by Charles Troob

The Harry’s Shave Gel can is a narrow seven-inch-long cylinder. I grasp it with my left hand, into which it fits comfortably, and press the curved dispenser with my index finger. Out oozes a viscous white cream, filling my waiting right hand. The obvious symbolism amuses me. I wonder whether the Harry’s design team was similarly amused when they created this suggestively shaped can.

I smear my face with the gel. I use a finger to fill the cleft in my chin, and think of my mother, who for some reason was delighted by this feature of mine. Then I spread my hand to cover the area under my chin and my neck, gently massaging the sides of my windpipe. This lubricated contact of my warm hand with my face is a mildly erotic and luxurious start to the morning.

I place the bladed side of the razor against my left temple, under the sideburn. I gently pull downward and over the jaw line, removing gel and hair as I go, repeating this until the entire side of the face has been shaved. I shave the chin, spreading the skin to expose the hairs in the cleft. Then I move to the right temple. This side is a little trickier because I’m right-handed; I have to raise my chin to position the razor at an appropriate angle.

I lean my head back to shave the neck and under the chin. I make short vertical strokes, gradually moving from left to right. It’s like painting a wall, except that I’m removing whiteness rather than adding it. Usually a musical earworm in my head accompanies and guides the rhythm of my hand. It’s a jaunty tune, from the finale of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore (The Elixir of Love): the quack Dr. Dulcamara sings it to hawk his cure-all patent medicine. (You can see and hear him at ) A few years ago this melody came into my head while I was shaving, and it returns unbidden when I begin my short strokes—Pavlov would understand. Occasionally I hum along or jiggle my body in time with the music.

Before the doctor finishes his sales pitch most of the gel is off my face and in the sink. I rinse with warm water and rub my hand over my neck and jaw to test the smoothness. Invariably there are still a few bristles. I am fair, and can get away with a not-very-close shave, but if I’m feeling obsessive I stroke a few more times to improve the job. Then I towel down—I’ve showered before shaving, and am almost but not quite dry at this point. I leave the bathroom to dress for the day, feeling pampered and refreshed.

The mustache? Ah—that’s another story.

Charles Troob: I’ve been a participant or a coordinator of the LP² writing workshop since 2010, and I’ve been shaving considerably longer than that.


by Charles Troob

Look darling a lava pizza
bubbling and overflowing
a change from pepperoni
and heartburn

Nero’s bad press was earned
but we all do regrettable things
and Nero smelled nice
when he wanted to

though maybe I’m thinking of Marcus Aurelius
or Nebuchadnezzar
I’m not good with names

the pizza is ready
peel away the magma
and plunge in with me

Pizza and a volcano crater–once you associate them in your mind, it’s hard to unsee.  I have fond memories of a study group on Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, but the real inspiration is probably “That’s amore.”


by Charles Troob

After a heavy snowfall, I look out
At the cityscape, newly picturesque:
Leafless trees delicately traced in white
Like skeletons posing on a runway;
Streets and walkways, reupholstered, empty
Of traffic, savoring a brief pristine
Moment out of time, before the filth,
The ice, the slush, before the sand and the salt;

And then I think of myself, surrounded
By love and books and comfort, drowsily
Whiling away a quiet afternoon—
And my mind flashes on men shivering
Under flattened cartons and old blankets
Burning paper in oil drums to keep warm.

Shortly after I joined the IRP years ago I signed up for a poetry study group given by Sarah White.  The first class was cancelled because of a snowstorm.   Sarah had sent us sonnets to read and suggested we try to write one.  I sat at my desk, thought “why not?” and looked out the window.  I brought this poem to class the following week, and people had helpful suggestions to improve it.  


Happy Birthday

by Charles Troob

On my twenty-third birthday, with a great deal of trepidation, I attended a meeting advertised on a Yale bulletin board as a “Homosexuality Discussion Group.”

I had been slowly cracking open the closet door. I was now “out” to my housemates and to one friend in New York. This would be another baby step.  

I walked in and looked around. Everyone there looked pretty much like me—nerdy grad student—but I had no feeling of fellowship or relief. These men, I supposed, had accepted their assignment to the category “gay”—but I hadn’t. Though haunted by my attraction to the male body, I wasn’t prepared to exile myself from the world I’d grown up in. I still hoped that I was really a latent heterosexual: I wanted a future with a wife and family, my gay urges either suppressed or somehow dealt with on the side.  

Why then was I here? To get over the secrecy that was poisoning my life. I was terrified to be known publicly as gay—or gay-ish: to have the world see me as I really was. 

I’d been with a dozen men, but those sexual encounters had taken place in a shadow world, as though a second person inhabiting my body was indulging in them—think Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I wasn’t mentally disordered: I knew that the carnally curious Mr. Hyde was the real me. If anything, he felt more authentic than the pleasant bland young man I presented to family, friends, and fellow students. To move ahead in life I would have to end this strange double identity—but that required me to find the courage to reveal to others the truth about myself.       

So it was a milestone to say my full name loudly and clearly to this group. I then sat silently, my head swimming, barely hearing the discussion. Though grateful for the presence of these men, I told them little and gave them nothing. Just to be here was effort enough.

The habit of hiding in fear and shame would prove to be hard to break. It took many years and birthdays before I was as comfortable in my skin as I am today. 

It has been challenging and valuable to write about myself in study groups at IRP/LP2—and to hear the stories of others as well.   

I Remember

by Charles Troob

I remember that I went to the Flushing Progressive School  until I was in second grade and was driven there in a station wagon with half a dozen other kids by Mrs. Conway, whose husband was a fireman. I remember that we visited his firehouse on Horace Harding Boulevard (before it became the Long Island Expressway) and I remember the pole that went up to the second floor so that the firemen could come down in a hurry— but I don’t remember Mr. Conway or the other firemen. I remember that one winter in the station wagon we all sang “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and at the end of the song—“You’ll go down in history” –I asked, “What is history?” and someone answered, “I think it’s some kind of a book” and I was puzzled because I didn’t know what it meant to go down in a book.

I remember that the Flushing Progressive School was in a house on Franklin Avenue and the littlest kids were on the ground floor while the first and second graders were on the second floor. Every day at lunchtime they came down the stairs to get their trays—colorful plastic ones, with beaded edges—and then go back upstairs to eat their lunch. I remember watching them and wondering how they managed to carry their trays upstairs without spilling stuff and being afraid that I’d never be able to do that and how grown up first graders must be. I remember that we had the same lunch each Monday, Tuesday, etc. and my mother was annoyed that on Mondays we usually had baked potato and creamed corn and why were there two starches and I remember wondering why she cared and thinking that Monday lunch was OK with me, though not as tasty as creamed chicken and noodles on Tuesday or macaroni with ground beef on Wednesday.

I remember that when I moved upstairs the first graders were on one side of the room and the second graders on the other side and we all faced front and Mrs. Caven, who was very sweet, would give lessons either to one group or to all of us. I remember that I didn’t want to interrupt her to ask to be excused and I messed my pants a few times and had to be taken to the toilet and cleaned up. I remember that I was unable to insist on what I really needed for myself until I was an adult.

I remember that we were given a reading primer and I didn’t know what “primer” meant but I read through it right away and on the back page was a numbered list called “Vocabulary.” I didn’t know that word either. After each number on the list there were a few words. I looked at this list again and again and finally figured out (eureka!) that the numbers referred to pages in the primer and each word was listed according to the page on which it first appeared. I was very pleased to make this discovery, but I still didn’t know what “vocabulary” meant or why the list was there.

I remember that I was upset when my mother wouldn’t let me go to school on Rosh Hashanah and we had an argument about it at the lunch counter at the Girard Pharmacy on Queens Boulevard. I didn’t want to miss anything at school and I knew that at home on Rosh Hashanah I would sit around and be bored.

I remember that in second grade I was excused from reading lessons and sat in another room with a girl named Barbara who also could read. I remember that we had second and third grade readers—Friends and Neighbors and Streets and Roads—to read on our own.

I remember that there was a piano and during the lunch break we sang “Santa Lucia” and “Funiculi, Funicula” and afterwards one of the teachers read Mary Poppins to us, a chapter at a time.

I remember that the second graders were once given a special privilege. We went to the third floor where Mrs. Tucker the principal lived and there was a small television and we watched the coronation of Queen Elizabeth. I remember wondering what this ceremony was about—if her name was Queen Elizabeth, didn’t she already have a crown like every other king and queen?

I remember that the Flushing Progressive School was planning to offer a third grade, but my parents told me that I was going to attend PS 196,  a beautiful new school about to open in Forest Hills. I would be very sorry not to see what happened to the scarlet runner beans I’d planted in June in the school garden, but I was glad that I would finally be going to school with children from my neighborhood. I remember thinking that PS 196 was huge and impressive, particularly the auditorium and gym, and that I liked it very much, except that the teachers were always yelling at us to get in line and keep quiet. At our age! Even kindergartners could—and did—get in line quietly. These ladies were a little nutty and mean compared to the pleasant teachers at my old school, but they taught us a lot and they were nice enough to me, so I really didn’t mind.

I remember that in my freshman year at Harvard, a Cliffie in my English class asked me if I’d gone to the Flushing Progressive School. It would be an understatement to say that I was stunned by the question. Mr. Blyth called her Miss Hutter, but I knew that her first name was Barbara—and so she had to be the Barbara I used to read with. “How on earth did you recognize me?” I asked. “Oh,” she replied, “over Thanksgiving at home I was looking at pictures of my second grade birthday party and there you were.” I remember being quite abashed that I had changed so little since second grade, and also that I had no memory of the birthday party or of ever being at Barbara’s house. I remember that despite this amazing link between us, Barbara Hutter and I had no further conversations about our childhood or anything else. I remember that Harvard was not a friendly place.


This was written for David Grogan’s Guided Autobiography study group.  David’s writing prompt was based on the work of Joe Brainard, an artist and writer associated with the New York School.  Brainard’s I Remember, a book-length collection of sentences and short paragraphs all beginning with these two words, is considered a contemporary classic. 

Ah, Youth!—Three Memoirs

by Charles Troob

Ancient Greece 

In 1966 I was in a master’s program at the London School of Economics. Over the long winter break I traveled to Greece, Cyprus and Israel. The day before my departure, London friends gave me a Blue Guide to Athens. An hour into the flight from Heathrow I put down Thucydides and picked up the guide. One entry caught my eye. “There is a wonderful view over the city from the top of Mount Lycabettus. It’s recommended that one should go at sunset or sunrise.”

I was on a red-eye, arriving in Athens at 4 am. When the lane landed, I took a bus to a terminal downtown, where I checked my suitcase. Blue Guide in hand, I explored Syntagma Square, then followed the map to the foot of Lycabettus. On the steep road up I passed nondescript apartment houses–this quiet city was disappointingly dull. But the air was fresh and stars twinkled in the cloudless sky.

At the top of the hill was a lookout. Greece was hidden in the dark. I impulsively took off my clothes, and stood naked in the cool breeze. As light began to surround me, the shoreline of the Aegean came into view; then, to my amazement, the Acropolis lay right below. Piraeus, Corinth, Argos–here I was, not quite twenty-one, communing with the ancients.

The exaltation lasted an hour or two. Then I descended into modern Athens, where hardly anyone spoke English, and I felt stranded, alone, exhausted after a night without sleep.


Army Life 

I dropped out of grad school in 1970, and thereby relinquished my student deferment. I had a fairly high number in the draft lottery, so I thought I might be safe—but in December I received an induction notice. Along with hundreds of others I reported for my physical to Fort Hamilton, Brooklyn. When I got to final clearance—it looked like the checkout area of a supermarket—nearly everyone else had been loaded onto buses and sent off to Fort Dix and a dangerous future.

I handed my papers to the clerk—along with a letter from a psychiatrist in New Haven. When his eyes got halfway down the page he trembled slightly and called me over. In a very low voice, he said, “This letter says that you are a homosexual. Is that true?”

“Yes,” I was appreciative of his tact, amused by his discomfort.

“Have you committed homosexual acts?” He paused, gulped, continued. “Oral? Anal?”

“Yes, yes,” I said airily. To my surprise—I was very much a closet case at this time—I was enjoying myself. I hoped he’d ask for additional graphic detail—that would make the experience really perfect. But he just nervously wrote a few things on my papers, then stamped them and waved me away.

I wondered idly if this official documentation of my infamy would stay buried in Army files, or might come back to haunt me at some later time….

When I went to get my coat there was one other man in the locker area. “You’re not going?” he said.

“No. I told them I’m a homosexual.”

He laughed. “I said that too! I just thought of it when I got here. What an easy way to get out!”

“I was telling the truth,” I said. “I had a note from a shrink.”

He gave me a funny look, turned, and walked away.



In 1976 I got a job in Washington DC. I returned to my New York apartment on weekends. Friday evenings I’d queue up at Union Station, waiting for Amtrak to teleport me from a world of offices, malls, and soccer moms to a hothouse of culture—and sex. A few hours later I’d emerge from Penn Station onto Eighth Avenue, assaulted by the energy of the city. I could hit the bars and sample the sleaze. I could climb a dingy warehouse stairway and applaud some crazies who were reinventing theater. New York was dangerous at that time, but hey, it was a danger to flirt with and dance around, not one to avoid. My weekends were filled with adventure and exploration—and then on Sunday night I went back through the wormhole to Dullsville-on-the-Potomac.

But somehow I was happy on Monday morning. In DC I felt myself growing and stretching.  Working for DHEW—the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare—was like grad school on steroids.   I was quickly promoted, with a choice of jobs. So I was never sure which phase of this cycle was the main narrative, and which the parenthesis.

Still, in time the ping-ponging back and forth wore me down. The double life felt like a refusal to commit to an identity. Put that way, the choice was easy—I was a New Yorker. After three years I cut the DC knot. Without a tinge of regret, I slipped away from the dream career and came home to rejoin the carnival full-time.

Or so I thought. Soon AIDS hit New York—and Reagan hit Washington. The 70s were history.


These three pieces were written for the IRP Writing Workshop.  Charles Troob joined this workshop when he entered the IRP in 2010.  After a few enthusiastic semesters he was invited to become one of its coordinators.  


by Charles Troob

For Richard Hogan, 1936-2017

He filled the kettle
ground the beans
found a chunk of butter
in a corner of the fridge

selected a scarf
from the stack heaped on a closet hook
swirled it around his neck

chose a jacket to go with the scarf
and the shirt and the boots
and the ratty jeans

checked the mirror
made a few adjustments
added another scarf
said “O-la”
sailed out the door

then crossed the street
to charm the women at La Bergamote—

returning with fresh rolls…

and perhaps a croissant

Charles Troob adds: My dear friend Richard Hogan encouraged everyone to be creative. He loved my writng, and always asked me to read it aloud to him.


by Charles Troob

Wisteria encloses our yard on three sides
Tendrils poke through fence slats
thick ropy stems burrow underneath

A foot or two in from the property line
a vine shoots up from the soil
Every half inch or so it spews out
a cluster of leaves—five pairs
and one more on the end
in mindless replication
then marches on
seizing every opportunity to take hold and climb

A few weeks ago I found wisteria poking
under the fence, then twisted around a seven-foot
false cypress in stranglehold from base to top
I snipped it at the base
spent a quarter hour unraveling
ten yards or so of green vine
and tossed it in the street
for village compost

If the neighbors joined
eradication might be possible
but invasion to me is decoration to them
Next door an arbor supports wisteria a foot thick
Late May it blooms in grapey clusters
the scent heavy
as if to show up the graceful lilacs
that open on Mother’s Day and quickly fade—
like Mama Rose in Gypsy
taking the stage after her daughter’s star turn
blowsy overripe
unlovable but a life force

Charles Troob attends Sarah White’s weekly poetry group. Occasionally he gets lucky and something good comes out.  Enjoy!  

Two Tales from the Barnyard

by Charles Troob

Thin Pig

Algernon was the pick of the litter, frisky and lithe, but even as an infant piglet he spent little time at his mother’s teat.   Later, as his siblings gathered around the swill buckets, he went hunting for heirloom grains–teff, quinoa, farro–and leafy greens. When Anastasia the sow fretted, Algy said to her, “Mom, I’m not scrawny, I’m svelte.”  He grew pink and lean.

A Department of Agriculture rep came to inspect the farm.  “Is that really a pig?” he asked.  “He looks like a seal with a snout and four trotters.”  When the farmer told him about Algernon’s finicky eating habits, the rep roared with laughter and sent a text to the White House nutrition initiative.

Algernon was sent on a series of inspirational visits to junior high schools.  A camera team gave him a screen test, and within a week Algy made a video with Miss Piggy, “Kisses sweeter than swine,” which went viral.  Simon Cowell assembled a new group, Portion Control:  Algernon was the lead, backed by a whippet and a ferret.  They were booked for Royal Albert Hall in Summer 2017.

Meanwhile, in between public appearances, Algernon went from farm to farm to tell other pigs that they would live longer if they kept the pounds off.  Anastasia warned him not to be reckless, but he was on a crusade.  One day an angry meatpacker fired an AK-47 at him and it was all over.   His soul ascended to hog heaven.  His carcass was donated to the Harvard School of Public Health.  His hide was tanned and made into a replica of the Deflategate football, and is now in the Smithsonian.


Why the Chicken Crossed the Road—Twice

At the age of six months, a plump little pullet, I proudly extruded my first eggs.  Hours later they were gone from my nest.  I asked old Henny Penny what had happened.  She snickered, “Hey, birdbrain, didn’t you know?  We’re industrial producers, not moms.”

I was devastated to learn the facts of chicken life. Still, I wanted to save my gene pool from the frying pan.  For that, there was no time like the present.  I ran to the far corner of the barnyard and squeezed through the fence.

With the farm behind my tail, I was facing a dusty road.  On its other side I saw tall grass and arching purple flowers.  Butterflies danced over the waving stalks.  A bright future beckoned.  I strutted across the ruts and gravel, and slithered into the meadow.  The air was suffused with heavenly scents, not chicken shit.

I was in paradise–until snack time.  It took forever to dig up a worm.  There was nothing to drink.  And soon I would have to build my own nest.  It dawned on me that this escape business needed a bit of planning.  I crossed the road a second time and headed for home.

Before I could say ”E-I-E-I-O” a cock with gorgeous amber feathers was on top of me.  We fluffed around for a while.  “Who are you,” I said, “and why haven’t I seen you before?”

“I just got here,” he replied.  “Farmer Francine brought me in as a change agent.  My name is Pecker.”

I couldn’t get enough of that big guy.  He sure changed me.  Dreams of a different life flew right out of my head.  As for motherhood–I’m having too much fun to sit and brood.



These were written for the IRP Writing Workshop study group.  One week’s assignment was to write a fable:  “Thin Pig” was the result.  Another week posed the question, “Why did the chicken cross the road?”  



Everyday Magic: A Memoir

by Charles Troob

In the early 1970s, when preparing to teach in elementary school, I was introduced to the work of Jean Piaget.  His essays deal with how children develop a cognitive understanding of the world.  For example, Piaget observed that a small child couldn’t see—even after repeated demonstrations– that a tall thin beaker and a short fat one may hold the same amount of water.  A few years later the child gets this concept quite easily.   Piaget theorized that children go through cognitive stages, and he speculated that this is partly due to biological constraints—a six-year-old brain has wiring that is more complex than the wiring of a four-year-old, and can support more elaborate thinking.

I was skeptical about that brain wiring stuff. Based on my own experience, it was no surprise that children take years to see the world as adults do.  Much of what grownups think of as common sense is miraculous to a child.

I taught myself to read when I was three.  By the time I was five I chatted with adults in grown-up language.   But daily life continually astounded and perplexed me.   Light bulbs went on when you hit a switch. The refrigerator made cold air.  Birds and airplanes stayed aloft.  A needle in a phonograph record sent music to a speaker, and a radio played sounds that traveled through the air.  None of this made sense, though it seemed to be true. I read a story in which a bean became a mile-high beanstalk.  Was this a fantasy or was it possible?  It did seem improbable—but really, no more unlikely than that a seed in my grandmother’s garden turned into a radish or a zinnia.

So if Piaget’s children—he first observed his own kids– failed to understand that water can assume many shapes, I wouldn’t rush to conclude that they had immature brains or logic.    Maybe this property of liquids is just an example of everyday magic that a child must see many, many times to accept as true.

Here are two memories of how I struggled to distinguish the possible from the impossible, the true from the false.

In many stories someone is brought to a new place by entering a door—or going down a rabbit hole.  In the game of Clue, two secret passages let you cross the board in a single move.   Did such things exist in the real world?  I wasn’t sure.  Near our apartment a highway tunneled under Queens Boulevard.   In the tunnel a sign on a door said “passage to Union Turnpike.”   I used to wonder what would happen when you went through that door.  You were transported to Union Turnpike, but how?  Only years later did I realize there was a staircase to the roadway above.

I was amazed to find out that four times three equals three times four–and that this is not just a coincidence but a rule: seven times five equals five times seven, and so on.   I’d put out four rows of three pennies.  Then I’d shift them into three columns of four pennies.  Then I’d shift them again.   As four threes become three fours before my eyes, I sort of got it, but I didn’t really believe it.  I did this over and over, just to confirm that the world hadn’t changed and this mysterious fact was still true.

I suspect that most children don’t much worry about stuff like this, but to me it was very important to learn about the “real” world in which adults lived.  I was weak and awkward.   Other kids might push their way through life with force and bluster—I would depend on knowledge, not my useless body and timid spirit.

From this point of view mathematics was particularly satisfying and promising.  Even a small child can see that grownups depend on numbers.   Money is exchanged, food is weighed, cars have speedometers and odometers.   Best of all, arithmetic gives you definitive answers you can count on.  I was thrilled to learn the rules for “carrying” in addition, “borrowing” in subtraction, and that marvelous complicated engine called long division.  When I got to plane geometry in tenth grade I was dazzled by the strange theorems and even more by Euclid’s system for proving them.

Though I soaked up book learning and schoolwork like a sponge, one thing troubled me greatly.   How would I put all this knowledge to use?  What other kinds of skills were required to be effective in the real world, and how did you acquire them?  I often asked older people this question.  The only answer I ever got was, “Experience.”   This was obviously true, but no answer at all.


Throughout my adult life I have remained fascinated by the relationship between thinking and doing, knowledge and action, theory and practice.   And my need to learn about things in advance—to have a map of the terrain before venturing out—evolved into a talent for making sense of data, for diagnosing problems, for streamlining work processes and creating new systems.  For any job that could be described as “analyst” or “planner” or “evaluator” I was a natural.

As for the other parts of making things happen—I was not a natural at all.     Only with many years of “experience”–and training—did I begin to learn to supervise, negotiate, make tough decisions, and deal with crises.

But I did learn all these to some extent.  By the time I retired I was somewhat less perplexed and amazed by life in the real world than I had been as a little boy.


Charles Troob wrote this for an IRP study group in Guided Autobiography.  Many thanks to David Grogan, the coordinator, and to the other participants, who gave so much of themselves in this remarkable journey.