Princeton Summer Theater begins its 2019 season with an ambitious production of the Tony award-winning musical Falsettos, book by James Lapine and William Finn, who also wrote the music and lyrics. Directed by PST artistic director Daniel Krane, the production opened June 20 and runs Thursdays through Sunday until June 30. The show’s nonstop music is provided by a “tiny little band,” of four musicians led by Amber Lin.

Falsettos is a story about all kinds of love—gay, straight, marital, parental, between friends. Its nonstop songs work hard to capture the evanescence of feeling, perhaps best in a moving song near the end: “Who would I be if I had not loved you? How would I know what love is?”

In the story, Marvin (played by Michael Rosas) leaves his wife Trina (Bridget McNiff) for the carefree young man, Whizzer (Dylan Blau Edelstein). Trina, left with their 10-year-old son Jason (Hannah Chomiczewski) is bitter about this, and baffled by Marvin’s insistence that what he wants is “A Tight-Knit Family” involving them all.

Marvin suggests Trina straighten herself out by seeing his psychiatrist, Mendel (Justin Ramos), who immediately falls for her. Complications ensue, and Trina’s state of mind is perfectly—hilariously—reflected in her star turn, “I’m Breaking Down.”

This first act of Falsettos, which is set in 1979, is based on a one-act play, March of the Falsettos that premiered in 1981. The second act is based on another one-act, Falsettoland, set in 1981, which premiered in 1990. The two were merged to create Falsettos in 1992. A lot changed for gay men in that intervening decade. The authors had to acknowledge AIDS (actually barely a blip in 1981), highlighted by Dr. Charlotte’s (Chamari White-Mink) prophetic song, “Something Bad is Happening.” And, in act two, the play takes a sharp turn.

The growing realization of the seriousness of Whizzer’s illness is a painful backdrop to disagreements between Trina and Marvin about Jason’s impending bar mitzvah, to be catered by Cordelia (Michelle Navis) who specializes in Jewish nouvelle cuisine. The comedy is still there, but it’s bittersweet. One of the show’s most beautifully rendered numbers is the quartet, “Unlikely Lovers,” sung around Whizzer’s hospital bed.

The cast (and crew) for PST’s college summer stock productions are primarily Princeton students and recent graduates. For the principal roles, as played by Rosas, McNiff, Edelstein, and Ramos, this constraint was inconsequential, but a bit of a handicap in casting the role of Jason. The set was well designed (Jeffrey Van Velsor) to be adaptable and interesting.

Princeton Summer Theater productions are staged in Hamilton Murray Theater on the university campus, easily reached from New York by car or train. Take New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle train into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater, which is walking distance from numerous restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 732-997-0205 or visit the ticket office online.

****The Paris Diversion


By Chris Pavone – The Paris Diversion is the followup to Chris Pavone’s popular and award-winning debut thriller from 2013, The Expats. In the new book, former CIA agent Kate Moore is living in Paris with her husband Dexter when the ghosts from that earlier story come in search of her. A lot of action and a great many characters are packed into the twelve-hour period this novel covers. Along the way, you’re treated to a granular depiction of Paris—not just monuments and streets, but the way of life.

Kate doesn’t know whether she still works for the CIA. She’s a one-woman operation, head of something called the Paris Substation, and has ample money to hire all the help she needs to carry out assignments, though who and where do these orders come from? Dexter works from home, day-trading, and scheming to find a get-rich-quick idea. He thinks he’s found one.

In a recent panel discussion, author Pavone said he was drawn to writing thrillers because the characters lie so much. He’s brought that tendency to a high art in this novel with Kate and Dexter’s innumerable secrets and reflexive avoidance of the truth.

Dexter plans to sell short a large hunk of shares in a company called 4Syte. It will make him a massive profit as long as those shares drop in price as insider information predicts. 4Syte’s president, Hunter Forsyth, is an arrogant high-flyer, who Dexter believes was “born on third base, believing he hit a triple”—such a perfect description I laughed out loud. Forsyth is so convinced of his invincibility he doesn’t realize he’s been kidnapped.

The ominous sound of sirens pervades the book’s early chapters. Several bombs have been found in strategic spots around the city, and a Muslim man wearing a suicide vest has taken up a position in the plaza outside the Louvre. Rooftop snipers have him in their sights, though shooting him may merely precipitate the catastrophe. The petty arguing among the various police departments regarding whether to shoot sounded exactly right, with the ironic touch that the sniper is Muslim too.

Pavone’s secondary characters are strong, especially Forsyth’s assistant, Colette. Coolly French, married, she’s the object of Hunter’s lustful imaginings. The suicide bomber is another good character, knowing he will die, but not when, and with unexpected reasons for strapping on the vest.

You may want to stop reading this fast-paced novel occasionally to ask yourself, “What just happened?” as layers of the complex plot come into focus. A few aspects of the story—especially the idea that there are multiple off-the-books spy agencies operating around the world—may stretch credulity, but you probably will be turning pages too fast to worry about such things.

Photo: Dan Novac from Pixabay.

Genes and Genealogy

An unexpected delight of my stumbling genealogy researches has been discovering and re-discovering my cousins. Most of my father’s family lived geographically close to me when I was growing up, but as far as getting to know them–they might as well have been a thousand miles away.

My dad was the son of Hungarian immigrants who came separately to the United States in the early 1900s, met, married, lived in Michigan where my grandfather was a farmer and an autoworker. They had 15 children, 11 of whom survived to adulthood. They didn’t talk about their immigration experience. At all.

Online research added to the picture. The naturalization record for my grandfather, Ferencz Hegyi (with the last name spelled six different ways on two government forms), provided the date of his arrival and name of the ship he came on (the S.S. Chicago). He applied for naturalization after being in America for some years, and it listed children’s names, leaving no doubt this record was for my family.

From the ship manifest I found his father’s name—Ferencz, or Frank, the same as his—and the village he came from. Wow! My great-grandfather’s name and a definite place, Kondorfa. Still today Kondorfa has only a few more than 600 residents. It’s in far western Hungary, closer to Vienna and Bratislava than Budapest, in a German-Hungarian area called the Burgenland. Short of learning to speak Magyar and traveling there, my researches seemed to be bumping up against the proverbial brick wall.

One additional clue from the ship manifest was that Ferencz’s destination was South Bethlehem, Pa. Probably he planned to work at Bethlehem Steel, following in the footsteps of his older brother. I found a 1923 death certificate for 38-year-old Peter Hegyi from Kondorfa who died after being struck in the chest by a bar of steel. The certificate listed his parents’ names, Ferencz Hegyi and Julianna Fabian. Now I had my great-grandmother’s name too. But there my research string ran out.

In Your Genes

People ask me whether having a genetic profile helps with genealogy, and I always say yes! I spit into a cup for 23andMe many years ago. A couple of distant cousins on my mother’s side have contacted me, all having useful connections and information. Then, a few months ago, the surprise. A woman living near Bethlehem contacted me after noting our slight genetic match and the Hegyi name, which is found frequently in the area her family came from.

This distant cousin has website Jane’s Genes (very useful general/tips, too), and some careful research on Jane’s part revealed she’s my fifth cousin, once removed. Our common ancestors are my great-great-great-great grandparents Janos Herczeg (b 1747) and Rozalia Horvath (b 1755).

Jane has put me in touch with other cousins in Pennsylvania and the Midwest. I learned one of my grandfather’s younger sisters immigrated to South Bethlehem as well, and I’ve connected with her granddaughter. Our Midwest cousin is another genius at deciphering the spidery handwriting in the old Hungarian and Church records. Thanks to her diligence, I can now trace my grandfather’s family back six generations, to ancestors born in the early 1700s.

I’ve shared my written history of the Hegyi family, sparse though it is, with about a dozen first cousins—children of my father’s generation—and now regularly visit several of them in Indiana and Michigan. I didn’t have addresses for them all, though, and again 23andMe came through. The granddaughter of my Uncle Bill got in touch and, through her, I’ve communicated with her mother, my first cousin.

When I started working on family history, what I expected to explore was “history”; now I’ve learned it’s about “family” too.

Don’t forget to watch “Finding Our Roots” on PBS Tuesdays, 8 p.m., hosted by Henry Louis Gates. Every family has a story!

Our Biggest Threats Keep Growing

In The Perfect Weapon: War, Sabotage, and Fear in the Cyber Age, New York Times national security correspondent David Sanger talks about nations’ pervasive and growing uses of spyware and malware to achieve their ends. According to Paul Pillar’s review in the Times, Sanger’s book is “an encyclopedic account of policy-relevant happenings in the cyberworld (that) stays firmly grounded in real events.”

It’s not a question of keeping the stuff out of our electric grid, the controls of our nuclear plants, our military establishment, our government. It’s already here. And a piece of spyware in our systems—watching, waiting—can turn instantly destructive on command.

While U.S. companies, utilities, and some government agencies would like to reveal how much they know about these intrusions—“hey, we’re looking at you, too, so watch it!”—the clandestine services argue against it, because they don’t want others to know that we know and what our detection capabilities are, much less guess our offensive capacity. If you were suspicious of that improbable string of fizzling North Korean missiles last year and wondered “could it really be . . ?” you were right.

Sanger’s riveting journalism covers the woes Russia has inflicted on Ukraine, especially its power grid, a seeming test-bed for attacks on the West; it reviews the Stuxnet virus developed by the U.S. and Israel, which exceeded its mission of damaging Iran’s nuclear centrifuges to emerge in the wild; he covers the fallout from Edward Snowden’s revelations; and he describes more recent threats. Across at least three Administrations in Washington, the responses to the size and potential scope of this threat have been paltry. “The clock cannot be turned back,” he says, and it’s up to all of us to hear the ticking.

The Winter’s Tale

The Winter's Tale, Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey
Jon Barker, Erin Partin, and John Keabler; photo: Jerry Dalia

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey offers a powerful new production of The Winter’s Tale, a play that mixes darkness and light, the tragic and the playful. Directed by STNJ artistic director Bonnie J. Monte, it premiered December 8 and runs through December 30.

A cast of 20 is called upon to present Shakespeare’s story of how jealousy can overcome loyalty, friendship, judgment, how destructive it is to stick stubbornly to a belief despite all evidence to the contrary, and how, in the long run, the only redemption may be through love. Director Monte says this complex play is “part allegory, part searing drama, part pastoral comedy and part uplifting and moving romance.”

Leontes, King of Sicilia (played by Jon Barker), and his pregnant wife, Hermione (Erin Partin), are entertaining Leontes’s longtime friend from Bohemia, Polixines (John Keabler), when Leontes gets it in his head like a worm in an apple that Hermione and Polixines are more to each other than they ought to be. Learning the king means to do him harm, Polixines and Leontes’s courtier Camillo (Patrick Toon) flee Sicily, which only confirms Leontes of the couple’s guilt.

Leontes imprisons his distraught wife, who gives birth to a daughter that the wise woman Paulina (Marion Adler) begs him to see and claim, but he will not. He insists that his general Antigonus (Raphael Nash Thompson) take the baby away and leave it in some desolate place that it survive or die as the fates decree. Reluctantly, Antigonus complies.

Leontes puts his wife on trial, a proceeding interrupted by a message from the oracle of Apollo, who declares Hermione’s innocence. The message also says his son will die and Leontes will have no heir until he is reunited with his lost daughter. The death of the boy convinces him of the oracle’s truth, but the death of her son is too much for Hermione, and she too is struck dead.

Antigonus leaves the babe in a Bohemian wood and, in theater’s most famous stage direction, “exits, chased by a bear.” The infant is discovered by kindly shepherds.

Sixteen years pass, the character Time tells us, and the beautiful girl-child Perdita (Courtney McGowan) has fallen in love with Florizel (Ryan Woods), son of Polixines, though she does not know he’s a prince. The play moves into broad comedy with the country folk, but eventually the plan is made to go to Sicily, where sadness still reigns.There, everyone reunites and theater magic happens, and what was dark is made light again.

The entire cast is strong, with special mention needed for Jon Barker, who can convey every drop of meaning in Shakespeare’s lines through his delivery and unerring body language. Erin Partin and Marion Adler (who received applause for one particularly fiery speech) were also noteworthy. Seamus Mulcahy (Charley’s Aunt in the theater’s most recent production) shows his genius for physical comedy in the secondary role of shepherd. Raphael Nash Thompson and Patrick Toon provided restrained dignity in contrast to Barker’s erraticism.

A simple set is needed to accommodate two countries and numerous scenes, and Brittany Vasta has produced gorgeous, chilly white backgrounds that radiate winter and allow the beautiful costumes of Nikki Delhomme to provide the color. Other production credits to Tony Galaska (lighting), Danielle Liccardo (dance consultant), and Denise Cardarelli (production stage manager).

Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey productions are hosted at Drew University in Madison, N.J. (easily reachable rom NYC by train). For tickets, call the box office at 973-408-5600 or visit the Box Office online. Note that STNJ offers special ticket pricing of $30 for theatergoers under age 30!

Hooray for Hollywood! – Travel Tips

Walk of Stars

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

A Los Angeles vacation wouldn’t be complete without a trip to Hollywood! We shunned the swarms of shills for “homes of the stars” bus tours and instead took a prearranged walking tour along the few compact blocks of Sunset Boulevard where the movie studios, the radio and television networks, and the recording industry all got their starts. Amazing, really.

Our guide, Philip Mershon, has an encyclopedic knowledge of the area and will cheerfully answer any questions once the tour is over. Maybe he’s like the Aztec messengers who memorized their speeches and had to begin from the beginning again if interrupted. He’s personable, and he did a great job. (Philip Mershon’s Felix in Hollywood).

On Hollywood Boulevard and Vine Street, we trod portions of the “Walk of Fame,” the 2500-some plaques representing leading lights of radio, television, movies, and theater. You can’t help exclaiming over the names you recognize and wondering, who are all these other guys?

Grauman’s Theatres

Grauman's Chinese Theatre

photo: wikimedia, creative commons license

Sid Grauman was an early Hollywood theatrical entrepreneur, and his “Chinese Theatre” is justly famous for its over-the-top orientalist décor. It’s a bit of a mob-scene. Amusingly, it’s a popular stop among Chinese tour groups, though there isn’t a thing authentically Chinese about it. Hey, that’s Hollywood. Many celebrities have left their hand or footprints—or both—in the cement of the forecourt—including Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, under a scrawl of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, and local (Paterson and Asbury Park, N.J.) talents Lou Costello and Bud Abbott.

A quieter spot was Grauman’s Egyptian Theatre down the block (I admit never having heard of it), which was the site of Hollywood movie premieres for many years. Its décor turned out to be timely, as the theater opened in 1922, just days before the discovery of King Tut’s tomb, a public relations coup even Grauman couldn’t have engineered.

Grauman's Egyptian Theatre

photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The lobby was designed to be small, with the illuminati instead gathering outside in the spacious forecourt, packed with starstruck admirers on both sides of a central aisle. The theater underwent numerous infelicitous renovations over the years, but since the late 1990s, American Cinematheque largely restored the original appearance and brought its technology up-to-date.

Behind-the-scenes tours of the Egyptian are offered only once a month, but it’s worth checking out what is playing there (and at the companion Aero theater in Santa Monica), because actors and directors often participate in these screenings. We missed this, but in November, the two theaters had scheduled in-person visits from Dick Van Dyke, Patrick Stewart, Jake Gyllenhaal, Jennifer Lawrence, Judi Dench, and many others, along with screenings of their films past and present.

Why Starve Yourself?

We had lunch next door at the historic Pig ’n Whistle, where Judy Garland had her fifteenth (?) birthday party. The richly decorated eatery was an early favorite of Hollywood stars and tourists alike.

Books to Toss into Your Suitcase:
The Day of the Locust, the classic by Nathanael West
A Better Goodbye by John Schulian, gritty noir about Hollywood’s sex trade (here’s my review)

***The Force

NYPD Detective badgeBy Don Winslow, narrated by Dion Graham – For a while yet, perhaps every gritty, noir cop story set in urban America will be compared with the television series The Wire in terms of realism, character development, and sheer storytelling power. (Dion Graham, who narrates the audio version of Don Winslow’s much-anticipated new cop tale played a state’s attorney in that series.)

In both stories, the stultifying and morally questionable “powers that be” come up against a loose cannon Irish cop. In this case, Detective First Grade Denny Malone whose turf is Manhattan North, which includes Harlem and the Upper West Side. Malone, a chief detective on the Manhattan North Special Task Force—“da Force”—is a king. “Malone and the Task Force, they weren’t just any cops on the Job. You got thirty-eight thousand wearing blue, Denny Malone and his guys were the 1 percent of the 1 percent of the 1 percent—the smartest, the toughest, the quickest, the bravest, the best, the baddest.” So it’s no surprise that all manner of people want to take him down.

Winslow’s novel starts with a spectacular heroin bust Malone and his team make, and the consequences of that flow through the city, the justice system, and the lives and careers of all his characters. The essential question of the book is, whom do you trust? And Malone questions even himself.

A good cop novel is a thing of beauty. It shows every side of human nature; people struggling against poverty, the odds, themselves; the human comedy and life’s tragedies; bold acts of selfless heroism; and, often, a meticulous deconstruction of how high-minded public servants go bad. This novel has all that.

Expectations for The Force are high. Winslow’s 2015 exposé of drug trafficking, The Cartel, was excellent. His plots snare and bind his characters ever more tightly. The main characters—not only Malone, but his partners—his best friend Phil Russo and Bill Montague, a.k.a. Big Monty—are people you want to root for, so what if they’re a little dirty?

Winslow shows how corruption works, in detail, from the inside. That’s why it’s puzzling that he brings the key officials together for a scene near the end of the book in which Malone climbs up on a soapbox and recites their malefactions. The author tended toward preachiness in The Cartel too, but there it seemed warranted, since so many Americans are oblivious to the problems he exposed.

But readers of The Force likely know plenty about official corruption. For starters, Winslow has just spent more than four hundred pages showing it to them. Bleak as The Wire was, some cops tried to do the right things the right way; some characters redeemed themselves after grievous errors; some city institutions actually tried to make life better for citizens. In The Force, everyone is compromised. Some good can only be accomplished by doing a lot of bad. While you may believe widespread corruption exists, it takes a high level of cynicism to think it is the only social force at work. This book should have been better.

Dion Graham’s narration provides distinct voices, good humor, and an urgent delivery that carried me through to the end, which probably would have been a little harder to accomplish in the print version. The book itself was a disappointment. An author of Winslow’s stature and gifts could have done better.

A longer version of this review appeared on CrimeFictionLover.com.

A Comedy of Tenors

A Comedy of Tenors, Paris

Antoinette LaVecchia (Maria) and Bradley Dean (Tito)(photo: Roger Mastroianni. Courtesy, Cleveland Play House)

Ken Ludwig’s new play, A Comedy of Tenors is a good old-fashioned theatrical farce. “Three tenors. Three egos. One stage. What can possibly go wrong?” said the Cleveland Play House promotion. You may remember Ludwig’s big hit of 26 years ago—Lend Me a Tenor—and this one, too, involves amorous shenanigans with high-voltage opera stars, most of them the same characters who appeared in the earlier play.

A Comedy of Tenors premiered at the Cleveland Play House in September then moved to Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, which co-produced it and where it was on stage through November 1. The entire cast of seven moved with it, as did director Stephen Wadsworth, who has masterminded numerous notable McCarter plays over the past two decades. Wadsworth is well acquainted with the operatic temperament through his work with opera companies across Europe, at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, and as director of Opera Studies at the Julliard School. He doubtless has a natural affinity for this comedic material.

Set in 1930s Paris, the story centers on the final hours before a “three tenors”-style concert. But impresario Henry Saunders can’t seem to get his three singers in the same place at the same time. First, a Swedish tenor drops out altogether, but the biggest star of the bunch—Tito “Il Stupendo” Merelli—objects to the replacement Saunders is lucky to find. He’s a much younger man whose popularity is soaring, and Merelli is beginning to feel his age. Making matters worse are several romantic mixups that only a deft hand with comedy can carry off. The three singers finally come together, then fall apart again, and it appears the only man who can save Saunders’s concert is a bellhop with a golden voice.

The strikingly gorgeous set used in Cleveland—a luxury hotel suite—also made the trip to Princeton. As set designer Charlie Corcoran said in the program notes, “There’s one very specific need in all farces, and that is doors.” Doors to enter, doors to exit, and doors to slam. Lead actor Bradley Dean makes good use of those doors, as he plays both Merelli and the bellhop, and must exit the stage left door as Tito, dash around backstage (changing costume en route) and enter the door stage right as the bellhop. Watching him switch roles, costumes, and personae is one of the play’s great charms.

Ludwig’s Lend Me a Tenor is still playing all over the United States, and for theatergoers who love a romantic farce, his new play is something to watch for!

The Flock

River, sunrise

The Wabash River (photo by Bala K, Creative Commons license)

The speck of Indiana called Waverly rests in a placid region near the banks of the Wabash, where the river loops and wriggles, coyly postponing its inevitable rendezvous with the Ohio. The surrounding hills rise modestly above the horizon and, in the late 1800’s, this unassuming topography pretty well reflected local opinion of how people should behave.

At that time, a newcomer could easily disrupt the regular thrumming of Waverly’s carefully controlled existence. And did, one particular December. The townspeople knew two things about her for sure: her name—Mary Bight (the postmistress had told them that much)—and that she’d moved into old Mr. Thompson’s cottage soon after it was empty, since he now occupied an even smaller and more permanent space in the cemetery behind the Methodist church.

Word was he’d caught a chill from sleeping with the bedroom window open past Thanksgiving. “Never had a lick of sense,” the neighbors said, and the deteriorating condition of the cottage, with its reclusive tenant, confirmed it. They predicted the house wouldn’t last the winter, and the women of the town shook their heads and tsk-tsked as they hurried by on their way to Mr. Grassley’s store, as fast as the frozen puddles allowed.

No one knew where Mary came from, why she was there, or who her people were, providing a vacuum they filled with endless speculation. Mary thanked Rev. Applewood for his brief visit, but she didn’t appear at church. She nodded to postmistress Quaid when picking up her parcels, but turned away, studying the return addresses, unmindful of Miss Quaid’s affronted eagerness. Mary politely greeted the women who paid calls shortly after her arrival, but did not invite them inside. The tiny house was “too much of a mess,” she said, and their invitations to Christmas teas and open houses were neither accepted nor reciprocated.

In the winter, when Mary should have shoveled the front walk and knocked the heavy snow off the evergreens—and since she didn’t do this, several of the yews had become grotesque topiaries—she put on her crimson coat, and the townspeople saw her ramble across the fields that edged the town, a drop of red on snow clean as bandages.

In spring, when Mary should have planted her peas and lettuces and later her annuals and still later her tomatoes and peppers, she instead sat at a deal table by the open front window and clattered away on her new typewriting machine. Grassley’s young clerk, Tom Cooper, had delivered the big wooden crate on a handcart and would have helped her with it, but Mary told him to leave the box on the porch and prized it open herself. Stenciling on the box showed it arrived by train. If the new railway service, not yet a year old, brought goods that filled the crowded shelves of Grassley’s store, it also brought unfamiliar people—including Mary Bight—and noisy typewriters and city newspapers, and it made the places along its lengthy route seem closer than they ought to be.

Mrs. Parker next door complained far and wide that she had to listen to the unsettling sound of Mary’s clackety-clack-ping!, clackety-clack-ping!, morning to night. Mrs. Parker, whose few ideas were doled out by a parsimonious husband, couldn’t for the life of her figure out what Mary could be writing, day after day. Who could she be writing to? How could she have so much to say? Why couldn’t she use a pen, like regular folks? Curiosity flamed and crackled.

Postmistress Quaid, who regularly sharpened her eyes, nose, and tongue on the whetstone of local gossip, swore Mary Bight wasn’t writing letters. She hardly ever mailed or received a one. “Books, books, books. That’s it.”

As spring arrived and Indiana turned its face to the sun, Waverly’s menfolk passed the Thompson house at a stroll, hands in pockets, as if they had nothing really to do and might be available for any odd job, should Mary appear at the front door with its sagging screen and call out to them. Their palms fairly itched as they considered how a hammer and some strong nails could repair the sprung boards on the porch and right the tilting shutters. And, what they could do with a brush and a couple gallons of Grassley’s white paint!

Mary was a good-looking young woman, and the men hoped to (but never did) catch a glimpse of her bending over a laundry basket or trimming the distorted shrubbery, chestnut hair pinned away from her face, lissome arms stretching overhead.

So, she lived among them, almost unseen but very present, when the events began that were fixed in the memories of Waverlians as distinctly as photographs glued to the crackling pages of a family album. Even townsfolk who only heard the story many years later, as it was passed parent to child, could recount some version of the debacle, which had about it the mingled clarity and confusion of a dream.


The townspeople awoke that June Sunday to weather so fine it must have been sent direct from God to encourage churchgoing. Along Mary Bight’s street came the weekly procession of straight-backed ladies done up in corsets and restless men choking in their neckties, all of them in their too-tight Sunday shoes, truly church-bound. But their progress halted at the Thompson cottage, where a growing cluster of citizens gathered, heedless of the church’s nagging bell.

A length of clothesline stretched across Mary’s yard, and pinned to it like miniature bedsheets and waving from the lower branches of the new-leafed trees like starched handkerchiefs were pages and pages and pages covered with Mary’s typing. From outside the yard’s tired fence, the torrent of words blurred grey. Several larking older boys tried to reach over the splintered pickets and grab one of those tantalizing papers, but they were just out of reach.

“Who does she think she is?” stout Mrs. Grassley asked, a sufficiently vague and all-purpose indictment.

“That’s a lot of writing, surely,” said young Tom Cooper, awestruck. The church bell rang insistently, and, out of lifelong habit, they at last responded. For generations the bell had been the town crier as well as its timepiece, even though the bell’s latter role was somewhat supplanted by the ear-piercing whistle of the 12:15 pm train arriving from points west, the 5:30 pm en route to Chicago, and finally the 8:27 pm speeding south, all the way to New Orleans.

On that Sunday, after the opening hymn and before the benediction, a bank of dense clouds rolled across the darkening sky, accompanied by a west wind that scoured the churchyard, sought out the dessicated leaves lodged against untended gravestones, swept them neatly into corners, then scattered them again. The wind slipped through an open church window and danced with the feathers on Mrs. Grassley’s fashionable hat and startled Mr. Grassley awake. And it played with the papers hung in Mary Bight’s yard, teasing them down from the trees and off the clothesline.

When the good folk of Waverly arrived home, a few found one of Mary’s pages skipping across their lawns or wind-plastered to their porch rails, and what would have been a drowsy chicken-and-dumplings afternoon became a scavenger hunt, as older children were sent to find more of the intriguing pages, if they could.

In all, twelve. Their contents mystified the families possessing them. Neighbors compared pages, and the puzzlement deepened. The suggestion quickly spread that those who had pages should bring them to the church that evening, in the hope that, all together, they might make sense. No one entertained the most obvious thought, to return them to Mary herself, the stranger in their midst.


After evening services, they congregated in Fellowship Hall, but soon discovered the random pages were still too random. In fact, reading all of them—in whatever order they attempted, since the pages were not numbered—made no more sense than reading them separately.

In a clear voice, young Evan George read out the paper his family had found. Evan had attended one semester at Indiana University, and the congregation deemed him well prepared for oratory.

Evan’s page started near the end of a sentence. “ . . . the means. But if he had not, would events have unfolded differently? Definitely not, thought those who claimed to know the doctor and his depraved intentions, who recorded his dabbling in the Black Arts. Most people avoided passing his noisome laboratory after dark. They heard frightening nighttime shrieks; the village’s many stray cats had disappeared. A vagrant who helped him move some firmly padlocked chests claimed the laboratory’s shelves held skeletons of small animals, baskets of dark, bitter-smelling herbs and roots, and loathsome things floating in jars. All this so unnerved the poor man that he refused to return for his meager pay.” A murmur from the crowd. “The doctor claimed he engaged in strictly scientific pursuits, but the eerie glow from his laboratory fed doubts. A pale and breathless stranger stopped by the tavern late one November evening and told the publican he’d peeked through the laboratory’s grime-streaked window and seen a green luminescence coil and swirl like mist, until it formed a grinning mask. The doctor spoke to it in an unfamiliar language. Its guttural reply made the . . .”

Mrs. Belden, one of the church’s eldest parishioners, gasped and came close to fainting—whether because of the frightening text, the heat of Fellowship Hall, or the constriction of her implacable corsetry. While several church ladies chafed her wrists and brought cold water, the others decided it best to move on, and Evan George sat down, disappointed.

Postmistress Quaid had left for the church in such a rush that she brought the wrong piece of paper, but she peered over her steel-rimmed glasses and in a pinched voice explained it contained a vile chemical concoction. Her elaborate description evoked sulphurous high school science experiments. She distinctly remembered a “bubbling cauldron” and a list of unsavory ingredients that made her hearers shudder.

Her dark expression prompted uneasy glances at Mrs. Belden, still vigorously fanned by Mrs. Parker. Doc Murray, the pharmacist, said the ingredients Miss Quaid cited were fantastical and that she must have gotten them wrong. Her vehement denials reinforced the muttered notion, repeating through the assembled group like the refrain of some popular song, that someone, somewhere was “up to no good.”

“Pure gibberish,” Doc Murray pronounced and shook his head.

The next page contained only four lines:

            midnight sun and again
the wash of strongest light
months pass fleetly by
til Aurora paints the star–specked night.

The reader—the shy clerk Cooper, who harbored a romantic streak—thought it might be the end of a poem, but Grassley declared there was nothing poetic about it. His clerk sank into chastened and accustomed silence.

“Well, it rhymes,” said Mrs. Grassley, puckering her mouth in opposition to her husband.

Grassley snorted. “It ain’t grammatical. Wouldn’t a poet know their grammar?”

The other pages likewise raised unanswerable questions. The group finally laid the matter at their minister’s feet. Rev. Applewood had sat quietly through the recitations, gazing heavenward—or at the stain on the ceiling he’d just noticed, which would require costly repairs to the church roof—pinching his chin thoughtfully.

“What does it mean?” the parishioners asked.

“Is it dangerous?” Mr. Parker refined the question.

“It’s subversive,” said Grassley.

“She frightens me,” said Mrs. Parker, a statement all the weightier because of her family’s unlucky proximity to the author.

Rev. Applewood was a quiet, self-contained man, a plausible vessel for keeping Eternal secrets. Because he had trained at a leading Methodist theological school—Boston or Drew, no one could remember which—he was expected to voice a considered and definite opinion. He sighed.

“It’s a puzzle, all right. We need to know more.” He heard the restless shuffling. His congregation wanted answers, not intellectual shilly-shallying. He quickly went on, “and I think it would be unwise—un-Christian,” he retreated to high ground, “to come to rash conclusions.” This didn’t sit well, either, so he ended with an ambiguous “one way or the other.” Much better. A few people understood this final emendation as laudably even-handed, but most fixated on its delicious hint that something dire remained possible. They went home uneasy, but oddly satisfied.

By the next morning, Mary Bight had taken down all the papers. Meanwhile, a dozen Waverly families laid out the mysterious sheets on their kitchen tables for intensive study. The post office became the central reservoir for growing speculations and overheated reactions, and few patrons went away without dipping from Miss Quaid’s overflowing pool.

One of the twelve papers was especially troublesome. It described an enormous monster, white as ice, with a devil’s cold and malevolent gaze. The monster struck the unfortunate men who encountered it with overwhelming terror, and the certainty it would be nearly impossible to destroy. Two members of Dr. Waylon’s family, which possessed the page, were acutely affected. Johnny Waylon, age eight, had screaming nightmares. Mrs. Waylon “heard things” in the night and, between comforting Johnny and repeatedly bolting out of bed to check the house’s previously unused door locks and window latches, barely slept four nights running.

“Take that thing down to Rev. Applewood,” she said to her husband Thursday at dinnertime, pointing a shaking finger at the paper. “I don’t want it in the house.” He promised to do so first thing in the morning, but just as the Waylons prepared for bed, a man pounded on the back door and pleaded with the doctor to hitch up his horse and hurry out to the farm to help his wife, struggling with a difficult labor. Dr. Waylon did not arrive home until nearly noon the next day. Exhausted, he lay down to rest while his wife cooked his lunch.

A shriek from the kitchen woke him, and he rushed in to find Mrs. Waylon bent over a bowl of potatoes, blood dripping from a cut on her hand, staining the white slices. He whipped out his handkerchief and fashioned a tourniquet. They sensed movement in the doorway and turned. The menacing page had blown off the hall table and lay on the floor, fluttering lightly.

Mrs. Waylon shrieked again, and her husband had no choice but to carry that page to Rev. Applewood as soon as he had properly bandaged her wound.

The story of the papery attack on Mrs. Waylon flew around town as fast as Johnny Waylon could run. Shortly thereafter, Rev. Applewood possessed all dozen riddle-pages. Mr. Parker rushed to buy tickets for his wife and children on the 5:30 Chicago-bound train, penning a short letter for her to take to his sister, explaining the precipitate visit.


The following Sunday, when the Methodist Church’s bell summoned the town, many congregants looked uneasy as they slipped into their familiar pews, their usual good humor and benevolent nods set aside. Rev. Applewood chose as his text, Joshua 1:9, “Be not afraid.”

During the week he had felt the blood quickening in the townspeople’s veins. “Do not let your imaginations take control of you, just because of a few puzzling sheets of paper,” he said. But his warning went unheeded, and that night, in the shadows of the trees across from the Thompson cottage, two or three men gathered, watching for they knew not what.

On Monday, the event the town had vaguely expected became all too real. Helen Jackson found her three young children behind the barn, vomiting clotted blood and moaning “as if possessed,” a neighbor said. Desperate, Mrs. Jackson sent for Dr. Waylon, but he was several miles outside town, tending a farmhand whose horse had kicked him in the chest. The story of the poisoned children reached every corner of the nerve-wracked town before Dr. Waylon could return, apparently just in time.

As ever, good news travels at leisure, while bad news takes the express, and only several hours later did everyone who had heard about the poisoning learn about the children’s recovery, time enough for the idea that confirmed their prejudices to become rooted in many minds, free of discordant facts.

That night, eight or ten men loitered outside old Mr. Thompson’s house, and they carried guns. They’d brought out two or three hunting rifles, Grassley’s father’s Spencer carbine, and several revolvers not loaded for decades and more likely to explode in their owners’ hands than to hit any target. The small guns stuck ostentatiously from the belts of men lucky to be sober. They stared at Mary’s night-blackened house, alert to every noise, but saw and heard nothing.

Rev. Applewood might not be a man to act precipitously, but he could detect the brimstone odor of moral danger. He sniffed it now. He called on Waverly’s leaders: Dr. Waylon, attorney Horace Silpatt, who was also the town’s mayor, and Doc Murray, the pharmacist—the town’s most respected and level-headed men, men with “a sense of consequences,” he said to Mrs. Applewood. “And we need Miss Byron’s good sense. She can calm the children.”

Janel Byron, Waverly’s schoolteacher, had spent the last month of the school year in St. Louis, attending her mother’s final illness. They expected her back in Waverly on the 12:15, and when the train clamored into the station screeching its brakes and whuffing steam, the four men stood silently waiting.

“I didn’t expect such a prestigious welcoming committee,” she greeted them.

“We surely would not descend on you in this way, out of consideration for your loss,” the Reverend said, “if it weren’t absolutely necessary.”

Questions flew to the woman’s lips, but before she could ask them, Dr. Waylon said, “This is unpardonably rude, but can you come with us now, to the church?”

“Now?” Miss Byron looked around the platform for her luggage. She gave a young man leaning against the station wall a dime to carry her bags the several blocks to her rooming house. On the walk to Rev. Applewood’s office, the men condoled with her by describing in detail the agonizing deaths of their own parents.

They’d soon told the whole tale—the mysterious pages, the growing anxiety, the odd events that fed the fearmongrels. And, in the midst of everything, Mary Bight, secluded, unaware, and going about her work, whatever it was.

“Let me see the pages.” The men sat silently as she studied them. The church bell chimed one o’clock. Miss Byron looked up.

“Well?” A chord of voices.

“First we must talk to Mary Bight.” Miss Byron’s obvious suggestion was a chink of light that immediately brought them to their feet.

“We’ve meant to do that, but,” Rev. Applewood reddened, “we don’t really know her, and we thought it would go better with you there.”

“And the situation has gotten worse so quickly,” said Mayor Silpatt.

“We’ll go now.” Miss Byron said.

If Mary was surprised to see Waverly’s five leading citizens on her sagging front porch, she did not reveal it, and promptly invited them inside. Unlike the house’s shabby exterior, the inside, though tight on space, was clean and orderly. True, boxes and piles of books outnumbered pieces of furniture, but even without knowing the volumes’ contents the visitors could see there was method to their arrangement. By the window sat the typewriter that punctuated Mrs. Parker’s days, flanked by a stack of clean paper on the left and typed sheets on the right. Less than an hour later, Mary’s visitors departed.


Church bells

(photo: goodpixgallery.com)

At six-thirty that evening, the church bell’s urgent summons boosted husbands out of their chairs to put on their coats and prompted wives to set aside the dish-washing, dry their hands, and gather the children. Only an urgent matter would call them out at this unusual hour, and they guessed what it was.

The townspeople approached the church afraid to learn what new depredations might have been revealed that day and keen to hear about them. They filled the sanctuary quickly and quietly, eyes fixed on the five town leaders who sat in front of the altar, facing them.

Rev. Applewood stepped to the lectern. “Dear friends, a pall of fear and confusion has lain over our town these last days. I know certain strange events and coincidences have alarmed many of you.” His audience stirred on the uncushioned pews, alert, backs straight, eyes on him. “Some rather wild speculations have circulated. And some of you believe these rumors justify strong actions.” Nods and mutterings of assent.

“I’ve called you here tonight with great relief, because we can finally put these matters to rest.” He told them how he and the others had visited Mary Bight that day. “She made a good impression on all of us. She’s bright, studious, and completely absorbed in her work, as we’ve all recognized.”

“The Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape,” a rumbling voice called out from the back of the sanctuary.

Rev. Applewood held out his arms in a mollifying gesture. “We are very, very far from needing to think along those lines,” he said. “I’d like Miss Byron to explain.”

“When these gentlemen showed me the twelve sheets today,” the schoolteacher said, “I observed a theme—a thread—among them. A thread related to their purpose, not their content.” The audience looked wary. “When we spoke with Miss Bight, we found my supposition was correct.

“Far from being alarming or dangerous, these are pages of a scholarly work. Miss Bight recently received her doctoral degree in English literature and is writing a textbook exploring many of its masterworks.”

“What about my page—the chemistry problem? That’s no literature,” Miss Quaid interrupted.

“I’m surprised no one recognized it,” Miss Byron said and turned to Doc Murray, who stood.

“I said the ingredients sounded odd, and I couldn’t understand the ‘Hell broth boil and bubble,’ that Miss Quaid recalled for us. But today when I saw the actual paper,” he paused, “it’s Shakespeare! We read it in high school!”

The crowd shifted in their seats. “Many of you surely remember the three witches who foretold Macbeth’s fate,” Miss Byron said. “‘Double double toil and trouble, fire burn and caldron bubble?’” She looked at them expectantly. “Miss Quaid’s paper had a fragment of that speech. And, yes, the witches’ cauldron did contain odd ingredients, like ‘eye of newt and toe of frog.’”

Miss Quaid fumed. Mrs. Grassley jabbed her husband with her sharp elbow. “You should of got that,” she muttered.

Unconsciously clutching her bandaged hand, Mrs. Waylon asked, “What about the white devil?”

“Part of a summary of Melville’s Moby Dick,” Miss Byron said. “The Great White Whale.”

“But, my hand?” she asked in a weak voice and held it up.

“I’m sorry, my dear.” Her husband smiled gently. “I’m afraid you are somewhat prone to household accidents.” Before she could take offense, he added, “It’s one of the chief reasons I’m glad I’m a physician.” The audience chuckled, and she blushed, but returned the smile.

“The man in the laboratory?” someone inquired, cobwebs of uncertainty still clinging to him.

“That page describes a type of story that uses science to give its plot a base of plausibility, then erects on it a most unscientific edifice. You may have read or heard about Robert Louis Stevenson’s new story, ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,’ or remember Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.”

Like balloons losing their air, the townspeople gradually slumped. Their heads sank further with each benign explanation.

“But why did she hang those papers outdoors like that?” Miss Quaid launched a flanking attack.

Rev. Applewood returned to the lectern. “In a way, she had the same problem we did. She’d neglected to number the pages. She went shopping on Saturday, and a sudden thunderstorm came up. The wind through the open window blew a good many of her papers onto the floor and hopelessly scrambled them. She didn’t have room to lay them out inside the house and had the idea of hanging them up so she could see them all and put them back in order. Which, in fact, she did.”

“What about the Jackson children?”

“Ah,” said Rev. Applewood. “That was unfortunate. But it had nothing to do with Mary.”

Dr. Waylon spoke up. “The children spent the afternoon climbing in their neighbor’s cherry trees. They ate too much fruit, plain and simple. Nothing supernatural about it.” A few people nodded, having had children of their own.

After a prolonged silence, a woman’s peevish voice asked, “Why don’t she take better care of that place?” Everyone burst out laughing, including Rev. Applewood.

The mayor spoke up. “Mary is renting the Thompson house for a few months, just until she finishes her book. Meanwhile, Sarah and Hiram Thompson took some of the old man’s money—yes, he had quite a hoard, believe it or not—and went to Europe.” The townspeople shook their heads. “When they return to Indianapolis, they’ll see about the house.”

“By the way,” Rev. Applewood said, “Mary did number the pages, once they were all in order. She realized some were missing and was pleased to get them back.”

There were no more questions, and soon the church emptied, the people seemingly embarrassed to have needed such an explanation.

“Mrs. Parker’s idea, the trip to Chicago,” Parker said to the Grassleys, as they walked toward home. “I knew that young woman wasn’t a witch.”

“Of course not,” sighed Mrs. Grassley and glared at her husband.

“Hmph,” said Grassley, muttering, “‘eye of newt.’ Hmph.” He hoped no one remembered he’d suggested the guns.

Miss Quaid, head held high, turned off at the next corner. “I just can’t believe how gullible people are, letting themselves get carried away like that,” she said.

Behind closed doors that night, the townspeople gradually came to accept this alternate and benign set of realities. A lot of conversations that started out talking about “protecting my family” and “can’t be too careful” ended up with “benefit of the doubt” and “jumping to conclusions,” as well as “sorry.” The men who’d held the guns said little, but their hands trembled. Just one more step, which the night before had seemed almost inevitable, and they would have fallen into an abyss of error and regret.


Over time, the people of Waverly drew upon this lesson again and again, as they confronted new challenges to their established ways—the prejudices sparked by immigration, the hatreds born of wars, the meanness of the Depression, and all the other upheavals in small town life whose beginning they dated to the arrival of the railroad, so many years before.

On the morning after the community meeting, Mary Bight opened her front door to find a bouquet of garden flowers, two pies, and a loaf of fresh-baked bread. Mid-morning, a half-dozen men carrying tools strode up her walk. By Sunday, the porch floor was secure, the shutters straight, and, most surprising of all, Grassley had donated several gallons of white paint that the men put to good use. She’d learned a lesson, too, and regularly appeared at church and took time to know her neighbors.

As I grew up, I often heard this story from Waverly’s old-timers. And I know that Johnny Waylon, my grandfather, lived its lessons throughout his own generous life. Still, whenever he told it, I could hear, just dusting his dry voice, a small boy’s disappointment that the most exciting event of his childhood had evaporated like a mysterious green mist.

country bouquet, flowers

(photo: brunifia, Creative Commons license)

Finding the Soul of the City

“The soul of a city can be found by talking a walk”—the premise and inspiration for generations of street photographers. In the February 2014 Metropolis, Jeff Speck, city planner, architect, and sustainable growth advocate writes about his book, Walkable City, claiming such visually rich environments are “better for your soul.”

Every Picture Tells a Story

Walking is certainly a better way to get a closeup look at the life going on around you. He illustrates that point with scenes of timeless urbanism captured by some of the giants of the street photography genre—Gary Winograd, Lee Friedlander, Vivian Maier, and others. The daily activities that animate city streets produce layered insights about both places and people. In a vital urban scene, “the presence of difference”—in ethnicity, race, class, income level, occupation—suggest endless story possibilities.

These images may require a second, even a third look, but it is clear why such photographs are often used as writing prompts.  What’s going on between those two? What are they looking at? What are they thinking? Why did he wear that?


Walkable ≠ Happy

Canadian journalist Charles Montgomery’s book, Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Though Urban Design, agrees that walkability may be a component of a healthy city, but alone it cannot make a city a happy one. A more complex set of elements contributes to people’s assessment of their own well-being. Photographers have captured these factors, too:

  1. elbow room (“People like their space”)—think about how kids tag every graffiti-friendly surface, it’s a way of claiming something distinctly, if momentarily, theirs; or consider the “reserved” parking place
  2. green space—and not just the occasional pocket park, but big swaths of it worthy of Frederick Law Olmsted, connected in continuous corridors, perhaps helping to explain the runaway popularity of the High Line, and
  3. economic justice. In other words, a city cannot be happy when a large segment of its population is much poorer than the rest.

Quality of life may be high in great, high-status cities, but that “does not translate into feelings of well-being . . . where social stratification creates a culture of status anxiety.”  Those tensions, too, are evident in photographs of many urban streetscapes.

walkability, streetscapes, urban life, High LineMore:

  • Jeff Speck’s TED talk on the walkable city.
  • The 10 U.S. cities having the most people who walk to work.
  • How cities are trying to become more walkable.
  • What’s the “Walk Score” for your address (U.S., Canada, and Australia)? Moving? Find walkable places to live.  My neighborhood’s Walk Score is 35, compared to New York City’s 88.
  • Many of Vivian Maier’s works can be seen on the Artsy website’s Vivian Maier page.