Francis was the first pet of my adulthood. He probably led the most interesting life of any pet I ever had.
After I married a family of one wife and three daughters, it was inevitable that we would get a pet. But a dog was going to be too difficult for us to manage at first. I had never cohabited with a cat, but my new daughters all insisted they wanted one. We wound up with an orange and white tabby whom my wife named Francis after her father.
Francis was a perfectly placid apartment cat. In the summer he liked to go through the open window and sit on the fire escape. Other than that, he never left the apartment–except for one accidental time. At Christmas, the kids had painted a snow scene with detergent paste on the fire escape window. Eventually they cleaned it off. Later that day, Francis apparently looked at the window and decided that because all that white stuff was gone it must be open. So he jumped right through the glass, and, startled, fell off the fire escape onto the roof of the building next door, one storey below. A friendly neighbor rescued him and brought him home, with nothing but a tiny spot of blood to show for his adventure. That was his last excursion outside the apartment.
After we’d had Francis for a couple of years, we moved to a house on Staten Island. Francis was happy to live in the house. I somehow had the idea, though, that in a safe, low-traffic neighborhood a cat would want to go outside. He didn’t, really. I would toss him out the back door into our backyard, and he would run back into the house before I could get the door closed. But after several such adventures, he tried wandering around the yard. That hooked him on the idea of the great outdoors.
Francis was, I’m now sorry to admit, an unaltered male cat. After a few times going outdoors, he discovered the excitement awaiting him in our neighborhood. He took to going away for a day at a time, occasionally returning with minor signs of combat on his fur. Francis’s wanderings took a dangerous turn when we moved from Staten Island up to the Ulster County town of Phoenicia. On the day we made our main move, he was nowhere to be found. Two days later, I came back to the Staten Island house with our moving crew to get the last item, my grand piano. We did find Francis. But the van in which we took the piano had no door on the passenger side. Although I was holding Francis in my lap through the whole trip, after the truck blew a tire and stopped for repairs he got loose from me and rushed out the door. I was lucky to catch him and get him up to Phoenicia safely.
He took a little while to get used to his new neighborhood. Then Francis started making longer excursions from our house. While he was home he was a perfectly ordinary housecat, sitting in people’s laps and purring his head off when he was being petted. But his trips away from home often lasted a week or more. He would come home looking emaciated, spend a few days renewing his family contacts and eating voraciously, and then go off again.
We lived across the stream from the main part of Phoenicia, and since we never saw Francis when he was away from home we often speculated on whether he was crossing the bridge into town. We learned that he was when some fool ignored the large sign on the bridge and tried to drive a truck over it. The truck was too tall for the bridge; it hit the metal crossbar with such force that the fragile old bridge collapsed. With the bridge gone, Francis did not come home.
We didn’t see him again for about two years. Then, one day, my wife called me from town and said she had seen Francis. I immediately drove into town, and there he was, looking entirely like his old self and quite well fed. I put him into the car and drove him home. He acted just like the Francis of old, snuggling with the girls and purring. But after three days, he took off again and never came back home. A friend told us he had seen Francis hanging out with a tribe of feral cats who lived behind Al’s Seafood Restaurant, where they lived comfortably on fish scraps.
I still imagine Francis, on a chilly fall evening, sitting around the campfire with his cat friends and telling them about his days as an apartment cat in Brooklyn. They probably didn’t believe him.
My parents’ families had no experience of having pets. Neither my father nor my mother had any animals in their households when they were growing up–and I don’t believe any of their siblings ever acquired any pets. Our pet history began by pure chance. One summer day, when I was five, my mother was ironing clothes with the window open and a canary flew in.
She immediately called my father, who was at work, and told him of the incident. He told her to close the windows and the door to that room, which was the bedroom I shared with my brother. He came home from work, carrying a small birdcage, let himself into the room and somehow caught the bird, popping it into the cage.
The next day my father reported the found bird to the local police station and put up a few circulars on our block in Brooklyn. But there was no telling how far the bird had flown, and nobody ever called to claim him. That day, my father came home from work with a large birdcage and canary supplies, including seed, a stone for him to sharpen his beak on, and whatever else the pet shop owner had told him he needed.
The canary, whom we named Chirpy, was our first pet. We knew he was a male because he sang, as only male canaries do. He fit rather well into our household and caused relatively little trouble. I liked having a pet in my room, and I frequently let him out to fly around the room. He always went back into the cage eventually, probably because that was where the food and water were.
Chirpy was probably not a young bird, and he lived only two or three years after we acquired him. But my parents enjoyed having him around also, and they saw that caring for him made me and my brother act responsibly. Soon, while Chirpy was still alive if I remember correctly, they bought a pair of hamsters, whom we named Timmy and Tina. They were fun to play with and we took good care of them. I remember one day when my little brother came running into the kitchen, shouting, “Mommy, mommy, little pink things are eating Tina!” We easily found homes for the little pink things, since hamsters were popular pets.
I also remember that, after Tina died, Timmy somehow escaped from his cage. We searched the apartment for days. Then, one night, I woke up, hearing my father in the kitchen singing, “Timmy, Timmy.” He’d heard noises behind the refrigerator. Timmy didn’t respond to his name, of course, but he did eventually come out and wound up back in his cage. Hamsters live only two or three years, and after Timmy died we didn’t get any more hamsters.
After Chirpy died, though, we had a birdcage to spare. My parents decided we needed a parakeet, whom I named Butchie. He was a dreadful pet, the only one I’ve ever had that I didn’t like. As with many of his species, Butchie liked to greet the dawn by shrieking loudly. By then I was old enough to read up on pets and one book recommended putting a blanket over the cage at night. But it didn’t work. I doubt if lead foil would have kept that bird quiet. As a result I was chronically sleep-deprived during a crucial period of my childhood. Maybe that’s why I’m only five foot five now. (Or maybe it’s because my father was five foot one.)
Budgies do like to fly around the house, so I had to release Butchie from his cage frequently. Budgies often land on people’s shoulders. In his case that was a cause for dread, since he liked to bite earlobes, a very painful experience due to his sharp pointed beak. He also liked to land on heads, where he often deposited little blobs of birdshit. The only ways to remove them were to wipe and then take a shower, or to wait until the blob hardened.
I think I gained a lot of maturity taking care of Butchie. I realized I was responsible for his care and I always fed him promptly, made sure he had plenty of water, cleaned his cage, and let him out for frequent exercise. Still, I must admit that the morning I found him lying on his back on the floor of the cage, I wasn’t at all sad.
I don’t remember the exact times when we acquired or lost these pets. But the arrival of our dog was a major enough event so that I will never forget it. We used to spend our summers at my father’s parents’ hotel, the Hotel Lorraine, in Sullivan County, New York, where my father and his siblings served as unpaid labor. It was no fun for them, and it was hell on my mother, who missed her friends and all her musical activities in New York. But for my brother and me it was paradise. The summer before I turned ten, 1952, my father decided that we could have a dog. Some dog in our neighborhood in Livingston Manor had had a litter of puppies, about half cocker spaniel and half dachshund. My brother and I had been reading a Wonder Book called “The Four Puppies Who Wanted a Home” over and over. The puppies in the book were named Trixie, Dixie, Pixie and Nixie. Nixie, the smallest and cutest, was the last one to find a home. Of course we named our new dog Nixie.
While Nixie was born in the country, she soon became an apartment dog, since that was where we spent ten months a year. My mother, who had been quite unhappy about the idea of having a dog, turned out to be an excellent and willing dog trainer and she participated enthusiastically in the process of housebreaking Nixie.
Nixie was my constant companion throughout the remainder of my childhood. For some reason I had the primary responsibility for walking her, although we were a family of four and the others often took her out. I remember with regret that sometimes these “walks” consisted of taking her to the corner and back, although good walks were all the way around the block. Nixie often slept with me. She was as gentle and kindly a dog as ever lived. I cannot remember any time when she caused us any trouble or grief, until she died. During our long rides to and from the Hotel Lorraine, Nixie would sit on the back seat of the car. When my brother Kenny or I got tired, she would let us use her as a pillow while we napped. She obviously loved our summers in the country, which ended only two years after we got her when my grandparents sold the hotel. But she always seemed happy to be around us, and she brought a great deal of joy into my life. She certainly helped set a norm that would remain throughout the remainder of my life to date: I have a dog. Usually two.
Nixie was almost the last pet we acquired during my childhood, but we wound up with one more when I was in my early teens. My mother was teaching kindergarten by then, and if I remember correctly it was another teacher in her school who had a large box turtle to give away. My mother took the turtle because she thought her schoolchildren would enjoy caring for it. But they didn’t, so she brought it home.
There was never any way to determine the turtle’s gender, but I always thought of it as male. He got his name through a surprising ability he had to climb up the side of a couch and sit on the seat. I named him Hillary, after the great mountaineer Sir Edmund Hillary. Much to my surprise, Hillary took an obvious liking to me. The couch-climbing behavior occurred when I was sitting in the music room, reading a book or studying. He would walk into the room, climb up the side of the couch, and sit beside me. At night, he would always go into our bedroom and lie under my bed. He would stick his head as far out of his shell as he could when I was paying attention to him, so that I could pet his head, which he apparently loved.
Alas, Hillary’s exploring proved to be his undoing. One day, when I was not home, he wandered into the music room, part of which had just been painted. There was no door on this room to close it off. Apparently the paint fumes killed him. He was dead when I got back from school.
Nixie lived until I was 20 and left home. I was planning to take her with me to the apartment in Brooklyn which I took with my new family, my soon-to-be-wife and her three children. But the growths my mother noticed on her stomach turned out to be terminal cancer, and she was mercifully put to sleep.
The impulse for remembering my old pets came from an e-mail from a friend, mourning the loss of her dog. I thought about my pets and decided to list all the ones I could remember. Including a couple who were in my life briefly, I came up with a list of 25, which I found surprisingly large. Even remembering the pets of my childhood took all this space! (and without any photos to post). So I’ll probably be writing soon about my later pets.
When I was a small child, in the 1940s, my parents bought me children’s records and I loved them. When I had small children of my own, in the ‘60s, I did the same for them. Most of the records met with indifference. But the records of Jim Copp and Ed Brown became quick favorites. So were the “Dance, Sing and Listen” records of “Miss Nelson and Bruce< [Haack].
I haven’t heard “The Way-Out Record” by Miss Nelson and Bruce, or their “Dance, Sing, and Listen” series, since my kids were small. And I was amused to discover that they have been issued on CD only in Japan. I’ve read somewhere that Bruce Haakc is considered an important pioneer in some kind of electronic music, so it figures.
But last month I was startled to run into “Agnes Mouthwash and Friends,” by Jim and Ed, on a CD at a thrift shop.
My wife and I used to enjoy the Jim Copp and Ed Brown records just as much as our children did. Maybe even more. I remember that they were played frequently, and not just when the kids were listening. Among my own favorites were “The Highway,” a marvelously surreal audio drama, and “Mr. and Mrs. Destitute,” about poor farmers whose refrain ran:
“There isn’t very much to eat.
Tonight let’s cook the mouse.”
Both of these selections are included in “Flibbertigibits on Parade,” Vol. 2 of the Playhouse CD series.
We were obviously not the only family who enjoyed these records. And in recent years, there have been several articles and broadcasts about this duo. There are links to them on the Playhouse Records website. You can even hear some samples of their work, with freshly done animation, on YouTube:
With some trepidation, I played my new copy of “Agnes Mouthwash” for my wife while we were driving in the car. She laughed heartily at most of the material, as I did. There’s something about the combination of home made quality (the originals were all recorded at home) and sophistication that remains fresh and amusing after all these decades.
Ed Brown died in 1978, Jim Copp in 1999. Somebody is continuing with their legacy, though. The Playhouse label CDs recombine material from the individual LPs, which doesn’t matter much, into generous programs. And they are still available. I’m recommending you check out a track or two, even if you don’t have any small children around.
In the fall of 1969, I left my wife and children behind for a month and took a bus trip across America. One of the most memorable events of that month was my encounter with record librarian Charlemaude Curtis in New Mexico.
In those days, Greyhound was selling a 30 day bus pass, and I bought one. It was good for unlimited travel throughout the U.S. and Canada. During the course of the month, I covered approximately 10,000 miles. I later calculated that I spent about a third of my time on buses.
I first went straight across the country to visit my sister-in-law, who was then living in Los Angeles. I wound up spending most of my time visiting my former piano teacher, Joanne La Torra, who had become a close friend. (She made two LPs for the Orion label as Joanne Smith.) From there I went back east to Tucson to visit friends who had a summer house in Phoenicia, near where I lived. My next stop was Fort Worth, where by arrangement I recorded an interview with the pianist Lili Kraus (then teaching at Texas Christuan University), who took me out to lunch at Furr’s Cafeteria. Unfortunately the magazine I did the interview for ceased publication, and the interview was never printed.
From Fort Worth I traveled to Albuquerque, where my uncle Lenny Felberg had recently taken up residence as professor of violin at the University of New Mexico. After that, I went to Seattle, spending a few days with my science-fiction friends F.M. and Elinor Busby and, of course, getting wet. My last stop was in Edmonton, Alberta, where I visited my old friend Calvin Demmon and his wife India. En route home I was stranded in Watertown, NY by a bus strike. My friend Henry Fogel, who lived in Syracuse, drove up and rescued me, and I spent a couple of days with him and his wife Fran before the buses started running again.
I had many memorable experiences during that voyage, but perhaps none stands out as strongly as my encounter with Charlemaud Curtis. At that time, Charlie Curtis–as everyone called her–was an assistant music librarian at the University of New Mexico Library. Since my uncle Lenny and his wife Arlette worked during the day, they needed a place to park me while they were at work. Lenny took me to the UNM Library, where I already knew the librarian, Jim Wright, head of the Fine Arts Library, through the Association for Recorded Sound Collections.
I figured I would just spend my time browsing and listening, but Jim had another idea. The UNM Library had a room full of 78s that had been donated over the years and never sorted or catalogued. Charlie, who had come to UNM after having run her own record store for years, had been agitating to have something done with the 78s. While I wasn’t particularly an expert on 78s, I was already known as a “record expert” in general. Jim and Charlie asked me if I would help Charlie sort through the 78s.
Thus began one of the most entertaining experiences I’ve ever had. Charlie, who was old enough to be my mother, was a lively woman, and she knew a lot about records from her experience running a store that I didn’t know. For example, she explained one thing I’d always been curious about, why the Columbia 78 of “Preludio a Cristobal Colon” by the Mexican microtonal composer Julian Carillo, recorded in Cuba in 1930, was so common. I would have expected an avant-garde piece like that to be extremely rare, but Charlie told me she always sold a few copies in her store at Halloween.
Even in those days, most 78s had already become pretty worthless. We decided early on to keep for the collection only relatively important material which was not available on LP. The large majority of records we didn’t think were worth keeping went onto carts, where they were wheeled out to the open area of the library and offered for sale to faculty and students for ten cents each. I wasn’t there long enough to see how many of them sold but I learned later that quite a few of them were actually bought.
Most of the collection was classical music. However, we found some interesting early recordings of Latino music which were of great interest to the library. One record in particular excited Charlie. It was an acoustical recording which had been made and issued in Albuquerque, and she was convinced that it had been the earliest record made in New Mexico.
I worked with Charlie for three days on the records, and by the third afternoon we had them all sorted. We congratulated each other on a job well done. The records the library would keep were boxed and ready to catalog. The unwanted records were all out of the storeroom. We were left with a small pile of records we had set aside as completely useless, all either broken or obviously worn beyond playability. We smiled at each other, and without a word we started reaching for the records in the discard stack, smashing them on the concrete floor of the storeroom. Then, laughing almost uncontrollably, we went out for a beer.
I saw Charlie one more time, about 20 years ago. My wife Tara and I were in Albuquerque to visit my uncle and my parents, who had recently moved to Albuquerque. Charlie had retired by then, but we called her and got together. She drove us to visit friends at Jemez Pueblo, and Tara bought some pots from the wonderful potter Phyllis Tosa. Driving with Charlie was An Experience, though. She was a speed demon.
Today there is a Charlemaud Curtis Collection of Southwestern Music, Interviews and Programs at the UNM library, including material that Charlie recorded herself. She obviously did a lot of great work for recordings during her career. But I’ll always remember her as Charlie the Record-Smasher.