American clothes instead

of these torn clothes, and a baseball cap instead of this sombrero. And I want to

have white skin like Americans” —and — PING — The man was instantly transformed – wearing worn-out jeans, a Baltimore Orioles T-shirt, and a baseball cap. He had

his bad teeth back and the mansion had disappeared from the horizon.

“What happened to my new teeth?” he wailed. “Where is my new house?”

(THIS IS GOOD — NO, ACTUALLY THIS IS VERY GOOD!!)

 The fairy said: “Tough shit, Amigo, now that you are a white American, you have to fend for yourself.”

I almost caused a small road accident in my small town when BBC World News (Via Oregon Public Broadcasting, thank you) announced on my car radio a German goal in the first fifteen minutes and then four more before half time. When I went into the hardware store it was 1-0. When I came out it was 4-0. I had to use both lanes of Route 99E to recover.

Welcome to the world of English cricket I said to myself once I had stopped laughing.

We, the English, get regularly thrashed at the other game we invented by nations as tiny as Sri Lanka and the West Indies. But we still play, we still show up because to play is more important. Just like the English, the Brazilians, after years of being told they perfected the beautiful game find that others can play it too.

The bathroom in the rented house where I spent part of my childhood and early teens was on the north side of the house; freezing in winter and not much better in midsummer. It was a small room, but still contained a full length bath, a sink, and a toilet. Over the sink was a frosted glass window with a red tiled sill perhaps eighteen inches wide. On this shiny surface lived all of the family toothbrushes, my Father’s safety razor, a packet of Seven O’clock razor blades, and several mysterious dark glass bottles; never less than two; which held liquid prescriptions or remedies for whatever ailment my Father was enjoying at the time or in the recent past. They were dark brown or deepest blue, sometimes ribbed and oval in cross section. Most often sealed with a cork their labels gave little away, if they had a label. The Linctus, The Liniment and The Mixture were the three most frequent names worn by the liquids waiting there.  bottle

The Liniment was well known to me and my two Brothers. It stunk. My Father called it Horse Oil and claimed that although it had been originally developed for treating inflamed horse tendons it was perfectly good for humans. My poor Mother had to rub it into his shoulders and back and then he would sit with his back to an electric fire and smoke another Senior Service unfiltered cigarette.

It was an unlabeled bottle that intrigued me most. It was plain glass and lighter brown than the other bottles and contained three separate layers of different colored liquids. The lower layer was dark and took up about a third of the bottle. The middle layer was light tan and oily. The top layer was clear. I never dared to remove the cork and take a sniff.

My Father never told me what symptoms it was designed to alleviate. But I did see him shaking the bottle fiercely, presumably to mix the contents, before he would close the bathroom door and so prevent me from witnessing the dosing, which may have been internal or external.

In summer, when the sun would set in the North West and illuminate the back of our house and the frosted window of the bathroom, the low red rays shone through the brown glass of the bottle and reflected off the shimmering interface between two layers showing it as a mysterious silver surface. I thought of it as an ocean on a distant planet lit by a strange darkening sun.

Unused Wings

May 28, 2014

I often write short phrases down for later use. One such recently was, ‘Your Mothers Unused Wings’. It triggered a question in my mind about someone clearing out their Mothers house and finding a box in a closet containing a pair of metaphorical wings. Brand new, unused. It did not happen to me. My Father had that onerous task. But the idea made me write this following poem that deals with how little we know of each other and how few of us open that box.

Working under a cloud of sadness
Cleaning a mother’s home
After their death.
All the familiar objects
Are so much heavier
Loaded with emotion
Triggered by every trinket touched.
And the unfamiliar
Items never seen before
Not really secret
But secretive
Shed an unfamiliar light
Or a tragic one
On the lost life.

Add some desire you had
For resolution
Or proof of affection
A letter un-mailed, explaining…
Everything, less,
Or adding further mysteries.
Photos signed with a revealing scrawl
In a curious masculine hand.
And flowing in your mind
As you reduce a life to a list
For disposal, dispersal
A certainty
A knowing
That what you see is not the whole
The whole life

There’s something missing
That might explain
Her wistful expression
Her unexpressed longing,
The aura of regret,
You recall it easily.
A perfume of disappointment
Lingering.

And when you finally
Discover her dark journals
Her writing, but reflecting a stranger
A talent, a power, a presence
Never revealed, never known
But rich and sharp
With bright witty language
You understand this is a set of wings
Dusty with neglect
Heavy with melancholia
Unused wings.

Unused wings
One pair
One pair out of millions.

Some months, it may actually have been a year or more, ago, I quickly wrote down what I thought was a clever phrase describing a dim bulb who was using words that he likely did not really understand in constructions that were plainly beyond his intellect. The phrase is “He was equipped with a fine vocabulary far in excess of his intellectual needs.” Very Oscar Wilde I thought, and why not turn it into a short essay?  What follows is the curious result…

A Fine Vocabulary

It became obvious to me embarrassingly soon after I met him that he was equipped with a fine vocabulary that was far in excess of his intellectual needs. The simplest expressions of emotion were embellished with acoustic showers of redundant decoration that seemed at times, no, nearly always, baroque, byzantine. No adjective or adverb lately languishing in a remote corner of an equally remote and neglected dictionary was spared farcical inclusion in the fantastic constructions he believed were sentences transporting meaning. Verbs that had not compressed air since years preceding the Reformation found frequent usage in his utterances. Blank stares of incomprehension on the astounded faces of listeners made little or no difference to either his verbal momentum or determination to communicate tortuously and obliquely, though he was not, and could not be, actually aware of any analysis of style. He was profoundly unaware and existed in a personal bubble of curious illusion where only his loquacity and imagined inventiveness ruled.

The longer I lingered, a reluctant satellite, in the irregular orbits of his acquaintance the more elaborate became his constructions and spoken opacity. I sensed I was an involuntary catalyst to an increasingly tangential fabrication of words that were vaguely mortared by alien and constantly varying grammars.

Thankfully, occasionally, and quite randomly, a comprehension slid through, and perhaps a waiter or other attendant would actually bring something very close to whatever it was that he imagined he had requested. It was perhaps this infrequent mercy that kept him alive.

At length it dawned upon me that he was in fact held in a prison not quite of his own making. His jail, a socio-linguistic shell assembled from material easily found in the class to which he belonged where the direct expression of emotion and needs were elaborately coded and subjugated to prescribed avenues of rigid and hardly efficient conversation. Adding an assumed, an affected admiration for orators of the nineteenth century complicated any attempt to speak clearly. Thus denied easy and simpler forms he was doomed to fight his way to making his points and needs understood via what always seemed to its objects as bizarre and confusing audible sequences. Instead of protecting him this Shield of Thesaurus, this lingual elaboration, merely held him in a social limbo barely tolerated by prisoners of equally disturbing language disabilities.

And again, the longer I dallied in whatever circumferential path was my entropic fate I could not escape the increasingly plain and terrifying conclusion that not only was I a catalyst for his own spiraling demise but, from whatever cerebral disease or social imprisonment my acquaintance suffered, it was rapidly becoming my own.

The school of shameless self promotion is my guide today. With a week to go before my show, The Book of Bob, and feeling, as usual, rather nervous that only a small crowd will gather to witness the spectacle, I have produced a simple YouTube video to pose as a very cheap advertisement. Not only that, I have added a complete Downton Abbey section to the show. Well I had to. The success of this melodramatic period soap opera is hard to avoid. Will these two actions produThe Book of Bob poster v3ce a line outside Tony Starlight’s Supper Club anxious to pay $12 for the privilege of watching an Englishman sing and talk his heart out for an hour and a half. What do you think? Does this video work? Click HERE to view.

I am not sure why I have never posted this article before. Perhaps it is because I do not altogether trust any government department to deal with me honestly. I am not a citizen. Merely a ‘Permanent Resident Alien’ or P.R.A.. Sounds kind of spooky. But it is a privilege I have honored over the years since I qualified for this status in 1975. I don’t break the obvious laws, I pay my taxes and generally act more responsibly than more than half the population. But as a P.R.A. I believe myself to be even more vulnerable to the whim of some Government bureaucrat than a citizen. Not that citizens are immune. There are U.S. citizens who have been imprisoned, even ‘rendered’, by our security forces for reasons not disclosed to the public.

And so with the renewal of my what is colloquially known as a Green Card, coming up this Friday with a visit to the local offices of the Orwellian titled Department of Homeland Security, I feel my paranoia coming on quite strongly. Until the idiocies of the Bush administration my fear of Government was fairly low key. I hate forms and filling in forms is what immigration folks love you to do. But now there is a whole new machinery of distrust looking for ways to justify its sad life.

I wrote this article in the nineties after a visit to the then Immigration and Naturalization Service offices in Portland to either renew my Green Card or change my address. I actually think the way immigrants are handled may have improved. But my paranoia remains because its not the process so much as the result that counts.

Here is the article. Contact me next week and ask me what happened this Friday.

The Delicatessen of Status

by Bob Sterry

In George Orwell’s book, “1984” the hero, Winston Smith, finally has to face his greatest fear in Room 101. Not death, and not pain of the ordinary sort is dispensed in Room 101. In this room state enemies come face to face with the thing against which, no matter what they do or think there is no defense. It is the worst thing in the world. It reduces them to survival mechanics. In Winstons’ case, he is brought face to face with rats, literally. They are tied in a cage against his face, separated from his succulent eyes by a fragile mesh. The two rats in the cage can see and smell the live human smorgasbord through the screen. Winston can also see and smell the ravenous rodents centimeters away as they gnaw frantically at the material between them. He does what only he can. He requests of his inquisitors, between screams, that they do this terrible thing to someone else, to Julia, someone he loved. In doing this, Winston destroys that love. It was just the final piece of his degradation so necessary for state security in a world where love is not tolerated.

            In the movie of the book, made in or around 1984, Richard Burton plays the inquisitor O’Brien to Jonathon Hurt’s Winston Smith. Filmed, as it seemed to me, through a gray-blue filter, it successfully represented Winstons’ mind as he travels form state cipher to revolutionary to reprocessed shell. By watching the movie alone, at night, I destroyed my capacity for sleep.

            I was recalling all this horror the other day as I waited in Room 407 at the Federal Building. If you were born a US Citizen and avoided marrying a foreigner, you will probably never have to visit Room 407. Making a demographic mental subtraction you can fairly easily calculate who gets invited to Room 407. We are a select group. We are, depending on who you listen to, either the scum of the earth battering at the weakened walls of democracy looking for a free lunch and clean needles, or the new lifeblood of the Republic, willing to put our sweat at the disposal of the state.

            My first experience of Room 407 was in Newark NJ in 1974 when, as a naïve and inexpert liar, I tried to convince a very smooth and canny immigration officer that my recent and seemingly lengthy presence in the United States was only fulfilling my fervently held desire to write a book about the history of New Jersey, and had absolutely nothing to do with attempting to find illegal employment which would invalidate my visitors visa. I had waited two and a half hours with the patient citizens of a dozen Caribbean nations for the privilege of presenting my pathetic untruth; this after a one hour bus ride from Manhattan and a nervous walk down Broad Street, in the nervous center of Newark.

            It is either a remarkable monument to democracy or to lousy and mendacious planning, or both, that no matter what purpose I and my fellow attendees had in Room 407 we all had to be processed in exactly the same fashion. We waited in a line that snaked in and out of rooms and out of the building into the frigid street. From time to time INS or security guards would address the mass in heavily accented English of which neither my Hispanic neighbors nor I understood one wit. Since I was the only ‘gringo’ in the line I was often the target of the monosyllabic enquiry, “Abocado”. They were not offering me a bite of a refreshing food but asking was I perhaps an immigration lawyer, who could somehow speed their way through the maze of tripwire questions and perplexing forms that we all knew waited for us in Room 407. My reaction was to remark silently to myself, that if I was such a being would I be here waiting with you in the cold for the gringo immigraciones to favor us with a few choice words?

            Upon entering Room 407, everyone takes a number from the red plastic dispenser by the door. No-one jokes audibly here about getting a couple of pounds of ham or salami. Over the counter behind which the uniformed INS officers stand is an electric display “now serving #……”. We have all quickly calculated how long remains for us to wait, and now can join other lines for the bathrooms or rush out and buy the truly appalling coffee and sandwiches sold by local vendors preying on such lines.

            Once inside Room 407 tension and discomfort is caused not by whether you will finally get to present your case, but by the diffusion of all the other anxieties that are circulating the room into your own. They are like flies looking for a juicy spot to settle and feed. Sensing your obvious and desperate concern that your brand new photograph, still not quite dry, is not going to be the correct size for the application you are trying to make, it makes its landing and begins to whisper your fears over and over, ‘look at her photo…it’s bigger than yours…why did you not get two sizes?…his is in color….and it has a white border…..they have four….why do you only have two? You will be sent back!”  I have a feeling that this sense of disquiet, bordering on outright fear, is not exactly unwelcome to the INS. I amuse myself with the suspicion that a having a fearful and un-composed applicant for asylum is better for their interrogative purposes than having to face one fresh from a briefing at the barrio community office.

            Everyone in this room is anxious. What happens in this room will affect the course of our lives permanently. In some cases, what happens in this room can be the virtual serving of a death warrant. When a political refugee finds that his application for asylum extension has been denied, his or her life may very well be at stake. When we leave this room, we will have been changed. Our life subtly or grossly altered by the change, or not, of our immigration status. We can now go to work as a migrant farm laborer, or we have to return to the very place we fought to leave; we can now go on to bring Father to his family, or we have to leave him rotting in a stinking refugee camp not too far from Galilee. The rights and wrongs of all these separate lives and their aspirations are hidden, as are the emotions of the INS officers. But the tension, the anticipation and anguish of our joint conditions percolates through us all. We resonate with uncertainty. Thieves and angels at the same frequency.

            We do not speak to others very much as we wait, lest we reveal our terrible ignorance of the process and then have to admit that we should not even be here or worse, that we fear we do not have the right forms, photographs, photocopies, affidavits, certificates, transcripts, licenses, form of payment; we have forgotten our Mother’s maiden name, the name of the picturesque slum where we were born, our age and even why we are here. No, it is best to sit and stew on the hard plastic chair whilst the red numbers in the display flip oh so slowly over, and you try to decide if there is sufficient time to go to the bathroom just one more time. There is little mercy for those who are out of the room when their number is called.

            As you number draws closer you experience a curious mixture of horror and excitement. Your number flips up, you leap up, your heart pounding as you stumble and half run to the counter where the officer waits, exuding an intimidating boredom. The questions begin in a dry monotone. Looking past the officer you can see all the stamps lying on the desk that can save your life or destroy it. Little wooden stamps that carry terrifying power.

            Everyone in here is a unique case. We all believe that there is no one else whose situation could be anything like ours. We are right. We range from political refugee to migrant worker to visiting student to tourists accidentally overstaying their visas due to food poisoning or a hijacking on board their Alaskan cruise ship. None of us are rich, we are from every place on the globe you can name. We are either welcome or not. We will be told at length. We clutch our numbers and wait to be called to the counter. We are all waiting in the Delicatessen of Status.

© Robert M. Sterry

October 1996.

Stagecraft..Have I Got Any?

January 31, 2014

March 19th at 7.30 PM is the date upon which and the time at which I shall appear on the stage, under the lights, at Tony Starlights Supper Club to Perform my show The Book of Bob.  Although I have performed The Book of Bob poster v2a show of songs and words frequently in the past they have always been in the quiet almost austere atmosphere of recital rooms. This show will be set against the clatter of plates and cutlery, the clink of glasses the raucous guffaws of the audience laughing at their own jokes, not mine. Even good natured and generous Portlanders can be tough. It requires some stagecraft to get and hold the attention of people who are already having a good time. At worst I am an annoying background nuisance. At best I can be the sole focus of their evening for an hour or so. And so I invite you to witness this phenomenon. I think I have the moxy!

Check out this LINK for more details from Tony’s web-site, ad make your own reservation for the best table.

Blepharoplasty!

January 27, 2014

A little known government agency has determined that my slanting drooping eyelids were too sexy and therefore a threat to national security. Using the well oiled rendition process I was taken to a medical facility where a Blepharoplasty was performed on both of my eyes. As you can see my temporary appearance is unlikely to attract anything but raccoons. But I feel so patriotic. IMG_0845

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