September 14, 2019

The Ansager is returning

It feels like it’s time for a long post. It’s been a few weeks since I last checked in. There isn’t a whole lot going on. I’m in a fairly decent frame of mind. I don’t think I need to exorcise any demons tonight so this may be less exciting than some of my other missives but once I start writing, you never know where things might end up.

The theatrical life at the moment is about Politically Incorrect Cabaret. I’ve been the headwriter and emcee since the show was invented in 2004 and, to my knowledge, I’m the only cast member that’s been in every single performance of every single edition. I’ve become quite fond of the Ansager as he allows me to let my id play and I get to say incredibly inappropriate things in public. The shows are semi-improv so I get to riff off the audience and pick on them in various ways – always fun when they’re full of people you know. I pretty much locked myself in the house Labor Day Weekend to write this latest edition and it’s the usual hodgepodge – Capital Steps type parody, serious Brecht, improvisational dance, political barbs, and the Ansager and the Waffle House Lady trying to hold the whole thing together.

We’ve got two weeks to finish everything up and get it on stage. One show only on Saturday night, the 28th. We usually do another performance or two out of town once a show has been put together and rehearsed, but that hasn’t materialized yet for this one. It may still happen. I’ve never quite figured out why PIC works as well as it does. It always feels like a bit of a mess in rehearsal, but then you get it front of an audience and it just gels. I guess that’s because of the semi-improv nature of the beast. It has to have an audience or it just doesn’t work. We rehearse the music fairly tightly to keep that together, but the rest of it, while there is a script, tends to wander far afield from anything on the page during performance.

It’s been unbearably hot and sticky the last few weeks. Well in the 90s and 90% humidity. Usually by mid September things start to cool off but not this year. Both the electric bill (A/C) and water bill (sprinklers) are way up. I suppose this is the local version of climate change. I don’t think the human race is on its way out. We’re quite resourceful, but I think the next fifty years or so are going to be awfully interesting as eight billion people start competing for water and food resources.

I have two quick trips to the west coast coming up. To the SF Bay area in late October and to Seattle for Thanksgiving. If you’re in either of those areas and would like to get together, let me know. I thought about a trip for the holidays again, but I’ll be in rehearsal for Cabaret so that’s out. The way things are going, it looks like I’ll be booked pretty solidly for stage work all season. The next project after PIC is J M Barrie’s play Dear Brutus for Belltower Players, then Cabaret. I’ve also agreed to do The Gin Game next spring. I haven’t decided yet if I’m flattered or terrified. However, the way to get me motivated and intensely interested in something in life is to hand me a challenge. The woman I’m cast opposite has impressive Broadway, London and film credits – I met her tonight for the first time at her Birthday party. I think we’ll get along quite well. She’s African American and part of the goal of the production is to get black and white Birmingham theater working closer together and being more mutually supportive. I’m still not sure how someone like me gets cast in a two character play opposite the woman who had the Nell Carter part in the original London production of Ain’t Misbehavin’.

Not much happening at work. UAB is tranquil, at least in the Geriatrics Division and most of my patients seem to be rocking along in the ‘getting older, but stable’ category. One of my patients, whom I have had since I first got here 21 years ago, brought me a present last week. She was cleaning things out and she found the clipping from the UAB paper announcing ‘Duxbury joining Geriatrics Program’ that she cut out before I first arrived and when she made initial appointments for her and her husband. There I was, early 30s me staring out from a UC Davis headshot decorating a yellowing news clipping from the last millennium. The office staff found it amusing. It doesn’t seem that long ago that I was the young whippersnapper around the division but now I’m the old man and the institutional memory.

I went to see The Goldfinch on Friday night. I enjoyed the book immensely and was curious to see what sort of film they made of it. It’s gotten some fairly nasty reviews but it’s not that bad. It has some crucial miscasting and it’s about twenty minutes too long and suffers a bit from its non-linear storytelling but it doesn’t deserve the pigpile of vituperative prose that seems to be coming at it. MNM will weigh in shortly. I’m not completely sure what to do with her. Usually I have a bit of a storyline or an idea mapped out in my head of where her life is heading, but at the moment I don’t have much. Something will eventually come to me. Something always does.

Nothing terribly cathartic tonight poppets, and I can’t think of any terribly intriguing stories either. I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing. I’ll check in again around PIC time if not before.

August 29, 2019

And it’s time for another long post. It’s been a few weeks since the last one. I haven’t been up to doing a lot of writing as all energies were directed at staying current at work during the week and making Choir Boy the best that it could be evenings and weekends. That’s going to change this long weekend which is being reserved for a lot of writing. I need to knock out the first draft of the 2019 Politically Incorrect Cabaret: Demo-lution, finish up another chapter on the book I’m writing, and write a new column and get poor MNM out of her troubles in Mittel-Europa. I’ve got a three day weekend in which to do it where I have nothing scheduled. I had thought about going to NOLA for Southern Decadence but that was such a Tommy and Andy thing to do, that I decided the time was not yet quite ripe to head out into that melee on my own.

Choir Boy had a very successful run. I can never properly gauge my own performances on stage to figure out whether I’m any good or not but I got plenty of feedback from people whose opinions I trust that not only was I decent in the role, but that the whole production was exceptional. I think that can be laid at the feet of Carlton Bell who founded Birmingham Black Repertory Company and directed the show. As a young man of color and non-binary identity, he was able to bring an enormous amount of lived experience to that script and help each of us as actors find the intricacies in the subtext to really make the show come alive with lots of specific moments. That together with Aija Penix‘s brilliant a cappella arrangements of the music and Rachel Simonne‘s step choreography (which I fortunately did not have to participate in) made for a full theatrical experience for the audience. One of the administrators I work with at the VA, an African American woman, who isn’t a theater goer, came and told me today how she and her daughter were blown away by how good the show was and how well it spoke to the POC in the audience. She also found my introductory scene (one of the most embarrassing character introductions I’ve ever had to play) hysterically funny. I was happy about that as I was so afraid it might come across as purely offensive. For those who haven’t seen the show, I was playing the older white teacher who comes out of retirement to help push the boys at an African American boys school to higher levels of achievement. He comes in and immediately makes a couple of unintentionally racist comments as he tries to break the ice. He does redeem himself ultimately, but it’s hardly a good first impression. I did have a couple of good scenes later in the show, including one where I had to make a transition from joy and spazz dancing to explosive righteous anger and sadness in about two minutes.

Spending a lot of time under pressure with an African American cast and production staff was an intense, but enjoyable experience that helped me better understand myself. I am not of the Deep South. I am of the West Coast and, as a white person, I didn’t pick up a lot of the baggage that white southerners seem to have as I don’t come from that cultural milieu. I think it’s helped me see some of the fault lines in Alabama society within both the Black and the White communities a little more clearly. I don’t claim to be perfect or the most woke of individuals but I think I do a pretty good job at connecting one to one through common humanity. It’s one of the things that makes me good at that other job that occupies my weekdays. I hope that everyone involved in Choir Boy liked me and the job I did well enough to welcome me back into the African American theater community for future projects that require old white guys.

The 2019-20 theater season is promising to be a busy one. The confirmed bookings coming up include my usual turn as the Ansager for Politically Incorrect. In December, I’m playing Dearth in Dear Brutus for Belltower Players. In January, I’m Herr Schultz in Cabaret at the Virginia Samford Theater. I’ve got three more things taking shape after that but I won’t jinx them by naming them before plans are final. This means I won’t get around for my big 2020 trip until late summer/early fall of 2020. I’m going to get together in a few weeks with my travel agent to start batting around ideas. Things that are on my mind include India, China, Peru/Galapagos, Middle East/Egypt and South Africa. I’m still looking for a potential travel buddy if anyone might be interested in talking further.

I got together this evening with Ellise and Diane, the other two members of the troika behind Politically Incorrect Cabaret. We’ve been doing this for more than fifteen years now. The first show was in April of 2004 at the old Moonlight Cafe in Vestavia. LaDonna Smith was running the Birmingham Improv Festival at the time and had asked Diane to create an Improv cabaret for the final night at the venue. Ellise and I had done a couple of church things together where I played the cabaret emcee and she played a variation on Marlene Dietrich and we had met Diane a year previously when we had all been involved with a production of Lysistrata as an anti-war protest. Tommy was also in that Lysistrata as one of the soldiers and I will never forget him walking up the aisle (we did it in the old UU church) with a large balloon phallus strapped to his waist. Diane had the idea of using the Berlin cabaret of the between the wars as the model. I refined my emcee character into the traditional Ansager of the Berlin Cabaret and Ellise and I wrote some sketches and parodies. We were a hit and, before we knew it, we kept going and going and going with a new show every few years.

It’s been hard to come up with a new show in the era of Trump. We actually had an idea and had a show written last year, but Tommy became ill just before we were going to start rehearsing it so it never happened. We’ve got a new concept for this year that we think will work. The thing is we have to not make it about Trump. He’s satire proof. Nothing we can write will be as crazy as reality a month later. We also don’t want to draw the too easy parallels to the rise of Hitler and make the mistakes the Berlin cabaret of the 30s made when dealing with the Nazis. They treated them as buffoons and made the audience laugh and feel good about themselves. We think we need to do something a bit different and make the audience uncomfortable and willing to do something about the present to create a different future.

It’s odd. You meet someone, you work with them on a project, you go your separate ways, and then you collaborate on something that takes on a life of its own and grows into something you never expected and in turn shapes you and your life. When I first played the Emcee for a church thing, it was less than a week after I first met Tommy and I had no idea he was going to be anything in my life other than a nice date. When we did Lysistrata together a few months later, we were dating occasionally, but hadn’t yet settled into being a couple. When we did the first PIC a year after that, we were an entrenched unit, living together, and PIC launched us into the world of Birmingham theater that would shape both of our lives during all of our time together. The show Cabaret also has a weird trajectory in my life. I was too young to have seen the original production or the movie in its original release (I was ten when it came out). I saw the film for the first time in high school and studied the show in college in my musical theater class. My sophomore year of college, Cabaret was the big spring musical. Both Craig Mollerstuen, my roommate and I worked stage crew on it. The show wasn’t the best due to some very odd directorial choices but it did have one amazing moment at the end of the first act. As the cast began to sing Tomorrow Belongs To Me, the stage crew dressed as Nazis appeared through all the wings and pass throughs and the ushers, also dressed as Nazis (and borrowed from the university chorus) marched down the aisles in the house joining in. Frisson. The show opened with a lit marquee sign spelling CABARET which was supposed to light up one letter at a time. Opening night Craig, who was up on the light bridge, was supposed to throw the switches to light the letters up in order. Something happened in the blackout and he tripped over a cord and the B and the A came on at the wrong time. For years we referred to the night that he hung a large BA over Memorial Auditorium, We were sophomores. We didn’t know any better. It may not have been the best production, but it was the show that helped introduce us to Vickie Rozell and helped us understand what made good theater and what made it both succeed and fail.

I’ve seen many productions of Cabaret since then – college, community, and professional. The Studio 54 staging was the first show that Tommy and I saw together in New York – the night we both got smashed on Southern Comfort Manhattans and neither of us could quite remember how we got back to the hotel. In 2007, when CenterStage did Cabaret, I auditioned for the Emcee.Melissa Bailey was smart enough not to cast me and to rather give the role to Chris Sams who was brilliant in the part. I was given Herr Schultz instead, a part I felt I was much too young for at 45 but it was still a great role and I enjoyed my time on the show. Now, nearly thirteen years later, I’m about to revisit that same role on the same stage and once again Chris is playing the Emcee. I’m definitely old enough this time and I’m going to be interested in what my life experiences over the last few years will allow me to bring to the role. Is time standing still? Is it moving in circles? I wonder if Hal Prince and Kander and Ebb knew when they were creating the piece in the mid 60s that it was going to serve as a leitmotif to a geriatrician in the deep south of the 21st century. The threads are many, the pattern complex, and the tapestry can only be viewed in hindsight.

August 16, 2019

I haven’t done a long post for a while. Something like three weeks now. Some of it has been because I’ve been busy. Some of it has been because I’ve been in a better place emotionally (probably because I have been busy). Some of it has been because I’ve been writing on a few other projects.

The last couple of weeks have been devoted to the rehearsal process for Choir Boy, the inaugural production of Birmingham Black Repertory Theater (Opens on Thursday at Birmingham Festival Theater tickets at http://bftonline.org). It’s been a while since I’ve done a drama or had a major line heavy acting role and I was really afraid I wasn’t going to be up to the challenge. I did get the lines down more or less. I know where they all go and the emotional impact and connection for each one. Now if I could just get the words to come out in the right order and wouldn’t get rattled by the addition of new technical elements. The play was on Broadway last season (and won a couple of Tonys) and this is the first production since the Broadway run anywhere so I feel a need to do my role and the piece justice. As I’m following Austin Pendleton in the part, those are pretty big shoes to fill. I seem to be doing something right, because even in rehearsal, I’m getting compliments from people I respect and in whom I am in awe of for their talents. The gig seems to be opening some doors for future projects as well. I’m in talks for a possibility next spring that both elates and terrifies me if it comes to pass. We have four more techs to get everything right. It’s about ninety percent there so I have a good idea of what the final product will be and I think audiences will be pleased. N.B. Birmingham Festival Theater is in the midst of a major fund raiser – make a donation if you can. I did.

In other news on the theatrical front, I did a brief film gig playing a congregant for Eternal World Television Network. Yes, the world headquarters of the Catholic Church’s cable station is just down the street from me in Irondale and lots of friends have had gigs with them for years, especially singers. They needed a mixed crowd for a couple of hours to shoot B roll footage of congregational responses to the mass. So, if you happen to have insomnia, are channel surfing late night and come across EWTN, you may catch a glimpse of me in the fourth pew house left on the end. I’m also working with my other usual partners in crime, Diane McNaronand Ellise Pruitt Mayor on a 2019 edition of Politically Incorrect Cabaret scheduled for September 28th at the Clubhouse on Highland. I can’t really do much while Choir Boy is in rehearsal (my brain is getting too old to hold more than one project at a time) so I have to lock myself away Labor Day week to get the script, such as it is for PIC, hammered out. I do have Labor Day weekend off. Maybe I’ll carry my trusty laptop somewhere secluded and work.

I’ve been missing Tommy the last few weeks for practical reasons. When I came home to discover water all over the basement floor from a leaky HVAC, there was no one to share clean up duties and cuss words with and I had to get all the evaluations and repairs done around my work schedule which is always a bit difficult as I am so locked in with outpatient appointments. All is now well. As I kept mopping things up, I discovered that three problems had actually happened relatively simultaneously. The HVAC drain line had clogged leading to the water flood. The excess water and moisture in the air had done in the aged dehumidifier that keeps the damp out of the basement and, for good measure, something with very sharp teeth, had discovered where I keep the extra cans of beer and soda for parties and was puncturing them and sending sprays of carbonation all over the place. One HVAC repair, two new dehumidifiers, and three cats to roam the basement later, and the floor seems to be staying dry. It will need some repainting before I resell. I’ll add that chore to my never ending punch list.

I should tell a story. One that came up this week, after the news came out that Tommy’s old boss was fined $1.5 million dollars for defrauding federal health programs, involves Tommy’s stay at Birmingham Health Care. As most of you know, Tommy was a renaissance man with a number of different career paths over his life. He had been a major mover and shaker in the Birmingham gay community in the 1980s and was one of the committed volunteers that helped put together the HIV programs that would grow into Birmingham AIDS Outreach and AIDS Alabama. At the time, he was a professional chef and baker working for the Sheraton, Continental Bakery and even operating his own restaurant with his brother – Classic Pizza and Barbeque in the Clay Chalkville area. He got tired of restaurant hours and, with his health care volunteerism behind him, went to Jeff State and got his RN degree, starting out as a Pediatric Nurse at Childrens and UAB. He had this social justice component, however, and when Birmingham Healthcare for the Homeless, under the leadership of Jonathan Dunning, began making significant inroads into underserved populations, he headed over there and took a job as an ambulatory nurse.

Tommy, being one of the most competent people ever, soon rose from clinic nurse, to chief nurse, to chief nursing officer. At the same time, Birmingham Healthcare for the Homeless changed itself into a multisite Federally Qualified Health Center, dropping the Homeless part of its name as its programs expanded. This is what he was doing when we met each other in late 2002. In 2003, BHC moved from its downtown location into an old plastic surgery clinic on southside, greatly increasing its footprint. They opened more satellites, and started to swallow other FQHCs around the state. Tommy, as chief nursing officer (#4 in the company) was put in charge of ethics and compliance and making sure that the federal grants were adhered to. He was busy, but things were going relatively well for a year or so. In late 2004 and early 2005, Jonathan and Sharon Waltz, his number 2, started to treat him radically differently, making impossible demands on him, denigrating his work etc. etc. The last straw for me was when they sent him on a long scheduled vacation with a grant proposal that he was supposed to have completed the day we got back. We spent most of the cruise together in the cabin writing the thing. Tommy was sure something was up with Jonathan and Sharon but couldn’t quite put his finger on it. I encouraged him to quit and do something different as he was being badly abused. I hadn’t expected him to go back for a music degree, but that’s another story altogether. He did quit in the spring of 2005. Shortly thereafter, per various court cases, with their pesky ethical compliance officer out of the way, Jonathan and Sharon embarked on a series of schemes to enrich themselves at federal expense. (You can google the news articles on it all, published after the whole house of cards came tumbling down around 2012). Jonathan and Sharon also hooked up in a long term affair that produced two children so Tommy’s suspicions were at last corroborated. Once the FBI got involved, we both expected a call to find out what we knew, but it never came. Tommy was gone before the shenanigans got going. We had a lot of fun reading the news pieces to each other as they came out and indulging in a certain schadenfreude. Jonathan is in the clink for another 12 years or so. Sharon seems to have escaped jail time, but continued her grifts after the collapse of BHC and these seem to have landed her in new hot water.

That’s probably more than any of you ever wanted to know about local health care scandals. I can give you more juicy details if you buy me a margarita.

July 28, 2019

I’m feeling restless and unhappy this evening. This is usually a signal that it’s time to start one of these free form long posts which are pretty good at helping me get perspective on life and figuring out what’s wrong. I have a number of other things that I should be doing but I’m having some difficulty concentrating – which I think is a combination of dysthymia and gabapentin for the shingles pain so I’m allowing myself a bit of down time this weekend.

We had our first table read of Choir Boy this morning. I am not off book yet despite due diligence over the last week. The sense and shape of the lines is sticking but it’s proving very difficult to get the actual words to stick. I think it’s an age thing. Fortunately, rehearsals this next week are music/choreo for the youngsters and don’t involve me so I have another week to get them down (and a few kind friends are coming out of the woodwork to run lines with me this next week). I know I’ll get them eventually, I’m just lamenting the steel trap brain I used to have which would have learned a part like this over a weekend no problem. It’s gone, together with my youth, never to return. Part of the problem is trying to learn the part in a vacuum rather than in the rehearsal process. I’d never make it in a soap opera where they have to come in off book of pages of dialogue day after day after day. If the first read through was any indication, this is going to be a hell of a show. Tickets are available through Birmingham Festival Theater at bftonline.com

There must have been a slew of retirements in the geriatric world over the last year or so. The recruiters are calling thick and fast trying to lure me away from Birmingham. If my major motivator was money, it wouldn’t be too hard as the starting salary quotes they’re lobbing are a good deal over what I currently make. Money, however, isn’t what interests me. What I need now in life is a combination of balance and things to do that will hold my interest. I have balance here between what I do professionally and what I do when I leave the office. It’s taken me several decades to create that and it would be very difficult to recreate somewhere else. I’m a bit unmoored with Tommy’s death and if I relocated, I’m afraid that I would thrash around in my off hours without the structure of my theater work and social life. I grumble sometimes that I’m too busy and never get to relax but there’s a big positive to that full calendar. It keeps me from my natural tendencies to isolate and ruminate and feed upon my own negative energies.

Last weekend, I went to Drag Brunch which has become kind of a thing locally over the last couple of years. Sunday brunch at a restaurant with drag queen entertainment. Drag is always better over cocktails, whether it’s late night Manhattans or early afternoon Mimosas. I was sitting there with my friend Carin Mayo at Brennan’s Irish pub and I started thinking. Carin and I have been friends for about fifteen years. Her husband’s Birmingham musical theater debut was the same show in which I made my Birmingham musical theater debut (Jekyll & Hyde – fall 2004). She and Tommy had been friends for about fifteen years before that. Brennan’s is owned and run by my friend Danny Ray Winter whom I have followed around to three different eateries over the years and with whom I have sung in the opera chorus. The drag entertainment was provided by Barry Perkins (better known as Reece Eve Cocx) whom I have shared the stage with and who was my clinic nurse for a number of years and his husband Samuel Torres (Sharon Cocx) whom I have acted with, directed and who Tommy put into drag for the first time in a Theater Downtown show called Dragula back in 2012. How can you replicate those odd ball connections and deep sense of community someplace else at the age of pushing 60? I don’t know that there’s any amount of money that would make a move worth it. (Well, there’s probably some amount of money but I doubt that anyone’s likely to offer it as I’m guessing it would be in the eight figure range…)

I took myself to the movies last week to see the new horror film, Midsommar. (MNM has written her review – it will be out in a week or so). It’s really stayed with me in a way that most films do not. I’ve been trying to put my finger on why. It’s not the horror elements as they are simply macabre touches. I think it’s because the fundamental theme of the film is one of human connection as everything that happens flows from either people connecting and bonding in community or failing to connect with each other. Maybe that’s the issue this weekend. Feeling unconnected. I certainly feel connected to my larger group but there’s this huge hole where intimate connection used to exist and I don’t yet know how to fill it. It wouldn’t be that hard to find someone to date seriously (I am kind of a catch if I am allowed to say so) but I’m self aware enough to know I’m not ready and if I try to fill it too soon or in the wrong way, I’ll have serious issues. More than I already have.

So I will continue to do my job and change one family’s life at a time through compassionate care of an elder. I’ll get my lines down and work to be the best that I can be among so many great talents in Choir Boy. I’ll start putting together ideas for a new edition of Politically Incorrect Cabaret which will happen in late September. No major trips for a while. I’ll probably go to the west coast later in the fall and I want to get to NYC sometime in the next six months. I have a few ideas for my major 2020 journey abroad which will happen either late March/early April or September of that year. I’m still taking applications for travel buddy if anyone’s interested. I’ve also got to get one more chunk of the book done to have enough to possibly begin shopping it around to see if anyone might be interested in publishing it. But for the rest of the evening, I think it’s time for Netflix and Chill. I don’t know that I’ve discovered what was bothering me in writing this, but I do know I feel somewhat better so maybe whatever it was has come out somewhere between the lines.

July 17, 2019

Many airplanes

Dateline: Birmingham, Alabama

And so back home in my own bed after a not quite 24 hour trip involving three different flights and not much in the way of adventure. Which is good when traveling internationally. I got up this morning around 11:30 PM last night central time, got myself packed and down to the lobby and was met by a very nice driver who got me to the Budapest airport. It was a bit of a mob scene as several Chinese package tours were departing at the same time I was but they were on their way home to Shanghai so I soon left them behind. A few hours later, and I was in the Amsterdam airport waiting for my transatlantic flight. At least the gate was close to the Starbucks.

I watched a bunch of movies I’ve seen before so I could dose in and out of them and not be lost. The one new one to me was Love, Actually – which I had somehow never seen despite its being broadcast every holiday season for the last fifteen years. It may have not been the best choice as it brought up quite a bit of emotional baggage of various types. Eight hours later, I was in Detroit, only two hours after leaving Amsterdam. Long lines at immigration and customs but as my flight was delayed several hours due to midwest thunderstorms and planes being out of position, that didn’t really matter. I found a seat and dozed some more and was pleasantly surprised to find out they’d upgraded me to first class for the last leg. It would have been nicer had I been upgraded for the transatlantic piece, but you can’t have everything I suppose.

The house is still standing. Anastasia, the only one of my cats that seems to like me seems happy to see me. Archie and Oliver have me on ignore. Going to try and get my normal sleep and then go to work tomorrow and Friday on usual hours. I’m just doing paperwork and catch-up. Not dealing with patients until Monday.

Starting to think about the next adventure. Looking at the calendar, looks like late March/early April 2020 is when it will happen. What to do? In the meantime, writing to do and a bunch of theatrical projects on deck. I should stay out of trouble. Signing off until I have something to say…

July 16, 2019

St Stephen at the top of the Fisherman’s bastion

Dateline: Budapest, Hungary

And so the trip draws to its close. Up tomorrow early to be driven to the airport and then Budapest > Amsterdam > Atlanta > Birmingham. If everything goes well, it will be about a 20 hour process. If it doesn’t go well, who knows. I’m not looking forward to three flights but it’s the price we pay for convenient international travel. Not too long ago, it would be a several week journey home by rail and sea.

Today, I clambered down off the top of castle hill via the stairs up to the fisherman’s bastion. (325 down to the level of the Danube promenade for those who are counting). Then across the Chain Bridge. It was early enough in the morning that St. Stephen’s basilica wasn’t overly crowded so I went in and took a look. It looks like an ancient baroque structure, but it’s really neo-baroque and was actually constructed mainly in the late 19th century and was finished in 1905. It has a few Art Nouveau touches but mainly is ersatz 17th century. It would have been more interesting if they’d kept going with the Nouveau ideas, the way they did in Barcelona with Sagrada Familia.

Then up Andrassy utca past all the embassies and 19th century villas of the merchant princes to the city park. I was going to go to the Terror museum which was on my way, but as I passed it, I saw the line around the block and decided that will have to wait until another trip. Instead, I kept on going and ended up at the Fine Art museum which was not terribly crowded. Not a bad collection with some good 19th century French and 17th century Flemish pieces. Also far too many gothic madonnas and saints. Those all start looking the same after three or four pieces and I tend to skip those galleries.

City Park boating lake

I then spent some time in the city park, which reminds me a bit of Central Park, only not as large, as it has a collection of museums, a boating lake (which becomes a skating rink in winter), wandering paths. One thing it has which NYC does not i the largest thermal bath in the city, the Szechenyi baths housed in a large and ostentatious art nouveau building. As the shingles have continued to nag, some warm water soaking seemed to be in order so I checked in for a few hours. It’s larger than the Gellert and feels a bit more honest, like its being run for Budapesters (Budapestians? Budapestites?) rather than a tourist attraction. It was full of families of all shapes and sizes dropping themselves into and out of thermal pools of various temperatures. My favorite was an outdoor pool heated to about 30 degrees C – lukewarm bathwater – where you could just lounge until you pruned. It reminded me a lot of the pools at Kah-Nee-Tah, a resort on the Warm Springs Indian Reservation in Eastern Oregon that we sometimes went to as a family when I was a boy. They too had huge thermal pools which, as kids, we never wanted to leave.

Szechnyi Thermal Baths

Late in the afternoon, I took a taxi back to my side of the river. (I didn’t feel like the 3 and a half mile walk back). I hauled everything out to begin the packing process (I’ll finish in the morning) and then took myself out to dinner – chicken paprikash crepes and green pea risotto with a glass of Tokay. Now I’m sitting on the bed where the Hungarian television station is having some sort of Hungarian idol singing competition. For some reason, they’re all singing Christmas songs in Hungarian, even if it’s July. It’s rather trippy, but that might just be the wine. The blond tenor needs to learn about foundation. He’s got very bad skin.

I’ll write something brief tomorrow to let everyone know I have safely returned, then I’ll go back on my home schedule of intermittent long posts when I have something to say. In the next week or so, I’ll move all of the European posts over to the blog site so those who are interested can check out any they might have missed along the way.

July 15, 2019

Hotel Gellert and Baths

Dateline: Budapest, Hungary.

I tried to sleep in this morning but the shingles had other ideas so I was up relatively early. That doesn’t mean I was moving any too fast. I have a lovely king size bed to wallow in here at the Castle Hilton Budapest. I did get moving and had some breakfast while I tried to decide what to do with the day. At one point, I was going to try to make a quick run to Graz, Austria to see my friend Laurie Middaugh who is spending the summer there, but a quick perusal of train schedules showed that it would be about 12 hours round trip for about a two hour visit and it wouldn’t work well with her schedule there so that idea had to be scrapped. It’s Monday so all the museums are closed. I decided to explore the other things that have drawn people to Budapest for centuries – the waters.

Budapest sits on a number of natural hot springs and for centuries the locals have been building elaborate bathing complexes and spas to take advantage of this abundant natural resource. The shingles neuropathy has been acting up so might as well soak in a hot tub. Hot showers have helped somewhat all the way on. I made my way down the hill through the Buda Castle gardens which are terraced into the hill and then down the promenade on the west side of the Danube. A couple of things about the urban woods of Budapest – again, as I noticed in Germany, no squirrels. There’s also a colony of some sort of particolored ravens or large crows with a grey body and black wings who feel they own the place. They likely predate the Hapsburgs, so they’re right.

Rudas Thermal Bath

A few hundred yards down the river are two of the large and prominent baths – Rudas and Gellert. I was in no hurry so I decided to try them both as a compare and contrast. My first stop was Rudas. It has a pool, but its main attraction is it’s traditional Turkish bath, under a dome constructed by the Ottoman Turks in the 16th century and fed from hot springs directly under the building. It all smells vaguely of rotting eggs due to the sulfur content of the water. The hot tubs are about 106, the warm about 95. Steam/Sauna/Massage available. Only the pool is co-ed. The Turkish bath is male only some days, female only others. After a couple hours, I continued down the road to the Gellert baths, built in the early 20th century as an Art Nouveau fantasia for upper class tourists. It’s huge, had a whole complex of indoor and outdoor pools and lots of fancy spa amenities. I didn’t like this one as much. It’s very much a tourist destination while Rudas was full of locals, mainly older men self treating their arthritis.

Budapest Synagogue

Having killed a number of hours between the two, I headed over the river, stuck my nose in the central market (Think Pike Place Market, but more crowded), and then walked uptown to the main Budapest synagogue and holocaust memorial. There’s a huge new holocaust museum that’s been constructed but it isn’t open yet as it’s caught up in politics with Viktor Orban and disagreements between his view of history and the Jewish community’ s view of history. The story of the Hungarian Jews is heartbreaking. They had mainly escaped the holocaust until quite late in the war when a new Nazi sympathizing government took over and gleefully helped ship off 600,000 Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz in six months. There’s a museum and memorial in town to all who were killed by the Nazi and Soviet regimes which I’m going to try to go to tomorrow.

Then back through the central business district, where I stopped at the Budapest Eye for a ride. It’s nowhere near as large as the London Eye but it’s still a nice view from the top. I also picked up a Harry Potter in Magyar to add to my collection. I am such a nerd sometimes. Then a late lunch and back to the hotel for a nap. Dinner at Jamie Oliver’s Budapest restaurant which is only a couple blocks away. The food is edible, but I don’t think Jamie is in the kitchen.

London Eye at New Year

I owe a story. Here’s a quick one. Exploring European capitals brings it to mind. Back in 2007, Frank Thompson and the CenterStage gang organized a group London trip. With 20 or so of us going, it brought the costs down quite a bit so Tommy and I signed up. It was over New Years week so it was quite cold but the weather was clear. On New Years Eve, we had a group dinner at some restaurant in the West End. After Dinner, everyone went their separate directions. Tommy and I had heard about a gay nightclub doing a NYE thing just across the bridge from Westminster and the Houses of Parliament. So we went off there, got there about 9:30 and settled in for drinks and people watching. We left about 1 am and walked out the door and into a seething mass of humanity. We were only a couple of blocks from the London Eye, site of the new years fireworks. We were caught up in the crowds heading home after. There was only one way to go, with the flow of people. Besides, the bobbies had a lot of streets blocked off for crowd management. We looked at each other, shrugged, and thought Oh Well. We managed to not lose each other as we were carried along. Ultimately, we were pushed into Waterloo station, were able to access the Underground, and made it back to Tottenham Court Road in one piece. Tommy did remarkably well with the experience considering his past. When he was in his 20s, he was at Mardi Gras on Bourbon Street. Someone in the crowd near him pulled a knife and there was a general panic. Tommy lost his footing and was trampled. He wasn’t seriously injured but it did add to his spinal issues later in life and his chronic hip and low back pain. The PTSD was more of an issue and ever after he tended to get very antsy in crowds where he wasn’t sure if he could control the situation. He also never wanted to go to Mardi Gras again. We went to NOLA a whole lot of times over the years. For New Years. For 4th of July. For Labor Day. But we never went to Mardi Gras.