‘Cause this fine old world it keeps spinnin’ around


If you’re in the right place sometimes the world will revolve around you. In 1987 that was certainly my impression of the Blake Building in downtown DC. Rising above the Farragut North Metro Station, 1025 Connecticut Ave and its environs offered a perpetual brush with history.

It was the year of Broadcast News and the lunchtime pavement teemed with those who delivered the news – rumpled newsman David Brinkley for instance – and those who made it, such as Robert Bork. Nominated to the Supreme Court in July, by summer’s end rejection seemed imminent – as confirmed by his sullen expression while waiting for a ride.

This was also the summer of the Iran-Contra Scandal and during a quick nosh at Duke Zeibert’s across the street (that chicken-in-a-pot special of theirs ruined two of my favorite ties) I saw Colonel Oliver North’s attorney, Brendan Sullivan (“I’m not a potted plant. I’m here as the lawyer”) genially seated by… a potted plant.

As for Ollie himself, he was much slighter without the medals and ribbons. We’d regularly share an elevator in the Blake Building, where his offices were a few floors above mine. But while I churned out trade magazine pieces on a Canon Typestar 110 (“the latest in typewriter development”) and dreamed of the day when my company would spring for a DOS word processor, he and his fellow defendants were up there examining classified government documents with “tempest tested” spy-proof computers.

From an historical perspective, perhaps the most thrilling episode was when Soviet Premier Michael Gorbachev’s motorcade screeched to a halt on its way to the White House, right outside my window, and a smiling “Gorby” stepped out of his boxy ZIL limousine to shake hands with the crowd. I caught that one on camera.

Still, from a personal perspective, nothing compares to a revelation about a colleague in the office.

As writer and editor, I rarely got a chance to mingle with those in advertising sales. Then one day we were forced to evacuate our building. Whether it had something to do with the goings-on upstairs or the Secret Service field office discreetly located across the street, someone called in a threat and there went the next few hours.

Dapper, in his early 70s, and with an indiscernible accent, word had it that Ilya was a retired biochemist who spoke seven languages and had taught at Oxford. Intrigued, I suggested a cup of coffee down the street. “Oh I taught there for years,” he said, “and I still maintain a healthy income from patents on my soybean fermentation process, but Winslow, it’s important to keep your mind active. That’s why I’m here.”

I mentioned that I’d lived in England myself. “There are still some things to attend to in London, so my girlfriend, Linda and I are going back for a visit. But first we’re going to spend a few days in Paris, and (shhhh) I’m going to ask her to marry me.”

“Of course you must propose in French.”

Since the one thing I can say in French is that I don’t speak it (Je ne parle pas Français) he grabbed a napkin and wrote out a little script, dropping by my office from time to time to see if I’d learned it by heart: Savez-vous pourquoi nous sommes ici? Je voudrais que tu sois ma femme (“Do you know why we’re here? I’d like you to be my wife.”).

It wasn’t quite how I’d have put it in English, but his was a more paternal generation and I didn’t have the wherewithal to soften it. I was therefore much relieved that producing a ring and phonetically reciting my script on the steps of Sacre Couer still resulted in a joyous, “Oui.” After we were married Linda and I moved to Toronto and I lost touch with Ilya.

Considering his age I wasn’t surprised to see that he’d died in 1995. What did surprise me however, was the astonishing number of Google listings his name brought up, starting with a 1949 issue of Life Magazine.

Entitled Mr. Lucky Has a Roman Holiday, there was an article about deported mobster, Lucky Luciano who shared a suite of rooms in one of Rome’s best hotels with a ballerina, Signora Igea Lissoni, and his “good friend Ilya, a onetime New York press agent” who was recuperating in bed after an auto crash … And there was Ilya, 40 years younger but eminently recognizable, being read to by the Godfather of Organized Crime.

Then there were the other assorted listings, mostly newspaper clippings, and it was with an increasingly jaundiced (though fascinated) eye that I worked my way through them.

Taking it all at face value one was to surmise that Ilya was born in London to parents who held Russian passports but were of English descent. As a violin prodigy at age eight, he toured Europe in concerts conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, and went on to study Philosophy at the Sorbonne.

By the mid-1930s, he was assistant conductor at Teatro Alla Scala in Milan. Then he worked for a PR firm in New York, where he created a winning campaign for the Brazilian Coffee Import Bureau to convince Americans to drink more coffee.

In the decades that followed he was identified as a London-based music and stage director, the president of a major food processing company in Florida, an artist, a hotel/night club owner in Cozumel, a symphony composer, an Austin-based art promoter, a world-class chess tournament sponsor/organizer, a Washington-based auto dealer (in which he utilized his knowledge of Russian, Japanese, German, Italian, French, Spanish, and Portuguese to sell Volvos to foreign diplomats), an Oxford professor and biochemist… C’est la vie.

At a time when truth and honesty have become increasingly elastic concepts it’s not hard for your garden variety cynic to separate what Ilya said he was from what he surely was – mobster, bon vivant, hotel/night club owner, art maven, car salesman, linguist, confidence man. I knew him when he was in advertising sales.

Whoever he was, his was an interesting journey and naturally I’m reminded of this Dean Kay/ Kelly Gordon song, most famously sung by Sinatra, who’d chummed around with Lucky Luciano himself, back in the day.

That’s Life

That’s life (that’s life) that’s what people say
You’re riding high in April
Shot down in May
But I know I’m gonna change that tune
When I’m back on top, back on top in June

I said, that’s life (that’s life) and as funny as it may seem
Some people get their kicks
Stompin’ on a dream
But I don’t let it, let it get me down
‘Cause this fine old world it keeps spinnin’ around

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate
A poet, a pawn and a king
I’ve been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing
Each time I find myself flat on my face
I pick myself up and get back in the race

That’s life (that’s life) I tell ya, I can’t deny it
I thought of quitting, baby
But my heart just ain’t gonna buy it
And if I didn’t think it was worth one single try
I’d jump right on a big bird and then I’d fly

I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate
A poet, a pawn and a king
I’ve been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing
Each time I find myself layin’ flat on my face
I just pick myself up and get back in the race

That’s life (that’s life) that’s life
And I can’t deny it
Many times I thought of cuttin’ out but my heart won’t buy it
But if there’s nothing shakin’ come here this July
I’m gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die
My, my



These are the days…


I came of age in our nation’s Bicentennial year. Celebrating with beloved friends and angels, I raised my glass to the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, which had recently granted 18 year olds the right to drink. If we were old enough to fight for our country, we were old enough to have a beer. But now the fighting was over, the draft abolished … it was a glad wrinkle in time.

It was also a time when people wrote letters and as a college freshman in Boston I maintained a lively correspondence with my sister in San Francisco.  Naturally the merest hint of an invitation was all it took to envisage myself rolling across the transcontinental pathway come summer like some latter day Woody Guthrie, or John Steinbeck, or Jack Kerouac…

Working double shifts in the dining hall,  I found a posting on the Student Union ride board.   Ella and her friend, Shirley were going to Eugene, Oregon and wanted someone to split the cost and share the driving. “You know it’s over 500 miles from San Francisco, don’t you?”  Hey, it looked close enough on a map. Figuring to hitch that final leg I was ready to roll.

Written years later by Natalie Merchant and Robert Buck, and performed by 10,000 Maniacs on their album, Our Time In Eden – and as an alternative to its intended meaning about falling in love – for me this song captures a bit of the venturesome euphoria found in tying your dad’s old army duffel to the roof of a careworn Plymouth Duster, with $200 in your pocket and a head full of unlikely notions…

These are the days.
These are days you’ll remember. 
Never before and never since, I promise, will the whole world be warm as this. 
And as you feel it, you’ll know it’s true that you are blessed and lucky. 
It’s true that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you. 
These are days you’ll remember. 
When May is rushing over you with desire to be part of the miracles you see in 
Every hour. 
You’ll know it’s true that you are blessed and lucky. 
It’s true that you are touched by something that will grow and bloom in you. 
These are days. 
These are the days you might fill with laughter until you break. 
These days you might feel a shaft of light make its way across your face. 
And when you do you’ll know how it was meant to be. 
See the signs and know their meaning. 
It’s true, you’ll know how it was meant to be. 
Hear the signs and know they’re speaking to you, to you.

That $200 represented my life’s savings so I’d planned to economize by fasting the entire way – I also just wanted to see if I could do it – until Ella asked if we could stop at her grandparents’ house in Scranton for lunch. Second helpings of stuffed lamb chops and green beans made up for any lost time in my book, and I have yet to get back to that fast. Even better, the stuffed gorilla that had taken up half the back seat all morning had been a present for Ella’s niece. Now there was room to stretch out….

Back on the road I came to appreciate just how looooooong the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is and was happy to take the wheel somewhere north of Pittsburgh. Relaxing in the cozy space I’d established in back, Ella began to roll a joint. “You smoke right?” I explained how it mucked up my situational awareness, said I’d pass, and regaled them with past escapades. Plenty of time for that. Around sunset we pulled into a Motel 6 in Youngstown, Ohio, split the $9 fare three ways, and took our turns – 25 cents “for your comfort and relaxation” – on the Magic Fingers vibrating bed.

The next morning the girls felt ill after a Stuckey’s stop. Thankful not to have gone with the Breakfast Special, I put in a good 10 hours of driving through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and into Iowa when the ‘herb superb’ appeared again to “settle the queasiness,” and Shirley said she felt okay to drive. Immediately falling asleep, I woke up when the car slowed to a crawl. “Everything okay?” Shirley was bent over the wheel looking at the sky.

“They’re talking about tornadoes on the radio,” she was more intent on watching the clouds on the horizon than the road beneath us. Even I could see that the distant sky was taking on a greenish-yellow hue. But ‘distant’ was the optimal word. I offered to take the wheel, stepped on it, and we made it all the way to Council Bluffs.

This time we pulled into a Depression-era motor court with a chain of cabins, each with an open-faced garage. Seeing that they charged by the head I told Ella to stay down in back while Shirley and I went in to register, which didn’t endear us to the canny proprietor. “And what about the person hiding in your car?” Like sneaking into drive-ins, this was not a Boy Scout move.

That motor court, those Magic Fingers, even some of the route numbers are now gone, as is a time of life when price and novelty took precedence over comfort and new-fashioned amenity.

Geographically we hadn’t hit the halfway point, but with the eastern traffic behind us we could go farther faster and set our sites on Salt Lake City, Utah, a day’s drive from Eugene. We might have made it too, had it not been for a blowout somewhere around the chilly Great Divide in Wyoming. Of course changing the tire meant emptying the trunk and I was reminded why my duffel was on the roof.

“I see you’ve got a tent.” I’d replaced the tire and was repacking the trunk. “It’s getting dark. Why not camp here and get an early start in the morning?”

Ella loaned me her sleeping bag and the girls slept in the relative warmth of the car. As there were no stakes I anchored the tent with some ski boots. This was no Boy Scout move either, but it worked, until the tent collapsed under half a foot of snow. “Hey,” I banged on the windshield, “remember what I said about that early start?”

There was heavy snowfall around Salt Lake City and our last 400 miles were spent on a two-lane highway (Route 20) through the Cascades. But we rolled into Eugene with time enough for beer, pizza, a hot shower and a good night’s sleep in the bungalow the girls were sharing with friends. Up early, I made a sign for SAN FRAN over a cup of coffee and hugged Shirley goodbye. Then Ella gave me a lift to the I-5 onramp, hugged goodbye and – such is the way of the road – that was the last I’ve heard of them.

Five hundred miles seems a lot further when you’re looking at a road instead of a map.  I wasn’t sure what to expect when I hoisted my sign, certainly not the rusty ’55 Chevy Bel Air with balding tires that immediately pulled over. Driven by a no-nonsense hippie chick who told me to throw my duffel in the trunk, there were also a couple of guys in the car. “How far are you going?” I eased into the back seat.

“All the way to San Francisco,” said the driver. “This thing has a habit of stalling and I could use the extra help to pop the clutch. Looks like we’re okay this time,” she pulled onto the highway. The guy in front told me he was a musician, while the older, bearded guy next to me said he was a hobo who’d “been everywhere.”

Cruising along at 60 mph there was surprisingly little conversation, except after a couple of rest breaks when we each manned an open door and, “one, two, three, push,” got the car rolling fast enough for the driver to pop the clutch.

At one point my hobo compatriot opened a loaf of Wonder Bread he’d picked up at the last stop and offered me a slice. “This reminds me of when I was kid,” he breathed in the aroma before rolling the bread into a ball and eating it like a roll. “It builds strong bodies 12 ways ya ‘know. Ain’t nothin’ like Wonder Bread, especially with a nice cold glass of milk.”  …These are days you’ll remember…

The sun was setting as we pushed the car through the Bay Bridge tollbooth. “California here I am!” Hopping out near the waterfront I found a dive bar, ordered a beer, took a deep quaff, and called my sister from a pay phone on the wall. “We’ll meet you there,” she said. “Enjoy that beer, and just so you know, in California the drinking age is 21.”