Of Masks and Invitations

Before e-mail, texting, and social distancing, there was one way to invite historical figures to dinner

photo by jonathan Blanc ©New York Public Library

Currently, Patience and Fortitude, the two marble lions guarding the steps to the front entrance of the New York Central Library wear face masks to encourage the public to continue wearing theirs for the duration of the Covid-19 pandemic. I have a warm spot in my heart for those lions, even before they became icons for early adoption of social distancing.

I’ve not read it (yet), but a high school English teacher of mine absolutely adored the book, “Van Loon’s Lives,” a biographical fantasy in which Dutch historian Hendrik Willem van Loon invited historical figures to dinner for conversations and debate. (The full title was “Van Loon’s Lives: Being a true and faithful account of a number of highly interesting meetings with certain historical personages, from Confucius and Plato to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, about whom we had always felt a great deal of curiosity and who came to us as dinner guests in a bygone year.”)

I’m mentioning “Van Loon’s Lives” now because those two glorious marble lions are indelibly connected to the book in my mind. When she first described the book to me, Mrs. Nedoff explained that Van Loon invited the historical figures to dinner by sliding invitations underneath Patience’s and Fortitude’s marble paws. This captured my imagination so much that I’ve checked for invitations both times I’ve visited NYC.

Alas, there were no invitations to be found.

Imagine my disappointment years later when I read that Van Loon’s actual method of invitation in the book is to leave a list of names under stone lions in front of the town hall in Veere where Van Loom had a summer home. It’s an even greater disappointment that the one I have for Steve Allen apparently never acknowledging Van Loon’s Lives as the inspiration for his PBS tv series, “The Meeting of the Minds.”

A stray thought occurs to me. This was a book from Mrs. Nedoff’s childhood. I wonder if this book was first read to her by an adult. Perhaps he or she changed the location of the lions from Veere town hall to the New York Central Library to enhance the glamor of libraries for her young mind. That’s just a guess and will remain one because Mrs. Nedoff passed away a few years ago.

Masked or unmasked, Van Loon literary canon or not, I’m still going to check Patience and Fortitude for invitations the next time I’m in New York. I might even leave an invitation or two myself.

photo by jonathan Blanc ©New York Public Library

The lion photos on this page were taken by NYPL staff photographer. You can see more of his other photos at his website by clicking here.



Dear admired friend,

I am a hobbit who recently traveled with a group of dwarf friends for the better part of a year. While my journey has been filled with many wonderous experiences (Meeting elves! Secret doors! Found jewelry!) and exciting adventures (Orcs! Barrel rides! Giant spiders!), lately I’ve been missing my cozy hobbit hole in The Shire. Sadly, thanks to the Coronavirus, I’m stuck at the Lonely Mountain until lockdown ends, so it’s going to be awhile before I can go BACK AGAIN.

I have some great news, though! It’s a long story (and I signed a NDA), but I’ve recently come into possession of a significant share of a dragon hoard (DON’T WORRY! I’M SAFE! THE DRAGON IS DEFINITELY DEAD!) I am now wealthy beyond my wildest imaginings! Sadly, this has created a BIG PROBLEM.

Thanks to to steeply progressive Dwarfish tax codes, I must move the funds from my dragon hoard to another principality before June 30th, or I will LOSE 90% of my newly gained fortune. The obvious solution would be to transfer the funds to a financial institution back home, but the banking system interface between Hobbiton and the Lonely Mountain is expensive, unreliable, and antiquated (Nothing’s been upgraded since the Second Age. Can you believe it?)

DON’T DESPAIR! ALL IS NOT LOST! A wizard pal of mine recently mentioned that the land where you dwell is legendary for its modern state-of-the-art financial systems and reasonably low wire transfer fees. Unfortunately, the paperwork for my opening a bank account in your land will take at least four weeks to process — long past my June 30th tax deadline.

Here’s where you can help. This same wizard pal (name begins with a “G”) also mentioned your name as an honest and reliable human who was not prejudiced against hobbits. Normally, I’m a cautious furry-footed fellow, but if G. vouches for you, you definitely can be trusted. So I have a proposal that would solve my tax problem and make you a VERY WEALTHY PERSON in return.

If you would allow me to transfer my dragon hoard funds to your banking account for the four weeks that it will take for my account to be set up, I will bestow upon you the gift of THE SUM OF TEN MILLION UNITED STATES DOLLARS for your assistance. (Classifying this as a gift means it’s TAX-FREE!) All you need to do is text, DM, or e-mail your bank account number and Middle Earth pathing number to me.

(And since we are partners, this also means we SPLIT THE PROFITS 50/50 when Peter Jackson makes a film trilogy about our financial adventure together. So start thinking about which Hollywood star will play you. I’m hoping for Tom Cruise, even though he’s shorter than I am.)

If you don’t want to become wealthy or Hollywood famous and choose to pass on this opportunity, I don’t judge. I was once timid like you.

However, if you want to pass on the deal, but my plight still touches your timid heart, please consider donating a small amount of $3, $5, $10 or even $20 to my agent’s PayPal account at paypal.me/MichaelDobkins. He’s securing funds to hire a convocation of giant eagles to physically transport giant sacks of dragon hoard to The Shire if this bank transfer proposal falls through.

Bilbo Baggins

Kumquat and Kumquatibility by Jane Austin

I may owe Jane Austin an apology.

“Foremost among the many superlative qualities of the kumquat is that its own deeply rooted modesty actually prevents this fine fruit from perceiving all the wondrous virtues that it possesses. The typical kumquat believes herself and her sister kumquats merely to be adequate, or, as some like to put it, kumqua-dequate,” opined Mr. Darcy as he accepted a second bowl of this amazing fruit from a servant.

All the dinner guests were impressed by Mr. Darcy’s knowledge of fruits, but Elizabeth pitied whatever poor woman ended up married to Mr. Darcy because he was an exceptionally silly man. She then cut a small bite-sized piece from her tomato, blissfully unaware that it was not actually a vegetable, but a fruit.

Alexandre Dumas Having Fun With His Characters

The difference between D’Artagnan and Porthos

D’Artagnan just chillin’

“What do you mean?” said D’Artagnan. “The day of rustic pleasures?”

“Yes, monsieur; we have so many pleasures to take in this delightful country, that we were encumbered by them; so much so, that we have been forced to regulate the distribution of them.”

“How easily do I recognize Porthos’s love of order in that! Now, that idea would never have occurred to me; but then I am not encumbered with pleasures.”

– Alexandre Dumas, The Vicomte de Bragelonne

Crass Marketing for the Twenties

Calling all barlows, bisquits, and blushing violets!

Wanna shock the gimlets, bun dusters, and the crepe hangers? Wanna thrill your highjohn while you Charleston, black bottom, and shimmy to the whangdoodle at the egg harbor?

You’ve bobbed your hair, raised your hemline, strapped a flask to your stilt, and now it’s time to squander a little of your dapper’s hush money on a flapper ring today!

Zelda says, “Flapper rings are the kitten’s ankles, and that’s no applesauce!”

Listen to this Zelda tomato, all you dumb Doras. She’s a prom-trotter who knows her onions!

Little Richard 1932 – 2020

It’s 1956, and my father is listening to The Johnny Otis Show in the dark.

When my father was a teenager growing up in Seal Beach, California, he would stay up late at night listening in the dark to The Johnny Otis Show being broadcast from KFOX, a Long Beach AM radio station. It’s hard at this late date to imagine what a subversive act it was for a white bread teenage square like Allan Dean Dobkins to be listening to that sort of devil music in that house with my strict and upright grandparents sleeping in the room next door. My pop kept the sound volume on his radio set at a barely perceptible level to avoid discovery and punishment.

I didn’t come into his life until a decade later when he started dating my mother. They married, set up house together, and co-mingled their belongings. A couple years later, Dean adopted me, making me a Dobkins and becoming officially my father.

It’s impossible to meet our parents before we are born, or, in my dad’s case, before he started dating my mother. Who they were remains a mystery that we can never fully crack, but young children are excellent observers like little mini-Jane Goodalls in the field, collecting clues, listening to stories, and noting details about these large looming giants that dominate our early lives so, our parents.

Somewhere in my explorations out in the field of the Dobkins co-mingled household, I came across an old 45 record of Little Richard. It was issued in 1956 with “Long Tall Sally” on side A and “Slippin’ and Slidin'” on the B side. I was just beginning to listen to pop music on my own initiative and this 45 record, no longer of use to its original owner in the age of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, and Woodstock, became part of my growing collection of LPs and 45s. I inherited a lot of culture this stealthy fashion when I was just starting out.

It wasn’t until decades later when I mentioned in passing that I had been listening to Johnny Otis on KPFK, a left-wing and left of the dial FM station in the Los Angeles area, that I found out my dad’s naughty little secret about listening to forbidden music played low in the dark when he was a stealth teenage rebel in the fifties. I didn’t immediately make the connection, but at some point, I realized that the Little Richard 45 I now owned was a direct physical artifact from that era in my dad’s life.

So I’m not really writing about Little Richard in this piece. Other people, better versed in his autobiography and his musical significance will be doing that. What I am trying to set up and share is a scenario that I’ve conjured in my mind from the strands of youthful field research into my now deceased dad’s life. I can’t swear that it happened exactly this way, but it’s possible. Maybe even likely.

It’s 1956. My father’s sixteenth birthday is less than three months away. A cool night sea breeze laps at the lingering heat from summer day, and there’s a slight salty tang in the air from the waves breaking on the shore of the beach two blocks away. The only light in my dad’s bedroom is the faint glow of the radio’s tuner.

From a tinny little mono speaker, Little Richard’s voice swoops and dives and delivers all you will ever need to know about a gal named Sally while a sax wails and the drum and piano pound a joyous rhythm that makes you giddy to be alive. The track ends and Johnny Otis tells my father in a low volume whisper that he has just heard “Long Tally Sally,” a brand new 45 recorded by Little Richard. Right then and there, Dean Dobkins (he never really liked Alan part of his name) decides he has to possess this 45 record — even if it means a trek into Long Beach to find a record store selling this music.

It’s a moment I want to believe happened, when my dad was fifteen and Little Richard was only twenty-three, and their whole lives waited ahead of them.