July 8, 2014
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.
June 23, 2014
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.
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.
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
Shed an unfamiliar light
Or a tragic one
On the lost life.
Add some desire you had
Or proof of affection
A letter un-mailed, explaining…
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
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
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
One pair out of millions.
April 23, 2014
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.
March 11, 2014
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 produce 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.
February 2, 2014
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
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 a 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.
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.
January 5, 2014
In the years 1989 to 1995 I made many visits to Seoul to work with sales distributors. It often happened that Seoul was in the middle of a long Asian trip and I would find myself there over a weekend waiting to fly to the next country in my sales tour; Taiwan, Japan or China. On these weekends amongst other diversions I would take a taxi or the metro to Itaewon from my usual hotels, the Lotte, The Intercon, or the Shilla. And once I walked there from the Hyatt, which is nearby. Itaeown was and still is I assume, a shopping district close to the Yongsan US Army base. One could buy all manner of knock off goods, from Louis Vuitton luggage to Dior scarves and more. There was also a great choice of seconds. Seconds; genuine articles manufactured in South Korea either rejected for shipment or just somehow found their way to Itaewon.
One frozen Sunday afternoon I trudged up and down the street trying to stay warm as I looked for Christmas gifts. I cannot remember if I succeeded, but I do remember buying a pair of brand new boots. A pair of GT Hawkins dark maroon leather boots. The price was shown as $40. After some brief haggling the shop keeper let me have them for a little less. I put them on right away, I was that cold. In the box in which they came was some sales promotional material which claimed, amongst other benefits, that these boots were resistant to chicken manure. I have not been able to test that claim, but I have used and abused these boots in a variety of other ways over the twenty one years I have owned them. And now, apart from a tiny amount of leakage if I step into deep water, they are still warm and comfortable.
So Happy Birthday GT Hawkins boots! I hope I can enjoy you for a few more years yet. And indeed I will have to since the GT Hawkins company went out of business in 1995.
January 2, 2014
The story so far. Our hero, Bob, was forced to cancel his knock out cabaret show, The Book of Bob, back in September so that the aliens invading his spine could be persuaded to leave for their home planet. Aliens of this specific planet and type are hard to evict using normal Earth procedures. It has taken some months before Bob is able to once again step into the spotlight, sing and talk with no interference from irritating life forms.
And so it is with enormous almost galactic pleasure that Bob is proud to announce the rescheduling of a new and improved THE BOOK OF BOB, a Comedic and Satirical Cabaret Revelation in Songs and Words to March 19th at Tony Starlight’s Supper Club in the Hollywood District (of Portland, OR). The show starts at 7.30 PM but the doors will open around 6 PM to encourage you to eat and drink from Tony’s excellent menu and bar. Take a look at Tony’s at this LINK. Tony is one of THE BEST Neil Diamond imitators in the business and runs a terrific venue for Portland cabaret performers of all genres.
My show may include songs from Tom Lehrer, Edith Piaf, Jacques Brel, Monty Python, Randy Newman, Flanders & Swann, Dusty Springfield, Jake Thackray and similar. Songs that are not often sung for no apparent reason since they are so evocative and enjoyable.
I encourage you to BOOK NOW by calling this number (503) 517-8584 or make your excuses to me via this blog or to email@example.com