Top Shelf Memory’s Closet

Top Shelf Memory’s Closet

We three bums from Joe’s sloppy bar

Tried to smoke a rubber cigar

It was loaded and exploded

All over Joe’s sloppy bar

I must have been ten, maybe eleven, when I heard that refrain for the first time. Every element at work in that composition impressed me then and impresses me now. Like the best of doggerel, it has no provenance, no author. It arrived intact and flawless on a bus trip to a fish hatchery, performed by kids a year older than I; it scans perfectly as few parodies do. Ianesco and Beckett’s tributes to absurdity may have been more polished, perhaps, but the forceful rhyming of “Joe’s sloppy bar” with “Joe’s sloppy bar” is genius. And Joe’s Bar? Must have been a million of them. Joe’s Sloppy Bar? What a concept. With a word, I imagined puddles of spilled beer on tables, filthy rags used to smear the glasses, the steady drip of an untended tap as a corroded barrel emptied itself on a floor of mucilage. The coup de grace for me came in self-identifying as one of three bums dumb enough to try to smoke a cigar made of rubber, an idiotic premise made more unlikely by the packing of the rubber stogie with explosives of some strength.

Like the most profound expressions, there is no explanation, no further action. Bums, explosives, tattered rubber smokes, sit forever in the sloppy bar, static, unchanging.


There are relatively few experiences that have a place on the top shelf in memory’s closet. Most are the sorts of ordinary and miraculous events that define the course of a lifetime, but a few are random moments of awareness and appreciation. Beethoven’s Ode to Joy is right up there, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s prairie houses, and Ball of Fire, a comedy starring Gary Cooper and Barbara Stanwick, but featuring an all-star collection of character actors whose mannerisms and voices still bring unvarnished delight. These are names to conjure with – S.Z. “Cuddles” Sakall, Oscar Holmoka, Henry Travers, Leonard Kinskey, Allen Jenkins, Charles Lane, and Elisha Cook, Jr., the actor most likely to be killed within the first fifteen minutes of his appearance on screen. Astaire and Rogers. Cary Grant and Katherine Hepburn. Willie Mays, Ichiro Suzuki, Sandy Koufax. 

I’ve written about visiting the Field of Dreams with my son, but dreams and fields seem to pop up everywhere I look.

For reasons that escape me, I spent a summer trying to peddle encyclopedias from door to door in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Iowa. One August evening, I drove through Beloit, Wisconsin, a small city due north of Roscoe, Illinois. I don’t know that there is a word or phrase that describes the last moments of twilight, when the metal halide lights bark into white/yellow stripes above a freshly mowed small town baseball field. Players cast exaggerated shadows and the smell of popcorn and hot dogs seeps from the cook tent or bunker behind the backstop. I pulled over, sat on the hood of my car, and watched an entire game as Beloit slipped into darkness.

I never found out who was playing. Didn’t matter. 

About the encyclopedias: I am relieved to say that I never sold a set. I did my time in the encyclopedia sales school in Madison, an unpaid week in which I had to memorize the pitch for Collier’s encyclopedias word for word. The professional encyclopedia hawkers left no room for freestyling in casting Colliers’ net. I’ve forgotten the exact patter used to propel us from the stoop into the living room, but the gist of it was that the lucky inhabitant had been selected to win a set of encyclopedias ABSOLUTELY FREE! That’s right. A complete set of 23 volumes (QRS, TUV, and XYZ were combined in three) was theirs for the taking. All they had to do was agree to purchase the annual supplements … FOREVER. Should the fortunate family not rise to the bait, we were to compare the cost of the supplements on a daily basis to the cost of milk, and who … we were to ask … who would deny their children milk? 

I got to that point in the sales pitch once, in Iowa, and realized that the people foolish enough to have allowed me into their home, might actually lock themselves into perpetual indenture to Colliers. I closed my sample case and scuttled into the darkness of an Iowa night.

Not selling encyclopedias was not an Ode to Joy/Field of Dreams alive in my memory experience. Please. What it was, however, was the reason I lived in a borrowed apartment, foraging for cans of soup and vanilla icing left in the storage cellar; I was flat broke and spinning my wheels until I could return to a college dorm and the college meal plan. Madison, Wisconsin was one of the centers of student unrest and a swinging hot spot when the sun went down. Student bars roasted bratwurst and served up dollar pitchers of beer as coeds flaunted their imperviability to the rhythm of two lyrically disappointing hits – 96 Tears and The Last Train to Clarksville. 

No brats or beer for me. No coeds either, but that’s … a story for another day.

Inexplicably, what I did have was a ticket to a concert on July 8, 1967. The apartment in which I was roosting was on University Avenue just south of the School of Agriculture and a block from the Association of Women in Agriculture; the concert was at the Dane County Coliseum, about eight miles away. I can’t remember how I had the ticket or how I got to the coliseum, but I can pretty much recall the set list for the three acts improbably touring together that summer.

The headliner was Frank Sinatra who had traded the company of the Rat Pack on tour for Sergio Mendez & Brasil ‘66 and The Buddy Rich Band. Brasil ‘66 opened, played a full and magical set (Mas Que Nada, One Note Samba, Going Out of My Head). Sinatra had recorded with Antonio Carlos Jobim; Brasil ‘66 was a tip of the hat to younger Sinatra fans. Sinatra also performed with The Buddy Rich Band, the group that had just put out the remarkable Big Swing Face album. The band played a set on their own, upbeat swing versions of Love For Sale, Mexicali Rose, and, uh, Norwegian Wood. Rich was a remarkable drummer and his band was formidable. They stayed on stage after their set, and the lights dimmed … drum  roll please … and Sinatra stepped into the spotlight. 

Frank Sinatra’s career was not quite at its peak when he landed at the Dane County Coliseum. He’d sent audiences swooning in the 1940’s, emerged as an actor and Jazz singer in the 50’s, and had pretty much recorded all of what we now call The American Songbook, evolving into his persona as “Chairman of the Board”, head of the Vegas Rat Pack, chief advocate of the late ‘50s jet-set ring-a-ding hedonism. He’d just been bounced from Vegas by Howard Hughes, still recording hits, but shifting quickly to catch the wave of current popular music. Witness the appalling duet with his daughter, “Something Stupid”. 

But on that night, in that sold-out arena, he was magical. Sinatra purists celebrate the extraordinary phrasing with which Sinatra animated even the most familiar of tunes. I can’t imagine how dispiriting a tour of midwestern arenas might be, but Sinatra SOLD every song he took on, singing for more than an hour.

Other concert experiences have not made the top shelf in memory’s closet. Well, to be honest the Chuck Berry concert in Springfield, MA was grotesque enough to continue to trouble my dreams, but Brasil ‘66, Buddy Rich, and Sinatra, on one stage, on one night was perfect.

And, I must have been able to get back to the apartment in time for a post-concert snack of Vanilla icing.