Dating Peggy Noonan … and various other rites of passage

©2005, Roger Deitz

Introduction (to the upcoming book; more to come…)

The title is a grabber isn’t it? You’ve got a beautiful influential woman readers might like to know more intimately, and the hint that this writer guy might spill the beans about said fair-haired icon all over his checkered tablecloth of contents. How delightfully enticing. And how ironic is the concept of exposing a professional exposer such as the preachy Ms. Noonan? Some love her and others detest her, but most don’t know spilled beans about this charter member of the Bedtime for Bonzo brigade.

Peg and I dated for a few months back in 1973. It was a good experience and I carry with me memories that are bittersweet, the emphasis on the sweet. With apologies to the reader and the subject, I mean her no trash. Perhaps spilled beans are by definition trash, but it’s all in the spilling, or rather in the sauce surrounding the old bean. Even the venerable Wall Street Journal finds its way into the garbage soon enough along with the precious columns therein. That’s life.

I have read and heard recollections and gossip from acquaintances with axes to grind including sordid stuff about my title subject’s family secrets, private life and peccadilloes, innuendo that seethes and snarls with saucy details and trashy tidbits. So much mean spirited rot that I could not fathom a motive for the telling, nor attribute anything but venom from the tattlers. I don’t care about that stuff. I am trying to tell a simple story or two, recount only my recollections and observations objectively without dredging (or is that Drudging?) up dirt. Well, perhaps there will be a smudge or two. I make few value judgments except to value having known Peggy Noonan, a lovely and singular woman. I must say however, I find some of her present day columns are gems while others seem quite rightly at home next to discarded baked bean tins, week-old kitty litter and yesterday’s forgotten newspapers. Since I am today a columnist for Sing Out!, a magazine founded by Pete Seeger, Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson, I admit to a different viewpoint, and probably puts me in her eyes slightly left of Stalin. Liberals take heart, I am told The Wall Street Journal and the text therein is recyclable. That being said, I must also face that fact that whereas Noonan may be a chapter in my book, I am hardly a footnote in any of hers. Oh well, we’ll always have Paris, or more precisely, the once vibrant Rutherford, New Jersey campus of Fairleigh Dickinson University.

First there is text, then there is context. The truth is that every day that goes by, every experience, each missed opportunity and everything forgotten could be characterized as trash, yet every memory is to some extent a treasure. Tennyson wrote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” We all know that one – academically.

I would add with Lord Alfred’s posthumous permission that this holds true so long as one does not have to watch the lost love pop up regularly on television or in print. Tennyson didn’t have to sit in front of the cathode ray tube and watch his old flame flicker. Therefore I would amend, “’Tis worse to have loved and lost a political pundit whose celebrity is omnipresent, and occasionally omni-precious.”

Loving and losing go hand in hand. This is a book about trash and treasures recycled from the dustbin of experience, beloved and otherwise lost save for eternal memory. It’s about Peggy and a host of other folks…it’s about memory, the faculty of higher learning that keeps treasures from turning into trash. There was much to treasure. Since you have read this far without putting the book down, here is some of that context promised you. I’ll start close to home.

Just prior to the end of every month at my sprawling West Mill garden apartment complex where I reside there occurs around and about the trash bins a most curious example of human behavior – a scavenger hunt of frenzied but brief duration. Nearly six hundred families dwell at West Mill at any given time. With many dozens of large green dumpsters conveniently placed throughout the complex, one is more likely to catch a glimpse of the private lives of neighborhood strangers not by virtue of an invite for tea and conversation, but by checking out the “wealth” of items eventually discarded at the dumpsters.

Most pieces are of dubious value from both the materialistic as well as the sentimental realm. Still, tons of the stuff is disposed of monthly and there are plenty of hustlers who make it their business or their passion to reclaim this junk. Some scavenging could be termed archeological. Some is sociological. Some might be commercial. I guess one could view what transpires at picking time as ravenously psychopathological.

Items appear then disappear as greed meets need at the bottom of the food chain of Capitalism. These regular scavenger hunts are all the result of the ebb and flow of transient apartment-dweller life, each relatively ephemeral sojourn measured not only in the number of years that pass ever so quickly, but by the leavings at trash bins by the escapees. The recycling process is evidence of what now matters to some and what no longer matters to others. After all, life and its trappings are ephemeral.

Although every now and again some very expensive items get thrown out by mistake, I have yet to discover a single Faberge egg once owned by a Czarina or documents from the founding of the Republic. Neither are there artifacts of civilizations past, these are just ordinary possessions once prized then cast out only to be claimed and used again.

Certain transients become notable for their garbage. The lady that left the marble based Tiffany torch lamp, the doctor who moved away and chucked that mahogany computer desk and working PC, the man who threw out a vintage Macintosh stereo receiver. All stars in the annals of great apartment trash lore.

Sure, many apartment dwellers stay put for a while, but the larger number of them are invariably heading somewhere as new tenants take their places. Occasionally, I say hello to a “familiar stranger” in passing. But mostly, these people remain more stranger than familiar, identified as the “the old lady” or “the doctor” or “the Indian couple.” No matter how long the stay…they are eventually on the move. We all are.

In the final analysis at the dumpsters one may take a discerning look at people’s private lives. The first clues…who reads USA Today, Soap Opera Digest, The Daily News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, JAMA or TV Guide. These are people from all walks of life, all backgrounds, diverse and interesting people. For here is openly deposited the bulk refuge of these mysterious transients. Families, resident physicians (there is a hospital across the street), young couples that have finally saved enough money to place a deposit on a house and blow this joint. Or people you have viewed from afar for decades “suddenly” growing old, moving to a nursing home – passing away or being loaded into an ambulance by emergency medical technicians and speeding away.

Throwing away and passing away. Living for today and speeding away. Having our stay then traveling far, far away. It all goes hand in hand. Here is the recombinant DNA of material life, not just newsprint, but objects that were once fresh and new purchased from the shelves of Macy’s; Sears; or Bed, Bath & Beyond. These once necessary materials of day to day existence are now stacked, strewn, abandoned and…for the garbage junkies, ripe for the picking.

Most comings and goings would pass unnoticed in the rhythmic exchange of life…except for the noisy moving vans, and the extra-curricular activity surrounding the dumpsters by this group of avid scavengers that show up in vans and pickup trucks, vintage sedans or pushcarts. One old geezer makes his rounds in an oversized tricycle pulling a little red wagon. The ritual is as predictable as the waxing and waning of the moon, the rise and fall of celebrity, or the arrival and discard of bales of the aforementioned morning newspapers and magazines.

As each month draws to a close, nifty things appear. Old things, big things, curious things, electronic things, shiny things, furniture of all kinds, everything from toys to Toyotas, picture frames – some with pictures some without. Family collages or boxes of pictures ripped in half…the spouse that got away? All discarded by those who once possessed “things” only to move on and out. What was part of someone’s personal life is now abandoned and revealed. What is left behind for the scavengers are material things that maybe weren’t worth moving or, perhaps items not appreciated by the members of a bereaved family, relatives hungry for rings and bracelets, unschooled in the evaluation of late nineteenth century furniture or Venisian art glass.

Occasionally, the contents of entire apartments are cleaned-out by superintendents because the rent was unpaid and the units go on the market for re-rental. That’s known as super jackpot day.

Like a ragtag flock of junk-devouring vultures, in the predawn hours of those last few days of the month, we have the advent of the dumpster-divers. This ardent band of keen-eyed ‘recycle-nicks” strikes quickly, racing the competition to the grander prizes. This is after all a competition yet to be exploited as a television reality show, and by the way, I have dibs on the script treatment. Brakes screech, doors open and slam, sometimes a team of three or four scrap-seekers bolt out of a truck as the sounds of clatter, rattling and almost audible conversations can be heard.

English? Spanish? Russian? No, the demons that scrounge in the predawn hours speak in some rare alien language known only to this group of cannibalistic bottom feeders. The tongue is indecipherable, but it is excited and furtive. There is a flurry of activity among the bands of prospectors that cruise the dozens of picking places as they haul off used stereos, vacuum cleaners, table lamps, cedar chests, computer printers and vintage television sets; loading up their vans with tattered arm chairs and Formica dining room tables. I have witnessed scuffles over this or that seemingly useless item, or all out fistfights for some really expensive piece of vintage furniture.

It’s Antiques Road Show without the Keno twins. It’s a World Wrestling Federation grunge match. It’s a battle for used microwave ovens and non-working window air conditioners. It’s Darwin and Marx (Groucho and Karl) and a dash of Freud enthusiastically sifting through the receptacles of the repressed subconscious mind. It’s everything I have seen in other aspects of life, portrayed on this smaller, aromatic stage. Forgotten treasures lay still at the side of the road. You need only recognize and claim them for your own, then continue on your way.

Just as quickly, the sated parasites disappear into the junk-gorged horizon, smoke billowing from their vehicular tailpipes. The bones of material life picked clean by stuff-seekers slinking away more satisfied than the folks on that Public Television show who learn that their Chippendale side table would have fetched a hundred grand not twenty had uncle Bill not refinished it with cherry-wood Minwax. Where it all ends up, the tons of junk, one can only guess.

I imagine someplace mystically akin to where we all eventually go: call it trash heaven, relic reincarnation, or as bric-a-brac next to an urn on a fireplace mantel containing Aunt Harriet’s ashes. Will you remember that toaster oven that burned the baked potatoes or the old television set that made Johnny Carson appear slightly green and out of focus? Just as you might remember the time Uncle Max treated you to a trip to Coney Island and your cousin Michael upchucked a load of Nathan’s finest all over the front seat of your bumper car?

When I told my editor at Sing Out! magazine I was writing a book about some of my experiences, Mark Moss who has edited my columns for years jabbed, “Oh it’s going to be about you and a bunch of famous people.” I hadn’t thought this was going to be all that self-serving an autobiography, I really wasn’t thinking “me” on or from a pedestal – usually I am peeking out from behind one. When one is a writer or performer, one does get into the habit of thinking self-promotion. Otherwise, one fades from the scene. But, I do try to restrain myself…for the most part. On the bus with Willie Nelson, I kept my camera in my pocket. Gosh I want those photos never taken, but as Willie shared his thoughts and bourbon with me, I didn’t want him to remember me as another pawing glitter grabber. I wanted our conversation to be what he remembered…if that was worth remembering to him.

I will confess here that through luck and longevity I have written about and performed with just about every notable I wanted to note and quote. All along these past three decades I strongly resisted the urge to produce a camera from my pocket and ask someone to snap a picture of me standing next to the famous person. I must say, it would be nice to have some of those pictures today, but that seemed so unseemly, and I wanted the folks I performed with and wrote about to feel I was more a peer than a fan with an autograph book. I didn’t want them to place me in the psycho-dork category. I wanted them to think I was cool. Hip. Damn, I wish I had a picture of me on the bus with Willie Nelson, but I didn’t want Mr. Nelson to think I was just another glomming rube. I do after all maintain some air of dignity, and yet still I have a fair number of souvenirs. There are often cameras about, and the photos get taken. The memories are there.

On reflection, I am opting for literary snapshots, a collection of short stories and essays in no particular order, without any particular ulterior motive at least not one I can consciously divulge. I am writing in the first person, because I live in the first person. I think in the first person, and I am the first person I see in the bathroom mirror in the morning. Besides, I don’t know how to write in the last person.

A heap of notable people and situations were encountered at my metaphoric dustbin as I swept through life. I am sifting treasures from the trash. The stories are autobiographical to the extent of observing with my eyes and typing with my fingers. I’ll take a hit here and there. Most autobiographies fail to accept blame and contain tons of self-serving trash anyway, or don’t describe the trash we are really interested in. This one will be fair.

Does that make my offering any less tantalizing? Are the treasures, acquisitions and discards of my life less interesting than the vacuum cleaners, table lamps and secrets left behind at the dumpsters of The Rich and Famous? A few names may be changed or details withheld. Draw your own conclusions. Read what you will. The truth is, I have read volumes of biographies and autobiographies. The great bulk of these tomes reek the aroma of the heavily edited promo package laced with self-indulgent swill.

For example what my old friend Peggy Noonan “saw at the revolution” was tattle and ultimately a best selling press kit spiced up with behind the scenes sneak peeks and the pickings of the bones of those she claimed to admire. It was a public service by today’s supermarket checkout standard set in the fashion of the tabloids, a higher grade of dirt generously dished out from the White House dumpster all for a hefty cash advance. Let’s call it litter-ature. Peggy comes out sharp and pert and thoughtful. The President came off a tad of a right-thinking bumble, his wife and daughter somewhat from the dark side of Hades. The revolution appears, well, just a little revolting. But as I have noted, Peggy comes out sharp and pert and thoughtful. You write your own book, you get to dress yourself in your own words and others in their brown shoes. Otherwise, I couldn’t put it down.

I have received a tad less of an up front advance and am a different kind of insider. I am an outside insider. There will be nothing in this book about first seeing Peggy Noonan or Ronald Reagan as a foot as Peggy wrote a “highly polished brown cordovan wagging merrily on a hassock” spied through the door. Peggy added, “It was a beautiful foot, sleek.” She noted it had “Such casual elegance and clean lines!” (Yes…”clean lines” with an exclamation point!). “But not a big foot, not formidable, maybe a little frail.” Peg went on to write that she imagined cradling it in her arms, “protecting it from unsmooth roads.” Talk about your ill-literary foot fetishes. I can’t write like that. Dump me by the Nike corporate dustbin with my typewriter in my shorts if I ever do.

As Robert W. Service prefaced The Spell of the Yukon and other Verses “I have no doubt at all the Devil grins, As seas of ink I spatter. Ye gods, forgive my ‘literary’ sins – The other kind don’t matter.” Words to live by. I know these words and dozens of grand Service works because the gang that I used to drink with, the group including Peggy was comprised of talented colleagues remarkably adept at the recitation of Service poetry. We became more adept as the waitress blurred, the speeches slurred and the bar tab surged with rounds repeatedly served.

I will write no tales of hiding in the hallway to elude Nancy and Moreen. But then I didn’t view a revolution nor will I ever pen the memorable lines that help define one, (nor read my lips, write the words that hasten the defeat of an incumbent president who promised a less taxing term with the line, “Read My Lips, No New Taxes.”).

I might add I am tired of glib pundits from both sides of the political spectrum, news programs fueled by partisan bickering, highly paid egotists devoid of objectivity, elections with survey-savvy politicians, nary a statesman on the horizon as the mud is slung and the slogans are hung. There must be someone out there that can report or appraise objectively. Now a statesman or stateswoman…that would be revolutionary!

Peggy Noonan and I probably could have plotted a revolution. Night after night we drank Rolling Rock and Schlitz while we talked about things that seemed exiting and challenging, sparring, taking a break between rounds to make frequent trips to the restroom, returning to continue our discussions late into the night. That was real to me. The White House is a place I visited on a high school field trip with the school Safety Patrol. Peggy on television seems surreal to me. As far as revolutions go, I merely revolve around on this planet with the same charming and curious revolutionaries, as do you. I’m dumpster-diving it’s true, but I’m sifting and remembering fondly. Call is trash or treasure it all depends on one’s point of view. I am trying to recall it with objectivity and fairness.

It is a wonderful mechanism of self-preservation that with the passage of time, even the most difficult situations seem to mellow and turn upbeat and nostalgic. Lost love seems less melancholy, life’s little disasters become something to smile about. The first car you owned and junked for twenty bucks back in college now shows up at the Barrett-Jackson auction for $38,000. The glass of beer is half full as it is also half empty. “It was ever thus” goes my favorite Noonanism.

I dated Peggy Noonan, hung out on the tour bus with Willie Nelson, and performed with just about all of my folk music idols from Pete Seeger to Richie Havens, John Hartford and The Kingston Trio. I took acting lessons from Michael Moriarty. I’ve shared a corned beef sandwich with Will and Ariel Durant and talked songwriting with the likes of Sammy Cahn. Jean Shepherd sat me down and imparted fatherly advice on becoming a writer. I dated twin sisters with less than stellar results. I lost a Boy Scout when I was a scoutmaster. I attended medical school (briefly), having eyesight and motivation problems. I’ve stood next to Bruce Springsteen, a man I look up to, only to look down at him to say, “Hello.” I mean, I really had to look down. This will be a short story. Yet, when he took the stage he grew in stature. That’s what the great ones do.

Loading up my memory van at the end of each month of my life, I have carried away a few treasures. I’ve made friends and pissed off a few people. That’s my charm.

I find that my recollections are not so different from that stream of apartment dwellers that slowly passes, or the pilferers who beg, borrow and steal from the collective past. This is a book about me that really isn’t about me at all. It’s about the other stuff. As John Lennon noted, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

Are confidences broken? First, I keep so much unwritten. Secondly, for example, even my dear Peggy tattled in her books and admitted in Forbes ASAP of November 30, 1998, that she likes to curl up at the end of the day with the National Enquirer and the Star. For the pictures, and the stories, and the diversion, she wrote. Curl up my pet. Grab a brew. This Bud’s for you. That being said may I recommend the piece just mentioned she wrote as some of her more humane, profound and exquisite prose. And in a way, her touching and moving take on Prufrockian life is right on the mark. Sometimes the woman that left me long ago, the woman right as rain, gets it ever so right. (No pundit intended).

There’s more. There’s always more. Since I first read “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” I could never lose the imagery of the T. S. Eliot line about measuring out our lives in coffee spoons, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” Pound for Pound, how should I indeed presume? How should I edit my prose, my life?

Years ago, when I was in my early twenties and keeping company with Peggy, my mother, one Sophie K. Deitz was the age I now find myself. She said with some melancholy, “Enjoy this life…it goes by quickly.”

I listened but paid little attention to the advice she was trying to pass along to me. My mother said those words again when I was in my thirties as she and I continued to age. I might have nodded a little, thought a minute or two about coffee spoons and the grounds I left piling up behind, but I certainly did not feel my mortality.

The third time my mother sighed and uttered her mournful caution, time was running out for her. She had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. She was 86 years old. She was asking if I could keep her in her lovely townhouse in Florida, out of a nursing home and away from the institutions of old age and death she feared all her life…away from that vague urine and medicinal smell of the for-profit tombs for the barely living. I said I would do whatever was required, and finally realized…god, look at her, look at me…she was right, Eliot was right…it does go by quickly.

Then, a few years later, it was over – for now, for Sophie or Sonnie as known to her friends. It did go by in a flash. Where does the time go? What the hell was I doing? What wisdom from a woman who had never read Eliot, never finished high school; orphaned at one, raised by an uncle and aunt to be pulled from school at the age of fourteen to work in their Brooklyn produce stand. I, college educated with an advanced degree, just another dumb coffee-mocker. (By the way, if I may digress, the number one dumpster-discard is the coffeemaker).

For four years, mother-wise, on an almost daily basis there were crises. They took the form of airplane trips. HMOs, doctors, home care nurses, health assessments, paperwork, care givers, groceries to buy, bills to pay, insurance companies, state inspections, health care surrogate forms, power of attorney forms, wills, trusts, brokers, interstate banking dilemmas, life-quality issues, memorial homes and salvos from friends and family.

What a load of crud this was to cap off her otherwise full and joyful life. There were moments of self-doubt. Hell, I can’t even take care of myself, and now I’m doing countless administrative things to keep my mother alive and happy…I’m making difficult quality of life decisions, but I’m cowering every time the phone rings. Words of wisdom? Just one word…Xanax, lots of Xanax. I am a glass-half-full person. No longer beer, I’ve moved on to cognac and bourbon. I’ve managed, but I was seeing this half-full glass now as half empty. And there have been times in my life I was emptying many half-full glasses of spirits at a prodigious rate. Now I was beginning to hear the clock tick, the coffeepot gurgle, and realize that in the grand scheme of things, we all soon enough follow.

There are no good ways to die and no good night’s sleep for those who have to comfort the dying, not for those who care for and dream about loved ones in need. Not when the object lesson is reality, rather than lines in a poem.

When it was mercifully all done and I had kept my word to my mother, I held in one hand a death certificate and in the other hand a scant obituary clipped from a newspaper. A couple of column inches…a postage stamp sized bio with a few lines of life on it. That’s all? A whole life comes and goes for eighty-nine years and that’s the payoff? I really was stunned.

So, I have a few stories to tell. If I delay, no one else will tell them, or read them when some poor soul holds my postage stamp sized obit or when strangers are sifting through my stuff at the neighborhood dumpster.

My autobiography? That’s on the book jacket. This book is about something else. It’s part confession and part obsession with a dash of introspection. Take for example my mentioning Peggy Noonan. Am I a name-dropper? I know people are interested in reading about Peggy. I still am. My mother was interested – in a way. Mom seethed when the Conservative talking heads were on television, and turned up the steam when she saw Peggy on the tube.

Sophie K. Deitz, ever the Liberal news-junkie, would in her later years watch the pundits on television every night, and occasionally encounter that once fetching but now vexing Conservative pundit named Peggy Noonan. Mother would instantly call me to vent about some irritating thing “That Peggy” had uttered. Like it was my fault. I dated Peggy back in 1973, and although my Jewish mother never complained about any other pretty girl I brought home, Catholic or otherwise, something about this gorgeous companion didn’t sit right with secular Mom. Back then until the end my mother never called her “Peggy,” it was always, “That Peggy.”

I think Peg found my folks a tad funny (well, maybe they were) and my mother sensed Peggy was smirking at her the day they met, something Margaret Noonan indeed was doing in fact. Peggy has a lovely smile, but it sits on a face that telegraphs her judgments all too easily. I saw judgment written on both female faces. One minute you are the smirker, the next the smirkee. I recall that same day at my house I opened an unlocked door to the bathroom only to find queen Noonan on the throne. Talk about images one can never repress. Next time I’ll knock or better yet, you lock. No matter what television panel she is sitting on today, well, I remember her sitting pretty, or make that sitting privy.

This book is about smiles and frowns, smirks, blushes and indoor plumbing. That lovely smiling Peggy and the beautiful smile my mother wore so enthusiastically. The joy I got from knowing and conversing with Peggy Noonan. It’s about judgments and non-judgments. It’s about performing and writing and living. It’s about sharing a bottle of Jack Daniels on the tour bus with Willie Nelson, playing four handed jazz piano with Michael Moriarty and playing banjo and exchanging ideas with Pete Seeger. It’s about other stuff as well. I’ve collected more than a book’s worth of stories that will never make it into my six-line obituary. It’s about the prescient warning I didn’t heed from my mother who never read T.S. Eliot. It’s a gift from her, a giant coffee spoon served up from mother through her reflective son to you, a reminder that life goes by quickly and life is to enjoy. I may not have realized that early enough. I hope you catch on quicker than did I.

There comes a time when treasured memories are all you have left. Hopefully that is the time you also have a snifter of cognac, an easy chair, superb music on the stereo, and a knowing smile on your face.

Sophie Deitz

TAMARAC Fla – A service was held for Mrs. Sophie “Sonnie” Deitz, 89, of Tamarac, formerly of New Jersey, who died July 10 at home.

Mrs. Deitz was a member of Hadassah in Clifton, N.J., and the Organization for Rehabilitation through Training in Tamarac.

Born in New York City, she lived in Clifton before moving to Tamarac 30 years ago.

Surviving are a daughter Sandra Goldsmith, sons Corey and Roger; five grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

(From the Newark Star-Ledger)