Pianos, Trains and Toothbrushes

I recognize that piano from Tehran 70 years ago. 


I was sitting in my living room, the day after our 50th high school reunion in 2019 with my friend Eric and his delightful and razor sharp 94 year old mother, who had accompanied Eric to all of the festivities surrounding the reunion. She took one look at the Steinway spinet piano in our home and recognized it as the same piano that my aunt Harriet had owned and played in Tehran in the 1950’s, when both of their husbands worked for the Shah of Iran, Mohammed Reza Pahlavi, under the auspices of the World Bank for several years, creating and establishing economic development projects. She had been good friends with my aunt and uncle and their young family, and had heard that piano being played many times, long ago and far away.

The piano had been ensconced in my aunt’s home in Maryland for decades after they left Tehran. My father had traded her the piano for his older larger Steinway upright model when he had moved back to California from New York City in the 1980’s, wanting a smaller, newer keyboard. My father had given it to me when my son began to take piano lessons when he was a child. If I had played it as a child, I might have forsaken the guitar and had a much more logical and linear musical education. It is a globe trotting music machine. 

It has several strange textured scars on the flat black wooden surfaces around and above the keys, which were explained to me by a piano tuner as cigarette burns, created when musicians left burning cigarettes laying flat and melting the paint when they became absorbed in the music and forgot about their smokes. He said it was a common feature in older pianos that he worked on. My aunt and uncle never smoked, so there is yet another layer of earlier history hidden in those black musical scars.

Mohammad Reza Pahlavi • Shah of Iran • Light of the Aryans • King of Kings

I have a patent on that one, and that one and that one too.

Pearly white, patented, polishing brushing tools • Patented by my friend Gary

I was at a Halloween costume party at Struggle Mountain, an intentional community high in the hills above  Palo Alto, which was originally founded by Joan Baez in the 1960’s. My friend Steve was dressed as a Fuller Brush Man. The Fuller Brush Company was based in Hartford, Connecticut, and made a wide variety of brushes. Their hair brushes came with a very popular lifetime warranty. I used one for over 40 years that my mother bought from a salesman when I was a child in New York City. Their sales force was mainly men who would go door to door with a small suitcase full of brushes, making sales to housewives. The salesmen became known as the Fuller Brush Men. My brother Peter was briefly a Fuller Brush Man after he graduated from Stanford, but somehow decided that he preferred teaching photography over having a door to door brush sales career. The founder,  Alfred C. Fuller published his autobiography “A Foot In the Door” in 1960. The title described his salesman’s technique of prolonging a conversation to turn it into a sale after the door had been opened to him. This was prior to the now common practice of posting “No Soliciting” signs on front doors.

The Fuller Brush Man is also a 1948 American comedy film starring Red Skelton as a door-to-door salesman for the Fuller Brush Company who becomes a murder suspect. My friend Steve (not a murder suspect) wore a suit and carried a brush sample case and made a necklace of toothbrushes for his Halloween costume. My friend Gary who was also at the party, had been a product designer for Johnson and Johnson in New Jersey for several years and showed Steve which of the toothbrushes dangling from Steve’s neck he had designed and held patents on.

Fuller Brush Company • Hartford, Connecticut

You are Stephen King. I know you are! I know you are! 

I was sitting in a cafe one evening on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, writing on my laptop, using 1/2 hour of paid time for the not-for-free wi-fi when a stranger sat down next to me, insisting that I was the horror novelist Stephen King. When I told him I was not, he insisted that I show him my driver’s license. After I did so to calm him down, he pulled out his phone and showed me dozens of photos of Stephen King. Since I don’t really now what I look like, I couldn’t tell if I resembled Stephen King. I told him that I had met Stephen King’s editor who lived in the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr’s stone cottage in Heath, Massachusetts, where I owned a vacation home, but I had never met Stephen King and had not read any of his books, having no interest in that kind of frightening storytelling.

He eventually let me get back to my e-mail, writing and photo editing but continued to insist that I was Stephen King’s twin brother or doppelganger. 

Stephen King • My doppelganger?

I think those are the fireworks.

The Rocket • Edward Manigault

I was sitting in Candlestick Park, then home to the San Francisco Giants, on the Fourth of July with my young son and wife, shivering in a dense fog bank. The game action had been difficult to see from our seats above right field, obscured by fog and chilled by strong, very cold winds. I had always considered professional baseball to be a very slow game of tension and waiting, requiring the patience of frozen, bored Gods. The pitchers had looked like they were deckhands on a freighter plowing through the north Atlantic in mid winter. Candlestick Park was world renowned for having some of the most consistently terrible weather for sporting events.

After the Giants lost, it was time to celebrate America’s birthday with fireworks. It was more of a sonic experience, as we could hear and feel the concussive explosions from the fireworks, but the dazzling sparkling pyrotechnic sparks we were hoping for were reduced to dim glows in the dense fog overhead. 

Star spangled night

I am waxing Eloquent! 

My surfing buddy named his surfboard “Eloquent” so that when he was applying wax to the slippery fiberglass and resin deck to make it slip proof, he could truthfully say that he was waxing eloquent. The most popular brand of surfboard wax sold in the late 1960’s was Mister Zog’s Sex Wax, a far more esoteric blend than the usual cubes of paraffin we purchased at Safeway which were more often used for sealing home made jams and jellies and making candles than for slip proofing wet surfboards.

Waxing Eloquent

That is the golden spike that united America!


The Golden Spike

I was 11 years old when I first saw The Golden Spike, nestled inside of a red velvet lined safe behind a 5” thick glass window at the Stanford Museum. I had just driven across the USA for the first time and knew viscerally what an enormous country America was, and what an engineering feat it had been to create a transcontinental railroad system. 

The Golden spike was a ceremonial 17.6-carat gold final spike driven by the Governor of California, Leland Stanford, to join the rails of the First Transcontinental Railroad across the United States on May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory. Stanford missed the spike on his first hammering attempt to drive it into a pre drilled hole in a ceremonial laurel wood railroad tie, with a sledgehammer made of solid silver. The ceremony has come to be considered one of the first nationwide media events.

The Last Spike

The Stanford Museum also had a gargantuan steam locomotive in the lobby called the Governor Stanford, which some of my friends were able to play on after hours, as their father was the dean of the Art Department and had unlimited access to the museum. Many years later I saw the same locomotive in a railroad museum in Sacramento, California.

Governor Stanford Locomotive

When I was 10 years old my family spent a year in Saint Andrews, Scotland, in a large two story house on the Lade Braes Walk with the poetic name of “Windrush.” I often helped my 5 year old sister get ready for the day in her second story bedroom. From her window we would often see steam trains puffing along  the train line above the Kinnes Burn brook, 200 yards away. I loved seeing the mixture of coal smoke and billowing clouds of steam pouring out of the smokestacks like a cyclone mantle following behind the train. My friends and I would often go to the station to watch the huge emerald green locomotives with their shining chrome plated driving wheels entering and leaving the station in towering clouds of white steam, with whistles loud as symphonic foghorns announcing their arrival and departure.  

Years later, when we were students at Stanford in France, in the city of Tours, in the Loire Valley, my friend John had his suitcase stolen in the railway station. A couple of week later, the thief had been apprehended and John was summoned to the police station to retrieve his possessions. When he arrived, he saw the thief tied to a chair and was asked by the chief of police if he wanted to hit him in the face a few times to teach him a lesson. John declined, and went on to have a career as a medical doctor and pain specialist and may have known that in the future he would have to take the Hippocratic oath and swear to “Do No Harm.” Later that year John was awakened  late at night and informed by a phone call that his friend Steve, who he had loaned his Eurail Pass to, had been arrested in Belgium for railway ticket fraud and that John had to travel to Belgium immediately to swear that Steve had not stolen the Eurail Pass from him to get him released from jail. It was the first of many scrapes with the law that Steve had, ending his year in France with a stint in jail in Morocco.

In December of that year we took a ferry across the Mediterranean to a port city near Ouzdah, on the western Moroccan/Algerian border, where we got 3rd class tickets on a rickety train pulled by a coal fired steam locomotive. We slowly crossed the vast desert wastes, passing the pillared ruins of ancient Roman cities and saw devout Muslim men, prostrated next to their resting camels, bowing in supplication and prayer towards Mecca. The car we were in had a goat and several chickens as passengers. In the middle of the night it began to rain, and the rain poured through the open roof slats of our train car, soaking us and everyone else in the compartment.  Unlike us, chickens did not seem to care.

In the morning a hooded man on the train asked us over and over again if we were going to Marrakech to smoke hashish and fuck the girls, telling us that he would need to report us to the police and the army for corrective discipline if that was our plan. We assured him that we had no such intentions.

Slave Market • Jean Leon Gerome

On our return trip from Morocco, we took the Puerto del Sol Expresso train from Madrid to Paris. It was an almost nonstop train which had a car that was a movie theater. We watched a Tony Curtis film about nuns in a convent who smuggled gold hidden in statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. I was quite ill, having contracted food poisoning from eating a club sandwich at the “Cafe Nebraska” in Madrid, and spent much of the night running down the train corridor to the rest room. When we got to the Spanish/French border, I was told by the conductor that I could not use the rest room until we left the station. Puzzled, I looked out of the window and saw that our train car had somehow been lifted high above the tracks. I turned out that the trains in Spain and France used tracks of different widths, and that rather than making passengers on the Puerto del Sol Expresso change trains at the border, they jacked up the trains and changed the wheels.

In those days, the trains had no septic holding tanks for the toilets. After flushing the toilet, one could see the blurred railroad ties rushing by directly below the train where the toilets drained. Because if this, it became clear why they did not want the toilets used while workers were under the train changing the wheels. 

The second weekend we were at Stanford-in-France, we had a 4 day trip to the Dordogne area in the south of France, famous for food, scenery and caves featuring 20,000 year old Paleolithic art. We had our own private 2 car train to take us there and stopped in Perpignan, a train station that I was interested in as I had read that Salvador Dali considered the Perpignan train station to be the center of the universe. I was quite disappointed to find that it was just a provincial French railway station and had no immediate cosmic significance. Dali had what he called “a vision of cosmogonic ecstasy” there in 1963, but the feelings clearly were not contagious, and I was more excited to see what the Cro-Magnon artists had been up. 

Dali’s vision of Cosmogonic Ecstasy at the Perpingan Railway Station

Unfortunately, one of our fellow students had a severe psychotic break soon after we entered the Lascaux caves, believing that he was sitting on God’s eyelid and that God was blinking and crushing him. Myself and several other students were somehow chosen to transport him back to Tours in another student’s VW bus, cutting short our experience of prehistoric paintings of mammoths, aurochs and deer. We had no visions of cosmogonic ecstasy, only endless hours of fearful psychotic drama on our very long drive back to the campus.


On a later trip to Spain with all of the Tours students, we were given several days to do whatever we wanted after several days with the group, before meeting back in Madrid at the Atocha train station to return to the campus with the rest of the students. Myself and several others decided to rent a car and drive to Portugal. We had no destination in mind and only rudimentary maps. We just drove west, stopping and camping in a cork forest in the middle of the night and arriving at the Atlantic the next day on a dirt road in the small town of Caldas de Rainha, where we camped on the beach for a few days. Spain had been under the oppressive fascistic rule of generalissimo Francisco Franco for decades, and the entire country seemed gloomy and depressive, cast in angular shadows and a colorless black and white miasma. When we crossed the border into Portugal, the houses were suddenly pink, yellow and turquoise, the people were laughing, outgoing and friendly, and there were no jack booted thugs with knee high patent leather boots, glossy three corner hats and omnipresent Uzi sub machine guns on every corner. It was like entering the emerald city of Oz after a season in Hell. 

When we returned to Madrid later in the week, we discovered that some of our fellow students had been sitting in a train, waiting to leave the station to travel to southern Spain, when another train had smashed into it, injuring several of our friends. One of them had a badly mangled leg, which after months of poor medical care, had to be amputated.

Atocha Station • Madrid

On another Spanish train, pulled by a coal fired steam locomotive, we pulled off onto a siding and sat motionless without explanation for several hours. We were sharing a 6 seat compartment with a fat, red faced Englishman who became extremely agitated and started yelling racist obscenities at the conductors, porters and Spanish passengers. I finally could not take it any longer and screamed at him to “Shut the Fuck Up!” which thankfully he finally did. Soon after that the train started to move again, filling the open windows with coal smoke and flying cinders from the smokestacks.

We ended up stranded in a railway station in the town of Medina del Campo (Middle of the Field). There were a number of very drunk Spaniards on the platform, who were fascinated with our friend Marcia, who had long blonde hair. They apparently had never seen a blonde before, and tried to run their fingers through her hair, shouting “Rubio! Rubio! Rubio.” When we finally got on a train we were seated in a compartment with several drunken 18 year old soldiers on leave, brandishing their pistols and rifles. They were very happy to be going home and told us “Now no more Trucky-Trucky” (making masturbatory motions with their fists and arms) “Now only Fucky! Fucky!” 

Medina del Campo train station

I was very happy when they got off of the train a couple of hours later without discharging any of their firearms or getting entangled in Marcia’s hair.

My favorite train ride was on the Marrakech Express between Casablanca and Marrakech, Morocco. The train line had been made world famous by a Graham Nash song of the same name in 1969. We were traveling in December, 1971, and the surrounding countryside was coastal plain and rolling hills covered with emerald green new grasses. We often stopped in the middle of nowhere without train stations, and people would get on and off the train, wandering off onto dirt paths toward their villages. As we pulled into the Marrakech area, we could see the magnificent 14,000 foot tall snow capped Atlas Mountains rising up from the edge of the valley floor, towering over the palm groves, the log slung mud buildings and tall mosque minarets.

Snake Charmer • Jean Leon Gerome

Marrakech and Atlas mountians

We checked into the Hotel Camel, on the edge of the Souk marketplace, home of snake charmers and soothsayers who would divine your future for some small change. It was soon my first Christmas in a land where I was believed to be an infidel.

Sit as close to the front of the theater as you can and you will see the movie before everybody else does.

Stanford Theater • Photo by MMB

Redwood City Fox Theater • Photo by MMB

This rumination on being an artistic explorer experiencing things freshly at the speed of light before anyone else could was suggested to me by a friend as we entered a darkened movie heater. At the same time I was wondering if it was ethical to shout ”Theater” in a crowded fire.

His theory was that if we sat close to the front, the refracted light off of the screen would enter our eyes a fraction of a second before it bounced to the rear of the theater where everyone else would see it, and we would more freshly grasp the meaning and the actions of the scenes and actors before anyone else in the theater, could, giving us a cognitive and aesthetic boost over the rest of the crowd.  

The silence before the spectacle