Archive for Time Travel

Let Me Help


Don’t discount the power of fiction
to change the world;
it has happened over and over
throughout our history.”

Click here to download a PDF of this post:


City On the Edge of Forever
The television series “Star Trek” was a collection of 79 time- and space-travel stories that appeared from 1966 to 1969.  As a teenager, it was my favorite TV show.  The episodes were set in the future — some time in the 2200s.  In the episode titled “The City on the Edge of Forever,” written by Harlan Ellison, the Starship Enterprise is flung back in time from the 23rd century to the planet Earth in the year 1930.  Captain Kirk, Mr. Spock, and Dr. McCoy find themselves in New York City, which is suffering in the depths of the Depression.  They meet Edith Keeler (played by Joan Collins) who is in charge of a soup kitchen set up to feed the (many) hungry.  Captain Kirk, of course, falls in love with her.  She senses that Captain Kirk and his two companions are distressed about something.  She, of course, has no clue that they are stuck three hundred years into their own past, not sure how they are going to get back to their own time.  They have this conversation:

Edith Keeler:     Why does Spock call you “Captain?”  Were you in the war together?
James T. Kirk:  We served together.
Edith Keeler:     And you don’t want to talk about it?  Why?  Did you do something wrong? Are you afraid of something?  Whatever it is, Let Me Help.
James T. Kirk:  Let Me Help  . . .  A hundred years or so from now, I believe, a famous novelist will write a classic using that theme.  He will recommend those three words even over “I Love You.”
Edith Keeler:     A century from now?  Who is he?  Where does he come from?
Where will he come from?
James T. Kirk:  Want to hear a silly answer?
Edith Keeler:     Yes.
James T. Kirk (points to the sky): A planet, circling that far left star in Orion’s belt, see?
—  City on the Edge of Forever, Earth, 1930  (aired on TV April 6, 1967)

Captin Kirk tells her that this novel “changed everything.”  From our perspective here in the 21st century, we realize that, if this novelist published his story about 100 years from that day in 1930, it would appear some time in the next few years here in our own twenty-first century.  …………  More on that later.

The plot of this Start Trek episode itself focused on the dilemma facing the time travelers in light of “The Prime Directive,” also known as “Starfleet General Order #1.”  The “noninterference directive” prohibited Starfleet crews from doing anything that interfered with the internal and natural development of alien civilizations.

While trying to figure out how to get back to their own time, Spock uses his tricorder to recreate the “actual” history of the time they are visiting and discovers that Edith Keeler was supposed to die that year in a traffic accident.  Examining an altered timeline accounting for their interference, Spock learns that, if her life was spared, Keeler would go on to found a pacifist movement, causing the United States to delay its entrance into World War II and allowing Nazi Germany time to develop nuclear weapons, with which they will conquer the world.  Kirk admits his love for Keeler, and Spock answers that Keeler must die in order to prevent millions of deaths.

Kirk is faced with a harsh reality: Edith Keeler must die in a traffic accident — which they could easily prevent — in order for history to proceed the way it must.  So, at the climax of the episode, we see Captain Kirk restraining Dr. McCoy, preventing him from saving her life, to save the future of the human race — that is, to save us.   Dr. McCoy, of course, doesn’t understand and shouts, “Do you know what you just did?!”  Spock answers, “He knows, Doctor, he knows.”  After that scene, a heartbroken Captain Kirk and his crew return to the Starship Enterprise, and he orders them to “get the hell out of here” — back to their own time.

Well, What About the Novel?  Is this Story About Us?
Fifty years ago, in addition to the time-travel and space-travel aspects of this story, the tragic love story of Edith Keeler and Captain Kirk appealed to me.  For those of us who live in this time of gathering turmoil here in 2019, a novel “expected” to appear about a century after 1930, titled “Let Me Help” — a novel that we are told “changed everything” in OUR time — might pique our interest even more.  We might wonder, as the Edith Keeler character asks about this novelist, “Who is he?  Where does he come from?” And, most important to us, what necessary changes would such a novel inspire?  Looking ahead to OUR next few years leading up to 2030, presumably the aftermath of the current struggle, we can imagine what changes will be needed and how the novel, and its title, might inspire those changes.

Looking Ahead: A Novelist Writes in the Year 2030 — What might he say?
In the year 2030, an increasing number of people are likely to realize that a lot of very serious problems can be traced to some societal changes that began around 2016.  A fictional novelist takes up his pen and writes a story — a piece of fiction — about the beginning of a small movement called “Let Me Help.”  In the novel, a small group of friends, about a dozen or so, start meeting in a bistro in the Mission District of San Francisco, initially to whine about how bad things had gotten and how ineffective the government had become in addressing a series of growing problems — local and national.  One afternoon, this group gathered around a table in a bistro and made a list of their observations:
•   While the unemployment rate has reached a new low, the number of people under-employed (i.e., working full time at one or more jobs but not earning enough to afford a decent American life) is increasing. Why? With the diminishing influence of labor unions in many parts of the country, large numbers of workers cannot afford basic health care, childcare, or home ownership.
•   Many of our kids, even in otherwise middle-class communities, go to school hungry.  Some communities have programs that provide healthy school lunched, but those programs are few and far between.  In spite of the strength of some parts of the economy, the homeless population, noticeably in San Francisco, has dramatically increased.
•   More and more employed Americans are forced to live farther from their workplace, lengthening the work day, clogging freeways, and adding to air pollution.
•  Increased use of fossil fuels continued its indisputable harm to the economy and health.
•   In many parts of the country, financial support for public schools, which used to be an international source of pride for America, has diminished.  As a result, test scores, especially in science and math, have declined and fallen behind those of other developed nations.  Ignorance of American institutions is increasing. Basic job skills are in decline.
•   In many parts of the country, a rash of natural disasters — hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and wildfires — have destroyed communities near and far, leaving large numbers of families without the means to rebuild their lives.  In some cases, the need is temporary.  In some cases, the need is ongoing.

At the end of the second chapter of the novel, the group reviewed their list, shaking their heads at how far everything had fallen from the hopes they had all grown up with.  One member of the group decided to post their list on a couple of social media platforms, along with some local examples of ways that San Franciscans were being harmed by these issues.  His post ended with a public invitation to join a small group planning to organize efforts to help locals who are affected by the lack of effective government attention to these and other local issues.  The group gave themselves a name “Let Me Help” and scheduled their next meeting on a Saturday afternoon in two weeks.  They hoped to acquire a handful of new members from their social-media invitation and figured that they could organize themselves to help out at some local soup kitchens and homeless shelters.  Maybe they could organize tutoring to increase job skills and help people apply for jobs.   Pleased with themselves, they ordered a round of drinks and turned their attention to a ballgame on the big screens.

‘Let Me Help’ Becomes a ‘Thing’
Two Saturdays later, the dozen or so people who had met to whine and make their list came back together to plan some next steps in their little project.  One by one, as they approached their favorite bistro, they were stopped in their tracks in amazement.  Traffic on the nearby streets was clogged.  Once they were able to walk up to the bistro, they found a crowd of several hundred people had filled the sidewalks on both sides of Van Ness Avenue and bulged out into the street blocking traffic.  People wanted to know where “Let Me Help” was meeting and they wanted to sign up to join the effort.  Some were a bit annoyed that there seemed to be a noticeable lack of organization for such an important project.

What To Do?
This little group had not expected anything like this.  After stumbling round awhile, they were able to herd the crowd over to the public square next to the BART station and one of them stood on a bench and spoke.  It didn’t take long to discover that these people who responded to the online invitation were attracted to the idea that something could be done to mitigate the inadequacy of government to address the problems that had emerged in recent years, and they were hungry for an opportunity to help.  After some discussion, a sign-up list was created with contact information and promises were made to set a new meeting date (at a larger venue) and organize some specific committees to address some of these issues at the local level.

To make a long story short …
•   Committees were formed over the next month.
•   Groups collected food donations and delivered them to several homeless shelters and soup kitchens in The City. Some went to a City Council meeting and petitioned the City to have the “Let Me Help” group registered as an official local charity. Arrangements were made for the group to meet with City officials about some long-term proposals to combat hunger and homelessness in San Francisco.
•   Two local grocery stores pledged to start an ongoing program of excess food deliveries.  A local hotel owner pledged a sizable donation; and a small facility was identified in one of his buildings to store supplies and eventually, serve members of the public.
•   Using social media, “Let Me Help” groups were formed throughout the Bay Area with similar results in six cities.
•   Stories appeared in the local newspapers and reported on a local TV station.   The local story was picked up in the New York Times, and later CNN, describing the organizational model initiated by the small SF group.
•   Within five months, copy-cat “Let Me Help” groups were formed in 25 cities in ten states.  Local newspapers spread the word, initiating some competition among cities — rising to the level of a twelve state capitals — you know “Our state knows how to do this better than … “ and so it went, until …
•   A low-level State Department official in Washington D.C. brought the story to the attention of the Secretary of State, who …
•   At a meeting in Vienna of the newly-constituted Group of Seven Plus (G7+3) Alliance, the U.S. took the lead on a project to partner with ten national government agencies and make “Let Me Help” an international agency for supplying food, temporary housing, and employment support for citizens of all participating countries.
•   The United Nations met in New York to discuss making “Let Me Help” a UN-sponsored, internationally recognized entity for standardizing border-crossing protocols and immigration support for all UN member nations.  An interesting by-product of this effort was that attention was drawn to large numbers of people — both citizens and immigrants — in member nations who are living without basic necessities.  The program expanded and many lives were improved.

The “Let Me Help” Novel Tops the ‘NYT Best Seller List’ for the Ninth Week
Let’s not forget that all of this takes place on the pages of a novel.  A very good novel … just a work of fiction … OK, a novel that hasn’t yet been published ….  But, in the novel, with such an uplifting and optimistic work of fiction discussed on talk shows and in literary magazines around the world, something interesting happened.  A well-known former U.S. First Lady made the book the topic of her first speech to the world in her capacity as the newly-elected Secretary General of the United Nations.  She asked, “Is it possible that this story could become OUR story?  You know — you and me, all of us?  Do we have what it takes to become the change we all have longed for since, well … you know … since we seem to have paused our world-wide commitment to … uh … you know, doing the right thing?”  Do we have the humanity?  If your answer is yes.  Let Me Help.  Here is how I’d like to help … “  She made a list of suggestions of programs that government can initiate and a list of existing programs to which individuals around the world can support.

And so it was …

And, of course, it was fiction — just a story in a novel … a novel to be written in our time — as foretold in a Star Trek episode that takes place in our future … and in our past … that we saw fifty years ago.

Just as Captain James T. Kirk said in a New York soup kitchen back in 1930 … and … well, will say in a couple of hundred years as captain of the Starship Enterprise, the novel “changed everything.”


So, what about us?
I bet we could generate a list of existing programs that will accept our small donations that can make a difference for lots of people who need help.  Here are just a few:
•   World famous Chef Jose Andres has an organization called the World Central Kitchen.  He brings his “kitchen staff” around the world to places devastated by earthquakes and hurricanes and set up kitchens where he has fed thousands of people who had lost their homes.  His motto is: ”Wherever there is a fight so that hungry people may eat, we will be there.” Anyone can visit his website ( ) and make a donation.
•   Grace Cathedral in San Francisco (we go there for their Christmas music) co-sponsors The Winter Interfaith Shelter in collaboration with the San Francisco Interfaith Council and run by Episcopal Community Services.  The Interfaith Shelter provides dinner, breakfast and a dry place to sleep for 60-100 homeless men during the coldest and wettest time of the year.
•   We have a neighbor who invites us to donate needed items to the local SPCA, especially to temporarily take care of animals who have been orphaned by the wildfires in northern California. Almost everyj town has one and they accept things like bedding (any used sheets, blankets, towels), newspapers, kitty litter, pet food, and more. My old friend Lew (OK, don’t tell him I said he’s old) actually volunteers at his SPCA in Monterey.
•   The Alameda County Food Bank provides food for 116,000 people who turn to them each month (more at Thanksgiving). Take a look at   A $25 donation will help to provide $175 worth of food.

Dear Readers:
—-> I bet you have a favorite charity to recommend that makes life better for those who need help.  If you do, send me your “Let Me Help” suggestions and I’ll spread them around to our ConVivio readers.  I bet we can help.
—-> Which of us will step up and write the novel that could change everything?  You have ten years — plenty of time, right?

A “Tense” Meeting



The Past, The Present, and The Future
walk into a Bar.
It was tense.”
— A very old, ungrammatical, grammar joke

   Click here to download a PDF of this article:


= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =
The Past and The Present Walk Into a Bar – Their Companion Is Late

I’m sitting at my usual barstool at The Flying Pig, a friendly bistro in San Francisco’s Mission District, sipping a Sonoma County Zinfandel and enjoying my usual BLT (on Focaccia with extra bacon), when two people walk in and take two of the stools at the end of the bar to my left.  The guy appears to be in his late fifties wearing dress pants, a sport coat, a vest, and a fedora.  His companion, perhaps in her thirties, is wearing casual slacks, a scarf, and a sweater.  He places his hat on the bar, looks around and confirms, “Yep, she’s not here yet.  As usual, with her, it’s easier to settle on the place to meet; but the time is often a problem for her.”  His companion agrees. “That’s the trouble with ‘The Future,’ ” she said;  “She usually arrives later than we expect.”

The bartender greets them with his usual enthusiasm “Welcome to The Flying Pig.  My name’s Will.  I’m glad you could visit us.  Can I pour you something?  We have some very interesting choices!”  After listing some of their most recent acquisitions — the latest up-to-date local craft beers — she orders a 2019 Founders IPA and, after some discussion, he orders a 2012 Napa Valley Cabernet.

I can’t help overhearing their comments about the companion they were waiting for.  The gentleman says, “Sure would be nice knowing what to expect from her.  I mean, she’s not always a surprise; but we just never know until he shows up, you know?”

His companion agrees.  “Right, I know she’s from “The Future” and all; but I think she gets it wrong most of the time.  Some of the things she has told me about … you know, ‘The Future,’ are just not believable.  Others have just not turned out the way she warned.  Last time we got together she had told me she was going to take a taxi, but she ended up arriving in something that didn’t even have a …”  William interrupts and brings their drinks and a menu, “You were right, sir, about that Cabernet.  It was very popular in its day and I’m surprised we still have some.  It was hidden behind something … uh … more recent. Hasn’t been much call for it lately.  Our French Dip would go well with it, as would the Classic Roast Beef Sandwich.  And, of course, everything goes well with your IPA, … uh …  ma’am.“

“They call me Alpha.  He’s Janus.”  She whispers to Will, “I call him ‘Tom.’  “T” “O” “M”  That’s short for ‘The Old Man’ .”

“Uh … of course.”

Janus (aka “Tom”): “I’ll have the French Dip on sourdough.  It was excellent last time.”

Alpha:  “Have you been here before?  I didn’t know that.”

Janus: “Just a few years ago … This place has been here for quite some time.  Actually, my memory of this neighborhood goes back to the thirties.  I was here with an Italian guy named Vince — a ballplayer with the Seals in the Pacific Coast League.  He had his younger brother, Joe, with him.  The ballpark was just a few blocks from here at 16th and Bryant.  Believe it or not, in those days, it was hard to find a place to get a drink around here.”

Alpha: “You’re not gonna tells us that ‘DiMaggio’ story again are you?”

Janus: “Apparently not.”

Will:  “And Alpha, what can I bring you?”

Alpha: “If the ingredients are fresh, I’ll have a salad — romaine, cherry tomatoes, perhaps an avocado, a little parmesan, olive oil, and a little vinegar.  I can taste the ‘fresh’.”

Will: “Coming right up.”

Just then, a tall confident woman walks in and both Janus and Alpha say, in unison, “Well it’s about time.”  Alpha: “We’d just about given up on you — ordered lunch already.  Where’ve you been?”  PapaDan notices the clock on the wall says 12:30 pm.

Cassie (sarcastically):  “Nice to see you, too.  You haven’t changed a bit.”  She takes the barstool at the end of the bar next to Janus and ignores Alpha’s question.

Alpha takes charge of introductions.  “This is Cassandra — Cassie.  That’s Will and Ben behind the bar and this (she pointed to me, apparently aware that I had been eavesdropping) … I didn’t catch your name.”

PapaDan (just a little embarrassed): “Around here, they call me PapaDan.  Pleased to meet you.”

Alpha (to Ben and Will behind the bar): “So, when’s the last time you had The Past, The Present, AND The Future here at  … what’s this place called  … ?  The Flying something, right?”

Ben: “The Flying Pig.  Uh, Cassie, can I bring you something?”

Cassie: “Is there a special today?”

Ben:  “Yes, actually the chef is trying something new today, not sure what’s in it or what he’s calling it, but it probably has … ”

Cassie (interrupts): “Ground Lamb on Pita with olive oil, crushed garlic and sage, and ground tomatoes.”

Ben (with a grin):  “Well, I doubt it … I mean we’ve never had …”

Cassie:  “Don’t worry, you will.  It’s new.  Your chef’ll call it Cordero con ajo.”

Ben (a bit startled): “Well, I’ll check.  And something to drink?”

Cassie:  “You’ve got a mixed blend from up north — a Cab/Chard?”

Ben: “Uh … I don’t think I’ve ever  …   “

Cassie (with a knowing smile):  “Perhaps something new came in this morning?”

Ben (confused): “Well, I don’t … I mean … I’ve never heard of a blend quite like that …  I’ll see what came in.  I’ll be right back.”

Cassie (to nobody in particular): “They’ll both be very popular before you know it.”

Alpha: “Alright, Cassie, you said we needed to talk.  Something about some kind of warning?”

Janus: “Right, so is this another one of your … uh … surprises … predictions …  ?”

Cassie: “Have some respect, will you?  This time it’s serious. But, lunch first; and the wine will help.”

Will brings the French Dip and the salad, with silverware and some chips and salsa.  Then he gestures to me, pointing to the far end of the bar.  “Can I show you something?  I’ve got this … uh … let me show you.”  He leads me over past the last barstool, out of earshot of the three visitors, and leans across the bar.  “These people with the strange names, they’re … uh … I don’t know.  Different.  He’s been talking about visiting the neighborhood like eighty years ago and, whatsername — Cassie — she seems to know things before we do.  The other one seems kinda normal, but … am I missing something?  What do you make of them?”

“Well, funny you should ask.  Listening to them, I was reminded of — you’re not gonna believe this, you’ll think I’m crazy — OK, and it won’t be the first time — I’m reminded of way back in school, Greek mythology.”

Will: “Dad.  You’re not gonna get all ‘back in the old days’ on me, are you?  Again?”

“Well, yes, I guess I am.  OK, I’ll say this and you can ignore it.  This is what came to mind while they were talking.  In Greek mythology, Cassandra, was the daughter of the king of Troy, and was quite beautiful.  Apollo, the son of Zeus, was the god of a bunch of things like knowledge, music, art, poetry, oracles, and prophecy.  He was a youthful, athletic god accustomed to getting his own way.  According to the myths, he was mesmerized by Cassandra’s beauty, so he gave her the gift of prophecy.  But when she refused his romantic advances, he placed a curse ensuring that nobody would believe her warnings.  So, I think that’s Cassie.  And the guy at the bar, Janus — the Romans had a god named Janus.  He was the god of beginnings, transitions, doorways, the passage of time, and endings.  I suppose he would be in charge of ‘The Past.’  And ‘Alpha’ — I guess she’s about things that start right now.  OK, you laugh, but YOU asked.  These folks ARE a bit different.”

Will looks down at the other end of the bar at the three new customers.  “Well, ‘Alpha’ did say something like ‘So, when’s the last time you had the Past, The Present, AND The Future here?  Apparently, Cassie says she brought them together for some kind of warning.  But she’s saving it for after they have lunch.  Maybe you need to go back and listen.”

“Well, I’ll do my best.  Everybody has to be good at something.”  I slide back to my place at the bar next to the three visitors.  Say, Will, how about another glass of this Zin.”

Meanwhile, the chef walks up from the kitchen and, with a flourish, presents his new creation — “Cordero con ajo,” he announces.  “It’s new.  I’ll be interested in your review.”  Ben and Will are dumbfounded to hear this.  (Will notices that the clock on the wall still says 12:30 pm.)

During the next few minutes, Cassie enjoys the new dish, praises it lavishly, and passes around the Cab/Chard bend for others to taste with their food.  It receives decidedly mixed reviews.

Alpha:  “Ok, Cassie, you brought us together, here and now, to pass on some warning to us, right?  Or so you said.  Tell us.  What’s coming?”

Cassandra then lays out a detailed story of what’s to come — stimulated by the current American leadership and perpetuated by supporters of that leadership — a story of worthless and all-but-forgotten government institutions, disintegration of the underlying cohesion of communities, increasingly overt racism, degradation of the role of women, the domination of extreme wealth resulting in economic and social upheaval, and a widespread isolationism that made alliances and partnerships, internationally and locally, all-but-forgotten remnants of the past.  The long-standing values and connections that have held societies together would soon to be remembered only by Janus and few others.  A bit of a crowd gathers around that end of the bar, listening intently without comment.  When she was apparently done with her warnings, Janus interrupts the silence with an observation and a question: “So, Cassandra, your warnings are believable, in that they have all happened a number of times in the past across long memory and they have all been repeated over time.  However, since you are from ‘The Future,’ I must ask you if they are inevitable.”  Are they fixed in stone, as is ‘The Past?’  Is there nothing that can prevent or reverse the warnings you give?  Or are they just predictions?”

Cassie:  “I am sorry, but that is beyond my expertise.  What I know about is ‘The Future.’  I can tell you that the path to ‘The Future’ is made up of a long series of cumulative decisions that you all make every day.  I can tell you what is to come if current trends continue along the same pathways.  Frankly, it’s not that difficult; I’m sure you can see it yourself if you’re watching the news.  But, each of you, makes thousands of decisions every day.  When you leave this place, you will decide to turn right or left.  After doing that you will decide where to go and how to get there, whom to bring with you and whom to leave behind; and you will decide what to do when you get there.  That is the nature of “now,” and it’s something that Alpha knows more about that I do.  However, I suspect that ‘The Past’ — that’s you Janus — can provide some insight.”

Janus: “Well, Cassie, I do know about how such things have evolved in the past.  AND, as you suggest, ‘Evolved’ is the right word.  Important decisions and outcomes were always determined slowly and without much planning.  Let’s see — an example — back in 1770 at an important moment in history, that process was described accurately by a member of the British Parliament.  It was Edmund Burke.  He had this to say: ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’  In England, slavery was abolished by the next generation of leaders on August 1, 1834.  During that time, it turns out good men actually did something, but slowly.  Here in America, it would take all that time, plus thirty more years AND a Civil War in the 1860s to abolish slavery here; BUT even then, good men continued to Do Nothing leading to the disastrous Reconstruction and the subsequent century of segregation and racism compelling the Civil Rights movement 100 years after that War — AND STILL, fifty years later, good men are doing a whole lot of nothing.  So, Cassie, we ask: are the things you have warned us about certain to happen?  Sounds like what you’re telling us is that the answer is a question — the same question — will good people actually DO SOMETHING about it?  You see, there is time between now and later to DO something to change the outcome you have described.  If nothing is done, I can see that your predictions can be accurate.  If good people decide to change that outcome, it can be done.  THAT’S your warning.  I see that now.  The time has come.  Before too long, I suspect, your warnings will become inevitable.”  Janus points to me — on the bar stool next to Alpha — “You’ve been listening, right?”

Before I could answer, Cassie stands up from the barstool.  Will notices the clock on the wall still says 12:30 pm.

Cassie:  “It’s time for me to go.  You, Janus, can provide advice from past experience — you have lots of it.  BUT, you, Alpha, and you, sir, have the present responsibility.  Somebody here must lead these fine people here flying with The Pig.  If you choose to do that, and find a way out of the consequences I have described, well, we’ll just have to see.  It always falls to The Present to make the difference.  And by the way, you get to pay for lunch.  That comes with the responsibility.  I don’t carry any cash, but I can leave you this tip (briefly lowers her voice):  If you own a lot of ‘Tech’ stocks, it might be a good time to rebalance your portfolio.  (Louder) Will, Ben, please extend my compliments to your chef.  His new recipe will become popular, as will the new approach to wine blending — that is certainly, uh, one of the possibilities.  Thank you.”

As Cassie walks out the door, PapaDan looks at his watch (it shows 12:31 pm).  Nobody got a good look at the “vehicle” that met Cassie at the sidewalk in front of The Pig to take her back to ‘The Future.’  They were focused on the wine and the food in front of them and the people sitting beside them
— good people, all of them.  There was much to consider. 

La Belle Epoque: Just a Moment in Time



A time of optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, the apex of social order, and technological, scientific, and cultural innovation.
I wonder what it felt like to be there, then?
On a slow-moving Tuesday afternoon in Carmel, California, Liam found himself wandering along Ocean Avenue staring into the front windows of the dozens of art galleries that brightened this otherwise foggy neighborhood. What was he doing there? The factual answer was that the company he worked for had sent its senior staff for a week-long conference by the sea to re-think some of its marketing strategies. Apparently, a secondary plan was to force the group together in an unfamiliar setting to promote some personal team building. The boss wasn’t satisfied with the way the group was functioning together and he figured that a week by the ocean in a relaxed setting with some good food and wine might loosen them up a bit. The schedule called for an agenda that sat them down in a conference room over breakfast and lunch to go through a list of issues. They had the rest of the day off. The hope was that they might spend the afternoons getting to know each other.
It didn’t sound like a bad plan, but the underlying reason the group didn’t function well together was that, at every opportunity, their conversations descended into their strong and differing opinions about the national news and politics of the day. For this little company, like so many others with an international clientele, these factors had a negative effect on their business. As a result, they had developed an unhealthy dislike for one another. So, Liam found a way to escape and wander downtown to get away from the … uh … “heat.”
Turning the corner onto Dolores Avenue, Liam found himself staring at a group of paintings in the window of one of the many neighborhood galleries. Two particular paintings had captured his attention the day before; so he returned to take a closer look. Each one was a street scene in the rain. People carrying umbrellas wound their way among horse-drawn carriages under street lamps lit early in the afternoon because of the drizzly darkness. Another painting featured a similar rain-soaked street, only the traffic consisted of turn-of-the-century automobiles. He was struck by how well the impressionist had rendered the effect of the rain on everything in the scene using oil on canvas. He found himself trying to imagine what it would have been like to walk that street at the turn of the twentieth century. A few moments later he found himself inside looking at a room full of similar images by the same artist. As a man approached him from a room in the back, Liam caught his eye and asked, “I’d love to know how he does that?”
“The rain. How does he do it? I feel like I’m walking on that street and the rain is all around me. I can hear it sloshing in the street. I can almost feel the water.”
“You are very kind. I have been trying to master ‘water’ for years. I think I’ve finally gotten the hang of it. Paris around the turn of the twentieth century is my favorite time and place and she seems to look her best in the rain, don’t you think?”
“Oh, MY. YOU are the artist? An honor to meet you.” He offers his hand. “My name is Liam.”
“The pleasure is mine. My name is Edouard Cortes. [Shakes his hand.] And, yes, these are my work. If I’m not mistaken, you were in here yesterday. I appreciate your comments. And your question about the water — it turns out you can’t really paint water. Either you try to imitate how it distorts things you see through it or you try to capture things reflected in it. Otherwise, water is pretty much invisible.”
“Oh, now that you mention it, I can see that. I hadn’t really appreciated that before. I guess I hadn’t noticed. I promise not to tell anyone your secret.”
“Oh, it’s not much of a secret; but I appreciate a person willing to keep some things to themselves. You’d be amazed the kinds of things people babble about when they come in here.”
“Well, I am in a business that tries to keep some of its ideas private, ideas of a proprietary nature, if you will, so it’s not new for me.”
With a grin, “And your business is …?”
A similar grin, “Uh … private.”
And a wider grin, “Of course.”
“Mr. Cortes, I don’t want to intrude on your time; but I’d love to know what has attracted you to Paris at the dawn of the twentieth century. What is special about that time and place?”
“I don’t mind at all. It is one of my favorite topics.”
La Belle Epoque
“La Belle Epoque, in English, “The Beautiful Era,” is recognized in Western history as the period from the end of the Franco-Prussian War in 1871 to the outbreak of World War I in 1914. It was a period identified by its optimism, regional peace, economic prosperity, the apex of social order, and technological, scientific, and cultural innovation throughout Europe and America. At its peak during the first decade of the Twentieth Century, the arts flourished, especially in Paris, where many masterpieces of literature, music, theater, and visual art gained recognition. I am quick to point out, however, that “La Belle Epoque” was named in retrospect, when held in sharp contrast to the forces that led to the horrors of World War I. Nobody thought of it that way during that golden age. For a pair of generations, it was merely ‘the way we are’ and it was unconsciously expected to continue indefinitely.”
Edouard pointed at two of his paintings, Café de la Paix and le Théatre — “I hope you can see those features in the faces of the people in my paintings and feel it as the rain washes the face and streets of Paris.”
[Click to view paintings by Edouard Cortes, esp. Café de la Paix, le Teatré, Saint Denis.]
With some effort, Liam resisted the impulse to express his distaste for the current “epoque” here in the twenty-first century and compare it to the artist’s description of La Belle Epoque, not wanting to spoil the mood. Instead, “Sir, here I can see the feelings you have described in the faces of ladies walking across the intersection in their fashionable clothes, in the posture of people going about their business, and the dignified gentlemen walking toward us here. They are clearly living in a time and place that is quite unlike my own. My own visits to Paris did not do her justice, and I believe I am seeing Paris, here, in a way I have not seen her before.”
The artist did not look away from the painting as he went on, “Twilight has always seemed to me to be the best time for Paris to show her ‘Belle Visage’ during this time in her history, whether during the Winter snows of La Madeleine or the Spring rain on Des Champs Elysées.” The orange glow from the cafés and the moving splashes of sheen in the puddles of rain on the street are not fabrications, sir; and I hope you can see them.”
Liam examines them a while. “I cannot help but wonder, Mister Cortes, how an artist like yourself, living here and now, can capture Paris of La Belle Epoque, more than one hundred years ago, with such confidence. I must add it to the list of things I don’t understand. I guess I just have to accept it as a wonder.”
The artist paused a long moment to notice the emotion in the face of his guest and, tilting his head to one side as if to get a clearer view, seemed to make a decision about him. Finally, “Sir, I have been working on another, larger piece in my private studio,” pointing to a door at the back of the gallery. “I wonder if you might be interested in taking a look. Since it has some rather unusual features, of a proprietary nature, as you say, perhaps I could show it to you.”
A Work in Progress — More Than Meets the Eye
Cortes escorted Liam to the back wall of the gallery. With a jangle of keys, he unlocked a door nearly hidden behind some shelves, gestured for him to enter, and closed the door behind them. The dark room came to life when the artist flipped a wall switch that lit a pair of spotlights embedded in the ceiling. The two beams illuminated a single painting that dominated the room. It was about six feet high, half again as wide, supported by a solid wood frame propped against the wall. The artist struck a pose with a grand sweeping gesture presenting a street scene in the rain. “It’s not quite finished, but I think you can get the idea — La Belle Epoque: Paris in 1900 in the rain. I haven’t settled on a name for it, but it depicts Porte Saint Denis.
Liam couldn’t quite see what was ‘unfinished’ about it, and it gave him the distinct feeling that the water on the street in the foreground was likely to splash onto the studio floor.
The imagery reminded him of the impressionism he was so fond of from the early twentieth century, not at all typical of the contemporary works he had seen elsewhere in other galleries on this street from his own decade. The street was littered with papers, and shiny blobs of water reflected the puddles the rain had deposited on the uneven streets. Horses pulled wagons — from tiny one-person carts to larger one-horse coaches to heavy four-horse cargo wagons. Crossing the intersection in front of him was a varied collection of Parisians — wealthy ladies dressed in the latest fashions, a baker carrying a box of baguettes to his customers, and businessmen looking important in the substantial coats and prominent hats of the day. A woman was walking toward us escorting a child across the street passing a man huddling inside a thin cloth coat against a cold, wet day. The sidewalk was quite crowded, nearly everyone wore hats — some briskly hurrying to get out of the rain, others taking their time, perhaps enjoying this important Parisian neighborhood at the height of its prosperity and peace.
Liam felt privileged to be in the company of the artist and wanted very much to say something ‘well-informed’ and appropriately appreciative. “The light! I’d love to know how you are able to show me the light shining off all of these different surfaces.” Before the artist could interject with his artistic technicalities, he continued, “but, to tell the truth, your technique is not really something I can appreciate, and I wouldn’t ask you to reveal your secrets. I am more interested in the feelings I believe I see in the faces of these people. Are they aware that they are living in this great city at such a peaceful, prosperous time? Oh, and the glow from the cafés — I’m thinking of the lives that are happening inside behind those glowing windows.”
The artist seemed pleased with Liam’s assessment. “Well, sir, you’ve hit on an important idea. These people, rich and poor like, are living at a sweet time. The poor had reason to be optimistic about their future and the rich had good reason to feel self-satisfied and secure in their privileges. Most of them had no idea of the turmoil and upheaval that was going to surround them in just a few short years that would change their lives dramatically.”
“Wouldn’t it have been sweet to stand there among them, walk those streets, hear the sound of those horses, join them in those lively cafés? I’d have some questions — how does it feel to be there on the streets of Paris during that time of such calm and stability? Do they have any sense of what is to come in just a short time? Oh, my, the light you provide in this painting makes me feel like I could be there with them.”
A Secret
Once again, the artist paused a long moment to examine the face of his guest and he seemed to confirm a judgement he had made about him. “Well, sir, I would like to invite you to do just that. There are “secrets” of a proprietary nature, as you say, that you must promise to keep to yourself. May I trust you to do that?”
“Well, yes, sir, you have my word — but I don’t know what I could possibly …”
“Here, you will need to carry this,” and the artist handed him an umbrella, picked one up for himself, put his sketchbook in a plastic bag, and gestured toward the painting. “You must step over the wood frame; and be careful, the street may be slippery. You’ll have to trust me on this. Here …” gesturing for Liam to follow him, the artist climbed over the wood frame and stepped onto the wet intersection in the foreground of the painting. Liam followed his lead and found himself standing in the crosswalk of Saint Denis. He could hear the clop of the horses strutting beside him and froze in his amazement. The artist took his arm and coaxed him across the street, over the curb, to the safety of the sidewalk. Before Liam could express his astonishment, Edouard asked him, “Do you speak any French?”
“Well, … uh … a little. I recall some from a year of college French, but …”
“That should be sufficient, we won’t be here long. The most important thing is to observe the faces and body language of the people around you. I think you will see the answers there to some of your questions.”
It was all so much to take in. Liam noticed the flowers on the corner, the woman he remembered from the painting crossing the street, the baker with his box of baguettes, and a waiter staring at the passersby from inside the café on the corner. The sign in the window said “Ouvrir.” Edouard opened the door and they walked into a warm, orange-lit café with tables set for lunch. The waiter who had been watching from the window ushered them to a table looking out on the sidewalk. He greeted them, “Bienvenue, Messieurs,” and handed them menus.
“We should order something.” Liam opened his mouth to answer, but closed it again, not quite knowing what to say. The artist spoke to the waiter, “Soup a l’oignon, un sauvignon de Bourgogne, pour deux, s’il vous plait.” And to Liam, “a little French onion soup and a white burgundy, OK?”
“Sure. Uh … “
“I know, it’s a bit much all at once. Just watch the faces and tell me what you see.”
Trying not to stare, Liam noticed two couples at the table beside them, as the waiter brought the wine and the soup. On the other side, a table with four well-dressed gentlemen who looked to be earnestly discussing business. Hats, scarves, and coats hanging on a rack beside each table. Liam and Edouard spent some time with their soup, before Edouard said, “Take your time. You wanted to know about these people. Study them. When you’ve finished your wine, we can talk about what you see.”
So, they ate their soup, drank the wine. Liam watched, thinking it over — another glass of Bourgogne. The couples came and went, replaced by two elderly ladies who had patisseries and tea. The businessmen lingered over cognac and seemed to have abandoned their business discussion and drifted to lighter topics.
Liam and Edouard spent a long afternoon watching, thinking it over, trying to take it all in. As the afternoon turned to twilight. Edouard took out his sketchbook and drew the lamppost outside the window. The rain had stopped. Finally, he paid the bill — “It’s time for us to go.”— and they walked out into the gathering dusk. “We need to find our way back and step back into our own time. But first, what did you learn?”
What Is There to Learn?
“Well, from what I could make out of their conversations, here was no politics, no economics, no troubled commentary. Faces were serious at times but nothing made them frown. Nobody seemed surprised at what they saw around them. I saw faces of people enjoying each other, not a care in the world.”
“And the ‘proper’ gentlemen?”
“Confident. Sure of themselves. On top of their game.”
“That’s a lot to derive from four hours of eavesdropping.”
“That’s true; but I’m comparing it to what I’ve experienced of four hours of my own time. What I hear consistently is disappointment, shock that things could have drifted so far wrong, surprise at what passes for ‘normal’; violence in the news every day, worry about an uncertain future — and the tense expressions on faces who have grown accustomed to all of that. I didn’t hear that here, didn’t see that.”
“Is it possible that you were looking for that result? Did you simply fulfill an expectation?”
“Sure. That’s possible. What do you think?”
The artist thought about it a while. “Well, it’s certain that most did not expect the hard times that were approaching. What you’ve described is surely a list of the differences between their time and yours. That much is well documented. I had hoped that my paintings would convey those conditions.”
Liam: “Can we bring some of it back with us?”
Edouard: After some thought … “Certainly not by merely stepping back out of my painting. You are the only one in this scene who could make such a difference — when you return.”
Returning to the rainy intersection, they stepped out of the painting, back into the studio. After standing silently for a moment, they exchanged pleasantries and thanks. Liam walked out of the gallery, giving the paintings a last glance and said “I hope to return.” He turned back to the corner of Dolores Avenue and was gone.
Returning on Friday
Friday at 2:00 pm, his week-long conference finally concluded — and with … well … moderate success — Liam hurried back down Ocean Avenue, turned at Dolores, and entered the gallery hoping to see Edouard Cortes once more before returning home. Today, however, as he walked past the paintings of Café de la Paix and Le Théatre just as they were on Wednesday, a younger, taller gentleman greeted Liam warmly. “Welcome. You are our first visitor since our remodeling project. It took longer to reopen than I had hoped; but we’re back now. Thanks for your patience.” He had a nametag reading “Alain Miller, Gallery Manager.”
“Sir, it is pleasure to be back again. I had the pleasure earlier in the week to meet Mr. Cortes,” pointing at his painting. “I have to return home today and I had hoped to say goodbye and wish him well. Is he here?”
“Well, Sir, we are indeed privileged to have two of Edouard Cortes’ originals here in our gallery. There are not many on the West Coast. I think I understand your feelings — spending time with his masterwork must surely give one the feeling of meeting him in person.”
“No, Mister Miler, I spoke to him here in your gallery and back there in his … uh …” Gesturing at the back wall, Liam was shocked to notice that the door in back wall of the room was not there where he remembered it.
The manager, with a grin — “Well, sir, I share your interest, surely; but Mr. Cortes has never been here in the U.S. He passed away in 1969 in Lagny-sur-Marne, in France, where he spent his entire life.”
For Liam, there were no words.

A Ride to Nana’s House




Dedicated to my timeless sister.




View a PDF of this post:

Danville, California — A rainy Sunday afternoon was made to order for a trip to a museum; and just a few miles up the road in Danville, we’ve got the famous Behring Auto Museum.  Since we had never seen it, Gretta and I decided to spend the day strolling through one of the finest collections of classic sports cars on the West Coast.

The modern building has polished stone floors, elegant lighting, and two stories of magnificent cars — some of them one-of-a-kind, many specially built for royals or movie stars. After just a few minutes surrounded by the likes of a 1933 Alpha Romeo, the only existing 1911 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce, and Howard Hughes’ black 1929 Duesenberg, I felt transported to another time.



Trying to visualize a street where cars like these were actually driven took some serious imagining.  But when I literally (ooops!) bumped into the magnificent 1931 red-orange convertible Packard 840 Deluxe Eight, my imagination was fully engaged.  I pictured myself face to face with Jay Gatsby in his circular West Egg driveway, one foot on the running board, adjusting the mirror strapped to the spare tire, polishing it with the handkerchief from the breast pocket of his white linen suit.  The uniformed security guard didn’t much like the fact that I had accidentally touched the classic, “Please be careful, sir.  We much prefer that you not touch … ”

Yes, I’m sorry, it sorta snuck up on me.”
I grinned but he was not amused. So I offered
what I thought wound be an additional apology:
“This one is just stunning, don’t you think?”
“Yes, sir. The Packard does bring a person
back to a more … interesting … time.”  His
expression suggested that he had some
experience with that time — and he seemed
to prefer it to now.

“I bet you know these cars better than anyone, Mister  … uh …?”
“Yes, sir. Carraway, sir.”

“Do you ever get to drive these cars, Mister Carraway?  I mean, after hours maybe, when no one’s around?”

I WOULDN’T THINK OF IT, SIR!! He raised his voice a bit and looked me in the eye for the first time, as if I had accused him of something serious.  I grinned back at him as if to share a guilty secret.  He looked away thoughtfully, back to the Packard.  “Owners take some of them out from time to time, keeps them alive, so to speak.  But this one …  ”

“This one is different?”

“Yes, sir.  Different.  Special.  Has a life of its own and a tragic story.  Timeless, you could say.  Really should be driven regularly; it’s pretty smooth for an eighty-five-year-old.”  The first hint of a smile appeared and was quickly withdrawn.

“Now you’ve got me intrigued, Mister … uh … Carraway, you said.   Sounds like you’ve gotten to know this one.”    No reaction.     “I read in your brochure that they made only a few of these.  The sticker price was pretty steep — $3,200 was some real money in 1931, eh?  I wonder how many people could consider buying one of these in the depth of the Depression?”

“Only one that I knew at the time.”

“At the time  … ?”

The straight-faced guard looks at his watch, “Sir, you know it’s getting to be time to close.  You’ll forgive me if I begin.”

“Of course, I’ve taken too much of your time already.”

“Not at all,” he said, turning to leave.

Alright, I couldn’t resist —  “Mister Carraway, one more thing, if I may. If a respectful gentleman were to …  uh  …  linger here at closing time one day, if he were willing to wait a while, quietly  …  I wonder if it would be possible — not to drive it, of course, but when you  … perhaps  … uh …”

“Forgive me, sir, I really must close.”

“Of course, perhaps we’ll talk another time.”

He nodded but said only, “Good afternoon, sir.”   It was clear that I had been dismissed.

Over the next week I just couldn’t get that ’31 Packard out of my mind.  I imagined Mister Carraway locking the museum doors at closing time, setting the alarms on the public entrances, and slipping back to the shop area to retrieve the keys to the Packard.  In my melodramatic imagination, he would turn off the closed-circuit surveillance cameras, push the red-orange beauty through the back door into the shop, start it up, and drive it out into the back lot.  I wondered if he had the nerve to take it out into the public parking lot or even — NO WAY — out into the nearby residential neighborhood.  Of course, the fact that this magnificent vehicle would be completely out of place in this neighborhood and  … well  …  in this time, made it a ridiculous idea.  It isn’t something he could pull off unnoticed.

As the days passed, I became increasingly convinced that Mister Carraway did exactly that — and I indulged my outrageous fantasy that I could somehow join him on one of his rides.  But how?  Maybe if I did some research and showed up spouting a wealth of knowledge about the ‘31 Packard and not a little admiration, maybe he would be impressed by my love of the machine and its history and give me a ride.  It wasn’t a great idea, but it was the best I had; so, I turned to the Internet.

The results of my search were quite interesting.  It seems that Packard made a strategic decision to try to beat the effects of the market crash of ’29 by building a vehicle even more luxurious and more expensive than ever before.  They figured that those who still had that kind of money would want the most opulent model they could find and would abandon the mass-produced “luxury” cars like Cadillac, which they judged, would soon be going out of business. It sounded like a half-baked strategy to me; and it turns out that they badly misjudged the very small number who would survive the crash with that kind of money and ended up building and selling precious few of them.

So, ten days later, after doing my homework, I showed up on a weekday afternoon when I hoped there would be fewer visitors.  I found Mr. Carraway leaning against one of the “Please do not touch” signs, looking bored.  At the risk of being a pest, I greeted him: “Ah, Mister Carraway, nice to see you again.  Last week I fell I love with your ’31 Packard over there and I’ve done some reading.  It has a bit of a history.”

“Yes, sir, I remember your interest.  It does have quite a history.”  He followed me as I walked over to the red-and-orange beauty.

“I learned that the few who owned one of these included some big names — some Hollywood folks, some politicians, ‘captains of industry.’  I’d love to know who owned this one.”  I touched the hood gently with what I thought was proper respect.

“Sir, PLEASE.”  With a deep frown, Mr. Carraway took out a handkerchief and wiped my fingerprints off the hood and made a visible effort to quell his annoyance that I had been so presumptuous to have touched the Packard on purpose.

“I’m terribly sorry … I’ve done it again.  Please forgive my carelessness.  I know it’s no excuse but I do feel such a connection to this vehicle.  Makes me feel that somehow, we can connect to the world it comes from — something I’d love to do.”  With a thoughtful nod, he seemed to approve of my feeling of connection. So, I plunged into my strategy: “I read some stories on the Internet  — and I remembered that you mentioned a “tragic story.” I read about Jean Harlow and how she had a Packard like this one.   I was hoping to learn more.  I keep thinking about all the stories these cars could tell about the people who came before us. What do YOU think?”

He hesitated, then looked me in the eye;  it was 4:30 and the place was almost empty.  Before he could tell me it was time to leave, I continued, “I was hoping we could talk more about the tragic story you mentioned last week.”  To my surprise, he suggested that I wait here while he closed up shop.  “I’ll be a few minutes,” he said.

When he returned after securing the public entrances, he told me that none other than movie executive Paul Bern had bought this Packard for actress Jean Harlow on her 21st birthday in 1932 to celebrate the movie contract with MGM he had negotiated.  They were married that year but two months later he committed suicide.  And when she died suddenly only five years later, the car became he property of the MGM studio.”

“Oh, my.  I read that story — I was captivated.  So, THIS is the one!  What a privilege to see it!”

“The very one, sir.  The heirs donated it to the museum when it opened in 1988.”  He hesitated, seeming to make a decision about what to say next.   Finally, “It has some ‘remarkable features.’”

“So, it still runs.  Wow!  Remarkable features, you say?  Let’s see, I read that its larger valves, a special fuel pump, and a preheated fuel mixture increased its power and it was one of the first cars to exceed a top speed of 100 miles per hour.  Pretty remarkable for the 1930s.”

“Well, OK, you have done your homework.  Those are certainly some of its mechanical features,” — with a chuckle —  “but there is much more to this Packard than meets the eye.”

“Mister Carraway, I fear I’m being rude, but …  do you suppose …  I would like to get to know this wonderful heirloom, if I may … and you seem to know it well.”

Before I could find words to ask my outrageous question … he raised his hand and interrupted, “Sir …” and he stopped, looked around with a pained expression, apparently considering carefully what to say next.  With nobody within earshot, he bit his lip and looked me up and down carefully and then focused on my eyes.  “Sir, …  I will need your absolute assurance that what I’m about to show you will be our secret.”  After I agreed, he said quietly, “Please wait here …  and, Sir, PLEASE don’t touch anything” and he was off to fetch the keys.

The Packard started up with a metallic roar and he steered it off the exhibit floor, out the door to the maintenance bay and, to my surprise, drove us straight to the back of the parking lot and onto Blackhawk Plaza Circle.  After the familiar bend to the left, instead of the freeway on-ramp I expected to see, he turned right into a two-way country road I didn’t recognize.  He noticed my surprise, and said, “Where would you like to go?”

I answered with my best grin, “You’re in charge.  Where are we allowed to go?”

“Well, our travels are governed by two conditions.  One: we can drive anywhere there is a suitable paved road and you’ll notice ready that we are on a road that is unfamiliar to you.  That brings us to our second condition, which is not so much about “where” but “when.”

“Excuse me?”

“You will remember I told you this Packard has special features — this will be hard to believe, but I hope you will be quickly convinced.  I can’t explain why or how, but once this vehicle leaves the confines of the museum, it “lives” in the 1930s.  Back then, this town was primarily a farming community of about 2,000 people.  This rural road was replaced in the 1950s and 60s by a system of freeways; but in 1932, it wandered north and east through farmlands that you know today as Walnut Creek, Concord, Pittsburg, and Antioch.  As you read on the website, this car was owned by the actress Jean Harlow from her 21st birthday in March of 1932 until her death in June of 1937.  Outside of the museum, this car travels any time between those dates.”

I stared out the window at the green hills for a long minute, then turned back to him, opened my mouth to speak, then closed it and turned back to the window.  Finally, I took a deep breath and said, “Let me get this straight, you are telling me that you are a time traveler, is that right?”

“Yes, and by the end of the day that, today, here in Jean Harlow’s Packard, you will be a time traveler as well.  Now, how this all came about is a longer story for another time.  But for now, again, where and when do you want to go?  Does anything in the 1930s interest you?”

Once again, I stared out the window, trying to process this startling information.  (I thought, ‘what have I got to lose?  What the heck?)  “OK, so let’s say I believe you.  We seem to be heading toward where my sister and I grew up a long time ago,” I said.  “She was born in Pittsburg in 1932, a few miles from here.  Since I wasn’t there at the time — I was born much later —  can we go there … uh … then and have a look?”
“Sure  Have you got an address and a date?”

Where and When

My sister and I grew up in two very different households, although with the same parents.  Born in the middle of the Depression, hers was a depression-era blue-collar family.  Her father, Albert (known as “Al” or “AJ”) hadn’t finished the 8th grade and worked in the local steel mill.  Money was tight and Al and his wife Mae lived in a back bedroom in Mae’s parents’ house (‘Nana’s house’) on 12th Street in Pittsburg and they didn’t own a car.  By the time I came along in 1950, Dad was making serious money as an insurance agent and they lived on Manville Avenue on the other side of town.  My sister, Anita Mae, was born in Nana’s bed in the house on 12th Street.  It was a big house and it was full of family.  Her five-year-old Uncle Tony, the youngest of nine children, called her ‘Honey Bunny’; and the name stuck — shortened to “Bunny” — all her life.

“Mister Carraway,” I said, “How about 12th Street in Pittsburg, October 12th, 1932, at 11:20 pm.  It’s a corner house with wide plank steps up to a front porch.”

“That’s pretty specific.  What’s happening?”

“I was told that my sister was born in the front bedroom of that house on that day, at that time.”

We pulled up to the house on 12th Street at 11:20 pm and the only light shone through the window on the front porch to the right of the front door. And there’s the porch swing I remembered.  I could hear voices from through the door.  “Wow! That’s the front bedroom.  I remember it from when I was a kid.”  Looking at my watch, “It’s time.  My sister is being born right now in that room.  …  So, now what?

“Well, there’s not much to see from here.  Probably shouldn’t get out of the car.  Remember, you’d just be an intruder this time of night.  It would be very dangerous to interfere.”

“Right.  Nobody in there would know me.  I don’t join the family for another 17 years.  This is pretty weird, Mr. Carraway.  Pretty weird.”   To my surprise, he agreed.

He drove around the corner and pulled over to the curb, the big V8 engine idling.  I’m thinking, ‘what can I do with this opportunity?’  This house is where my sister and my parents lived for another three years or so before they could afford to rent rooms from the Grabstein family on East 7th Street.  They lived there until about 1937, the year Bunny skipped from kindergarten to the second grade — she had already learned to read — when they moved and rented an upstairs flat with an outside entrance from the Permesso family on 4th near York Street and Dad bought his first car.  It wasn’t until about 1940 or so that they moved to the house on Manville — where they lived when I was born.  So, I took a shot in the dark …

“I know I’ve taken a lot of your time already; but can we try one more thing?”

“Sure,” he smiled,”I’ve got time.  We’ll be able to pick the time we want to return to the museum.  Name it.”

Back around the corner, same house, a year or so later?  Maybe a Saturday afternoon?  Maybe we’ll see someone.”



So, we drove around the block, to daylight on the same corner, and … THERE THEY WERE!  A little girl — my sister about a year or so later — appearing to be taking her first wobbly steps and her mother — my mother long before I knew her — taking pictures with a big clunky camera.





Mr. Carraway’s big grin betrayed that he was
as thrilled with this time-travel stuff as I was.  “Let’s try one more.  Pick another one.”

I remembered an old family photo with a Mother’s Day story — “OK.  another shot in the dark. Let’s try May 12, 1935, a Sunday afternoon.”

Around the block we went again and there  was my sister in the front yard, a serious three-year-old all dressed up for Mother’ Day.

Of course, I had an almost overpowering urge to get out of the car, walk up to my mother and sister and introduce myself — wouldn’t that be something!  But I recalled Mister Carraway’s caution when we first arrived: “… it would be very dangerous to interfere.”  As I looked at this scene from long ago, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if I did ‘interfere.’  How much trouble would I cause?  I imagined the obvious:, that I would risk changing the past.  If that happened, I supposed it would change the future — that is, the “present” that I intended to return to back at the museum?  The possibilities were immediately frightening and I forcefully put it out of my mind.

Mister Carraway interrupted my pondering — “OK, I think we got what we came for.  This fancy car’s going to attract some attention.  Doesn’t quite fit in with the neighborhood, if you know what I mean.  We should head back.”

“Right.  Mister Carraway, this has been incredible, so much more than I imagined possible.”

The ride back to Danville on that country road was pretty quiet.  I had trouble finding words for the experience of visiting the 1930s.  Looking at the house I loved as a kid, Nana’s house, long before I knew it, was simultaneously familiar and completely foreign.  I had wanted to stop and talk to my young mother and “little” sister, walk up the steps where I used to pretend to speak to a cheering crowd (like I saw in the movies).  I wanted to sit on the porch swing just as I had done as a kid in the 1950s; but, as Mister Carraway said, I would have been a stranger, an intruder.

On the ride back to ‘the present,’ I remembered with great irony, that my nephews and I used to sit in that porch swing in the late 1950s and exercise our lively imaginations.  Visiting Nana’s house when I was nine and my two oldest nephews were seven and five, we pretended that the swing was a magic bus.  We used to dial up where we wanted to go.  We would sing a little jingle from a TV toothpaste commercial and it would take us wherever we wanted to go — just like this magnificent 1931 Packard had done “today.”


If only we had known.












Baby Danny (me) and my sister Bunny     Bunny, her husband Joe, and one of their sons,

in that front yard, 1950.                          Stephen, on one of several “Magic Buses” from that era.






Bunny, more recently