Another Week, Another Hmm Weekly
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I Am Bummed Out by the Death of Eddie Van Halen
*This piece consists of recollections from the 20th Century.
I’M A TEENAGER sitting in the dusty, windowless back room of a shoe store where I work, in downtown Schenectady, New York, shipping returns, packing boxes and taping up boxes and weighing boxes and putting shipping labels on boxes. I have a crappy little AM transistor radio to keep me company. I’m listening to top 40 radio and this mind-ripping THING comes on. It’s HUGE WEIRD GUITAR NOISE, it sounds like it’s echoing out of some monstrous, miles-deep cavern, lit by torches. It’s “Eruption” by Van Halen, and there was nothing like it, NOTHING.
When I saw the album in the record department at the local Two Guys, I was so turned off by the logo that I didn’t bother to shoplift it. I didn’t want it in my house, it looked like a bad drawing of a swastika, is that possible? It also kinda looks like a bird, but it still bugs me.
Van Halen got big and Eddie Van Halen married Valerie Bertinelli, who was an America’s Sweetheart–type actor and was on the TV show One Day At A Time, and it was a total Mick Jagger/Bianca Jagger thing, seriously, they looked like each other, but it was great, they were a great couple, and he had issues with drinking so I felt bad about them when they split up.
I still remember a deejay on the big oafish number-one rated FM rock station playing “Beat It” by Michael Jackson, and coming on after the song ended, saying the only reason they played it was because Eddie Van Halen played guitar on it, and he didn’t know if they should keep playing it or “blow it the hell outta here.” I couldn’t figure out if it was because Michael Jackson was Black, or if because people (like that deejay, maybe) hated Michael Jackson because they thought he was gay.
There was this girl I was trying to impress, so I was psyched to get tickets to the Van Halen show in Syracuse, but the morning the tickets went on sale at the mall, the local TICKETRON outlet didn’t have the code for the show, so I drove two hours, two of the most boring hours you can drive between two boring cities—and I can say that because I’m from the more boringest one—to the Carrier Dome and bought the tickets there.
The show was a blast. Eddie played this trippy little solo piece called “Cathedral,” one of my fave instrumentals from the new Diver Down album. At the end of the show, a little person ran out on stage and plopped David Lee Roth in the face with a pie because it was his birthday. There was some slipping and falling and it was pretty funny.
I didn’t buy Diver Down, either, I taped it off the radio when they played it for “album hour,” and it was in heavy rotation on the KENWOOD KRC-411 auto-reverse tape deck I put in my brother's car (a 1969 Pontiac GTO convertible), which I drove all summer because he was in the Army and stationed in Germany. I still have the cassette.
I WAS UNPREPARED for the pigeons. Going to the zoo, I don’t usually expect surprises. We went to the Baltimore Zoo a lot when I was little, and we subscribed to National Geographic and Smithsonian and Natural History magazines, and there were lots of books about nature around the house, so I pretty soon came to believe I was basically aware of the range of possibilities in the animal kingdom. It's thrilling to see the particularity and detail of the living creatures, sure: the path an otter cuts through the water or the dreadful size of a lioness’ paws against the plexiglass a few feet away. But I already know about them, or thought I did.
The Central Park Zoo adds, to this general principle, the fact that it is extremely compact. It does not try to survey the full sprawl of Creation, but showcases a few charismatic niche performers: red pandas, snow leopards, snow monkeys. The centerpiece is the sea lion pool, which was the only thing you could really get a decent look at during lockdown. We’d stroll down the middle of the zoo when we were down in that corner of the Park, and not too far away behind one of the locked gates the sea lions would be popping up out of the water or perching on the rocks. The sea lions of the Central Park Zoo were a known quantity; they’d figured in The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) by Ellen Raskin, which I’d read when I was little and had just read to the children as a bedtime story. In real life, they were just like you'd expect sea lions to be, sleek and glossy.
When the lockdown relaxed and the zoo reopened, we got a membership so now we can go whenever we want. It may be that no zoos are good—the spectacle of captivity, the monument to human domination of a dying planet, all the terrible things either submerged or brought to the surface in guise of edification or improvement—but this little zoo feels less bad than the big ones. The regal snow leopards are absurdly out of place stalking through the late-summer mid-Atlantic plant growth, and an overzealous set of informational enrichment materials on the approach to them emphasizes how far the snow leopards are from the wild Himalayan spaces where they belong, yet it's not dispiriting to see them; I just hope when the city falls, someone comes along and cuts their fence.
The only melancholy sight is the harbor seal, bombing swiftly back and forth underwater in its not-very-long tank. The grizzly bears—locked up here for being too familiar toward humans in the wild out West—might be depressing, but so far every time they've been denned up in one little cranny or another, with the crannies evidently just small enough to leave a some bear-surface sticking out, to confirm the bears are there at all.
This is about the pigeons, though. More and more parts of the zoo have reopened, and this time as we prepared to walk past a closed-off doorway with a window of macaws next to it, we realized the building wasn't closed off anymore. People were going into the Tropic Zone, so we went in, too.
And just inside the entrance, as we passed through the heat-retaining strip curtain over the doorway, was a bird new to me. I mean, the whole idea of it was new to me. It was a rich, dusty blue, and it had a tall, lacy crest of feathers with white crescents at the tips, so they floated there, but beyond all that it was huge. It was immense and it was just ambling on the walkway where the humans were, with a thoroughly uncanny (but somehow familiar) attitude of unconcern. The crest reminded me of the improbable crests on the little hoopoes that showed up here and there when we lived in Beijing, but I couldn't get a grip on what I was seeing by classifying it by its parts. Someone other person, who was obviously familiar with the Tropic Zone, was saying something to her companion about it, and I halfway caught the name. I flipped through the directory of species, a loop of heavy plastic cards dangling from the rail, to get it right. It was clear which one it was—nothing else looked like it: the Victoria crowned pigeon, Goura victoria.
Pigeon! It absolutely was a pigeon, yes, walking along with a pigeon gait, looking around with a pigeon-y stare in its bright red eye, set in a darker mask. But a gigantic and gorgeous pigeon. I looked up the numbers later and Goura victoria is not in the same size class as a peacock or a wild turkey, yet it had that sort of presence. We had also just been reading Lizard Music, by Daniel Pinkwater, and when the young protagonist finally reaches the secret island of the lizards, there are pigeons there the size of horses. This had always seemed like a rare unconvincing detail in the otherwise hypnotically lifelike strangeness of the novel, but now suddenly my framework of what a pigeon could be had shifted.
Another Victoria crowned pigeon came flapping down, as self-possessed as the first. Their breasts were purple, their wings and tail badged with paler blue. We were between them on the decking of the Tropic Zone walkway, and it was as if we were the ones who were alien specimens, dislocated and estranged from our new setting. We did not quite seem to factor into the pigeons' reckoning of the world at all. The Victoria crowned pigeon is an island species, found in New Guinea; it walks around on the ground, eating fallen fruit. It is a pigeon, and the dodo was also a pigeon, and to stand there with them was to feel, if not see, the dim and long-gone shadow of the dodo.
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SANDWICH RECIPES DEP’T.
AGAINST ALL ADVICE we continue our presentation of select recipes from the leviathan and encyclopedic 1896 edition of The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book, by Fannie Merritt Farmer, Principal of the Boston Cooking-School, and a selection of items from
RECIPES ESPECIALLY PREPARED FOR THE SICK.
1 cup milk.
1 cup sherry or port wine.
Scald milk, add wine, and let stand five minutes. By this time the curd should have separated from whey. Strain and serve, or heat before serving
1/2 cup milk.
1 tablespoon whiskey, rum, or brandy.
Few gratings nutmeg.
Mix ingredients, cover, and shake well
Entire Wheat Coffee.
2 tablespoons wheat coffee.
1 cup boiling water.
1 teaspoon cold water.
Add boiling water to coffee and boil three minutes, then add cold water and let stand one minute to settle. Serve with cut sugar and scalded milk.
We swear we will get back to sandwiches soon, honest, but in the meantime, if you concoct one of these liquid items, please won’t you send a picture to email@example.com.
HMM WEEKLY IS written by Tom Scocca, editor, and Joe MacWhey, creative director.
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