Friday, March 06, 2015

Comedian, Playwright, George MacDonald takes a ride with Whitey Bulger

George MacDonald

 **** Well, when you work three jobs like I do, you meet a lot of interesting people. And because I am a local journalist, I get to interview a fair number of interesting people. Have if you will... one Mr. George MacDonald, a comedian, playwright, and for now--a night counselor at McLean Hospital, where I work. George and I were like two ships passing in the night. I was leaving the 3 to 11 shift and George was starting his usual graveyard. George looked like an interesting dude, and so we eventually got talking. George is originally from Southie, and was part of the comedy explosion here in Boston in the 80s and 90s. Since we are both a year or so on either side of 60-- we knew a lot of the people, places, and folks on the scene for the past decades. George is good friends with the comedian Jimmy Tingle, who I worked with when I ran The Somerville News Writers Festival. He had great anecdotes about many of the other great comedians, poseurs, players, what have you... in Boston and L.A.--his stomping grounds during his career.   Here is a brief bio for George:

Actor, comedian and writer, George J. MacDonald is pleased to be artistically involved with Somerville once again. Stage plays that Mr. MacDonald has written include, Waiting For Whitey,  At The Funny Factory,  In A Better Place and Whistling Past The Graveyard.  Screenplays include, Both Guns Blazing,  Still In The Picture and The Spider Sequence. Some of Mr. MacDonald’s film credits are,  Monument Ave. , Celtic Pride, Bluff and When Stand-up Stood Out.  His television credits include,  MAD-TV, The Michael Richards Show and A&E’s Comedy On The Road.  In 2005, George made his directorial debut with Why Work? , a sketch comedy show that appeared in The Edinburgh Fringe Festival.  Mr. MacDonald is a member of SAF-AFTRA, Actors Equity Association and The Dramatists Guild of America. 

George, a former Somerville resident, was kind enough to share an essay about his experience with the notorious Whitey Bulger. George wrote a play Waiting for Whitey that was staged in Boston, and got a great review in The Boston Herald and elsewhere.

Hitching a Ride with the FBI’s Most Wanted 

by George J. MacDonald

As soon as I got in the car, I knew I’d made a mistake. From the curb and through the windshield, the driver resembled a guy who attended U. Mass Boston’s Harbor Campus, same as I did. But now, sitting next to him in the front seat, looking into those laser beams he had for eyes, I knew exactly who this individual was. James ‘Whitey’ Bulger. The Irish mob boss of my South Boston neighborhood, a man reputed to be a ruthless killer.

It was early March, 1977. Sunny. About three o’clock. The air was crisp. I had cut my last class of the day and felt very tired as I thumbed a ride along the boulevard on Carson Beach. My fatigue, combined with the joint I had just smoked, severely impaired my powers of observation. When the car pulled over to the curb, I was filled with a surge of gratitude. I jumped inside, delighted to have escaped the late winter chill. I was lit up like a Christmas tree and feeling more friendly than a golden retriever.

“Hey, big guy! How ya doing?”

Not a word. Just his icy stare boring holes into me.

“Sorry. Didn’t mean to be rude. You looked familiar. Thought you were a friend from school.”

His eyes softened a bit at the apology. Thank God my parents had raised me right.

“You probably do recognize me. But not from school.”

As the reefer haze in my brain cleared, the situation began to come into focus. Sitting beside a sociopathic murderer tends to have a sobering effect on most people. I finally recognized him and knew that this was not good.

“My name is Jimmy. Jimmy Bulger.”

“Oh yes, of course. I’ve seen you around the neighborhood.”

I introduced myself and we shook hands. He asked me where I was going so I told him. He pulled away from the curb and an awful lot of questions raced through my mind. Why does this hardcore gangster want me to know who he is? Is he looking for an alibi? Where’d he hide his gun? Is there a body in the trunk? This is a wiseguy of the heaviest caliber. Why is he picking up a hitchhiker, even if it is another person from Southie?

He talked a lot and I listened. Whenever you find yourself in the company of a stone cold killer, it’s always a good idea to yield the floor. He wagged on and drove the most circuitous route imaginable to my destination. He dropped me off exactly where I was going and I thanked him for the ride. He told me he’d see me around. I said sounds good to me, all the while hoping that such would not be the case. Only ten minutes had passed. I’ve never been so happy to get out of a car in my life.

Things have changed a lot for me since 1977. I haven’t smoked marijuana or hitchhiked for almost thirty years. I’m much too long in the tooth and those are a young man’s games. Things have changed a lot for Whitey, too. He‘s gone from being a local crime boss, to an FBI informer turned fugitive, to a lifetime guest of the federal government inside The Crowbar Motel.

I’ve often wondered about my ride with the FBI’s Most Wanted. What compelled him to pick me up? What motive could he have had for doing this? A notorious desperado and shooter like him, going out of his way to give a free ride to a total stranger and civilian like me? He had nothing to gain by giving me a lift. So then why did he do it? What was that all about? Guess I’ll never know.

I’m glad they did finally bring him to justice. He caused too much pain and suffering for a clean getaway. Whitey Bulger is now behind bars and in his eighties. He’s another old killer in an orange jumpsuit who must answer for his sins. Had he died while a fugitive, living under an alias, he might never have been found. His tainted legend could have drifted into the realm of the unexplained, right beside D.B. Cooper and Jimmy Hoffa, Area 51 and the Roswell crash. That place beyond the pale where things go bump in the night. Then my tale of the road might become merely one more ghost story ‘round the campfire, like an Elvis sighting, a Bigfoot encounter or a boat ride through the Bermuda Triangle.

Some people may find my story hard to believe. But it is true. And after sitting in his car and looking into those maniacal eyes, I can honestly tell you that Whitey Bulger was no Flying Dutchman.

*****George J. MacDonald is an actor, playwright and former resident of both South Boston and Somerville. He has also lived in New York and Los Angeles, but will always be a Bostonian at heart. He plans on maintaining his East Coast sensibility by never developing a taste for sushi or ‘taking’ meetings.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Asking My Liver For Forgiveness By Rob Cook


Asking My Liver For Forgiveness
By Rob Cook
Rain Mountain Press
New York City
ISBN: 978-0-9897051-7-2
70 Pages

Review by Dennis Daly

One part obsession, one part surreal, one part experimental, Rob Cook’s new collection of poems, Asking My Liver For Forgiveness, delivers a consummate parable of medical terror. According to the book’s Afterword Cook contracted an obscure liver disease back in 2010 which in turn triggered the ravages of cirrhosis. Until an official diagnosis surfaced in early 2014 the poet and his world spiraled into a maelstrom of unpredictable physical pain, emotional ennui, and psychological denial. Through it all he kept writing.

Cook’s poems themselves leak pus, blood, and sweat off the page and into a syringe-fired dreamscape of alternating hopelessness and healing. At the same time the patient’s offending liver becomes independent, animal-like, and even sentient. Poetic order imposes itself on the havoc and illogic in a calming, almost climatic, way.

Early in the collection the poet objectifies his body parts in an effort to understand the disease darkening his consciousness. In the poem entitled Your Body That Led This Far Cook asks some pertinent questions,

Is your sugar flu at least one moment’s
true loneliness? Is your liver a frightened
animal huddled near your tummy
that reads the notes inside the harsh breads
and chilis you send it? Does your heart
already know the direction of your grave?
How do you know which kidney
Can be trusted? Which arm?
Which leg? Which eye?

Courting sleep at the Marion Hotel in his poem entitled Blackness Over Motel Country, the poet concocts a nightmare conversation with the dreamed up visage of a hospital nurse who once tended him. The coordinates of terror reduce “the best possible sleep” to a blend of anxious confession and jaundiced lunacy. Cook explains,

“I got sick without once leaving my childhood,” I tell her.

“The pine needles will not hurt you from there,”
the woman says through her conduit of ash tray static.

It is not my own voice, the despair of the television
that doesn’t end. “I am always watching from

the livers that came before you,” she says
when the sleep creatures pass like a blur of doctors

and their searchlights of mist. Maybe she discusses
my elevated comet count with the man selling

the letters left in the vacancy sign …

War metaphors monopolize commiserations on diseases. Cook’s immune system turned on its own vital organ, the liver, considering it an alien force bent on mischief. Brigades of soldiers were sent to destroy the offending party. The poet employs this battlefield metaphor in order to comprehend his internal chaos. He uses his title poem, Asking My Liver For Forgiveness, to reconcile with his former ally. Cook explains,

… it’s taken
how many years  to remember you
slogging without faces
through my liver’s venereal swamps?

To walk with precision
through my liver that cannot be
comforted from the snake-hard cold,

its dark churches where monsters pray,

the ones I let in who will never stop
stalking us, my friend, my liver,
my friend.

I will always be sorry—for both of us—

The poem Cryptogenic Cirrhosis chronicles a very bad diagnosis. Cook’s persona spelunks his way through gothic caves of anxiety and medical unease. Facing the unknown of one’s mortality forces the artistic mind to focus and refocus its imaginative powers on the minutia of whatever is at hand, presumable scientific certitude (or not). The wording evokes a strange and soaring elegance. Cook opens his poem with dissolution,

not one doctor could diagnose
each day i wanted  
a different angel to die,
so they pillaged
all the terrors in my body,
which was a virus now,

though not yet pain.

“you have cryptogenic cirrhosis” –

meaning the hypothetical afterlife
will become, in the days of
the impending panic transplant,
more than just a child who nourishes a distant cancer.

Still, one can feel dollars
Of damnation denominations
Pasted to the kidneys’ Egyptian ceilings

End of days bring panic, religious fervor, and great expectations. Cook’s poem entitled 11:59 chronicles all three using a mixed combination of Christian and medical imagery. The result both impresses and scares the hell out of you. Here’s the heart of the piece,

It is time to track god, digging
with his enormous cross in the wrong
direction, toward the thousand basements
of the last crucifix company between
jerusalem and the day after.
It is time for everyone to stay silent.
It is time to hear where the trees and the water
have stopped praying for us.
It is time for a hospital
without the cruel voices that arrive
from the center of the evening pills.
It is time for a breakfast without scalpels,
a nurse without tourniquets that monitor the liver’s fear,
a doctor without the elimination of names.

Notice the repetition of the phrase “It is time.” Cook seems to work himself up to a crescendo of control and hope that greatly tones down the panic and pessimism created by earlier pieces.

Exceptional artistry originates from diverse experiences, many of them disconcerting and even degrading. One’s flesh follows its own genetic and environmental script in spite of our better, often antiseptic, angels. Wherever Cook may be on mortality’s time span, his poetic work inexorably advances before him with its surgical candor and its strange, unblinking imagery. If you harbor even a modicum of belief in the curative power of words, read this marvelous poet.

Monday, March 02, 2015

Complicity, by Adam Sol – A Review

Complicity, by Adam Sol – A Review
(McClellan &Stewart, 2014)

Adam Sol

Review by Denise Provost

I chose to read Complicity, the fourth book by Canadian poet Adam Sol, to see what writings might warrant the title of the collection. The title itself inspires a kind of furtive curiosity – in what might the poet consider whom to be complicit?

The answer would seem to be: pretty much everyone, in pretty much every human endeavor, from the civic to the intimate. The poem “Note Found in a Copy of a Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for instance, conflates two texts to induce queasiness about relationships between men and women:

        It’s the moment when Helena pursues
              Demetrius into the forest.
        Use me but as your spaniel, spurn me, strike me   
        Bryan, I love you and I don’t want you
            To feel like you raped me….

Sol displays an utter unsentimentality about human relationships. “Evening Song” presents a single mother, recounting, “Laundry panic/Phone bill panic/Anger panic/ Television/A new scar on my arm” and musing:

            Tuesday night.
            After my shift,
            I’ve got the whole            
bus ride home to
decide if I should live.

Sol’s poems about people have a current of tenderness running through. Take “Nearly Blank Calendar”,
In which the bed bath of a disabled man is described with a clinical accuracy verging on reverence. Both the patient himself (Her husband, needing a change,/accepts the spoon/of pudding she nudges/past his teeth./Butterscotch./His surprised eyes….) and his attendant wife (Pillcase.Tissue/Radio.Gave up hope. Breakfast./Two hours sleep) are portrayed with the kind of compassion displayed in early Renaissance or Flemish paintings depicting the sufferings of religious figures.

Sol has far less mercy towards our more depersonalizing institutions. In writing about the public realm, however, he doesn’t come off as cynical, just painfully perceptive. In “Engagement,” he comments on warfare:

        Their commanders have intentions and intelligence, but they are wrong.
        We’ve heard the story before. It’s wrong.
        The news will document it, but it will be wrong….

He takes on domestic surveillance in “Security Cameras” (“Sweethearts in school uniforms spoon froyo/into each other’s mouths on a bench across/from the Korean consulate./Death to the infidels.”), and skewers the whole domestic security apparatus in “Security Review”:

        We were concerned about an element
        and wanted to protect the delegates
        from injury or, worse, embarrassment….
        The outcome was that we preserved the peace.
        We whored our city, then fingered the receipts.

But Sol’s poems are not screeds. They are too full of nuance – and anguish – to be so dismissed. “Ivory Fugue” weaves images of elephant-headed Hindu deity Ganesh with clinical descriptions of the slaughter and de-tusking of elephants (courtesy of National Geographic Magazine, according to the acknowledgements at the back of the book. The lovely, but excruciating “Poem for Noah Pozner” – the youngest of the school children shot to death in Newtown, Connecticut – ends with words from Noah’s mother, taken from an account of an interview with her:
                I just
                want people to
                know the ugliness
                of it so we
                don’t talk about it
                abstractly, like
                these little
                angels just
                went to heaven. No
                They were

Fragments – and larger pieces – of found text are woven into many of the poems in Complicity. It’s clear that Sol is an omnivorous reader, but not just that. Above all, he possesses a voracious intelligence, which finds and creates connections from sphere to sphere.  His relentless efforts to make sense of the world employ information from many unexpected sources.

Sol’s poems are not always an easy read, but are also not without humor. “Dwarf” juxtaposes the changing status of Pluto – planet, or ex-planet – with the worthiness of art as human endeavor. “We Oppose the Teaching of Higher Order Thinking Skills” riffs on a plank from the 2012 platform of the Texas Republican Party.

We may have much to make amends for, much to repudiate. Have we not all be complicit in some folly or another, some failing? Skewering our complicities, Sol yet affirms them as part of our human condition. He may not let us off easy – but he understands; he’s complicit, too.