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Puttin' on the Ritz.



I was living on the third floor of a triplex in Slummerville, and working for Joe Bergantino and his I-Team at WBZ in Boston way back in the early ‘80s, and I used the Ritz-Carlton Oak Bar on the park as my de facto office. I lived all around the world after that, but every time I was back in Beantown I’d have my meetings in that coffered-ceiling museum. It was a gorgeous old-school place, and I’d always sit at one of the window tables and order midnight martinis (gin, of course, with a black olive instead of a green one). Boston Common was beautiful anytime of year, and the waiters and waitresses wore plaid waistcoats and bowties. Classy all the way.

I went back for the first time in almost thirty years recently, but had followed Waze to the wrong Ritz. Actually, it’s the new one–a monstrous grounded spaceship just a few blocks from the old one, but galaxies of glass and steel away. The Newbury Hotel is the old Ritz, and the Oak Bar is still the same as I remember it. There was a table of ladies of a certain age sitting next to me, and come to find out they’ve been drinking at the Oak Bar since they were young. In fact, one of them told me the story of how her mother and father met in the ‘20s at one of the Ritz’s summer rooftop dances, overlooking the swan boats swooning in the afternoon.

Which reminded me of a story I had heard about Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, two Boston University students who would meet at the Ritz after attending Robert Lowell’s writing seminar every Tuesday afternoon in the spring of 1959. Hysterical, flamboyant Sexton, and mousy conservative Plath after a creative writing class with Lowell? My gawd–what could they have possibly talked about? The crucial beauty of poetry, Lowell’s enormous and lewd descent into madness, or the gabby agony of their own failed suicide attempts? I’m not joking.

A month or so before I began my own overseas razor’s edge experience, I had a party at that apartment that devolved into hilarious hallucinations and idiotic self-destruction–I remember waking up the next morning and seeing my washer and dryer slumped like snoozing white rhinos in the driveway and vaguely remembered tossing them off the balcony the night before in a fit of fatuous imbecility. I was hoping they would comically explode and burst into theatrical flames, but was hugely disappointed when they just landed with a barely-audible thunk. It cost me $15 each to have them carted away by the City of Somerville, and I spent my last month in Massachusetts schlepping olive-drab duffle bags of dirty laundry to the Coin-o-mat on Powder House Square like a moolignan.

My girlfriend back in the day lived on Rue Cambon, and we used to go right next door to the Ritz Bar and drink Sidecars until all hours of the morning. They were the house cocktail, invented during WW I and I would assume named after the motorcycle attachment. I used to ride home on my Honda CG 125, and did I mention that there are no STOP signs in Paris? Nope, at all cross streets the right of way is to starboard. I’ve already written somewhere about the time I was t-boned by a Citroen DS when I entered a blind intersection to port, and let me tell you s’implanter is not a French verb you want to be aware of first-hand. Cobblestones are igneous, and you may think you’re hard-headed, but there’s no contest when faced with the granite implacability of physics, unexpectedly and reluctant.

I have other Ritz stories, like the night I inadvertently crashed a Hindu wedding in Bombay, after an afternoon watching the eagles picking some bleaching human bones clean on a Zoroastrian burial temple outside of the city in the frightening sun. Or, the heaven I spent feeling finally alive again, a hot-smoking chunk of conscience and fire after crossing the Nullabor, alone, on a motorcycle–a long, horizontal, and lovely larrup–at The Towers in Elizabeth Quay.

I’ll end this shortish monograph with the graceful insanity of Lowell’s worst:

To Speak of Woe That Is In Marriage


“It is the future generation that presses into being by means of these exuberant feelings and super-sensible soap bubbles of ours.” – Schopenhauer

The hot night makes us keep our bedroom windows open.

Our magnolia blossoms. Life begins to happen.

My hopped up husband drops his home disputes,

And hits the streets to cruise for prostitutes,

Free-lancing out along the razor’s edge.

This screwball might kill his wife, then take the pledge.

Oh the monotonous meanness of his lust…

It’s the injustice…He is so unjust–

Whiskey-blind, swaggering home at five.

My only thought is how to keep alive.

What makes him tick? Each night now I tie

Ten dollars and his car key to my thigh…

Gored by the climacteric of his want,

He stalls above me like an elephant.

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