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Saturday, September 12, 2015

New cd from Skylark Productions is "Der East Side fun amol," rare Yiddish songs from the Lower East Side, 1895-1923

Last night I couldn't sleep, I was fretting about losing track of the songs I've been recording for the American Yiddish Penny Songs project. This evolved from my interest in a collection of 200 broadsides published in New York around the turn of the 20th century, now housed at Hebrew Union College. I put out a book consisting of facsimiles of all 200 songs and then started hunting up their tunes and recording them. There are almost 30 of them up on youtube now, with English subtitles: Gaslight Era Yiddish songsheets - go have a look!

I suddenly decided to put 19 of them on an album which will be digital download only, because I don't think there are enough people interested in this obscure music to justify a run of physical cds. You can click the picture here to visit the album and listen to all the songs. There's a 32-page book of texts and translations that comes with the download ($7).

This project has a meditative quality for me. I know very, very few people care about what I'm doing, so I'm doing it just because it ought to be done. These songs reflect the heart of a chunk of Jewish American history and culture, and maybe someday somebody will care, and that's good enough for me.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Hotel las Palmas

A story I wrote for the storytelling meetup.

My daughter and I used to go on trips every year, I paid the bills and drove, she chose the itinerary and sights and navigated. She's married and a mom now and who knows if we'll do any more of these excursions, but I remember them fondly. Even the frightening parts.

We were touring in Puerto Rico, which she'd chosen because we both speak Spanish and because you can get to mountains, beaches, and rain forests all within a few miles. She'd plotted our path and we'd paid for all our stays but one - she'd said "I'm not sure where's best to stay in that area, so let's just get there and wing it." I'd agreed, since we figured the whole island was a tourist destination and there'd be lots of choices.

We drove down out of the mountains around dinner time. We wasted a lot of time finding a hotel we'd seen on a sign, when we got there turned out all its windows were broken, it was abandoned. I tried to fight my tendency to fret. We would find something! We kept driving. It got later. We were pointed to a family campground, but when we got there nobody was in the sentry box. We called to some of the family campers inside the fence. More time passed and it was getting later and finally a manager came to say they were full up and no, there was nowhere else in the area to stay.

I was getting tired of driving and it was getting dark. I drove aimlessly. Suddenly there was a brightly lit bakery! I ran in and asked about places to stay. With a doubtful look, the girl behind the counter mentioned "Motel Las Palmas" and gave some directions. The problem for us with Puerto Rican Spanish is, the locals don't bother with the second half of any word. If you ask them to speak more slowly, you just get a slower rendition of the first half of the word. So we weren't sure we'd understood her. We did as she'd advised but drove much further than she'd indicated. We saw some people on the road and asked them for directions to Motel Las Palmas. They peered into the car, saw Hannah next to me, looked at me doubtfully, and gave directions back the way we'd just come.

It was absolutely night now. I have spent the night in my car from time to time but I don't love it. We still couldn't find the motel. The only lights we saw were at a "Gomeria," a tire shop. We pulled in and sat. Then we saw there was somebody else there too, a trucker just sitting there in the dark in his huge truck.

Two women alone - one old and tired, the other young and beautiful - far from any town, in the middle of the night, with nobody around but a trucker staring down from his truck at us.

I went over and asked where Motel Las Palmas was, and he gave me another of those doubtful looks and pointed across the empty street. In the dark, down a driveway, I saw one light. So I thanked him and we went over there. The light was illuminating a chain link fence and behind the fence was the open doorway of - a laundry, and all the machines were running. As we stood there perplexed a burly unshaven guy came over, stared at us, and asked what we wanted. "We need a place to stay tonight." A long pause. "How many hours?"

And it was then I remembered one of our guide books warning that in Puerto Rico, a motel is the name for what elsewhere is called a "Love Hotel."

So I said, "eight hours," and I paid him cash, and he opened the chain link fence and let us in. We were directed to an open garage door in a strip of closed garage doors, a second floor was on top of all the garages, there were no windows but there were closed hatches and a catwalk over the garages. A bunch of guys stood in a row shielding us from view (or shielding the view of others from us) and directed us into the garage. Which they locked. Inside the garage stairs led up to the room which had a big bed with a mirror hanging over it. There was a fancy bathroom with a lot of regulations posted on the wall. There was also a menu - pizza, beer and condoms were the main items. You open the hatch on our side, put in your money and close the hatch, then the guy walks on the catwalk, opens the hatch on his side, puts in your beer and condoms, and closes the hatch. Nobody sees you.

We lay stiffly on the double bed under the mirror. I don't like satin sheets. We were embarrassed - did they think we were a May December lesbian romance? All night an alarm sounded every hour on the hour telling various lovebirds to go back home where they belonged.. When our 8 hours were up, the burly guys came and unlocked the garage door. They stood again in a row shielding us from view. On the way out we saw the construction site where they were building a lot more units - business was booming at the Love Hotel. I told Hannah: it's awful experiences that make the best stories. And when we got home, it wasn't the beautiful mountains and beaches we told people about, it was Motel Las Palmas.