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Nothing Lasts Forever

Shortly before Christmas, the Casablanca Restaurant in Harvard Square closed down, after being in business since 1955. I hadn’t been there in years but my first real job in Boston was as a graphic designer for a repertory film promotion company called Pollack and Thornhill. Thornhill was a character from North by Northwest. Pollack was JD, my colorful neurotic boss who taught me how to drink at lunch then go back to work in the afternoon. He chain-smoked in the office and I still have one of his old ugly ashtrays. He pretty much lived at the Casablanca bar until they shut him down for not paying his tab.

JD ran the Brattle Theatre, a quirky space near to the hearts of cinephiles since it turned Casablanca into a cult film in the 1950s. They were one of the many movie houses we promoted. Other theaters included The Orson Welles, The Nickelodeon and the Somerville Theater. The pay wasn’t great, but I had all the movies I could eat and I worked in Harvard Square as a designer, not bad for a 22 year old. This was the pre-digital era of graphic design. My tools were a sharp Xacto knife, an IBM Selectric and a Stat camera. I mostly created display ads for the local newspapers; The Boston Globe, The Herald, and of course, the Boston Phoenix, the indie paper.

Pollack and Thornhill, in debt and hounded by creditors, laid everyone off right before Christmas, 1983. I faced 1984 unemployed and uninsured, which seemed starkly Orwellian at the time. I began freelancing and found steady work at Fidelity Investments. Perhaps the repertory film business was in trouble but business was booming in the stock market.  I also put in time at the Boston Phoenix, working a night shift creating display ads. Meanwhile, re-born as Brattle Hall Associates, programming at the art house continued and I continued designing  for them and for the Janus Cinema, another small screen in Harvard Square they bought and renovated. Eventually, debt reared its ugly head again and the Brattle changed hands. This time, the employees took over and stopped trying to run a scrappy film rep company on caviar dreams and second-hand smoke.

Brattle Theatre 100th Anniversary BookletRunning Arts, created by Connie White and Marianne Lampke was founded in 1986. They steered the theatre through its financial maelstroms, its 100th anniversary, and restored its place as a great rep house. They also programmed indie performances, such as a Spaulding Grey residency. I continued to be their designer. When I eventually moved on to CVG and other publishing companies, I still created the Brattle flyer every two months. When I started Working Media, we brought them in as a client. Sometime around 1998 or so, ready to exchange graphic design for grad school, I handed off my designs and image archives to Ned Hinkle, who was working for Running Arts and eventually took over the Brattle in 2001. He, with Ivy Moynahan, still runs it today as a non-profit organization, the Brattle Film Foundation. (They recently raised money to install a digital projector.)

I was thinking about the Casablanca, and the Brattle Theatre, because the Boston Phoenix stopped publishing abruptly, two weeks ago. While its easy to be cynical about what a rag the Phoenix had become, it still was an important independent voice and it will be missed. For me, the Phoenix and the Brattle are intrinsically intertwined. They consumed part of me when I was young but thought I was old. I was a small part of their big thing.  And, it occurred to me that I haven’t been to the Brattle in too long. I have my excuses. Like many people, I watch most of my movies at home. However, I better get my butt into one of their seats soon – because it’s great to see a film on a real screen with other people, the programming is as imaginative as ever, the concession stand still puts real butter on your popcorn, the balcony’s open, and nothing lasts forever.

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Pictures of Lily

Lilith, my dear old kitty, passed away late Friday night at home, in my arms. She was not quite 17. Since then, the old Who song has been playing in one of those brain loops that digs in deep until, you either listen to the song from beginning to end, or respond to the song lyric trigger.

Lil was a cross-eyed rag-doll cat with a kinked tail. We adopted her from the Animal Rescue League of Boston on a hot August day back in 1997. She was about a year old, sickly and malnourished. In other words, she was perfect. We named her Lilith because she was so tiny and pale. Our Lilywhite Lilith.

She thrived with us. She loved our older cat, Neville (who passed away in 2004 at the age of 21) even if the feeling was unrequited, she loved her sun-porch and her staircase – which she would roll down with abandon, or throw her self in front of you as you tried to descend. I scolded her frequently that she’d kill me one day doing that. When she was younger, she’d drag pillows and clothes from room to room, even when they were bigger than she was. She was funny and frisky, a girly-girl cat who worked her way into our hearts. I called her all sorts of silly names and, in true cat form, she ignored most of them.

We’d been treating Lily for bladder stones since last summer but she wasn’t really improving. She hated the prescription food. Never very big even in her prime, she began to lose weight. She began having accidents. It was becoming pretty obvious that there was something very wrong with her. In mid November we got the diagnosis of an untreatable mass in her bladder. She was dying of cancer. Her vet suggested we try Piroxicam, an NSAID that has shown some promise shrinking tumors in cats and dogs, and that also provided an analgesic. With that and a few other drugs to help keep her digestion functioning as well as possible we shifted to kitty hospice mode and hoped she’d make it to Christmas.

While she wasn’t getting better she was, at least for a while, feeling better. Winter settled in, she’d curl up by the fire or sit in my lap as often as I’d let her. Her appetite picked up. She started trying to jump on the counters and eat our food, things she’d never bothered with before. She’d sit by the back door and try and get out (she was always content to be an inside cat).  She developed a taste for whipped cream and cat treats. In other words, she seemed to have a bucket list and we indulged her as much as possible. Christmas, New Years, Obama’s  Inauguration, the Blizzard of 2013, Valentine’s Day; she stayed with us through all of those. I let her sit on the porch and feel the snow.

She shifted from comeback kitty to fading away pretty quickly. On Friday, she could barely walk and wouldn’t eat. I steeled myself and made the call to the vet to bring her in the next morning to be euthanized. (As if Mercury in retrograde was messing with us personally, our car wouldn’t start.) That night we sat in the living room listening to music while she slept in my lap or by the fire. Just before midnight she awoke and cried and we comforted her as she gasped and slipped away from us. Our hearts broke. 16-plus years old is a long life for a cat (about 86 in human years). We think we did what she wanted. I know we did what we could.

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Running Up That Hill

I’ve been walking through the Tufts campus near my home – for the exercise but also because the pay off is so worth it. Tufts is built in a hilly area that straddles Medford and Somerville. Once at the summit, you can walk out onto the roof of the library and be greeted with an expansive view of the Boston and Cambridge skylines, some of the biggest sky to be found in the area.

Normally, the winters in Massachusetts are quite cold and snowy but this year, despite an early snowfall at Halloween and a few isolated show showers, winter never really arrived. Tufts Hill is also the prime sledding hill for the neighborhood. Bales of protective hay carefully placed in front of each large tree by the ever-busy Tufts maintenance crews just served as a reminder of how unusual this winter was.

The The Tisch Library rooftop garden and open lecture space is called Alex’s Place, named for a student who committed suicide in 2003. It is not an accident that the views from there are soul renewing and awe inspiring. The plantings and structures are simple and manage, at least in my opinion, to deftly tie this special place to the original brutal architecture of the library in an understated but perfectly conceived way.

Most of these images were just taken with my phone. I did bring along my new Nikon a few times. As this mild winter turns to spring, I will continue to trek up that hill and capture the changes. Maybe next year I’ll get to sled down.