More madras, more profs

The jacket Buddy Rich admired wasn’t my first madras garment. Madras shorts and shirts came into my life in the early 1960s. In the spring of 1964, my last year in college atmadras shorts Columbia, I had a pair of Bermuda shorts that I remember as looking something like these, again probably mostly green. I wore them one day to my seminar in 17th century poetry with Edward W. Tayler, whom I mentioned in an earlier post, and who was one of the two college teachers who had the greatest influence on me.

The seminar was on Friday afternoon, which felt to me like Tayler’s rebuke to me for having arranged my final semester schedule so that I had classes, except for his, on only Tuesday and Thursday. I wore the shorts on a warm day in late April and Tayler opened the class by saying in his distinctive urbane drawl, “Nice of Mr. Oster to stop by on his way to the Hamptons.”

Tayler was literally my first college professor. Fall classes at Columbia began the last Thursday in September and Tayler’s section of Humanities I, now known as Literature Humanities, a class required then and now of all first-year students, met at 9 a.m. on what I calculate was September 29 1960, in Philosophy Hall. I thought all adults were the same age and had had the same experiences, and it never occurred to me that the class was also Tayler’s first. I also thought everyone who stood in front of a classroom was perforce a professor, and never suspected that Tayler had only that year received his Ph.D., from Stanford University, and probably had the rank of assistant professor, perhaps even of lecturer.

Tayler was a handsome, compact man—I would never call him short—with dense blond hair and a deep, mellifluous voice. He had gone to Amherst College, where he’d ted taylerapparently been a wrestler, though he mocked his athletic career by quoting his coach’s greeting him at a practice session with: “Thanks for showing up, Tayler. Try not to get nicotine stains on the mat,” an anecdote he never tired of telling: I found it in this 2004 Columbia alumni magazine profile, 44 years after I first heard it. The longer I knew Tayler—I took classes with him for four years—the more I came to think of him as resembling Homer’s Odysseus, often described by the epithet “wily.” (Thanks to Google, not to my memory or my scholarship, I learned that Odysseus fought two wrestling matches in Homer’s works, once with Ajax [Il: 23.700-39], once with Philomeleides [Od. 4.342-4].)

Tayler encouraged us to read old literature as it had been written, not from a modern perspective. This was hard for me, for I, like I’m sure many young men, identified with whatever literary character in whatever book I was reading. “I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be,” T.S. Eliot wrote in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” but I’m sure he thought he was, and for good reason. Tayler rapped my freshman knuckles with a B– on an early paper. I don’t remember what it was about and I’ve forgotten his comments, but I’m sure they were along the lines of: “Pay attention.”

Tayler confused me too, by quoting admiringly from what he called “motorcycle poetry” by Thom Gunn, of whom I’d never heard, and by comparing an imaginary character he called Brad Truesdale, who had “broad shoulders and slim greyhound hips,” to Homer’s Achilles (whose name Tayler pronounced ACK-ill-iss). He read us Wallace Stevens’s “Anecdote of the Jar,” the most powerful poem I think I’ve ever read, and offered it as a way to understanding the thousand-year-old text we were reading. I had no idea what he was up do, but  I believed he was on to something, and determined to follow, besotted and bewildered.

The payoff, it that’s the word, came in that senior year seminar. We were reading Andrew Marvell’s “The Garden” (by all means skip to the end, but here’s the whole thing, courtesy of the Poetry Foundation):

How vainly men themselves amaze
To win the palm, the oak, or bays,
And their uncessant labours see
Crown’d from some single herb or tree,
Whose short and narrow verged shade
Does prudently their toils upbraid;
While all flow’rs and all trees do close
To weave the garlands of repose.
Fair Quiet, have I found thee here,
And Innocence, thy sister dear!
Mistaken long, I sought you then
In busy companies of men;
Your sacred plants, if here below,
Only among the plants will grow.
Society is all but rude,
To this delicious solitude.
No white nor red was ever seen
So am’rous as this lovely green.
Fond lovers, cruel as their flame,
Cut in these trees their mistress’ name;
Little, alas, they know or heed
How far these beauties hers exceed!
Fair trees! wheres’e’er your barks I wound,
No name shall but your own be found.
When we have run our passion’s heat,
Love hither makes his best retreat.
The gods, that mortal beauty chase,
Still in a tree did end their race:
Apollo hunted Daphne so,
Only that she might laurel grow;
And Pan did after Syrinx speed,
Not as a nymph, but for a reed.
What wond’rous life in this I lead!
Ripe apples drop about my head;
The luscious clusters of the vine
Upon my mouth do crush their wine;
The nectarine and curious peach
Into my hands themselves do reach;
Stumbling on melons as I pass,
Ensnar’d with flow’rs, I fall on grass.
Meanwhile the mind, from pleasure less,
Withdraws into its happiness;
The mind, that ocean where each kind
Does straight its own resemblance find,
Yet it creates, transcending these,
Far other worlds, and other seas;
Annihilating all that’s made
To a green thought in a green shade.
Here at the fountain’s sliding foot,
Or at some fruit tree’s mossy root,
Casting the body’s vest aside,
My soul into the boughs does glide;
There like a bird it sits and sings,
Then whets, and combs its silver wings;
And, till prepar’d for longer flight,
Waves in its plumes the various light.
Such was that happy garden-state,
While man there walk’d without a mate;
After a place so pure and sweet,
What other help could yet be meet!
But ’twas beyond a mortal’s share
To wander solitary there:
Two paradises ’twere in one
To live in paradise alone.
How well the skillful gard’ner drew
Of flow’rs and herbs this dial new,
Where from above the milder sun
Does through a fragrant zodiac run;
And as it works, th’ industrious bee
Computes its time as well as we.
How could such sweet and wholesome hours
Be reckon’d but with herbs and flow’rs!


I’m embarrassed that I now and then tell people that I “studied” Marvell, for about all I can say about him with any authority is that he lived in the 17th century (1621-1678). I could never have pretended to know that “The Garden” was, in the words of the Poetry Foundation essay, “…regarded as an account of mystical ecstasy by some commentators, of Horatian Epicureanism by others,” or that “some find in it an antilibertine version of the poetry of rural retirement, while others interpret it in terms of ‘the politics of landscape’…”

But I remember the moment when Tayler asked, in regard to the penultimate stanza (“Such was that happy garden-state,/While man there walk’d without a mate”), “What did Milton have to say about this?” and I blurted, with no prethought whatsoever, “‘A paradise within thee, happier far,” the Archangel Michael’s promise to Adam and Eve on their expulsion from Eden that all would essentially be okay. Tayler didn’t make a fuss about it, just probably nodded a single approving nod, and moved the discussion on.

Another time, probably in regard to the same poem, Tayler wanted to know: “What does Isaiah say?” and Jonathan Cott, whom I usually claim to have known but really shouldn’t, answered: “‘All flesh is grass.'” (Isaiah 40:6, “The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field,” King James translation of the Old Testament). Another nod from Tayler, and on we went.

My point is that Tayler brought out from us things he suspected we knew, but that we were not at all sure were in us. Or at least I wasn’t.

In 1996, David Denby wrote a book about his experience taking—or rather retaking—Tayler’s Humanities course nearly 30 years after graduating from Columbia. I hadn’t known Denby in college, but I’d gotten to know him in the early 1970s, when were were movie critics, he for Newsweek, me for the Daily News. I must have kicked myself for not having thought to write such a book, and I wrote Denby a letter, c/o The New Yorker, which had published an excerpt of his book. My letter coincided with The New Yorker’s decision to publish letters from readers, and was printed in the Oct 11, 1993, issue, along with a letter from Erica Jong lamenting the demise of Great Books courses like Humanities.

Tayler went on to teach courses on Shakespeare and Milton and to named the Lionel Trilling Professor, which from my perspective is what James Joyce might have called a commodius vicus of recirculation. In another post sometime soon, I’ll tell you of his encounter with my daughter Lily.

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Après moi, le déluge

I worked for the New York Daily News from mid-1970 to early 1977. The first four years, I was a writer and editor on the Telegraph Desk, which gathered national and international news, mainly from wire services, which once upon a time had been distributed by Western Union, hence its quaint name. I then moved to Special Features, where I wrote longer pieces about all sorts of things: Mayor John Lindsay, an organization devoted to marijuana law reform, a Connecticut commune of middle-aged adults, and lots I don’t remember. From 1974 to 1977, I was a movie critic and entertainment news writer.

In the last role, I shared an office for a time with Bob Sylvester, who wrote a column  of Broadway news and gossip. His obituary depicts a character far more colorful than the man I knew, who showed up for work at 10:30 or so and stayed long enough to put together a column from a stack of press releases left by movie and theater publicists. The drill was that the first press agent to get to Sylvester’s office would put his pages face down on the desk and that those who followed would put their pages on top, also face down. When Sylvester showed up, he’d turn the stack over and basically transcribe the releases, rewarding with the top spot the earliest bird.

He was a decent, funny man, though, and I always remember something he said after I got a letter from a reader about something I’d written. Based on his decades of experience, he said, I was entitled to call that one letter “a flood of mail.”

So the point is that my blog post about Buddy Rich prompted three comments, two from readers who said they couldn’t see envision me in a madras jacket, and one from one who could. Not mail, but what passes for mail these days, and certainly a flood.

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Encounters: Buddy Rich

The jazz drummer Buddy Rich was known to me mainly for his appearances on The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson, which I watched pretty devotedly in the early 1970s. rich-carson(That’s a story in itself: I’d gotten my first television in 1972, in order to watch the Bobby Fischer-Boris Spassky chess match—or rather to watch a bunch of chess masters analyze the moves in a studio somewhere far from Reykjavík, Iceland, where the matches were played. [More about that in another future post, about another encounter.]

I had also been looking forward to watching The Dick Cavett Show, which appealed to people I respected for what a Wikipedia article describes as “the wide variety of guests, combined with Cavett’s literate and intelligent approach to comedy,”  I found Cavett annoying, especially for his persistent attempts to top his guests’ jokes, and came to love Carson, who though a great comedian was an even greater listener and interviewer. (“I did not know that,” was a frequent comment of his when confronted with the unexpected.) Rich was a sensational guest, for his chops and his humor.

madras2Anyway, on a summer evening in 1975 or so I was walking on north Fifth Avenue near the Plaza Hotel, wearing a prize possession, a Madras sport coat from Wallach’s, a now defunct men’s store that was a notch below Brooks Brothers, J. Press, and Chipp in cachet. It wasn’t this coat, but it was close—loud and subtle at the same time, with more dark green in it.

I cut across Grand Army Plaza and turned the corner onto 59th Street and came face to face with Buddy Rich. We did that little side-step-two-step that people do (was it Freud who said it signified sexual attraction?), then went on our respective ways. But not before Rich looked me over and said: “Great coat.”

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A short walk from our motel, which I think was in Kissimmee (which is fun to say, with the accent on the second syllable) was a mini-amusement park, with a ferris wheel and probably some rides I don’t remember. Lily was fearless, and didn’t hesitate to head for the ferris wheel, which was probably 30 feet in diameter. I don’t like heights, and that was 20 feet too many, but I tried not to impose my fears on Lily, so around we went, more than once.

There was also a penny arcade with pinball machines, basketball nets, Skee-Ball, and a game that through the magic of the Internet and some artful searching I discovered is called Fascination. though I recall that we called it Roll Down.


The object is to roll balls down the inclined top and into the holes, making a pattern like a poker hand. According to the Web site, “A glass plate over the front part of the table keeps players from reaching too far over the table to improve their aim.” Adult players, maybe, but not eight-year-old players. Lily slid her skinny arm under the glass far enough to be able to aim the ball pretty precisely before letting go. Her final flourish was to flick the ball with a finger nail after she’d released it, adjusting the trajectory. She was great. The reward was a stream of tickets spewing out of the machine, accompanied by sirens and flashing lights. The tickets could be redeemed for junk, but who cared? She’d beaten the house.

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Our Florida Project

The wonderful movie, “The Florida Project,” directed by Sean Baker and written by Baker and Chris Bergoch, triggered memories of a trip Lily and I took to Disney World, near Orlando FL, in around 1990. She was 8 years old, in the second grade at PS 3 in Greenwich Village, a couple of years older than the film’s protagonist, who lives with her mother, a sometime prostitute in a cheap motel called the Magic Kingdom. Our motel was somewhat better, though there was a budget quality to it, since it was outside the perimeter of The Magic Kingdom. We had to take a shuttle van to and from the theme park and we listened to the van driver say his number so often that Lily memorized it, and, once, when a new driver forgot his digits, rescued him by reciting them.

Some photographic memories:

L boat

The boat ride across the Seven Seas Lagoon, eyes already wide.

L castle

And wider.

L saucer

Some kind of flying something ride–I forget.

L street

Merch, a Daisy Duck cap.

L blimp

What blimp?

L and J

Before selfies, another Disney Lander snapped us.

L Pluto

A Pluto sighting. The whatever they’re called–characters–aren’t allowed to speak, lest one have a New York accent, or be the wrong gender.

My most vivid memories of that time, trying to keep up...

L rear 1

L rear 2


L rear 4

L rear 5

L rear 7

L rear 6

In this one, she’s reaching to pet a manta ray.

L rear 8

L seal

This last one, of Lily curious about some sudden itch rather than the seal down below, isn’t a picture of one of the great moments of the trip, but it’s close. We were at Sea World, and had seen a show with dolphins or porpoises (for which we apologize retroactively; we were uninformed) and were walking around an out-of-the-way area that had a few seals and walruses. A big walrus slept sprawled in the sun and we studied it for a while, trying to figure out which end was up. We determined where the head was, and the tail, and one flipper and then another. But there was another appendage we couldn’t identify. Other people had gathered by this time, and all studied the beast independently. Finally, Lily figured it out: “Dad—that’s his penis.” Everyone around us suddenly rounded up their children and melted away, for indeed it was. That was not only a high point of that trip, but of early parenthood.


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Encounters: Jackie Robinson

Fredrik Ekelund writes of seeing on a street in Rio de Janeiro during the World Cup the Argentine soccer legend Diego Maradona, who starred in his country’s 1986 World Cup victory. Acknowledging that he’d been recognized, Maradona shook Ekelund’s outstretched hand, “Incrível,” a friend says to Ekelund. “Incredible. Sometimes it feels as though chance seeks you out. As though he was standing waiting for me. And as we continue our walk along the beach, it’s as if our conversation no longer has any weight, as if our words were soap bubbles because we’re both so moved by the incident.”

I had an encounter like that with Jackie Robinson. It was in the early 1960s and I was walking on Madison Avenue in the Thirties, possibly on my way to the Morgan Library jackie robinsonfor some art historical research. (Art history was my college minor.) It was a warm Saturday morning and the streets were empty. Three or four men in business suits came toward me and I saw that one of them was Robinson. He’d retired from baseball in 1957 and worked as a vice president for personnel at Chock Full O’Nuts, a pioneer fast-food restaurant chain (where I ate breakfast every day in college). He was heavier than he’d been as a player, and had grey hair, but he had the same distinctive pigeon-toed walk he’d had as a young man.

Robinson, like Maradona, saw that I’d recognized him, and he gave me a small smile and a nod and maybe said a quiet “How ya’ doin’?” Like Ekelund, I felt singled out by chance. There was no one around to witness Robinson’s brief passage, but I was the man for the job. I was four, and living in California, when Robinson became the first African American to play major league baseball in 1947, and we didn’t move to New York until 1950. My dad and I went to Ebbets Field in Brooklyn at least once during the 1950s, but I was a Yankee fan, and worshipped Joe Dimaggio. Still, Robinson and the Dodgers were valiant rivals, and I’m sure he felt my respect for him. Like Ekelund, I felt as though nothing else about that moment had any weight. More than 50 years later, I can see every detail.

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I should add…

…that soon after she got her licence, I asked if she wanted me to join her on an errand, and she said, “No, thanks.”

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