Category Archives: Winter memories

Instrument set

Carol needed an Xacto knife with a sharp blade, so I pulled out the drawer that holds the wooden box with Xacto knives, along with the log-log slide rule, the regular slide rule, and the drafting tools: French curves, triangles (including two that belonged to my grandfather, the naval architect), erasing shields, architect’s and engineer’s scales, a lead holder or two, and the instrument set. Somehow I managed to upset the instrument set, and had to spend five minutes putting all the tools back in the case.

I bought the instrument set maybe twenty-five years ago at Charette, which sold architect’s supplies, at their store in Woburn. I was working in a lumberyard by day and taking art classes night, and every once in a while I’d pick up a little extra money doing some drawing or simple drafting on the side. For some reason, now long forgotten, I needed a compass. The salesman at Charette tried to sell me the instrument set: a slim black plastic case with compasses and dividers.

“You can buy this for only a little more than that compass you asked about,” he said. He was only a few years older than me.

“Why, what’s wrong with it?” I said.

He showed me where one corner of the box was broken. I still couldn’t believe how low the price was, and said so.

“I can’t sell it with the box broken like that,” he said. The architects, the pros, they wouldn’t buy it that way.

But I would. It cost more than I felt comfortable spending, but I bought it. I still remember my excitement as I walked out of that store: I finally owned an instrument set.

I have a vague memory of using a compass for something or other half a dozen years ago, but I really don’t do drafting any more. Yet everything’s still in the case: the small compass, the large compass with the quick-release mechanism, the extension arm to fit on the large compass, the dividers, the little case with leads, the pen nibs for drawing circles in ink, the lead holder, the tiny screwdriver so you could repair things; each item nestled in its slot in the flocked interior of the plastic box. The large compass has one or two tiny spots of rust now.

Surprisingly, you can still buy the Charette #471 instrument set. Who buys them in this era of computer assisted drafting? I suspect a few architects buy them out of nostalgia, and play with them in their spare time.

A Thesaurus of Humor

When we went to visit my grandmother, who lived in Staten Island, we would stay in her house. My older sister, Jean, and I would spend hours in the downstairs room where the TV was; the television stations in New York had different programming than we had back home, and we were fascinated to see TV shows that we had never seen before.

The room was full of books, too. I think it had been my grandfather’s study, or office. He had died two weeks after I was born, so I never met him. Jean and I found the books fascinating. We leafed through them, and as we got older, we read a good many of them.

I still have a tattered copy of the Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, dated 1894, which Grandma gave me when I was eleven of twelve. But I no longer have A Thesaurus of Humor, which I discovered when I was eight, and which Grandma also gave to me. I took it home and read it cover to cover, and I would read the jokes out loud to my parents, and memorize them. I must have been insufferable.

Dad told me that my grandfather, his father, had been the managing editor of the Staten Island Advance and a member of one or two fraternal organizations and had taken jokes from the book to put into speeches that he had had to give. I only vaguely understood what Dad meant, just as I only vaguely understood some of the jokes.

Today, as I was walking through Porter Square in Cambridge, one of those old jokes suddenly came up out of memory. I have a touch of a cold, walking briskly loosened up some congestion, so I hawked and spat, making sure to spit on the road, not on the sidewalk. That’s when the joke re-emerged from memory.

MAN: Your honor, I feel I should be fined.
JUDGE: Why is that?
MAN: I expectorated on the sidewalk.
JUDGE: Well, if it makes you feel better — the Court fines you two dollars. Next!

I distinctly remember reading that joke in Grandma’s house, and not understanding it. I asked my father what “expectorate” meant. “Why, it means ‘spit’,” said Dad. Then my eight-year-old self thought I got the joke: how silly of the man to ask to be fined just because he spat on the sidewalk! I hadn’t thought of that joke in thirty-five years, but remembering it today I finally realized that the joke was funny in large part because the man was obviously educated and overconscientious.

A Thesaurus of Humor disappeared some years ago. I can still see it in my mind’s eye: a thick book bound in medium blue. I can remember how the jokes were laid out on the page, grouped together by category. I wish I still had it. It’s a good thing I don’t still have it, because I would probably succumb to the temptation of reading it again cover to cover, and memorizing the jokes, and reading them out loud to people who would only listen out of politeness.


Winter is when the memories seem to rise up unbidden, and winter is coming to an end. Even though I tend to stay up late, I keep getting awakened by the light of sunrise, now about 5:30 a.m. Springtime is overtaking memory.

But somehow, a memory of a sunrise slipped into consciousness just now….

One June, when we were living over by White Pond in Concord. Carol was away on one of her trips to Mexico; I was sleeping alone; I came wide awake before dawn. Say four o’clock. Couldn’t get to sleep, didn’t want to. Put the canoe on the car and drove down to the river.

Untied the canoe as the sky was just starting to turn light, paddled down river to Fairhaven Bay. I drifted into the bay as the sky started to turn from black to blue. Mist rising over the bay. I tried a few casts in the shallow, upstream end of the bay; nothing. In the downstream end of the bay, there’s a deeper hole, and there I hooked a big bass on light tackle and with barbless hooks; after maybe quarter of an hour I brought him to the boat, wet my hand, and held him while I released the hook then let him swim away to keep breeding. I turned around to see that the sun had just hit the top of the rising mist, about twenty feet above the river; an Osprey circled overhead in the sun, a far more efficient catcher of fish than a single human could ever be; a Great Blue Heron stalked smaller fish along the shore. I drifted in silence for a while. The sun crept up over the horizon: gold light in the mist; but as I paddled into the mist, it only appeared white.

The mist was gone by the time I reached the boat landing.

…a memory that doesn’t translate into words very well. A memory that dissipated as I tried to write it down. Something about a gut-level, direct knowledge of my place in the ecosystem, in the universe — but that’s putting it badly. It’s gone now.


This isn’t really my memory, it’s my father’s memory. But the story has become so much a part of our family’s folklore that I almost feel as if I had been there, and had witnessed the whole thing myself. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly when all this took place. My grandmother, my father’s mother, died in the fall of 1981, so it must have been that summer, the summer of 1981.

The whippoorwills had all left ten years earlier. They used to nest in the hay fields behind our house and call in the evenings — whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will — but then one summer we didn’t hear them any more. Sometimes we’d say, Remember when the whippoorwills used to call at in the summer evenings? And one of us would reply, Boy, we haven’t heard one of them in years. That summer, a whippoorwill returned.

Then what happened to my father must have taken place after I had returned to college. I have this vague memory of him telling me about this over the phone as I sat in the darkness on a hot, steamy Philadelphia evening. His story went like this:

For several nights, he had been awakened by the whippoorwill. It was loud, as if it were right next to the house. That it would be that close was surprising; even more surprisingly, its loud calls didn’t awaken either my mother or my younger sister. My mother tended to be a light sleeper; my sister a little less so; but dad usually sleeps like a log, and only the alarm clock can awaken him. Yet he was the only one whom the whippoorwill awakened.

One night, it sounded unbelievably loud, it sounded as if it were closer than it ever had been before. Dad was awakened by its ceaseless calling — whip-poor-will whip-poor-will whip-poor-will whip-poor-will whip-poor-will — so loud he couldn’t get back to sleep, and no one else was awake. He got up and walked down the hall to the bathroom, and stopped to look out the hall window, over the roof of the porch. The moon shone brightly down, and there it was: the whippoorwill, sitting on the porch roof, right outside the hall window, calling and calling and calling.

He stood there watching it for awhile. They’re shy, nocturnal, well-camouflaged birds and maybe one in a thousand people ever sees one. Dad, who is Pennsylvania Dutch, remembered an old superstition: if you see a whippoorwill, someone close to you will die. He stood there in the moonlight watching and listening to the whippoorwill, with maybe a little chill running down his spine.

You know the rest of the story. Dad’s mother, who was in a nursing home that summer, died in October. As much as I like birds, as much as I’d like to see a whippoorwill, that seems too high a price to pay to see one.


When my older sister and I were quite small — this was before our younger sister was born — our mother used to tell us stories sometimes before bed. I remember one summer, on some hot summer nights, lying in bed in my tiny bedroom, I suppose we were in there because I was younger. My mother sat on the edge of the bed and told us a long, involved story of the Blue City. I wish now I could remember the story, although maybe it’s best I don’t; it may not have been nearly as mysterious and evocative as I remember it to be. My bedroom faced east, and the last light of the sun reflected off the old white Hodgman house across the street and filled the room with gold-tinged light. In those days, whippoorwills still called in the summer evenings; but whippoorwills have long been extirpated as breeding birds in that part of Massachusetts, and the hay fields and apple orchards behind where we lived have been covered by sprawl in the form of low-density starter mansions, and indeed that modest house we lived in was recently torn down and replaced by a three-thousand square foot house. It’s still there in memory: the fading light, the hope that I’d hear a whippoorwill, the Blue City.

Memory fragment

Yesterday I was driving to the health food store — dark, cold drizzle, damp and raw — and I had a sudden flash of incredibly vivid memory:

…driving from our house on Manila Avenue in Oakland, up Telegraph Avenue in Berkeley, shaded by palm trees, past the bright open buildings, early morning sun washing everything with that characteristic pellucid northern California glow…

I shook my head and said to myself: Why did I think of that? I rarely took that route to work; I usually drove up through the Berkeley hills. And why remember a fairly trivial part of my commute at all?

I tried to remember the rest of that drive up Telegraph Avenue, but my thoughts moved on before I could… I guess it was just one tiny fragment of memory dropping into awareness at an odd moment.


At one time, I went to this one Dunkin Donuts just about every week. It was along Route 62 in Bedford, a stretch of winding state highway in suburban Boston choked by strip malls. From the Dunkins, you could see a faceless chain motel down the road one way, a fair sized shopping plaza across the road, another chain motel next to the shopping plaza, some smaller building with professional offices, a car wash. My sister had once been a chambermaid in one of the motels. In winter, when the trees had no leaves, you could glimpse the backs of small anonymous suburban houses. I don’t ever remember seeing any people around those houses.

I used to take my laundry to the laundromat in the shopping plaza. One end of the plaza was occupied by a high-tech company, made into offices and R&D space. On the other side of the laundromat sat a crummy Chinese restaurant, and on the other side of that sat a couple of big-box discount stores. I had no interest in the discount stores and the only reason to go into the Chinese restaurant was to sit at the bar and have one of those huge bright potent drinks with an umbrella, but I never felt the urge to get drunk while waiting for laundry. So I’d walk across Route 62 to the Dunkins.

This was always on Sunday night, because that’s when I liked to do my laundry. I’d sit there at the counter, nursing a decaf coffee, and maybe eating a chocolate honey-glazed doughnut. The waitress wasn’t ever talkative, and I’d usually be the only customer, so it was either read or stare across Route 62 at the shopping plaza. I’d sit there reading a novel, I was trying to read one great novel a week.

One Sunday, there were actually two other guys sitting at the counter when I walked in. They were staying at one of the motels while doing business at one of the high-tech firms nearby.We wound up talking. Actually, I wound up talking to one of the guys, because the other guy spoke nothing but Turkish.

“He really likes Dunkins coffee,” said the American guy. “Coffee is a big deal in Turkey. They grind it really fine and leave the grounds in the bottom, it’s like drinking sludge at the bottom of the cup. Mostly he hasn’t liked the coffee here in America. But he loves Dunkins coffee. We’ve been over here the past two nights.” He turned to the Turkish guy and said something. The Turkish grinned, reached under his stool, and showed me a pound of Dunkin’s coffee. The American guy said, “He likes it so much, he’s buying some to take back to Turkey with him.” After that, they went back to talking in Turkish.

That was the only conversation I ever had in that Dunkin Donuts. Not long after that, I was in the laundromat and some guy walked in, dumped a whole bunch of clothes into a washing machine, and then took off the rest of his clothes except his boxer shorts and stuffed all them into the washing machine, too. We were the only two people there at the time, which felt a little funny. About a month later, I moved into a rental share house with a washing machine and dryer, so I stopped going to the laundromat, and stopped going to Dunkins.

For years after that, I’d occasionally drive past that Dunkins. Somehow that Dunkins managed to encapsulate something about that year of my life and I’d feel this momentary twinge. Vague memories would drift barely up into consciousness as I drove by, but they’d disappear and I’d be quickly past it without ever stopping to go in again.


What you’re about to read is a mixture of memory, hearsay, fact, and speculation. Believe it at your own risk.

The first year I was out of college, I worked for the fine arts department of my alma mater, in exchange for a pitiful salary, a chance to work with the sculptor, and studio space with access to all the clay I could desire. The foundry master, the sculpture professor, a few others, and I used to go to Dunkin Donuts a few miles up the main drag. The waitress got to know us so well, even to the point of knowing where we’d sit, that when she saw us coming in she’d had our coffee and doughnuts at our places before we sat down. I’d get a coffee, sugar no cream, and a chocolate honey-glazed. I don’t remember what the other guys got.

This was back in the days when Dunkin Donuts was a place where you’d want to hang out. A big counter snaked through the center of the store with a space in the middle where the waitress worked, you sat on a stool facing the waitress and the counter on the other side. Think white patterned Formica countertops with metal edges, dark red vinyl stools. It was all very companionable. In my memory, the sun was always pouring in the floor-to-ceiling windows on the front and side of the place.

The Dunkins we frequented stayed open 24 hours a day. Seems like all Dunkins stayed open 24 hours a day back then. There was a regular crew of people who would start drifting in sometime after midnight, and stay through the wee hours of the morning. My friend Johnny H. was one of them — he was still in college, and he’d bring his books and sit there and study. I remember going in once late at night (as a sculptor’s apprentice, I kept really odd hours) and seeing them sitting around the counter. They were nearly all men. They all seemed to know each other. They each kept a pool of loose coins on the counter in front of them, and when they ordered another doughnut or cup of coffee the waitress would just slide out the right number of coins. It looked like a companionable scene, but I never stayed, I was always headed back to the studio to work.

Anyway, Johnny H. used to tell me stories about the different characters who were regulars. That’s what they called themselves, “regulars.” Maybe it was a pun on the way you order coffee at Dunkins: “Gimme a coffee please.” “Regular?” “No cream, just sugar.” I don’t know.

Johnny H. told me this one story about a memorable night at Dunkins:

The regulars all drifted in, chatting with each other and with the waitress. On this one night, conversation veered from the normal topics, and some of the regulars got to bragging about themselves and what they could do. One of them was a phone phreak, that is, he knew how to make long distance phone calls for free. He had a little black box, a gizmo that would fool AT&T (this was back in the days when telephone service was still pretty much a monopoly) into putting through your call without charging you. Then another one of the regulars said he had an Uzi submachine gun. “No you don’t!” “Oh yes I do!” “Prove it.” So he drove off, allegedly to get the Uzi submachine gun — a thoroughly illegal modified assault weapon — but nobody believed he would be back.

Some of the regulars, fascinated with the phone phreak’s little black box, went over to the pay phone in Dunkins and used it to make some prank long distance calls. Maybe things were getting a little out of hand at this point. Then the second braggart came back with his Uzi submachine gun. He really did have one. God knows where he got it. As Johnny H. put it when he told me this story, you really never knew with the regulars. Some of them were into some pretty strange stuff. Nowadays, I might call them “marginal” or something like that.

Next thing you know, the guys with the little black box decide they’re going to call the White House. By now, it’s maybe three in the morning. They call directory assistance or something to get the number. Someone answers the phone (I imagine it was a sleepy-eyed Secret Service agent). They say, hey we don’t like the President — remember, this would have been in the Reagan years, after the assassination attempt that put Reagan in the hospital and left James Brady in a wheelchair for life — and we’ve got an Uzi submachine gun here, and we’re going to kill the president. Then they hang up, and start to laugh. Then the guy with the Uzi walks out to put it in his car.

The Lower Merion Township police are waiting outside Dunkins, and they arrest him and the phone phreak. According to the way Johnny H. heard the story later, any time a call came in to the White House, it was automatically traced. Any threat against the life of the president was taken very seriously indeed. The call was just a joke to the guys who made it, but whoever answered the phone at the White House probably had the FBI on the line within seconds after they hung up, and the FBI called the local cops, who were there before the pranksters could walk out of Dunkins, still laughing. The phone phreak, said Johnny H. later, was back at Dunkins within days, minus his little black box, but they never saw the guy with the Uzi again.

Carol and I just walked up to our neighborhood Dunkins, which is open from four in the morning until midnight. Can I help you? asks the waitress, and I get a small decaf no cream no sugar and an old-fashioned. “Hey,” says Carol, “I don’t see those Dunkins doughnuts anymore.” She asks the waitress, don’t you have those plain doughnuts with the little handle on them? But the waitress clearly doesn’t know what Carol’s talking about.

These days the waitresses and waiters (really, they’re just cashiers now) at Dunkins hide behind big orange and brown cabinets. Who can blame them for hiding back there with all the crazies in the world? No more counters where the regulars can sit around facing each other and the waitress or waiter walks down the middle. Yes, there are a few tiny unsociable tables stuffed in the back corner of the place with those chairs that are designed to be uncomfortable so you won’t want to sit for long. Hardly the place where you’d want to spend much time. Starbucks has taken over that niche of the coffee market; you go into a Starbucks and you want to sit for hours and relax; but at Dunkins it’s obvious they want you in and out as quickly as possible.

Just as well. If I were a faceless corporate beancounter at Dunkins, I surely would not want a bunch of phone phreaks and the like sitting around in my stores, even if they did leave their piles of change in front of them, waiting to spend it, even if they were pretty interesting human beings. But I sit here eating my plain donughnut and drinking my small decaf no cream no sugar (always order a small at Dunkins because a large comes in a styrofoam cup that makes the coffee taste kinda funny), I do wonder what happened to Johnny H., if he still stays up through the night and into the early morning, if he still talks with all kinds of strange and wonderful people.