The Incarceration of Penelope Whistle-Smythe

You know… I’m still giggling over this.  It’s just a matter of time when they will have a day, week or month given over to celebrating every something or other known to mankindAnd then… as a natural extension, some wayward locale will hold a festival honoring the something or other like… like?  The Garlic Festival in Gilroy, CA!  Or the Marshmallow Festival in Ligonier, IN!  And maybe there will even be an associated Hall of Fame!  I just shake my head, can you imagine: The C.P.A. Hall of Fame and Gift Shop (I hope I can find a parking spaceOK kids, I want everyone go to the bathroom now, then remember, we’re going thru the exhibits first, don’t touch anything, no shouting or pushing, then if you behave, we can go to the gift shop). 

What would intelligent life from another planet think about this? Do you see why I’m giggling?  Oh, no… not about the C.P.A Hall of Fame… I just made that up.  But about the Marshmallow Festival in Ligonier, Indiana which I am not making up!

Sure… if you have nothing planned on Labor Day Weekend, why not head over to Ligonier and take in the festivities honoring the greatness of the marshmallow.  Be forewarned, however, there is a prohibition against pets, roller blades, roller skates and skateboards in the festival areas! Significantly, there is no prohibition against 79 year old women wielding 8 litre galvanized Haws watering cans.  A detail that caught Etienne Lartigue off guard.

Let’s consider the central item of worship in Ligonier: the marshmallow.  It’s origin is not clear.  But they have been around since the mid 19th Century with commercial brands being made in the 1890s.  For the record… stems of the marsh mallow plant were peeled to their soft spongy pith.  The pith was then boiled in a sugar syrup and dried to produce a soft chewy confection that was then cut into sections, rolled in a combination of corn starch and confectioners sugar… voila: the marshmallow we know and love.

From its humble beginnings it moved on to mass production (gelatin replacing the plant) and its use in mallomars, Rice Krispie treats, s’mores, Marshmallow Fluff, and of course as that cookout and campfire staple — the toasted marshmallow.  Of the latter, there are two schools of preparation: the softly-toasted-to-a-light-golden-brown and the flame-and-burned-to-a-charred-crisp.

The joy of the marshmallow is not confined to the campgrounds and backyards of America.  It was already well established in County Shropshire, England by 1929 when Penelope Whistle-Smythe came into this world.  It would be seven years before Penelope would have what she described as “a defining moment in my life.”

On a warm July day in 1936, Penelope’s extended family went on an outing to the River Severn, not far from her Oswestry home.  The children of the family went off from their parents to enjoy independent fun and games.  Penelope, the youngest of the children, was given over to her teenaged cousin Richard, eldest of the children, and by all accounts, the ringleader of the troop.  It was he who came up with the idea of making a campfire in the protected glen close to the river.  It was he who produced a handsome bag of fresh marshmallows.  And it was he who sent all his younger charges out looking for appropriate sticks for use in roasting the marshmallows.  The kids, including Penelope, set out to the River with its stand of white birch trees, that area being deemed as an ideal location for sticks and twigs.

Why it took Penelope longer to find a stick, we can’t really say.  Maybe she kept rejecting candidates because they were not of acceptable length, or maybe one that was long enough didn’t have a proper bend?  Regardless, when she finally selected one she returned to the glen to find her cousins already deeply involved in scarfing down the sticky toasted marshmallows.

What transpired next would cast an imprint in the mind of young Penelope… it would remain with her for the rest of her life.  She began to complain bitterly to her cousins that they should have waited for her to return. She cried that there wouldn’t be any marshmallows left for her! She called them rude, selfish and ill-behaved.  The cousins did not take well to being dressed down by the youngest and smallest of their number!  If they wanted to be lectured about behavior they would have remained with their parents!

Richard would have none of it.  He took things into hand.  He looked at his cooking stick, racked with four marshmallows burned to a crisp.  Determined that they were sufficiently cooled, he slipped the blackened marshmallows from the stick, examined them for their consistency… satisfied, he took the mélange and rubbed them into Penelope’s hair.

On cue, the other cousins removed their cooked marshmallows… golden browns and burnt crisps… and mashed their gooey contents into the crying Penelope’s hair, face and arms.  It’s a cruel world.  Kids know how to take unfair advantage of a situation.  

Eight years later, Richard, Penelope’s protector, would make the supreme sacrifice during the Battle of the Falaise Pocket.  If Penelope had remorse for the loss of her cousin, she never showed it.  Who can blame her?  Although years later while addressing the Annual Meeting of the Shrewsbury Chapter of the Society For The Prevention Of Cruelty To Confections, she stated, “I owe my commitment and love, to this noble cause to my dearly departed cousin, Richard.”

Yes, Penelope Whistle-Smythe had found her calling.  If she caught wind that there was to be a taffy pull on the Isle of Wight she’d be there!  Placards and umbrella in hand… and she wouldn’t think twice about whacking a contestant on the noggin, and finishing it off with a “that will teach you… you perfect beast!”

And with the arrival of the internet and its “information highway”, Penelope was no longer bound to local news and events.  She could go global.  And she did.

While the “defining moment” in Penelope’s life is clear, the defining moment for Etienne Lartigue is less so.  I suppose you could say that it was May 2, 1980 — the day of his birth.  The day when the results of the unique joining of genetic matter of Claudine and Henri Lartigue produced a healthy baby boy who was destined to reach the mere height of 5’… although that might not have been evident on that Friday in 1980.

There are far worse things in life than being painfully short.  But tell that to a boy who was the shortest person, boy or girl, at every grade level in school.  Tell that to a boy who had no athletic skills.  No chance for him to be a demon of speed on the soccer pitch.  Nor was he academically gifted.  When Etienne came of age he narrowed the paths for self esteem to just two: become a high stakes jockey or join a circus.

He hated horses. 

One day, with little ceremony, he left his childhood home in Cherbourg and headed to the touring Cirque Medrano.  His first assignment was helping with the care of Camela… one of the famous Medrano Elephants.  This didn’t last long… Etienne liked elephants even less than horses.  And further, the owners feared that one of the elephants would eventually crush him.

The owners tried putting him into some of the other acts.  But he was too tall to be a clown midget, he couldn’t juggle worth a damn… but he began to have success with some of the aerial acts, and some of the stunt motorcycle routines… then a motor cycle on the high wire number.  And finally a stint as the human cannonball. 

The crowds loved him! Etienne Le Courageux!!

Etienne had found his calling.  It was the going for the thrill.  It was doing something, anything, that surpassed his diminutive height.  And he set his course to the pursuit of enterprises that would demonstrate his ability to overcome physical or emotional challenges.  And it wasn’t long before he left Cirque Medrano, its elephants and adoring crowds for the uncharted territory of the bizarre.

He would scale the imposing facade of the ADIA Tower in Abu Dhabi, bungee jump from a hovering helicopter over the Victoria Falls and shinny up the Gateway Arch in St. Louis.  Etienne Le Courageux!  The film crews followed him everywhere.  Oh, look!  There is Etienne swimming off the Barrier Reef… I hope a Great White doesn’t get him!

It is unclear whether the organizers of the Marshmallow Festival spawned the idea, or whether it was something that Etienne cooked up… but the Labor Day weekend of 2008 found the dare devil putting the final touches to his planned jump to take place on Sunday.

Lartigue had selected the First Bank Building on West Jefferson Blvd as the best location for his planned jump. He had constructed a platform block of marshmallows 10′ X 15′ to a depth of 8′ on the sidewalk next to the bank building… the idea being that the marshmallows would adequately cushion his fall from the four story precipice.  Or so the organizers and Etienne had hoped.

Etienne had actually looked for a taller building.  But this was Ligonier.

Lacking a building of greater height, Etienne decided to add interest to the fall by holding on to an anvil to speed his descent.  As far as the anvil was concerned, it wasn’t a matter of strength… Etienne was as strong as an ox, albeit a small one.  Still, one could question whether is was necessary to take on the added risk.

At the appointed hour of 3:00PM on Sunday, before a crowd of five hundred or so interested citizens (and a film crew), Etienne took his leap into the awaiting bed of marshmallows.  Later he admitted that he should have let go of the anvil in midflight. As it developed, clutching on to the heavy weight caused some collateral damage to his private parts when he crashed into the marshmallow block.  And when he emerged from the marshmallow encasement, in pain, gasping for air, chunks of marshmallow clinging to his face he was met by Penelope Whistle-Smythe.

Penelope was being escorted from the festival grounds.  She was asked to leave after she barged her way thru to the Cub Scout Pavilion… the scouts were busy toasting marshmallows over an open campfire for the benefit of the hungry throng.  Penelope, armed with her favorite Haws watering can, had taken it upon herself to put an end to this dastardly rite (as she referred to it), and she calmly, but firmly, doused the flame to its death.  Satisfied that she had taken care of the fire, she glared at the boys, “Be off with you… you nasty beasts!

Civil disobedient, maybe.  But Penelope was not one to give undue problems to the authorities.  She felt that she had made her point, “marshmallows will be forever identified as the Joan of Arc of confections!”.  Time to leave.  But when she caught sight of the spectacle that was attending to the dare devil’s plunge into a bed of marshmallows, she had to pause.

Aghast at the hoopla and fanfare, she could not contain her displeasure and anger.  And when Etienne staggered from the marshmallow heap, obviously in distress, clutching at his pride and joy, Penelope thought not twice as she approached him and purposefully slammed her Haws watering can into the side of his head, knocking the Frenchman unconscious to the ground.  She looked defiantly at the fallen Lartigue, “Serves him right!”

Etienne recovered… eventually.  Penelope Whistle-Smythe was sent to the hoosegow for an overnight.  “I go willingly to your gaol… a small inconvenience for publicizing the brutality of this ungodly Festival!”

(September 1) The peaceful activities of the Marshmallow Festival in Ligonier were disrupted on Sunday when an elderly woman from Shropshire, England beat the renowned French Dare Devil Etienne Lartigue on the head with a galvanized watering can. Mr. Lartigue is not pressing charges.  Ms. Whistle-Smythe, as she was taken from the festival grounds, was heard to claim, “that man was a perfect beast.”  After spending a day in jail on the charges of disorderly conduct, Ms. Whistle-Smythe was released on her own recognizance and her pledge to appear before the County Judge on September 17. — The Elkhart Truth

OK… call me cruel.  I’m still giggling over all this.  I had penciled in the Marshmallow Festival for this Labor Day Weekend… sounds too good to miss.  But alas, my nephew is getting married over the weekend.  Maybe I’ll bring some marshmallows…

File:RoastingMarshmallow.jpg

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History Re-Visited: What Really Went Down in Sinai

 

MOSES: The Lord has given us the take-out menu to the Manna From Heaven Dumpling and Noodle Shop.  How many want eggroll?

DATHAN:  What about the Commandments, Moses?  We want Commandments!

MOSES:  You want Commandments?  Are you nuts?  OK, I’ll give you Commandments!  First, “Remember to put down the toilet seat.” Next, “Take two pitches and hit to right field.” Third, “The sign that says Last Gas for Fifty Miles… believe it!”  Then, “Look both ways when you cross the street.”  Fifth, “If you want to find happiness go to Costco, Aisle 3.”  Next, “After eating you have to wait an hour before you go swimming.”  Seventh, “The lucky numbers in the fortune cookies aren’t lucky.  Let that be lesson to you!”  Eighth, “I before E, except after C… or is it the other way around?  Oh, just do your best. ”  That’s enough with Commandments, just treat everybody as you would like to be treated, and we’ll be fine.  Now… how many want eggroll?

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Mandrake Wanted the Gooseberry Pie

To call the scene the aftermath hardly did it justice.  I would say that it was somewhere between the shaken focus of the Rolling Stones album cover of that name… something that might have been attributed to a mild hallucinogenic used to create its distorted image of Mick & crew; and a photograph of Dresden after the Allies had fire bombed it.  If pressed, it was a lot closer to the utterly destroyed and gutted Dresden.

It had probably been a simple tasteless room.  A meeting place that could serve as a lunch room for a warehouse facility?  Linoleum floors, suspended fluorescent fixtures… the kind with the long tubes that forecast their demise by “humming”, bare walls… or walls that would have had bad art, or dumb and dated photos.

The two six foot tables that had been put together were now separated by a good yard and half.  Only two of the cheap folding chairs that had surrounded the tables were left in an upright position. The paper tablecloth that had served as decoration and protection for the tables lay in a twisted mass.  A side table was on its side. The table lamp totally busted.  Spiral notebooks everywhere.  Pens, markers. Two smashed, very expensive film cameras.  A boom mike and a camera tripod standing like gothic spires. Shattered lighting tubes, their glass slivers covering every part of the room. 

The props that had been added to lend a “homey” atmosphere to the otherwise stark room: a globe, a glass cocktail table, incidental ceramic figurines, two faux flower arrangements — all broken and/or mangled.  A bookcase, upturned… its weathered volumes scattered.

Then a few personal items… two pair of eye glasses, one reading, one all purpose, a pack of cigarettes, a cell phone, car keys and a plastic comb. 

A mish-mosh heap of pie crust and its fruit contents… All giving evidence of the worst food fight of your life. 

And blood. Much of it. Human, not simian… that’s what happens when you try and break up a fight between a Western Red Colobus and a Capuchin. The smell?  The underlying rich sweetness was unmistakable… but it was the gamey scent and smell of blood that pervaded the scene of carnage.

I was told that it all happened in less than 20 minutes.  Talk to other folks, and that’s all it takes in a good bar fight.  You can imagine it.  Two guys fueled by Guinness, arguing about who was the better QB, Joe Montana or Steve Young… the next thing you know it’s bar stools being thrown and the gendarmes are being called in.

Mrs. Alston was there because she made pies.  Not that she expected fame from baking her pies in Shelburne, VT.  But you never know how your life will turn when Steven Spielberg takes a shine to your strawberry-rhubarb pie.  That was her good luck, or bad, depending on how you look at it.  What’s a little blood?

Anyway, Mr. Spielberg was paying.  How could Mrs. Alston say no?  Before sun up one Thursday, she packed up her Volvo station wagon with the 15 pies she had baked on Tuesday and Wednesday, and headed south to a location in Westchester County.  Two each… strawberry-rhubarb, cherry, blueberry, Dutch apple, peach, lemon meringue, Boston cream and a single gooseberry pie.  She hadn’t been given too many details… “bring your wonderful pies Mrs. A, we’re shooting a trailer for a new film and we’d love for you to be part of it.  You will be well paid.”  Sure.  Mrs. Alston even made an extra strawberry-rhubarb for Steven.

The subject of the film was about apes or monkeys.  Not exactly a remake of Planet of the Apes, she was told.  Tim Burton had already done that in 2001.  Mrs. Alston hadn’t seen the original film that was released in 1968… and she didn’t know who this Tim Burton fellah was either.  She didn’t even know what a film trailer was (“isn’t it someplace to live?”).  Mrs. A knew pies.  Pies and children… she raised seven kids.

I think you know where this is going.  Even if Mrs. A didn’t.

Call it her Yankee trait.  Be punctual… meaning, get there before you were expected.  Be neat… meaning a dark ankle length skirt, a subdued buttoned blouse with a high collar, a protective smock (she was serving pies after all), rimless glasses, grey hair in a tight bun kept in place by two steadfast pins and sensible shoes with a thick heel.  Be polite… meaning say “good morning”, “please” and “thank you.”  Mrs. Alston was certainly all that.

Steven Spielberg greeted her with a smile, he raised his ball cap, “Nice to see you again Mrs. Alston!”  He had to shake his head in disbelief, how good is this?  She looks like she answered the casting call for one of the Brewster Sisters in Arsenic and Old Lace or Mrs. Wilberforce in The Lady Killers!

Good morning, Steven.”  And without pause, Mrs. Alston and her pies were escorted into the decorated room where she set up on the side table and began to slice her pieces into perfectly portioned wedges.  There was a lot of activity going on, camera people, sound people, lighting people, folks setting the table with plates, folks putting the finishing touches to the background props.  The room when empty was probably large… but with all the goings on, the room became quite small.  Not that Mrs. Alston minded, she was used to working in a kitchen with seven kids rousting about.

When Mrs. A had nearly completely her preparations, a door opened and the monkeys were brought into the room… the New World Monkeys: a Marmoset, a Capuchin and a Tamarin. The Old World Monkeys: a Baboon, a Mandrill, a Japanese Macaque and a Western Red Colobus.  And each monkey had his or her own handler.

The room got smaller still.

Mrs. Alston looked on and smiled.  She counted them out and her eyes lit up!  The crew watched her expression in awe.  A sound guy whispered to Spielberg’s Assistant, “I bet she thinks they’re little kids in monkey costumes!”

She clasped her hands to her breast, “My oh my, aren’t they precious!”  And then she began to pick out each one with an identifying name, “Francine, Robert, Milton, Virginia, Mandrake, Felicity and Featherstone.” This, of course, without knowing the names that had already been given to these monkeys.  Presumably, these were the names of her children.  It was also presumed that her name placement was arbitrary… or was there something in the Macaque that reminded her of Virginia?  Or why Mandrake for the Mandrill?

Spielberg’s camera men didn’t need to be told “Action!” or “Roll ’em!”. They began filming as soon as Mrs. A had entered with her pies.  The cost of running extra film is not an over riding concern for a Spielberg Production.  Making a great film is the concern.  You do whatever it takes. Besides, Spielberg could approach a big studio with an idea of making a film about Silly Putty and he would have a budget of 75 million dollars the next day.  Such is Spielberg’s reputation in Hollywood.

The handlers got the monkeys in their seats, and Mrs. Alston began serving each a piece of pie.  While the monkeys appeared nervous and fidgety, the same could not be said for Mrs. Alston.  She hummed to herself in a happy and contented way, “Robert, some Dutch apple for you… your favorite. Milton stop fussing and don’t fool me! I know you love gooseberry.”  And she hummed her way thru the table, always bestowing a comment to each monkey, “Virginia you look so cute this morning, I love what you have done with your hair… and Mandrake!  Do you think that I would forget how much you love Boston cream pie?”

It can also be presumed that this was not the first time these monkeys had met.  Undoubtedly other scenes had already been filmed. Pecking orders, alliances and rivalries were probably already established.  Although on this morning you could sense that both the monkeys and their handlers would rather have been someplace else.  Mandrake looked at his Boston cream and then stared over at Milton at the other end of the table.

With each monkey served some pie, and without direction or prompting from anybody, Mrs. Alston folded her hands, dropped her head and said firmly, “Felicity, will you please lead us in prayers.”

The crew looked on it amazement.  Who planned on this?

Mandrake did not wait for prayers to finish.  He looked at his Boston cream… he looked at Milton… he jumped on the table, standing up in all his glory… largest of the monkeys, blue and red highlights on his muzzle, a red penis, a lilac coloured scrotum and a blue tush (and here you thought that Ozzy Osbourne was original)… looking quite agitated.

Mrs. Alston wasted no time, “Mandrake!  Get down from the table right now, thank you very much!  And for goodness sakes, put on a pair of pants!”  And she punctuated her chastisement by whacking him on the arm with her Tiffany pie server.

Tina, the Mandrill’s handler, now stepped into intercede.  Too slow.

Mandrake’s multi-coloured appearance now intensified (later it was learned that a dominant male Mandrill’s heightened colour was the result of sexual arousal — Virginia, Francine, Felicity… Tina or Mrs. Alston? threat to territory, pie selection or just being pissed at Milton).

Mandrake, objecting to being struck with the pie server, snatched it from the stunned Mrs. Alston and turned on the diminutive handler, hitting her repeatedly in the head with the Tiffany heirloom, opening a serious gash in the young lady’s head.

Milton, second in size to the Mandrill, was intent on defending his turf, pounded on the table and jumped up and down on his chair, screeched loudly, opened his mouth revealing a set of sharp and angry looking canine teeth.  Mandrake would take none of it.  Matching Milton’s gestures one for one… he then stomped his feet, first squishing his Boston cream and then flattening Featherstone’s peach pie.

The Colubus eluded his handler and jumped over to the side table that had the extra pies and indiscriminately began heaving slices of Mrs. A’s best in every which direction.  Sensing that the situation was rapidly deteriorating, Spielberg’s handler decided that it was best to get the Master Director out of harm’s way… and took him out of the room… Spielberg suffering nothing worse than being hit with pie shrapnel.

The Tamarin and the Marmoset leaped from their seats to the overhead fixtures.  Climbing the wires, dodging pie slices being thrown by Robert, jumping from one fixture to the next, over to the boom mike, back to the fixtures, the fluorescent tubes began popping, glass raining down on the table, the handlers, the crew… even on Mrs. Alston.  That’s when Mrs. A picked up a glass ashtray, “Featherstone! Get down here this instant!” and heaved it upward, missing the Marmoset, missing the overhead fixtures, but catching Maheesh, one of the handlers, on the ashtray’s downward path, square in the snoot.  More blood.

The handlers, it can be presumed, had their own pecking order, alliances and rivalries. And this had an effect in how they tried to restore order in the room.  Angry words led to shoves… and the inevitable punches being thrown and blood being drawn.

Meanwhile, the main event was clearly Mandrake and Milton… no longer satisfied with standing on the table, stepping on pieces of pie and glaring at each other, the Mandrill and the Baboon got busy chasing around the room, oblivious to any of the humans present.  Screeching, showing their teeth, stopping only long enough to throw a book, a table lamp… or anything else they could pick up.  By this time most of the crew had fled to the safety of other rooms… leaving their expensive equipment in peril.  For the big Baboon and Mandrill, just more ammunition at their disposal!

It should also be noted that din was considerable… the breaking and crashing, the humans yelling, the monkeys screeching.  And the room, with the heavy lighting in the fairly close quarters, and with all the physical activity, was getting exceedingly hot. 

Given the confines of the space, you would think that it wouldn’t take long for the handlers to bring their charges to heel.  But you try and bring a Tamarin down from ceiling fixtures when it doesn’t want to come down… and that’s exactly what Maheesh was trying to do.  Standing on the table, fighting thru the pain of a bloodied and busted nose, he tried coaxing

Francine down, only to slip on some cherry pie, lose his balance and fall first to the table, and then to the floor.  In no time, Milton jumped on him and began to pummel the crap out of him.  Mandrake joined the scrum… and that didn’t make Milton happy.

Mrs. Alston also wasn’t happy, “I don’t like this behavior!” She set her eyebrows to a scowl and removed the pins from her bun and tried to stab Milton or Mandrake; but only succeeded in stabbing Maheesh, who didn’t need an additional adversary or loss of more blood at that time.

Maybe it was just a matter of time before the monkeys tired of their fun.  Or maybe they were just tired… tired or bored.  But eventually the humans were able to gain control of the room… just about the time the paramedics arrived on the scene.

The medics surveyed the damages. “I think I’ll call this a victory for the other team.”

A camera man was heard muttering, “Never again.  This made filming the Omaha Beach scene in Saving Private Ryan look like a stroll in the park.”

When asked what started it all, a sound guy just shook his head, “The one with the funny coloured face didn’t like his pie… it just went down hill from there.”

Mrs. Alston had no interest in a curtain call.  She scanned the room with a well-I-never expression, she re-situated her hair pins, took off her smock (ignoring fragments of crust, fruit and blood), she straightened her blouse, made sure that her skirt was falling properly and proceeded to the door.

Before reaching the exit, one of Spielberg’s assistants hurried to her, “Ma’am, I think this is yours.” and handed her the Tiffany pie server.

Mrs. Alston looked at it. Glared at the assistant. Took it with a well-I-never expression and said, “Thank you.”

The defining observation for the morning went to the battered Maheesh.  As the medic made the necessary repairs, Francine’s handler simply said, “The monkeys were nothing.  But that pie lady nearly killed me!”

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The First Fan’s Bracket

“Please hold my calls for an hour.  I have to get this done.”

Alright… look, Illinois is ranked 5th!  That’s not bad… I think I ranked 8th when I began my run for the Presidency. Let’s check who qualified from the Ivy League.  Cornell?  I didn’t know they had a basketball team… maybe their hockey team qualified.  Arizona is ranked 12th?  They suck this year. I think I am going to text message John McCain… “Big John: aren’t you sorry that you got stuck with Palin?  If you had taken Lieberman instead… and if you could have convinced him to get a decent haircut you might have taken me!” OK… let’s get serious…

Midwest.  Louisville.  What a joke.  I think they want Louisville to win… what an easy draw.  Wake Forest will give them trouble in the Sweet Sixteen.  They’ll still win, they’re riding the high of taking the Big East. Louisville is gliding to the Semis.

West.  UCONN is Ranked 1st.  Well… they’re 0 and 2 in the last two games that count. Whose their first round opponent?  University of Tennessee at Chattanooga?  Shit, I think that the UCONN Ladies could beat that team… hmmmm.  The Ladies could probably take half the teams in this field!  Never mind.  Joe Lieberman is such a doofus, what a sanctimonious blow hard!  And Dodd?

“Please take a memo… Tell Lieberman to get a haircut.  And tell Dodd to give up booze and Dunkin Donuts… oh, and send an intern out to pick me up an order of General Tso’s Chicken… what? Oh, brown rice, it’s healthier.  And have him pick up three packs of Marlboros… and don’t tell Michelle.”

UCONN… they have to be numb after losing that six overtime game to Syracuse.  Calhoun probably wished he had some of the girls on the bench.  Wouldn’t that have been a rip?  They still will make it the Elite Eight.  What else?  Marquette is going to give Missouri all it can handle… The Tigers will win; but take it on the chin against Memphis… and Memphis will knock off the Huskies in the next round.  OK, Memphis in the Semis.

This is going well. East.  Pitt is #1. The City of Steel!  Uh-oh.. Duke is in their draw.  Duke will have to get by Nova in the Sweet Sixteen.  Nova?

“Send over to Joe Lieberman’s Office a platter of bagels, Philly cream cheese, ‘Nova Lox and fresh tomatoes.  Enclose a note, ‘Thanks for the help on pushing through the stimulus package.'”

This is a tough one.  Duke? Pitt? Pitt? Duke?  Let me text message Michelle, “Hey!  Who do you like, Pitt or Duke?”  I bet she says Duke!  No, well I’ll be!  “Pitt, Pitt, Pitt!  And you better not be smoking!”  Give me a break!  I’m the President! “Thanks for the help… and no, I’m not smoking.”  OK, Pitt to the Semis.

“Can you send someone in here to clear all these ashtrays.  And tell the intern to make it four packs of Marlboros… and add an eggroll to my order.”

South.  Yes!  First let me put on my lucky North Carolina game shirt!  Go Tar Heels!  All the way baby!  Make it happen!  Gonzaga?  Gonzaga?  Please… a double digit win there.  And the lower half of the bracket… Oklahoma and Syracuse.  Oklahoma would give Carolina a tougher game… so I’m playing for Syracuse to upset Oklahoma… 8 overtimes!  Then ‘Cuse will have nothing left against the Tar Heels.  Yeah, baby!  We’re in the Semis!

Semis.  Sorry Michelle… Pitt is going down!  Down hard!  All Carolina!  On the other side… well who gives a rat’s ass about this.  OK, eeny meeny miney mo, who’s gonna lose to my bro’?  Shit… I hope no one heard that!

“*Ahem*  Did you hear anything out there?  What?  No, no… I’m fine, just fine.  I was just saying to myself, I would certainly enjoy a Marlboro now… but I promised Michelle that I was going to give up smoking.  Ha, ha!  Yes, I know… tomorrow!”

Well… that wraps things up.  North Carolina over Louisville

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Now Appearing at the Forum

The first to arrive at the home of Gaius Cassius Longinius was Servilius Casca, and he was quickly followed by Tillius Cimber, Rubrius Ruga, Sextius Naso… and finally Marcus Junius Brutus.  Brutus brought the leaflets and the large laminated poster:  

NOW APPEARING AT THE FORUM

The Liberatores

An evening of beautiful musical entertainment

Athenian Ballads * Hebrew Marching Songs *  Current Popular Tunes  

ONE NIGHT ONLY

The Ides of March  

CASSIUS: Not bad.  I like it.  He’ll never suspect anything.  

CASCA: Are we really going to go thru with this?  

CASSIUS:  We all agreed that Ceasar has got to go.  He is a threat to the Republic.  Declaring himself Dictator for Life?  Are you kidding?  It would be easier if he were hated by the lower classes… then they could kill him!  But the son-of-a-bitch is too popular.  So we’ll have to do it… we’ll do it to save the Republic and all the Red States!

BRUTUS:  Cassius who is going to play the drums?  

CASSIUS:  Drums?  What the hell are you talking about?  

BRUTUS:  You know… in the Liberatores.  Who is going to play the drums?  

CASSIUS:  No one is going to be playing the drums, you ninny!  That’s just a ruse to get Ceasar to the Forum so we can take turns stabbing him repeatedly or hitting him with a baseball bat like DeNiro did to that guy in the Untouchables.  

BRUTUS:  Oh… well, I guess that’s a good thing.  I didn’t know any Hebrew Marching Songs.  

CASSIUS: Cimber are you sure that Ceasar got his copy of the leaflet?  

CIMBER: I think so…  

CASSIUS:  Think so?  Think so!  Listen… we got to be sure that he shows up.  I already paid for all these fancy Swiss knives and bats… what do you think?  And those knives have all those neat attachments… I got them on sale and I can’t even return them! Shit!  Hand me my cell phone… Hello!  Who is this?  Oh… hello Calpurnia, would you put Julius on the phone, yes… yes I can wait ’til he is finished going #2… he’s probably playing with himself… Hey Jay Jay… good to hear your voice.  You’re beautiful, just beautiful.  Look, I know it’s late; but a few of us have put a group together and we have a gig at the Forum on the Ides.  You’ll love it, some period things, a few covers and some original stuff, too.  Brutus?  Sure, he’s playing Fender Bass.  Wild, huh?  Anyway we don’t want you to miss it… we’ll save you a seat in the front row.  Yeah, sure you can sit in on a number!  We’ll give you the cowbell! What?  Can we “cover” Don’t Fear the Reaper? Sure, you got it!  What?  No,no… leave Calpurnia behind.  After the show we can all go out and get wasted.  Be there or be square!  I can count on you right?  I knew it!  You’re beautiful, just beautiful!  Well, that’s that.   He wants to sit in on “Don’t Fear the Reaper”!  Can you imagine?

BRUTUS: Cassius, I don’t know how to play the Fender Bass.  Although I think I can fake singing a Hebrew Marching Song.  

CASSIUS: Here’s a bat Brutus.  Don’t harm yourself.

  File:Cesar-sa mort.jpg

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To Err is Human, the Pickle Divine

“Snappy title, no? Now look… you have to help with the score. But we have a ton of possibilities. The opening number is blockbuster stuff… a dance line of the most gorgeous ladies… stacked, long legs, shapely… they have to be shapely, no skinny twigs, no piano legs… long, lean, but shapely. Got it? OK, next… they’re dressed in pickle costumes… right? Wonderfully shaped half sours with those little bumps. Step, step, step, kick left, step, step, step, kick right, bow center, pivot to the rear, shake the tush, turn left, a little bump and grind, pivot front, step front, and again, bow, lift up hands to the sky, shimmy, shimmy, shake. With me, right? OK, enter stage right the Master Pickle wearing a top hat, a monocle, white gloves, spats and sporting a cane. A simple tap number, he winks at the closest pickle, he winks at the audience, tips his hat forward and pats her on the tush, throws his head back and does a scissors kick… got it?”

“Master Pickle sounds like Mr. Peanut. Planters will sue our ass!”

“I’ve thought of that. We’ll put Master Pickle in a Blackwatch Tartan kilt, it will go great on a half sour pickle. Screw Planters! Then, zing-a-zing-zing… he slides across the stage, sizes up another pickle, eyes pop, monocle drops out, rolls his eyes, bangs his cane on the stage, brings it back up, touches his top hat, and sings ‘Let me put my gherkin next to you, next to you… bah-dah dah, bah-dah dah.’”

“Saul… in my mind we still have a problem with Mr. Peanut, kilt or no kilt… that’s one. I don’t think that gherkins are something guys want to be identified with, that’s two. I can’t imagine what the extended story line is, that’s three. And since you’re buyin’, I’ll have another drink.”

“Who said I’m buyin’? We’ll drink later, Manny, listen… I need your help on the love numbers. You’re good at that sappy tender stuff. I have most of the big stage and the catchy-funny numbers down. We’re almost there! Ziegfeld will eat this up! Forget the Peanut! It’s Master Pickle! Next to you, next you… bah-dah da, bah-dah da!’”

***

Stranger than strange. That’s how I first characterized the location of Rein’s Deli in Vernon, Connecticut. Vernon? Sounds like a can’t-get-there-from-here place, no? Actually, Rein’s is located at 435 Hartford Turnpike, just off I-84 at Exit 65. And it’s location, in truth, is a stroke of genius… a mid-point between Hartford and the UCONN Storrs Campus (which is the original can’t-get-there-from-here place), and it’s also on the route I take to Boston. Find me a better deli between Katz’ on the Lower East Side and Zaftig’s in Brookline, I’ll give you a nickel… OK, maybe a buck.

I was coming back from a early business meeting in Boston, and my Aunt Meggie was coming back from the National Yiddish Book Center in Amherst on her way to her home in Chatham. Rein’s was the best place to meet for a late lunch. We both knew that.

My Aunt looked great. “I love your hat! Not too many ladies I know can carry a Greek fishermen’s cap as well as you can!”

“Let’s call it a new tradition.”

I can’t think of a time when I didn’t have to wait to be seated at Rein’s. Talk to folks on line and you hear the same story… always a wait; but it’s never long. I think of it as a time to take in the aromas and get prepped for the food. Dinning foreplay. We were seated.

We get our menus… we get our complimentary dish of pickles… kosher sour and half sour in combination. This is essential. Nothing can proceed without this base element. We each choose our favorite… Meggie full sour and half sour for me.

“I had two cartons of books to donate… Saul’s grandparents’, my grandparents’… just collecting dust and mold… and when I got to the Center, you would have thought that I had returned with gold from sunken Spanish treasure ship!”

“To that Museum, you did!”

Although Rein’s menu includes cheeseburgers, fries and stuff… we are there for the deli. For  me: pastrami on rye with mustard and a double order of coleslaw on the side, chased with a Dr. Brown’s Celray Tonic.  Meggie: tongue, corned beef, pastrami and coleslaw… on rye, and a Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda.

Meggie bit into her pickle, “Here’s a story that you may not know. Before your Uncle Saul traveled to Paris where I met him {I knew this}, he tried to make a go of it in New York {this I didn’t know}. Oh, he loved music {both Meggie and Saul loved music}.  Loved it for how it could raise the spirit. Make you laugh, make you cry. For Saul, music was a premier force in life. He was just a kid really {hard for me to think of Saul being a kid; but everyone is a kid at one time or another… even Uncle Saul}.

***

“I have written a part for you. This is perfect. The theater owner is a sour green tomato. He’s in his office, light low, sleeves rolled up, sweat pouring from his forehead. Bills, bills, bills all over the place… frazzled, ‘She is such a tramp, but I love her, bah-dah dah.’ He has to work or his children will be consumed in poverty and filth. You are the tomato.”

“I’m the sour tomato? This is my part?”

“Who else? Who else could interpret the feelings of a lonely tomato suffocated by the love of an adoring mother, plagued by a shrew of a wife, and in love with a dancer… who could do it better than you? This part has you written all over it! Just listen… ‘Why do you turn from me? I am your son! Bah-dah dah, bah-dah dah.’

“This is great. Shall I remind you that I am not married and my mother is not suffocating… bah-dah dah, bah-dah dah. And there is no way that you are going to get me into a sour tomato suit!”

“Manny… you have to trust me on this. You come on stage, you’ll be in spats and a kilt, too… you look back stage… we see the pickles changing for their next number, and you sing “She can’t see me, she doesn’t know I exist, I’d give my heart to her but I know mom would be pissed.”

“My mom would be pissed? Falling for someone in the chorus line? What about my wife? SAUL… I’M NOT MARRIED!”

“This is great… I can see that you’re feeling the emotion! Ziegfeld is going to love it! We’re there!”

***

Once I tried the lean pastrami. It doesn’t work. If you are concerned about frivolous things like salt, health and cholesterol… stay away from a deli. Particularly a good one like Rein’s. Pastrami should be oozing with fat moisture, otherwise it ain’t worth hay! Besides, that is what the Celray Tonic (now called soda) is good for… the peppery spiciness of the beverage is there to offset the salty fattiness of pastrami. Why waste good Brunello, know what I mean?

Meggie looked around. “I love this place. You walk in the door and you know you are ‘home.’ It’s the fragrances. Come in blindfolded and you will know on first whiff… there is corned beef, potato salad, fresh baked rye, cheesecake, halvah and kosher pickles in this place. Of course, it’s the pickles that create the aroma, the rest of the stuff you just have to take on faith.”

I nodded in agreement. When we went to Miami Beach for spring vacations… we’d go to Wolfie Cohen’s on Collins Ave… and it was the same story… sit down and a bucket of kosher pickles and sour green tomatoes would be plunked down for your enjoyment. The briny smell of pickling spices pervaded the place… it would cling to your clothes.

“When I got to Paris, this would have been 1932, your Uncle Saul was already there playing clarinet at clubs on the Rive Gauche... His dream of becoming the next Ziegfeld didn’t go as he had planned. Well, look… he was just a kid really.  A kid with dreams; maybe he thought that his muse could be better found off Broadway. Why Paris I can’t really say…”

I never tired of hearing how Saul and Meggie met.  And it seemed that with each telling, another small detail was added to an already marvelous story.  I took a sip of Celray and waited for the story to unfold.

“I’ll admit it.  I arrived in Paris lonely and a bit scared.  My Mother wanted me to play the violin.  I hated it.  I want to study dance, I said.  And then I blurted out, I want to go to ParisI was just 18 years old… I can’t believe that my Father supported my wish.  He must have had rocks in his head; but support it he did.  Off I was to study Ballet in the City of Light.”

She took a bite of a half sour… the crisp crunch was unmistakable. “I missed home.  I missed the pictures in our parlour, the faces.  I missed the smells. So one rainy afternoon I was walking in the Marais… the Jewish Quarter in Paris, what the Jews called the Pletzl, and I wandered into a small delicatessen on Rue des Rosiers.  For the life of me I can’t remember, its name, just that it was small, and it smelled divine.  I was home.

{A quick aside… I can never understand folks putting their coleslaw in their sandwich.  Meggie must have picked up this trick in New York.  Personally, I think it’s disgusting.}

“I ordered a corned beef on rye with mustard and a pickle.  And a glass of hot tea. I didn’t realize how famished I was… I tore into that sandwich like I had gone days without eating.  Half was gone in a blink… then I noticed my pickle. Hey! What gives? Then, I blurt out loud, ‘You call this a pickle?!'”

“A second or two passed, and I felt a tap on my shoulder, ‘excuse Miss, it’s called a cornichon.’  It was this strange looking guy, dark rimmed glasses, hair combed straight back with the most wonderful dark eyes… cow eyes.  I was a bit startled… this stranger and all, and I’m a stranger, too.  He sensed that I was a bit put off, and that’s when he flipped on that fabulously warm smile and said, ‘My name is Saul… welcome to Par-ree!'”

***

“Enter the Bottle of Celray Tonic… the leading man. Young, vigorous and sneaky charm. The lady pickle now has three suitors… Master Pickle, the Sour Tomato and the Celray Tonic.”

“You can see the possibilities! But tragedy looms for our ingénue pickle, the Celray Tonic has decided to volunteer for the French Foreign Legion and now realizes that he has made a serious mistake… he is to be sent to the scorching desert of North Africa where his fate will be in the hands of thirst crazed soldiers who will have their way with him! Distraught, he takes the only path he knows, he pulls off his cap and empties his contents into the East River while she sings, ‘Your bubbles were so fragrant, fresh and full of life… bah-dah dah, bah-dah dah.’

“Now I get it… ill-fated lovers gone to Katz’ Deli.  That’s new and different… The Celray Tonic commits suicide… there won’t be a dry eye in the audience… and you think Ziegfeld will love this?  I’ll have that drink now. Bah-dah dah, bah-dah dah.

**

“So it all began with a pickle?”

Meggie shook her head and smiled. “I felt like I had been caught without my clothes on… do you know what I mean? It was just a moment when I felt a stranger had witnessed something deeply personal, as silly that must seem now… that my ultimate vulnerability had been laid bare. But that marvelous smile cut thru my loneliness and fear.”

“And you knew then that he was the love of your life?”

“Not quite. Although it would be easy to say that I knew it right away; but that’s the stuff of books and movies.” Meggie couldn’t contain a laugh. She examined the remaining portion of her hefty sandwich, re-stacked the meat and repositioned the coleslaw within the rye, “I think I’ll take this home for later. Well… it was certainly the beginning… within six months, I moved into his flat…that was to save on expenses.”

I couldn’t resist a bit of theatrics. I picked up the last of our pickles, “And it all began with a pickle!”

“No. With a cornichon.”

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Raisins & Almonds

“Unter yingeles vigele

Shteyt a klor vise tsigele”

He closed his eyes.  Not for the pain, or to hide from the fear.  He closed his eyes so he could better hear her voice.  Her gentleness was interwoven into the soft melody of the song, and she alternated between word and soothing hum.

“I am with you,” she said.

Without opening his eyes, he nodded.  She tenderly stroked his cheek and forehead.

“Dos tsigele iz geforn handlen

Dos vet zine dine baruf”

That she knew the tune meant much to him… although he couldn’t recall ever sharing with her that it was a song his mother had sung to him when he was a child.  He took a breath and repositioned his feet under the covers.  He thought, “Many children had that lullaby sung to them… she heard it, too.”

“Rozhinkes mit mandlen

Shlof-zhe, yingele, shlof”

No.  He was confused.  It wasn’t his mother. It was his grandmother.  She was the one to hold him… and rock him when he was afraid.  In their home, as a child, he had shared a room with his grandmother.  It would have been her to respond to his disturbed sleep.

“I am with you… rest, rest.”

He didn’t know what the words to the song meant.  He never knew… it was never important.  It was the comforting quality of her low voice, the rocking and the reassuring strength… don’t be afraid, mine yingele. 

How did she know to sing the song?  Maybe that is the core of love.  It’s not that you know.  It’s that you feel.

He turned to his left, trying to find a place… a place away from his fear.  “I am afraid… thank you for being there.”

 

Under little ones cradle in the night

Came a new little goat snowy white

The goat will go to the market

And mother her watch will keep

He will bring you back raisins and almonds

So sleep my little one, sleep

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Mrs. Frieda, the Teacher With an Agenda

“OK children, it quiet time… get your resting mats and put them on the floor.  Make sure that your mat touches no one else’s mat.  Sydney Kaufman, I want you over here.  Jason you’re over there and no, Marcus can’t be next to you.”

“Settled are we?  Good.  Today children, the story will be about Harvey, the Tyrannosaurus Rex and his friend Little, the Struthiomimus.  They were friends.  This was an unusual and special friendship because Harvey was a meat eater, and Little ate vegetables.  Now this was long ago, and there were no Stop & Shops or Fleischner Meat Markets on Legion Avenue.  Meat eaters ate other dinosaurs.”

“When Harvey was a young dinosaur, just about your age, his mother killed Little’s mother.  Harvey’s mother didn’t have an issue with Little’s mother… she was trying to get food for her family.”

“But there was Little… about the same age as Harvey who was now an orphan.  Little was so small that he wouldn’t have been a light snack for a Tyrannosaur, so Harvey’s mother didn’t have the heart to eat him.”

“Little looked so sad.  So she decided to bring him back to their nest and raise him with Harvey.  He was so small, she said, ‘I’m going to call you Little .’  And that was how Little got his name.”

“Little and Harvey got along well from the very beginning.  Little showed Harvey that there were other things to eat besides smelly old dinosaurs.  And pretty soon Harvey began enjoying lunches of fan palm, sassafras leaves and magnolias (in season).”

“Harvey’s Mother wasn’t pleased with this change in diet.  He was sneaking away from the nest to eat leaves and he wasn’t finishing his chicken soup on Friday nights.  So she did what any mother would have done, she sent Harvey and Little away to boarding school at Philips Andover Academy.”

“Now Harvey was big and looked tough and he had all those sharp teeth and those nasty looking clawed feet that scared all the other dinosaurs to pieces.  But he wasn’t too smart and he was having a lot of trouble with his studies.  He was good in sports, though.”

“Little on the other hand was very smart; but clumsy in sports.  So the two friends promised to help each other out.  Little helped Harvey in math and science. And if any dinosaur tried to take the ball away from Little, Harvey would eat the dinosaur.  And that took care of that.”

“When it was time to go to College, off the two friends went to Yale. Again Little came to Harvey’s aid, getting him thru Macro-Economics and other tough subjects.  Harvey did his part getting Little into Skull & Bones which was a club just for meat eaters.”

“Life was good in the Cretaceous Period.  But dark days were ahead. A comet the size of Detroit hit the earth and threw up a huge cloud of debris that covered the sky blocking out the sun.  It wasn’t long before the cloud spread all over the place.  Even in New Haven.  Plants died, even the new angiosperms.  Soon dinosaurs were dropping like flies, dying of hunger because they had no food to eat.”

“Then on a very sad day, the two friends walked all the way from Chapel St. to Tumblebrook Rd looking for food; but they could find none.  Harvey overcome and crazed with hunger did the only thing he knew best… he ate Little!”

“And that is why children, we don’t trust Presidents named George.”

“But Mrs. Frieda, the Tyrannosaurus was named Harvey!”

“Oh… well Sydney, that was just what his mother called him.  His real name was George.”

“But Mrs. Frieda, wasn’t George Washington a good President?”

“My oh my Sydney, aren’t we the smart girl?  I meant to say it’s Presidents named George who went to Yale that we have to worry about.  And Sydney, it’s your turn to clean the bathroom sinks this week.”

{A note from the author.  To pre-empt a few questions. The inspiration for this story came from Sandy.  She came up with a working title of “Harvey the Dinosaur and Little”, and she suggested some dialogue that sounded like a Jurassic version of Selma Mazur on Kings Highway, Brooklyn.  It was my decision to transform the story into a darker fable.  I have traced this unfortunate view to Miss Mylons on Central Avenue where I matriculated in Nursery School.  I was forced against my will to nap on a towel.  And more telling, I had to play the part in the school play of a deer who was accidentally shot by a hunter who was trying to protect his family from a mountain lion.  This should explain, to some, the fragile nature of my emotional make-up.}

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Drink Wine, Live Longer… I Knew It All the Time!

From the Department of “Preaching to the Choir”, I read with glee an article written by Noah Baumbach in the pages of The New Yorker {January 26, 2009}I have long known of the benefits of drinking good red wine and have tried to counsel friends, family, clients and constables of the law as to its salutary effects.  You can understand, then… the sense of satisfaction when I read further confirming details published in a high falutin’ publication like The New Yorker.

As a side note… if you can keep a straight face after reading this, then you must be dead and you should have started enjoying Clarets, Burgs, ‘Neufs, Brunellos & etc. years ago.

 

Mouse au Vin – Noah Baumbach

 

“Red wine may be much more potent than was thought in extending human lifespan, researchers say in a new report that is likely to give impetus to the rapidly growing search for longevity drugs. The study is based on dosing mice with resveratrol, an ingredient of some red wines. . . . [In a related study] scientists used a dose on mice equivalent to just 35 bottles a day.”—The Times

 

August 24, 2008

I uncork a 2003 Haut-Médoc, which has a delightfully oaky nose, and pour a glass for myself and a bowl for my subject, Louis, the gray-and-white mouse I’ve selected for this study. I’ve chosen him for his serious and restrained demeanor—among the other rodents, he keeps to himself. Cautious by nature, he sniffs the wine apprehensively, but after a sip or two he laps it up eagerly.

The Château La Croix opens up in the glass, developing a full body and a luscious texture, and really hits its stride by the sixteenth bottle. Once we get a good head on, Louis is able to do the treadmill for twice his normal length of time and I do a pretty solid forward roll.

August 25th

Late start today. I don’t wake until after ten. (And that’s only because the phone clangs like an air-raid siren. Debra wondering where I was last night.) Louis moans in his cage until eleven-thirty. A 1998 Saint-Émilion helps ease the crippling sensation of blood poisoning. A little hair of the dog. Try to jot some observations from last night, but, really, after I started dialing ex-girlfriends it’s all a black hole.

Louis again shows an abundance of energy, however; he must’ve taken the wrong turn in the maze about eight times in a row before he realized the cheese was to the left. Once he gets it, he collapses in a pool of laughter and urine. And then I collapse in a pool of laughter and urine.

September 3rd

Louis is characteristically reserved and a bit testy before we get going, but after eight or nine glasses he’s back to his jocular self. He even makes some astute comments about the 2005 Pomerol’s peppery herbaceous finish. This is a terrible thing to say, but I like Louis better when he drinks.

After eleven bottles, Louis shows unbelievable muscular progress. He can lift my left foot and, according to the rabbit, he arm-wrestled the monkey to a draw. (I must have been dialing ex-girlfriends around this time.) I do what might generously be called a cartwheel but really is just me losing my balance. I fall and smash into a cabinet of borosilicate glasses.

The mice in the control group get the usual bowl of water and are asleep by nine-thirty. Louis and I don’t crash until four, following a spirited argument about free will and half of “Norbit” on Starz.

September 24th

I call my wife and tell her I’m going to sleep at the lab. She reminds me that she left me a week ago. Louis tries to crack me up by pantomiming humping a chimp through the cage. I hang up and Louis high-fives me: “We’re good to go, bro!”

Louis runs a half-marathon on the treadmill, then vomits into my decanter. I do a handstand.

September 27th

Last thing I remember is doing a handstand three days ago. That’s O.K. But I wouldn’t have minded if someone had moved me from the floor to a mattress. Or at least cleaned up the blood. Louis is staring at me. “You said some weird shit,” he declares.

Louis is excited: he’s heard of a study with endocannabinoids and THC as an anti-inflammatory. He suggests that if we’re going to live forever we ought to have soft skin. I explain to him that we’d need to apply for a grant, which could take months, and, with the headache I’ve got, I really don’t feel up to the paperwork. Louis suggests that we just score some weed at the record store.

October 10th

I look great! Louis looks great! Louis says I look thirty-seven. Louis is a year and a half and looks eight months. I thought Louis was me today. Mice are so weird. They’re like humans in rodent costumes.

October 28th

It should be mentioned that Louis can now lift the cat. I can lift Louis. I could do that before, but now he’s more muscular, so it’s actually impressive. Do you follow?

After we smoke a bowl, I unscrew a 2008 Ralph’s generic-brand red. It has a sugary vinegar nose and a vinegary, sugary, vomity biley taste, but after five bottles who gives a shit? Louis wonders aloud if resveratrol might also be found in tequila, Jägermeister, and cocaine. I have to dip a little further into the grant money, but we’re able to score some blow by the side of the highway. Once we get back to the lab, we discover it’s baking soda. Louis wants to hunt down the guy and murder him. It takes me, the monkey, and the entire control group of mice to restrain him. Fortunately, the hookers arrive and all is forgotten.

December 18th

A touch of vin triste today as we realize that the final mouse in the control group has passed on. Louis tore the little fellow’s head off in a paranoid rage. Thirty-five bottles of red followed by crystal meth seems to have diminishing returns. Or so says the rabbit.

January 5, 2009

Where has all the grant money gone? We need cash, damn it! I can’t give any more blood, that’s for sure. . . . I get Louis a job down the hall testing the effects of loud rock music on hearing, but he fails the piss test. And I’d told him to take the rat’s urine.

Then he’s all in my face, like, “You think you rule the world, I do everything to please you, run the treadmill” bullshit, and I’m, like, “You should shut your fucking face, you fucking mouse animal rodent . . .”

Our first fistfight.

January 24th

i love louis i wrote a song about how much i love him it goes

louis louis louis,
mon petit souris

souris means louis in france i sing him my song and he cries and i pet him and we are happy and we drink wine

March 4th

need to write more better journal writing

June 9, 2077

Louis is seventy today, which must make me three hundred and nine. The mouse and I share a laugh over a slice of Cheddar, thinking back to the old days. Oh, we had some times! This was before they found resveratrol in lettuce and way before the monkey and the rabbit staged an intervention. Louis and I were so mad at them then, but all is forgiven. . . .

Louis looks great for his age. Except for a distinguished salt and pepper along his chin and rear end, he doesn’t look older than seventeen.

It’s funny. I was just remarking to Louis that I can’t even remember what life was like before the mice took over. He laughs and chucks a cracker into my cage.

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You Bring the Wine!

I got the call from my buddy Raymond.  “Friday I’m taking you to my Eating Club for lunch.  You bring the wine, I have already cleared it with the sommelier.  I’ll pick you up at 12:30PM.”

“Eating Club?? I guess the slum landlord business must be good.”

This is from our latest chapter of I pick out the restaurant, and you pick up the check.  It was my turn to pay… but a “club”?  We had given up going to fancy shmancy places years ago when the contest of who could run up the biggest tab got boring. Since when did Ray join a club?  And an eating club?  Very British if you ask me.  A membership in a London club for food and drink, in contrast to a membership in a country club for golf, tennis, fishing and killing animals.  I didn’t know that New Haven sported an eating club; but then again, I don’t travel in those circles.

“I’m to bring the wine?”  Maybe it was a club for gourmands.  You know the kind… they wear brocade vests to contain their girth and they just like to eat and talk about food.  Twelve courses of food, wines to match… four hours later the Maitre D’ escorts you into a mahogany paneled library filled with leather wing chairs, thick Persian carpets, huge paintings of cavalry officers in battle regalia… and all the members proceed to smoke cigars, belch and fart the rest of the day away. Great.  I can’t wait.  And I’m to bring the wine.

“Yes, you bring the wine… I knew you would enjoy bringing wine from your extensive cellar.  And it will save you a few bob… you just have to pick up the corkage.”

A few bob?  I knew it!  A snotty English styled club with tasteless overpriced food.  “Is it too late to change the venue?”

“Yes, I have already pre-ordered our lunch.”

That’s just ducky.  It will save some time… I can get indigestion in advance. “Pre-ordered, have you? How very gourmand… give me the menu so I’ll know what to bring.”

“We’ll start with something from the raw bar, then a shellfish dish followed by a salad intermezzo, then a sausage and potato dish and something Italian for dessert.”

It sounded decent.  I still can’t get over Ray joining some stuck-up eating club.  I wonder if I can find a brocade vest before Friday.

 

The Wine…

 

Alright, if I am going to go thru with this… it has to be right.  First, just one wine won’t do.  The first course is from the raw bar… fat succulent oysters, I bet.  Easy.  Grand Cru Chablis.  Good, I have Domaine William Fevre les Clos ’04.  The wine is a monster.  Chablis is one of the most misunderstood wines in America.  Thank you very much Alamaden and Paul Masson for stealing a name from one of Burgundy’s finest appellations and producing wine that has absolutely zero resemblance to the authentic article.  There is a depth of flavour to this wine, loaded with stony minerality that is just perfect for the briny-ness of fresh oysters.  

Next, for the shellfish dish.  OK… let’s stay with Burgundy; but move to the south and the Cote de Beaune.  This should drink well… Colin-Deleger Puligny-Montrachet la Truffiere ’99.  The wine is richly flavoured without being top heavy with the oak and buttery feel of California Chardonnay.  The wine will stand up very well to a good sauce, a casserole of some type is my guess.

The salad course can stand by itself.

A sausage and potato dish?   Hmmmmmm. Germany, or Alsace maybe?  We’ll play for Alsace because I have nothing decent from Germany or Austria.  Even though it sounds like a pedestrian dish, it’s probably going to be a show piece so we’ll go with a Grand Cru from Zind-Humbrecht.  This is my favorite wine producer in the world.  Incredible quality across their complete portfolio of wines.  Another easy choice.  Domaine Zind-Humbrecht Riesling Brand ’98.  Too bad I don’t have the ’97; but we won’t be suffering with the ’98.  When we open this bottle, if there is anyone in the room who knows anything about wine, their eyeballs should roll across the floor!

And now… the coup de grace.  A dessert from Italy?  I am going to count on something simple… as much as a wedge of Italian cheese cake would be great, I’m thinking biscotti and that makes the call Vin Santo.  This should make Ray faint… Fontodi Vin Santo ’97.  Fontodi’s owner/winemaker Giovanni Manetti told me that after the crush he puts some of his Sangiovese into French barriques for six years… seals the barrel, doesn’t look at it, doesn’t touch it… nothing.  And then he hopes that after six years he has something!  He either has something memorable… Vin Santo , or he throws it out.  Nearly his entire production of Vin Santo gets consumed by his family who steal the wine from his cellar!  I shouldn’t spoil Ray; but he will never be able to have a biscotti again without dipping it into a glass of Vin Santo.

Well… that should do nicely.  Three wines from France, each distinctive and then a little treat from Tuscany.  Raymond better put me in his will.

 

The Club…

 

Friday arrived.  I put on a blazer and a tie.  I took out my Brigade of Guards striped tie for the occasion.  I was hoping that I was going to meet a stuffy member who was going to challenge me about wearing the regimental colours… “Do I know what I am wearing?  Indeed, I do, sir!  My Father was a Liaison Officer in the Brigade of Guards and saw action with Field Marshal Montgomery in defense of El Alamein!”  {And oh, by the way, you can go fuck yourself}

Ray pulled up to the front of my place. “Dressed up I see.”

I put my wine caddy in the back seat of Ray’s car. “Yes.  And I can see that one of us knows how to dress when dining at a club.  What happened Ray… is your buttondown shirt in the wash?  And where is your brocade vest?”

“It’s not that type of club.”

That was clue #1 that this was not going to be a place that I had expected.  Clue #2 was when we began heading west out of New Haven.  “Gee, Ray… I thought your club was going to be in some tiny street in the Yale Campus area.  I even brought identification papers and letters of transit with me just in case…”

“That won’t be necessary.  It looks like you brought enough wine.”

“Ray, why are we heading to the water?  There is nothing down there but storage tanks and private homes in this direction.”  My stomach began to crawl.  “We’re in West Haven!  Ray, we’re in West Haven! The only thing decent in West Haven is Jimmies of Savin Rock!”

“Bingo!”

“Don’t tell me bingo, Ray.  I have this car loaded up with Grand Cru and 1er Cru wine!!”

Let me pause and bring those not familiar with New Haven area eateries up to speed.  In 1925 Jimmie Gagliardi opened a road side food stand near the amusement park of Savin Rock.  Their specialty was a “split hotdog”… split to improve the speed of grilling it.  When I was a little kid the amusement park, with its wooden rollercoaster, log flume ride, carrousel, carnival games of chance & etc., was on its last legs.  But by that time Jimmies had grown to include an “inside restaurant” to go along side it’s large take-out counter.  The counter was divided into three sections… raw clam bar on the far left, grilled and fried food front and center, and soft drinks to the right.  Take out meant taking the food from the counter to your parked car, and in favorable weather, on a sultry summer night, treating the hood of your car as your dinning table.  You would tuck into paper plates filled with Roessler’s hotdogs (nestled in thin rolls and loaded with the fixings), plump and moist french fries (more potato than fry), fried whole belly clams, buttery lobster rolls, clams on the half shell… and everything washed down with cold white birch beer.  The parking lot would be filled with folks standing by their cars talking, laughing, eating… and trying to keep the circling sea gulls at bay (if you left a plate unattended for more than a half minute, a gull would be there to share in your generosity). 

Today… the amusement park is long gone, replaced by a strip mall and several high rise condos.  Jimmies is no longer a walk-up, take-out, open-to-the-air standThe “incidental” restaurant is all that exists, albeit totally rebuilt, enlarged, refurbished and gussied up.  The dinning room is rather big and tasteless… but has huge picture windows that offer a great view of Long Island Sound.  You can see sail boats and small motor craft tooling around… or larger vessels moving in and out of New Haven Harbor.  You can even spot the Light House on the point in East Haven.

In the “old days” you didn’t get to see the water… the view being obstructed by the rock ledge (Savin Rock) that was adjacent to Jimmies.  As much as I love looking at the sea, I prefer the seediness of the older Jimmies without the view of the Sound.  It seemed to work — the aroma of fried foods and suntan lotion, scraps of discarded food scattered in the parking lot attracting a noisy bird community, teenagers cruising with their tops down, music playing (loud; but not by today’s standard).  I’ll take that over tinted picture glass windows any day.

You can still get the signature hotdog that made the place famous.  Now it’s served on cheap china.  Maybe if you didn’t experience the “old”, you wouldn’t know what you’re missing.  A Jimmies hotdog on china? 

It’s a new world… perhaps I shouldn’t be so critical of my friend’s eating club.

 

The Lunch…

 

“Raymond… this is your eating club?”

“I like to think of it that way.  How many times have we been here over the last 50 years?  More than we can count!  I like to think of it as my club.  There are no dues, the food is reliable — you know you love it!  Why don’t you relax.”

“And you ‘cleared’ it with the sommelier for me to bring my wine?  This is fucking Jimmies, there is no fucking sommelier Raymond, you douche bag!”

“Take it easy.  It was a slight exaggeration.  Look at it this way… I am sure that the wines you brought are awesome, and besides, it will add an uplifting tone to our repast.  Calm down.  And why don’t you take off that ridiculous tie… we’re in Jimmies for God sakes!”

“Ridiculous? It’s the Brigade of Guards!  You know that my Father served in the Guards and was wounded at Balaclava!  I wear it for ceremonial purposes only.”

I was trying to decide if it would be worth breaking a bottle over Raymond’s head.  But why waste Grand Cru.  “I am so relieved that you pre-ordered!  I wouldn’t have known what to have for lunch!”

My hopes for the first course being fat slurpy oysters were left to my dreams.  We each knocked off a dozen icy little necks, though.  And yes, the Fevre les Clos performed admirably.  Thank God for the Kimmeridge shelf.  We could have ordered some more clams and killed the bottle of Chablis… but why be greedy?

The “shellfish course” turned out to be a lobster roll.  Chunks of tail and claw meat, warm and served in a butter soaked roll.  We each had a glass and half of the Puligny.  What a wine. A full bodied Chardonnay that packed flavour and yet had considerable elegance.  Even with its lighter feel, you could easily taste the wine thru the heavier taste of the lobster roll.  Ray nodded his approval.

Our “intermezzo salad” was a side of coleslaw.  Very good, not too creamy.  This is definitely an underrated dish at Jimmies.

The “sausage and potato” dish turned out to be a hotdog and french fries.  I counseled Ray against loading up his dog with sauerkraut for fear that it would kill the Zind.  He shook his head. “You’re my best friend; but don’t tell me how to eat a Jimmies hotdog!”

I reconsidered… OK, why not… a little relish, a little mustard, a good portion of ‘kraut.  Perfect.  I love the way a Jimmies hotdog has a crunch when you bite into it.  Now a sip of Grand Cru Riesling.  Unreal… the wine was pure opulence.  A silk palate feel, and lush fruit flavours of pear, honey and lichee.  Amazing fruit pungency, and yet dry. I don’t know how they do it!  The soft fries, the hotdog with the works… a glass of Zind-Humbrecht.  It doesn’t get better!

“You know, Jim… would you really have enjoyed this as much in the Union League Club?”

“I think you know the answer…”  How could any place have matched the improbability of what we had just enjoyed?

When our waitress came to clear our plates, there was half a bottle left of each of the three wines.  “Do you enjoy wine?” I asked.

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do…”

“Wonderful.  Please take these bottles and share them with the chef with our compliments.”

“Why thank you so much… she loves wine, too.  By the way… that’s a great looking tie!”

“Why thank you.  It’s the Brigade of Guards.  My Father was in the Guards with Chinese Gordon when Khartoum fell.  He was awarded the Order of Locks for Uncommon Bravery in the Face of the Enemy.”

“Wow!  Can I get you some dessert?”

Ray looked at me and just shook his head.  When the waitress left, he said “I have some biscotti in the car.  I always keep a few in the glove compartment.  In case of emergency, you understand.”

“Ever the boy scout!  Well… let’s pinch these wine glasses and take in a bit of sea air.  I have a little Vin Santo that is begging for a biscotti!”

“That should do nicely.  Your Father? With Chinese Gordon at Khartoum? The Order of Lox?”

“It was a slight exaggeration.”

Posted in Stories & Brief Tales | Leave a comment

Christmas Eve 1966

I think about this day from time to time.  It’s easy to remember specific details on two accounts. First, it was the night of my Brother Paul and Janet’s engagement party.  The festivities took place at chez DeLaurentis and featured a quantity of food that would have rivaled anything that could have been mounted at 25 Alston Ave.  With regard to food, clearly Mrs. D and Mommie Soph were cut from the same cloth.

Second, it was a night of a snow storm of near blizzard proportions. By 9:00PM we had well over a foot on the ground.  This was New Haven, CT… not Stowe, VT.

Here it is, I live in Connecticut… New England. New England with all those winterly traditions… going to grandmother’s house, the horse and sleigh, the bells… and snow of course!  And around Christmas this powerful image gets reinforced in drawings (Currier & Ives) and song (White Christmas)… the trouble is that in 58 years of living in Connecticut I can only remember one Christmas where we had a significant snow.  Sure, there were other years (and not many of them!) when there may have been a piddling of snow… or perhaps an “old snow” that had fallen two weeks before and had lingered to the 25th.  But not a real snow of lore and legend.

Just one… 1966.

And here is the irony.  There are folks who live in San Diego, or in Houston, or in Orlando and they are envious of us folks who can enjoy a Christmas with snow… “gee, you’re lucky you live in Connecticut… you get to enjoy a Dickens Christmas, roasting chestnuts by the fire, steaming plum pudding and snow.”  Little do they know.

Just one… 1966

Now, on the Eve that I am describing… after stretching my stomach to its maximum capacity, I took my leave and drove home thru the beating storm (my parents must have been out of their minds to let me do that… even I wouldn’t let me do that.  It’s even possible that I hitched a ride with someone else returning to Alston Avenue).  The ride back wasn’t all that far… city streets in New Haven, no major hills.  No traffic, not a snowplow in sight… it was Christmas Eve, after all.  Just drive slow.  And I had one thing in mind… to convince my buddy Gary Moss to drive down from Woodbridge so that we could go sledding. Not to some golf course, mind you… but down the steep hill of Edgewood Avenue.  A city street, unplowed, no traffic… at night, with a driving snow in clear evidence in the pyramid of light coming from the street lights… and it was Christmas Eve.  We made a couple of runs down the center of the street… the thickness of the snow slowed our descent.  Still, it couldn’t get better.  Something straight out of a Currier & Ives woodcut.

Couldn’t get better, that is, unless you take into account another detail.  Earlier in that day Mommie Soph would have driven over to Eld St.  This is where the Chipp tailors worked to make our “bespoke” tailor made suits. Mommie Soph was my father’s emissary to the tailoring shop’s Christmas party.  Since food was involved, it was only natural that she should take on this task.  Provisions fell into 4 categories: Deli, from M&T and would include roast beef, pastrami, corned beef, tongue, turkey, sour tomatoes, half sour pickles, potato salad and coleslaw. Pastries from Lucibello’s in Hamden, this included every known Italian pastry in the world. Pizza, from Pepe’s on Wooster St. (and I’m not going to get into an argument here over Pepe’s vs. Sally’s). And finally whisky.  My Father would have provided an extra case of Scotch that was to be given to Toplitsky… he was the head of the Tailors’ Union in New Haven, and he was always sure to pay a visit on Christmas Eve (and not leave ’til he killed a bottle of his stash).  This was in the day when relations between management and union were not as contentious as they are today.  Everyone had to live… and my Dad just figured that living was a little bit easier with a little whisky to warm Toplitsky’s soul.

This tailors’ party would not have been exclusive to 1966, although it certainly would have taken place then, so I feel comfortable adding it to the memory of the day.  It should also be noted that leftovers from the tailors’ party always found their way to 25 Alston Avenue.  Mommie Soph always made sure there were plenty of leftovers, and December 24, 1966 would not have been different (I think after eggs benedict, Pepe’s cold pizza is my favorite before noon food).

I can imagine that after a half hour or so of sledding, Gary and I would have repaired back to my house to shake off the cold and the snow and scarf down a cannoli to replenish the calories we had burned on Edgewood Avenue’s hill.

I was certainly passed the age of turning in early to let visions of sugar plums dance thru my head.  This might not be accurate; but for the sake of this tale, let’s just say I finished off the evening by watching Reginald Owen’s version of The Christmas Carol (I would switch my allegiance to Alastair Sim’s version some years later). 

A great evening.

I am sitting in our kitchen in Woodbury at present… looking out to the horse farm on the far side of our split rail fence.  The snow is over a foot deep and the fir tree boughs have a healthy coating of the white stuff.  I love looking at snow almost as much as I love shoveling it, sledding in it… or just walking in it.  The house in back has a ribbon of smoke curling into the grey sky… maybe it’s someone’s grandmother’s place?  I am sure they could hitch up the spotted mare to a sleigh (which they do every now and then).  Looking at the snow covered yard, the trees, the smoke drifting from a chimney, Christmas decorations twinkling thru a multi-paned window.. that’s about as Currier & Ives as I have seen since… since?  Since 1966.  Not that Gary and I spotted a horse and sleigh on Edgewood Avenue on December 24, 1966.

But we could have.

Happy Holidays to you all.

Posted in Childhood | Leave a comment

Mommie Soph Orders From Dean & Deluca

I happened by Jewel St. in New Haven for a visit with Mommie Soph.  My Dad would have referred to this as her permanent address.  No matter.  When are you leaving? This would have been the first question she would have asked of me.  And upon taking my leave, she would have asked, when are you coming back, and what do you want to eat?

For my Grandmother these were the key reference points.  How long you were staying, when are you returning and what do you want to eat.  Everything else would follow in due course.

On this most recent visit I came armed with a copy of Dean & Deluca’s Holiday Catalogue.  I had it my mind that it might be fun to gather everyone for a holiday feast.  I wasn’t sure of the best location for the festivities… that could be decided later.  But I thought that Mommie Soph and I could organize the food side of things, and rather than belaboring her with running around for everything, why not pick up all the fixin’s from Dean & Deluca?  One look thru the pages of their catalogue is enough to set your mouth to watering.  Excellent photography, marvelous descriptions… very fancy shmancy as Mommie Soph would say.  Time to reach for the ring, grab the gusto and take out the wallet.

I opened the catalogue… page 2. “This is a good place to start.  The central piece of the dinner has to a standing rib roast.  And look at this yummy picture!  Five ribs!  And this is what they say: Now this is a roast. Grass-fed, dry-aged, perfectly marbled, prime beef that is melt-in-the-mouth tender, unbelievably flavorful and the star of any meal.”

“OK.  You are probably right.  Dad will probably want a second rib. We better order three. No, I don’t know why they trimmed the juicy, fatty parts from the rib… it’s just a photograph.  A serving suggestion.  OK, if that’s the way it comes, I will ask them to send the fatty parts on the side… and yes it’s something that you could make into a stew for the dogs.”

“Next, these double baked potatoes look sensational:  ONLY AT DEAN & DELUCA. The chefs at The Perfect Bite Co. think potatoes taste better with bacon, so they scooped out the insides of baked Russet potatoes and filled them with a mixture of Yukon Golden Mashed, bacon, sour cream and horseradish and baked them again.”

“Yes, I know that there some bacon in it.  But there is also horseradish in it which neutralizes the bacon.  And besides, everyone loves bacon and you wouldn’t want a table full of disappointed people!  There are four potatoes in the package, so four orders should be plenty.  OK, we’ll order six.”

“Hey, this looks good.  Shallots, this might be fun. ONLY AT DEAN & DELUCA. Smaller and milder than onions, shallots get even sweeter when roasted with a glaze of balsamic vinegar. An order is sixteen ounces.  On principle we’ll get two orders.”

“These biscuits look good, too. How delicious! Our rich, buttery and flaky Cream Cheese Biscuits and 72-layer Herb Parmesan biscuits are mouth-watering and ready to pop into an oven. There are twelve in an order.  What do you think? Two or three?  Two?  Good call, we don’t want the biscuits taking up valuable stomach room away from the roast beef!”

“I think we have the key stuff taken care of for dinner.  But we are going to need plenty of appetizers.  And nobody beats Dean & Deluca on apps! We can skip the tapas on page 10.  Bingo! Page 15! “Comfort Appetizers”!  That’s the ticket: Think of these as gourmet comfort starters. Mashed Potato Toast, Mini Shrimp Newburg Pot Pie, Monte Cristo Sandwich and Welsh Rarebit Tomato Tart. Watch as everyone comes back for seconds. You’re not kidding.  We’ll go flying thru these.  48 pieces?  We’ll get two orders.  And yes these others look good, too: Entertaining made simple. We’ve put together this selection of roasted Eggplant and roasted Tomato Crisps, Blue Cheese and Pear Phyllo Stars, Fig and Goat Cheese Flatbreads and Seafood Thermidor Puff Pastries. An elegant array of classic flavors for your next cocktail party.  No, we’re taking a pass on these.  I don’t like eggplant and the smell of goat cheese makes me want to puke.”

“All is not lost!  Here on page 20, mini franks and mini burgers: Premium ingredients can make even the most down-home appetizers downright elegant. Take, for example, our handmade mini franks. Made from luxurious Wagyu beef, and hand rolled with rich cream cheese dough, they’re ready for you to bake at home. And our sliders, petite in size, are packed with big flavor bursting with beefiness.  Elegant?  Well, that’s a stretch.  But everyone loves pigs-in-a-blanket!  An order is twelve franks and twelve sliders.  Yeah, that is nothing… we better get three.”

“Oh, wait on page 25 there is smoked fish and caviar!  We got have some sturgeon: ONLY AT DEAN & DELUCA. One melt-in-your-mouth bite and you’ll understand why sturgeon is called the “queen of all smoked fish.” Delicate and firm, succulent and sweet, with a moist, lean, velvety texture, ours was smoked over Maple, Hickory and Cherry woods to give it a mild and distinctive flavor. Five to seven slices per 8-oz. pack. Two packs?  Good… we’ll pass on the caviar, although that would have been a treat, it’s priced to Mars.  Even for Dean & Deluca!”

“We’ll need some desserts.  We’ll give Mom a break and order a couple on page 31:Vanilla Bean Raspberry cake… ONLY AT DEAN & DELUCA. Four buttery layers of fluffy white cake are flavored with Tahitian vanilla beans and spread with thick layers of homemade raspberry preserves and white chocolate buttercream. The same buttercream wraps the entire cake in richness before being covered in Callebaut white chocolate shavings. From Pâtisserie Angelica. And we have to get something chocolate! ONLY AT DEAN & DELUCA. The best chocolate cakes manage to combine fluffy texture with ultra-rich flavor. Case in point? This light-as-air chocolate cake from Pâtisserie Angelica is layered with silky smooth Callebaut chocolate fudge, topped with the same and embellished with Callebaut chocolate curls. I like the curls; but I’ll probably have the vanilla bean cake.”

“No, there are no pies.  Yes, Paul loves lemon meringue.  We’ll let him bring one.  OK, two.”

“Hey! Here’s something on page 56 that will be great to have for breakfast the next day! Our fantastic brunch includes Wild Sockeye Salmon from the Pacific Northwest, lightly smoked to perfection; Bellwether Farms rich Creme Fraiche; plump Capers from Spain, Pumpernickel and Rye Bread and a DEAN & DELUCA Cutting Board.  The cutting board is a plus!  Creme fraiche?  It’s a change of pace from cream cheese.  I think that it’s a big thing with the fancy shmancy Jews from Westchester.”

“No bagels?  No, look… at the top of the page. We’d argue that the best bagels in the world come from New York. And of those, we love H&H Bagels® the most. Frozen and ready to be popped into the oven. Four each of Plain, Sesame, Cinnamon Raisin, Onion, Wheat and Everything. Kosher. See? Kosher! That makes up for the bacon bits in the double baked potatoes!  Alright, one order of bagels and we’ll double the order on the salmon!”

“Well, that should round things out nicely.  We’ll just have all this stuff delivered.  You won’t have to worry about a thing!  Yes, I know that you will want to pick up a few things… why would I think otherwise?  No.  It won’t belong before I return.  And yes, it will be a great dinner!”

The bottom line:

3 Rib Roasts @ $290… $870.

6 Twice Baked Potatoes @ $42… $252.

2 Roasted Shallots @ $35… $70.

2 Biscuits @ $25… $50.

2 Comfort appetizers @ $70… $140.

3 Franks & sliders @ $95… $285.

2 Sturgeon @ $68… $136

2 Cakes @ $65… $130.

2 Brunch Salmon @ $44… $88

1 Bagels @ $40… $40.

Total: $2061.

Good thing we didn’t order the caviar.

Posted in Family | Leave a comment

Colette

They were known as “C & C”.  That’s what happens when you frequent a place.  You become known… known and identified.  Maybe it’s the funny hat you wear or the drink you order.  But sooner or later, at a place like the Ash Creek Saloon, you will acquire a handle.  It is to be expected… ask any of the regulars.  In this case, C & C referred neither to a hat nor the name of a drink; but to Christopher and Colette, patrons in long standing of Ash Creek.

It was agreed by one and all that their presence in our place uplifted the ambiance.  Not that Ash Creek is a trashy dive.  But there is something special in guy who wears a blue buttondown shirt with a navy & green striped tie and who draws back a bar stool for a lady.  Something special in a lady who enjoys a Manhattan served straight up … a lady who can’t remove her eyes from her man.  In a very fast world, Colette and Christopher seemed to step from a different time.

After graduating from Yale, Christopher (never Chris) entered the Foreign Service.  I guess that it was to be expected… expected if you were raised in a good family from Lloyd Harbor, NY… expected when you went to Hotchkiss and was Skull and Bones at Yale… it was expected that you would enter into something noble.

No one could mistake the way Colette looked at him when he called her ma petite chou.  She would sip her Manhattan, narrow her eyes a bit, bring an eyebrow down, squinch her nose and smile… a smile slightly crooked to one side.  Everything in her expression said, “I love you.”  And more… “I know you”.

Christopher, for his part, maintained a lofty, dignified yet not stuffy air that spoke of good schooling and sensible restraint.

It was Lou Reilly, Ash Creek regular without peer who offered, “I bet they fuck like rabbits.”

That might be true, although the concept seemed at odds for a guy who wears a shirt and tie to a saloon, and a lovely lady who leisurely partakes of blended whisky served up.  Out of place for Christopher age 84 and Colette a spry 68.

But, you never know.

You have to understand this about saloons.  Even regulars drift away.  Maybe they move to other saloons, follow a departed bartender, give up booze for a bit or just move.  But sooner or later folks stop asking “Hey! It’s Thursday, have you seen C & C?” And that’s the way it was when we didn’t see them for well over a year.

Then there came a Thursday evening this past September when I was stationed at one of Ash Creek’s high tops, papers spread out, attempting to chart a recollection from my childhood. It was a night when words didn’t flow as easily as my whisky. Well… some nights the words are there for the taking, other nights they are elusive. Just the way it is, I suppose. I didn’t fault the whisky, I looked at a page filled with cross-outs and put my pen down, and as I looked up…

“Mind if a Lady sits down?” It was Colette.

“I’d be honored.” I looked around, Christopher was not to be seen, so I shuffled my pages to the side, got up and pulled back the stool next to me. She put her pocketbook down on the other stool, looked at me and smiled that famous smile. If she detected my surprise, or if she felt that it was an awkward moment that had to be crossed, she didn’t hesitate to push on…

“What does it take for a Lady to get a Manhattan around this place?”

Perfect. Just the perfect thing to say to cut thru the surprise. If I had missed Colette’s entrance, her arrival had not been missed by Pauline who appeared with a Manhattan served properly in well chilled up glass just after the question was posed. That’s a good bartender.

“Pauline, you look great! Thank you so much for remembering… I know it’s been awhile.” She picked up her glass and looked at me and continued, “Yes, it’s been awhile… and I see you are still busy writing about looking up the skirt of your history teacher in 12th grade.”

“Yes, the memory occupies me constantly. Nice to see you Colette! Here’s to you, here’s to your smile… and here’s to the women of the world who know how to enjoy whisky!”

Sure, the toast and the whisky were fine; but that didn’t cover what was missing… what was missing was a gentleman wearing a blue buttondown shirt and a navy and green striped tie. And I was reluctant to call attention to the missing person.

Colette didn’t hesitate to fill the gap of brief silence. “I’m very happy that Pauline still knows how to build a Manhattan. Christopher would be pleased, and I am sorry that he could not be here to enjoy your company… and more importantly enjoy Pauline’s ample build!” The smile spread on her face with this last thought. She sipped her Manhattan, “Oh, please… why do you think we came here on Thursday’s? Christopher loved looking at Pauline’s breasts!” She shook her head and laughed. There was nothing tawdry in the way Colette said this, nothing harsh or resentful. There was nothing hidden. We always had the sense that between Colette and Christopher there was always trust.

“I can remember one time we went to see a performance of La Boehme at the Met. It was a Thursday night… dress night. Black tie and gowns. My, Christopher looked great in black tie. So distinguished. So handsome. Of course, everyone was dressed well. After all it was the Metropolitan Opera, and it was New York. Well, there was this woman who was wearing this stunning red gown, very low cut, and my she was built! Talk about cleavage! I think if she had sneezed everything would have come out! There wasn’t a man in the lobby of the Met who wasn’t staring at that cleavage. Christopher included!”

She looked at her drink, dipped her pinky to retrieve the cherry, thought the better of it, licked her pinky… took another sip. “So I asked Christopher, ‘What are you staring at?’ He didn’t deny it, he just said, ‘I know her! I met her in Paris. She was married at that time to some guy, a much older guy who had been a leader of the resistance.’ And I said back, ‘So you are looking at her because she was married to a hero or because she is wearing a dress with a plunging neck line?’ Then he turned to me, held my hand and said, ‘That is some dress, and if I couldn’t appreciate how beautiful she is, how could I appreciate how beautiful you are?’”

That sounded like Christopher, very noble. I raised my glass. “Well said.” A warm story; but where is our noble gentleman?

Colette acknowledged my toast, took a healthy sip of her Manhattan. Her expression paused… as if she had just been stung. Then she shook her head slightly, tilted her head upward, her eyes brightened and that smile opened like a flower, “Did I ever tell you the first time we met?  It was a pure chance occurrence.”

She took another quick sip.

“I was in Moscow on business, of all places. I got some time to myself and decided to take in the Tretyakov Gallery. I had been to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg a couple of times; but the Tretyakov showcased Russian artists. I was making my way thru the rooms and I saw this rather large painting that I found riveting. The artist was Ilya Repin and I think the name of the painting was called ‘The Surprise.’ And I just found myself drawn into the subject matter of the painting. An exile from Siberia who shows up in ragged clothes by surprise at his cottage after years spent in a gulag. The entire story could be seen in that painting. I just kept looking at it, imagining what was going on in the minds of the characters portrayed in this dimly lit room. I approached the painting, walked to the left and then to the right, and examined its fine detail… then slowly I began to draw back to get its overall effect, when I felt a hand on my shoulder. ‘Some painting, isn’t it?’ It was Christopher! He happened to be in Moscow on some assignment for the State Department.”

I knew the story of their initial meeting. I even knew that canvas. I saw it when I did a summer semester at Moscow State University in 1970. It is one of my favorite paintings. The title is usually translated as “The Unexpected Return”. I loved learning that Christopher and Colette had met before a painting that I knew very well. Somehow I felt an immediate connection to them. Even though I had heard this story before, I was not anxious to move to a different topic. Like, so… where is Christopher?

“Well, let me tell you, he gave me quite a start! I was so wrapped up in studying that painting… and to have my concentration interrupted, by a man… by a strange man… by an American man who I had never met before… in a Moscow Gallery?  It was too much.  Christopher saw that I was startled, but in a very gentle way he took my hand and said, ‘Here let me show you another canvas by that artist.’ And we walked to another room and he pointed to another canvas, ‘This is a portrait of Repin’s wife Vera. Look how he captured her in repose. Sleeping in this chair, look at the delicacy of her hands and fingers, and then the peaceful sensual expression in her face. Breathtaking isn’t it? When I saw you studying the other canvas, that same sensual expression, your delicacy, I was captivated, it was as if you were a mirror for how Repin had painted Vera. You were breathtaking!’”

I could see tears welling in Colette’s eyes.

“I could pretend and say I didn’t fall madly in love that very instant. Let’s just say I was smitten… but love – the real thing – soon followed.”

She finished her Manhattan.  Picked up the cherry and plunked it in her mouth stem and all, looked down and then brought her face up, eyebrows set to a deep furrow. I was about to say something, and she raised her hand for me to wait.  She looked left and then right and then pointed at me and produced a cherry stem with a tiny knot in it on her tongue… along with a self satisfied grin.

“Well, Colette… with a talent like that I can understand why Christopher loves you…”

She smiled.  “Jim… I think another Manhattan would wear well!”  And before I could signal a request, Pauline appeared with another Manhattan up and rye whisky on the rocks.  What did I tell you?  Pauline is some bartender.

She brought her lips down to rim level of the glass and took a healthy sip before picking up the glass.  She looked into the contents of the glass, maybe expecting tea leaves to appear? “What a pretty colour.  I think I first began to notice it three maybe three and half years ago.  Small things at first.  Christopher would come into a room, look at me and just stand there… waiting.  Maybe he had thought I had called him?  But you could tell that he had no idea why he was there.  Now, at first I didn’t think too much of it.  We all get absent minded every now and then.”

She pursed her lips and frowned a bit.

“But there came a day when he would be standing there… oh, it could have been at the market or something… and he would look at me and smile… and I knew that he had no idea who I was.  For a brief moment or two, or maybe longer, I had become a total stranger.”

She folded her arms and pinched her shoulders together.  Maybe the very thoughts produced a chill?

“I denied it for a few months.  Only natural I suppose.  I guess the smile and his easy going ways lead me to believe that everything was normal.  But you know Christopher… he would treat a stranger at Ash Creek with the same smile and friendly graciousness that he would treat his best friend.”

She held her upper arms close, looked down to the table, shook her head and looked up at me.  There was a slight tremble to her lip and her eyes weakened.  “He was the brightest person who I ever knew, and yet he was so humble about it… as if his own intellect was an embarrassment to him.  He never felt the need to flaunt his brains and he had the uncommon gift of making a dirt poor farmer in Cambodia feel as important as a Minster of Government in France.”

“Jim… he was so kind, he loved me and I loved him.  And bit by bit, I started to lose him.  It was as if all the richness that we had shared got carried off in the wind like a dandelion poof.”

She fiddled with the base of her glass. “We would go to the movies, go out to dinner or come to Ash Creek.  For a time it seemed to help him out… that he returned to being Christopher… at least for a spell.  But then there was a night when we left here and he insisted on driving and we got into an argument on how to get home.  And with each turn that he took that turned out wrong he got angrier and angrier.  A route that he knew so well had become a horrible maze to him.  Sure he was angry.  Oh, I became angry, too!  Oh,yes I did!  How could this happen?  How could the man I love morph into a complete stranger?  A stranger was occupying the body of Christopher!!  I was angry… angry and frightened.”

I didn’t like where this story was leading.  It frightened me.

Colette stirred her drink, not that it needed stirring, took in the colour again, admired the handiwork of Pauline, “We went to Bermuda every year.  It was our treat to ourselves.  It might be a week, it might be a long weekend… it made no matter.  We always stayed at Cambridge Beaches in Somerset, Sandy’s Parish.  From our back patio of our cottage a beautiful lawn stretched down a slope to the white sand beach of Long Bay.  We could watch the sun set from our cottage.  No hurry, the world stopped for us.”

Colette stopped her story mid flight. She took a deep breath and sighed, looked at her slender fingers and brushed some imaginary dust from the table.

“One early evening we were taking in the setting sun before heading over to the dinning room.  Christopher had made us pink gin cocktails and we watched this older couple, walking on the path to the Main House.  They were even older than us!  We judged that they had a similar split in age to ourselves.  It was also clear that he was having trouble getting on.

“We had seen them the night before sitting in the Port o’ Call Bar in the Main House.  He just sat there with a vacant expression on his face while she carried on a conversation.  A conversation with who? Christopher looked over to them, and then he whispered to me, ‘light on in the attic but no one is home.'”

She finished her second Manhattan.  But signaled Pauline that she was done.

“So… there we are watching this couple again while we are sipping our pink gins.  Christopher put his cocktail down, looked at his hands, straightened his tie and said to me, ‘Promise me Colette if I begin to lose it, you will take things into your hands.  Our bodies go… sure.  But I am terrified of losing my mind.  Promise me Colette… if you love me… that you will take it in your hands, you won’t let me suffer as a blank page. You have to be strong.'”

She looked at her empty glass.  Shook her head and raised her eyes to the ceiling and pinched her shoulders again.  I looked at my whisky, fiddled with the melting ice.

“Excuse me, Jim… I have to hit the loo.”  Colette picked up her pocket book and headed to the ladies room.

I was numb. I just stared at my whisky. What could it all mean? Had this been Christopher’s end play? Is there anything good in this end? I shuddered thinking of the emotions that Colette must have lived with.  That was an awful lot to put on some one, if you love me… take it in your hands… be strong.

When she returned she took out her purse.  I stopped her.  “I’ll pick up the tab tonight, you can take it next time.  You can even pay for the food!  I promise to run up a huge bill.”

She smiled the smile. Yes, nothing could stop that smile for too long.  It was to be expected, slightly crooked and knowing. “Thanks for listening Jim, see you next time.”

Posted in Stories & Brief Tales | Leave a comment

The Plan

What follows below appeared in the Novermber 24 issue of the New Yorker in their Shouts & Murmurs column.  The writer is Jack Handey… my first reading of his work.

Well… I am tipping my hat to him.  The economy is real tough and I am trying to think of ways to augument my earnings… the conventional ways are falling short.  Handey’s plan I think has real potential.  I am going to recruit a team of worthy confederates.

After careful consideration… taking into account loyalty and motivation, I have decided to put Gary Moss in Leon’s role.  He narrowly beat out Jonathan Mix.  Jonathan, you will get the next gig.  Jock, you’re third.

Others wanting to join the team, please send your resume… oh, and one hundred dollars American… and I promise to give your application my immediate attention!

 

***********************

 

The plan isn’t foolproof. For it to work, certain things must happen:

 

The door to the vault must have accidentally been left open by the cleaning woman.

 

The guard must bend over to tie his shoes and somehow he gets all the shoelaces tied together. He can’t get them apart, so he takes out his gun and shoots all his bullets at the knot. But he misses. Then he just lies down on the floor and goes to sleep.

 

Most of the customers in the bank must happen to be wearing Nixon masks, so when we come in wearing our Nixon masks it doesn’t alarm anyone.

 

There must be an empty parking space right out in front. If it has a meter, there must be time left on it, because our outfits don’t have pockets for change.

 

The monkeys must grab the bags of money and not just shriek and go running all over the place, like they did in the practice run.

 

The security cameras must be the early, old-timey kind that don’t actually take pictures.

 

When the big clock in the lobby strikes two, everyone must stop and stare at it for at least ten minutes.

 

The bank alarm must have mistakenly been set to “Quiet.” Or “Ebb tide.”

 

The gold bars must be made out of a lighter kind of gold that’s just as valuable but easier to carry.

 

If somebody runs out of the bank and yells, “Help! The bank is being robbed!,” he must be a neighborhood crazy person who people just laugh at.

 

If the police come, they don’t notice that the historical mural on the wall is actually us, holding still.

 

The bank’s lost-and-found department must have a gun that fires a suction cup with a wire attached to it. Also a chainsaw and a hang glider.

 

When we spray the lobby with knockout gas, for some reason the gas doesn’t work on us.

 

After the suction cup is stuck to the ceiling, it must hold long enough for Leon to pull himself up the wire while carrying the bags of money, the gold bars, and the hang glider. When he reaches the ceiling, he must be able to cut through it with the chainsaw and climb out.

 

Any fingerprints we leave must be erased by the monkeys.

 

Once on the roof, Leon must be able to hold on to the hang glider with one hand and the money and the gold bars with the other and launch himself off the roof. Then glide the twenty miles to the rendezvous point.

 

When we exit the bank, there must be a parade going by, so our getaway car, which is decorated to look like a float, can blend right in.

 

During the parade, our car must not win a prize for best float, because then we’ll have to have our picture taken with the award.

 

At the rendezvous point, there must be an empty parking space with a meter that takes hundred-dollar bills.

 

The robbery is blamed on the monkeys.

 

Posted in Ministry of Humor | Leave a comment

Forty-Eight Years Ago

On November 1, 1960 64% of the Nation’s Electorate went to cast their vote for President of the United States.  John Kennedy carried the State of Connecticut 53.7% to Richard Nixon’s 46.3%.  Kennedy did not have the same success in Mrs. Bear’s Sixth Grade Class at Hamden Hall Country Day School.

In that class students lined up for the Candidates of their choice flanking each side of the room.  If memory serves, we were responsible for telling the class… briefly… why we supported Kennedy or Nixon.

Let the record show that I stood in the line by the windows and voted for the team of Nixon and Lodge along with Chuck Clark, Gary Moss and Duncan Moffitt among others.  Nixon carried the Sixth Grade, although Kennedy prevailed in the School.

Let the record also show, that this was my first Election, and it would be the only time that I ever voted for Richard Nixon.  In 1968 and 1972 I voted against him (in fact, I am disappointed that I didn’t have the  chance not to vote for him when he ran for Governor of California).

My reasons for supporting Nixon was that, at age 10, I thought that Nixon’s experience was vastly superior to Kennedy’s.  I also thought that Henry Cabot Lodge had great experience, and an impressive sounding name.  An impressive name?  I guess that is the political equivalent of selecting a horse by the colour of the jockey silks.  Hey, I was 10.

My parents voted for Kennedy.  They were Democrats; but I don’t think they tried to influence my choice.  Nor, at that time, was I aware that our store, Chipp, made clothing for Senator John Kennedy.  Had I known that detail, I might have moved to the other side of the classroom and thrown my support his way.  After all, customer loyalty has to make-up ground on experience.

It’s forty years later, and we are on the eve of another presidential election.  Maybe the most important of my lifetime.  And for the first time in memory I will be voting for someone who I actually like, instead of voting for the lesser of two evils.  But even if I didn’t like a candidate, even if I had to select the lesser of two evils, I would still be voting.  As a citizen, I think it is one of the most important things we do.  We become involved in the process.  We don’t have to make speeches.  We don’t have to write letters to the editor.  We don’t have to attend political rallies.  We don’t have to go to Party pancake breakfasts.  We don’t have join a political party.  We just have to register to vote.  And then vote.

Yes, it’s just one vote.  A vote among millions.  A vote that gets buried in the quagmire of the Electoral College.  But the vote is so important… because it shows that you care.  That’s what makes it so important… you are telling yourself that “I care.”

You can wear your flag pins, put a “support the troops” ribbon magnet on your car; but it means absolutely nothing if you don’t vote.  There is nothing wrong with displaying your patriotism; but to do so without supporting your beliefs in the polling place, then “flying the flag” becomes a vacant and hypocritical form of patriotism.

Please get out there and vote.  It’s important.

Posted in Politics | Leave a comment

The Great White Huntress

It was my turn to pick up the tab, the choice of location had been Raymond’s. In a friendship that went back to third grade and which was ruled by many traditions, this tradition – one person selects a restaurant for a Friday lunch, the other is responsible for the check – goes back to the day I left my wallet on the kitchen table and Ray covered a sizable bill. Something he did, I should add, without complaint and a graciousness that speaks well of my best friend.

Once we got over the ensuing contests of sticking-your-buddy-with-a-check-the-size-of-a-mortgage-payment, we selected places like Frank Pepe’s on Wooster St., just as Ray did for our most recent repast.

Pepe’s was actually a concession to me. I knew that Ray actually preferred Sally’s down the street… Sally’s being New Haven’s other “high temple” to Neapolitan apizza. Call it a New Haven “thing”… local folks have been arguing about it for decades… which pizza reigns supreme on the street… Frank Pepe’s established in 1925, or Sally’s founded by Pepe’s cousin Philomena Consiglio in 1938 and named after her eldest son Sal.

Our large mushroom, sausage and bacon arrived at the table, steam rising from its blistered black edges. We both knew to let the pizza rest for a few moments to “compose itself.”

I surveyed our fare, “you know… my Aunt Meggie was right! I mean… she was right about a lot of stuff… but about this? *whew*…”

Ray lifted an eyebrow.

I pointed to our pie. “She’d see a squirrel or a skunk squished on the road – killed and flattened out after repeated run-overs, and she’d call out ‘road pizza!’”

“Oh, that’s pleasant.”

“No, no… look. Look at the darkened mushroom slices, the crumbled sausage meat, mini strips of bacon burnt and curled… it does look like a squirrel, or two squirrels that have been hit a dozen times. The only thing missing is maybe a little fur… which I am sure we could have added as a fourth topping.”

“You couldn’t wait to share this on a different afternoon? An afternoon when, perhaps, we weren’t having lunch? Besides, no one has a fourth topping unless you’re a Wolfgang Puck wannabe.” 

Perhaps the observation was ill-timed. Still I couldn’t help but smile. Thinking of Meggie always makes me smile. She was not the author of the term road pizza. That honor belonged to my Uncle Saul… or so I was told. Meggie just took to the concept the way a bear takes to shitting in the woods, and used it in conversation at every opportunity. If my Mother, Meggie and I drove to the Crown Market on Whalley Avenue and if we saw something on Fountain St. that had previously been a bushy tailed grey squirrel, Meggie would point and say, “road pizza!”  One time we saw the carcass of a deer on the road side near the Maltby Reservoir, Meggie couldn’t contain her excitement, “That’s one for the humans!”

We were nearly ready to tuck into one of Pepe’s finest. I poured us each some birch beer. “It was her dark side.

“Dark side?  Your Aunt?  Anyone who could make oatmeal raisin cookies like your Aunt couldn’t have a dark side.”

I considered the remark, and regarded my generous slice, which to my eye looked very much like “road kill” minus the fur.  Somehow Maggie’s glee at pointing out various animal bodies that littered the road just didn’t square with the person who detested any form of violence.  And while she held nothing against squirrels, opossums, raccoons and skunks… the same can not be said for deer.  Against deer she waged a private vendetta.

Maybe it was a product of living up in more rural Woodbury and having to share her gardens with countless deer that got it her ticked. But the more likely explanation is her frequent automobile to deer confrontations on the lanes of Woodbury, Southbury and Newtown.  Two short anecdotes.

After her second encounter with “Bambi” that had left the front end of her Volvo looking like she had been hit by a T-34 Tank, we watched as Uncle Saul put two deer decals under the side window on the driver’s side.  Meggie gritted her teeth, “I hate ’em all!  They’re too many of them… it’s us against them.”

We stood on the driveway looking at each other.  No one knew what to say.  Things were kind of quiet for a moment.  Meggie waited for someone to make a mitigating comment of some sort, like… “Oh, they are so cute.”  Or, “Come on Meggie, they are harmless.”

The latter observation would be met with a glare, “Harmless?  Harmless did you say?  The problem is that they have no natural enemies.  We should re-introduce mountain lions to Litchfield.  That would help keep the deer population in check.  Maybe that’s too extreme?  OK, this is better:  I think we should pass a law that every adult in Woodbury should have a quota of 20 deer that they would be obligated to kill each year.  Give everyone a gun, and they would be required to kill 20 deer a year, or they would have to sell their homes and move to another town.  No, make that a State.  Everyone has to do their part.”

Uncle Saul was quick to point out, “No natural enemies?  What about you?”

Honestly, I didn’t know what to make of it.  I was just a kid.  I loved everything about Meggie except that she taught 8th Grade Science… and now there was all this rough talk about deer.  I may have asked my Mother why Meggie didn’t move further south if she was so angry about deer.  We had no deer in New Haven on Alston Avenue.

Another time… it was Meggie’s Birthday and we went up to Woodbury for dinner and cake.  Uncle Saul presented Meggie with two nicely wrapped gift boxes.  The first had a clay coloured Willis and Geiger safari cotton bush jacket, and the other box had a pith helmet.  The gift card was inscribed, “To my favorite great white huntress, with all my love… Bwana Saul.”

Dinner and cake were the best… the stories went on and on.  After we said goodnight, Meggie waved to us from the front porch.  She looked about the area.  Was she looking for her next mark?  Before we got into our car, my Father pointed to Meggie’s Volvo… there were three more deer decals under her window.  It certainly looked like Meggie was intent on doing her part.

I never asked anyone whether Meggie actually patrolled the roads of Litchfield County looking to nail deer.  The thought seemed outrageous.  Or was it?  Maybe she was just the victim of amazing coincidences.  One time her Volvo (this would have been her third one that I knew of) was totaled in a deer collision, and she hurt her neck and had to go to a chiropractor for months.  If someone asked her how she was feeling, she would shoot back, “Better than the son-of-a-bitch deer!”

Years later, on one of my visits to her home in Chatham, I though about bringing up the subject of her obsession with deer.  We were sitting in the den which was chock full of bric brac and mementos.  Included in the decor was an original Sharp’s buffalo rifle which occupied the prestigious wall space behind the couch.  In spite of her threat to arm the citizenry of Woodbury with guns to meet the deer challenge, she actually didn’t approve of guns.  But the Sharp’s was a piece of history.  Anyway, I guess it would have been too hard for her to mount the Volvo on the wall.

No… there would be no point in asking about whether some of those decals were the result of intentional muggings.  I liked not knowing.  I was supremely happy to think that there was a rogue element to Meggie.  A dark side.  To me, it added to Meggie’s character.  Not that she was without dimension.  I think of it as one more facet to her incredible personality… even if seems out of character to the casual observer.

I looked at my slice… very  happy.  I raised my birch beer in toast, “This is for the humans!”

Ray nodded, raised his glass and proceeded to scarf down slice #1.  “Good choice, Jim.”

“Yeah… next time we’ll swap out the bacon for some venison.”

“I don’t think Pepe’s offers it as a topping.”

“Then we’ll just have to bring our own.  I hear that the deer are running on the Merritt.”

Posted in Meggie & Saul | Leave a comment

Music Legend Passes

Blind Pork Tail Schwartz (1919 -2008)  {Los Angeles} After a period of extended decline the music great, Blind Pork Tail Schwartz passed away to what has been referred to as mostly natural causes.  The announcement came from his long time publicist and personal chef Tina Tea, “the greatest kazoo player of our lifetime has joined the big band in the sky.”

Considered to be the greatest of the blues kazoo players, some of the titans of the genre have expressed their deep sadness.  Blues icon B.B. King noted, “My oh my, but that dude could play!”  Eric Clapton remembered, “I was looking for another lead instrument for a music project that I was putting together {Derek and the Dominoes} and asked Pork Tail to join the recording sessions; but he couldn’t because of other commitments in the Catskills, so we had to settle for Duane Allman.” Buddy Guy, when notified of Schwartz’ death, added a tribute song to his playlist on the evening.  From the stage he announced, “I have just learned of the passing of a great personal friend, someone who opened my act for ten years and would then sit in on hot numbers with my band.  I’d like to play ‘Chopped Liver Done No Man No Harm’… this is for you Pork Tail.”

Bernard Schwartz was born blind in Charleston, South Carolina to a family of comfortable means. Martin Schwartz owned a successful dry goods store. Rachel Schwartz taught Hebrew School. Bernard at age 8 was given a kazoo. In the documentary on PBS that first aired in 1997, Schwartz said, “My mama gave me a kazoo… she thought I wuz playin’ too much with myself or by myself… {chuckle} Well, that wuz Mama!”  At age 10 he wrote his first song, “Chopped Liver Done No Man No Harm”… it brought him immediate success with its haunting lyric:

It doesn’t look good

It doesn’t taste good

Oh, my day is long

This song was first recorded by the Blues immortal Robert Johnson, and soon after that Bernard left his family home and moved to the Mississippi Delta to join Johnson traveling the countryside playing their music.  Schwartz recalled that period of his life, “I wuz dirt poor; but happy… ya’ know there wuz the Depression goin’ on, an’ all… I jest played my music, did a little reefer… oh, I guess I wasn’t supposed to say that {chuckle}.”

When World War II came, Schwartz tried to enlist.  The Draft Board turned him away. Disappointed, he said, “…they didn’t take blind folks into the Army, or the Navy fer that matter.”  Still, he felt he had to do his part to help the war effort so he signed on with the USO and toured bases, most notably with the Andrew Sisters.  “I wrote Boogie Woogie Kazoo Boy (Company B) fer them.  Great little song.  But half way thru one tour I wuz aksed to leave.  I had what d’ya call a social disease.  Well, LaVerne, Maxene and Patty got it, too!  I told em that we musta got it from the same toilet seat!  But the guys in charge didn’t buy it! {chuckle}  So, they kicked my ass out and changed the song to a Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy.  Ain’t that the dumbest thing ya ever heard?”

After the War, Schwartz’ popularity crested.  He was in constant demand as a session man.  He recorded with Buddy Rich, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald and the Ink Spots among others.  He also toured with Louis Armstrong as a featured guest performer.  Of Schwartz the great Satchmo said, “That cat can play.”

Revived interest in the Blues in the 70s brought him back to his roots.  He traveled with Muddy Waters, B.B. King, Johnny Lee Hooker and others to England to record with a host of British Blues musicians: Eric Clapton, Ron Wood, Charlie Watts, Nicky Hopkins, Steve Winwood, Peter Green, Jimmy Page, Mick Fleetwood and Rod Stewart.

Speaking of those days Schwartz just shook his head, “Crazy, man… jes crazy.  You know those guys over there speak English.  You know, WOW! They got funny toilets over there, though… real funny {chuckle}… and they sure have a funny way of talkin’.”

In 1979 he was invited to Moscow to play in the Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin.  He played to three sold out performances of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. It is the only time that great musical piece was played in its entirety on the kazoo.  He was awarded the Medal of Freedom and Culture and named an Artist of the People.  After his final performance, Leonid Brezhnev embraced him in his signature bear hug… the Soviet Premier waved warmly to the crowd, took the microphone and shouted, “Tot chuvak umeyet igrat!”

His last concert was in 2003 to help celebrate Johnny Winter’s successful completion of his 17th re-hab program.  The two blues kings worked their way thru “It’s My Own Fault”, “Jumping Jack Flash” and “Johnny Be Good”.  Their encore number was “Chopped Liver Done No Man No Harm.”

Mama said yes

I said No

She said you hafta

Oh, my day is long

Back stage Winter put Schwartz’ performance in perspective, “sledgvek mghke qoplw plkwsh!”

Blind Pork Tail Schwartz is survived by no one that he will admit to.

Posted in Entertainment | 1 Comment

Your Parrot He is Dead

Well, with the economy going down the shit can, loss of life continuing in a military engagement that maybe even more shameful than Vietnam, an election that is coming up that will give us an opportunity to show how mean spirited we can be… perhaps a little joke will help numb the pain.  The joke was passed to me by Monsieur Cadan, The Elder.

I laughed so hard that I had to change my boxer shorts… twice.

If you’ve heard it before, or seen it in the email circuit… laugh anyway, because it is funny!  And if you don’t laugh you can join the great Albert Einstein who said on hearing a joke, and I quote, “I don’t understand it.” 

**********

At dawn the telephone rang, “Hello, Senor Rod? This is Ernesto, the caretaker at your country house.”

“Ah yes, Ernesto. What can I do for you? Is there a problem?”

“Um, I am just calling to advise you, Senor Rod, that your parrot, he is dead”

“My parrot? Dead? The one that won the International Parrot Competition? The Parrot I paid $750,00 for?”

“Si, Senor, that’s the one.”

“Damn it! What did he die from?”

“From eating the rotten meat, Senor Rod.”

“Rotten meat? Who the hell fed him rotten meat?”

“Nobody, Senor. He ate the meat of the dead horse.”

“Dead horse? What dead horse?”

“Your thoroughbred, Senor Rod.”

“My prize thoroughbred is dead? You must be kidding!  How the fuck did he die?” 

“Si, Senor Rod, he died from all that work pulling the water cart.”

“Are you insane?? What water cart?”

“The one we had to hook him up to put out the fire, Senor.”

“Good Lord!! What fire?!”

“The one at your house, Senor! A candle fell and the curtains caught on fire.”

“What?!! Are you saying that my mansion is destroyed because of a Goddamn candle? Is that what you are telling me?”

“Si, Senor Rod.”

“But there’s electricity at the house!! What the hell was the candle for?”

“For the funeral, Senor Rod.”

“Holy shit, WHAT BLOODY FUNERAL??!!”

“Your wife’s, Senor Rod, she showed up very late one night and I thought she was a thief, so I hit her on the head with your new Taylor Made SuperQuad 460 golf club.”

{LONG SILENCE}

“Ernesto, if you broke that driver, you’re in deep shit

Posted in Ministry of Humor | Leave a comment

A Character Witness at the Salem Trials

In my profession there is sometimes little warning, little time to prepare… or prepare adequately for a task at hand.  I kept telling them that.  Someone called out sick?  That’s not my fault.  And yes, I’ll admit it takes me longer to study a situation… and yes, yes… I’m not the best at thinking on my feet.  But hey, it was their call, not mine.

The date is clear.  June 2, 1692.  The Court of Oyer and Terminer convened in Salem Town.  William Stoughton the Lieutenant Governor served as Chief Magistrate.  Thomas Newton was the Crown’s Attorney responsible for prosecuting the case against Bridget Bishop who stood accused of being a witch.  The grand jury had heard the evidence in the morning, endorsed the indictment and the case was brought to trial in the afternoon.  It is hard to see that justice was being served with the hastiness of the proceedings.  That wasn’t my fault either.

“Sirs, if it please, I am here to speak on behalf of Bridget Bishop against the claim that she is a witch.”

“And your connection?”

“She has been known to my family for years… and, er… years.  Yes, a very long time.  She, well… she, uh… baked pies for my family.  Yes, that’s it.  She’s an exceptional baker. Oh, boy… that’s Bridget!  Hah! Look at her over there in the dock!  Quite a baker!  When I was just a boy my mother would tell us, ‘I have a surprise… a Bridget Bishop pie for dessert!’  Wow!  She made the best pies!  My mother would never think of baking a pie.  Never.  Why when Bridget made the best.  Do you like pies? One Christmas did she ever make the best pie.  Let’s see… yes, it was mincemeat pie… she made the best mincemeat pie.  Did you ever have any?  Gosh, the crust was magical.”

Magical?

“Magical?  Well… you know what I mean.  *ahem*  I mean, er… {cough, cough} magical; but not in that sense.  If you know what I mean.  Not in the biblical sense.  It was more like  bippity-bobbidy-boo.  I didn’t mean that… *whew*  What a pie!  Anyway… uh, who are these three little girls accusing Bridget of being a witch?!  They probably didn’t do their chores!  Or maybe they lost their mittens!  Yes, that’s it!  They lost their mittens!  And their mothers said to them, ‘You lost your mittens, you will get no pie!’  Or something like that.  Little bratty girls if you ask me.”

“Let’s get back to the pie.”

“Yes, the pie.  You know anyone can make apple pie.  I mean we have apples growing all over the place, right?  Cortlands, Macintosh, Delicious, Empires… even Granny Smiths, right? I mean even your Honor can make an apple pie.  But mincemeat?  Well, first you have to find mince trees, or maybe it’s mince bushes… I forget.  And then you have to peel the minces to get at the meat.  Not easy, no siree!  It takes talent!  It’s a gift!”

“A gift you say?  I gift from the devil I say!!”

“No, no… it’s not that type of gift.  Devil’s Food?  Ha, ha.  No, no… not that.  My, my no.  If anything it’s Angel’s Food Cake.  But that’s cake, and we’re talking about pie.  But if Bridget made a cake, it would certainly be angel’s food cake… yes it would. In all its white, slightly sticky splendor.  I could use a piece of cake right about now!  Sure could.  I don’t suppose you like cake do you?  No, sticky and all?  Not like an righteous pie is it? Cheese cake is not bad… it’s really more pie than cake {cough, cough}.  You see if those girls had behaved like they were meant to, then their mothers would have given them some righteous mincemeat pie.  Instead those beastly little girls had to make up all this blarney about Bridget Bishop being a witch… as if it was Bridget’s fault that they were denied the pie.  Now how fair is that?” 

“Never mind the children.”

“Yes, I couldn’t agree more!  The children never minded their parents!  They didn’t do their chores.  They lost their mittens.  In fact they probably lost their entire family’s supply of mittens… and we all know how harsh are winters are here.  Remember we’re still in the mini ice age.  It makes finding mince bushes all the more difficult.”

“The children do not stand accused in this court.”

“Well, maybe they should.  And while we’re at it Master Prosecutor… what is that dark stuff above your lip?  Some devil’s food cake I’d wager!”

“It’s called a moustache!”

“Sure… disguise it with a foreign sounding word.  Speaking in tongues are we?  A sure sign of the devil if you ask me!  Moustache?  Call it what you will, Sir… it looks like devil’s food cake… and poorly made devil’s food cake if you ask me… Master Prosecutor!”

“This is absurd!  I’m not on trial here!”

“And neither should Bridget Bishop!  On what basis? On the word of three snotty nose girls with watery eyes?  Bridget Bishop appeared before them as a spectral vision?  Nay I say!  This vision (if we can call it that) was probably a product of nothing more than an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese or a fragment of underdone potato.  They wanted it to be Bridget Bishop… because they wanted a wedge of delicious pie… and, and it was denied to them!  Denied not without cause… but because they lost their family’s heirloom mittens!  Aye, there is the crime!  There is no crime in making great pies!  It’s a calling!”

“A calling?  How do you mean?”

“A calling?  Well, er {cough, cough} not like you think I mean. No, no a different type of calling. Like, uh… like when you go to someone’s house a-calling.  You know, *ahem*, like they have a prized pig or something and you go a-calling to see the pig and you bring them a tasty pie.  It’s like saying, thank you in advance for giving me a rasher of bacon when you kill your pig!  See?”

“Do you have anything to add?”

“I certainly do!  It will be a mockery, nay tragedy if this court finds Bridget Bishop guilty of practicing witchcraft!  She practices nothing of the sort.  She bakes pies like an angel.  Practice?  Maybe darning!  She darns socks.  She darns sweaters.  She may even darn an afghan or two!  But she didn’t darn those kids!  And it would be a pity for this town to lose a… a, uh… pie maker.  And that’s all I have to say!”

That’s the way it went.  It’s real.  You can check the trial transcripts… word for word.  I answered the call… did the best I could, given the hurried nature of the proceedings.  Those people’s minds were made up.  You could see that… anyone could see that!   Bridget Bishop went to the hangman’s noose the next day on June 3, 1692.  A bunch of kooks if you ask me.  Almost as bad as those arrogant French Officers who accused Alfred Dreyfus of treason.  They should have known better; but their minds were made up, too.  I wasn’t particularly successful then either.  But… a different time, a different trial… and a different story for another day.

Posted in Stories & Brief Tales | Leave a comment

Traveling Companion

I think you’d be safe in calling me low tech.  I take no offense.  My Dad shunned the zip code, and he was lost forever when we dropped the use of names and numbers for our phone numbers.  My Dad was low tech, too.  For nostalgic reasons I still think of our old New Haven phone number as FUlton 7-7728.  Zip codes don’t worry me.

But no one is going to accuse Sandy of being low tech.  We are the “Doc Blanchard and Glenn Davis” in the tech world.  I am Mr. Outside, and she is Ms. Inside… thank you very much Red Blaik and Army football.

It should come as no surprise that Sandy would surface one day with a GPS gadget for our car.  I explained that there were countless ways to get directions to point “B” from point “A”… look at a Hagstrom road map or pick up the phone and ask for directions… or even the medium tech approach: “MapQuest” it.  But no… we needed a global positioning system.

A quick aside… I do believe this GPS stuff has some excellent applications… like directing a scud missile into the ambush position the state gendarmes use just over the crest on I-84.

We were not about to get any GPS… it had to be a GARMIN.  And as it turned out we didn’t get just any GARMIN.  No.  Sandy filled out some questionnaire… and for reasons unknown, she was sent one of 100 experimental state-of-the-art versions — free of charge.  How could I object?  Stand in the way of furthering technology?  Not me.

GARMIN:  What is your destination?

JIM:  The Susquehanna Hat Company on Bagel Street.

SANDY:  Behave.  61 Point Beach Drive, Milford, CT.

JIM: I know how to get there…

GARMIN: Take a left on to Quassuk Rd.  Stay on it for one tenth of a mile and take a right at the stop sign.  Come to a full stop before turning.

JIM: *Whew*  I’m glad we have the GARMIN… I might I have turned right on Quassuk, or rolled thru the stop sign.

SANDY:  We’ll…you’re lucky.  There’s a “State-y” across the road and he would have nailed your ass if you had rolled thru the stop sign like you usually do.

GARMIN:  Stay on Route 6 South for 16 miles.  Don’t speed.

JIM:  Can I pick my nose?  Stay on Route 6?  I wouldn’t go this way … we always go on to I-84, then Route 25 down to I-95.  Did this thing really know that there was a cop back there?

SANDY:  We have to trust in the GARMIN…

GARMIN:  Say, that’s a good looking shirt you’re wearing.  I think you’re driving too fast.

JIM:  What?  How did you program this thing?  And I’m not driving too fast.  I never speed in Woodbury and you know it!  I have taken an oath to be a model citizen.

GARMIN:  Pay attention to the road.

JIM:  What?  Hey, are you throwing your voice?  What did you tell that thing about me.

SANDY: On the questionnaire I told them that you were the primary long distance driver…

JIM:  That’s it?

SANDY:  And that you were on a work-release program, you have problems with authority figures wearing uniforms, you won’t eat sushi and you hate the New York Jets.

JIM:  I’m glad you covered the key points.

GARMIN:  If you slow down you can enjoy the breathtaking view of the Flanders Nature Preserve.

JIM:  View?  You see nothing from the road other than trees, a sign and a picnic table.  Hah! I bet that table is crawling with centipedes and huge spiders with furry legs.  For all this thing knows there is a mosquito infested swamp on the other side of the trees!

SANDY:  Don’t be rude.  Lord Standish was trying to make a pleasant observation.

JIM: Lord Standish?

SANDY:  It was suggested that we give our GARMIN a name.  I thought it might be fun to drive around with a Royal.

GARMIN:  Here’s a joke that you haven’t heard.  There’s this little boy, celebrating his 5th birthday and his mother bought him a cowboy outfit, complete with two six shooters.  She also gave him some money and told him to walk to Baskin and Robbins to get a hot fudge sundae.  So all duded up he walks into Baskin and Robbins and orders a hot fudge sundae and the counter girl asks, “do you want your nuts crushed?” And he pulls out his guns and says, “Not unless you want your tits shot off!”

SANDY: {laughing, laughing very hard}  Oh!  That’s a great one!

JIM:  A great one?  Of course it’s a great one!  It’s one of my jokes for godsakes! My Dad told me that joke after I graduated from Hamden Hall.  It was the first joke that he told me that had a racy word in it.  He must have figured that it was time to break the ice.  That… that thing stole my joke!  And besides, it wasn’t  Baskin and Robbins… but the soda fountain at the corner drug store.  And wait a minute!  What if Max or Zoey were in the car… that’s not a joke that you tell in front of little kids!  Even I wouldn’t tell that joke in front of little kids!!  Here’s a joke that you haven’t heard… Bullshit!  It’s my fucking joke.  Lord Haw-Haw stole my joke!

SANDY: {stifling a laugh, doing a bad job of it} Not Haw-HawLord Standish.

GARMIN: You should calm down.  You shouldn’t be driving in an excited state.  You just went thru a red light. 

JIM: It’s my first optional for the day.  I’m entitled to three.

SANDY:  Optional?

JIM:  Yes, the State of Connecticut says that I can choose to ignore three traffic lights per day.  And they don’t accumulate.  Use ’em, or lose ’em.

SANDY:  Optional?

JIM:  I hate lights.  Why didn’t you tell that thing I hated lights? 

SANDY:  Lord Standish, dear.

GARMIN: In nine tenths of a mile take a right at the light and turn on to Route 8 South.

JIM: Shit, we’re going to miss this light and there is a cop sitting right there!  I wish I had brought my bazooka.  OK, here’s a joke: This guy walks into a bar near Carnegie Hall.  He is carrying an octopus.  The bar is a hang out for musicians who grab a beer after rehearsals.  Well, this guy announces that he will bet $50 that his octopus can play any instrument.  One guy takes his French horn out of its case and puts fifty on the table.  The octopus crawls around the horn to get its bearings and then starts to play a lovely piece.  The next musician takes out his oboe.  You know, like who the hell can play that instrument?  But sure enough this octopus crawls around it, and in a second or two is playing a piece from Peter and the Wolf!  Well… the bartender, who was watching all this, finally says, “wait a second…”  He goes into a back room and comes out with a set of bagpipes and puts it on the table, “$100 says your octopus can’t play this.”  The guy accepts the bet, and the octopus begins to crawl over the pipes… no music.  Everyone’s watching and waiting.  Finally the guy says, “hey!  Start playing it already!”  And the octopus says, “Play it?  As soon as I figure how to take off its plaid pajamas, I’m going to fuck it!”

SANDY: {laughing}  That’s not a joke for Zoey or Max either.  But it’s cute!

JIM:  Yeah, one of my favorites!  I think you laughed more at the other joke…

SANDY: {stifling a laugh}

JIM: I knew it!  It’s that damned British accent!  That thing could say “rice pudding” and it would be funny!  Why did you choose that British accent?  You should have picked something else… like Jackie Mason… then it would have sounded like we were driving around with one of our relatives!  That would have worked!  You know: “Take a right here.  Oy!  The sun is right in my eyes!  Open the window I can’t breathe.  No.  Close it, close it!  It smells like dead fish out there! Oy vey, I think I am going to pass out!”

SANDY:  {laughing} Good idea!  I’ll make the recommendation in the “comments” portion of the survey I have to fill out.

JIM: OK.  And don’t forget to tell them that it’s not “Baskin and Robbins”; but the corner drugstore with a soda fountain.

SANDY: {stifling a laugh} OK.  Corner drugstore with a soda fountain.  Got it!

GARMIN: My, that’s a smart after shave.  Where did you get it?  Slow down.  Speed trap ahead.

Posted in Life | Leave a comment

Trip to Mars

I think I have everything in order.  But you can never be too sure.  Sweater. It must be cold there, maybe I should take two. Two.  No more, I don’t want anyone to think that I couldn’t take the cold. Thick socks. Real important.  Especially when you have to walk downstairs to get a late night snack from the fridge.  Mickey Mouse t-shirts. Everyone loves Mickey. When I meet an extraterrestrial it will present a friendly image.  I won’t be a threat and they won’t have to kill me!

I hope there is no cauliflower on Mars.

If they have cauliflower, I am going to pack my things and move to a different solar system. I can’t stand cauliflower… and Mom knew that! It looks like brains… but brains probably smell better!

Pepperidge Farm Raisin Bread. A must. Plain it’s fine. Or slightly toasted with Skippy peanut butter and concord grape jelly. I’ll need a jar of each. I could live for years. Orange juice. I think I have room for a big carton.  Heavy, but necessary.

Why did Mom have to put that cheese sauce all over the cauliflower… it just made it worse. Orange Pepto Bismol on brains!

I don’t need books. I won’t have time to read, I’ll be too busy killing their lower life forms. Comic Books they’re OK, they won’t take up too much room… and they are light. I’ll take three.

Where’s my pillow?  I can’t leave without my pillowThere it is!  *whew*  If I take it when I go to Grandma’s, I’m certainly taking it to Mars. 

You know… Mom doesn’t like everything.  Dad said that she doesn’t like gin.  But no one says, if you don’t finish your gin, then no TV.  This isn’t fair!  Why doesn’t someone say… I’m waiting young lady… finish your gin or you’re going to your room!

Dad’s Swiss Army Knife. He won’t miss it. It has all those neat blades. I’ll need it to spread the peanut butter & jelly on the raisin bread. It will also come in handy for killing their small rodents. I can gut and eat them, or turn their skins into clothing. Rodents? No, maybe not… they probably have weird insects! Centipedes. I hate centipedes! They’re probably the size of the prehistoric Euphoberia! 3′ or more! And they have front pincers the size of lobster claws and they bite and sting.  Nuts, I hate centipedes!

Maybe I’ll get lucky and there will be a colony of mid-sized dinosaurs there to keep the centipede population down.  How cool would that be?  Nah, that’s too much to hope for. I’ll just settle for a planet with no cauliflower.

Hiking boots and a flash light. I wonder if Martian centipedes can jump? I wish I had hip waders. Maybe I’ll take my baseball glove. It will give me some protection when the centipedes jump in the air. I’ll coat the pocket of my glove with rat poison, that way when I catch those jumping centipedes they’ll die a slow and painful death. Just like I would have if I had eaten the cauliflower covered in cheese!

Mom said that nobody died from eating cauliflower… or cauliflower in a tasty cheese sauce.  Maybe Dad should put the tasty cheese sauce in her gin?  Nobody die from cauliflower?  Well, I’m not so sure about that.  I think I’d rather take my chances battling jumping centipedes on Mars.

Posted in Stories & Brief Tales | Leave a comment

I Don’t Know… THIRD BASE!

Let’s get this straight: I’m pissed!

These fantasy sports leagues have killed the concept of being a fan in this country. And being a fan of sports is as American as the 4th of July, apple pie, a white picket fence and the girl next door. It’s our emotional center.

We love our sports. We love our teams. We root passionately for them. We live our lives thru their accomplishments. We love the players who make our teams champions. And the path to that coveted prize, the path to the championship brings us against innumerable adversaries… adversaries set upon defeating us. Adversaries that block our path to that championship alter. As a fan, as a true fan, we hate our adversaries… and we hate their players.

But, and this is truly regrettable, there is this phenomena that is sweeping this nation like the bubonic plague. It is a scourge to our society. It’s fantasy leagues. Sport fans who engage in the vicarious thrill of creating their own “dream team” of players.  Players assembled from all the teams… the very teams and players standing between our team, and our team’s players and that championship . You know… act as your own GM. Pick and choose players from any roster. Then, having put together the perfect team, we check in the morning papers to see how our first sacker or pitcher performed the previous evening. So many points for hits, so many for strikeouts & etc.  At the end of the season we tally up all of our teams points and see how we did in our fantasy league.

Your Team?  Your team includes Red Sox players?  How can this be?  Could you imagine Jackie Robinson playing for another team and wearing another uniform?  Even he couldn’t imagine it!!  He retired rather than put on the uniform of the team he was traded to… the Giants.  The hated Giants.  He played his last game as a Dodger on October 10, 1956… some 50+ years ago, and Rachel Robinson (his widow) still hates the Giants.  Now that’s a fan.

I heard from Shaina.  She has been a Yankee fan forever.  She is in a Fantasy League with Zack.  Zack is a big time sports fan, he probably is in every Fantasy League invented… maybe even that NASCAR thing.  Anyway… and I am getting to the upsetting part… Shaina says that Zack has more Red Sox players on his Fantasy Team than Yankees!  Even Shaina admitted to have Dice-K on her Fantasy Team.  What?  Treason and treachery!

How could he even have one Red Sox player on his team?  I don’t care how good that player is.  It’s flat wrong… it strikes to the core of being a true fan… of not only wanting success for our team and our players; but the total failure of our opponents and their players.

So what will happen the next time the Bronx Bombers invade Fens?  Sure Zack will want the Pin Stripes to prevail.  But say he has Kevin Youklis on his Fantasy Team, and he needs the Sox stalwart on first to have a big night at the plate… what do we have?  Divided loyalty, that’s what we have!  A true fan would say, “I want to see the Yankees murder the Red Sox, and may Kevin Youklis have a season ending case of bleeding hemorrhoids.”

Sorry.  This Fantasy League stuff (and it exists for all the major sports… even NASCAR, just ask Zack) is bad for sport.  It’s bad for this country.  It’s transferring our enthusiasm for the team, to the enthusiasm for the individual player: a “statistic machine.”  An individual whose only value is his personal stats… how many base hits, RBIs, homeruns & etc.  And sadly we have produced a generation of players obsessed with their minutes, their stats.  Oh, winning is a good thing; but what were my stats?  That’s how I am being compensated. The uniform, the team has become a side note.

Yeah, I’m pissed.  This fantasy stuff is diluting what is elemental to team sports.  And we are losing the sense of what it is to be a fan.  It’s about the team.

Well… it’s a new generation, after all.  Maybe they are better equipped to handle the balancing act of rooting for a team, and having a little vicarious thrill on the side.  Zack and Shaina?  They look none the worse for the wear.

Posted in The Ash Creek Bourbon & Conversation Corner | Leave a comment

It’s in the Family

I had a deep sense of family pride when I learned of Uncle Saul’s cherry pit spitting exploits.  I learned of this not from my Aunt Meggie; but from my Mother. The story was related to me one miserable rainy afternoon in July. The type of summer afternoon that could deflate the spirit of a boy who preferred to remain outside playing all day. After all, isn’t that what summer vacation is for?

Sullen, I made my way to our small breakfast room nook with a rather stout bowl of plump dark cherries. I ate my way thru the darkest and firmest fruit, accumulating a small pile of pits around the bowl in the process.  I can’t recall what prompted me to try and spit a pit into the crystal chandelier over the dinning room table in the next room… but I did. My first effort fell short, barely reaching my Father’s chair at the head of the table. My second shot made it on to the table; but still lacked both length and height to hit the chandelier.

My first reaction was to inspect the quality of my pits (and by connection to the choice of cherries). I could see that this would be no different than selecting a perfect rock for skipping on Long Island Sound (something that I had a certain skill for). I looked to the immediate supply on hand from my discards, and arranged the pits by what I judged to be their heft. When I had ten pits selected, I then put them back in my mouth to strip away any excess bits of cherry… I figured that any clinging cherry meat would create wind resistance and limit my effective range.

I examined my ammo, now clean as a whistle. I pulled four away… not good enough. I picked thru the bowl, trying to judge the quality of the pit by the quality of the cherry itself. It took me ten cherries to get four replacement pits that were suitable. I was ready.

I moved my chair closer to the breakfast room table… got up on my knees, placed my hands on the table for support, rocked my body back, then propelled my upper body forward and spit the pit into the dinning room. The length was better. The pit made it on to the table and dribbled past the chandelier line and almost to my Mother’s chair on the far side. The second pit nearly duplicated the path of the first.  If my pits had been exploding shells, I clearly would have taken out the chandelier.

I had a trajectory problem. I gained new respect for the artillery officers in the Civil War. I needed to raise my head and add to my forward thrust. By the sixth pit I began to hit the front end of the chandelier with ease. When I exhausted my initial supply of ten pits, I began to clean off the remaining available projectiles.

Having solved the range and trajectory problems, I switched to other challenges… pure distance. Or to other flights of fantasy. I am in a battleship in the English Channel, miles from the Normandy Coast peppering the German defensive positions in back of Omaha Beach… which included taking aim at our Bedlington Terriers ambling thru the dinning room to pee on the drapes… a Panzer formation is moving close to a landing zone…

It was during the latter stages of the artillery barrage when my Mother came into the dinning room. “What’s going on here!!!” Thank God I had cleaned off the pits in my ammunition prep so that the table cloth didn’t sustain any stain damage. But Mom was not a happy camper, as we say. I gathered up the spent shells, without complaint; but with plenty of embarrassment.

I was spared any punishment… luckily Mom’s anger melted away with the improbable sight of two dozen plus cherry pits scattered on and near the dinning room table, looking like an unworldly version of connect the dots. Bless the stars that she had a sense of humor… and a story to tell.

“Did I ever tell you the story…”

I have learned that this is a pointless question to answer. Yes, or no… the result is the same. A story will be told.  A response of yes simply means that the version of the story will in some way be modified… perhaps by only changing the tense.

“Your Uncle Saul returned home from Europe.  His attempt to be the next Benny Goodman ran on the rocks. Saul, however, met your Aunt Meggie in Paris.  They weren’t married yet.  Meggie was in Paris is study dance.  From the start they became a couple… I would get letters from Meggie: ‘this man is terrific’.  But when they got back to the States they had to get on solid footing before our Father would agree to any marriage.  This led to Saul going to Law School.” 

I am not sure how this was going to pertain to me creating a mess in the dinning room.

“How he got into Columbia’s Law School, and with a scholarship, I can’t tell you. But he did. A bright guy… your Uncle.”

I hoped that this wasn’t going to be a long tale.

“Saul didn’t have much money.  He was always scrambling for a dime.  Back then it seemed that every conceivable business ran contests of some type to create interest and publicity.  Win the contest and win $25 or something.  Back then $25 was a lot of money.  Saul?  He entered everything.  Oyster shucking.  How long could you keep a corncob pipe lit.  Point to Point swims.  Number of push ups in an hour.  And a cherry pit spitting contest.”

Bingo.

“Saul traveled to this country farm somewhere in New Jersey where they organized a yearly cherry pit spitting contest.  The winner got $20, a fancy certificate and his, or her, picture in the newspaper.  Each contestant was given 3 cherries and 60 seconds to fire off a shot having first put a cherry in your mouth and cleaned the cherry of its fruit.  There was a rating system that allowed for anyone, young or old, to compete.  If you were 4 feet tall, like you, you could stand right up to the first line… but for every inch above 4 feet you would have to move 2 inches from the line.  Saul, nearly 6 feet had to stand 4 feet in back of the line.  He ‘fouled’ on his first spit… meaning he crossed his starting mark.  The second cherry he didn’t get off in time because he was too busy arguing with the officials about the foul on his first try. 

But on his last spit, he took an extra two steps behind his starting mark, and he hauled back, took a monstrous intake of air and by accident swallowed the pit!  He began to gag… his eyes bulged out… he face turned lobster red… had a massive coughing fit ’til it brought up that pit into his mouth and just before he would have suffered a second time foul, he spit that pit an amazing 61 feet and 7 inches, with the roll.  The crowd cheered.  It was a clear record… and while he took the prize money they didn’t give him the record because they say that his spit had been wind aided.”

“WOW!” That’s all I could say… wow.  I took a look at my starting mark in the breakfast room and my range into the dinning room.  Thirty feet maybe to Mom’s chair at the far end of the dinning room table.  Maybe.  Sixty-one feet would have been from the breakfast room thru the dinning room, thru the hall, to the living room… and maybe the den!

“I know what you’re thinking… I just made this up.  Well, I thought it was made up, too!  Then one day Meggie and I got to talking and she said that she was going thru some old papers… and there under some old pictures was the certificate Saul won at that contest… complete with his prize winning distance: 61′ 7″!  Saul really did it.”

I was speechless.

“And before you get any bright ideas about trying to surpass Uncle Saul’s record, pit spitting indoors is now forbidden, even though I can see that skill in this sport seems to run in our family.”

I was proud to be related to a record setter.  Yeah, proud.  I wondered if Uncle Saul was good at skipping rocks on Long Island Sound?  I bet that ran in our family, too!

“Practice is restricted to the backyard in back of the raspberry patch.  Who knows?  Maybe we’ll grow a cherry tree or two.”

I nodded.

“One more thing.  No spitting pits at people or the Bedlingtons.”

“How ’bout German gun emplacements?”

“Only if they’re outside.”

Posted in Meggie & Saul | Leave a comment

Robbie

“Coconut custard pie. I’m sorry I missed it on Monday. It looked super!”

This was in response to the question, “What would you like for dessert at lunch?” The question was posed at 9:15 in the morning as I was tucking into perfect over easy eggs, plump sausages, lofty toast and a divine wedge of papaya. I loved the way the morning sun filled the small dinning room of the Desert Rat. Ten tables spaced nicely apart, and as long as the weather was hospitable, the glass doors to the patio were taken down to provide an uninterrupted view of the lagoon, the coral breakwater and the Caribbean Sea beyond. Ceiling fans moved the soft sea air. I was told by James that there was no need for air conditioning, even in the summer.

Summer? I am not sure that it is an important designation when you are a mere 15 degrees north of the Equator.  My Father told me you could get a suntan in your room in Barbados. He got that right.

It was a brilliant morning. The sea breeze drifted into the room, as did Robbie… she who asked for my dessert preferences. Constance Robinson, Robbie to all who met her. She was the proprietor of the Dessert Rat, a small Inn in Saint Lawrence Gap, Christ Church Parish, about half way between Oistins Bay and Bridgetown.

Robbie and her husband Colonel Westerleigh “Westy” Robinson (now deceased) settled in Barbados after he had finished fighting the Hun in WWII. Colonel Robinson was the Commander of the 3rd Regiment of the Royal Horse Artillery, of the 7th Armoured Davison that served nobly at the gates of Al Alamein and relieved the siege of Tobruk.

Robbie sipped her Campari and soda making note of the other guests having breakfast.  Choose any time of day and if you caught sight of Robbie there was always a glass in her hand.  Campari and soda before noon, Pink Gin after lunch, Dry Vermouth on the rocks with a twist during the afternoon hours, a Gimlet before dinner and a good Claret for the balance of the waking hours.  It was an amazing display of tolerance.  Honestly I don’t know how she did it, and manage to run the Desert Rat.

I guess the secret (the open secret) to her success was the incredible staff in her employ.  They ran the Desert Rat.  James checked you in.  Took your bags to one of the 12 guest rooms in the main house, or to one of the two suites in the bungalow. Mixed your Martini. Played the piano.  And James was just one of a dozen souls who were responsible for taking care of the rooms, preparing their tremendous fare and serving the guests.  And most important, they took care of Robbie.

Robbie’s lone responsibility was to drink all day and “supervise” the kitchen staff.  This latter duty was also somewhat of “wink”.  Chef Martin took care of the kitchen; but Robbie did put on an apron every day and made a cake and a pie for the dessert menu.  This activity was done mid-morning after she had visited with the breakfast guests, and after she had two or three Campari’s.  Don’t be fooled… even with the Campari’s, Robbie was a splendid baker… and I think that’s why Chef Martin accepted her into his domain.

I was told that it wasn’t Robbie’s habit to ask what a guest wanted for an upcoming dessert.  James noted soto voce to me, as my coffee was topped up, “Miss Robbie makes what she wants to make.  It’s her calling.  On Monday Miss Robbie saw the disappointment on your face when you were told that we had no more coconut custard.  I think she wanted to make another coconut custard today… she willed you to ask for that pie.  You see, Mr. Jim… you may think otherwise; but you had no choice in the matter.”

Robbie continued to make the rounds, she visited the table of Fred Magrin and his Mother Margaret. They were yearly regulars of the Desert Rat.  Fred was from Toronto, he never married.  His Father had died years ago when Fred was still in College, and he had promised the Senior Magrin that he would always take care of his Mother.  I can’t imagine that Fred’s Father meant for Fred to give up his life.  But there you are, and Fred scored high marks with the other regulars for his tenderness with regard to his elderly Mother.  Robbie smiled, made a brief comment, pointed her Campari to the sea, allowed a small laugh and then nodded in my direction.  Maybe she did will it.  I gave it no further thought; but I was certain that coconut custard pie would be on the dessert menu for lunch.

I am sure there were many things that could occupy one’s time between breakfast and lunch in Barbados. Call it my heritage.  I come from parents who worshiped Ra. This was in the day before we identified over exposure to the sun with skin cancer.  Let others patrol the sights of this island paradise, I would take my book, a plastic bottle of Coppertone, and a towel to the edge of the lagoon.  I was there for the sun.  I was there to get a tan.  I spent my morning reading, applying a coat of Coppertone, swimming, drying out and repeating this sequence… numerous times, ’til the lunch hour neared.

On occasion I would catch sight of Robbie in the late morning.  And if I did, there she would be on the “patio deck”: a broad picture hat of light straw to shield her face from the sun, a floral smock and espadrilles. And a glass of Campari.  She looked into the brightness of the day.  She would lift her head slightly, close her eyes, pivot to the direction of the sun to accentuate her majesty and then simply smile.  No.  It was not the Campari.

Westy Robinson was a hero. Commander of a regiment whose history stretched back to the Napoleonic Wars.  You do your job. His job took him to North Africa.  His job took him to help stop the Axis advance in the Mediterranean. Which he did. With distinction. And with the loss of one eye.  While Colonel Robinson dealt with the Afrika Corps, Constance Robinson supported the war effort in the Nursing Corps. You do your best.  Which she did.  Sometimes your best is not enough.  Why does your child die?  Not to the bombs of the blitz.  She died to a sickness.  The stink of death was all around… in the North African Desert, in the London streets; but why the child?  The answer was not understood to Westy outside of Tobruk, nor to Constance in the Cambridge Military Hospital.  To lose a child? 

The calm in Robbie’s face did not betray her continued sense of absence.  The sun reflected off the water, sand and stucco walls of the Desert Rat and she gloried in it.  Maybe she came from a line of Ra worshippers, too?  She caught sight of me, raised her Campari in salute and retreated back into the Main House. 

Her rooms were in a small wing on the first floor adjacent to the kitchen.  From the sitting room there was a door to a closed courtyard, a six foot high brick wall served to separate her from the rest of the world.  If you didn’t see Robbie, and if it wasn’t baking time, it was a good chance that she was in her garden sanctuary.  In 1947 the Robinson’s purchased the Sugar Cane House, fixed it up and renamed it the Desert Rat (the nickname for the members of  the 7th Armoured Division).  The Colonel added the private wing and closed garden to the first floor of the Inn, and in 1960 they added the bungalow suites to the far side of the Shade Patio. 

I could tell it was nearing lunch.  Yvette of the kitchen staff emerged from the Main House, crossed the beach and waved to one of the fishermen who brought his low slung boat into the lagoon.  He tied up to a stake a short distance off shore, and without much fanfare, Yvonne hitched up her skirt and waded out to the bobbing boat.  A brief negotiation ensued and when she returned back to land she had a string of six good sized fish.  Lunch.  Time for one more good swim out to the coral breakwater to work up an appetite.  A re-baste with Coppertone, small snooze then time to move to the patio deck.

I think it was a tribute to the marvelous kitchen of the Desert Rat that kept guests from wondering off to find other places to dine.  No need.  The preparation was fastidious.  The food the freshest… witness the fish brought from the lagoon minutes before it appeared on your table.  And the people you saw at breakfast, you saw at lunch, saw at tea (if you took it), at cocktails and then at dinner.  It was like being on a ship. 

James would always seat Fred and his Mother first.  The table farthest from the open patio.  Fred thought that Mrs. Magrin might get a chill from the breeze.  I looked for Robbie; but she was nowhere to be seen.  She must been in her garden, or taking her lunch in the seclusion of her private dinning room.  Occasionally I would see a tray going back to the private wing, simply prepared fish… and a Campari, or a Pink Gin if it was that time of the day.

The far wall of the dinning room was filled with photographs.  The Colonel, lean and fit, stripped to the waist leaning against a lorry in the blazing desert sun.  Westy and Robbie in a sailing ketch.  Westy and Robbie in tennis whites.  Robbie sitting on a piano, legs crossed showing some “cheesecake.”  The original Sugar Cane House.  Westy and Robbie at Ascot (this was my favorite… she is wearing this marvelous hat.  She is stunning.  What a handsome couple).  Westy and Robbie on horseback.  Westy and Robbie with the original staff of the Desert Rat.  Robbie with Chef Martin in the kitchen.

Then, one photograph in the far corner of the wall at perfect eye level (at least for Robbie).  Westy, Robbie and a small girl of about 6 or 7, I’d judge.  They are on a beach, fitted out for a swim, a large umbrella casts a partial shadow.  Westy’s right arm rests around Robbie, his head close to hers.  Robbie is holding the little girl on her lap, arms surrounding the little girl, squeezing her close.  The little girl’s head is lifted up, eyes sparkling, dimples, mouth open to a laugh or a giggle.  Maybe Robbie had just tickled her, or said something silly?  The little girl, enclosed in the arms of her Mother, a strong and vigorous Father adding to the sense of safety, what could be better?

I tried to remember if I had ever had coconut custard pie before.  My Mother must have made it, too… a pretty good baker in her own right.  I hope that she wouldn’t consider my love of Robbie’s version a betrayal.

“Mr. Jim, Miss Robbie wanted me to ask you if you enjoyed the coconut custard pie this afternoon.”

“James, I’m not sure.  I think I’ll reserve judgment ’til I try a second slice.  That is… if there is any left.”

Posted in Stories & Brief Tales | Leave a comment

She Told Me Not To Be Afraid

Mom told me, “They’re playing nine pins, don’t be afraid.”

It was at night. I was not sure who the “they” were. I was too young to know of Greek and Roman Gods, to imagine Mars and Neptune engaged in some sort of sporting diversion.  I may have been downstairs in the den when the sounds became unmistakable.  At first, a low rumble.  The tree limbs in the next-door yard started to sway, the leaves twisted, their lighter underbellies reflected in the street light. 

Don’t be afraid… It sounded like whatever they were doing… they were doing it right above our house.  They?  Possibly other celestial Deities… maybe an angel or two? 

Playing nine pins.  I have no idea where Mom came up with that… I can’t see Mommie Soph telling her that when she was a young girl.

No, I suspect this was a story of her creation. Or maybe it was a common story of the time, like the stork bringing babies.  Or possibly she picked up the idea from reading Washington Irving’s Rip Van Winkle. That would explain her use of nine pins, instead of bowling.  Little men, somewhat mischievous and having a good ol’ time rolling a ball down a path toward standing nine pins.  And certainly the sounds of rolling thunder matched the image.  A ball rolling its way toward the pins, its sound building to a crescendo before the crash of the pin strike… or in the case of a storm… the crack of thunder.

I don’t recall how Mom explained the lightening… but it certainly went hand in hand with the effect of the ball knocking down all those pins.  After all, we’re talking about the expanse of the heavens, and not some dumb duck pin lane on Amity Rd.  I can see the electrifying light flash in the night sky… I have moved to the staircase landing between the first and second floors, looking out of the window, into our yard.  The garage, the grass, trees… everything in a monochromatic steely grey. No, this is really big.  To pull off the sound and light, they have to be real big.

They’re playing nine pins, don’t be afraid. There was something in the way that she said it… a reassurance in her voice; very calming but with a dollop of whimsy. “Sure it’s noisy; but those men are having fun up there!” Don’t be afraid. Well, it did sound like they were having fun!  And I wasn’t afraid.

In the movie Bell, Book and Candle, Kim Novak plays a witch (Gillian Holyroyd) and in order to get even with a college classmate played by Janice Rule (Merle Kitteridge), she conjured up thunderstorms to terrify her. Which indeed, had its desired effect. Sure, some people are terrified of thunderstorms.

Not me. In fact, I rather fancy them. The noisier, the better.

Posted in Childhood | Leave a comment

From the Desk of Philo Kvetch: What is the Proper Tip?

Yes, it caught my by surprise. I just thought I was pulling in for a fill-up.  I wanted to check out the Mobil station that opened in the south end of Woodbury.  Nothing could have prepared me for the reception I was to receive.

A young lad approached my car. He was attired in navy Dockers, a blue shirt with a muted red stripe in it (must be the corporate colours), white round collar, a red bow tie (which I assumed was pre-made), his short blond hair was combed straight back… teeth gleaming white.

I put down my window.

“Welcome to Woodbury’s Mobil Gas Station! How can I be of service?”  He may have clicked his heels; but I couldn’t tell from my position behind the wheel.

My first thought… my what a refreshing throw-back! Then my natural cynicism took charge. What’s this kid doing out of school? Tell me he dropped out of school to get this job! I wasn’t sure, but it looked like he had been recruited from the ranks of either the Hitler Youth or the Young Republicans. I smiled back, “fill it with regular, please.”

“Right away, sir!”

As my “Hummer” (actually it’s Subaru Outback; but I like to pretend that it’s a Hummer) was taking on fuel, he came around to the front, cleaned down my windshield and proceeded to look under my hood. Checked the key connections, looked at my oil and water, shut the hood and wiped any offending smears from the top, “You’re fine, sir! Would you like me to speed-vac your foot wells and floor mats?” And with this he opened my front door.

“Well… gee.” And before I could answer he vacuumed my floor mats and the edges by the door. I should have asked him if he would iron my shirts and press my boxer shorts.

While he was on my side of the car, he polished the side view mirror and began cleaning the side windows working his way to the back. I thought about this… Well, this is Woodbury! We have First Selectman just like New Canaan and those other fancy shmancy Fairfield County Towns! Hah! I bet they don’t have this!

My windows done to a spotless shine, he returned, “Would you like a useful road map of the Northeast.  They’re FREE!  And even with GPS systems, a good map always comes in handy in finding places of interest that you may not even know existed… like this: Somers Mountain Indian Museum in Somers.”  He had a point.  I have lived in Connecticut for only 58 years and I never knew that there was a Somers Mountain, or a Somers, Connecticut.  But it’s pretty safe to assume that in our small state, at one time the forests teemed with Native Americans… so it makes perfect sense that there would be a museum there.

I declined the map.

He finished the fill-up to the tune of $39 and something, figured at $4.23 a gallon. I gave him my debit card and he asked, “Would like a cup a fresh hot coffee and a cinnamon donut from Dottie’s Diner, it Mobil’s way of saying, ‘thanks for your kind patronage!’”

“I’ll pass on the donut (even though Dottie’s, formerly known as Philip’s, donuts are insane); but a cup of coffee would be nice.”

“Irish Cream or Dark Roast… and how do you take your coffee?”

“Dark Roast, black.”

I’m thinking that on fill-ups you should tip 20% and on partials 15%… and if he offered to press my boxer shorts, or if he could prove that he tied his bow tie, I can see going to 30%.

He returned and handed me the chit to sign, “Today’s weather calls for intermittent showers, breaks of sunshine, a chance of thundershowers in the afternoon and a return to humidity. You have a good day, sir and drive safely!”

So I don’t eat dinner for the next couple of nights… big deal!

As soon as Zagat’s hears about this place, you’ll have to make a reservation to get gas! Definitely… 20%

n.b. I made everything up, except the price of the gas. Oh, and Dottie’s Donuts are great.

Posted in The Ash Creek Bourbon & Conversation Corner | Leave a comment

The Cricket Stopped Singing

I don’t know if you can anticipate the way you will feel at the final leave taking of someone who you love.  I can only imagine how Aunt Meggie felt when Uncle Saul passed away… a person who had been part of her life since she was sixteen or seventeen.  But Meggie never betrayed the void that entered her life… at least to me.

That’s Meggie.  Nothing could slow her down.  The “Unsinkable Mollie Brown.”  On a day that you were seated at table #5 at so-and-so’s Bar Mitzvah or Wedding, there Meggie would be…  smiling.  And she would be up for every dance.  She danced with men.  She danced with women.  She danced by herself.  She even danced with me!

“Your Father was a great dancer,” she told me as we slow stepped to some nondescript number.  This I knew. 

“Yes, Dad was amazingly light on his feet for a heavy-set man.  Jackie Gleason, Zero Mostel, Lou Costello … and Dad.”  I didn’t like to be reminded of this.  I didn’t hold it against Dad… it just made me feel clumsy in contrast.  I was tempted to tell her that Adolph Hitler was known to be a great dancer, too.  Which may have been true; but it seemed a misplaced observation since two dances earlier we had the obligatory group hora, and besides, it would have sounded like I was rejecting a compliment of Dad.

Meggie just danced, and danced.  She would take brief pauses at our table.  And each time I glanced across the table in her direction  I saw one thing, and one thing only.  Meggie smiling and mid-flight in some story. If there was a lull in all the activity, looking at Meggie, I would be reminded of Saul and his absence.  He would have enjoyed this day, too.

Saul.  Now there was a dancer! Everyone said it.

I am reviewing this… and other times and occasions: weddings, family picnics, Thanksgivings & etc. as Meggie and I join the locals one morning to drink fancy coffee and feast on the incredible jelly donuts from the Chatham Bakery on Crowell Rd.  Saul and Meggie had purchased a clapboard cottage in Chatham years ago. It was their July and sometime weekend retreat from their Woodbury home.  Woodbury was quiet enough; but they sought further distance from Saul’s law practice and Meggie’s 8th grade science class in Bridgeport.

They loved Chatham for its simplicity, removed from the hectic pace of mid-Cape Cod. And yes, today it was more developed; but it was where Meggie settled after retiring from teaching and after Saul had passed away. She sold the house in Woodbury, consolidated the key belongings and moved fully to their vacation retreat.  Retired from teaching, yes; but not from living.  Meggie volunteered at the Hospital in Hyannis three days a week and once a week she helped at the Chatham Library’s teaching adults to read program.

I loved coming to visit.   I loved sharing in the old stories.  Many involved my parents, many involved Saul.  Those stories soothed my spirit.

Between sips of hazelnut cream I mentioned, “As much as I love visiting you here at the Cape, when I was a kid I loved going up to see you in Woodbury.  In the winter you had better snow and in the summer I loved it when Uncle Saul took me on nature walks.”

I smiled at the memory.

“You know, at first I didn’t want to go on them.  And then he told me that he knew a place where we might be able to find the living descendants of dinosaurs!  That caught my attention; but I told him that I thought they were extinct.  And he said that’s what everyone thinks.  But they just didn’t know where to look for them.  He took out two butterfly nets from the work shed and handed one to me… ‘Gee Uncle Saul, are these big enough?  Or are we going to just steal their eggs?'”

Meggie laughed, “I just can imagine Saul taking you on a ‘dinosaur hunt’ with two butterfly nets!”  Then she shook her head, got quiet and stared away for a moment as if the memory of Saul touched her on the shoulder.  She looked back at me, slapped her lap, “Time to go!”  She said that she wanted to pick something up from the market.

“Dinosaur eggs?”

“No,” she laughed, “Mangoes.  I want to put up some mango chutney.  It’s a recipe that I learned from your Mother… and I saw that the Chatham Village Market had them on special.”

“I don’t remember Mom making it.  But as a kid I was a pretty fussy eater.  It might have been something that I thought was an adult food.  Although I have always been keen on eating mangoes just plain.”

When we got to the market Meggie wasted no time and went straight to the produce side of the store.  Displayed prominently was good sized table filled with mangoes sold by the mini-crate. I was grateful that this was going to be a quick in-and-out.  But was I ever wrong.  Meggie picked up one mango from one of the crates and carefully inspected it.  Smelled it, and felt the skin, “I want them to be nearly ripe… you have to be able to smell the fruit.  The texture of the skin is critical.  There has to be a little give… if it is purely taut, then it has to be kept for a week and I want to make the chutney today or tomorrow.  This one is good.”

She picked up another from the crate, “This one isn’t ready yet.”  And she put it in different crate.  Then she found another she liked, discarded another, discarded another… one was deemed a maybe and this she kept in her hand as a just in case.  I am not sure if the other shoppers appreciated Meggie’s diligence.  But that was not her concern.  She inspected each and everyone of the original dozen or so mangoes in the crate… and by my count only 4 were considered worthy… and 8 mangoes from the other crates had to be located and the various crates had to be adjusted accordingly. 

I even got caught up in this pursuit.  “How ’bout this one Aunt Meggie?  It smells OK to me.”

She shook her head, “I don’t like the colour.  There has to be some red or yellow.  Those straight green ones don’t make good chutney.” 

I think she felt obligated to take one of my selections… which she did.  I think she would have been just as happy if I had remained outside the market grabbing some sun.  When she said that she had to pick up some Granny Smiths for the recipe, I nearly fainted.  The thought of another detailed examination of fruit derailed me.  She was quick to notice my pained expression, “Don’t worry Jimmy, the apples aren’t all that important.  I am just going to pick up this bag.”  What a relief.

When we got back to the cottage it was quickly apparent that I was going to be dragooned into helping to make this chutney.  My suggestion was that we just eat them… I even offered to take some home with me. 

That was met with a wave of the hand, “if we were just going to eat them then I would have had to make an entirely different selection… mangoes reaching ripeness over a ten day period.  That would have taken more time.  Here, put on this apron.”  Aprons aren’t a favorite of mine.  This one had one of those clever captions: Give the Chef a Beer.  “It was Saul’s apron… I don’t know why… for some reason I have kept it.”

She set me to peeling, coring and chopping of the apples while she handled the messier task of the mango prep, “So did you ever find dinosaurs with Saul.”

“No.  Try as we might.  Even though I was a little kid, I knew that we weren’t about to find an undiscovered dinosaur colony in Woodbury.  But I pretended that I thought it was a possibility… and Saul pretended it was a possibility, too.  So even when we were finding other great stuff, we behaved like it was secondary to our real purpose… finding evidence of living dinosaurs, their descendants… or eggs.  One time Uncle Saul asked me, ‘Jimmy, when we find stegosaurus eggs, we’ll take them home and make an omelet.  I think one egg should do for the both of us.  What do you think?’  I told him that I thought that an omelet was an adult food, and that I like my eggs from chickens and scrambled with a little bit of salt and pepper.”

“Were you scared looking for all the strange stuff?”

“Uncle Saul had a confident tone and it made me feel safe.  The first time we went into this field that led to a pond… Saul knew there would be oodles of things of interest… but I was taken by the noise.  The sounds of the cicadas and the crickets?  It was a noisy racket that I found vaguely scary.  I mean you heard these loud sounds, where the hell was it coming from?

Meggie, done with the mango prep turned her attention to the spice cabinet… granulated sugar, dark brown sugar, black pepper, salt, cayenne pepper, cinnamon, ground cloves, allspice and ground mustard seed were moved to the staging area on the counter.  I was given a large onion to peel and chop.

“Uncle Saul looked on the ground near us… left and right.  He got real quiet and prepared to drop his butterfly net on something, he motioned me to be still.  Still? I was scared shitless! I thought that he had just found a diamondback rattler or something!  He pounced, and when he was sure that he had his quarry, he looked at me and smiled.”

Meggie brought her eyes up from the counter, “Dinosaur eggs?”

“I only wish.  No, it turned out to be my introduction to the cricket.  Not counting Jiminy Cricket, I had never seen one before.  This one certainly didn’t look like Jiminy!  But Uncle Saul carefully took it out of the net, and held it in his palm so I could have a better look.  A black thing… no vest or top hat!”

I peeled and cut three carrots. 

“Uncle Saul showed me the cricket, ‘See.  It has rear legs that are big like a grasshopper.  They can jump, too.  Now they don’t sting or bite or bother us at all.  But they make that wonderful chirping sound you hear.  It’s their song.‘  And he returned the cricket to an open patch of ground so I could see it hop.  And the thing stood stock still.  I asked how they made that chirp. Uncle Saul smiled and pointed to its big hind legs, ‘He uses those legs for more than jumping… he rubs those legs together to make the chirp!’  Well, I thought that was impressive!”

Meggie brought out her brewing pot, put in all the ingredients, spices… added a cup of raisins and dumped in a quart of apple cider vinegar.

“So I asked Saul, ‘Why do they chirp Uncle Saul?’  And he told me, ‘First you got to know it’s only a guy thing.  Lady crickets can’t sing.  The males use two different songs.  One is to tell the other guys, I’m here!  I’m working this block, shove off! And that song also puts the ladies on notice, I’m here! Let me take you home to meet Mom!  And then there is the other song they sing… and to the lady crickets it sounds like Frank Sinatra singing I Only Have Eyes For You.  See?'”

“Let me take you home to meet Mom?  Yeah, that’s pure Saul!”  And Meggie laughed and laughed.

“I was hoping to see our cricket give a demonstration of his song, at this point he didn’t even show off his jumping skills, ‘This one doesn’t look like he’s interested in singing?’  Uncle Saul looked at our quiet cricket and told me, ‘If they have a tushie rash they can’t sing… no matter how much they want to take a lady back to meet Mom!”

“Tushie rash?  And you believed this?”

“Well, it seemed reasonable given the explanation on how they made their songs.  And I knew what a tushie rash felt like, and I knew I would be in no mood to sing either.  Besides I was a little kid and thought that Uncle Saul was our family’s designated naturalist. He told me, ‘You know Jimmy, whether a cricket is singing his song to other guys or to the ladies, he sings because he is happy.  And it’s a sad day when a cricket stops singing.'”

Meggie finished the preparations for the chutney, covered the pot and put it into the fridge.  “There.  That should be fine.  It develops its full flavours over night, tomorrow I’ll cook it, and put them up into jars.  You will have to come back for yours.  But here, this is a mango I didn’t use… eat it in three days.”

It might have been Mom’s recipe; but Meggie took possession of it… and anything else that might have pertained to mangoes.  I took off the apron and handed it back to Meggie.

“You know…  I was watching a program on the Animal Channel and it was about crickets!  The part about the chirping coming from the legs is a common misconception.  The chirping is actually generated under its forewings.  So if they didn’t sing it wasn’t because of a tushie rash… it was more like an underarm rash… which I also know about.  Something else, the Emperor of China would keep crickets in bamboo cages for pets.  They knew about their songs, too.  They knew their songs made for a happy home.”

Meggie smiled at me, looked at the apron, paused for a moment, folded it and put it back in the pantry.  “Uncle Saul used to sing I Only Have Eyes For You to me.  Uncle Saul could hold a tune… and my, what a dancer he was!”

Posted in Meggie & Saul | Leave a comment

Secret Ingredients, Thinking of Paul & Alan

One of the best gifts given to me by Sandy is the complete collection of The New Yorker on DVD. We have every issue printed… all the covers, all the writing, all the cartoons and all the advertisements. You can search the archives by issue, by author, by artist or by subject matter. Besides being a repository of some of the greatest short piece writing (the poetry never interested me, although I’m sure that it’s good, too) and hilarious cartoons, the pages hold a treasure trove of past culture seen thru the prism of its advertising.

There was an advert in a recent issue (April 21, 2008) that caught my eye. I now get current issues the old way… in the mail. A full page in color was given over to promoting the new hard cover Secret Ingredients. The bold headline: From The New Yorker A feast of delicious writing on food and drink, seasoned with a generous dash of cartoons. Then followed a partial listing of the goodies contained therein: Woody Allen on dieting the Dostoyevsky way, Roger Angell on the art of the Martini (you know that I am going to read that!), M.F.K. Fisher on the trouble with tripe, A.J. Liebling on Paris and appetite, John McPhee on Euell Gibbons, master forager, S.J. Perelman on a hollandaise assassin and Calvin Trillin on New York’s best bagel.

This book sounds too good to pass up. Some of my favorite writers… and writing on a favorite pastime of mine: eating and drinking. And here’s the good part… I didn’t have to wait to buy the book… I have every word ever written in The New Yorker on handy DVDs!

I hit the archive… I couldn’t wait to dig out Angell’s piece on martinis (no surprise there!). Angell is a terrific writer, son and step-son of Kathryn White and E.B. White respectively. I also believe that his resume includes being the “Fact Piece” Editor of the magazine. I have any number of his anthologies on baseball. He brings an uncommon literacy to the discussion of the wide strike zone and the finer points of the split finger fastball. His writing on my favorite libation was no less exceptional: “At Lotus, at the Merc Bar, and all over town, extremely thin young women hold their stemmed cocktail glasses at a little distance from their chests and avidly watch the shinning oil twisted out of a strip of lemon peel across the pale surface of their gin or vodka Martini like a gas stain from an idling outboard.

John McPhee was next. And it is here that we will linger.  McPhee is one of my three favorite fact piece writers. The others being John Keegan (war) and Hugh Johnson (wine). I would read anything written by McPhee, such is his skill in turning what might be a “dry topic” into something compelling. His topics are far reaching and varied. I have little interest in geology, other than it’s relationship to the study of dinosaurs; but McPhee’s volume on plate tectonics kept me engaged from start to finish.

I fetched the #4 disc covering the years 1965 to 1973 and retrieved McPhee’s profile of Euell Gibbons from the April 6, 1968 issue. I printed it off and took myself to the comforts of my blue chair. I had never heard of Gibbons, and my concept of foraging is what Sherman’s troops did on their march to burn Atlanta to the ground. Personally, my foraging takes place in the produce section of Costco. But this is McPhee… I’m going to read it.

“Gibbons’ interest in wild food suggests but does not actually approach madness.” {Great sentence.  It’s what I call engaging.} “He eats acorns because he likes them.  He is neither ascetic nor obsessed nutritionist.  He is not trying to prove that wild food is better than tame food, or that he can survive without the assistance of a grocer.” {Great tempo.  Great writers have amazing pace in their sentences.}  “He is apparently not trying to prove anything at all except that there is a marvelous variety of good food in the world and that only a modest part of the whole can be found in the most super, or super markets.” {There wasn’t a Costco back then.}

The writing flows.  That’s the way it is with McPhee: perfect speed.  On page 57, on the outside column next to the text is an advertisement for Reis of New Haven. Reis was a neckwear supplier for Chipp, our family clothing business in New York. As a little kid I can remember Maury Reis coming over to our house on a Sunday to show Dad the various colour swatches of the tie designs. By the time I joined Chipp in 1971 Reis wasn’t an important source for us. The advert shows 3 silk foulard ties draped around a wooden duck decoy… “Our exclusive English hand-blocked silk foulards are created by Reis craftsmen of only the purest unweighted silks, hand-sewn and fully lined. When you tie one on, you’ll know it’s a Reis. From $4.50, the tie, at better shops.” Pretty good advertising copy. Even if they weren’t an important supplier for us… it’s nice to be reminded of the “classic” taste that we promoted as well.

I continued reading McPhee’s adventure in traveling with Euell Gibbons… canoeing on the Susquehanna, hiking the Appalachian trail and living off the land. “Dinner revived me. Gibbons had found some catnip, and he made catnip tea. He said that catnip is a mild sedative, and I drank all I could hold.” {sounds like an undergraduate thing} “We built a high bonfire that whipped in the wind. The dandelions, boiled in three waters, were much better than they were the night before, and the oyster mushrooms might have been taken from a banquet for the Olympian gods.” {See, this is what happens when you’re starved senselessyou drink “funny” tea and then begin hallucinating that you’re having dinner with Zeus.}

Here we are on page 64 and we have another necktie ad. This one is for Gino Paoli. Three ties, but the duck decoy has been replaced by a “hot” looking lady with eye make-up meant to duplicate the pattern of one of the ties. “You’re the man in her eyes. Those notable knotables hand-tailored in Italy by Gino Paoli. From the Splendido Tie Collection to suit executive tastes.” Splendido? You must be kidding me. These are department store ties… Paul, Alan and me would have sneered at that stuff.

We return to McPhee’s breakfast on the following morning on page 66, “We stuffed them {persimmons} eagerly into our mouths, because they looked good, but found that all the astringency of the slightly unripe persimmons seemed to be brought out powerfully when they are stewed.” {Anyone could have told you that!} “ They puckered not only our mouths but also our throats. Gibbons observed, with no particular alarm, that he thought his esophagus was going to close.” {I could just imagine my Grandmother, Mommie Soph cautioning against eating under-ripe fruit.}

The clothing ad on this page is for Trend Fashions. I have never heard of this manufacturer. We have a picture of a guy seated in a chair wearing this short sleeved “sweater thing.” Dark hair, cut jaw seated in a “manly” manner. “The Trend is to relaxing moments in full-fashioned, silk textured BAN-LON knits. Meditate in elegance with Trend Fashions Antron nylon mock turtleneck with rib-design front and layered ‘V’ inset. Machine washable, dryable. Spring colors mix or match with our sweaters and walk shorts.” This looks like what you would find in a cheap Pro-Shop at a bad Country Club. This proves that you can find bad taste in every era.

Page 72. “The Appalachian Trail rose and fell in long, untiring grades through the mountains, among hardwood forests that were not at all dense and where sunlight, on that first afternoon, sprayed down through the trees.” {“sprayed down through the trees”, that’s a terrific image. I can see it. I’ll file that away and use it myself if the occasion arises.}

Now we have an ad for DAKS trousers. Instead of a photograph, there is line art. It looks like Al Herman’s work. We used Al at Chipp, too… before we switched over to photography. “DAKS Trousers: from Britain with pride. Why do DAKS trousers come only from Britain? The talents of London tailors and the breeding of British woolens are difficult to duplicate. Even more elusive is the spirited styling, so finely tempered elegance. This is thoroughly British – and thoroughly at home wherever good taste prevails.” Decent copy writing. I have no argument with British woolens. We swore by it. And the craftsmanship of Savile Row Tailors is one thing… but on base line manufacturing I thought we did a better job on this side of the “pond.” DAKS was a department store label camouflaged with an English accent. We preferred to buy the piece goods from Britain; but give it to “our boys” to make into finished products.

The combination ad on pages 86 and 87 is just too much of a distraction. I stopped my reading to examine the split. Page 86 was occupied by a rather large close-up of three fabrics: a glen plaid, a large window pane & “seercord” stripe. Superimposed on the plaid and in silhouette was a line drawing of a guy in a jacket and trousers with his arms folded. “Southwick. There’s a little bit of a peacock in all of us. So go ahead and strut about in Southwick’s new spring sport jackets. See yourself in the bold new colors and contrasts. The broad patterns like window-pane plaids. The ribbed weaves and nubby textures in Shantung, India, Hopsack and blends. And match them up with a few pairs of co-ordinated slacks. Look for the name ‘Southwick’. It’s sewn into the labels of the finest clothiers. Sport Jackets from $80. Slacks about $35.”

We didn’t use Southwick at Chipp… but any of the patterns shown in this ad could have been seen hanging on our clothing racks, too.  It sounds silly to say that it seems like a long time ago… it was a long time ago… 40 years.

On the adjacent page there is a listing of stores where the Southwick label could be found in cities across America.  Eddie Jacobs Ltd in Baltimore (I remember their crossed tennis rackets logo), Filenes in Boston (a solid name back then, although immortalized thru their “basement”), Brittany Ltd in Chicago (Ivy League for the stockyards), Bunce Brothers in Cleveland (our local competition), Van Driver in Greenwich (I think they had a shop in Stamford, too), Robertson’s in Lake Forest (providing shetland sweaters for Chicago’s “Greenwich”), Lew Ritter in Los Angeles (didn’t match the taste of our friend Dick Carroll’s on Rodeo Dr), Burdine’s in Miami (this was before the advent of South Beach), Paul Stuart in New York (the force in tasteful fashion), Connolly’s in Oklahoma City (another top name), Hillhouse Ltd in Providence (I think I met the owner once), Robert Kirk Ltd in San Francisco (Cable Car Clothes… active mail order presence), Dall’s in Schenectady (I wonder if anyone from Union College even bought a pair of socks from that place), Roots in Summit (shop in New Jersey’s “Greenwich”), Arthur Adler in Washington, DC (Arthur was my Dad’s cousin… I think), Allen Collins in West Hartford (one of my Dad’s best friends had a competing shop: Henry Miller’s), House of Walsh in Williamstown (great tartan stuff), Mansure & Prettyman in Wilmington (I always loved the sound of the name… something from Charles Dickens no?) and the Suburbanite in Wilton (destroyed in a fire a few years ago).

Those names roll thru my mind.  The listing in the ad was five times longer… most names of establishments where I had little or no knowledge.  I wonder how many still have their doors open? 

I worked at Chipp for 25 years with Paul. 8 years with Alan.  Our ideas in taste we acquired thru Dad… his taste coming thru from his days as a salesman at J. Press in New Haven.  New Haven… home to not only J. Press; but also Athrur M. Rosenberg, Fenn Feinstein and Langrocks.  This was the epicenter of “Ivy League Clothing”… when to dress Ivy League meant hand-loomed shetland sport coats, worsted flannels, oxford buttondowns, reppe striped ties and shined loafers.  It’s somewhat ironic that this clutch of stores that catered to the WASP aristocracy in America who attended Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth & etc., were all owned by Jews.  My Dad would tell me: “We’re their lawyers, their doctors, their accountants and their clothiers”.  Surely an oversimplification and not uniformly accurate… but it did have a ring to it.

On page 98 we have yet again another necktie ad.  This is for F.R. Tripler… an old “neighbor’ of ours around the corner on 46th and Madison. Another three ties (this is obviously the ideal number to showcase), this time done in a line drawing with a two Easter eggs and flowers to set the mood, “EASTER NECKWEAR.  Made in England exclusively for Tripler.  Hand loomed Spitalfields silks background colors of navy, copen blue, gold, maroon, silver grey. Woven in herringbone pattern, geometric design or spaced dots. $8.50”  In our copy would make liberal use of “exclusively” or its “cousin”… expressly… “Made Expressly for Chipp.”

Before I pick up McPhee’s narrative… I’m still thinking about those years with Paul and Alan.  Thinking about how to my eye today’s clothing quality and taste has dropped down the toilet.  We have replaced sound workmanship that had enduring appeal, with slick appearance made with no substance.  We used to enjoy the sight of a customer coming into Chipp wearing a venerable tweed jacket that he had tailored in 1954, with a pair of India Whipcord trousers that was purchased in 1965, a buff coloured hunt vest made in 1924 for his grandfather, an Atkinson Poplin tie in the Argyll & Sutherland stripe that he purchased on sale the previous July, and an oxford shirt slightly frayed at the cuff.  It all worked.  Articles of clothes, spanning 45+ years, yet coming from a central core of style and taste that made the appearance timeless.  Ralph Lauren has built his business on synthesizing that “timeless” clothing concept and compressing its acquisition to the moment… the clothing equivalent of a convenient TV dinner.

I have to laugh.  My “tailored” days are long passed.  My present day working kit is khakis or jeans and a t-shirt… a sweat shirt added in the cold months… and boat shoes (worn without socks unless there is over an inch of snow or rain).  Oh, I guess I could “clean-up” OK… it’s just not as much fun as it used to be.  And besides, I think “ship wrecked” is a good look for me.  And it certainly would lend itself to foraging along with Gibbons and McPhee… or at least working a street corner for a hand-out.

“At seven that last evening of the trip, the rain was still humming on the roof of the Volkswagen, and Gibbons and I decided that it would be pointless to try and cook in a state park.  As a campsite, we chose a Motel in Mechanicsburg.” {Good call… maybe order in some General Tso’s chicken to take off the chill} Gibbons set me to work peeling Jerusalem artichokes while he carved chicory crowns.  In a market in Gettysburg, we had foraged two porterhouse steaks {now we’re talkin’} as a climatic salute to the Susquehanna River and the Appalachian Trail.  We also bought some butter, and the dinner as a whole consisted of buttered mashed Jerusalem artichokes, buttered oyster mushrooms, buttered chicory crowns, porterhouse steaks rubbed with wild garlic of the Gettysburg battlefield, and a salad of watercress, sheep sorrel, brandy mint, salt, oil, wild garlic, and red wintergreen berries.” {No Chateauneuf du Pape?  And I’m not sure about all that butter.}

Once again, John McPhee has captured me.  He has made feasting on weeds sound more appealing than dinning at Chez Josephine’s.  Although given the state of my current attire, dinning al fresco with Gibbons and McPhee might be more more appropriate than sitting down in the trendy establishments of the Upper West Side… Still, now that I think back on it, there is something to be said for a shirt and an English hand-blocked silk foulard tie.  I am sure that Paul and Alan would agree.

Based on the first two tidbits from Secret Ingredients, I would certainly recommend the book to anyone who enjoys the pleasures that relate to the table… and while I wait to pick up a copy of the book I think I am going to select another morsel from my DVD collection.  M.F.K. Fisher?  I think she would wear well.  Maybe I will even find an advert from Chipp tucked in between her words.  “The trouble with tripe?”  Dandelions boiled in three waters is looking better and better.

Posted in Life | 1 Comment

It’ a Big Sky

The word got around quick. The 150 strong blackbird main flight that hung around the power lines near the Bed, Bath & Beyond on Connecticut Avenue took wing and began their characteristic swirl. They flew up, first to the left, a swoop to the right, back to the left, a circle up, a dramatic drop and then they settled back on the wires… huddled together. Waiting for more news.

The crows were not to be seen. That was to be expected. The pigeons hated the crows. And when the most important pigeon in our District, The Queeg, met his untimely and tragic end, you knew that the crows would lay low. Not that the crows were responsible. But why make trouble.

I go by the name of Sweet Grey. The Queeg and I go back to his New York days. You could say he took me under his wing at a time when I could have cruised into hanging with the wrong crowd around Yankee Stadium. When I met him, he had just been made Queeg of Battery Park and Liberty Island. He had been a smashing success in Central Park; but he yearned for the sea air, and the Reservoir was not enough. When he asked for the transfer, who would say no? That’s the reputation he had. To give up Central Park… that said something.

The first time I accompanied him on the flight from the Battery to Liberty Island he told me, “drop your load over the water… we’ll do a fly around Lady Liberty, take a breather on the torch and I want no crapping on Lady Liberty! Got it?”

“Got it!”

That’s the way it was with the Queeg. He conveyed strength and purpose, like Wyatt Earp coming in to clean up Tombstone or something. The buzz got ’round real fast… this Queeg wouldn’t put up with anyone crapping on The Lady (as he referred to her). And that’s the way it was. The Lady was off limits, and woe to the delinquent pigeon the who made a mistake. I questioned the Queeg on this, “Hey! Sometimes a fellah’s gotta go!”

He just stared at me. Refolded his wings. Twisted his neck a bit. Did a bit of preening. “No mistakes! Cross your legs if you have to!! No mistakes while I’m The Queeg!”

And that’s the way it was.

To you it may seem small. But it all pulled together. Pride, pride. There was this older woman who would come by bench 97A at the Battery. Each day she would bring a bag with pieces of bread. A veritable feast. White bread, some rye and sometimes even challah! She always wore a shawl and a straw hat with a paper flower. She would whistle as she tore off pieces of the bread for us to dine on. “Chick, chick, chick here my friends…”

And there was the Queeg, “Respect! No crapping near the ‘Hat Lady’!”

I even saw the Queeg plop down in front of the “Hat Lady” once.  He lands, see… takes a few steps to the left, a couple of head bobs, a tail flutter, look left, look right, a neck squnch, then a strut — a strut that only The Queeg could do.  And the Old Lady tosses a few pieces of whole wheat in his direction.  Queeg?  He continues his moves without a break.  It was his way of saying, “I respect you ‘Hat Lady’.”  Then he moved off a bit and signaled the rest of us that it was OK to move in and enjoy some supper.

Which we did.

Do you think that anyone would crap within 500 yards of that lady? Not a single pigeon. No one would think of crossing the Queeg!! Not even the seagulls!

Good work should be rewarded. And so it was when the powers that be suggested The Queeg take the post at the South Street Seaport. After all… it was still on the water. He declined. He said that he was looking to downsize… And he jumped on the chance to take on Norwalk, its shore area and the adjacent neighborhoods.

He asked me to come along. And I was appointed Second.

Not so bad, for a bird that almost went down the wrong path.

I didn’t like the crows in New York.  I don’t like crows in Connecticut, either.  Queeg?  He was no crow lover; but he would say to me, “It’s a big sky.”  I guess I had lots to learn.  And when you were with The Queeg… you learned.

In the Southwest District we had no Statue of Liberty, no Empire State Building, no monument to man’s greatness… but we did have the Columbus Magnet School in South Norwalk.  It was here that The Queeg focused his attention.  It was here that he declared, “this is a sacred zone… no dumping on the staff’s cars, no begging in the school yard and no sexy stuff while the kids are around.”   And so it was.

He would say, “good people and and good things have to be respected.”

Respect did not extend to people who drove luxury carsOne time we were on patrol over the Rowayton RR Station parking lot and Queeg spotted a spanking-new-off-the-showroom-floor BMW 745i parked between two “station schleppers.”

We were cruising at about 40 feet, and The Queeg winks at me and says, “Watch this, Sweet.”  He circled back, increased altitude, brought his wings into diving position, dropped to 15 feet, leveled off and let loose a gooey crap dead center on the Beamer’s hood.  He peeled off from his strafing run and headed over to Vets Park.

When I caught up with him he was into preening his feathers.  Obviously pleased with himself.  “Go ahead Sweet… ask me what I’m most proud of.”

I looked around.  Did a head bob or two, and a leg kick.  “OK Queeg… what are you most proud of?”

“Accuracy!  Accuracy my feathered friend!  I’m at 15 feet, flying at mach 1, and I drop that sloppy turd square on the shiny BMW’s hood.  And not one drop touches the rusted out Honda to the left or the decrepit Chevy Sprint on the right!”  He paused in his narrative, soaking in his sense of personal satisfaction and accomplishment.  Puffed out his chest a bit.

“And the best part, Sweet Grey, my esteemed friend?  That turd is going to be there all day long, roasting in the hot sun while Mr. BMW is in New York worrying about whether his position in high risk speculative stocks has left him exposed to financial ruin.”

He looked into the sun and blinked.  “When he gets off the 7:07 from Grand Central, burned from his day’s toil… and when he returns to his precious pride and joy, he will find my turd, now rock hard, welded to the hood of his car by the impartial sun.”

I winced.  All of us knew, even the crows… if The Queeg dropped a dump on a car, the owner might as well trade it in… that turd ain’t coming off.

Dirtying a car?  He called it “small potatoes;” but he would be quick to add, “small potatoes can be mighty fine from time to time.”

Big potatoes?  Well, that was a different thing.  And when I think of what The Queeg accomplished, I’d have to say that when he organized the uneasy truce with the crows… well, that was pretty big potatoes.

First, let me say that the pigeons weren’t the only ones who didn’t care for the crows.  Ask the sparrows or the black birds.  The crows are big, they steal your food, and they have this irritating call.  Although The Queeg would say the seagulls were the worst when it came to irritating calls.

In terms of territory the treaty entailed that the crows were given free rein in the wooded areas, they were denied access to elementary schools (The Queeg said they scared the little kids).  They could only come to the beach zones for road kills (The Queeg said let them fight it out with the seagulls).  On our part we had to stay in the commercial zones and parks, and the mourning doves were given the residential neighborhoods.

We were entitled to beg for food and work near people.  The crows could eat anything dead.  We were also permitted to do sexy dances in public; but the crows had to do their thing out of sight (The Queeg said you don’t want to see what the crows do).

And so, a potential powder keg was diffused.  We could thank The Queeg for that.

I was not there when The Queeg fell.  He got whacked near Columbus School by a car.  Or so I was told.  He used to tell me that you can never be too careful.  He got that right.  Here one day, gone the next.  When a pigeon died he would look to the sky and say “when it’s your time, it’s your time… that’s just the way it is.  And it makes no matter if you’re a pigeon or crow.  Or anything else, for that matter.”

Sure there are other Queegs.  But for me, there was THE Queeg.  And that pigeon can’t be replaced, I don’t care what others say.  Still, I was asked to make the rounds to check on things.

I met with main blackbird flight and assured them that the peace would remain.  They took off left, circled right, swirled into a steep climb, turned back, dropped and settled back on the wires they had just left… their positions re-shuffled.

That’s the blackbirds for you.

I glanced from their perch to the large Bed, Bath & Beyond sign to the marquee for the multi-plex Royal Theater.  The sign was being changed.  The current run films had been there for a couple of weeks… Smart People, Leatherheads, Nims Island, Under the Same Moon, Horton Hears a Who… and a new film was being added… It’s a Big Sky.

It’s a Big Sky?  I wonder who stars in it?

Posted in Stories & Brief Tales | Leave a comment

The Lady Can Play the Fiddle

“I need some every day…”

My good buddy Ray Bellaga just raised his right eyebrow. We were seated in the Adirondack chairs that were positioned near the weeping willow some fifty yards from his country cottage in Essex. He looked into his Dewars on the rocks, stirred the whisky slightly with his index finger. He quietly admired his handiwork, took a thoughtful sip… looked left and right. Expecting to espy an eavesdropper?

“Oh?”

You have to understand. Between Ray and me there is rarely a pause in the chatter. For Ray to fuss with his Scotch in such a studied manner could only mean one thing: he didn’t know what to say.

Also understand this: we are famous for switching directions in conversations. It’s part of the fun. Keeps us on our toes. The challenge is to figure out how we got from point “A” to point “D”. In this process, whisky helps. Ray drinks Dewars. I drink Wild Turkey Straight Rye.

“I’m talkin’ music, Ray.” Maybe I should have kept him guessing awhile longer. But he’s a good friend… my best friend really.

“Vivaldi, Four Seasons.”

“Nice try…” This was actually an excellent guess. Although he could have guessed a dozen other music pieces or artists. I do listen the Four Seasons often, I can’t tire of it. I could brush my teeth to the ‘Winter Allegro‘.

“No. I’m talking about Natalie MacMaster. I’m into my Gaelic-slash-Colonial-Folk period. Particularly reels. I’ll listen to the Chieftains, the Big Sea and Clannad, too. But it’s really Natalie MacMaster… you should see her. She wears her blonde hair loose and natural… like she just got out of bed. As she moves to the rhythm of the tune her hair adds visual emphasis to the lively tempo. Then she begins to kick up… she adds tap… and then she drops the fiddle to her side and really steps into a dance. I can’t get enough of her.”

“You can take medicine for this, you know.”

“I’m serious! She’s a great musician. Her music breathes living.”

“I’m going to renew my Dewars, can I bring you an additional Wild Turkey?”

“Sure…”

There is something about sitting near a weeping willow with a soft breeze moving thru its drooping branches and leaves that promotes reverie. Sure Natalie MacMaster is great; but she is not the first lady fiddle player who had caught my attention. That honor goes to my Aunt Meggie.

Some folks are natural to music. Here I love music and can’t hold a tune nor play a note. My Mother was the same way. But Meggie and Saul? Sure they earned their keeping following other professions… but that was only to make a living. Music was their life. It’s how they met.

It was in 1930s Paris, Saul was trying to make living as a jazz musician, and Meggie was studying dance. And Meggie was studying dance because she didn’t want to play the violin anymore… something that my Grandfather had forced on her when she was young.

When the money and opportunity ran out, they returned to America. It would be a few years before they got married. Saul got his degree in Law. And Meggie got her Teaching Certificate and they continued their life in Woodbury, CT.

As a little kid I saw Meggie as a teacher who made great oatmeal raisin cookies. No… better put: she was a great oatmeal raisin cookie maker, who happened to be a teacher. At that time her musical past was unknown to me… that’s what happens when your world revolves around cookies, dinosaurs and the Dodger pitching rotation.

Then… one Sunday my Mother and Father took me into the City. It was an early Spring day. We took a Hansom Cab ride thru Central Park… bundled up. I couldn’t see the fun in this. I am sure I complained bitterly. I am sure I thought that we were so close to the Museum of Natural History… that’s where we should be!

It turned out that the cab ride thru Central Park was merely a “space filler.” The purpose of our visit was to go to this place on the Upper West Side. We sat at a table that had been reserved for us (I thought that was special!). And then a group of musicians stepped out on to a small stage… there was Aunt Meggie!!

I can remember the day like it happened yesterday. She wore a long cream coloured skirt with a tiny floral print in it. It moved with every step she took. She wore a white blouse with slightly puffed sleeves and a rounded lace collar. And an unbuttoned slate blue vest. She had a violin (I was told later that it was a fiddle)! She acknowledged us… took her bow and pointed it to me and smiled. She turned to her fellow musicians, said a word or two… tapped her foot and then launched into the first number. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing! Was this the same person who made the best oatmeal raisin cookies on planet earth?

I don’t think the music made an impression on me then. I wasn’t used to hearing Gaelic reels. But that is not to say the music went unappreciated by those sitting at the neighboring tables. At the conclusion of each tune warm applause filled the room.

And then there was a number that began slow… it sounded vaguely sad to me. It reached a point, and then the speed picked up… Meggie’s left hand danced up along the frets. Her head moved to the faster tempo with an occasional emphatic head stop as punctuation. The music accelerated… the other musicians nodding to one another. Then Meggie dropped the fiddle from her chin, put her hands to her side, hitched up her skirt a bit, and began to dance in place… the upper part of body was stationary… as if it were detached from what was happening from the waist down… she turned to one side, keeping her pace, then turned her back to us to face the drummer… never leaving the music… and finally to the other side, her feet never stopping. Finally she came back to face front and center and returned the fiddle to her chin. She joined the music with an even faster display of her hands.  She was a 5’2″ powder keg of energy.

Your heart had to beat faster. Even if you didn’t know the music.

There were hoots and hollers when she finished the number. She graciously bowed and pointed to the other musicians.

I could hear the man at the table next to us say, “The lady can play the fiddle!!”

I might have said, “Yeah! And that’s my Aunt Meggie!!” That’s pride. You might be clapping because you like the music, but I know that she is special because she makes great cookies!

Yeah, special. In every way.

“Here’s your poison.” Ray now returned to his Adirondack.

The sun breaking thru the shifting willow limbs.  “Thanks, Ray. L’chaim. The Russians won World War II.”

“Does this mean we’ve gotten over our infatuation with Natalie MacMaster?”

“The lady can play the fiddle. And I should know… it’s in my family.”

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His Name Was Merwin

It caught me by surprise, too! Even as I sip my whisky here at Ash Creek, surrounded by familiar faces, I have to smile. I think back to another night, some thirty-two years ago, to another bar… Sinbad’s on the Detroit River. I will never forget the night… for two reasons. First, they served the best martini on the rocks I have ever had, before or since… it was served in a brandy snifter the size of a gold fish bowl. And second, for the conversation I shared with a stranger. A stranger of significant personage as it turns out.

I had just spent the day and part of the evening in my labor of selling clothing and furnishings to the “button-down crowd” of Grosse Pointe. Morty Coe, my colleague at Chipp decided to call it an early evening allowing me to enjoy a martini by myself.

The early stages of a martini point the senses. Refreshing hint of the lemon twist.  Crisp. Invigorating.  The languor and torpor only to come later. I think it must have been at sip two when I first took notice of him. A slow but steady gait, as he walked into the bar. He had a quiet manner, old clothes thread bare; but clean like him. He looked around for an opening and settled for the stool to my left.

He ordered a bass ale and a Lagavullin in a snifter, a glass of water on the side. He downed the Bass in two successive gulps, as if to quench a raging fire. Then he took a bar straw, dipped it into the water, put his index finger at the top of the straw and extracted a tiny amount of water and then surgically applied two drops to his single malt. He swirled the whisky and put his large nose into the snifter to take in its aroma.

“There!”

The precision to this act was a bit un-nerving. It was like witnessing Leonardo’s last brush stroke in completing Mona Lisa’s smile.

He raised his snifter, and without much fanfare, said to no one in particular, “Here’s to you Walt Disney, you dirty cocksucker!”

He took a healthy sip of the whisky, closed his eyes to focus its soothing flavour, pursed his lips, opened his left eye and raised its eye brow and asked me, “Do I look like a dwarf?”

There were questions he could have asked me… “Did you vote for Nixon?” or “Did FDR know about Pearl Harbor in advance?” But “Do I look like a dwarf?” was certainly a surprise. I judged him to be my height, maybe an inch or so more… and I’m 5’8”.

He took another thoughtful sip. “Like Disney, do you? Well… when I first met him, I liked him, too. My brothers and me, we all did. Sorry, my name is Merwin…” And he extended his hand to me, and punctuated the gesture with a warm smile. I accepted the handshake and hoped privately that the conversation had concluded, or maybe would shift to another topic.

“It was 1935 and my five brothers and me were living in Eva Goldfarb’s rooming house in Brooklyn. This Eva Goldfarb was some piece of work. Mr. Goldfarb had been a wealthy fur merchant. He traveled frequently to Russia on business to purchase pelts… and on one visit he met Eva, married her and brought her back to America. Eva stood 7′ 2”. Goldfarb was at most 5′ 6”… at least from the photos I had seen of him. By the time we met Eva he was already on the other side of the grass.  Goldfarb committed suicide in the market crash and left Eva with nothing but their large house in Brooklyn Heights. 7’2” Eva turned their home into a rooming house to pay for expenses.”

I tried to picture a 7’2” woman. Wilt Chamberlain was that height. No one else that I could think of.

“Well… me and my brothers moved there after our parents had died. Mamma had gone first in a flu epidemic and Pappa died in what was described as an industrial accident. My two older brothers, Lenny and Nathan had work in the diamond district. My twin, Irwin and I worked as converters in the garment district… we bought and sold gray goods. Then there was Manny and Benjamin they were still in school. Bennie… we called him ‘Bennie the Ball’, because that kid had all the girls on a string.”

He finished his whisky, and a second whisky was placed in front of him without asking. Obviously, a regular patron of Sinbad’s! He went thru the same careful routine of adding two precise drops of water to his snifter of Lagavullin. He breathed in its fragrance, and returned the glass to the bar.

“Me and my brothers have always been close.  Maybe that’s what happens when you lose both parents at a fairly young age. We have always taken care of our own.  But we could cut things up pretty good at Eva’s house. You gotta understand, she was 7’2”! She looked like a prison guard or something… and she dressed in these severe clothes. Scarier than shit, let me tell you!”

And he raised his glass, and in one steady sip, polished off his second whisky. I blinked. It was like the very memory of this woman had to be purged from his mind. A third whisky was placed in front of him. It’s nice to be known.

“I guess the word got out about these six guys living with this ‘Amazon’. Sure, we would see people stroll by on Sundays to check us out. That’s natural. Who would believe such a story, know what I mean? How it got to Walt Disney, I can’t tell you. But it did. He showed up on our doorstep in Brooklyn Heights one Sunday afternoon. He even asked Eva if he could stay for dinner. Not that we knew who he was… but she said fine, and charged him $1.25 for dinner. He was quiet enough… he had a pad of plain paper and he kept doodling his entire time.”

He shook his head. Proceeded to the ministration of his drink. He smiled, briefly and sipped.

“Anyway, when dinner was done Eva stood up, and as was her custom, she began ordering everyone around. Merwin you do this, Nathan take care of that… on it went. We did as we were told, her shouts filled the house. It wasn’t particularly pleasant. It was the price we paid for an affordable rent. I don’t think Walt had anything to do with the clean-up and chore activity. Eva must have felt that the buck and a quarter satisfied his requirements. He continued to doodle in his pad. He may have asked us a few questions… what were our names. He pointed to my kid brother, ‘what’s the dopey one’s name?’ He point to Bennie…. ‘oh, that’s Bennie the Ball!’ And he just laughed.”

The story was now emerging on to familiar turf.

“So, 1937 rolls around and out pops ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ from the Disney Studio! But Disney changed the facts! Snow White wasn’t some pretty young thing and we weren’t dwarfs! She was a 7’2” dominatrix and we were just normal size guys… maybe we looked like dwarfs standing next to her. And we didn’t do no whistling while we worked… in the rooming house or anywhere else. Sure a couple of us worked in the gem trade. But the guy got it wrong. He ruined us!”

I just nodded. Interesting story. I nursed my martini… tried to make sense of the narrative.

“But you only had 5 brothers… how did Disney come up with the seventh dwarf?”

“I knew you were going to ask that! We think that he just made up Sneezy. And maybe things wouldn’t have taken a bad turn. But that Evil Eva decided to exploit the situation by putting a sign on the front lawn: JOIN SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARFS FOR SUNDAY DINNER $2.”

A fourth whisky was called for.

“At first we went along with it. Eva got a costume, that blue and red thing… and so did we.  The tights itched, the shoes were uncomfortable and the dumb hat made my head sweat.  She even got a kid from the neighborhood to come in to play the seventh dwarf. Do you think that we saw any scratch? Not a penny! Eva kept it all… and the people came to see us! We had to sing the fucking songs, and frolic around. Eva made us do it!”

I couldn’t resist… the question just burst out. “Let me guess? You were Grumpy!”

“How’d you know?”

I wanted to say that maybe Disney had type-casted him correctly. But that’s how bar fights start. I made a decent recovery, “Just a guess; but if Disney got it all wrong, it follows that he got you wrong, too.”

“Yeah. I’m no dwarf. But do you know what happened to me just last week? I went back to New York is visit Manny. He lives in New Rochelle now. We went into the City to grab a knish from Yonah Schimmel’s… and someone comes up to me and says, ‘I know you! When I was a kid my parents took me to a place in Brooklyn for dinner with Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. You’re Grumpy!”

He asked for his tab.

“It’s like I am still a dwarf, right?  Yeah, I’m Grumpy; but you can call me Merwin.”

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Mommie Soph Returned

I love dreams. Even those that are based in anxiety have an extraordinary interest value to me. And full nightmares? Not a favorite; but also interesting. However, the dreams I treasure the most invariably involve visits from folks who have moved to otherwise inaccessible neighborhoods.

Such was a recent case when my Grandmother, “Mommie Sophie” interrupted my sleep. I could hear her clatter in the kitchen from our breakfast room. She called out, “Do you want apple sauce or sour cream?”

I am sure that there were other things that took place in the dream… I just can’t remember them. Nor did I see her… but hearing her question was enough to fill a lake with memories.

The question of apple sauce or sour cream could have pertained to only one thing… what did I want as an accompaniment for the latkes (potato pancakes) that she was preparing. In our home, Mommie Soph’s latkes were a highlight food… it was one of the “sacred trio”: chicken soup, gefilte fish and latkes. Mommie Soph was the Escoffier of those three dishes. Put a Jew on an deserted island with those three items alone and life would be sustainable (of course, for this Jew I would have to add Tanqueray Gin, Noilly Pratt Vermouth, several cases of white Burgundy, Gibson onions and a subscription to The New Yorker).

I don’t recall latkes as being a “seasonal food”… something to have during the eight day festival of Channukah (lame excuse, if you ask me, to enjoy such an important staff of life). But for sure, whenever we had them it was a treat… and because it was Mommie Soph who made them, there was more than enough to go ’round. And believe me, what other humans would think of as enough was about a quarter of what Mommie Soph thought was enough.

Mommie Soph did not know from food processors. She used a hand grater for the potatoes and onions… the type that would reward the chef (and sous chefs like Lynn) with scraped knuckles and reddened fingers. Mommie Soph was definitely from the no-pain-no-gain school. But the texture had to be right at the assembly stage so that the latkes would be crispy on the outside and moist on the inside. Were she here now, I think that she would still be using a grater.

It is not that I have gone without since Mommie Soph’s passing. Ellen made excellent latkes, learning the trick to using a food processor while still maintaining the crucial texture. And I have had other good examples, too.

It’s a shame that we have to be concerned about stuff like cholesterol and putting on pounds. I can assure you that these were never front and center concerns of my Grandmother… she was concerned with happiness and satisfaction. You had doctors to handle the other stuff… and if they didn’t a good enough job, there was always chicken soup.

My “dream” had a couple of inaccuracies… today, when it comes to latkes I am a confirmed “sour cream man.” I don’t think Mommie Soph would have asked me for my preference anyway. I think I was either apple sauce or plain back then. Anyhow, she wouldn’t have had to ask, she would have known. Also, I don’t think I would have been waiting in the breakfast room… I would have been in the kitchen, close to the action and would have been nibbling on the burnt scraps and maybe cadging one from the stack that was beginning to pile high.

There was that nano-second when I got up from my sleep when I thought that Mommie Soph was still there… and that felt as good as any latke that I have enjoyed. Too bad there isn’t a way to time these visits… do you think if I placed a store bought potato pancake under my pillow at night it might act as bait? No… Mommie Soph would never have approved of store bought… although a good crisp half sour pickle might do the trick!

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Quod Erat Demonstrandum

“It’s your turn.”

“OK. Let’s see… a Fascist Dictator, a Lerner and Lowe Musical & an ungulate.”

Pardon me. I should explain. I have known Raymond Bellaga since we were little kids. Best friends. And that lasted thru my divorce, and Raymond marrying my ex-wife. Nothing can destroy our friendship… not even an ex-wife.

As long as we have lived within 150 miles of each other, we meet for lunch on the third Friday of each month… unless the Friday falls on a holiday. The choice of location alternates as does the financial sponsor. One person chooses the venue, the other guy picks up the check. It has worked out smoothly once we got beyond the game of trying to stick the other guy with a check the size of the National Debt.

The it’s your turn, in this case, didn’t refer to the choice of restaurant, or who had to take out his wallet. Rather it referred to a mental game we have engaged in since forever. Well… at least since High School. I’ll tell you how it all started.

In the summer between our Junior and Senior years, we spent a lot of time on the beach in Woodmont. We both loved the beach, water and the sport of acquiring a serious tan. Most of all, we loved to talk. We talked about everything, and talked non-stop. Or so it appeared. Even after a topic had been exhausted, there would be only the most brief pause before the next topic would be engaged. We could spend hours in this manner… moving between sea and sand; but never letting the thread of the conversation drop. The only break being if a great looking girl came into view… and then it was a matter of skill to somehow incorporate her presence into our subject manner.

One day the matter on the table for discussion was desserts.

Raymond noted, “the dessert of perfection is cheesecake. It has all the key ingredients. Simplicity. Texture. Flavour. And it is adaptable. You can add strawberries, blueberries, cherries… any fruit topping and you transform the dessert from a ‘dry’ dessert to a ‘wet’ dessert.”

“Cheesecake? Yes. Fruit? No. You can’t violate the cheesecake with additives. Would you guild a rose? Besides, for a dessert to be excellent you have to be able to comfortably have room for a second portion, and the fruit would get in the way. Anyway… that’s the way cheap restaurants serve it… with syrupy fruit.”

“Hey! Doesn’t that look like Marcie?”

“Marcie? That girl looks like a pear. Marcie’s not built like that.”

“OK. Match a girl from our class with a dessert.”

“That’s easy. Naomi and tropical fruit salad.”

“Nah. That doesn’t work. It has to be lemon meringue pie. Definitely. Naomi and lemon meringue pie!”

“How’d you figure?”

“Well… Naomi has that great smile. It’s like the smile pushes her face up high on to her cheek bones and then it brightens her eyes, and then even her curls seem to lighten. It’s like the sun is out. Happy, like. And that’s definitely lemon meringue pie. It’s a happy dessert, no? Look, you have those peaks of meringue, each tipped in tan… you know, like the sun has given them just a little colour. Then you have that pretty lemon yellow. That’s like a smile. I love the smooth texture. So soft; but firm. Tell me… Naomi has to be soft and firm! And then there is the taste: sweet and tart. Tell me that’s not Naomi! Quod erat demonstrandum!”

“That’s pretty good good. Your Mom makes great lemon meringue. What happens if we add something?”

“You mean you want more than soft and firm?”

“No, you idiot! I mean, associating two different things is sorta easy. Anybody can do that. The real test is adding a third element. Like: a girl from our class, a dessert and a State Bird.”

“A State Bird? You’re crazy!  Who knows State Birds… besides the Bald Eagle?”

“Please… the Bald Eagle is our National Symbol… it’s not a State Bird. Come on… the State Bird of Connecticut is the Robin!”

“Fine. Can you name any other State Bird?”

“How ’bout the Mosquito and New Jersey?”

“See! Even you can’t come up with anything other than the Robin!”

“True. But it works, I just lucked out. Naomi, lemon meringue pie and the Robin. Robin red breast. Breast? Naomi has great breasts. See? Now that’s a perfect association!”

“Yeah, you lucked out alright!  You just like Naomi’s breasts!”

And that’s how it all began. On a tiny patch of beach we invented a “game” that would keep us amused for the next 40 years. Coming up with the topics, which was the real fun part, would be the responsibility on an alternating basis. Invariably the game would pop up as a “fill”… when there would be a quiet, or a lull. But, and this is important, if it was your turn you were expected to have the three elements immediately prepped to plug the gap… otherwise you would risk an I’m waiting!, and if that wasn’t hint enough: it’s your turn.

One more item before we return to our story. You were judged on the quality of the element combination. If you offered a “bullshit” combination, you would suffer a serious rebuke. There was the time that I came up with a farm implement, an Academy Award winning Best Supporting and a lineman from the Colts 1958 Championship Team.

“Bzzzzzzzzt! Penalty! You know the rules… not more than one human! And, I am also assessing an unsportsmanlike conduct for selecting your damn Colts again. This is the third time, and that’s total bullshit! And I am going to fine you $.50 for lack of creativity. If happens again you might get suspended. Now, I’m going to hit the john, when I return you better have something new to offer!”

See what I mean about a rebuke? Talk about pressure! I learned my lesson, though. I didn’t even use the Colts last year when they won the Super Bowl!

Over the years we’ve had some pretty incredible combinations.

 

“Fascist Dictator, Lerner & Lowe and an Ungulate?”

“Yeah. And you can’t use Adolph. You’ve already used him for bad mustaches.

“OK. I’m ready. Juan Peron, My Fair Lady and a camel.”

“Explain.”

“Well, you said I couldn’t use Hitler. I knew I should have used Janet Reno for bad mustaches. And I didn’t want to use the obvious… like Mussolini. Peron seemed like a sophisticated choice. I couldn’t use Evita for the musical because that was Andrew Lloyd Webber. But My Fair Lady seemed to work because Juan had to deal with Eva, and Professor Higgins had to deal with Eliza Doolittle. And the camel has to work because what lady doesn’t want a Camel’s Hair overcoat! Q.E.D.!”

“Brilliant Ray. Really. One of your best!”

“Does that mean that I don’t have to pay today?”

“Absolutely not. One has nothing to do with the other!  But instead of ordering the 3LB lobster and a bottle of Montrachet… I’ll give you a break and order the ragout of venison and a Clos des Papes.”

“You’re a true pal.”

“Oh, one more thing… it’s your turn.”

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Please Pass the Port

“Would you be so kind as to please pass the Port?”

Here we go. I wish I could leave the table. “Would you be so kind…” He sounds like a supercilious idiot. On one occasion somebody said I had a “supercilious” manner. I didn’t know what it meant, and then I forgot to look it up. Anyway, how can you look something up if you don’t know how to spell it? I still don’t know what it means. But this jerk has to be supercilious! “Would you be so kind…” Give me a break.

“What a charming etched decanter!  Is it an antique?”

Look at him fix his shirt cuffs! Nice cuff links… if you work for the mob or are a pimp! Look how big they are! They are the size of gold strawberries!. I bet he is wearing gold chains, too. He wants everyone to stare at his big gold cuff links. Isn’t everyone impressed?  “Charming etched decanter.”  Oh, God… I’m getting sick.

“And what is the Vintage are we going to experience tonight?”

Experience?  I thought we were going to drink it.  Maybe he is going to rub some into his scalp.  No.  He’s probably wearing a hair piece.  Maybe just a dab behind each ear?  Can cuff links be supercilious?

“Vintage Port is not made every year.  The weather has to be just right.  A cold wet winter sets the stage.  Spring must be hospitable when the buds appear on the vine.  Summer, beastly hot.  Just a touch of rain in late August or early September… this helps plump up the grapes.  Then bone dry for harvest.  If all those things happen we are well on the way to making Vintage Port.  After 16 months aging in wood, the wine will be presented to a Panel of Tasters from the Port Wine Institute for approval… if it is deemed worthy… Voila!  Vintage Port!'”

Voila!  I’d like a ginger ale.  Or maybe a whisky.

“You say we’re going to have a 1963 Graham’s? Oh, my, my!!”

Everyone look under the table.  I bet he has an errection!

“Graham’s 1963!  It’s one of the greatest Post-War Vintages.  What a treat.  Perfect weather conditions for making perfect Port.”

Oh joy… get ready for a weather report from 45 years ago. Can someone pass the cheese tray before it rains.

“The winter had a goodly amount of rain and snow.  But the vineyards were well dry by late April.  The rest of the spring was a bit wet; but not overly so.  Then a glorious summer of dry sunny days!  And then as if on cue… a light rain in Mid-September.  And then a dry harvest!”

1963? Wasn’t it sunny in Dallas?  Can a hair piece be supercilious?

“And now… to the wine.  A deep ‘robe’, with colour beginning to fade at the rim.  That’s to be expected!  You’d be fading at the rim after 45 years, too!  Ha, ha.”

A hair piece and a wit!  I think I need that whisky now.  Fuck the Port.

“Let the aromas cascade over you.  Taste the rich sinuous fruit, excellent concentration and depth of flavour… and this is the stunning part: finesse and elegance.  Feel the liquid coat your palate.  The texture?  It’s like a silky cream.  What breeding, what power! This is a mere babe!  It has decades remaining.”

I felt the table move and lift.  He definitely has a major league “woody”.  I think the women are beginning to blush.  A “mere babe”?  This guy is a wine pedophile!  A piece of dung hiding behind a fancy shirt and gold cuff links!

“I happen to have Decanter Magazine’s review of this wine: ‘Remarkably youthful and vibrant, classic Graham richness is offset by crisp acidity lingering onto the finish.  A brilliant wine now but will develop for 20 years plus'”

Decanter Magazine?  I have an original issue of the first Dick Tracy Comic Book.  Mint condition.  I have it in the car.  Maybe I should bring it in?  I happen to have a review that was posted on eBay.

“And for the gentlemen at the table I have brought has some extraordinary Havanas that I picked up on my last trip to Moscow.  Exquisite cigars to enjoy with a breathtaking Port.”

Cigars?  Cigars?!  Poke me in the eye with a hot stick! Lucky that I have brought along my personal supply of farts.  And I am now going to add to my reserve.  I am going to ask the hostess, if she would be so kind, considering that I have an acute cholesterol sensitivity, in lieu of the cheese tray, if she could get me a vegetable medley plate of garbanzo beans, brussel sprouts and cauliflower… and a small side portion of greasy pork chops.  Thank you.

“My oh my.  It can’t get any better than this!”

Wait ’til I summon a fart.  It will be like a cherry on the sundae.

“I hope that you are enjoying this as much as I am.  I would like to extend my thanks to our host and hostess.  Please join me in raising a glass in praise of a wonderful dinner, wonderful wine, wonderful company… and a wonderful and gracious host and hostess!”

“Here, here!  And please pass the Port.  By the by, do you happen to know the correct spelling of the word ‘supercilious’?”

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Aunt Meggie had a Conniption

I wasn’t sure what he meant.  Then Uncle Saul explained it:

“You see, Jimmy… it begins here.”

Uncle Saul pointed to the place between the eyes and just above the bridge of his nose.

“Here.  First the eyebrows get squinched in.  See?  Like this.  And then these vertical lines form here.  See?  These are called the ‘lines of conniption’.  It all starts here.  You know something is going to burst.  It drifts down to the nostrils.  See?  See how my nostrils move in and out?  That’s what Allosaurs did before gouging flesh from an Apatosaur.”

My eyes widened.  The nostril part gave me chills.

“Then the head gets gripped in firm, small emphatic shakes before the arm and hand gets lifted first to the sky.  A definite gesture to summon the force and authority of the Heavens, and then dramatically the hand is thrust down in the opposite direction, to the nether world…”

I didn’t like the sound of this.

“Then the arm is leveled in your direction.  Finger pointed.  And repeatedly shot forward, stabbing the air.

With each of Saul’s “stabs” I recoiled.  A few of his stabs were accompanied by some foot stomps which caught me by surprise.  He hadn’t prepared me for the foot stomps.

“We are nearing the supreme moment.  Everything up to this is a mere ‘warm-up.’  First, she’ll tidy her hair, and then reach for a big book, like a copy of Michener’s Hawaii and bring it crashing down on to the table or the kitchen counter…”

The crash sounded like a rifle shot.  I shook.

“And if she didn’t have a Michener volume handy, she would chuck a teacup into the wall.  But only if the cup already had a chip in it.”

I had heard enough.  I now had a good idea what Aunt Meggie’s conniption fit would have been all about.  Something that, Uncle Saul advised me, would happen if I sat in Aunt Meggie’s Queen Anne chair in the formal “sitting room.”  I thanked my lucky stars that I rarely stepped foot into the sitting room.  I was more than happy to stick around the den and it’s adjacent hallways, closets and window seats. 

I had never seen a conniption before… Meggie’s or anyone else’s for that matter.  Saul’s vivid portrayal unnerved me.  Meggie and a conniption?  It seemed improbable.  Anyone who can make oatmeal raisin cookies like Aunt Meggie could… anyone who could give me a huge hug and a kiss after Nicky Ross, the Elkhound from next door, bit me… having a conniption fit?  I couldn’t see it.  Not that I was interested in bringing one on.  You couldn’t pay me to get within a yard of that Queen Anne’s chair.

But you can understand my overall concern.  “Uncle Saul… is there anything else that would make Aunt Meggie have a conniption?”

“Herschel peeing on the drapes.”

Herschel was their Mini Schnauzer.  Our entire family had dogs.  And when Saul and Meggie hosted a family cook-out in July, we all brought our dogs for an afternoon of food, drink and outdoor entertainment.  The dogs loved it as much as the two-legged family members.  They were free to explore the large open area in the back of the house and the adjacent wooded fringe.  The dogs had a blast, they knew they were part of the family.  All, except for Herschel.  Herschel remained indoors confined to his grooming crate.  Herschel didn’t get along well with his “cousins.”  Uncle Saul explained to me that Herschel wasn’t fond of Jews… or Jewish dogs.

I had to remind Uncle Saul, “But you’re Jewish…”

“Ssshhh!!! Ixnay!!!”  He looked around and then summoned me to him.  He whispered, “He doesn’t know it!”

Yeah, Herschel could be a bit of a “pill”.  Hard to believe that any one dog could bark that much.  And he threw everything into his barks.  His front feet would lift off the ground, his ears would snap back, and he would take a hop backwards like a howitzer after a discharge.  He tolerated  me because I always gave him some of my oatmeal raisin cookies.  And on rainy days we would play in-door hide and seek, a game he seemed to enjoy.  I would stash a couple of oatmeal raisin cookies and go running off to hide.  Invariably I would find refuge in the window seat on the landing between the first and second floor… One time I fell asleep in there for 20 minutes or so… my Mother and Meggie panicked when they couldn’t find me… but they finally figured it out when then saw Herschel curled up beside my hiding place.

I never did see Meggie have a conniption.  But when I got to the 7th Grade, our English Teacher Mr. Hirata got real pissed when Ken Wynne yawned in class.  In a blink Mr. Hirata winged a piece of chalk at Kennie; but he hit Marla Mogil by mistake.  Hirata was a helluva teacher; but he was a bad shot.  Maybe he was close to a conniption?  The incident put me in mind of Aunt Meggie who taught 8th Grade Science in Bridgeport.  Maybe she saved her real conniptions for the class room?

My story continues years later.  Both of my parents had passed on.  Uncle Saul had moved his game piece to the other side as well.  I went to visit Aunt Meggie in her home on the Cape.  She and Saul had bought a “retirement” house in Chatham… it perched on a small knoll that looked out on to the Atlantic.  I need to see water, it restores me.  I love my Aunt Meggie.  I went to satisfy both my need and my love.

Meggie was a repository for the “old stories”… and to hear the old stories re-told help fill in the ‘gaps’ in my understanding.  We usually chatted on the back patio.  This time the weather had turned bitter with nasty clouds forming over the ocean so we took our conversation inside, leaving the patio for another time.  There could be no better stage for Meggie’s stories than her den.  The room had the familiar pieces that made up the den in Woodbury. The standing globe, the Sharps buffalo rifle, the blue club chair and the famous hat rack… all fit nicely into the Chatham den.

But a piece was added.  The Queen Anne’s chair from Woodbury’s formal sitting room.  I couldn’t resist, “You know Meggie… Uncle Saul told me that if ever I sat in your Queen Anne’s chair you would have a conniption!”

“He told you that did he?”

“Yes.  And it scared the shit out of me.  I didn’t want to set foot in that room.  And I think I lucked out… I don’t think I ever saw you have a conniption.”

Meggie shook her head… and then smiled.  The smile turned to a chuckle, which then moved into a lengthy laugh.  “You know what would get me mad?  Real angry?  If someone called me Mirriam.”

“Mirriam?”

“That’s the name on my birth certificate: Mirriam.  You see, when I was in the 3rd Grade, my teacher, Miss Grudell didn’t like my name: Mirriam… so she changed it to Meggie.  She would only call me Meggie… and then all my classmates did it, too.  And what cinched the deal was when your Mother, who couldn’t pronounce ‘Mirriam’, started calling me Meggie.  Then that was that.  I was Meggie from then on… even in our home.”

Meggie paused.  The room fell quiet.  We both listened to the wind moving the chimes just outside the window.

“The only time I heard the name Mirriam was when my parents scolded me.  I hated it.  ‘Mirriam GO TO YOUR ROOM!!’  I couldn’t stand the name.”

“You know… it’s a really a pretty name.”

“Yes, I suppose so; but not if it is associated with punishment, derision and shame.  You know… one time your Uncle Saul called me Mirriam.  He knew I hated it.  We were standing in the kitchen.  We were having a discussion, and he called me Mirriam.  I got so mad.  I lost control and took a Spode tea cup and smashed it to the floor.”

She shook her head and allowed a small smile to take hold.

“The cup already had a chip in it.”

“Maybe that was an almost conniption?”

“Do you want to know from conniption?  I will give you conniption!  It was when Herschel lifted his leg on Saul’s precious blue club chair!  Oh my!  Saul had a conniption!”

We both laughed.  “Well… Meggie I’m not itching to see a conniption, I promise not to pee on the blue club chair… and to be safe I won’t sit on the Queen Anne’s either.” 

I glanced at my beautiful Aunt,  “It’s a shame about Mirriam, though.  Such a pretty name.”

Posted in Meggie & Saul | Leave a comment

Overheard Near the Curia Pomperiana

{February 44B.C.E. Rome}

ALFIE: Reggie, maybe you ought to look for a different line of work.

REGGIE: What d’ya mean Owfie?

ALFIE: I mean that you’re not doin’ too well with this soothsaying. I mean you’re not makin’ a livin’ Reggie.

REGGIE: But I’m good! I am better than good, Owfie! I can’t ‘elp it if no one listens to me. Besides, what else could I do?

ALFIE: They’re looking for blokes at the baths. You could ‘and out towels at the Baths.

REGGIE: I don’t think so… ooops, here’s one comin’ now. “Buy low, sell ‘igh.” There, that’s a pretty good sooth! What d’ I tell you Owfie? I’m good!

ALFIE: What’s it mean, Reggie… “buy low, sell ‘igh”?

REGGIE: ‘aven’t the foggiest. That’s not my callin’. I just tell the sooths as they come to me.

ALFIE: Callin’?

REGGIE: Yeah… like bein’ a Rabbi.

ALFIE: Gawan, you a Rabbi?

REGGIE: Naught me silly. Besides, you think I got it bad? Those Rabbis ‘ave it worse. They ‘ave a tough time getting’ blokes to be Jews. Ya gotta get circumcised.

ALFIE: Circumcised?

REGGIE: Right!  Ya gotta get your dick trimmed! Do you want your dick trimmed Owfie?

ALFIE: No one is touching my dick, Reggie.

REGGIE: See, I ‘eard it said that there’s going to be this new group of Jews startin’ up where they don’t touch your dick.

ALFIE: Well, that wouldn’t be so bad… would it?  I mean, it might be OK, seein’ that they don’t touch your dick.

REGGIE: Shhhhh, I am going to say another sooth, “Walk softly; but carry a big stick.”

ALFIE: I got it Reggie! “Big dick”… see?  These Jews are never gonna ‘mount to nuthin’ if they keep trimmin’ dicks!

REGGIE: Stick you ninny, not dick!  Why am I wastin’ all these great sooths on you… will you tell me?

ALFIE: Well… I still say you better find a job what pays. Why don’t you join the Army? Now there’s a good job. See the world, plenty of adventure, wear great clothes, you get to subdue people, spoil the crops, rape and pillage…

REGGIE: Rape? Does it pay well?

ALFIE: Not as well as pillaging; but you make out awright.

REGGIE: Raping? Do you need experience?

ALFIE: I’m not sure Reggie. You might have to work your way up. You know… they probably begin you with raping vegetables like eggplants or something, then when you get to be a Centurion you get to ‘ave a go with chickens…

REGGIE: I don’t know if the Missus is going to be pleased with that… OK, here’s another sooth… I think it’s from some type of drama…

“Soothsayer: Beware the Ides of March.

Caesar: What man is that?

Brutus: A soothsayer bids you beware the Ides of March.

Caesar: Set him before me; let me see his face.

Cassius: Fellow, come from the throng; look upon Caesar.

Caesar: What say’st thou to me now? Speak once again.

Soothsayer: Beware the Ides of March.

Caesar: He is a dreamer; let us leave him. Pass.

{Sennet. Exeunt all but Brutus and Cassius}”

ALFIE: That sure is a fancy sooth Reggie… and there’s a part in there for you! Although it’s not much of a part. I mean you don’t have many lines: “Beware of the Ides of March”… it probably doesn’t pay a lot. And look… Caesar doesn’t even pay attention to you! “Let us leave him. Pass.” Doesn’t that tell you something? I tell you what it tells you! That the job in the baths is looking better and better, that’s what!!

REGGIE: You say chickens, Owfie?

ALFIE: Eggplants first, then chickens. By the by Reggie, what’s “exeunt” mean?

Posted in Ministry of Humor | Leave a comment

Nikki Takes a Walk

I could understand. Rather, I was brought up to understand. It’s what happens when dogs were made a part of your life. You could even ask my Great Aunt Bella (if she were still here), she would tell you, “If there is reincarnation, I want to come back as a dog in the Winston household.”

When folks ask about my family I will answer that I had 4 siblings: two with 2 legs, and two with 4 legs. It’s all confusing, this might explain my Mother’s custom of cycling thru names when she addressed one of us… as the first choice I was usually called Paul (my Brother)… oddly enough my Nephew Andy was called Jimmy.  Knowing I wasn’t Paul, Mom would stammer and she would proceed to the other family names: Sidney (my Father), Lynn (my Sister) and then Baa Baa & Rocky (our Bedlington Terriers).  Maybe she would eventually get to my name. This is what happens when you are the youngest.

Something else that set our household apart… Paul had it pegged: we had the only home with a al carte dinning. This was thanks to my Grandmother, Mommie Sophie, our Chef de Cuisine & Dispenser of Nutrition (God forbid that you walk away from the table having not eaten). But it didn’t end with the adults and children of the home… it extended to our Bedlingtons. On a night when veal chops were part of the offerings for “us”, there would be a stock pot cooking on the stove with bones, meat ends, fatty parts, cut vegetables and potatoes for a tasty stew that she would be preparing for Baa Baa and Rocky (the hundts, as she called them, who, it should be noted, never had a completely housebroken day in their lives).

Say what you will about the distinctions between Paul, Lynn and me… but know this: we love dogs… we were brought up that way. Paul, his love of Old English Sheepdogs, Lynn and her love of Soft-Coated Wheatens & then Petit Basset Griffon Vendeens… and for me, it is, and will always be, Keeshonden.

I guess word gets around… although to this day I am not sure how my love of Keeshonden made its way to Vermont and to my Hamden Hall classmate Carole.  But it did.  And when her Sister Donna expressed an interest in the Keeshond breed, my name was provided as a source for possible breeder information.  Information I was happy to supply.

Owning a Keeshond?  In my book it defines you.  You have to be good.  You pass the test.  You’ve demonstrated good judgment.  You got to look for the defining things in life… Pepe’s Pizza is something else that defines you (that’s a story for a different day).

When Donna picked out a Keeshond pup and named it “Heineken” I knew that we would be fast friends… that there would be a bond.  Over the years we would catch up on the stories; but at least part of the time would be dedicated to our Keeshond experiences… Donna talking about Heineken and me sharing something about Barney or Cloris.

There would be the day when Donna would have to put Heineken down.  I understood that, too.  I have experienced taking that step… more than once.  And we shared the sense of loss that perhaps can only be fully understood if you have been brought up loving dogs… dogs who can pee on the drapes and still get treated to homemade veal stew.

There are two different ways to proceed after losing a dog.  One way is to get another dog… same breed.  Or, get another dog… a different breed.  For some, getting another dog of the same breed detracts from the memory of what made that first dog so special in your life.  That is the way it was for Donna… when she put Heineken to rest there was no way that she could possibly get another Keeshond.  I could well understand.

A couple of months later she picked up a German Short Haired Pointer and named her Sammie and a few years later Nikki the Akita was added to household.  I didn’t want to tell her that Akitas were not a favorite breed of mine.  My Mother had one… Mitzie, short for Mitsubishi, and of all my Mother’s dogs it was the one I took to the least.  But Donna was in her glory.

Another thing that I understood.  Two dogs are a good number to have. 

Maybe it’s because dogs grow up so quickly… moving from puppyhood, to young dog within a year or two, to full adulthood a short time thereafter… that when we see two dogs raised pretty much together, they move from young siblings to a “couple” status in a short time.  Their interactions take on the complexities of “partners in life”… loving, affectionate and protective.  So it was with Sammie and Nikki.

Donna had written this past December that Sammie was close to her end and having lived the end play with five of my Kees I could understand the type of pain and sadness that Donna felt.  But perhaps I gave too little thought to the sense of sadness that could grip a good buddy… that could affect Nikki.

And so it was that Donna recently wrote to me…

“I have been putting in extra hours at work… tax time.  I get home just drained.  Still, I make it a point to take Nikki out for her walk around the block.  It’s just a quarter mile.  About 8 to 10 minutes depending on the quality of the neighborhood smells.  It’s hard to say who enjoys, or needs, the walk more, Nikki or me.”

I know this.  If my dogs caught a new smell, the walk time increased by at least 20%.

“Nikki is probably bored out of her mind, now that Sammie is gone.  Alone home all day.  No Sammie.  When I come home she greets me like returning royalty.  Happy, happy.  She watches my every move — waiting for me to take out her leash, knowing that the leash meant ‘walk time’.  Last night I was sapped… all I could think of doing was changing into sweats and grabbing a bite to eat.  Nikki changed from ‘walk mode’ to ‘snatching table scraps mode’.  I took off her invisible fence collar and then gave her neck a real good scratch.”

Yes… I loved giving my dogs a good scratch… neck, shoulders & sides, and concluded with a reviving belly “scritch”… I swear that Cloris would grin.

“I couldn’t deny her a sliver of some sliced turkey… and then she headed for the doggy port for a spot of fresh air… I suppose, or notI got comfy on the couch and didn’t pay close attention.  After a bit, I called her to me… but she didn’t come.  I checked the clock… it was 9:30PM.  Maybe she headed for the bedroom?  I called to her again, ‘Nikki! Time to hit the head!’  I looked for her in all the favorite spots.  No Nikki.  I walked outside, flipped on the lights in the back… called her.  No Nikki.  Then I walked around to the front, and there out of the dark she came up the driveway proud as can be.  She probably got bored and took herself for a walk since I didn’t want to.”

I got to thinking… Nikki was probably relieved just to get that damned collar off.  Those collars have always struck me as Medieval… something out of the Tower of London or the Inquisition.  Our friends the Walsh’s had a Chocolate Labrador named Tootsie… she had one of those invincible fence collars, too… but if she saw a rabbit on the other side of the fence line, that dog would run right thru the voltage!  No pain, no gain! 

“Nikki, looked at me with a sheepish wag of her curled back tail… lowered her head a bit and ‘smiled.’  Or so it appeared.  She seemed to be saying, ‘I miss my pal Sammie… and I just needed some time alone.'”

That sounded reasonable.

“I think she is still depressed (but not depressed enough to stop her old trick of dragging the bathroom rug into the hall).  I gave Nikki a reassuring scratch to her shoulders and told her, ‘I miss her, too.'”

I understood it all.  It is sad to see couples separated by a death.  The surviving partner seems to be existing, more than living… just playing out their time.  Maybe Nikki went out looking for Sammie?  Maybe she picked up a new smell?  Maybe she just had to pee?  Or she was just having some fun giving Donna some worry.  That’s it… hit the bathroom rug, then scatter the Tupperware in the kitchen.  Lonely one moment, happy the next.  How different is that from us?

Maybe we’ll all get lucky and return as dogs into loving homes.  Ask Bella, the puppy Shetland Sheepdog that Zack and Beth have added to their household.  Shetland Sheepdog?  I would like to think a part of that pup is my Great Aunt Bella making her statement from decades ago come true.  After all… who wouldn’t want to be a dog in a Winston household?  We understand.

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Uncle Saul Didn’t Blink Once

When I talk with friends about life’s experiences and what we remember about family and growing up, I hear plenty about Uncles. “My Uncle taught me how to whittle wood.” “My Uncle took me fly fishing.” “My Uncle took me snow-shoeing.” “My Uncle taught me how to start a camp fire.”

At this point, I have to offer, “My Uncle taught me how to play Gin.”

Well… it’s true. Uncle Saul taught me how to play Gin. When other kids were learning the early lessons of casting or how to carve away from your hand, I was being instructed in the finer points of “four-of-a-kind” and “straight runs.” My hands were so small that it took both of them to hold all 10 cards.

The basics of the game aren’t hard. You have to accumulate cards in groups of no less than three. They can be all the same card – like 3 or 4 jacks, for example. Or in runs in the same suit – a 4,5,6 & 7 of Clubs, for example. You start with ten cards, arrange your hand appropriately into like cards or runs… and then begin drawing cards and discarding cards ’til your hand has 2 groups of three and 1 group of four before your opponent can do the same… upon completing this you say “Gin!” and you win the hand.

There’s more… “knocking” and “trash talking” among other things; but we’ll get to that in due course as my story unfolds.

My Father worked on Saturdays (except for the Summer), and sometimes for a change of pace Mom would take me up to Woodbury for the day to visit my Aunt and Uncle. Once Mom and Aunt Meggie went off for an afternoon of shopping and left me in the care of my Uncle Saul. We spent an hour or so outside the house raking leaves.  I loved to rake leaves… trying to create a pile worthy to jump into.  When Saul deemed that we had accomplished the task at hand we returned to the inside. The outdoor activity was merely a prelude for the more important activity to be pursued inside.

Uncle Saul cleared the table in the kitchen nook, took out a fresh legal pad, two sharpened pencils (one for keeping score, the other for doodling), and a deck of cards. He poured me a glass of milk and a glass of white birch beer for himself.

“OK, let’s see here.” He drew a line down the middle of the paper, “Jimmy. Uncle Saul. 25 points for gin, 10 points for under knocking. 200 points to win.  I’ll deal, and it will be your first pick.”

It took me longer to organize my hand. Uncle Saul knew this, he took a sip of his birch beer and began his doodle. Uncle Saul was a doodler. Aunt Meggie said, “a major doodler.”

“The knock card is seven.”

I was looking at a bad hand. Nothing is solid, no threes of a kind to begin, no runs of three. I do have the 3 and 4 of clubs, and the 6 and the 7 of clubs. Getting the 5 of clubs would be sweet.

“How’s school Jimmy?”

“OK.” Actually I hate school. This is an old story, and Uncle Saul knew this.  Uncle Saul discarded a 5 of spades and I blinked.

“Don’t blink Jimmy. It tells me that you needed the 5 of clubs. You have a club run because you passed on the 5 of diamonds.”

Nuts. I had a crummy hand. Saul knew I’m in a club run. And he reminded me how much I hated school. He had taken the advantage. He picked up my Queen of Diamonds discard. “Uncle Saul, I think I have a stomach ache.”

“Stomach ache? Nah! Maybe a little queasy because you have an open club run, you just gave me a present of the Queen of diamonds… you probably have other unattached face cards, I’m a card away from Gin… that’s why you have an ache.”

The stomach ache maneuver didn’t work as I had hoped. Saul had given me no sympathy. He picked up my Queen; but I thought he was speculating off the deck. I bet he was hunting for the Jack. I bet he had unattached face cards! If I could only draw the 5 of clubs off the deck!

“Uncle Saul… I bet Aunt Meggie is out spending a lot of money with my Mom.” Thinking back on it now… that was a low shot. But this was Gin, and Saul had taught me that you had to get an edge in the talk… particularly if you had a bad hand. He drew a card. No blink. He discarded a Jack of diamonds! OK, he wasn’t collecting a diamond run.

I drew a 10 of diamonds, scratch the card on the table and discarded it. Saul’s eyes lit up, picked up the 10, “Gin!!”

He was collecting Queens and 10s! “Let’s see… that’s 15, 21, 28, 34… and 25 for Gin! 59 for Uncle Saul! That’s a good start! I deal again!”

59, geeze… I just got killed on the first hand.  I had better cards on hand #2 and got some good draws off the deck.  I got antsy waiting for my Gin card to appear… and Uncle Saul kept drawing cards off the deck, re-arranging his cards with every draw.  I couldn’t wait any longer.  “I’m knocking with four.”

“Let’s see… I get to lay off my King of Hearts on to your Kings, the 9 of Spades goes to your Spade run… the 6 goes to your Diamond run.  There, four for the knock… that leaves 11.  Jimmy, 11.  You should have waited to go Gin, I had gornisht, you would have killed me!  You deal.”

Don’t ask me how.  I have always been a good shuffler of cards.  Not like I’m a shark or anything… but I could always shuffle a deck, even with small hands.  Other kids could run faster, smarter in school, handy with tools… I could shuffle cards.

“The knock card is 3.  Your pick Uncle Saul.  Ahhhh.  Uncle Saul picks up the lovely 3 of Hearts.  You always pick up low cards on the first pick.  Uncle Saul has 3s.”

“Just play, Jimmy.”

“That’s a good doodle Uncle Saul.  It looks like a Napoleon Cannon. I like the Civil War.  Uncle Saul doesn’t pick up the 4 of Hearts.  I knew he was collecting 3s!”

“It’s a 24 pound cannon.  You learn a lot in school.  Not into Kings this time?”

“I like books on the Civil War.  That and Dinosaurs.  If we learned good stuff like that in School maybe I wouldn’t hate it as much.”  I drew the deuce of spades to complete my Ace, 2, 3, 4 run.  I took the card, put it into my hand using my elbow to fit it snuggly into its proper place.  Saul taught me that… “Gin!! Ha-hoo!”

“You didn’t blink this time.  You’re learning.  You have my deuce!  Ach!  OK, you get five… hardly worth the trouble.  And watch the ‘ha-hoos.‘”

Plus 25 for going ‘Gin.'”

“Plus 25 for Gin!  30… you’re getting closer!  OK, time for a snack.”

I would learn later that this ploy was meant to alter the momentum.  It’s like calling a time-out after your opponent goes on a 15-2 tear in basketball.  Saul felt I was getting a little too lucky.  Uncle Saul brought a greasy brown bag from the fridge and two small plates. He poured me another glass of milk, and poured himself a glass of milk, too.  From the brown bag he took out a white block of something.  He took out a sharp knife and cut off a healthy slab, divided that into two pieces, and placed one on each of our plates.

“What’s this Uncle Saul?”

“This Jimmy, is the staff of life.  It’s the perfect food!”

I smelled it.  “It’s doesn’t smell great.”  I touched it, “I doesn’t feel too good either, sorta oily. What is it?”

“Jimmy, this is halvah.  Nothing better.”

“What’s in it?”

“You don’t want to know.  This is the food of Kings!  Try some!”

“It’s sort of dry.  It’s sticking to the top of my mouth… like peanut butter.”

“That’s what the milk is for!  Have another bite… and have a good gulp of milk.”

I nodded, “Pretty good.”

“I bet they don’t give you this in school!”

Well, he got that right.  School lunches were the worst.  On that basis alone I would have to concentrate on this halvah stuff.  It had a strange fiberous consistency that I was getting used to (Ellen would say that it was like eating soap)… there was sweetness; but not an obvious sweetness.  And it made sense with the milk.  Filling, too.  “This is good, Uncle Saul.”

“Would I steer you wrong?  Jimmy, if you get trapped on a desert island and only had two foods, you could live well with only milk and halvah.  The New England Journal of Medicine wrote about it… it constitutes a perfect diet!  Now… let’s get back to the matter at hand… it’s your turn to deal.”

If you are curious… I didn’t beat Uncle Saul at Gin that afternoon.  He made a recovery after our snack break and took the next five hands and I went down to a sharp defeat.  I lost the next two games, too.  After the game he gave me his drawing of the 24 pound Napoleon.  I came across that drawing in a bunch of old papers a few years ago.

I don’t eat halvah all that much… but when I do I think of Saul.  I am not so sure about its health value.  Of this I am sure… that if you smear some halvah on your face, you can actually hear pimples growing.  And I tell you another thing: when I looked at Saul on the afternoon when he told me that stuff about the New England Journal of Medicine, he didn’t blink once.

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The Shores of Avalon

My Mother would tell me that the best month to be at the Jersey shore was September.  You have to understand… my Mother didn’t favour crowds.  After Labor Day, the “summer folks” (the rentals) departed the beach communities and retreated to Wilmington, Philadelphia and points beyond… leaving the beaches and still warm ocean to the owners and the year ’round residents.

Mom would say to me, “My Papa, your ‘Poppy’ who passed before you were three, said that the sun was richer in September… that the sky shed the white of humid July and August days and turned a breathtaking blue.  A blue that you could only equal on a crisp clear February morning.”

I think of what I miss.  And what you miss falls into two trays.  That which you know and remember… like the pumpkin pie that your Mother made on Thanksgiving.  And that which you don’t know — or that you don’t know enough… like your Poppy who passed before you were three.

Poppy and Nana were special folks… and they were a bit unique in living in Connecticut; but owning a cottage in the lower Jersey shore.  “Your Poppy loved the ocean,” I was told.  “Long Island Sound didn’t ‘do the job’… he needed a further horizon… and waves.  But it was the far horizon, no hint of land.  Something that would give space to his ideas… to his dreams.”

I come now.  Dunes protecting the beach just as I remember.  The grains of sand and strands of sea grass holding memories of warm sun, cold drinks and the sound of surf breaking on to the shore.

I think of those who are no longer here… folks who used to be here.  Here to see the moving water and the distant horizon.  But maybe they are still here… in this piece of sea glass, or this sea shell shard?

That’s the beauty of the beach.  The beauty of the ocean.  It holds memory, yet at every instant its appearance changes.  Happiness and tears come and go… but still, its beauty remains.  That’s its treasure.  “Its beauty remains.”  Those aren’t my words… those are the words of my Poppy.  My Poppy in Avalon.

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Thank God for Jimmy Hoffa

It’s 6:30AM, a biting cold in the air, cars and and vans belching exhaust from their tailpipes, vehicles kept idling while their inhabitants rush in to get a hot cup of “joe”.  There are a dozen places like this on my way into work… Dunkin Donuts on Route 6 in Southbury, the Doughnut Inn on Route 25 in Monroe, the convenience store opposite Bogey’s in Westport, McDonald’s on the Post Rd in Norwalk, Mr. Bagel further down the Post Rd… and finally my destination: the Exxon Mini-Mart at the intersection of Route 1 and Business Route 7.

It’s a rare day when I’m not in the Mini-Mart to get my medium black and pay my respects to Maheesh, the Maitre D’ of the morning shift.  And the folks who are there grabbing their coffee, picking up a LOTTO and a pack of smokes have the look of regulars… the landscaping crews, the HVAC guys, the Cablevision/Optimum guys, cops… it’s mostly a male crowd; but not exclusively. 

And for the faces that don’t have the ring of familiarity, if they greet, and/or are greeted by Maheesh, they are strangers no more… they are part of the regulars.  Most of the talk takes place between Maheesh and the individual patrons; but on occasion folks make small talk to each other while waiting on line to pay for their morning fix.

“You’re fast!  You got right to your coffee.”

I barely noticed the comment… or who said it.  Why the heck is he talking to me?  I make little eye contact with folks in the morning.  There’s lotsa reasons for this (we’ll save it for another time).

“Mighty cold today!”

“Sure is.”  I shouldn’t have said anything… it left the possibility that I was going to engage in chit-chat.  I didn’t hear Maheesh greet this guy, nor did he say, “Whassup Maheesh?” Or something like that.  Regulars, I’ll say a word or two to.  This guy?  He could be a serial killer.

“Thank God for Jimmy Hoffa”

I nearly spilled my coffee putting the cover and the “heat shield” on the cup.  I’m paying and getting out of there as fast as I can.  I take a glance at the guy.  Slight of build, a bit unshaven, hair tosseled but not messy… and a smile on his face.  The smile was warm; but I haven’t changed my mind… this guy is definitely a “looney tune”.

Jimmy Hoffa?  He didn’t look old enough to know about Jimmy Hoffa… but then again maybe he was thinking of his son, James P. Hoffa who is the present head of the Teamsters.

Look, maybe the guy was a student of history?  Or, just Pro-Labor?  I don’t know… maybe I’m numb to aspects of current affairs; but I don’t have the sense of Labor tensions that seemed to be more routine when I was growing up… transit strikes, garbage strikes, teacher strikes in NYC.  Still… Jimmy Hoffa?

I start to cycle thru ideas… “how did we get here?”  First… the coffee comment, next the cold weather… and then we finally we get to Jimmy Hoffa.  Maybe I missed the connection?  Let’s see… Hoffa had a cup of coffee, it was cold outside, then he was murdered and dumped into the construction site of a mall in Bloomfield, Michigan?

No.  That’s not it.  Hoffa disappeared in July. 

OK.  Coincidence?  Maybe there is another Jimmy Hoffa… other than his son.  Maybe a religious guy or hotshot football prospect that will take the Jets back to the Super Bowl?  Uh, oh.  I glance to see if he’s wearing anything green.  Well… it’s too early for the NFL Draft… I put that small portion of Jets-phobia to the side.

No.  He has to be thinking of the classic Jimmy Hoffa… the Union Racketeer who disappeared in 1975.  Call me insensitive; but I can’t think of why we are thanking God for Jimmy Hoffa.  Well, look… maybe Jimmy donated some of the money he embezzled from the Teamsters to an orphanage or something, and this guy is an orphan.  That’s it!  Hoffa created this huge trust fund with the money he stole to help out orphans… Jimmy, age 7, had lost his coal miner father to cancer… and although he broke the law, he was trying to do the right thing.  A Labor Robin Hood.  Thank God for Jimmy Hoffa!

Possible.  But unlikely.  Still… this cuckoo-charlie might think that’s the case, and that’s why he is sipping coffee and thanking God for Jimmy Hoffa.

Maybe it’s the coffee!  Maybe if it wasn’t for Jimmy Hoffa and the Teamsters we wouldn’t have coffee!

Bingo!  We get coffee from overseas, right?  You bet!  We talk about the “coffee republics” all the time!  Are we talking about South Carolina? No!  Those beans have to be shipped into us… the Longshoremen have to bring them in, and then the Teamsters have to move them around the country… See what I mean?  Maybe if we don’t have Jimmy Hoffa, we don’t have coffee!

Yeah… thank God for Jimmy Hoffa!

I nod to the guy… pay Maheesh and step outside into the cold air, sip my coffee… Thank God for Jimmy Hoffa!

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Odes, Haikus & other Literary Forms

They enjoyed their time together in the manner in which old friends can do.  They had been friends since grade school.  They could talk of their childhood, of their parents, of their respective loves in their life… or of political and social issues.  Basically they could talk about anything.  And the ease of their conversation translated perfectly to emails and quick turn around responses… something that would usually happen at the start of the day.                        

“Here is something to get you started… I know you will like it!

Balls of tasty chopped meat

Smothered in tomato sauce, oh what a treat!

Add some melted mozz, isn’t that neat?

Placed in bread of hero, can’t be beat!”

“Really impressive.  Don’t give up your day job.”

“You’re jealous because you can’t write poetry.”

“Poetry?  Is that what you call that?”

“Yes… It’s my ‘Ode to a Meatball Parm Hero.'”

“Ode?”

“Yes, Ode.  It’s a form of poetry.  I write Odes all the time.  It’s a creative outlet that is necessary for my well being.”

“Does that mean that you have given up finger painting?”

“I gave that up a while ago… just after I stopped making paper snow flakes.”

“Did Sandy take away your big boy scissors?”

“Yes.  I cut her favorite tablecloth.  It was a mistake.  Then I got nervous and spilled my chocolate milk in the floor vent.  It was an accident.  Never mind.  Here is something else for you:

A laser shot straight and true

Dimpled white ball tearing into the blue

Landing near the pin and sticking like glue

Bringing joy and happiness to the Country Club Jew”

“You drink chocolate milk?  Your first Ode was better.”

“It was really bourbon.  But bourbon and paper snow flakes would probably stretch the bounds of credulity.  The name of the poem is ‘Ode to the Links.’  You prefer the first one because you like a good sandwich, or perhaps it’s simply a reflection of your root Anti-Semitism.”

“A meatball parm is a good sandwich.  A Reuben is better.  Does thinking that Joe Lieberman is a putz make me Anti-Semitic?”

“You bring up an interesting point.  Try this on for size.  You know the sandwich, now experience Reuben: the Haiku!

Piled high lean corned beef

Swiss, ‘kraut and Russian Dressing

Inside heaven’s gates

I think this was one of my best poems.  It really captures the form… concise, crisp and excellent imagery.  I submitted it to the New Yorker; but it was rejected.  I think that Lieberman is a putz, too.  A putz and a sanctimonious wind bag.”

“Haiku?  A Reuben Haiku?!  And Ode to a Meatball Parm?  This is culinary pornography.  I have to begin my work day… I am glad that you have time to indulge in your poetic fantasies; but I have to make a living.  Lieberman is a dangerous wind bag.”

“Does that mean that you don’t have time for my ‘Sonnet to George Bush’s Last Day in Office?'”

“Sonnet?  You really wrote a Sonnet?”

“No.  Not exactly.  I haven’t mastered that literary form yet.  I working on it though.  I am reviewing what Iambic Pentameter means… I’ll do some training, then watch out!”

“I don’t think that Shakespeare has to worry.”

“I think that Shakespeare gave up worrying 400 years ago.  Go to work.  You can repay me for giving your life a literary uplift by buying dinner and drinks the next time.”

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Thirsty No Longer

Shared experiences can create bonds stronger than the cable on a bridge.  Family ties are a natural… so too, childhood friends.

But it can happen in the jury room or the fox hole, too… times that have a clear time line with a beginning and an end.  Brief; but because of the intensity of the shared experience, the connections can be as solid as those that spread to a lifetime.

Whether it is over an extended period, or the intensity of a brief intersection… it is sharing a common path that adds definition to the sense of camaraderie and kinship.  And there is nothing that can surpass the rich depth of shared memory.

Such was the case when I caught bits and pieces of chatter coming from the high top near my station at the Ash Creek Saloon.  I am there from time to time, and while I keep to myself, I have observed a thing or two over the years that have caught my attention.

Maybe it was the laughter that first stopped me in mid-flight to a sip of Wild Turkey Rye.  Not a rude or obnoxious laugh that intrudes into your space.  But laughter that was genuine and spoke to the enjoyment of living.

Yes, I stopped what I was doing to notice four buddies huddled around a table, beer bottles and glasses scattered about, along with small plates of buffalo wings (both eaten and uneaten).  They were of my age, or so I judged.  Maybe that’s why I paid closer attention.  Did they bear the same stitches and scars of age that I wore?  I thought so.  I wouldn’t have explain to them the Colts’ overtime victory against the Giants in 1958.  These guys could remember the terror of Nikita Khrushchev beating his shoe in the U.N. General Assembly.  “We will bury you.”

These fellahs were not my school friends, not family.  Nor did we share time in military service… but just being of the same age meant that we shared a certain common experience.  Not that they noticed me; but I raised my glass in acknowledgement of their presence… of their living to enjoy the same sunny day that I did.

And then their words.  Or, at least the words that I caught.

“Half and half!”

“Yes!  Yes, yes.  What a quality drink.  The first time I had that was at your place.  No, no… it was at Richie’s.”

“Yeah, Richie’s.  For sure.  Half chocolate milk and half white birch beer.  What a combo!  Better than an egg cream.”

Better by miles.”

OK… I thought that “half and half” was half stout and half lager…

“Man, did that sound vile… but shit, you know it was good.  It was better than good.  It was great!  I haven’t had one in years.”

“My favorite was a razz-lime.  On a hot day…”

“Nice.”

Yeah, nice.  If it was my conversation I would have added a black cow.  Root beer and vanilla ice cream.  My Brother Paul introduced me to the exceptional quality of that concoction.  But it wasn’t my conversation.

“Two cents plain.  That’s what my parents called it.  Plain seltzer.  Unadorned.  Nothing killed a thirst quicker.”

“Richie told us that.”

“True, true.”

“Here’s to Richie… he’s thirsty no longer.”

“To Richie.”

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It’s not just about Christmas, Channukah & Kwanzaa

Winter Festivals have been going on for a long, long time.  Well before there were organized religions, our human ancestors would celebrate the solstice in mid-summer and mid-winter… those days of greatest light and greatest darkness.

Tomorrow, in the Northern Hemisphere we celebrate the Winter Solstice… and I have been searching for an appropriate way to mark this great occasion (other than by drinking too much bourbon).  I have finally found a tradition I can get behind… it’s noted below — I’m not making this up.

The Saami, indigenous people of Finland, Sweden and Norway, worship Beiwe, the sun-goddess of fertility and sanity. She travels through the sky in a structure made of reindeer bones with her daughter, Beiwe-Neia, to herald back the greenery on which the reindeer feed. On the winter solstice, her worshipers sacrifice white female animals, and with the meat, thread and sticks, bend into rings with ribbons. They also cover their doorposts with butter so Beiwe can eat it and begin her journey once again.

That’s it… I’m moving to Finland.  But if Beiwe and her daughter wear those hats with the horns and metal brassieres, I’m coming back.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!!

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Where’s the fucking salsa, Pat?

The political scene is sickening.  I keep telling folks we have no one to blame but ourselves.  We have evolved, or maybe descended is a better word, into a political system featuring folks who run for office based not on what they believe; but in what will get them elected.  Then, once elected, they are not interested in governing; but simply remaining in the job.

This is a long way from the idealism that stimulated the founding fathers in framing our Constitution.

But in fairness… the ol’ boys had it a bit easier.  They started their day with two litres of Ale, had a bottle of Madeira at lunch and drank the night away on good French Cognac.  They were well read, classically educated and they had the breadth of wisdom that burst thru the alcoholic haze.  And there wasn’t a News Truck with a remote camera team to cover the time that Hamilton tripped on a cobblestone on Chestnut St. 

Sad to say it… but those guys would probably have a tough time in the present tabloid, 30 second sound bite environment.  Shame.

I never thought I would live to see the day when I would think of Dick Nixon as being a desirable President.  But I’m almost there…

It seems a dream… strong leadership, hardnosed thinking, toughness with restraint… real people with red blood flowing thru their veins… Here is President Nixon… taking a step back from battles with Capitol Hill, dealing with the Commies, and the terror of the McGovern Campaign… relaxing on the Sequoia as it makes its way along the Potomac into the setting sun… The President has just refreshed his guests’ martinis with a third round.  Like FDR, he preferred mixing them himself… Tanqueray Gin, a whiff of Noilly Pratt and an olive.  A real cocktail, for real people.  And who would care if the conversation became laced with profanity… or demonstrated a certain mean spirited attitude.  Strong leaders have strong opinions.  Do you think that Jefferson was a saint?

And oh… the martinis flowed, and a bottle of Ch. Margaux ’66 awaited to accompany the thick grilled sirloins that would be prepared for dinner.  But first more martinis and some light hors d’oeuvres.  No cameras, no sound crews… “Where’s the fucking salsa, Pat?”

Dream?  Or Maybe it’s a nightmare.

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The Perfect Ride

“It’s a quarter to three, there’s no one in the place except you and me…” 

Well, first off, it wasn’t a quarter to three.  It was more like 12:15AM.  12:15AM on a Tuesday evening at the Ash Creek Saloon.  But the bar was dead.  A half dozen souls at most.

“So set ’em up Joe.  I gotta little story I think you should know…”

And the bartender wasn’t Joe… but “Mags”.  Still, there was something about that Sinatra tune that buzzed in my head… it just seemed that the sound fit as a backdrop for the story that was about to be related to me.  Not by Mags… but by a nameless stranger.

I wasn’t at Ash Creek to listen to a stranger weave a tale.  When I’m there, I keep to myself.  I was there to begin writing a piece on the “Cult of Personality.”  I wanted to re-visit Khrushchev’s famous speech to the Politburo when he condemned the excesses of Stalin and Stalinism and it’s cult of personality.  I had a different slant that I was tinkering with, and I do some of my best tinkering with a Wild Turkey Straight Rye in front of me…

So when I saw this stranger in a navy beret sitting one stool over enjoying the same sippin’ whisky, I took note and found it impossible not to extend a friendly nod and a raise of the glass in salute.  Not too many folks drink Wild Turkey Rye Whisky.

“We’re drinkin’ my friend to the end of a brief episode… “

I thought that the nod and a shared hoist of the cup would satisfy the rules of the bar… as it pertained to hospitality.  I was anxious to return to my personal thoughts and scribble out a few words.  But his voice cut thru the quiet of the bar… and stopped me.

“What would be your best day?”

There was a richness to his voice.  Mellow, but intensely strong and with a bit of a scratch… fueled perhaps by years of cigarette smoke and good whisky.  It sounded like he had studied for the stage… he had that “documentary narrative voice”… a voice that both soothed and commanded.  Imagine Morgan Freeman doing the voice over in Shawshank Redemption.

“Think about it”, he continued.  “Strip away all that is a trial in your life and build a day… what would it look like?”  He sipped his whisky.  And I mine.

OK.  I could picture getting up just after sun break and looking at a curve of sand, blue water turning slowly on to shore.  A day filled with warming sun, a cooling sea breeze and a piercingly cold dry martini at four.  That sounded close to perfection to me.  But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to share that with a stranger… even if he sipped Wild Turkey Rye.

“Well… I’m not sure.  Can I get back to you?”

If I thought that my response would put him off from taking this conversation further, I was mistaken.

“How often do you dream about a perfect day?  Particularly if you’ve taken one on the chin the day before.  You know, you had a perfectly rotten Monday.  Then Tuesday comes… wouldn’t it be great: going to your morning coffee place, buying an ‘instant lotto’ and hitting it, then hitting on the new hire at work and scoring a date, and then hitting it off that night and scoring?  You know the type of day?  Perfect, huh?”

I nodded.  It seemed the appropriate thing to do.  I was really trying to separate from the conversation.  But his voice… His voice lulled me.  It was like putting on a pair of soft slippers.  It was something you couldn’t ignore or take for granted.  It was as if it was a privilege just to hear his very words.

He continued.  “Well, I know this fellah… who lives for making every traffic light on his way to and from work.  It’s his dream.”

I nodded, although my instinct was to ignore his intrusion into my thoughts.  But I identified with the description of this guy.  I hate red lights.  So I put down my pen.  Sipped my whisky and prepared to listen.  The Cult of Personality could wait.

“This guy… he travels the same road from his home to work and back again.  In the morning he is on that road every day within three minutes of the same time.  He knows each turn and bump.  Every house, place of business, strip mall.  He knows where the cops perch in ambush.”  He sipped his whisky and shook his head.  Took off his beret, placed it on the bar and ran his fingers thru his neatly combed silver hair.

“He knows the cars and vans that travel the same stretch.  Which one turns off on Route 59, and which one pulls into the Doughnut Inn.  Folks who are complete strangers are ‘known’ to him… that’s the green Outback, left tail light out.  That’s the white van with the ‘SCREWU’ plate.  Each driver shares a portion of their day, alone but together.”

I nodded.

“You have to see that for this guy, his ride becomes emblematic of his life… its successes, its losses.  Miss the light by St. Paul’s Church and his day would be diminished.  But it is more than missing a light and possibly delaying his arrival time… missing a light for you or me? We would think of it as a chance occurrence.  No.  This guy feels he is responsible.  Not making a light becomes his fault.  He might not have been helped by the car in front of him that stopped at the light to make a turn.  Never mind… he gets angry.  Missing the light?  He sees it as a failure.

Well… I don’t take it quite that far.  I hate missing lights.  But me?  I would be blaming the asshole who was stopped to take a left at the light.

“Everyday this guy dreams for the perfect ride.  So today he comes down Route 6, make the light at Canfield Corner, then the light at St. Paul’s, then the light at the Ovens of France… proceeds smoothly… no cops in sight, make the light at Turkey Hill, green at the Heritage Village turn-off, and green at the big shopping plaza intersection before the I-84 ramp… first leg of the ride is done!”

He took time for a smile.  “It’s like reaching the fifth inning and you’re still working on a perfect game.  His first thought is: ‘I am not going to think about it!’  Of course he can’t help himself… how can he not get a wee bit excited?  But he doesn’t want to jinx himself, you know what I mean?

“So there he is… ‘unscathed’ by the time he swings on to I-84.  Route 6 had been a straight ride, not even a hint of a slow down.  And now a clean ride on 84… no trucks, no annoying lane hogs… and most importantly, no gendarmes.  Get off at Exit 11… clean to the Toddy Hill short cut, and connect with Route 25 at Swamp Rd.  2 miles on Route 25, a ‘blinky’ and three greens and then right on to Route 59.  Ha-hoo!”

We both take a sip at the ha-hoo.

“Well, you know what they say.  The first six innings are a snap… lotsa pitchers carry perfect games to the seventh frame.  But this guy is in the middle of a charmed ride… maybe it’s destiny?  He gets thru the light at the junction of Route 136 and 58 and has a 5.7 mile stretch with no lights… just a twisting lane thru Easton, Fairfield and Westport.  No lights… and plenty of time to think.  To think how great things are going so far.

“In Westport he has seven lights.  This is the supreme test.  There had been other mornings when he had made all the lights thru to 136/58.  But he had never made all the Westport lights.  Many of these lights have a ‘pain in the ass’ reputation… and glory of glories… this morning he makes each and every one!  No need to rush thru a ‘yellow’… no need to slow down to encourage a green.  No, his timing is perfect… and he is feeling on top of the world.  What luck!  He is a success!  Do you think that he is thinking that perhaps he had been too greedy in making all those lights?  That maybe he should have left ‘something on the table’?  Saved a ‘key green’ for another ride?  No, he has no thoughts along those lines.  He is as happy as a kid in a sweet shop!  And the ‘cherry on the sundae’ is that he gets the perfect parking spot at work… that in itself is a treat of treats!  He has gotten that spot exactly twice in six years!  A perfect ride, and then a perfect parking spot! A perfect day!”  He raised his glass in triumph.

Yeah, I could see that this would make for a great Tuesday. “I guess that guy is happy now.”

“Happy?  Well, maybe you could say that… I think he finally has a degree of peace.”

He looked at his glass of rye.  Shook the ice a bit.  “About this story… I should tell you, there is one incorrect detail.  I said that I know the guy.  I should have said that I knew the guy.  You see… that fellah died this morning just after he parked his car.  You might say that he was called to his greater reward.”  He raised his glass again in toast.

Died?  How did you hear?”

I know.

This was more than I expected.  I didn’t know what to think, what to believe.  I fiddled with my glass.  I used the pause to hit the “john”.  And when I got back to my stool, the stranger was not to be seen… nor was there a trace of his presence.  No empty glass or wet bar nap or navy beret.  Mags was talking to someone down the other end of the bar.  I thought about asking him where the stranger went to…

I decided against it. 

I didn’t want Mags to say, “what stranger”?  I didn’t want to think that I had just been sipping Wild Turkey by myself and that I just lived thru a Rod Serling script from the Twighlight Zone.  Maybe he had been there, and maybe he hadn’t.  But the possibility that he hadn’t been there scared the shit out me.  It’s not too often you get to share a drink with the angel of death.

The Sinatra tune came back into my head… “Make it one for my baby, and one more for the road…”

I looked at my unfinished rye… and decided to leave some on the table.  All in all, I’m not ready to have a perfect day.

Posted in The Ash Creek Bourbon & Conversation Corner | Leave a comment

Mixed Vegetables and George Patton

{At the dinning table. George Patton, age 8}

The adults always talk… they don’t even know I’m here! I hate this dinner. The meatloaf was fine; but when is mother going to learn that I hate mixed veggies! Men eat meat! We’re warriors! Maybe I can organize the veggies into a proper force. Let’s separate them first. The green beans here. The corn here. On this side the peas, and over here the carrots. Hey! I think I have something!

We’ll put the string beans in echelon here… that’s the Roman Infantry. The corn will represent of the Roman Cavalry on the flanks here and here. Hah! The Army of Rome under the command of the Consuls Lucius Aemilius Paullus and Gais Terentius Varro await the Army of Carthage by the River Aufidus and near the Village of Cannae! A force of 87,000 getting ready to send Hannibal and the Army of Carthage to meet their maker!

vegetables

On this side, the peas will be Hannibal‘s Infantry and on the flanks the carrots will be Hannibal‘s Cavalry with a cohort of War Elephants! Yeah! His Army was outnumbered by two to one. Was Hannibal worried? No! In your face Varro! The action begins.

The first mistake… the Roman Infantry is in echelon and put a front the same size as the smaller Carthaginian force. Let’s move these green beans into the center of the peas. Hannibal put his weakest units in his center! I hate peas. The peas hold their formation; but begin to yield their position as the green beans begin their advance… the green beans begin to form an arc inside the pea formation.

Hannibal senses the opportunity to strike the weaker Roman Cavalry on the southern flank of the green beans. The carrots fall on the corn and cut them to ribbons.

{He mashes a few nibblets of corn into the plate and picks up a few nibblets and eats them. The grown-ups gab away}

The southern flank of the Roman Infantry is exposed as the Carthaginian Cavalry turns the line. And the peas at the edge of the arc begin to tear into the green bean formation, too. Meanwhile Hannibal‘s Cavalry to the North also begins to decimate the corn there, as well.

{More corn is eaten, and two green beans}

A classic double envelopment is under way, with the Cavalry, having dispatched of the corn, is ready to hit the green beans from the rear. The beans, still outnumber the peas and the carrots; but are compressed into tight quarters and can’t maneuver. A slaughter is on the way! The entire Roman force is wiped out…

{Begins eating green beans one by one}

Not a Roman soldier is left standing! Hannibal has just routed a numerically superior force, and handed Rome its greatest defeat! The Battle of Cannae will go down as one of the greatest battles in history!!

“George!! What on earth are you doing?! You know better than to play with your food!”

“Mother… war is hell!

“George… go to your room.”

Posted in Ministry of Humor | Leave a comment

Snowy Night, Uncle Saul & Hannibal

When I think back to when I was a kid, I can no longer separate my love for snow, from my love of no school (because of snow).  Come the winter, I found religion.  I prayed for snow.  At night my nose would be pressed to a front window of our house on Alston Avenue… looking at the street light just to our left… looking for the first glimpse of snow, hoping to see snow falling in the cone of projected light.  I knew that “fat” flakes were useless… too much snow would accumulate on tree branches, and not enough on the street — where it counted!  I wanted small tiny flakes, driving down in an unearthly manner.  I wanted no school.

But there was more…

Snow and its thick blanket magnified the essence of the home for meA place of warmth, a place of safety, a place of family.  A blizzard could be raging, wind beating against the panes and I couldn’t have been happier.  The tomato soup with buttered saltine crackers was better, the crackling log fire was better, the hot chocolate was better, my socks felt better… and the stories were better.

I may have prayed for snow on Alston Avenue.  But I loved the snow in Woodbury.  New Haven snow was OK, but Woodbury snow was better… the homes were further apart… larger stretches of uninterrupted snow fields.  And more to the point, when it rained in New Haven, Woodbury, up in soft hills of Litchfield County, got snow.  When we traveled up to Woodbury for a weekend visit to my Aunt Meggie and Uncle Saul, it felt like we were going to Vermont… and on the drive north I found myself thinking, “too bad I didn’t go to school in Woodbury.”

Meggie and Saul had this marvelous house on Carthage Rd.  I think that it dated back to the 1700s.  Over the years the house had been added to by a score of previous occupants… room by room, level by level.  It was a house of small spaces.  Spaces that could best be appreciated on a cold winter’s night.

The house itself was set back a good fifty yards from the road, the drive snaked its way thru a combination of fir trees to one side and a stand of white birches to the other.  Sugar maples protected the den side of the house… and in the darkness the variety of sound created by the wind running thru those bare limbs on a winter’s evening was hypnotic.  Add a driving snow, as there was one January Saturday night, and the stage was set for my Uncle Saul.

I loved the stories read to me on Alston Avenue.  Bedtime stories in Woodbury were different.  I was accustomed to being read to in my room.  But when we visited Woodbury, story time was in the downstairs den.  My Mom & Dad and Aunt Meggie would linger at the dinning table over coffee and dessert, content to talk the night away.  Saul would wait for me to join him in the den after I got into my pajamas and got cleaned up for bed.  He was in charge of story time… and a story never came from a book.

The den in Woodbury was packed with stuff.  Artwork, figurines, bookshelves crammed with books and bric brac, a Sharp’s buffalo rifle (my personal favorite) hung on the wall above the couch… and a huge standing globe occupied the furthest corner of the room.  When I entered the room on that January night, Saul slowly turned the globe and pivoted its orientation ’til he found his desired spot.  I was used to this.  Saul treated “den stuff” as props for his bedtime stories.  I always tried guessing which curiosity would be used in his tale.

“Jimmy… this is the Mediterranean Sea and for hundreds of years the most important and powerful civilizations of the Western World rimmed its shores.  One of the greatest Empires the World has ever seen was centered here… Rome.”

I could hear the wind driving small flakes against the den window.  But I couldn’t take my eyes off the globe…

“My story tonight is about a brave and courageous General who 2200 years ago took on the glorious Roman Army and won!  It was like the Dodgers beating the Yankees in 1955.  The name of the great general was Hannibal… and he came from here… a place called Carthage, on the other side of the Mediterranean Sea.

“At the time of this story, Hannibal had his Army here… in New Carthage which is called Spain today.  And to conquer Rome he had to get here… Italy.  He had to go thru this part of France… nice beaches… and here, the Alps… huge mountains covered in snow.  And this was all before he reached Italy.  And he didn’t have planes, trains or buses to help him get from here to there.  He had to walk all the way… from here to there.”

To emphasize this, Uncle Saul trudged around the den, heaving and sighing and looking belaboured with each step.  Corny?  Sure… but not to a little kid who delighted in the “theatre”.

“No easy way to get to Italy… But Hannibal was set on beating the Romans… AND he had a secret weapon.”

Secret weapon?!  What kid doesn’t want to hear about secret weapons?

“Hannibal had elephants!”

This didn’t seem like a big deal to me.  Elephants?  Go to the Bronx Zoo, watch a Tarzan movie, there were elephants all over the place.

“Jimmy, back then no one had seen elephants before.  They thought they were monsters!  Dinosaurs!  Little kids would go running home, ‘Mommy, Mommy! There’s a triceratops walking down the street!'”

Well… that struck home.  What kid wouldn’t trade every dessert for a lifetime to see a triceratops walking down the street!

“Hannibal’s army had archers, spear guys… and elephant guys!  Sorta like artillery units, infantry units and armored units!  They had to cross France.  And this was before they invented wine!  And over here {and he pointed to the Rhone River} he had to fool the Romans.  You see… the Romans were wise to Hannibal and they sent one of their Armies to beat him even before he got to Italy.  The Romans thought they were smart.  Hannibal was smarter!  He went up River and crossed here… and the Romans had no one to fight except the fleas!”

The wind spit into the window.

“These Roman guys hadn’t even seen these elephants yet… so they were clueless.  They thought they were just dealing with archers, spear guys and cooks.  It’s like the Yankees not knowing about Campy, Jackie, Gil & the Duke!  Hannibal had elephants.  Not zoo elephants… but war elephants!

War elephants!  My head spun.

“These elephants were big, mean and armored!”

Uncle Saul reached for a box on the floor near the globe… he opened it and retrieved a Pickelhaube… the distinctive helmet with a spike that the Prussian military favored in the 19th Century.  He put it on, secured it in place, and dropped to all fours and continued his story and I retreated to the security of the blue club chair.

“The war elephants were like Sherman Tanks!  Thick body armor all over… and it took a team to operate an elephant — just like a tank.  First, there was the elephantier.  He commanded the team… he directed the elephant from a padded seat just behind the elephant’s head.  There was a protected platform on top of the elephant where two archers were stationed.  They would shoot arrows and hurl things…”

“What do you mean hurl Uncle Saul?”

“When they ran out of arrows, they had a supply of good sized rocks that they would hurl, throw, at the enemy.  And when they ran out of rocks they would hurl insults… they would shout down to the enemy, ‘Hey!  Your mother has a fat bee-hind!’  That would drive the Romans nuts!”

“Oh…”

“And completing the elephant team was the peanutier… he’s the guy who schlepped sacks of roasted peanuts to feed the elephant… and finally the sanitary engineer… he’s the guy who cleaned up after the elephant did a number two.”

Uncle Saul proceeded to crawl around the room… making grumbling and trumpeting sounds… doing his best to play the part of an elephant… a war elephant!

I tried not to laugh; but I think I let a small giggle escape.

“OK.  Hannibal dodges a ‘bullet’ in the lower Rhone.  He still has to cross the Alps.  He has his Army and 37 elephants.  And these elephants don’t like the snow, and it’s snowing a ton in those mountains!  And it’s freezing cold like you can’t believe.  Even the soldiers are angry… they didn’t have underwear in those days!”

On cue, the wind gust picked up its intensity outside the den window.  Uncle Saul crawled over to the couch, shivering he trumpeted and grumbled, and took Aunt Meggie’s afghan and wrapped it around his shoulders, and continued in his travels crawling around the coffee table with its shaky leg, and headed to the floor lamp and lifted his leg.

“Look at this!  It’s so cold here in the Alps, I can’t pee!”  And he let out a massive trumpet.  “It was so cold that their number two froze hard as rocks and the sanitary engineers had to collect them to use, if need be, against the Romans.  The Engineers weren’t too happy about harvesting frozen number two.  Most of the elephants died in the Alps crossing.  But enough made it to Italy’s Po River Plain at Ticinus where Hannibal’s Army met the Roman Army led by the Consul Publius Cornelius Scipio.  The Romans were stunned.  Some of their guys mumbled, ‘holy crow… I think those are triceratops!’  And before they knew it, the Romans felt the sting of arrows, then rocks… and then insults, ‘Your Mother uses bottled sauce!’  And you can’t say anything worse to a Roman!  It was even worse then getting hit with a frozen turd!  Then Hannibal beat them at Trebia, at Lake Trasimene, and then his greatest victory of all at Cannae.  Hannibal and his elephants couldn’t be beaten!”

And Uncle Saul trumpeted and grunted, charged around the room… put his head down with his spiked helmet and crawled full speed into the coffee table, its weak leg gave way, he let out a war whoop, crawled around the room, another trumpet, and he lowered his head once more to finish off the table, he whacked into it, then he reared up on his knees and brought his fists down on the table to utterly crush it.

My eyes bugged out!  I sat in the safety of the blue club chair.  What would the other adults think? After Uncle Saul stopped his trumpeting and growling, all I could hear was the muffled sound of laughter coming from the dinning room.  I was exhausted, I felt like I had been an elephantier at Cannae. I told Uncle Saul that this was the best story ever, I was happy that Hannibal had won… I certainly didn’t know what Saul would say to Meggie about destroying the coffee table… I went to the guest bedroom with visions of elephants tramping thru a blizzard and stomping thru Roman villages.

I never got a chance to ask Uncle Saul how he chose his topics for story time.  Sadly, he passed away well before I had the smarts to ask about his creativity.  Luckily, Aunt Meggie had remained a score plus more in years… to a day when I did have time and opportunity to ask the fun questions and fill in some of the blanks.

On a visit to her home in Chatham I asked, “Aunt Meggie, the time that Uncle Saul told me that story at your place up in Woodbury… how did he cover clobbering your coffee table?  I mean… what story did he make up for you?”

“That table?”  And Meggie just laughed, and laughed… and shook her head.  “That table?  I had been asking Saul to throw that rickety table out for years!  If you sneezed it would collapse!  He just found a unique way to do it… his way.  When we heard that tumult coming from the den, we suspected what was going on.  We tried to keep our laughter in… we didn’t want to upstage Saul’s performance.”

That’s my Uncle Saul.  He made stories come alive.  He probably bought that old farm house on Carthage Rd. just to have a reason to tell a story about Hannibal and his elephants. He just had to wait a few years for the weather conditions, an appropriate audience and a reason to annihilate a piece of furniture to come together.  But Saul knew that day would come…

Posted in Meggie & Saul | Leave a comment

Good People

Today was a first.  First on two scores… it was the first time I voted for a Selectman and the first time I used a paper ballot.  I am not sure about this “selectman” stuff.  I am used to Mayors and Town Councilmen; but I have been advised not to let it throw me off.  The First Selectman is the Mayor, sort of.  And the other Selectman are like the Town Council… or a band of merry men, sort of.

It probably has something to do with the difference between a City and Town.  Ellen’s brother Will tried to explain the technical differences to me one time after dinner… but by that point we had several iced vodkas, and this was after a few aperitifs and wine with dinner… I think it had something to do with how things were set up in our Colonial period… and that took place long before the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles and understanding it all seemed far more than it was worth.

I have decided that First Selectman means that Woodbury is a fancy shmancy town like Westport and New Canaan.

This was my second voting experience in Woodbury.  Last year we voted for State and National offices so there was more hoopla about the vote.  A larger turn out also meant that the polling place was in a middle school… and we had the voting machines… just like the ones that I have used in previous elections in other towns.

But this year it was just for local offices… and the polling place was in our Town Hall.  Town Hall is also the place where Art Shows and Soccer Sign-Up take place.  Maybe the First Selectman is the head of the soccer league and director of the art guild?  Town Hall is also used for blood drives by the Red Cross… maybe the First Selectman has something to do with that, too?

It was my first time in Town Hall… my kids don’t play soccer any more.  I’ve been tempted by the art show; but would feel compelled to buy something… and I don’t have the scratch for that.  Blood?  That make’s me feel antsy.  Or maybe I would just find the First Selectman in there eating donuts and making rude comments about the lengths of skirts these days.

But there I was at 6:10AM… given a quick lesson about filling out a paper ballot.  I got spooked… didn’t that district in Florida have trouble with “hanging chads” from paper ballots… and as a result we’ve had to suffer with the worst President in our Nation’s History.  Maybe there would be similar shenanigans with the paper ballots in Woodbury?

All this said… I prefer local elections.  It’s not really about the Party… it’s about the People.  On the local level we’re not concerned with large issues… foreign policy, the national debt… We’re concerned about Education, plowing the street, a new truck for the fire department and keeping Dunkin Donuts and other chain operations out of Woodbury.  It’s why our paper ballot had as many entries for Planning and Zoning (and related areas) as anything else.

I am still very new to Woodbury… and not knowing the people put me at a disadvantage… it would mean that I would have to vote for a Party (which on a local level, as noted, doesn’t appeal to me), or listen to Sandy (but she seemed to think that to run for office, by definition would put you on the dark side… she had negative things to say about everybody… or nearly everybody). 

Then to my surprise… one day when traveling on our Main Street I noticed a name on one of those “vote for…” signs that clutter the lawns this time of the year… I know that guy!  Hey!  I know someone who is running for office!  It didn’t say what he was running for… but there he was: George Hale.

George, I have known for as long as I have been working at Grapes.  He buys wine from me on occasion.  We’ve always gotten along well on the phone and when I moved up to Woodbury, Sandy and I had dinner with George and his wife Terri at John’s Cafe.  It was a terrific evening… little did I know then that we were sitting down with a mover and a shaker in local affairs.

So… this morning when I braved the stiff rain, stepped inside Town Hall for the first time, said good morning to Ladies of the Ballot (they reserve the men for voting machine elections), and knew that I was going to vote for George Hale.  I didn’t know what he was running for… I didn’t know what Party he represented.  But I was there to cast my paper ballot because I knew George.  I liked him.  I liked they way he thinks.  I trust him to use good judgment.  I may not agree with everything decision he would make pertaining to local issues… but I would expect him to think things thru and make decisions based on what he thought was right.  And I’ll happily live with that, even if we don’t agree on all issues.

This morning it was real simple for me… it’s about people.  And George Hale is good people.

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Mrs. Poodle & the Master of the Revels

“Objectionable?  Exactly what are you referring to, might I ask?”

“Among others, there is this line: ‘Her words felt like a foul blow…”

“What is objectionable about that, Mr. Tilney?”

“Why Mr. Marlowe… a ‘foul blow’ could also be heard as a ‘fowl blow’.  Fowl blow, sir!  Do you think audiences will find oral pleasures from a chicken appropriate?  Oral pleasures from a chicken!  Abomination!  That’s what this is… an abomination!  This play is not fit for the stage!  Re-write the offending scenes Mr. Marlowe, or write a new play.  Good day, sir!”

And the playwright Christopher Marlowe took his leave.

I heard this exchange from the room next door.  My name is William Short… or Will Short, for short…  I was a junior in the employ of the Lord Chamberlain.  It was my first Appointment.  At one time the Lord Chamberlain’s Office was responsible for Royal Festivities & Entertainments.  With the rule of Henry VIII, however, a separate Appointment of Master of the Revels was awarded to Thomas Cawarden.  That would have been… let’s see, 1544 I should think.  And twenty-five years later Edmund Tilney received the patent as Master of the Revels.  Mr. Tilney reports to the Lord Chamberlain.  The Lord Chamberlain reports to Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth.  And I report to Mr. Tilney.  I assist Mr. Tilney…

Mr. Tilney maintains a very busy schedule.  There isn’t a production at The Curtain or The Rose that he hasn’t first judged for the appropriateness of its content.  He watches rehearsals, he supervises productions for the Court.  He is forever on the move… and when he’s out on the rounds of the playhouses, I am “in charge,” as it were.  Which means that I have to respond to inquiries and/or make the necessary appointments and/or recommendations in Mr. Tilney’s stead.

One such day when Mr. Tilney was attending a rehearsal of The Jew of Malta, I responded to the knock on the door.

“Mr. Tilney?” the question coming from a woman as she opened the door.

Ignoring the direction of her address, “Can I help you?”

“My card, sir.”  Which she proffered to me with a rather lofty air.  Unusual for a Lady to have a calling card, a beautifully perfumed card at that…

“Mrs. Poodle?”

“Poo-dell.  Poodle, sir.”

“Quite.  How can I be of service Mrs…. uh, Mrs. Poodle?”

Before I proceed with my story, perhaps I should tell you that Mrs. Poodle was married to Reginald Poodle, a wealthy grain merchant.  Mr. Poodle spent much of his life elsewhere.  But he was always sure to keep his wife well appointed… hand carved carriages, homes in the country, a house in London, servants every where, lavish wardrobe.  A rare example of what wealth can do, even when it was not connected to Nobility.

Her status preceded her to the door of Mr. Tilney.  That she had never crossed paths with the Master of the Revels put me in a position to adopt his Office, after all… I did answer the door.

“Mr. Tilney, I understand that you are known to the great writers of our time?”

“Yes, that is correct Madame.”

“Mr. Marlowe?  Mr. Shakespeare?”

“Of course.”

“Then there is a matter in which you may be of invaluable assistance.  It will require a high degree of discretion.”

“Mrs. Poodle, you can rely on my integrity.”

Perhaps it was lucky that Mrs. Poodle had by chance encountered me, thinking me my employer, instead of my employer, whose integrity could be challenged on a daily basis… a challenge that, more often then not, could put a chink in his vaunted reputation.

In short, he could be bought.  Either in coin of the realm, or in the case of the lovely and beautifully scented Mrs. Poodle, perhaps in kind…

I pondered this as I tried to imagine what could bring this woman of social standing to the door of the Master of the Revels… on a matter of discretion?  I closed the door to insure our privacy.

“Now, how can I be of service?”

She produced a substantial portfolio, untied its ribbon to reveal numbers of pages in manuscript.  “Are you aware that Christopher Marlowe was killed last night in a Depford Inn?” she asked.

“Killed?  Why no!”

“I am told it was an argument over a bill…”

“Oh, the vanity, the vanity!”

“It was a bill, not the billing!  I bring manuscripts in his hand that prove his authorship of a number of works that have been attributed to William Shakespeare.”

“How did you come by these Mrs. Poodle?”

“Mr. Tilney… a proper gentleman wouldn’t ask that of a lady.”

If I was going to reveal my true identity to this exquisite lady, it wasn’t going to be at this time.  I had a number of ethical situations before me… most significantly, that I was representing myself as someone else.  Next, that I was now party to proof of plagiarism, or even worse, literary theft… putting at risk the reputation of England’s finest poet and playwright.  Lastly, there was the matter of Mrs. Poodle herself… a lady of high standing, very much married, whose compensation for a matter of discretion would potentially compromise her reputation as well.

I am sure you can see, in short, that this was a complicated issue ripe with hazards.

“Why bring these pages here?”  I asked, as I scanned through the manuscripts — and having seen Marlowe’s work before, I could attest to their authenticity.  Surely she could have kept them or destroyed them, none to be the wiser.  Or turned them over to Master Shakespeare himself.

“It’s about reputation Mr. Tilney.  How shall I put this?  Mr. Marlowe had been a close friend.  A very close friend.  If it were known that I held these manuscripts for his safekeeping, it would produce questions about the nature of our relationship… a relationship which I assure you was strictly literary.  But still, in the eyes of others, say Mr. Poodle, he might think there was an involvement of a different sort.”

At this point the lovely Mr. Poodle produced a delicate linen handkerchief from her sleeve and brought it to her cheek to absorb a single tear.  She continued, “It would pain me to think that Will Shakespeare, that reprobate, will take credit for that which rightfully belongs to Kit Marlowe.”

“I see, and what specifically would you like me to do, Mrs. Poodle?”

“Mr. Tilney, you’re Master of the Revels.  You know Kit Marlowe’s hand.  You’re in the position to expose William Shakespeare as a fraud!”

“I see.”

“Don’t you see how important this is?”

I nodded, “I can imagine that you would prefer that your connection in this episode remain, in short, anonymous?”

“Mr. Tilney… I knew I could count on your discretion.”

You can see that we were at a critical tip point in our negotiation.  I doubt whether the real Mr. Tilney would have been overly troubled by the situation.  His concern would only have been, what’s in it for me?  The real irony here was that the real Mr. Tilney couldn’t stand Shakespeare.  He may not have liked Marlowe; but he had contempt for Shakespeare and he would have welcomed any piece of evidence to shatter his reputation.  What Mrs. Poodle didn’t know — Tilney would have done her bidding for nothing.

I, on the other hand, thought very much of Shakespeare, and had no interest in causing him harm.

In terms of what would now take place, in a matter of delicate discretion, the reputation of Shakespeare or Marlowe was neither here nor there in my mind.  My mind focused on the lovely and fragrant Mrs. Poodle.  And if I laboured initially over the ethical questions, I now surrendered body and soul to the presence and aroma that captivated me.

“Mrs. Poodle… let me refresh you with some wonderful wine and perhaps we can share our literary interests…”

Posted in Stories & Brief Tales | Leave a comment

Let’s Change the Subject

READERS WARNING:  The content of what follows may be considered, by some, as controversial, nay, repulsive.  Do not feel compelled to read it.  As the great Oliver Wendell Holmes said, and I quote, “Regardless of the age, there is a little 8th grader that never leaves the man.”  To which I can add… it begins on the playground in the 8th grade, proceeds at flank speed to the locker room in high school & staggers into the fraternity house in college.  The piece that follows does not include my editorial endorsement… it’s simply an attempt to faithfully record what transpired when four buddies got together.  PROCEED AT YOUR OWN RISK.

We didn’t all agree that it was a good idea when it was first presented… and this was even with the benefit of a whisky or two.  You know how it is… knock back a few… the laughs come easier, the ideas are sharper, insights are more incisive.  It doesn’t stop there… we become younger, thinner, better looking… and there isn’t a woman who could resist our irrepressible charms.  Particularly when you’re the starting backfield of the Conference Champion… granted, a couple of decades removed.

There we were… Walter, “nom de guerre“: Stuffy (because he could “stuff” it across a goal line), William: The Hulk (our blocking machine), Lewis: Sweet Lew (he of fancy moves & did it all) and me: Killer (because I wasn’t).  Our custom is to gather a couple of times a year to review past glories and share present day ups & downs.

The location and bar tab is handled on a rotational basis.  On the evening of the story I am about to relate, we were on my “home field”: the Ash Creek Saloon.  I was just about to ask James for my third Wild Turkey when the William came up with his great idea, “Why don’t we have a long turd contest?”

Killer: What?

Hulk:  A long turd contest.  We’ll all take a dump and see whose turd is the longest.

Sweet Lew:  Great! Sorta like parallel play. And afterwards we can put down our special towels on the floor, listen to a story and take a nap in the solarium.

Stuffy: Long turd contest? That’s disgusting!

Killer: Man, that’s a new low… even for you, you disgusting pig!  Where the fuck did you come up with that revolting idea?

Hulk: One day last week I took my normal morning dump… and I don’t remember what I had eaten… but when I get up I’m staring at one continuous turd that curved around the bowl… it was amazing!  I didn’t want to flush it!  It had to be a record!  How do you think something like that happens?”

Killer:  Maybe it had to do with the tides…

Stuffy:  Too bad you didn’t have your cell phone.  You could have taken a picture and sent it around.

Sweet Lew:  Yeah.  We might have gotten you a grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.

Stuffy:  Or we could have sent it to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and they could have put it into their Hall of Turds… along side of specimens from Teddy Roosevelt, Shoeless Joe Jackson & Isadora Duncan.

Hulk:  I’m serious.

Killer:  You’re gross.  Let’s change the subject.  How ’bout “What I did on summer vacation”… I’m first… I ran over a raccoon on the Merritt Parkway

Sweet Lew:  Oh, that’s an improvement!

Hulk:  No… hear me out.  This could be like the new thing.  Like Fight Club; but without the blood and loss of teeth.  The “Long Turd Club”… to be a member you have to drop a deuce of a certain minimum length… say 18”.  Two members have to certify the length…

Killer:  Oh, Jesus… I can’t believe this.

Stuffy:  I imagine it has to be a certified bowl as well.  Like taking a shit in the woods wouldn’t count?  Say… I’ve been meaning to ask you, Killer… and I’m going to change the subject…why don’t you like the New York Jets.

Killer:  That’s not correct.  It’s not that I don’t like the Jets.  I hate the Jets…

Sweet Lew: Uh, oh… here it starts… Tragedies of our lifetime: the War in Vietnam and the New York Jets.

Killer: I’m a Colts fan!  Need I say more?  Super fucking Bowl III!!  The first NFL team to take it on the chin from the old AFL.  You should only know the personal shame I have had to deal with all these years.

Sweet Lew:  But the Colts won the Super Bowl last year.  Can’t you give it a rest?

Killer:  That can’t remove the stain.  Ten Super Bowls couldn’t remove the stain!  Well… maybe ten Super Bowls could remove the stain… that and if Joe Namath appeared before the United Nations General Assembly and admitted that he was a douche bag… him and his Goddamned Fu Manchu moustache!

Stuffy:  Killer, a Fu Manchu would be a good look for you…

Killer:  I hate Joe Namath… the most over rated QB in the solar system.  I hate Joe Namath and Mark Gastineau!  Hulk… what do you think Coach would have done if you did a “celebration sack dance” after tackling a QB for a loss?  I tell you what he would have done… he would have benched your ass!  I hate the Jets… for all eternity.

Sweet Lew:  Tell us what you really think Killer…

Killer:  If my Mother, may she rest in Peace, were playing for the Jets I would hate her, too!

Sweet Lew: Well, that explains a lot.  I think that Hitler hated his Mother.

Killer:  Hitler’s Mother didn’t play for the Jets… and besides… he resented his Father, he loved his Mother.  Did you know that the Fuhrer was a great dancer?

Sweet Lew:  What would have happened if Hitler played for the Colts?

Killer:  Then I would have been seriously conflicted.  James — another Wild Turkey please.

Hulk:  Maybe it could be a team sport.

Killer: What?

Hulk:  Well… you know… sorta like curling.  You know that sport… one person launches that thing, and another guy scrapes the ice in front of the thing and another sweeps the ice.  A team.  We could do the same thing… one guy picks out a stall, one guy drops the turd, and another guy settles the bowl down to make sure that the turd remains intact.

Killer: What?

Hulk: Intact.  If the turd breaks apart it’s like falling backwards in the Long Jump pit.  It’s worse than a foul in basketball. The turd has to be kept whole… that’s the point:  one long, continuous, glorious turd.

Killer:  I’m glad we got that point cleared up. I can’t believe this…

Hulk:  That’s why the “Bowl Master” is such an important part of the team.  Retaining the shape and length is essential.  Water dynamics is the key.  We need an engineering expert.  Hey!  Killer you went to Union College… didn’t they have an engineering department?

Stuffy:  Engineering expert?  Well, that leaves out Lew.

Sweet Lew:  What a crushing disappointment.  I was looking forward to measuring turds and controlling the water pressure.

Stuffy:  We’ll put you in as the first alternate… and, for the meantime, pencil you in as “Flush and Clean Technician”.

Sweet Lew:  Why do I think that I am getting screwed?

Killer: “Flush and Clean Technician”?  That sounds like a better position.  I’ll bet you’ll attract all the chicks.

Sweet Lew:  Let’s change the subject.  The Spotted Owl is making a come back.  That means we can cut down trees again, or begin eating owls.  Hulk… have you ever eaten owl?

Hulk:  Yes… YES!  I think you’re on to something!!  Chicks!  We’ve got to have cheerleaders!  Sure… it’s perfect!!  I’m sure that Carole will come down from Vermont.  She’ll call Barbara.  I’m sure Alison will be game…

Killer: What?

Hulk:  We’ve got to have cheerleaders… for the team.

Sweet Lew:  That works… take a shit, take a shit… take a loooooong shit!  They can work out the dance steps.

Killer:  Wait a second.  You keep talking team.  This still sounds like an individual sport to me.

Hulk:  Killer you wound me.  It’s about the team.  I see leagues popping up all over.  “in-town” teams, “travel” teams… who knows?  Maybe it could become an Olympic Sport.

Killer:  You know what I think?  There are evenings like this when I am grateful that Kentucky is a part of the Union… and I have a ready access to Bourbon.  William, friend… teammate… I think that you should go home, fill your bathtub with warm tapioca pudding and sit in it ’til this episode passes.  Then you should get up, pick up your hand held Stop Sign and go to the cross walk and help the kids cross the street.

Sweet Lew:  I like the idea of leagues.  Sorta like dart teams being sponsored by saloons and bars.  It would be fun… like Tuesday night could be “Turd Night.”  the location shifts each week.  the Home Team supplies the buffalo wings and TP.

Killer: It’s time to change subjects.  Resolved: FDR was the first President to wear boxer shorts.

Stuffy:  It’s a Democrat thing.  Hilary Clinton wears boxer shorts, too.

Sweet Lew:  It’s OK.  J. Edgar Hoover dressed in drag and Joe Namath wore panty hose in December games.

Killer: I hate Joe Namath.  Maybe he should be made the Commissioner of the North American Long Turd Federation.  Perfect.  Commissioner of Shit.

Sweet Lew:  Let’s not get started…

Hulk:  Do you think that style points should be awarded for the colour of the turd?

Stuffy: Colour and pattern.  Triple bonus points if the turd is in a recognizable pattern… houndstooth, check, herringbone…

Hulk:  I think that it should be aesthetic as well as athletic.

Stuffy: That sounds too close to rhythmic gymnastics and ballroom dancing.  You may have to count me out.

Hulk:  This should be an uplifting and cleansing sport.  A sport that involves pride & the senses… a sport steeped in rich historical tradition.

Killer: This should be good…

Hulk: It began with the Greek guy who ran all the way from the Battlefield at Marathon to the Athens.  It was thought that he ran the 26+ miles to bring news of the Greek Victory over the Persians.  That’s the traditional view… But, in truth, the reason he ran all that way was that he had “to go”… he couldn’t find a decent bathroom… just the kind like they have in England, with the tank above and you crap on to a dry shelf…

Stuffy:  *uch*  I hate those toilets…

Hulk:  Yeah, the Greek guy didn’t like it either.  So he had to hold it in, see.  He ran all that way… the guy barely made it to Athens.  He took the biggest dump of his life and then died.  To this day in Greece he is known more for his shit then for running the distance.  Go ahead… ask any Greek who Pheidippides is and they’ll say, “are you shitting me?”  See?  Tradition!

Stuffy:  Before this goes too far a field, I just want to say right now… that if the Team goes overseas I am not taking a shit in any English toilet, even if it would make the measurement phase easier.  That’s final!  If those guys want to compete… they got to come here!!  American Standard all the way, baby!

Killer: The next subject for discussion: “the tickle treatment and its use as an instrument of torture.”  The tickle treatment goes back to the Spanish Inquisition.  They would begin tickling you, and tickling you… you couldn’t repent if you wanted to, you were laughing so hard!  You’d be laughing so much that it hurt and you couldn’t feel a thing when they ripped out your finger nails and poured hot molten silver into your eyes and ears.

Stuffy:  For real?  The way I got it figured… this Inquisition guy just liked to hear Jews laugh.

Sweet Lew:  Forget about that.  When do we start training?  The great thing about this sport is there is no age restriction!

Killer:  I have this vision of Adolph Hitler, wearing a Jets uniform, taking a shit while eating a Spotted Owl.

Stuffy:  I thought he was a vegetarian.

Sweet Lew:  I have this vision:  Joe Namath dressed in a spotted owl suit, having lunch with Adolph Hitler watching a tape of Super Bowl III.

Killer:  That really hurt.

Stuffy:  Boys… I don’t think this is going to work.  It’s too controversial.  Maybe we could form a “Fart Team”… I think that would be more acceptable… more main stream… easier to get commercial tie-ins and endorsement contracts.  Geeze, Killer… you could give up your day job and become a touring pro!

Sweet Lew:  Does this mean that we have to give up the cheerleaders?

Stuffy:  Absolutely not!  I’ll call Carole tomorrow…

Hulk:  If anyone wants to see my last dump, I left a qualifying example in the john… stall on the right.

Killer:  That’s good news… I was sort of disappointed that we didn’t get to see the prize winner that was the source of your inspiration.

Sweet Lew:  Let’s change the subject.  Killer, would you like another Wild Turkey?  You’re buying!

Posted in The Ash Creek Bourbon & Conversation Corner | Leave a comment

The Day the Rum Hat Came Off

You visit a room often enough and it becomes impossible to separate the room, its “things” and its inhabitants.  So it was for me and my Aunt Meggie’s den… first in Woodbury and then re-created on the Cape in Chatham. 

As a kid, I loved Meggie’s house… the many small rooms, each containing special corners and hiding places… perfect ground for a young imagination.  No room captured me more than her den.  No room offered a better representation of my Aunt… art on the wall, figurines in the étagère, the furniture itself: Uncle Saul’s blue club chair, the thick couch, the Hitchcock rocking chair and a formal chair that no one sat on.  It was all Meggie.

Each visit I would find something new.  Not that it was new.  Just a new discovery to young eyes.  “New” because there was only so much that I could take in on any given occasion.  Sure I may have loved Meggie’s oatmeal raisin cookies… I think I loved this room more… the old fashioned globe standing in the corner, the tally desk with its multiple drawers (each one that had to be investigated), the Beatrix Potter figurines, the hat rack, the Lautrec poster, the Tiffany lamp, built-in bookshelves, a Sharp’s buffalo rifle (perhaps the biggest surprise to those who did not know of Saul and Meggie’s early days)… I loved it, particularly when the adults talked elsewhere, leaving me to explore the den and its possessions in solitary joy.

But at some point in the visit, Meggie would get comfortable in the den.  If Uncle Saul commanded the dinner table, Aunt Meggie held court in the den.  When I was a kid and the adults gathered there, “adult conversation” ruled… meaning: how cousin Roz looked like “death warmed over” because of her ridiculous diet.  Or: how Philophage the florist got a girl in trouble (I didn’t know what that meant).  I would try my best to ignore their talk… and rather busied myself with the miniature lead dinosaurs from the Peabody Museum that graced the lower shelf of the étagère.

It was only later… after Uncle Saul, my Mom & Dad had passed away, that I truly learned to appreciate that room, and the stage it provided for the marvelous stories Meggie could weave.  No one told a better story than Meggie.

My visits to the den in Chatham were usually motivated by a need for healing… to re-connect with firm ideas and secure emotions… what my Father would have called touching base.

On one visit, the hat rack called to me.  An old Yale football helmet (supposedly worn by Albie Booth), a nifty straw boater (retrieved from the Head of the Charles Regatta), a dusty Stetson (I was told that it was worn by Bill Hickock when he drew a hand of aces over eights), a freshman beanie from Union’s Class of ’71 (this was my contribution), a small mauve colored hat with lace trim (worn by Katherine Hepburn, if we are to believe).  And then some dumb non-descript porkpie hat that seemed out of place for lacking notoriety or a story.  Or so I thought.

I looked out the den window… storm clouds gathered over the Atlantic.  The sky deepened to a dark grey, the wind picked the water into white caps.  Aunt Meggie turned on the Tiffany table lamp which cast a dim glow to the room and its many artifacts.  She sipped her glass of tea and I contented myself with a whisky.

“Meggie… is that ugly hat new?  Tell me that Clyde Barrow wore it when he bought the farm!”

“That hat?  No, it’s not new.  Hardly.  Maybe it was too ordinary for you to have noticed it before.”

She put her glass of tea down, got up from the Hitchcock rocker, approached the rack and took down the mouse colored hat from its perch.  She brushed it… she held it to her breast and closed her eyes.

“This was your Uncle Saul’s.  Well… not really his.  But he ended picking it up off the floor.”

I took another sip and let Meggie’s voice lull me.

“Saul and I first met in Paris.  We were young and each of us had gone to Europe in search of adventure.  I was going to study dance and Saul was playing clarinet in a klezmer band.  What can I say?  We were young.  Paris.  Broke.  We fell in love.  We didn’t know from the Depression. Everyone was broke.  It wasn’t a special deal.  We lived in a fifth floor flat in Montmartre… from our tiny kitchen (a closet really) we could see the Sacre Coeur.  Those were the days!  Some of the happiest I have spent.  Young, in love… when a half baguette, some cheese and a bottle of red was a banquet!”

She put the hat back to its proper place and returned to the Hitchcock.

“Time marched on.  And Europe was getting ugly.  It was 1934.  Hunger in our bellies we could deal with… but what was taking place in Germany put a damper on our pursuit of art.  I had hurt my knee.  Saul’s band split up. That mishuga Hitler was Chancellor.  It was time to return home.  But we were broke and couldn’t afford passage home.  And did I mention that my parents, your grandparents, weren’t pleased that we were living in sin?” 

I think she enjoyed this part of the story the most. It made her feel contemporary… “living in sin”.  That’s my Aunt Meggie and Uncle Saul!  I just can imagine my Grandfather waiting at the dock in New York with a shotgun… make that a Sharp’s buffalo rifle!

“The RMS Mauretania was getting set to sail to New York on what would be her final voyage.  Saul noticed that there was an opportunity for couples to dance their way across the Atlantic!  Cunard Lines had the idea of offering ’round the clock entertainment on board ship.  A ‘non-stop dance marathon’ for the amusement of the paying patrons… a sizeable cash prize to be awarded in New York for the winning couple… and of course there would be some wagering that would add sporting interest to the contest.”

She got up from the rocker again… went to the bookshelf and fetched a shoebox… another item I had not noticed before, maybe it was also too ordinary to attract the curious eye.  Meggie opened it to show me a pair of red pumps with a low heel.

“I wore these shoes from Liverpool to New York!  Two days before boarding ship the Cunard hosted a ‘dance night’… the purpose was to give ‘sponsors’ a chance to see couples dance.  The sponsors would cover the cost of the trans-Atlantic ticket… and hopefully would have their investment returned in New York in the form of the cash reward… and of course there would be side bets as well.  Fifty couples were permitted on board.  We were one of the lucky ones.  Couple #12.  Our sponsor was Michael R. Sullivan… also known as Mickey the Cigar.”

She closed the box. “My Saul-ie… what a dancer!  He knew all the steps.  Which was a good thing… because we would foxtrot, charleston and waltz from one side of the Atlantic to the other… 10 minutes of rest each hour… and a half hour every eight hours.  And me with a bum knee!  But we danced and danced.  Our sponsors watched from tables that lined the outside of the dance floor… they shouted encouragement, words of advice and threats!  There were contests within the main contest… who did the best tango… who was the best looking couple… that sort of thing.  The wagering became quite heavy.”

She looked at the storm brewing on the Atlantic… my guess is that the storm didn’t interest her.  But her story brought her back to the day when she crossed that body of water… and she looked at the Atlantic in a personal way… as if it shared in her memory.

“One night… at least I think it was night, we were to have a ‘foxtrot contest’.  There was to be a $500 award for this contest, which by agreement would have gone to Mickey the Cigar.  $500 was a ton of money then.  Fine.  We were just happy to find a way to get back home.  Mickey took his seat at a table right by the dance floor… he wore this thick striped brown suit, a dark tie, brown and white spectator shoes and a porkpie hat… and, as you would imagine, a cigar gripped in his teeth.  We danced near the table, he raised his mai tai and said, ‘look kids, I’m wearin’ my drinkin’ shoes and I got my rum hat on… we’re winnin’ tonight!’ and he finished the mai tai and ordered another.  That was the first time I heard of a mai tai… some guy, Donn Beach invented the rum drink that year and it was the rage.  Well, we danced our hearts off, and Mickey downed mai tai after mai tai.”

I looked at my whisky… mai tais?  I think I’ve had one years ago… maybe.

“The judge moved through the dance floor, looking at each couple, making his notes.  One song after another, without pause. The excitement in the ballroom increased with each number… more wagers were being put down.  Folks were cheering and hooting… supporting their favorites booing others.  Mickey kept the flow of mai tais going… he loosened his tie and he was certainly ‘into it’.  We were into the last number before the conclusion of the judging.  And the judge was very close to us… Saul whispered to me, ‘he likes us, I think we’re going to win.  Just keep smiling.’  The Judge ran some type of dance studio in New York and he was always dressed impeccably.  He nodded in our direction and then turned away and gave the award to a couple from Philadelphia!  We were surprised.  But Mickey the Cigar?  He was pissed!”

Meggie shook her head and had a good laugh.  She took off her glasses to give them a good cleaning before continuing with the narrative.

“Mickey stood up and started pointing at the Judge, and then he shouted, ‘come here you dumb little faggot, I’m gonna beat the shit outya!!’ He made a move to go on to the dance floor, he upturned his table… he knocked over the table next to him, too… which gets other people involved, then he took his hat off and slammed it to the floor, ‘come here you little piece of shit… we just got robbed! Da fix was in!’  And the next thing you know there was a ruckus that spread to the dance floor.  People were shouting, fists flying… it was a good thing that we were coming to our half hour break.”

She just shook her head and smiled.

“We were near Mickey’s table, or I should say where the table had been.  Saul picked up Mickey’ porkpie, and we headed back to our bunks for a rest.  Saul intended giving the hat back to him.  But that was the last we ever saw of Mickey the Cigar: slugging it out with someone on the dance floor.  Years later we tried looking him up.  No luck.  One day I saw something in the paper about someone named Michael R. Sullivan being killed at Omaha Beach.  How many Michael R. Sullivans are there?  Lots, I suppose…”

“Did you win Aunt Meggie?”

“Win?  Saul and I did get married…”

“No, did you win the big prize?”

“Oh… that?  No.  The Philadelphia couple took the big prize, too.  We finished fifth out of fifty.  No money; but we felt pretty proud. Over the years, I can’t tell you how many times, Saul would look at me and say, ‘Doll, we’re top five stuff!'” 

I looked around the room.  And in the quiet of the pause, I could hear the wind picking up.  I looked for the old reference points of my youth.  My attention was drawn to the étagère and its lower shelf.

“Did you get those dinosaurs just to keep me occupied?”

“That was your Mother’s idea.  She bought them at the Museum Gift Shop, and gave them to me so that you would have something that was yours when you came for a visit.  She was sharp that way.”

“Sure.  Sharp like her Sister!”

“Oh… one more thing, Jimmy.  Clyde Barrow was wearing a fedora when he bought the farm.”

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The Bagshot Conspiracy

Even I know that the old stories can become stale… Winnie the Pooh, Wind in the Willows, Ann of Green Gables… And if I know it, then certainly my kids did…

“Did I ever tell you about the time that your Grandfather busted up an international ring that had infiltrated the School Lunch Program?  I know it sounds silly; but it’s true.  The Politburo had targeted the lunch program as the most effective way of undermining the strength of this country… and they gathered a highly committed elite group of saboteurs who were trained in Barbados.”

“My Father said to my Mother, ‘Eve’… he called my Mother Eve, although her real name was Frankie. Eve was just a name that was used inside the house; but one time Uncle Paul called her ‘Big Frankie’ and he was sent to a room in the attic for a week and was only given warm ginger ale and macaroons to eat.  I called my Mother ‘Mom” and I avoided punishment. Aunt Lynn only spoke French in the house, luckily for her Dad didn’t (although he was fluent in Tamal, Mandarin Chinese and English as spoken in London), so if she said ‘Grande Frankie’, he didn’t have a clue, so she didn’t have to go to the attic, although she still had to clean dog poop from the living room.

“So, Dad said, ‘Eve, we got to go to Barbados… pack the bags, don’t forget my distance slingshot, the reverse delta penalty stun gun, 2 or 3 claymore mines and extra boxer shorts..’

“Now most people thought that Dad was in the clothing business.  Even I thought he was in the clothing business.  But that was just his cover.  He worked for a very small covert cell known as Group Shtup… they made the C.I.A. look like the Cub Scouts.  Among other things, Group Shtup was credited for organizing the trade of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees… but that was before my Dad joined.  Dad was recruited out of Elementary School. He studied weapon technology, farming and golf.  He met my Mom at the Training Center.  She was a youth helicopter pilot and also the lead soprano in the Shtup Glee Club.  They fell in love and got married after they put down the plot to move the Dodgers out of Brooklyn.  Later the Dodgers moved anyway, and Dad’s replacement lost his job and had to become a Toll Collector on the Triboro Bridge.

“I’m not making this up…

“OK, well it turns out that Dad’s Superior… ‘the Big X’ knew that Dad knew Barbados like the back of his hand.  He and Mom would go there for vacations… Mom loved picking shells and Dad pursued his hobby of making rum, rum cake and rum hats… until he got caught by the authorities… but that’s a story for a different night.

“Dad understood how important this assignment was… he told the Big X that he wouldn’t make any rum hats, he was going with one purpose in mind… wiping out the dastardly plot to serve American School children unpopular and tasteless lunches.

“The Big X told him that the nerve center for this Organization was the dreaded Bagshot House.  It is the place where they experimented on making horrible food and teaching algebra.  If you are lucky you won’t have to take algebra and you can become a History Major like me.

“Are you following this?”

“Is that why Mom makes our lunches for school?”

“Absolutely… Group Shtup hasn’t given the ‘all clear’ yet… and Mom and I don’t want to take any chances.  Maybe when you’re in College and your protective inhibitors are fully developed it will be alright… we’ll have to see.

“Did Nana and Poppy kill anyone?”

“They didn’t have to kill anyone… they were neutralized… and Dad neutralized a ton of people.  He would give away oxford button-down shirts to the enemy.  The shirts were mis-sized by an inch and a half at the collar… and guys would get funny marks on their necks, their eyes would bug out, they would get cluster headaches, sweat like pigs and they would get an intolerable ache in their private parts and have to walk hunched over.  You can see a picture of a Village in the Urals, where the Soviets made bombs, with everyone walking hunched over!  Dad got the Legion of the Brave with two stars for that!

“They’re having mini-pizzas for school lunch on Friday.  Do you think that Group Shtup will give the ‘all clear’ by then?”

“Well… maybe. I am still on their mailing list, get their Monthly Newsletter and get invited to the Alumni Summer Picnic.”

“What’s an Alumni?”

“A retired agent… although I’m not an agent… just the son of one.  They don’t let children and grandchildren join… but there is a good shot one of your kids could get recruited!”

“Cool!  Dad?  Could you check tomorrow’s mail and see if it’s OK to have pizza on Friday?”

“It’s a deal!  Let’s get some sleep now… there’s busy day ahead, a terrific sandwich, a small bag of chips, carrot sticks, a clementine and a juice box!  And we can finish this story tomorrow night.”

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Watermelon Sky

“It’s the name of a song, no?” she asked.

He smiled, “Song?” and shook his head and continued to look toward the horse farm on the other side of the split rail fence.  They loved to sit on their deck in the late afternoon… and unless it was a hurricane or a blizzard they would find time to enjoy the quiet of their backyard.  Enjoy the setting sun… if it was that time of the year.  Crank up the wood fire pit… if it was that time of the year.  Sip a Sancerre or maybe something from the Rhone… each to their own thoughts… each together.  It was their tradition.

“Lucy Eating Watermelon… or Strawberries… In the Sky… or something like that?”

Now his reverie ground to a halt.  Wherever his mind had taken him, he now had to stop and pivot to her line of thought.

He chuckled in disbelief.  “I don’t know how you do it… you’ve just managed to murder two different Beatles’ tunes: Strawberry Fields Forever and Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.  Congratulations!  Few human beings could accomplish that.  My Mom could, so can you… maybe 15 other people, past or present.  No, it’s not a song.”  And he smiled warmly.

The horse in the nearest paddock approached the fence, pawed at the ground with its hooves and whinnied.  It was difficult to know who had trained whom.  Had he trained the horse to come to the fence for the price of two crisp apples?  Or had the horse trained him to always have two apples at hand during their “deck time?”  Regardless, it was understood by both he and she (and the horse) that at some point, sooner rather than later once whinnying began, the apple situation would have to be addressed.  This, too, was part of their tradition.

The horse had a stately bearing, a glossy black coat that shined in the lowering sun, a small flash of white between its eyes and muscles that rippled when it moved.  It always surprised him how big they were.  He loved large animals.  Horses, buffalo, moose, rhinos… he loved them all.  When he shared this with her when they visited the Bronx Zoo one day, she laughed “It’s the little boy in you.  If you could, you would bring back the dinosaurs.” 

She was right about the dinosaurs.  But she was wrong about the song.  “I said, ‘Wielopolski’, maybe it sounded like ‘watermelonski’… watermelon sky.  And besides, I should have pronounced it correctly: Vee-lo-pol-ski.

“Wee-lo-polski, Vee-lo-polski… so?  And where did this come from?”  Although she was well used to his verbal fragments, unconnected to anything apparent, that would break a quiet.

“Count Anton Wieloposki was a Polish Nobleman and a Colonel, in the 18th Uhlans Regiment.”

“A relative?”

He had a good laugh at that thought. “That’s good… no, my family came from more humble origins.”  Her family had come from Bocki and his from Warshava Gubernia… neither could be mistaken as rising from Nobility. 

He eased into his story… “We have lost our connection to the Age of Chivalry… to the days when Mounted Knights took an oath to serve his Liege… and went into battle in plate armor and chain mail, on horses laden with armor of their own… can you imagine what it must have sounded like?  Horses, huffing and puffing, the clump of their heavy hooves, the crash of steel sword and iron mace on shield.  It must have been a frightful din.”

She knew she had lost him to his dreams… every bit as much as if he imagined a stegosaur locked in battle against an allosaur.

He knew that Cavalry had traced its beginnings to well before the Mounted Knights of the Middle Ages, and well before Alexander the Great, and even before the chariots of Pharaoh.  Over the years the type of armament used, and the tactics had changed; but whether it was a heavy sword and lance, or a sabre and a side arm, the mode of transport was always the horse.

“Today armored Cavalry’ uses Hummers and tracked vehicles mounted with heavy machine guns… it’s not the same.”

He looked at the black horse nibbling at the grass and beginning to get edgy for its apple treat.  “In the 18th & 19th Centuries, the Officer of Corps of the Cavalry invariably came from men of landed wealth… men who owned horses, men who knew horses, men who could ride and hunt.  Any idiot can be given a gun and told to march over there and shoot… but someone who was in the Cavalry had to know how to ride.  He was in the elite… and further, horses weren’t cheap… a Noble background was practically a requirement.”

“Now, I’ll grant you… the concept of Nobility maybe open to some interpretation… the Hetman of the Don Cossacks on first appearance may not be on the same social level perhaps as the Earl of Cardigan who led the Charge of the Light Brigade into the Russian guns at Balaclava.  But look closer, it’s really the leading of men on horse that confers nobility regardless of specific station.”

“And this has something to do with Count Watermelonski?”  she asked.

“I’m getting there.  You see, by the 20th Century… the Horse Cavalry was well on the way into story and legend.  The development of machine guns, motor vehicles and the air arm made the Horse Cavalry obsolete by WWI.  Yet somehow, Poland escaped complete modernization.  As WWII dawned, Poland still retained an active Horse Cavalry.  The other major combatants used some horse transport for supplies… the Russians, the Germans, the French and all.  But Poland still deployed Cavalry Regiments in their Order of Battle.  Cavalry Regiments not with tracked vehicles; but with horse.  Cavalry Regiments not composed of Dragoons who rode to position and then fought on foot; but Cavalry Regiments armed with lance, sabre and pistol.  And the Officer Corps still reflected its aristocratic bearing and pedigree… traditions that would have made Alexander the Great, Lord Cardigan and Stonewall Jackson proud.”

“Should I be tasking notes?”  she asked sheepishly. 

“Yes.  And I am going to give you the first question on the quiz: ‘Who doesn’t belong… Lord Cardigan, Stonewall Jackson, Count Wielpoloski and Heinz Guderian?”

“If I get this right, you have to make dinner tomorrow night… Guderian.”

“Good guess… do you want grilled rib-eye or grilled flank steak?  And while we’re talking about food, I think it’s time for me to bring ‘Bucephalus’ his two apples.”

He quartered them and stuffed them into both pockets.  By the time he reached the stone wall some twenty yards from the deck, the black horse, who watched him approach, nodded its big black head.  He crossed the stone wall, ignoring her warnings about the poison ivy and perched himself by the tree that stood just this side of the split rail fence.  He reached for the first apple quarter; but could barely get his hand out of the pocket before the horse, its head well extended to his side of the fence, raised its upper lip in preparation to getting his snack.

“Ask nicely!” he said; but it was of no use, the horse snapped it away from him in a blink.  He liked the way the horse chewed the apple carefully, taking his time, lowering his head to snatch some fresh blades of grass before returning for a second apple quarter.

The size of the animal still amazed him.  And the thought of a man sitting on top of this beast, towering over him with a sword or lance, charging him at full gallop… “yeah, I think I would be scared…”   He must have been 7 or 8 when his Aunt took him to the Museum of Natural History… or was it the Met?  There was an exhibit of Knights in Armor, their weapons and the like.  In the center of the hall there was a Knight, in full armored regalia, mounted on a horse, also properly attired… in a position of a charge… with the Knight’s lance lowered in a menacing fashion.  It both fascinated and scared him.  The Knight, horse and lance had to be the size of a dinosaur!

And then he turned his thoughts to Count Wielopolski leading the 18th Uhlans in a charge against a German Infantry Unit in a wooded area near the Village of Krojanty.  It was September 1, 1939… the first day of WWII.  Armed with a sense of courage and honor, Wielopolsky led the Uhlans into the position using the same shock tactic that Alexander would have used in 326BC, and dispersed the Germans into the woods.  It was later reported that the charge had been against tanks… which was inaccurate.  That Wielopolski’s ultimate cause was hopeless is not to be debated… Cavalry units with great esprit de corps are no match for Stuka Dive Bombers and Tiger Tanks; but the exhibition of bravery and action in the face of superior elements had to be admired.

He patted the soft nose of the horse, his supply of apples now exhausted, and said his good-bye.  He crossed the stonewall and thought that he may have overdone the “history lesson.”  It was hardly a topic that would have interested her, he knew that she disapproved of war and violence.  He was against war, too… but he loved military history… loved military history even more than he loved dinosaurs.  Against war, loving military history –a type of mental gymnastics.

He looked to the western sky as he resumed his seat on the deck.  “I was just kidding…”  He looked at the sky again, “I really said, ‘watermelon sky’… just look at the clouds to the west, a soft taupe on top… and their underbellies?  Hmmm, more ‘cotton candy’ pink than watermelon?  Yeah, ‘cotton candy sky’ would have been better…”

She looked to the clouds, and smiled, too “does this mean I have to cook tomorrow?”

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The Big Cookie

Let’s just say that my Aunt Meggie has the knack.  She not only makes the best oatmeal raisin cookies in Connecticut; but she understood their purpose.  It is that understanding that truly set her apart from the other oatmeal raisin makers.

It is not in my memory to remember what it felt like to hold a cookie in my small hand.  But there is something irrepressible in seeing a 3 year old holding a cookie.  A cookie is the perfect sized food for a child… the shape slides in beautifully to all four fingers and the thumb… so to the child, the cookie is big. But “big” in a good way… just the right sized big, while a cupcake might be too big. I would watch my children’s eyes light up when they held a cookie… and sometimes a cookie in each hand!  And seeing their joy, I am sure the first time I had an oatmeal raisin in my hand, I felt like king of the world, too.

Much has been made about the salutary benefits of chicken soup… how it is the ultimate cure all.  Well and good.  But Meggie understood that there is more to living than chicken soup.  There were times that an oatmeal raisin cookie is called for.

I can think of a dozen reasons that would make a small child cry.  Most involve a physical hurt of some type… something that might have spilled a little blood… a nasty scrape from stumbling on the driveway?  Sometimes a cry might be a product of a fear, worry or another type of non-physical hurt.  But to little folks a cry is a cry.

I can remember the time we went to visit Meggie in Woodbury, I must have been six or seven… I was playing outside and the neighbor’s Elkhound got loose and came over and bit me (this is the type of memory that I will carry to my grave)… I went running into the house scared and crying… got a hug from my Mom, a nuzzle to the neck and a kiss, a ruffle of my hair and an “it’s OK”.  It did staunch the flow of tears.  Aunt Meggie brought me an oatmeal raisin cookie.  See what I mean?  She had the knack.

Sure… chicken soup is good for battling yellow fever and beriberi.  But Meggie knew that an oatmeal cookie could heal beyond the wound to a wounded spirit.

There is more.  Whenever Meggie baked oatmeal raisin cookies she always made an extra two or three that were really big.  These cookies were kept hidden… away from the cookie jar, or the “hospitality plate.”  This was Meggie’s special emergency stash.  Cookies that were for times when a regular cookie just wouldn’t do the job.

Meggie treated each occurrence independently.  She would gauge the crisis and the nature of the cry and dispense the necessary “Rx”… usually a regular cookie was fine… but sometimes she would say, “I think you need a big cookie”, and she would go off to retrieve the necessary antidote from a place unseen.

To a little kid, if a regular cookie looked as big as a pie, then a big cookie looked like a large pizza pie.  And that’s big.  Meggie?  Like I said, she had the knack, she knew when a big cookie was necessary.

That she knew what to do when I was three, or when my kids were three… is one thing… that she knew what to do when I was fifty-five was another…  And so the day came when I went to visit her in Chatham… where she went to retire…  a day when I felt the world closing in on me, shell shocked from business, a marriage burst at the seams, and not getting any younger… feeling a failure at everything I had ever done… I took my Keeshond along for the ride, and went to re-charge my batteries, as was my custom, on a deck overlooking the Atlantic.

My Mother told me one day that water restored me.  She came to this conclusion watching me on the beach in Woodmont… I would just stare to the horizon, thinking of I know not what… and she said to me, “you love the water, it makes you feel better just to look at it, doesn’t it?”  It’s true, water does help me. 

I love the sun particularly at its beginning and at its end… and I can think of no better place to watch its transition than over a body of water.  Meggie had chilled a bottle of Grand Cru Chablis for us… we watched Barney scatter about the yard… smelling here and there and lifting his leg where appropriate.  We watched the sun slowly move to meet the horizon.  We chatted amiably about a variety of topics and issues and after our second glass of Chablis, Meggie asked, “Jimmy, something is troubling you?  I mean I know about the basic stuff.  But is there more?”

Did I tell you that my Aunt Meggie had a knack?

“No one has it easy”, I start, “but someone who I have known for several years has developed a serious illness.  And it hurts me.  In so many ways she helped me deal with my ‘ups and downs’ and I feel powerless to help… to return to her so much that she has given me.”

I was thankful that I had the Atlantic to distract me…

“I think you need a big cookie.”  And Meggie departed for a place unseen.  I alternated my view between the Atlantic and Barney investigating the yard.  When Meggie returned she placed before me a plate bearing a single cookie… a big cookie.

“You always know when a big cookie is needed… you knew it when I was five, you know it when I am fifty-five.”

“There is no secret to the big cookie,” she told me, “it’s simply giving a little extra to make someone else feel better.”  She sipped her Chablis, “I know you love my oatmeal raisin cookies Jimmy.  But a big cookie doesn’t have to be a big cookie.  It could be a card, a phone call… something to let the other person know that you care… that you are thinking about them.  You don’t have to bake oatmeal raisin cookies.”

We finished the Chablis.  Had a light supper… and then it was time to pack Barney in the car and head back to Connecticut.

I don’t have my Aunt Meggie’s gift, her knack.  But tomorrow… I’m going to make a phone call.

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Twice Recognized

The only invention as perfect as the English Sonnet… he knew little of sonnets.  “Shakespeare wrote them,” he thought.  “But I know a fair amount about Martinis”.  And that is to what the great American writer of letters, H.L. Mencken was referring, when drawing a comparison to that form of literature… The Dry Martini, as perfect as an English Sonnet.

It was a September afternoon to cherish… blue sky, dry air, beautiful sun charting its path to the far hills.  He loved this time of the year best… still pleasant enough to enjoy the warmth of outdoors, the beauty of the change in color just around the corner… the stiff cold just beyond that.  Maybe it was a bit early in the day to be mixing a Martini… this wouldn’t be the first time that he began the cocktail hour well before the sun set over the yard arm.

“I enjoy the decadence of beginning the evening earlier in the day,” he thought to as he poured a healthy amount of Tanqueray Gin into his pitcher.  Plenty of ice to chill the Gin to a piercing cold.  A dollop of Noilly Pratt Dry Vermouth to complete the liquid portion of the recipe.  A rapid stir, that increased to a vigorous stir (his Ex would have said that it was a transfer in aggression, while he maintained that it was a display of exuberance).  When condensation developed on the pitcher, he knew that preparations were nearly complete.  He retrieved an “up” glass from the freezer (one of four placed there, a memory of the day when four Martinis seemed to be an appropriate number). 

He strained the icy liquid into his frozen glass, and added 3 tomolives… he had a ceremonial first sip to confirm its excellence, and to reduce the chance of spillage.. and then he repaired to the deck.  He positioned himself in the far corner to take full advantage of the sun and closed his eyes.  He heard the wind rushing thru the trees, opened his eyes and took a second sip.

Tomolives… that was courtesy of his Mother.  In the Winter, she would set up “shop” in Sanibel, Florida.  A tiny house where she retreated to “re-coup” away from everyone.  She loved the sun, she picked shells… and of course, she wrote.  She would say that her best writing took place there.  Dierdre of Timmy’s Nook, would take her out in a boat to the small Inn at the Cabbage Key for lunch.  The signature garnish of the Inn was a tomolive… a tiny green tomato, the size of an olive, and then pickled.  Tomolives made their appearance on every sandwich plate… and, and of course in every Dry Martini.  Eve Fleischner (nom de plume, Eve Porterhouse) who never sipped a Martini in her life… still, knew a good thing when she saw it.

It was like that… his Mother always took note of the small details.  Maybe that is why she was such a good writer.  And it didn’t take much for her to connect this “insignificant” garnish to her middle child.  Once that connection was made there was no stopping her.  Above the objection of Dierdre, she insisted on being introduced to the Owner of the Inn… and then, so introduced, pleasantries aside, she asked for a favor… she wanted to buy a jar of tomolives to give to her son.

The owner, gracious, said that it would be his pleasure to give her a jar.  And that was the way she acquired her first jar of tomolives.

This little scenario repeated each Winter.  Dierde and his Mother would take the 15 minute boat ride to the Cabbage Key for lunch… and his Mother would always return to Sanibel with a jar of tomolives for its eventual use in his piercingly cold Dry Martinis.  The scenario repeated, that is, ’til the day that the owner of the Inn gave her the name of his distributor in Ft. Meyers… and that suited his Mother just fine.  She loved wholesalers.  Now, when she returned to Connecticut… she had not a jar of tomolives; but a case.

He would tell his Ex that they had just “landed in the shit.”  He would have to tell her that it was just an expression… landing in the shit was a good thing.

He loved listening to the wind.  Wind pressing against the panes in a blizzard… or wind moving thru the leaves as it did this day.  Although he didn’t sail, he could imagine the sound that it would make filling the canvas… and that thought made him smile, too.  Smile, as he bit into his first tomolive.  He loved the snap of the first bite, its sour flavor complemented the botanicals of the Gin.  “You had to love Mom”, he said out loud, although no one was there to hear his words.

His Mother had taught him long ago to notice things… to be aware of the details.  Appreciating the details would lead to a greater understanding of the larger things in life, she told him.  Maybe that is why Eve Porterhouse was such a terrific writer of mysteries.  He mulled this over as he reached the halfway mark in his Martini… meaning it was time for tomolive #2.

She would say to him that you can pass something, or someone, several times without taking note… it could be a farm stand, the person who delivers the mail, a new friend, anything… So the first time you recognize the special qualities of something it doesn’t really count… it’s simply the newness of the idea that creates the impression.  It’s the second recognition that’s important.  Now you take on the understanding of what makes that something special.

She would take him down the driveway to their garage.  It was a place that he knew well.  He practiced layups by the hour on the hoop that was mounted on the garage.  She pointed out the lilac tree in the Gordon’s yard that overhung our drive.  By agreement, Mom was entitled to clip any lilac flowering on our side of the fence.  He had barely taken notice of the tree.  Now they approached.  She asked him to close his eyes, which he did.  Now she directed him to smell the lilac in the air.  Now you will remember it she said… whenever you smell lilac you will be returned to this place.

It was some 15 years ago when he, along with his older Sister & younger Sister had to sell the house on Alston Avenue after their Mother’s passing.  His Sister, 11 years his Senior had remembered living on Orange St., and Beer St. before that.  But to his younger Sister and himself… the house on Alston Avenue would be home.  The one home they knew.

Yes, there was an emotional tug as they divided the artifacts of the old house between the families.  Their Father had long since passed, and their Mother had turned the home into a quasi-museum… items collected over a lifetime.  She continued to write to her very end in the small studio in the rear of the home… chain smoking as she typed on a Smith-Corona.  His Father had encouraged her to smoke… smoking seen as a sophisticated activity in the 1920s.

As they turned the keys over to the Realtor, he looked at the basketball hoop above the garage, thinking of the solitary hours he would engage in imaginary games of basketball… one would think he would have been better at basketball than he was… He wondered whether he would ever be able to come back to this street again.

He neared the completion of his Martini… took a look at the horses grazing easily in the farm on the far side of the stone wall and considered the possibility of building a second Martini; but thought the better of it.  The days of multi-Martinis had long passed.

His thoughts returned to the home on Alston Avenue.  He and his older Sister had just visited it the day before.  Or, technically, what was left of it.  She had received a call from an old neighbor that the house had burned “to the ground”.  And he knew that he had to return to the street one more time for a visit… a visit his younger Sister couldn’t bear to make.

When he joined his older Sister there, the ruins lay mostly still.  The houses on either side were left totally untouched by the conflagration.  A charred and burned hulk was all that remained of the structure that had been his “only” childhood home.  He looked down the drive, the garage was untouched as well; but the hoop had been taken down by one of the previous owners.

They had looked at the wreck thru some tears that smeared their faces, and she finally cut the silence, “it probably started in Mom’s office, the cigarette smoke imbedded in the walls… it just took 15 years to ignite…”  And they shared a small laugh… a laugh that opened the door to other recollections.

The time he fell asleep in the third floor closet and everyone panicked when he couldn’t be found, the time their little Sister found their Dad’s saxophone in the basement and thought it was a monster… the stories rolled on, each nook and crevice seemed home to a specific tale.

If he thought that the treasures of the home had been the only thing that mattered, he now knew that he had been mistaken.

The Martini, now finished… only the last tomolive remained in the base of the glass.  Tomolives that he now purchased on a direct basis from the manufacturer in Arkansas.  He closed his eyes yet again to feel the combination of sun and breeze on his face.  The artwork, the figurines, furnishings, the knick-knacks that were spread to three homes… and would be spread further still in succeeding generations had special value… but it was the “nooks and crevices” of the home that vouchsafed special memories.  If he didn’t recognize it well enough 15 years ago when they turned the keys over to the new owners, he recognized and understood it now.  He had wrongly assumed a permanence to those nooks and crevices.

He gazed at tomolive #3, then closed his eyes and tried to summon the memory of the lilac tree in the afternoon breeze.

Posted in Stories & Brief Tales | Leave a comment

Gefilte Fish in Film

Cold fish “meatloaf”… that about sums up this delicacy called gefilte fish.  A delicacy that is unappetizing in its appearance as it sounds.  Yet, for a small percentage of population (a very small percentage of the population), it is a dish that is associated with festival food that is served for Passover and the Jewish New Year.

Apart from the dish itself, it may surprise you see the numerous inclusions and references to gefilte fish in literary works and in film. 

Since recently being appointed to Board of the Academy of Film & Theatre Snacks, I have access to every movie script brought to the silver screen.  After months of exhaustive research I have been able to locate countless references to gefilte fish in film.  Below, find a few of my favorites.

Ten Commandments

Pharaoh Sethi (Sir Cedric Hardwicke): Harden yourself against subordinates. Have no friend. Trust no woman.  Eat no gefilte fish.

On the Waterfront

Terry (Marlon Brando): It wasn’t him, Charley, it was you. Remember that night in the Garden you came down to my dressing room and you said, “Kid, this ain’t your night. We’re going for the price on Wilson.” You remember that? “This ain’t your night”! My night! I coulda taken Wilson apart! So what happens? He gets the title shot outdoors on the ballpark and what do I get? A one-way ticket to Palooka-ville! You was my brother, Charley, you shoulda looked out for me a little bit. You shoulda taken care of me just a little bit so I wouldn’t have to take them dives for the short-end money.
Charlie (Rod Steiger): Oh I had some bets down for you. You saw some money.
Terry: You don’t understand. I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. It coulda been gefilte fish every night.  I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it. It was you, Charley.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

Butch Cassidy (Paul Newman): You know, it could be worse. You get a lot more for your money in Bolivia, I checked on it.
Sundance Kid (Robert Redford): What could they have here that you could possibly want to buy?

Butch Cassidy: Gefilte fish.

Psycho

Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins): You-you eat like a bird.
Marion Crane (Janet Leigh): [Looking around at the stuffed birds while eating] And you’d know, of course.
Norman Bates: No, not really. Anyway, I hear the expression ‘eats like a bird’ – it-it’s really a
[stammers]
Norman Bates: fals-fals-fals-falsity. Because birds really eat a tremendous lot. But -I-I don’t really know anything about birds. My hobby is stuffing things. You know that gefilte fish means stuffed fish.

Duck Soup

Rufus T. Firefly (Groucho Marx): Awfully decent of you to drop in today. Do you realize our army is facing disastrous defeat? What do you intend to do about it?
Chicolini (Chico Marx): I’ve done it already.
Rufus T. Firefly: You’ve done what?
Chicolini: I’ve changed to the other side.
Rufus T. Firefly: So you’re on the other side, eh? Well, what are you doing over here?
Chicolini: Well, the gefilte fish is better over here.

Lawrence of Arabia

Auda abu Tayi (Anthony Quinn): I am Auda abu Tayi! Does Auda serve?
Howeitat tribesmen: NO!
Auda abu Tayi: Does Auda abu Tayi serve?
Howeitat tribesmen: NO!
Auda abu Tayi: [to Lawrence] I carry twenty-three great wounds, all got in battle. Seventy-five men have I killed with my own hands in battle. I scatter, I burn my enemies’ tents. I take away their flocks, herds and gefilte fish. The Turks pay me a golden treasure, yet I am poor! Because *I* am a river to my people!

High Noon

Will (Gary Cooper): Don’t shove me Harv. I’m tired of being shoved.  I’ll pass ya’ the horseradish [for the gefilte fish] when I’m good and ready.

Becket

King Henry II (Peter O’Toole): Let us drink, gentlemen. Let us drink and eat gefilte fish, till we roll under the table in vomit and oblivion.

Shawshank Redemption

Andy Dufresne (Tim Robbins): You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific?
Red (Morgan Freeman): No.
Andy Dufresne: They say it has no memory. That’s where I want to live the rest of my life. A warm place with no memory and plenty of gefilte fish.

Steel Magnolias

M’Lynn (Sally Field): We have this new physiatrist that comes in two days a week and of course I pick her name out of the grab bag, I have to pick something up for her tomorrow. Would you put that on the list, I have no idea what to get your father. What’s Jackson giving you, do you know?
Shelby (Julia Roberts): Gefilte Fish.
M’Lynn: Gefilte Fish, well my. Must be nice to be married to a rich lawyer.

The Public Enemy

Tom Powers (James Cagney): So beer ain’t good enough for you, huh?
Mike Powers (Donald Cook): Do you think I care if there was just beer in that keg? I know what’s in it. I know what you’ve been doing all this time, how you got those clothes and those new cars. You’ve been telling Ma that you’ve gone into politics, that you’re on the city payroll. Pat Burke told me everything. You murderers! There’s not only beer in that jug. There’s beer and blood – blood of men!
[Throws keg against wall]
Tom Powers: [Stands] You ain’t changed a bit. Besides, your hands ain’t so clean. You kill and like it. You didn’t get them medals for eating gefilte fish with them Germans.

The African Queen

Charlie Allnut (Humphrey Bogart): A man takes a drop too much horseradish for his gefilte fish once in a while, it’s only human nature.
Rose Sayer (Katherine Hepburn): Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we are put in this world to rise above.

The Guns of Navarone

Capt. Keith Mallory (Gregory Peck): I have no time for this!
Corporal Miller (David Niven): Now just a minute! If we’re going to get this job done she has got to be killed! And we all know how keen you are about getting the job done! Now I can’t speak for the others but I’ve never killed a woman, nor eaten gefilte fish, traitor or not, and I’m finicky! So why don’t you do it? Let us off for once! Go on, be a pal, be a father to your men! Climb down off that cross of yours, close your eyes, think of England, and pull the trigger! What do you say, Sir?

She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

[Brittles knows Quincannon has been drinking on duty]
Captain Nathan Brittles (John Wayne): You got a breath on you like gefilte fish.
Top Sergeant Quincannon (Victor McLaglen): Ah, Captain darlin’. As you well know I took “the pledge” after Chapultepec.
Captain Nathan Brittles: And Bull Run, and Gettysburg, and Shiloh, and St. Patrick’s Day, and Fourth of July!

******

During my research I also came across numerous hilarious references to pilonidal cysts which I will share with you on another occasion.

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It’s That Time of the Year… Again

And no, I’m not talking about football.  It’s the time of the year when we wish, to those to whom it’s appropriate, a “Happy New Year.”  I am referring to the Jewish New Year.  Yes, yes… this is all confusing I know.  I will try to sift thru the tangle for you…

The first problem… the world is tuned into the Gregorian Calendar, which is a solar based calendar.  But the Hebrew Calendar is lunar based.  It’s why Jewish Holidays (like Rosh Hashonah… the New Year) fall on different days relative to the Gregorian Calendar.  Allow me a small digression… the traditional Chinese Calendar is also lunar.  Is it a coincidence that one of the world’s smallest cultural populations has allied itself with the world’s largest cultural population?  I think not.  It also explains why Jews eat so much Chinese food.  No mystery here… Lobster?  Not Kosher!  But Jews will sup on the popular Chinese dish “Dragon and Phoenix”, which is a combination of chicken and lobster for two reasons: 1. In China lobster is not called lobster, and 2. Phoenix is the Capital of Arizona.

So… let us proceed.  We have the vague idea that the New Year is sometime between Labor Day and Halloween.  This still doesn’t address the difference between January 1 and September Whatever for the beginning a new year.  Two points here: First, the Hebrew Calendar is older.  Second, the Sages anticipated that September is when football starts (sadly, the Sages did not anticipate the pickle it would put Sandy Koufax in).

Carrying on, there are actually two Holidays that are coupled together for the “New Year.” The first, Rosh Hashonah (the New Year) when we have a festive meal and worry about the other Holiday: Yom Kippur.  Yom Kippur (also referred to as the Day of Atonement) is when we have to fast (which is almost as bad as telling someone that they can’t pee for 24 hours), and then we have to endure an agonizingly long Service where the central lesson is that Sandy Koufax didn’t pitch in the World Series on Yom Kippur (it’s a good thing you’re fasting, because the very thought of this is enough to make you throw up).

Together these two days are called the Days of Awe, or sometimes the Days of Guilt and Worry (and in this regard, there is little to separate them from the other 363 days of the year).  Anytime leading up to the New Year, or in the period between the two Holidays, or even just after… it is permissible to wish someone a “Happy New Year.”  After all… you never know when you’ll bump into folks.

This is also the time of the year to accuse people of being Jews.  We all know what I’m talking about… folks who are trying to pass.  “Happy New Year Mr. Winston… say, wasn’t your Grandfather’s name Weinstein?”  It is also an opportunity to get rid of your enemies (this is referred to as the name libel).  Walk into the New Haven Country Club, go up to the Club Champion and say in a loud voice, “Happy New Year Shlomo!  Do you really think you’re fooling anyone with your made-up name?!”  No more tee times for Mr. Hedgefund!

The key to the festive meal is that there should be ample quantity… because in 10 days we have to fast and the Holiday meal is a way to begin taking on precious reserves.

Typically chicken soup & gefilte fish start the meal (although, personally, I begin with a well made dry martini… but I think you knew that).

Let’s focus on this puzzling and vile sounding dish… gefilte fish.

Recipes for gefilte fish can vary… but the ones that I am most familiar with call for three fish: carp, white & pike.  These fish are found in the waters of Eastern Europe (and just off shore from Miami Beach).  And as bad as they may look whole, there is nothing in the world to prepare you for the way they look at the completion of the recipe.

Quite simply, gefilte fish is cooked fish “meatloaf” served cold.  Think about a meatloaf that might use three different types of meat (beef, veal & pork) that get ground up and mixed with seasonings, shaped into a loaf, cooked and then served as “leftovers” cold from the fridge with some ketchup.  Got it?  Well… unappetizing as it sounds, gefilte fish is the three ingredient fish, chopped up, seasoned and formed into irregular lumps (not neat even shaped loafs), cooked, served cold from the fridge with horseradish.  As to the appearance… not a rich deep and inviting brown of a meatloaf; but rather a unappealing greyish taupe. 

Gefilte fish is a day long procedure to make… and it is served twice a year (if you’re lucky).  On Rosh Hashonah it is served with challah and horseradish (a condiment that makes wasabi taste like pistachio pudding), and the tears that are produced from eating gefilte fish w/horseradish are said to remind us of the Dodger Pitching Rotation.  On Passover it is served with matzo and horseradish, and the tears that are produced are said to remind us that the Dodgers left Brooklyn.

In my Senior Year at Union College I presented a paper in Erik Hansen’s Modern European History Seminar (for which I received an “A”) entitled Gefilte Fish and the Radical Left.  In the paper I pointed out that Karl Marx, Leon Trotsky and Pierre Mendes-France all publicly rejected the Bar Mitzvah as a pagan ritual (privately they complained bitterly that their Torah portions were too long and they were worried about botching their Haftorah); but each conducted their political discussions over a glass of tea and a plate of gefilte fish.  On one occasion Mendes-France, serving as Minister of Finance in the Government of Socialist Prime Minister Leon Blum, was heard commenting in Cabinet Meeting, “Excellent gefilte fish Leon… please pass the challah.”

So there you go… the Holiday repast: chicken soup, gefilte fish and the rest, as they say, is commentary.

“Happy New Year.”

Posted in Ministry of Humor | Leave a comment

The Best Kept Secret

I loved my Aunt Meggie’s oatmeal raisin cookies.  They were firm without being hard, chewy without being soft, just enough raisins to make each one a treat… and, this was the important part, there were always plenty of them on the cookie plate.

If she came to our house she always brought cookies, and whenever we visited Meggie in Woodbury I knew that there would be a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies on the kitchen counter… and I would have to pretend  that the “greeting conversation” in the center hall was important — when all I really wanted to do was run into the kitchen to make sure that there was a plate of cookies, a large plate of cookies… a large plate heaped with cookies… cookies expressly there for my enjoyment.

That confirmed, I could get on with talk of this or that.

Meggie was my Mom’s older Sister.  Even for a little kid like me, it was easy to see that they loved one another.  Still… they each retained pride in the things they did well.  My Mother made sweaters for every one in the family.  Meggie made oatmeal raisin cookies.  And for Meggie to make a sweater, or for Mom to bake cookies would have disrupted the equilibrium in the Universe.  Anyway, this what was traditionally accepted in our family.

As much as I loved Meggie’s oatmeal cookies, there was a part of her that would scare me.  And I kept this a secret.  Meggie taught 8th Grade Science in Bridgeport.  And as a kid I thought teachers were the arch enemy.  I didn’t hate them on a human level; but I deeply resented their chosen profession.  And oatmeal cookies or not, particularly when I reached the 8th Grade, Meggie was clearly in the “enemy camp”.  I would get a monster case of the “heebie jeebies” if I detected in casual conversation, even the slightest reference to learning or academics.

My best friend Gary had an Uncle who was a dentist.  He told me that whenever Uncle Artie came over to his house, he would hide under the bed.

Yeah, I could understand that.  Uncle Artie probably didn’t know how to bake oatmeal cookies.  And if Meggie didn’t make the best oatmeal raisin cookies in the world, I would have hid under the bed, too… particularly when I was in the 8th Grade.

Now you would think that over the years, Sisters, loving one another, like my Mom and Meggie, would share in things.  Mom would help Meggie with sweater making, and Meggie would share a recipe with Mom.  Nothing wrong with sharing is there?

Or so I thought. 

But then there was the day when I was home for a weekend from Union College and I mentioned to Mom that I was going to head up to Woodbury to visit Meggie… that I wanted to lay in a supply of oatmeal raisin cookies to take back up to school.

“Meggie and Saul went into the City for the weekend.”  I was told.

“Crap!”  I knew immediately that my reaction had stung Mom.

“Jimmy, I’ll make you cookies if you’d like…”

“No, Mom… It’s OK… really.  No one can make cookies better than Aunt Meggie… I’ll pick some up next time I’m down.”  (And besides… every one knew that Meggie shared that recipe with no one!)

It was the wrong thing to say.  I know that now.  I should have accepted Mom’s offer… add this to the many regrets that I have accumulated over the course of my life. 

God Bless Mom for being resilient and understanding.  She kissed my forehead, “Yes, Meggie makes the best oatmeal raisin cookies.”

I think now, that there is a certain cruelty in living.  That in the natural order of things we expect that those who are older, will “go” before us, and when this doesn’t happen it makes the pain of their passing that much more painful.  Such was the case with my Mother’s passing.  “I guess God needed a sweater maker.”  I am sure that is what we said to ourselves in the family.  I am sure that was what was in my Aunt Meggie’s mind on losing a younger Sister.  It’s a thought that sounds silly; but it is meant to soothe the sense of loss.

After years of teaching in Bridgeport, Meggie retired to the small home that she and Saul owned in Chatham.  They loved going to Cape Cod… and Chatham was away from the traffic of Mid-Cape… a sanctuary where they could get away from the hectic day-to-day.  Although by now Saul had also passed to his greater reward.

There came a day not too long ago, when I had to get away from the “day-to-day”, and I put my Keeshond in the car to go for a visit.  On the drive I told Barney that he was going to place that had a great view of the Atlantic, and that if he didn’t lift his leg on Meggie’s blue club chair, I would give him an oatmeal raisin cookie.  You can think I’m crazy; but dogs understand this better than children.

Yes, Meggie had oatmeal raisin cookies for me.  That and a big, big hug and a kiss.  It was a hug and kiss that I knew was a product of her love for her Sister… my Mother.  And it was easy to accept… somehow it felt like I was being hugged by my Mother.

Barney scattered about.  Sniffing and smelling… excited for the new yard to explore.  He lifted his leg on the sundial as Meggie and I moved to the deck that overlooked the water.  This time I didn’t have to go racing into the kitchen to see if there was a plate of cookies for me… Meggie had placed a generous plate on the table.

“Oatmeal raisin, I hope?”

“Would there be any other?”

There was also iced-tea in a beautiful crystal pitcher… and Meggie poured each of us a glass while I pinched into the stack of cookies.  I closed my eyes to appreciate the flavor and texture of the cookie… to intensify the experience. 

But before I got a word out of thanks and appreciation, Meggie offered, “Jimmy, I have to share a secret with you..”

Uh-oh… what could it be?  Saul was a felon?  Uncle Jenks was a hit man for the mob? My Father and Mother didn’t marry? 

“I know that you love my oatmeal raisin cookies.  But what you don’t know… I got the recipe from your Mother.  You see, even as little kids I knew that your Mother had a knack for things… she could always do things better than I could… she was a better student, she dressed better, she could sew, she could knit, she told better stories, all the boys loved her, she could cook & bake… you name it.  One day she told me, ‘Meggie: I’m going to teach you how to bake oatmeal raisin cookies.’  And she did.  One weekend we baked enough oatmeal raisin cookies for the 1st Army.  And we wouldn’t have stopped unless your Mother knew that I could do it.”

Meggie looked to the sky.  She hooted and smiled as Barney shnuffled in the underbrush looking for squirrels and other quarry.  She looked to the sky again, perhaps sensing the presence of her younger Sister. “You know, once I mastered baking oatmeal raisin cookies, your Mother would never make them again.  Never, ever.  I miss her greatly.”

I munched on a cookie, as great as ever and looked to the water… somehow imagining that there existed a land far beyond the horizon where every one who we ever knew existed to their own mind’s eye… and the place would be called heaven.

“Meggie, this cookie is heaven on earth…”

“Jimmy, there is an even deeper secret that I have to share with you…”

Now, I worried… it is my nature.

“I dreaded teaching school.  Monsters!  That’s who occupied the desks.  I longed for vacations!  The kids were miserable, their parents worse and the Administration was worse still.  And each year it got worse!  When I started to near retirement I couldn’t stand going back in September… my Augusts were a wreck just thinking about going back to school.  I wanted to hide under the bed.  And when school started, I would count the days ’til the next vacation.  I hated school.”

This was too much for me to take in one sitting.  If Barney wasn’t going to pee on the blue club chair, then I would have to.  I thought about telling Meggie that her being a teacher had terrified me… how much I hated school.  I looked to the sky and then to the horizon… you know, I think that some things are just better kept as a secret.

Posted in Meggie & Saul | Leave a comment

Five Trains Rollin’

We didn’t take and pick him up from the station everyday.  But it happened enough… so I think it was within in reason for me to think that my Father worked for the railroad.  If he didn’t drive our 1952 MGTD to the station in the morning, Mom or Mommie Soph would drive him and then pick him up in the evening on his return.  I loved tagging along.  I thought that it was cool that my Father worked for the New York, New Haven & Hartford (I would learn later that he did not).  What little kid doesn’t love seeing trains moving in the yard?  And my Dad was a part of that, or so I thought.

I think I was 7 when I took the 8:02 Bankers from New Haven’s Union Station to New York’s Grand Central (non-stop to 125th St.).  I am not sure that we took the MG to the station; but for the purposes of this story, let’s say we did.  I loved driving in the MG with my Dad, he would let me beep the horn.  On the way there, we would have stopped at Moriarity’s Garage… picked up a mechanic (maybe Mr. Moriarity himself?), I would have hopped in the tiny back and we would have proceeded the quarter mile down the hill to the station.  The mechanic would take the car back to the garage for safe keeping, and then would bring it back to the station for our return.

Dad and I boarded the dinning car of the train.  It was all new to me.  But I was impressed.  The tables had thick white cloths on them.  The Steward, in a starched white jacket, greeted my Father with a smile and a hello.  Perfectly natural, so thought I… after all my Father worked on the railroad… he probably knew everyone who worked on the train.  Dad got a cup of coffee and opened his New York Times, folding it lengthwise (in the manner of others who travel the rails)… the Steward brought me a coloring book and crayons and a glass of orange juice & a bowl of Cheerios.  Obviously, my Dad was very important.  I was in heaven. 

I sat at that table.  Had my cereal… the thick cloth giving me a great surface for my book, as I carefully remained within the lines… coloring in pages that had related railroad themes… scenes of trains rolling thru the countryside, that sort of thing.  Dad caught up on the days’ news… and maybe chatted with other commuters. 

It was my first ride on a train, that I can recall.  I was happy.  I had breakfast in the dinning car! I felt important… and after all my Dad worked on the railroad!

******

I would eventually learn how prestigious The Greenbrier was.  For me, back then, it was simply a destination for a short family vacation.  Paul was in College, and Lynn not… so I had to be 8 or 9 when we traveled by train from Penn Station to a station that was close to The Greenbrier… a luxurious hotel in West Virginia.  I remember very little of our stay at the Hotel itself.  Somewhere there is an old snapshot of me in jodhpurs and a small tweed hacking jacket, either on a horse, or about to get on a horse.  Improbable to say the least.

But, I do remember the train ride.  It was an overnight trip… and we had a private compartment (maybe two?).  I can remember thinking that my berth (really a lower bunk) was perfect… small and cozy.  I buried myself in the blankets… there was a small night light near the bed.  I lay still, simply letting the motion of the train ease me to sleep.  I listened to the steady sounds of the wheels clacking along the rails and the occasional squeal when we traversed an interchange.

I am sure that in the nearly 50 years since that train ride I have enjoyed other nights’ sleep that were as good.  But none were better.  Nothing can surpass the lulling motion of a train combined with the repetitious sound of rolling steel wheels crossing rail joints. 

******

In 1960 Yale’s Varsity Football Team went undefeated and untied.  I was 10.  The team was captained by Mike Pyle (who became a All-Pro Center for the Chicago Bears), the QB was Tom Singleton (like Pyle a graduate of New Trier HS in Chicago) and Guard Ben Balme made All America (but washed out in the pros as an Eagle).

Our home was but five blocks from the Yale Bowl, and I saw every home game.  Yale’s final home game alternated between Harvard and Princeton.  And my parents always hosted a cocktail party for the final home game.  In 1960 it was Princeton.  And when Princeton came to town my parents’ friends, the Hiltons were invited.  Not the Hotel Hiltons… the Clothing Manufacturer Hiltons. 

Norman Hilton was a grad of Princeton… and he added to an afternoon that included both Elliot and Marty Gant (the shirtmakers) & Izzy White and Henry Miller who owned men’s stores in New Haven and West Hartford respectively.

Norman was more than a supplier of my Father’s business.  He was one of his closest friends in the industry, one of his closest friends period.  And our 50 yard line seats that afternoon (albeit on the Princeton side) were due to the pull that Norman had as a distinguished alum.  I was warned not to cheer too aggressively for the Yales that afternoon, since we would be sitting behind enemy lines…

But that didn’t stop me from launching into some pre-game bravado in our living room when I told Norman that the Bulldogs were going to murder the Tigers that afternoon.  And to prove my point I was willing to bet a HO Train set that I had seen in a catalogue.  It think it cost all of $25.

Mr. Hilton, loyal alum that he was, said I was on.

Yale won, and the victory was its own reward. The thought of that train set didn’t enter my mind.  I also didn’t want to let a side bet put a hex on Yale’s chances against the Harvards the following Saturday… and I don’t recall ever bringing up the “bet” during the post game festivities back at the house.

But some time later a Tyco HO train set that had been advertised in the catalogue was delivered to our door… Norman had honored that side bet.  I had another train set at the time… a Marklin; but that set had a European look due to its German manufacture.  Tyco was American.

The set had a simple oval track, the Diesel bore the NH and color scheme of the New Haven RR and passenger cars were New York, New Haven and Hartford rolling stock!  I had 3 passenger cars and an observation car (to my knowledge, there never was an observation car on the line).  And the best thing?  It was New Haven RR!! The best thing in New Haven other than Yale!! I loved that set… and eventually added additional track, switches, other engines & cars… and built several Revel models to decorate my lay out. 

But it all began with Norman’s gambling debt.

******

1969 was the Summer of Woodstock… and of our Lunar Landing (more of the latter in a minute).  It was also the summer I hosteled thru Europe with a group of other college students.  The highlight of the trip was 10 days in the Soviet Union (my first of two trips there).  Also on the itinerary were two other stops behind the Iron Curtain: Prague and Budapest.

Vienna was to be our “jumping off point” for those two cities, and to get to Vienna we planned on traveling by train from Berlin.  Our route to Vienna would cut across Czechoslovakia… and while we had visas for our stay in Prague later that month… we were detained at the Czech border because we didn’t have transit visas.  Sound fishy?  I felt like saying that the “letters of transit” were hidden in the piano at Rick’s American Cafe… but what were the chances that the Czech border guards would know about Casablanca?

The train proceeded without us while the border officials sorted out this crisis.  After all, this was the era of the War in Vietnam, Eastern Communism was still a viable force and American College students were clearly CIA operatives.  We watched the American Astronauts landing on the moon on a TV in the border station with the Czech guards.  We were congratulated for our achievements… and then informed for twenty-five dollars American each, we would be provided “temporary transit visas.”  And that’s why being a Czech Border guard was considered to be a desirable job.

The next train we boarded, nearing the midnight hour, was a local train.  It brought a new definition to the word “local”.  It made as many stops as a bus traveling on Fifth Avenue.  Each station that we pulled into looked smaller than the next.  And we were traveling in the wee hours.  Where the hell were people going?  We were crammed into the spaces with fellow proletarians… each carrying one small valise and two large shopping bags… and another bag containing food… obviously there was no dinning car set with thick white cloths on this train.  Fat salamis, onions, cloves of garlic (I think it was used as a deodorant) and the smell of warm beer filled my traveling compartment.  The only thing that was missing was a goat and an open latrine.

The added charm to this train was that it was pulled by a coal burning locomotive.  How’s that for nostalgia?  Traveling the rails the way they did in the 19th Century!  The American West, the Orient Express, eh what?  I guess I was too exhausted to appreciate this romantic form of travel… but I tell you what wasn’t lost from the train ride… coal dust.  They don’t show you that in the movies!  Did you ever see John Wayne smeared with soot?

When I got off the train in Vienna I was coated with coal dust.  I took off my sport shirt and it looked like I had a good “tan”.  So this is what Al Jolson felt like in black face?

The journey had taken four times its scheduled length… but then again, I have always enjoyed trains… I guess I was just lucky.

******

I think I was on I-84 late at night traveling back from a wine tasting when I first heard it.  I was cruising along, but just had to crank the tune up.  Maybe it was my mood?  I knew that this song… a song that I did not recognize… had that special feel.

Well, on a train, I met a dame

She rather handsome, we kinda looked the same…

I drove into the darkness.  More volume!

She was pretty, from New York City

I’m walkin’ down that old fair lane

Good guitar.  Good vocal.  No, great guitar.  Terrific drums.  Booming bass.  The road opens up.  The music demanded speed.  I loved the way the drummer changed beat half way thru the song.  The song picked up speed…

I’m in heat, I’m in love

But I just couldn’t tell her so…

I said, the train kept a rollin’ all night long

Train kept a rollin’ all night long

There are times that music captures you… you become enveloped… and then you can’t be held responsible for your actions.  You slip the jacket off your shoulders, stand on the table, move your feet as if nothing mattered but the pulsing music in your veins… or, if you’re driving in a car late at night, you just push the pedal to the floor.

Well, we made a stop in Albuquerque

She musta thought I was a cool jerk

Got off the train, and put her hands up

Lookin’ so good I couldn’t let her go

But I just couldn’t tell her so…

Train kept a rollin’ all night long

I drove further into the night fueled by the music.  No fatigue, I could have driven to the end of time.

Train kept a rollin’ all night long

******

Trains keep rollin’… oh yeah

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The Angels Wept

You could say that I was planning the afternoon for a year (actually it was 53 weeks).  A year ago we hosted a wine tasting of White Grand Cru Burgundies… and it was one of the most successful tastings we have ever put on.  It was doubly rewarding because our guests were, by and large, big red aficionados… and by evening’s end they stood in awe of the wines that had been presented.  The lesson had been a simple one: truly great wines know no “colour”.

Organizing a flight of White Grand Crus is by far our most difficult undertaking of the year.  So little Grand Cru is produced.  2% of the total vines planted in Burgundy are classified as Grand Cru.  Of that total, less than 2% is White.  Five of the six Grand Cru White vineyards are nestled between the villages of Chassagne and Puligny.  Together they could fit inside of the Red Grand Cru Clos du Vougeot vineyard.

In the course of our business there is a “give and take” between importers, distributors and merchants.  Favors done, and favors due.  To put on the Grand Cru Tasting this past Saturday, our owner, John Caplan had to call in on all past favors due, and went into debt on future favors owed.

Yes… I was looking forward to this Tasting.  As much for the folks attending (one couple traveling from Arkansas) as to the wines themselves.  When John had put the finishing touches to the flight we both knew something… you would be hard pressed to find a Tasting its equal in America.

We began the afternoon with William Fevre Chablis Grand Cru ‘Les Clos’ ’05.  Unfortunately, too many Americans hear “Chablis” and they think of Paul Masson in a jug.  The California wine industry has stolen a name to add “saleability” to their product — although it has nothing to do with the original product other than they are both liquids.  I love Chablis.  Its unique version of Chardonnay is a product of the distinct clay and limestone soil that gives Chablis its mineral character.  The sub-soil is built on a shelf of crushed pre-historic oyster shells… no wonder pairing crisp Chablis with oysters is considered one of the classic food and wine combinations.  Grand Cru Chablis ages beautifully, too and the Fevre was stunning… a great way to launch the afternoon.

There is no Grand Cru Meursault… but there are great wines produced there… certainly wines that would merit inclusion in any Tasting covering the best from Burgundy.  Our choice was Domaine Francois & Antoine Jobard Mersault 1er Cru ‘Poruzots’ ’04.  Jobard wines have the reputation of taking years to open, and this wine certainly ran true to form.  This was the most “closed” of the wines on the day.  Behind the cloak of youth, you got the glimpse of a beautifully made wine, rich flavors touched with the characteristic minerality of Meursault… although I didn’t detect the hint of smoke that I love from this region.  The wine needs at least 2 to 3 years for it to begin showing its best.  Classically styled, it commands “Grand Cru” pricing.

The wine that followed was the only repeat from the Tasting a year ago: Domaine de la Vougerie Le Clos Blanc de Vougeot 1er Cru ’02.  We put this wine into the flight a year ago for its novelty.  A tiny parcel of the Grand Cru Red Clos de Vougeot vineyard had been planted to Chardonnay to make a white wine, although white did not gain the Grand Cru status of its “red brother”.  We returned the wine to our flight this year, in part  because we could still access it, and in part to see how the wine had progressed.  The wine did not disappoint.  The aroma was lush with ripe fruit well balanced by oak.  A smooth palate followed and lead to a beautiful finish.  For those who had tasted the wine last year, this was a true treat… it shows how well Burgundies improve when we practice a little patience. 

We tasted two Cortons next, side by side. Domaine Bonneau du Martray Grand Cru Corton-Charlemagne ’03 and Albert Bichot Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru Domaine du Pavillon ’05.  The Bonneau du Martray had the advantage of an open bouquet that was breathtaking… it covered the nose of the younger Bichot.  But it was the Bichot that took honors on palate and finish.  And particularly on finish.  The wine combined the best of elegance, blended flavors and a persistent finish that continued to caress the senses.  The Bichot is headed for stardom.

Our next stops were in “Montrachet land.”  We would be trying 4 of the 5 vineyards… from one point to the next, they cover a mere half mile.  First up: Domaine Michel Niellon Chevalier-Montrachet Grand Cru ’03.  Beautiful hue and aromatics to match, this wine had a “sinfully” lush texture that filled the palate.  Yet it’s mark was carrying off the layers of flavor, silky feel while still exhibiting balance and restraint.  This is what makes Burgundy, Burgundyand reduces other white wine to post script status.

The vineyard of Criots-Batard-Montrachet looks like a “sliver.”  It is by far the smallest of the Grand Cru vineyards… a postage stamp really.  Our entry was Blain-Gagnard Criots-Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru ’03.  The wine received high points for its complexity… tropical fruit, minerality and kissed with a touch of petroleum.  This was a wine to taste.  And put down.  Taste again, and put down.  Scratch out some notes on a notepad.  Taste again.  Cross out what you had written and begin again.  This is a wine that rewards the careful.  Beautiful layering.  It seduces rather than dominates.  It is why some folks say never trust your first taste of Burgundy.

We missed tasting a Bienvenue-Bartard-Montrachet; but offered instead a side by side tasting of Blain-Gagnard Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru ’03 and Louis Latour Batard-Montrachet Grand Cru ’05.  I will confess… before tasting I was biased against the Louis Latour.  In a region renown for tiny holdings, Latour is an “elephant”.  Latour possesses 71 acres in Grand Cru Vineyards.  No other producer comes close to that.  And worse than that, the Latour’s also have a “commercial side”… making a ton of every day wine… wines that never match the prestige of their name.  Taking nothing away from the Blain-Gagnard, which was outstanding, the Louis Latour was a spectacular wine.  Maybe it was the vintage?  Regardless, each taste confirmed that this was a liquid thoroughbred.  The other wines tasted were great… this was better.  More flavour.  More balance.  More power wrapped in elegance.  More length.  This was a wine to be reckoned with, and the final wine in the flight would be stretched to surpass it.

Stretched that is… unless it’s Le Montrachet.  But I am used to “upstarts”.  Last year the Batard-Montrachet put Le Montrachet in its shadow.  That was last year; but this year Louis Jadot Montrachet Grand Cru ’04 reigned supreme.  The ultimate wine.  There are a hand full of wines that “show up” every time… an outright “win” or a “near miss”… Ch. Latour, Ch. D’Yquem, Valdicava Brunello di Montalcino, come to mind.  Montrachet fits into that company.  This Montrachet was purely sublime.  It was so excellent… you didn’t even notice it.  Yes, the Latour Batard was truly great, but the Jadot Montrachet tasted of superior breeding and pedigree.  Its excellence was its routine, its natureJe suis le Montrachet!  The wine had perfect balance and pitch, strength wrapped in subtlety, complexity of flavours layering on the palate and haunting length… Attributes that we easily accept in our special reds; but that will catch us by surprise when we experience it in whites.

This afternoon we all agreed that the Montrachet was the most special of wines, and worthy of its lofty price tag.

As is my custom… I like to rank my favorites.  The Judge at Westminster has to do the same thing.  After all… all the dogs in the final show ring are Champions, yet the Judge has to select the Best of Show from among their number.  It’s going out on the line… but not as far as you think… can you really make a mistake picking a Champion from a group of Champions?

Reflecting on Saturday’s tasting, I guess I feel the same… how big of a mistake can I make?  Here goes: Jadot Montrachet, Latour Batard-Montrachet… and I’m going to notch the Fevre Chablis over the Bichon Corton-Charlemagne.

Truth be told… each of the wines were champions… and when the room quieted on Saturday, I do believe I could hear the angels weeping for joy.

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Barbarian Overtures

“Hullo luv, I’m home!”

“Hagar, wipe your feet before coming in!”

“I’m only here for a minute… King Harold says we’re off with the tide and I just have to pick up a few things to take along…”

“Sure… again you’re off! And what am I supposed to do while you’re off plundering Europe? Eh? Tell me! Take care of your stinking kids! And what thanks do I get?? And I bet you won’t even get on the Pillaging Team this time! Lars always makes the Pillaging Team. Lars brings home silver and amber for Ulla!! I get smelly hides!!”

“Those are delicate under things, Helga my Sweet Flower!”

“Don’t give me Sweet Flower! Give me silver and amber!!”

“Yes, yes… My Treasure… it will be amber and silver…”

“You know, Lars sent his resume to the Huns. The Pillagers do very well there. They get all sort of neat and exotic stuff from the East. You watch, first chance he gets he’ll sign on with the Huns and Ulla will have a home filled with great things… perfumes, pretty silks, ornate door stoppers… not stinky hides. Lars knows how to take care of Ulla… ”

“Well, my Jewel… you know, there is silver and amber…”

“Remember… it’s amber from Kiev and silver from Paris… not the other way around, you shmecko”

“Yes, farewell my luv… Kiev, amber and Paris, silver… farewell.”

****

“OK, lads… step lively. Rapers to the bow of the ship… then the Pillagers amidships and the Burners to the stern…”

“Harold… can I be on the Pillaging Team this time? You promised that I didn’t have to be on the Burners this time.”

“That’s because you set the ship on fire the last time Hagar…”

“It was an accident…”

“Hear that boys? It was an accident!!! HAH!!”

“Harold can I be on the Raping Team, this time? Knard is always getting on the Raping Team. When is it going to be my turn?”

“Not a chance Hagar. I am putting you to the head of the Diplomacy Team!”

“Diplomacy Team? Harold, there is no Diplomacy Team.”

“There is now!”

“What Diplomacy? We come ashore. We see a village, we Pillage it, we Rape the women and the animals, and then we Burn the village to the ground. There’s no Diplomacy! And besides… I have no title that has the ring of authority… you know like Erik the Red, or Ethelred the Unready or Henry the Kissinger.”

“I see your point…”

“And besides, what am I supposed to be doing when you and the rest of the guys are out Raping, Pillaging and Burning?”

“Yes… I see what you mean…’the idle mind is the devil’s playground’ sort of thing? Right, well lads… please welcome to our company, Hagar the Horrible… Diplomat and P.L.O.”

“P.L.O.?”

“Permanent Latrine Orderly… you can tell Helga that you cleaned up… eh, boys?!! HAH! Prepare to set sail! Members of the Burners Team, please set your torches on safety… we don’t want another mishap…”

“Geeze… it was just an accident.”

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Pass the Soap…

The American Professor Darius Arya has just finished a ten week excavation of an exceptionally well preserved Roman Bath Complex that dates to the Second Century.  Originally thought to be part of the magnificent residence of the “billionaire” of the day, Quintus Servius Pudens, new evidence has produced another theory.

The two story building which extends for at least 5 acres, comprised of several rooms, some small and others grand, and serviced by a maze of underground passageways… was merely the central piece of a greater complex with the surrounding grounds filled with gardens and sporting fields. 

Arya speculates that the Baths were in fact a type of “Club House”, and the entire complex was a “Country Club” where the wealthy had membership entitling them to use of the Baths, the gaming rooms, the Feasts and outdoor entertainments.

Emperor Hadrian was a Member of the Bath, as was most of the Senate.

A tablet with an elaborate set of “rules” was unearthed in the early phases of the excavation provides a invaluable insight to the customs of the day.

“No Running or diving”

“No glass receptacles”

“Not responsible for loss of personal property”

“No peeing in the bath”

“One towel per member”

“No reserving of stone benches”

“No bathing past 9:00PM on week nights”

“No tipping of servants”

Elsewhere in the complex remains have discovered of the Ancient Egyptian game “jackals and hounds” have been found.  Professor Arya has proposed that there were rooms dedicated to the playing of games, not unlike cards or mah jong rooms that would exist in a Country Club today.

Arya also points out that it is difficult to think of baths in our current frame of reference.  “It’s not like you hop in the tub, lather up, rinse off… hop out, towel dry, get into jammies and hit the sack.

“Romans would spend the entire day in the Baths… going from rooms that featured cold water, then hot water, then maybe a bubble bath, to a steam room, grab a snack, sit on a bench, gossip with a neighbor, take a snooze, perhaps a game of jackals and hounds, take a stroll thru through the gardens and then begin a cyle of bathing again.  This could continue to the wee hours of the day.

“But”, Arya is quick to point out “you would be hard pressed to find a bar of soap or a bottle of shampoo.”  Arya also added, “Not a lot got done in those days; but for the lucky, it was a helluva life.”

Work on the site will continue in the Spring with the hope of one day returning a portion of the Bath Complex to its original state of grandeur.  Professor Arya concludes, “it would be quite an achievement to restore the one of the rooms to working condition… I might take a bath myself!”

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Mom Would Have Been Proud

It’s about scale.  I think Mom acquired her sense of scale from her Mom, Mommie Soph.  If you get something… get a lot of it — you can never tell if the store might run out.  If you cook something… make a lot — you can count on a recipe “for 8” won’t come close to getting the job done… that is, feeding eight and providing the necessary snacking reserves.

Everything in life springs from this concept of scale.

Two illustrations come quickly to mind.  One time on the Tonight Show, hosted by Johnny Carson in those days, it was mentioned, in jest, that there was a toilet paper shortage sweeping across America.  Mom did not take it in jest… rather she hurried down the next morning in the Ford Country Squire to the Big Buy (this was in the day before Costco, BJs & Sam’s Club) and she crammed the station wagon with two huge cartons of toilet paper taken directly from from the loading docks… she told the floor manager that she was buying the TP for a motel.  And of course she was sure to get the “insiders” price.

Mom had to be sure that she had enough for the family… the entire family.  What happens if someone gets diarrhea? (God forbid) Well, Mom was taking no chances.  She bought enough to cover the Statue of Liberty in paper.  I think it was five years before she had to buy another roll of toilet paper. 

Second illustration… food recipes could never be trusted as it pertained to portion size.  The only way a recipe for four served four was if it was a bad recipe… and if it was a bad recipe, it probably could serve eight.  Who would want to eat it?

But recipes do provide a gauge on which to go by.  A recipe for four could simply be doubled to get to its true serving size.  Fine.  But how do you arrive at the correct number of ears of sweet corn to cook?  Mom’s technique was to carefully record “eating experience”… she assigned a number to each person based on their high water mark — the most sweet corn eaten on one occasion.  So at age 15, when I had the metabolism of a humming bird, just for grins, I tucked into ten ear of corn, and from that point on ten became my number.  When Mom went shopping for family cook outs, I was counted in for ten… every time.

When I got married, Mom gave Ellen a pot to cook corn in.  Never mind that the pot covered all four burners of our first kitchen… or that we had to fill the pot in the bathtub because it couldn’t fit under the faucet in the kitchen sink… or that that when we cooked our four ear of corn in the pot, they looked like atolls in the South Pacific.

You see… it’s about scale.

It’s a shame that Mom never got to experience the glory of shopping in Costco.  That store was built for her… it approached her concept of scale… tubs of peanut butter, not jars.  Cup of Soups by the case, produce and fruit, fruit of Margie’s quality… and in quantities that went beyond the pale.

Mom’s only problem in shopping at Costco would be finding a car to cart the stuff home.  The Country Squire wouldn’t do.

When it comes to Costco I am small potatoes.  But on our return trip from Boston, Sandy and I put into the Costco in Waterbury.  Sandy had agreed to make some fresh fruit salad (something that I adore).  And since no one beats Costco on fruit, not Stew Leonard’s, not even Margie’s in its hay day… Costco was our place to provision out.

We puttered thru the aisles ’til we got to the fruit zone.  Then I made quick work of the selection: three cantaloupes, two personal sized watermelons (the geneticist who came up with the personal sized watermelon should get a Nobel Prize), a humongous container of plump black cherries, an equally humongous container of red flame grapes (the kind that crunch when you bite into them), a bigger container of monster strawberries, an unearthly quantity of rock hard dark purple plums (with yellow flesh… my favorite), one pineapple, a sensible container of those funny looking saucer shaped white flesh peaches and a box of soft and tasty apricots (that would be too ripe for the salad).

$60 in fruit.  But did we have fruit!

The next day Sandy added a few gala apples to our supply… and then she went about chopping, slicing, cutting, scooping and pitting… careful not to make pieces too small (this was done at my request).  Pitting the cherries was a bonus… I would have been content to spit them out as necessary.

When all was said and done, using about a third of our larder, Sandy had made enough fruit salad to fill a pot… A pot?  A pot big enough to cook sweet corn in! 

The fruit salad was outright delicious.  Exceptional fruit, wonderfully ripe, a melding of flavors, generously cut pieces… It doesn’t get better!!

And made in the right scale!

Oh, Mom would have been proud…

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Why talking to Mikey Bordeaux on a slow day is a bad idea, reason #6

“What do you know about the Mayans?”  The question was put to me by my colleague, Mikey Bordeaux… well, his real name is Mike Wofsey; but I have another friend of that name who lives on the other side of the Hudson, and it will potentially confuse matters in future tales to use Mr. Bordeaux’s given name.

Fridays are a slow day at Grapes… the “sell team” stands down for the day… and by Noon Ash and Andre have departed leaving just Mikey and me to guard the nest.  And a question like “what do you know about the Mayans?” can appear innocent to an unsuspecting observer.  But I know better.  This question is classified as a “tip of the iceberg” type question.

“The Mayans?  Well… let’s see… the word Mayan means from the other side of the Hudson and for a long time it was believed that the Mayans were one of the lost Tribes of Israel.  Then it was discovered that they were into human sacrifice… which was a definite no-no to the Hebrews.  The Ancient Hebrews were into sacrificing lambs for the Veal Chop Festival… which was later renamed Passover because Cecil B. DeMille couldn’t make Charlton Heston do a sex scene with a sheep.”

“No, the Mayans.  And the Mayan Calendar, dude.”

Uh, oh.  He was not deterred by my first evasive maneuver.

Mikey continued, “The Calendar has been around forever and it has never been modified… not like our Julian Calendar that had to be changed by Pope Gregory to account for a fistful of lost days.  The Ancient Mayan Calendar has been accurate to the day since day one!  BUT… and here’s the best part… the Calendar ends on December 21, 2012!”

“That’s the best part?”

“Jimbo, don’t you know about the Prophecy?”

“The Prophecy?  The Prophecy?  You don’t know who you are dealing with!  You are speaking to a descendant of the Kohanim, the Tribe of Priests that ruled the Temple.  This was in the day before we invented the title “Rabbi”, which didn’t come into use ’til we were in Babylonian Exile… AND, then, when we weren’t looking, the Catholics ran in and stole the title Priest from us!  In 1963 delegates from the Central Conference of Rabbis met with emissaries from the Holy See to propose a straight up swap of titles… we get back Priest and we give them Rabbi… Priests could now marry, Rabbis would have to remain celibate; but could eat pork fried rice… It would throw the anti-Semites of the world into chaos!  The deal collapsed when the Vatican insisted that Sandy Koufax had to convert.”  {I could see that my second evasion has also failed}… “Prophecy?”

“Dude, don’t you see it?  The Mayan Calendar has been out there for 5000 years, and then stops!  Stops!  December 21, 2012!  The Winter Solstice, dude!  And this is the Winter Solstice to end all Winter Solstices!  Literally, the end!  A perfect alignment of planets… and the Mayans knew this from the get-go!!

“A perfect alignment?”

“Sure!  Intense exertions on the Earth’s crust brought on by the unique planetary positions — in turn producing a shift in plate tectonics, which in turn will affect our orbit and atmosphere!”

“Uh, huh.  This sounds like some bullshit Bush’s people cooked up to cover global warming.”

“No Jimbo… for real.  Check out this website.  There’s a countdown!! Look: 1994 days, 6 hours, 20 minutes and 12 seconds left!!”

“Well, Mikey… I guess that’s going to put to an end to recommending Chateau Latour for long term cellaring… and my next car might as well be a lease…”

“Dude, Google ’21, 12, 21.'”

“Mikey:  you and I are going to have an understanding.  I want to nip this in the bud.  You and I are going to agree not to talk about this anymore.  We are going to declare this topic exhausted.  I don’t want you coming in here everyday announcing the Godamned countdown… or talking about five new websites, each one more extravagant than the next… or other such shit.”

Mikey seemed to take my ribbing in good stride… now I had another worry… perhaps I laid it on too thick… particularly the part about Sandy Koufax.  Mikey might actually come to work on Monday with the latest countdown update!

“OK.  Mikey… I am going to the bathroom now… and when I come out I expect that we will have put all this Mayan talk aside… and I am going stay in there ’til you tell me it’s safe to come out.”

Well… there you are… just another slow Friday in the bullpen of Grapes with Mr. Bordeaux and me.

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Letting Out the Crotch

“I thought the custom was to fart after the meal.”  I could feel my nostrils burning, “I think my nose hairs just fell out…”

Raymond tucked into his pastrami on rye, took a swig of his Dr. Brown’s Cel-ray Tonic, “your nose was due for a trim anyway… you should thank me.”  A crunch on his half sour pickle added a punctuation mark to his comment, “Besides, it’s meant as a compliment to the chef and host.”

“That’s after the meal… AFTER!!  And that’s for Chinese food… we’re not eating Chinese food!”  I doubted this custom anyway… I think my older brother made that up to cover the time he cut a world class fart when we were having take home Chicken Chow Mein from The Far East.

I picked up my everything bagel with cream cheese, lox & tomato, started to take a bite, thought the better of it, and returned my sandwich to the plate, “You know, you’ve just killed my bagel… the tomato is turning red.”

“It already is red!”

“I mean more red… like when you plant tomatoes next to a nuclear waste site.  Look… the people next to us are getting up to leave.  You made them leave!”

“They’re leaving because they’re done eating… they’re going to pay their bill.”

“That old lady took out a lace handkerchief and is holding it to her nose.  I think she is going to throw up.  And that guy across the room just dropped his fork to his plate… and that’s there… I’m sitting two feet from the epicenter.”

“Enough already… will you eat your food, please and stop carrying on.”

“How’s your pastrami?”

Raymond an I go back years… to the sand box as Mrs. Bellaga would say.  We lived in the same neighborhood, went to the same schools, dated the same women… he even married my ex-wife.

But every month, on the third Friday we have lunch.  We alternate paying the bill and choosing the restaurant.  One chooses the place and the other guy pays.  This lead to a spate of afternoons at very expensive restaurants as we would try to out do each other in sticking the other guy with a monstrous bill.  I left Ray with a $300 lunch tab once.  He paid without a blink and agreed that the Puligny-Montrachet and the Ch. Beychevelle had been excellent choices.

We’re past that now.  We go to places that we both enjoy… and invariably it’s to simple spots… no linen, sometimes paper plates; but always a place where the schmooze can be “let out to pasture.”

“Who are the Democrats going to put up?” I’m asked. 

You have to understand.  Raymond spent his college years worshiping the then Governor of California, Ronald Reagan.  As an adult he has morphed into the poster boy of every liberal cause celebre.  I never forget to remind him of his earlier allegiance.  He would tell me his position when he was an undergraduate was based on his choice of Fraternity and his desire to get laid.

“I think we could put up Mickey Mouse and win.  The trouble is I don’t think we have someone as good as Mickey Mouse.”

Topics that are usually taboo in conversation.. religion and politics, are the very areas that occupy our time.  We also talk of life’s aggravations, our work, the problems of getting old, our anxieties.  We don’t talk about the ladies in our life.  Particularly since he hooked up with the wicked witch of the west.

Perhaps that should tell you about the strength of our friendship… that there is nothing that would stand in its way.  Even the wicked witch of the west.

I sipped my glass of tea.  And just mulled over some things… nothing to do with my bagel… or the next Democratic candidate, nor global warming.  I just thought of my friend Raymond.  How he has appeared in virtually every scene in my life… how he has been there in times good or bad… a voice I could turn to… a voice not colored by the marriage bed.  A voice I could trust.  Trust… even if he married the wicked witch of the west.

“Ray… I’m worried.  I have more years in back of me than ahead.  And I have yet to do one important thing in my life.  My presence on earth isn’t as significant as a grain of sand.  I wrecked a business, I have horrible dreams, I’m afraid of running a red light… and my pants fit too tight!!”

The room fell into momentary silence.  The crunch of Raymond’s pickle cut the still.  He looked directly into my face, “Maybe you should let out your crotch.”

I was hoping for pearls of wisdom.  I finished my bagel thru the haze of Ray’s lingering fart… and thought how lucky I was… Lucky to have a friend like Raymond Bellaga… lucky to have the major problems of the world… the worries of a lifetime… rendered insignificant before what is truly essential — pants that fit comfortably.

“Ray, I don’t know how you do it.  But thanks…”

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Best of the Best

Although we shared in the inspiration, I can not take any credit for being the architect for the wine tasting… that function belonged to Grapes’ owner, John Caplan.  My sole contribution was to recommend the first wine, which was actually tasted last — Chateau D’Yquem.  For the rest of the wine flight, I merely put at the top of a scratch pad: France, Italy, California and Spain (with a question mark).

It was John’s duty to flesh out the “dance card”.

We host a wine tasting of this magnitude from time to time… featuring an eclectic assortment of wines that are the “best of the best.”  From start to finish the wines have to be great, worthy of cellaring — and also available for purchase.  Well, after all, we are in the business of selling wine.  But it goes beyond the simple sale.  We all have tasted incredible wines… rare wines, wines that are truly hard to come by… and then reflected what a tease it had been.  No. Our tasting would not be a tease… wines had to be available to acquire.

In the two weeks leading up to the tasting John busied himself calling distributors, importers, portfolio reps… cashing in on a few debts owed to him in order to secure exceptional wines.

From across the room I would hear, “Hah!  Man, look what we’ve just landed!”  There would be a fist pump… “Quintarelli Valpo!”  This is the liquid equivalent to scoring Peyton Manning for your fantasy football team.

And that’s the way it went… two White Burgs from the ’05 Vintage, a monster Cali Cab, a gem from the Priorat… little by little the list was taking shape, ’til John had assembled a wine dream team.

Then, on Thursday June 28th, we sat down with 21 eager citizens drawn from the ranks off a list of our best customers.  It would be an evening to cherish.

Our lead wine is usually a sparkling wine of some type… for our regular tastings: Prosecco or Cava; but rarely true Brut Champagne.  The natural inclination for this tasting would have been for a tete du cuvee like Dom Perignon.  But Dom is really no big deal… as much as I personally love it… it’s really commonplace… albeit expensive.  I would have liked a Brut Rose from Billecart-Salmon… a favorite of mine… but our local distributor who has the label can be a bit of a pill… and in order to get any Rose we have to purchase an un-Godly amount of the regular Brut Champagne.

The other aperitif that would be top stuff is a Riesling or Pinot Gris from Zind-Humbrecht.  Unfortunately, the Importer and the Distributor handling Zind is changing and it will be a couple of months before Zind is in play again.  But John did find another Alsatian wine that would do quite well: Albert Boxler Riesling Grand Cru Sommenberg ’01.  This is not your “garden variety” Riesling that you sip pleasurably during a sticky summer day.  This is a wine packed with ripe fruit flavour, silky texture and length.  Deeply hued, fragrant and perfectly dry… attributes that you would least expect from a Riesling.  A glorious wine, still young, with years ahead to enjoy along side of impressive fare… like a Thanksgiving Turkey, an Easter Ham or a well prepared duck.  The winemaker for the Estate is Jean Boxler… 31 years of age, a graduate of the most prestigious “aggie” school of France, the University of Montpelier… the son of Albert, he has quickly achieved praise for turning out wines of great character… more opulent than Trimbach or Jean Meyer; but more restrained than Zind-Humbrecht.

We followed with two Burgundies: Vincent Girardin Meursault ‘Les Narvaux’ ’05 and Vincent Girardin Puligny-Montrachet ‘Champ Gain’ ’05.  After Red Bordeaux, White Burgundy is my favorite wine.  For years I have proposed that White Burgundy is not a white wine… it is great wine that just happens to be white.  The Meursault drew most of the attention and comment.  Hints of hazelnut, smoke & minerality added complexity to the tropical nature of Chardonnay fruit.  Its balance was near perfect.  Someone ventured that this was a wine that you could never tire of… a wine where one bottle would never be enough.  On our evening the Puligny took a back seat… its bouquet more closed, its flavours not as developed.  But this is a Vintage of immense quality, and for those of us who love Burgundy we know that 3 years down the road, the Puligny will shed its awkward stage and bloom to peak perfection.

Organizing the White side of the flight was easy… the Reds would prove more challenging. We knew that any of the Reds could “anchor” a typical tasting.  We began with Spain.  A wine from the Priorat Costers del Siurana Miserere ’01 to be followed by a single vineyard Rioja Valserrano Finca Monteviejo ’03.  I love the wines from Priorat… a tiny area in Spain, close to the Mediterranean.  The region is known for its steep hillsides… vineyards that have to be terraced into its rocky, inhospitable terrain and have to be tended by hand.  A region known for producing wines of great concentration… concentration  derived from old vines… vines that have to struggle for their nutrients.  Originally planted to Rhone varietals, Bordeaux varietals introduced more recently, this wine is an enticing blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Tempranillo, Merlot and Carignan.  Aged for 12 months in French Barriques and bottle unfiltered and unfined the wine is a true gem.  Beautiful depth, still a “baby”… everyone in agreement that it would cellar splendidly.

The Rioja was more typically “Spain”… 95% Tempranillo with a soupcon of Graciano and Grenache.  A wine of sensuous appeal… a sexy blend of ripe dark cherry, cedar and vanilla with a plush feel on palate.  I can’t imagine a better wine for marinated flank steak.  Only 170 cases produced.  Talk about feeling lucky to taste a wine!

Italy was next.  From Veneto Quintarelli Valpolicella ’98, to be followed by Il Poggione Brunello Riserva ’01 from Tuscany.  Look up “wine maven of Veneto” in the encyclopedia and you will find a picture of Giuseppe Quintarelli.  His wines are some of the toughest to get from any region of the world.  It was a joy to taste this wine with folks who regrettably hear “Valpolicella” and think of Bolla Wines.  No. This is not a “commercial” wine.  Rather a wine of tremendous richness that exhibits great elegance and finesse… a balancing act that is only achieved by the world’s greatest winemakers… winemakers like Giuseppe Quintarelli.

The Brunello was extraordinary.  This caused some misgivings.  How could I measure this wine against one of my true loves, another Brunello: Valdicava Madonna ’01?  But here is a wine that Tanzer scored 95 points… he, the toughest grader on planet earth.  Only three other wines of the Vintage scored a point or two higher.  Yes, this was a terrific wine.  But my Madonna?  John told me to get over it. Il Poggione wasn’t “chopped liver”, it was a fabulous wine, sleek and purring like a Jaguar.

We judged the next wine to be our “soft underside”.  Nevertheless, a wine that John said he had to put on the flight, although its origin never appeared on our first work sheet.  It was a wine from Mendoza and it blew John away when he first tried it… Vina Alicia Malbec ’04.  We have been impressed by the quality of wines coming from Argentina.  Particularly at the premium level.  But this wine is yet again another story.  Made from vines with an average age of 95 years, and with only two clusters of grapes per vine… the resulting wine has amazing concentration; but with a European sense of restraint.  This is not a fat fruit monster lacking structural support; rather a wine that combines the best of both Hemispheres.  The wine that John and I thought was our “weak link” turned out to be the best seller of the night.

California stepped to the plate next. From Santa Barbara Dierberg Pinot Noir ‘Steven’ ’04.  I will confess… I do not care for “our” Pinot Noirs.  Red Burgundy is a different matter… some of the finest Reds I have ever tasted are Red Burgundies.  But Dierberg has given me pause for thought.  The Dierbergs are farmers really… they established their grape growing skill in that great wine producing State of Missouri.  When they moved West to follow their dreams, they settled in Santa Barbara County where land was cheaper than Napa or Sonoma.  They quickly established their reputation for knowing how to “tend vine”, and year after year they sold their produce to an appreciative wine market… Wines that received critical acclaim, huge ratings & top dollar.  They got an itch to create wine under their name… and as key contracts on their vineyards came up for renewal, they decided to retain the best for their use… and so a winery was given its birth.  But they knew how to grow grapes… not make wine.  So they enlisted the talents of Paul Hobbs and David Ramey to help make their wine… it was like penciling in Ruth and Gehrig to your batting order.  And folks, this is the best Pinot I have tasted outside of the Cote D’Or…

John loves Cabernets coming from Napa.  In fact, he may love Napa Cab more than he does Pink Floyd… and boy, does he love Pink Floyd.  Who was I to stand in the way of Rudd Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon ’03?  Described as a vin de garde… a wine for the keeping, this wine along with the wine that followed was our most “closed”… a wine that you would have to wait to truly savor.  I loved Parker’s  review: “this opaque purple-colored 2003 offers sweet aromas of scorched earth, tobacco leaf, blackberries and currents.  Layered, beautifully textured, broad elegant, and refreshing, this well structured, superb effort should be consumed between 2008-2020.”  You didn’t have to be a “Cali Lover” to swoon at this wine… we all did.

When John said that we had a Cote Rotie, I smiled.  “Thank you, John”.  It’s easier to get First Growth Bordeaux than it is to get top flight Cote Rotie.  So little is produced.  Allocations are infinitesimal.  Give up your first born and maybe you can taste great Cote Rotie… we had Guigal Chateau D’Ampuis ’01.  Rated by Parker a paltry 95 points, made from the finest parcels of La Garde, La Clos, Grande Plantee, Pomiere, Pavillon Rouge and Le Moulin… this is a wine to be reckoned with.  Not a wine for those who simply enjoy great tasting wine… this is a wine to study.  A wine to be appreciated for its complexity and its earthiness… not just for its fruit.  Even more closed than the wine that preceded it, this was the wine that was the hardest to grasp… but this the wine I sought out to re-examine after the formal proceedings were called to adjournment.  My gosh is it a great wine.

Our final Red was the “problem child” of the Red portion of the flight.  John and I had originally put it much earlier in the order.  After our private pre-tasting of all the wines, we knew that there could be no wine that could follow Jaffurs Upslope Syrah ’04 and emerge from beyond its shadow.  This Santa Barbara wine was too much of a flavour bomb.  Jaffurs produces some of the best Syrah in California… their most prestigious wines hailing from single vineyards at Thompson, Melville and Bien Nacido.  Upslope is the production of the finest six barrels from those vineyards and only 142 cases are produced.  We had tasted this wine one other time… when we hosted a “Cult Cabernet Sauvignon Night”.  The wine had been somewhat of an “after thought”… John’s idea of “let’s shake them up.”  We had to take notice when the wine out performed Caymus Select and other “fancy Dan” Napa Cabs.  No one was disappointed on this night either.

Hard to follow all those huge Reds… hard that is unless it’s Chateau D’Yquem ’95.  I have a saying, “buy the worst Vintage of Chateau D’Yquem that you can find, because there is no such thing as the worst Vintage of Chateau D’Yquem… they don’t know how to make bad wine.”  You see… Vintages that are considered to be of “lesser” quality by the pundits simply cost less… if the wine making team of Yquem feels that the vintage is not up to snuff, wine is not made… the entire crop is declassified and sold off to market.  The integrity of the label is deemed more important than any year’s vintage.  Regrettably, we could not secure any more of the ’94 Vintage… which was a “buy”.  But we were committed to showcasing one of the world’s finest wines (it was after all my only contribution to the flight)… and the ’95 would more than satisfy.

When the dust had settled, and an appreciative group had taken their leave… John would say to me that nothing had given him a greater sense of satisfaction than watching the reaction to Chateau D’Yquem… It is a reaction I have seen before… this was not a sweet wine, not a dessert wine… it is a wine that transcended any description or category.  And it is a wine that never fails to live up to its expectation. 

Well… there we are.  A great, great night.  I can’t resist the temptation to put this to an order… a ranking.  Sorta like judging Best of Show at Westminster… each of the dogs in the Show Ring already a declared Champion in it’s breed… and the final Judge having to decide the best of the best. 

Alright, what the hell: Chateau D’Yquem, Chateau D’Ampuis, Boxler Sommenberg (nosing out the Brunello).  And if someone in the room saw it differently… that’s OK, too.

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Preparing for Absences

The last day of school fell on an early June day in 1960 for Miss Palmer’s 5th Grade Class at Hamden Hall.  The Class members were: John Bassett, Sarah Beebe, Charles Clark, Emily Evans, Stephen Gant, Jean Gaylord, Margaret Gaylord, Gary Hopson, Mary-Austin Humphrey, Elizabeth Learned, John Marra, Francine Matas, Carole McDonnell, Duncan Moffit, Gary Moss, Naomi Plakins, Kathy Talalay, Jane Wang & Jimmy Winston.

The last day of school was the best.  Summer vacation to begin… and to begin without the precursor final exams that take place in the later grades.  Exams that cause anxiety and worry, which in turn adds to a sense of relief to the last day for those higher grades.

But in the 5th Grade there is nothing to deflect the joy in beginning the long vacation… no concern for how your grades affected your academic record and impacted your chances for getting into college, or when you would have to begin a summer job.  No, in the 5th Grade it’s all sunshine, smiles, riding your bike thru the neighborhood, swimming in the Sound, eating watermelon in the backyard and spitting the pits all over the lawn, running under the sprinkler, movies on rainy days.  For someone who was 10 years of age how could it get better?

Hamden Hall was a unique school… a Private Country Day School — Kindergarten thru Twelve.  Sure there were Private Boarding Schools that handled the upper grades, like Hotchkiss in Lakeville.  There were Private Day Schools that handled the lower grades, like Foote School in New Haven… and there were even Private Day Schools that just had the upper grades like Hopkins (a school, by the by, that pre-dates the founding of Yale).  Hamden Hall? We had it all… diapers to diploma.  And Co-Educational, too… in an era of single gender private upper schools.

And like other Private (non-Parochial) Schools, we did not have students from a specific neighborhood… students did not even come from the same city… we were from all over the place.  You expect that at Hotchkiss… “Biff” from Grosse Pointe, the “Lynch Man” from Lake Forest, “Trey” from Sewickley.  But this was 5th Grade at Hamden Hall… and for 10 year olds we were scattered to the winds.

The last day of school you’re incredibly happy.  Hell, you’re a 6th Grader now!  You say good-bye to your classmates… “see you next year!”  In the school world September represents next year… “have a great summer!”

A far different scenario would have taken place at Edgewood School — the Public Elementary School a half mile from my home on Alston Avenue.  The excitement would have been much the same.  “Hurray!  Summer is here!  No school!”  But there would have been no need to say “see ya’ next year” to your classmates because you would see them the next day riding their bikes in the neighborhood.

At Hamden Hall you said “good bye”, and in my case anyway, not knowing what they would be doing in their neighborhoods tomorrow, nor even if they would return in September.

The summer between my 5th and 6th Grade years, the only classmate I saw was Gary Moss.  On weekends we would see each other at the pool of Woodbridge Country Club… swim all day, hit the snack bar, drink iced chocolates, savor hot fudge sundaes… and not think about school.

The ending days of summer were filled with anticipation.  Seeing classmates who you hadn’t seen all summer.  Then, would there be new students?  Who would not be returning?  On day one, you would forward to the return of familiar faces.  Their absence in our day-to-day lives would have only been slightly noticed in July and August… but now a few short days before the new year the air would be tinged with excitement.

One mid-September day in 1960 Mrs. Bear welcomed to her 6th Grade Class: Sarah Beebe, Charles Clark, Walter Damuck, Emily Evans, Stephen Gant, David Gitlitz, Gary Hopson, Mary-Austin Humphrey, Elizabeth Learned, John Marra, Francine Matas, Carole McDonnell, Cynthia Michel, Duncan Moffit, Gary Moss, Naomi Palkins, Kathy Talalay, Jimmy Winston.

Many lessons in life are only learned in after the fact reflection… or better put, fully appreciated.  At an early age, without knowing it, we acquired a sense for absences.  We learned that folks who we see every day as part of lives, are at times absented for a long time (as summer vacation appears to a 10 year old); but then return to our lives.

We learn that the absences can apply apply to family and friends.  But as we grow older these absences are not just July and August; these absences can span years and decades.  And in those intervening years the special nature of the connections retain the memory of shared times and stories never old.

I am lucky… I hear from and see Gary Moss on a fairly regular basis (although there was a large block of time he lived in Europe when we were out of contact)… but this October I hope to see Chuck Clark, Carole McDonnell, Francine Matas and Kathy Talalay among the other graduates at our 40th High School reunion. 

And as for the absence?  Sorta like the summer before entering Ethel Bear’s 6th Grade Class…

It was just a little longer.

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A Small Complaint From Philo Kvetch

Well, here it is… the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year… and I’m pissed!  School is barely out, the summer is just kicking off, the All Star game hasn’t even been played yet and the days are going to begin to shorten.  This stinks!

Perhaps you think I grouse and complain all the time… and I do admit that I let certain things get under my finger nails… like scrambled eggs of improper consistency, or the traffic light at the junction of Route 25 and Route 59… the person who timed that light should be drawn, quartered and roasted on a spit.

But on the whole, I’m an easy going fellow.

However, this pre-mature shortening of the day is a bit un-nerving.  You will be glad to hear that I have been working on a solution.

We already tinker with the nature of the day with Daylight Savings Time.  My idea is just to expand on this formula for “extending our daylight.”

Beginning tonight at midnight we will move our clocks ahead 1 minute.  And we will do this every night for the next 60 days.  1 minute ahead each night.  That way we will diminish the effect of the days being shortened… we will be able to enjoy our later sunsets, more time to cookout or grab an extra swim.

And then when we get to October and move our clocks back to Standard Time, we move our clocks back two hours!!  Two hours to party hardy… and to grab extra winks! Woo hoo!

I know what you’re thinking!  “I get up early in the morning… I like to drive to work and see the rising sun.”  So do I!  A beautiful sunrise is a re-birth.

We could instead move the clocks back 1 minute tonight… and for the next 60 days do the same thing… we can extend our earlier rising sun thru the summer.  And when it comes to October, and all the newspapers put those little graphics on page one with a clock as a reminder to move the clock back, we can say “fuck it!  I don’t have to do anything… let everyone else run around like a nudnik fretting about what to do with an hour!”  And when those talking dummies on the News Shows remind us to move the clocks back, we can say “HAH! I don’t have to pay attention to this crap” and we can turn off the TV and grab a beer.

You can see there are two choices to this shortening of the day dilemma.  We can opt for earlier mornings, or later afternoons… either is preferable to doing nothing.  This is a matter that should be left for each State to decide.  Each State can hold a referendum to decide whether to be a “Sunrise State” or a “Sunset State” and then it will be settled.

Then we’ll make one of those maps that colours the States red and blue the way we did when Bush beat Gore… and everyone will know which State observes Sunrise or Sunset,  See?  Easy.

Remember, it’s not just a matter of complaining.  We have to be responsible for coming up with solutions!

Now that we have that sticky little problem resolved, I can turn my attention to the next project… each State issuing its own currency.  I can see it now — Connecticut can have a $1 with Jim Calhoun on it… and instead of keying the value to gold or the strength of the economy, we can value it to UCONN victories in basketball… Kentucky could value their currency to Bourbon.  You get the idea.

Stay tuned.

Posted in The Ash Creek Bourbon & Conversation Corner | Leave a comment

Mave Fabish Brings Down a Ridged Zelbax

There wasn’t a cloud in the blue sky.  The type of blue that you see on a mid-winter’s morning; but seldom see early in the planting season.  The trees were in flower and the ground had a plush consistency.  It was a day when reading a book in the fresh sunlight would have been an ample reward for a week of tending the vines.

Or so one would think.

But it was hardly a day to be off hunting Zelbax… by yourself.  Which is exactly what Mave Fabish had been off doing.

Actually his full title is Maven Fabish… but to pretty much everyone he is called Mave Fabish, or sometimes “the Mave”.  He made full Maven several seasons back.  First he labored as an Assistant, then made Associate, and then he was finally awarded full Maven at Venderbee’s None-Mal of High Study.  Rare for a Maven to come from outside the Study of Vine and Agriculture.

But Mave Fabish stood alone in his pursuit of Antiquities and the manner in which people hunted for food, waged war or in general used weapons.  In the spring and summer seasons he would leave the supervision of his vineyards to the younger staff  in the Department of None-Mal and he would take himself off beyond Steep Rock to Far Steep Rock and Outpost Village… content to spend every waking moment alone, but occasionally with the help of others from the Department, digging, inspecting and uncovering artifacts from eras that existed before the Time of Troubles.

He would say that the Land of Far Steep Rock was sacred… that it held “within its heart every story that could ever be told.”

His field study was not without its dangers… and I am not talking about the weather, which is windy and cold in the spring and brutally hot in the summer. Nor do I refer to the “Wild Bands”… unlawful types from beyond Far Steep Rock, who make occasional raids on land and livestock and who have been known to kill a citizen or two.

No.  The danger came from a variety of carnivorous beasts that treated Far Steep Rock as their home range.  The most feared predator was the Ridged Zelbax.  The Zelbax traced its origins to the common domestic sheep; but it returned to a feral stage at some point before the Time of Troubles, and it retained the lush wool coat of its herbivore “cousin”; but developed oversized razor sharp canine teeth for ripping flesh and jaws strong enough to snap the thigh of an adult human.  The “ridged” referred to the high stance of its shoulders that supported powerful tendons allowing the Zelbax to reach high bursts of speed to bring down prey.  An adult male could measure six feet at the withers and reach a length of fifteen feet from nose to tail.

One summer season the Mave had uncovered fossil remains that he judged went back before the Time of Troubles of an intact Ridged Zelbax and a collection of human bones.  It was clear from the evidence that Zelbax preyed on nearby early human settlements.  And in this case, this Zelbax had taken down what looked like an entire family!

The Mave told me the day he unearthed those bones he promised himself that he was going to kill a Ridged Zelbax before he died… not for its wool, not for the food; but to avenge what this beast had done to that family.

For those of us who know Mave Fabish, the story I am about to relate is at odds with what we know about the man… his peaceful and studious nature.  A nature that is unchanged… whether he is whisking away dust from a fossil, or trimming his Hoolish vines, or relaxing over a cup of Wren Hoolish, or lecturing on the way the Ancient Germans skirted the Maginot Line and swept thru the Ardennes.  Study war?  Yes, most definitely.  But to kill something?  No, never.

But on the day of which I speak, his thoughts were on killing a Ridged Zelbax to settle a score for the fossil remains he discovered years before.

Fabish told me, “… it was time to settle accounts.”

He went well prepared for the adventure.

“Our ancestors would deploy a team of seven hunters.  Four were armed with a centine, a spear 100 inches in length.  They would stand shoulder to shoulder like a giant ‘fork’.  The other members of the hunting party would be responsible for driving the Zelbax into the deadly phalanx of spears.”

I asked the Mave, “did it work?”

“Sometimes the hunters won.  Sometimes the Zelbax won.”

“Well surely you went with more than a centine!”

He sipped some Hoolish.  Thought for a moment… “No.  Over the years Hector and I made some 50 centines!  Each honed to killing perfection.  I wanted to kill a Zelbax the old way… the way our ancestors did.”

“Who else formed your hunting party.”

“No.  Years ago I decide that it would be me.  Me alone.”

“Did you have a death wish?!”

No.  The Mave truly thought that he could do this with no assitance.  His plan was simply to drive the centines into the ground, clustered in the classic “attack four” presentation, spread the blood of a pouflon in the area as bait, then upon sighting a Zelbax to run scared and lure the wooly monster into any of a possible dozen “nested” traps.

“Great idea Fabish!  You must have been drunk to come up with that plan!”

“Yes.  I probably was.  I had barely positioned the first four centines when a damned Zelbax was in on me!  The only thing that stood between that mean son-of-a-bitch and me was a bottle of Hoolish and a sandwich!”

“He went for the sandwich?”

“I wish!  And he didn’t go for the Hoolish either!  He exposed his scary fangs, snarled once, then again… and without delay took a running leap directly into the centines!”

“Are you telling me… are you telling me that the Zelbax… the Zelbax committed suicide?!”

“Yes.”

I sipped my wine and thought about this for a few minutes content for the break in the narrative.  “Well… maybe the beast had a stressful childhood?”

Then the Mave looked this way and that.  Sure that no one was in ear shot, “Look Santie, don’t spill the beans.  I’ve been telling folks at None-Mal that I brought down a Zelbax by myself.  And… you know, some of the ladies are hugely impressed!”

I guess this squared with what we knew about Fabish… a good soul who studied diligently the implements and manner of bringing death to man and animal… yet who couldn’t kill a fly… even if he was starving.

I poured each of us some Hoolish, “Mave Fabish… your secret is safe with me.”

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Rachel’s Day

Rachel announced that this was her favorite holiday!  It being so close to Memorial Day… I figured it was that holiday to which she referred…

But no, she had another day in mind.  “Come on”, she prodded me… “you know… that Jewish Holiday…”

Armed with that hint I was able to dredge up from memory the holiday of Shavuot (as a kid growing up it was called Shavuos… the variant spelling owing to the difference in Ashkenazic — Germany & Eastern Europe — pronounciation and the Sephardic — Spain, the Levant & now Israel itself).  Regardless of pronounciation and spelling… this Holiday is not “front page stuff”, like say Rosh Hashonah, Yom Kippur & Passover.  Dollars to donuts a sizeable majority of American Jews know little of nothing of this Holiday beyond it’s name.

You can mark Rachel’s Day on your calendar: May 24th… or more to the point: the Sixth Day of Sivan.  The day is calculated by measuring seven weeks from the second day of Passover… and the next day is Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks).  Passover marks the liberation of the Hebrew slaves from Pharoah’s yoke and Shavuot marks the Nation of Israel accepting the Torah and committing itself to serving God. 

You wonder about the intervening 49 days.  What was that about?  I figure they should have signed on right after crossing the Red Sea.  “Thank God we’re out of here!”  Something held them back… maybe they were concerned about getting stuck with a whole bunch of rules that made living difficult… things like no bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches… and you can’t turn on lights during the sabbath, and you have to memorize a bunch of stuff for your Bar Mitzvah, and the services are far too long… and then real technical things that scholars study, argue and debate about (for thousands of years, I might add) without resolution.  Yes, I can see that it would have given one pause for thought.

I think the instigator for the delay was Dathan, the Hebrew overseer for the Pharoah.  Portrayed by Edward G. Robinson in the film Ten Commandments, he was my favorite character… a poor weasel of a man who would sell his soul for a talent of gold: “I am here, girl, because I would put no fear in a desert god and his mud-pit prophet. I am here because I bowed lower than my brothers before the Egyptians. Now the Egyptians bow low before me. Joshua wanted you. Baka wanted you. But you belong to me, a gift from Rameses.”

Dathan, even if he was ficticious, could stir things up… I can see it… “Do you really want to give up lobster??  Do you really want to fast on Yom Kippur?”  Yes… I think it would take me 49 days to think about it.  Maybe we should have thought about it a little longer… like maybe 4000 years, or at least until Sandy Koufax could have pitched in the World Series.  Well… what’s done is done, and we have Shavuot every 6th of Sivan. 

I don’t ever recall “celebrating” Shavuot when I was growing up… I think it was mentioned once or twice in Sunday School.  The other Jewish Holdiays are more understandable to me.  Feast of Weeks?  “Feast”?  Well… we commemorate the day with an all-night Torah study session.  In Synagogue we read the Book of Ruth.  We eat dairy foods (a good blintz every now and then is a good thing).  We decorate homes and synagogues with greenery.  I don’t know if all this constitutes a “Feast”.  Personally… the “all-night Torah sudy session” would be a deal killer for me.  I didn’t even do that for Erik Hansen’s 20th Century European History Final at Union. 

I can live with blintzes. 

Still, it’s mighty impressive that our Miss Rachel has adoped this day as the highlight of the year.  Impressive, in part, because Rachel was raised as a Catholic.  But it gets a little complicated here… Rachel’s Dad is Jewish… Rachel’s Mom is Catholic.  So I am told… when Rachel was 5 a plate of Manicotti and a plate of Gefilte Fish were put before her and she was asked to choose.  I can understand her choice. 

Yet… here it was… the 6th of Sivan… and she felt the primordal tug.  A tug that goes back 4000 years when Dathan asked, “Do you really want to give up cheeseburgers?”

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The Menace, Part 2

The border between the United States and Canada is commonly referred to as the world’s longest undefended border.  The border between the United states and Mexico is a third as long and is not only regularly patrolled; but there are plans afoot to build a fence to eliminate (maybe reduce is a better word) illegal immigration.

Some would consider the flood of illegal immigrants as a menace to our country… and a drain on our resources.  On this I would agree.  But rather than look south, I think we should turn 180 degrees and direct our attention to the north… to Canada.

Our concern should not be Mexican farmers who can add to the work force and contribute to our society, rather it should be to the most hideous of creatures: the Canada Goose.

You leave the border undefended and look what happens.  You get invaded by… well, by… things that treat every piece of land as their toilet.

There are those that think that Canada Geese are charming.  They look beautiful and stately.  They’re cooperative… look at whole bunch of them as they are working their way thru the lawn… eating to their heart’s content; but one goose remains on guard, head errect, surveying the scene… looking this way and that while his buddies dine… then after a brief time on “duty”, the sentinel dips his/her head to grab a meal and another raises its head to assume guard duty responsibility.  See what I mean? Co-operation.

Terrific.  Pretty birds.  But they crap everywhere.  Not just on our windshields like other birds.  No.  But where we walk.  On our beaches, on our golf courses… on our property!  And to make matters worse, their nicely formed turds are a shade of green that blend them to the shade of your grass… so that you may not realize on a beautiful summer’s day that you have just walked into the “outhouse” ‘til you feel the turd squishing up between your toes!

Or, you take a gander at your ball placement… a mere 20 feet from the pin on the 2nd  green; but nestled next to a nefarious deep olive green turd left by some Canada Goose who thought that the sand trap was its litter box.

Menace!  That’s what they are.  Subverting our way of life.

What to do?  Well, I think a good place to start is to follow the lead of the Greenwich Town Committee on Health, Beauty & the Environment. They have generated a series of creative responses to the Canadian Geese Menace.

The Hot Foot  Geese thrive in cool, damp environments.  Using an underground wire grid installed by the “Geese Be-Gone Co.” that converts your lawn into a “hot plate” when a surge of heat is transmitted with a flick of a switch raising the ground tempeture to an uncomfortable 185 degrees within 45 seconds… Also good for keeping pesky teenagers off your land.

Shame, Shame, Shame From the Disney Technologies a lifesized animotronic of a grandmother, hair pulled back into a tight bun,  in a rocking chair with a Sharps Buffalo rifle across her lap and repeats in a craggy voice, “You should be ashamed of yourself!!” “Now gawan git!” “I ain’t kidding! Take that bathroom behavior elsewhere before I put a bullet up your fanny!”  There is also a grandfather version, unshaven with a jug of moonshine on his lap and a Portuguese Water Spaniel wagging its tail at his feet, “By God if you take a shit within hunnert yard of me I’ll chase you down and crush your head with this here jug!”  During winter months you can bring grandfather or grandmother in the home, add them to your dinning room.  Great for keeping order during dinner.

Take a Hint From Martha Stewart Enterprises a five eighths scale of a Christmas Celebration table.  Includes a table for twelve, twelve chairs, complete setting for table service and matching stemware impecably set on fine Irish linen.  Platters of side dishes, vegetables, potatoes, Parker House rolls, condiments and an larger empty platter at the head of the table with a card in plain sight: “This could be for you!”  Place this highly detailed mock up on your lawn with the accompanying decorated Christmas Tree, and no goose would dare set foot on your lawn!

Concern for God’s Creatures A program for diapering geese has been used for years in Carmel, CA.  Mothers of the Earth has developed a lightweight absorbant diaper that fits comfortably on most geese.  Sturdy, yet light enough so that wearing the diaper will not hinder flight (unless the bird is suffering from diarhea), Meg Tobachnik has been using them for near a decade.  She reports, “they train quite well.  In the morning after their swim in the pond they walk up to my porch… I slip them on, and they are off an scampering about in no time.  When they’re done eating I wait for an hour, and they go an change them.  And then I change them again just before the sun goes down.”

Bonjour! The Beaupre Language Institute specializes in French and near-French… “good enough to fool your friends and neighbors.”  The idea is to speak enough French to trick the Canadian Geese into thinking that they are still in Canada and have to travel further to the South.

Yes!  I think we are equipped to handle the menace!

Posted in The Ash Creek Bourbon & Conversation Corner | Leave a comment

The Day Ivory Snow Was Late to the Wine Tasting

Our ancestors would say that the “time before time, vines covered the land for as far as the eye could see.  From The Great Sea to The Far Great Sea“.  And then came the Time of Troubles…we can leave that story for another day.

It’s good to be passed the darker time and to see a patchwork quilt of vineyards returning to Venderbee.

Forgive me.  I should have introduced myself.  My name is Santie Mayfare, and I live in a small place near the Feathered Lagoon.  I make tierboxes and my cottage is home to both me and my craft.  I also have a small parcel of land planted to Finomencia… a noble red varietal that produces wine that is abundant in flavour and rich in texture… perfect to enjoy with a tasty roasted pouflon.

I should point out that just about everyone in Venderbee has at least a small vineyard that is growing this or that.  We even have one great landowner, Gweeto of Venderbee, whose vineyards stretch from Gafter Zee to Steep Rock.  Besides being our biggest landowner, Gweeto is also the Chief Magistrate and High Official of the Harvest Celebration.  And as it turns out… today I happen to be putting the final touches to Gweeto’s personal tierbox that he will use for reviewing the Harvest Parade.

Gweeto’s tierbox is by far the most important commission of my year.  Satisfying Gweeto is not hard.  But pleasing the present “love-of-his-life”, the Ivory Snow… well, that’s a different matter.  And if I appear anxious to you, it’s because I am presently expecting a visit from Ivory to check on my progress.

Ivory Snow and I go back some… oh, not the way you think.  We all grew up together… and when we were younger, my cousins Barl Whighorn and Larb Hornwig took a powerful shine to her… and they would get into bloody fights to win her attention and affection.  I’ll be honest… I never knew whether she favoured Barl or Larb.  Not that it mattered in the end.

Barl certainly has done very well with Golden Trane.  Larb?  Well… he tends his vines.  No one makes better Grey Zabia.  And his Wren Hoolish took the prize at the Harvest Grandee.  Still I suspect that a day doesn’t go by when Larb is not aware of his hurt or of the vacancy in his life.

Just the way it is… I guess.

Other folks would say that Gweeto was mighty lucky to have someone as special as Ivory Snow to spend his years with.  And maybe that’s so.  But I think it’s Snow who’s lucky!

It was a sad day when Lady Wisteria was brought down in a savage attack by a Ridged Zelbax… or that’s what was said.  It happened on her travels beyond Steep Rock, to the land of Far Steep Rock.  Gweeto would never forgive himself for approving the expedition.

In her absence there followed many seasons when he could no longer tend his precious vineyards.  There were those who feared for the well being of Venderbee.

Maybe that’s why so many folks breathed a sigh of relief when Ivory entered into Gweeto’s life.

Me?  I kept my distance.  And so did Barl… and Larb, too!  We all knew that there was charm… and then there was dangerous charm.  Our Miss Ivory Snow packed plenty of the latter.

***

“May I enter?” she asked.

“Ivory… you’re always welcome to my cottage.  Can I offer you a small cup of my Finomencia?”

“Why yes Santie… you make an extraordinary Finomencia… full of depth, richness and lasting flavour.  It chills me to think of its soft caress… its silk like feel.  Very sensuous.  Can I see Gweeto’s tierbox?

I pour a small amount into a cup… which she consumes in a single down-the shaft.

“Let me pour you another portion…”

“You are so kind.  You have always been kind.  Ah, yes… slightly chilled the way I prefer it.  The box?

“Oh yes… but it’s not finished yet.  Small touches I assure you… crown molding no quite there… a touch of paint here, a rough edge there… you know.”

“I understand.  Now… which box is it?  I hope it’s not the hideous one over there.”

“Hideous?  Well, no… that one is for Mave Fabish.  It’s an older design, I grant you… But Ivory… let me pour you a small taste of Larb’s Wren Hoolish… he only makes a small amount and I have to beg for every drop.”

“His Wren?  Yes, that would be nice.  Now Santie… the box?

I know what you’re thinking.  This is just one more episode of my insecurity showing itself… and rather than confronting Ivory Snow head on… I prefer to “duck and dive.”  And perhaps get Snow a bit tipsy.

OK.  Big deal.  So I am trying to distract her… but it’s with some of the finest wines in our parts… not some dumb Telmein or Brauver (heaven forbid)! 

And I know Ivory Snow and you don’t.

“I saw the tierbox you made for Gweeto a few seasons ago.  I used it for kindling last winter.  There was no style… but it burned well.”

“No style?  Hold it there, Ivory.  I chose those columns from Hadrian’s Temple… they haven’t been used in 10,000 years!  That was a unique treatment in a tierbox, no one else has even attempted to replicate it.  Here… let me pour you some lighter Hoolish… it’s not as robust has Wren; but it has exquisite charm and balance… like you.

“You are so kind.  It is tasty.  Santie… I hope you intend on using a different stain this year.  Now point me to Gweeto’s box, I must see it…”

“Yes, yes… I know.  But surely you will want to have a careful study.  And look… the sun will soon set and Gweeto will expect the both of us to be at the pre-tasting of the Celebration wines.  And surely we don’t want to disappoint him…”

“True. But please… dear, dear Santie, tell me that the box in the corner is not Gweeto’s.  Because if that ugly thing is to be his, then I think we have a problem.  And tasting or no… I will have to suggest to Gweeto that he give the commission to a different carver.”

“Ivory… I’m sure anything can be corrected to your approval… I look forward to your careful impression and impeccable taste.  And while we consider improvements and corrections… let me serve you some of my most treasured vintage of Finomencia.”

“So kind of you Santie… but do you have any more of that breathtaking Wren Hoolish?  And how is your cousin these days?”

“I will open a new bottle just for you, Ivory.  Larb?  Well… I should think he is well.  And I am sure that your image beats a path in his mind every day.”

This is true.  I’m not making it up.  And it’s easy to see how anyone… Gweeto, Larb, Barl… and even Mave Fabish would be taken in by Ivory Snow’s beauty and charm.

Of course, the fact that she is mentioning the possibility of me losing my commission… I don’t find that charming.  It doesn’t take much to put me on edge… being the nervous fellow that I am. 

I glance at the window to the setting sun.  Gweeto would be starting the tasting soon, and I couldn’t risk being late.  I prayed that the second Wren that I had opened on the sideboard would begin to work its narcotic effect.

***

When I knocked on Gweeto’s door and entered, I saw everyone at the tasting table.  Larb, Sanje Lem, Lahka Feis… even Mave Fabish.

Gweeto greeted me, “My good Santie we’ve been waiting for you!!  I see you brought your Finomencia!  Splendid!!”  Then he paused, “But where is Ivory Snow?”

“Gweeto, I think she maybe late for the tasting…”

Ivory’s absence was noted; but we proceeded with the matter at hand and tasted thru the wines… and my… the wines were all marvelous… and all were agreed that we had the finest selection ever assembled for the Harvest Grandee. 

***

I will admit that a melancholy has returned once again to Venderbee as it did when the equally charming Lady Wisteria was lost in the supposed Ridged Zelbax attack. 

And sometime later, on an evening when Larb and Mave Fabish came over to share in a cup or two of Finomencia, Mave commented, “You are a true artisan Santie, maybe the best in all of Venderbee… I can remember the time, just before Wisteria’s untimely passing, when she had advised Gweeto to appoint Lahka Feis Master Carver…  And now, another time of sadness for Gweeto — Ivory Snow, gone.  What a coincidence…”

“Yes Mave… that is quite a coincidence.  Can I pour you some more of my Finomencia?  I think it’s my finest vintage…” 

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The Bombshell and the Hassid

It has been a stretch between jokes.  I hold members of the humor patrol responsible for this shortcoming.  Perhaps we should be thankful… maybe the “recycled joke movement” has crested and we can have some fresh material to chortle over.  Which brings me to the little gem noted below… talk about recycled!  This one has to be about 70 years old if it’s a day!  But, what can I say?  It’s a slow day…

A Hassidic man from Williamsburg finds himself sitting next to this young and extremely attractive woman on the subway.  The poor man stares out the window, uncomfortable with his proximity to this woman who is clearly a “bombshell”.  She is also feeling some discomfort… but for different reasons.

“Excuse me, Sir… for being so forward.  But I have to admit that I find you men so fascinating and so incredibly sexy.  Every night I go to sleep fantasizing being with you.  All I can think about is taking off your black hat, slowly taking off your long black frock coat, removing your prayer shawl with the fringe… taking the fringe and softly tickling your brow… then rubbing your forehead and gently twirling your gorgeous sidelocks and stroking your beard… and massaging your back, your tummy and every part of your body.  I find you such an incredible turn on. I can barely contain myself.  Is there a place where we can go?”

“That’s fine.  But what’s in it for me?”

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It’s in the Texture…

“First look at the colour.  The outer rim, slightly raised should be a golden tan.  Then as we move to the center it fades to a soft uniform cream or ecru tone…”

It felt like we were in an operating theatre… and the learned Professor was instructing a young student in the basics.

“Look at the top surface.  Perfectly even.  Undisturbed by a single imperfection.  Study it.  Its secrets lie below…”

I met Abel when I was just a kid.  He was a friend of my parents’ and he and his wife Merle were occasional weekend guests.  Even to a kid it was easy to see that Abel didn’t talk. He expounded.  But it wasn’t in a bumptious or braggy way.  The key was his voice.  Rich, low and slightly scratchy… a tell tale of years of cigarettes and good whisky.  You wanted to listen to that voice.  Somewhat patrician; but at the same time endearing and enveloping.

I think I was all of 12 when he elaborated at length on the attributes of Single Malt Scotch Whisky.  I listened mesmerized.  Booze meant nothing to me (then); but he made it sound as if every other beverage was completely unnecessary.

“Now a slow pivot.  Let’s look at the exposed cut.  It’s important.  This will be the first confirmation of the texture.  Be alert.  A pure smoothness here is a fault.  We want to see tiny nooks and crannies in what appears a smooth surface to a less discerning eye.  It’s the nooks and crannies that are the repositories of flavour & it is an indication of the rich texture we seek.”

I must have been 18 or 19 at this time, and this was not the first time I was going to eat a piece of cheesecake.  But it was the first time when I had its qualities fully explained.  You know… I liked cheesecake before Abel broke it down for me.  He just took me to a different level of appreciation.

“You need a good fork. Silver, of course.  Long tines.  Thank God your Mother has good silverware.”

He inspected the fork with the same respect that a Samurai shows a sword.  He felt the fork’s heft, its balance and then brought his plate closer and had me do the same.  It was mid-afternoon and we were the only ones sitting in our breakfast room.  Mommie Soph had put a slice before each of us, and then retired to attend to other matters.

“Using the side of your fork cut directly down a half inch off the apex of the slice… don’t hurry here… look for a firmness & a small amount of resistance.  That is our second indication of its texture.  If the fork cuts thru too quickly it will mean a softer consistency and the texture will be lacking.”

I ask my first impertinent question, “Should we be having this with a glass of milk or something?”

He paused from his procedure and looked at me thru his tinted glasses that he always wore, day or night… “I was going to address that later; but since you ask.  Tea.  A cup of tea would be fine.”

He continued.  “You see these tiny crumbs that my cut has produced?  This is the third indication that we have good texture.  And now comes the best part…”

He carefully placed a forkful of cheesecake into his mouth and slowly chewed, pausing to focus his senses… he was on the verge of saying something; but raised a finger… a sign that I would have to wait a moment longer while he considered the results of the tasting.  He nodded his head.  What I took to be an endorsement of the quality.

He smiled.

“Yes.  I would say that was good.  Very, very good.  As I expected, the texture is near perfect.  Rich, moist with a modest dryness that causes it to cling lightly to the roof of the mouth… but without the sensation that a finger is needed to scrape off a remaining morsel the way you would with peanut butter.  Perfect density.  Not so dense as to feel like a piece of fudge, but properly rich with hidden molecules of air that resonate the flavour.”

Having evaluated the texture, he cut himself another piece, somewhat bigger than the first… “now it’s time to examine the taste…

This was chewed even more slowly… I couldn’t tell if his eyes were closed behind his tinted lenses; but I suspected that they were.  I instinctively knew that when it comes to taste; vision acts as an anchor… it stops the movement of our senses.

“Oh my… cheesy, vanilla, a hint of lemon peel.  Classically done.  Simple. Delicious.  I would say that your Mother has picked this up at Juniors, maybe Lindy’s or The Eclair in Grand Central.”

He has another forkful.  “Eclair… definitely it’s Eclair’s cheesecake.”

Pretty impressive.  I am thinking that he had to see the box from The Eclair sitting on the kitchen counter. 18 year olds are always suspicious… it’s our nature.

I ask impertinent question number 2.  “I bet this would be great with strawberries.  Mr. Greenburg, do you like strawberry cheesecake?”

He put his fork down.  You would have thought that I had asked him if cheesecake would be good topped with chicken gizzards.  He took off his glasses, breathed a layer of fog on each lense, took out his handkerchief and polished his lenses.  Satisfied that they were clean.  He took another small portion of cheesecake.

“That would be gilding a lilly.”  He savoured a mouthful.  “Jimmy, that would be a distraction from the essence of the cheescake… it obscures both the flavour and the texture. It would be like putting a hat on the Mona Lisa.

Well… I’m not sure what that had to do with eating cheesecake.  But even I could see that if Da Vinci had wanted Mona Lisa to be wearing a hat, he would have painted her wearing one.

Try as I might, there was no way that I was going to eat my slice of cheesecake with the patient care that Abel employed.  After giving thought to the very intitial taste and examination… I scarfed down the rest, hopeful that if I ate it quickly I would have time and room for an additional slice before “class let out”.  When you’re 18 or 19 you can do these things.

I was set to ask him another impertinent question.  He must of sensed it coming… or he was a mind reader. 

“You’re still thinking about other styles of cheesecake?  Well… let’s make this easy.  This is the ‘Real McCoy’.  Everything else is a ‘pretender’.  This is New York Cheesecake… and its single most important ingredient is Philadelphia brand cream cheese.  Italian Cheesecake is also quite good… it uses riocotta cheese which gives it a ‘drier’ finish and texture.  And I’ve had some excellent Italian Cheesecake.  But it’s just not the same.  New York Cheesecake, plain and unadorned reigns supreme.”

He cleans the crumbs from his plate collecting them in the tines of the fork and presses them together before dispatching them in a quick bite.

“My, that was good.  Jimmy, it’s all about the texture…”

It was a lucky day.  I was able to enjoy a second slice before we left the table.  And also a third for a pre-bedtime snack.  And I learned the hidden secret of Cheesecake… it’s in the texture…

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A Handsome Day

He reached for the snooze button.  He knew it was there.  Somewhere.  And it wasn’t like it was a different alarm clock… or that he was unfamiliar with its location on the night stand, or its shape, or its button configuration.  But this scene would be repeated every morning he went to work… maybe every morning for the rest of his life.

The alarm would go off.  “Clarion’s call”, he would say… or he would say that the sound reminded him of artillery shells whizzing over the trenchworks outside of Verdun (not that he ever heard that… but he would never let that bother him when describing something).

His instinct was to immediately silence the disruption to his meager sleep.  In haste to hit the snnoze button he would knock over, in the following order… his glasses, his cell phone, a back issue of the Rolling Stone and a fist full of tangerine peel…

You could count on this every time.  But sometimes a banana peel and not a tangerine peel.

If he located the snooze button in somewhat of a timely way, he would actually collapse back to sleep, or try to anyway.  He told me that one time he was able to accurately hit the snooze button five times… logging an extra 25 winks.  But, as it concerned the snooze button, he always placed the “over and under” at one.

Confronted with the unhappy conclusion that he would have to get out of bed he would either pick up his glasses, cell, magazine & peel off the floor… or proceed straight to the shower.

On this morning it was the shower.

The shower was his sanctuary, his sanctum sanctorum.  At various times he had lived in places that had showers where the water came out with the force of a watering can.  He would tell me, “I am convinced that low water pressure is responsible for 75% of the bad attitude on planet Earth.”

Before moving to a new nest he would go straight to the bathroom and inspect the shower.  A weak shower would be a “deal killer.”

And he needs hot water… plenty of hot water.  As he would say, “hot enough to turn my skin tomato red and plenty of steam to make it easier to shave.”

We got to talking about this one day, “I guess it happened after the divorce.  I prefer not to look at myself in the mirror for longer than 10 seconds.  10 seconds is what I reckon it takes me to brush my hair.  Shaving takes too long.  I prefer to take my time… savouring the heat, the steam, the steady pulse of water… then feeling my way thru the shave… finding the rough spots and attending to them.”

“Sure,” I say, “I’ve seen you in the morning and sometimes it looks like Sweeney Todd had a go at your face.”

But more than once he would tell me, the blood not withstanding, that shaving in the shower was a religious experience.

And on this morning he remained in the shower 15 minutes… letting the steaming “rain” beat on his back for three or four minutes, then he would slowly turn into face the water… eyes closed, head lowered… then turn to his back again before reaching for his razor.

After the shower, next on the agenda was his fluffy towel.  He would wrap himself up in his towel as if wearing a cape and remain motionless… he told me he preferred to let the cotton fibers do the work of drying without further encouragement.

One time we caught a day game at Yankee Stadium.  And in between innings he said to me, “a bath towel has to be big, real BIG… and fluffy, or what’s the point!”  I looked at the scoreboard to see if there was anything telling that would have been the inspiration for this revelation.  No.  But that’s the way he was.  He probably thought about that damned towel all day.

His shower, now history, his fluffy towel hung up to dry, he would step purposefully to the armoire to select an appropriate shirt for the day.  He no longer bothered with the fine points of attire as he once did.  At one time he would have had joy in selecting a glen plaid suit, a contrast collar and cuff shirt, a regimental striped tie and silk foulard pocket square.  But now he focused the same interest and care in choosing a T-shirt.

Today he put on his favorite… his “Grumpy” shirt.  He purchased it on his last visit to Disneyland.  The Dude with the mood… short fused since 1937.  Every time he put on that shirt it would make him smile… he would repeat the shirt’s slogan, “Dude with the mood…” and then he would punctuate the thought with a chuckle.

On work days, the next step was a predictable as the sunrise.  He would stop in at the Italian Corner Deli for his usual: a sesame bagel, cream cheese & a slice of tomato and a medium dark roast — black.  Sometimes he would vary it… a bacon, egg & cheese on a toasted sesamePepper jack cheese.  He would share a few good words with Scotty and Tom… and then it would be time to put his “game face on.”

He steps outside, and without fail glances at the sky.  Today it’s blue and he smiles… his smile is both inward and outward.

Within minutes he is at his desk… the sun now streaming thru his window.  He smiles one more time.  He cranks up his PC, puts on his music, checks his emails and then sends me a brief note, “It’s a handsome day today…”

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Too Good to be True!

Oh, I just had to share this with you!  Just off the wire.  Unreal!

Borscht Cows Return

(PEREYASLAV, UKRAINE) Twenty miles southeast of this historic City on the Dneiper River is the dairy farm of Volter Tsap.  His Grandfather Dimitri had been the head of the People’s Dairy Co-Operative of Kiev Oblast when the Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union, and now his grandson has spearheaded the return to small farming that existed for hundreds of years in this part of the Ukraine.

Tsap has focused his farm’s activity, The Dobrii Djen Farm, to the production of natural borscht.  Taking a page from traditional farmers, Tsap feeds his cows a diet of fresh beets.  Hundreds of years ago it was discovered that cows that were fed a diet of beets would regurgitate their cud in a liquid form that became the staple of a local soup… beet borscht. 

As Tsap explains it, the beets are ingested and in one of the cow’s stomach chambers, the rumen-reticulum, it is separated into layers of solid and liquid material and returned to the mouth for further breakdown.  It is at this time that the liquid is “harvested” from the cow and stored in wooden containers in cool sub-terranean rooms where it is stabilized and aged for six months before it is bottled for commercial distribution as beet borscht. It had been a method that farmers had used for generations, “My Grandfather’s Grandfather made it this way,” said Tsap.

Currently Tsap has 200 head of cattle used only for borscht production or as breed stock. Another 100 head of cattle are used for other dairy purposes, and the farm also has 20 hectares planted to beets.  He points proudly to one of the outbuildings as the location where the Treaty of Pereyaslav was signed in 1654 bringing a peace between the Cossack Hetmanate and Poland.

Today production of natural beet borscht from the Dobrii Djen Farm has the finest restaurants and specialty stores knocking on the door to acquire Tsap’s unique product.

When asked about the wider success of his effort, Tsap responded, “it’s the land, it’s the cow, it’s the soup.”

Associated Press–

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Blue Books

I have this re-occurring dream.  While not a full fledged nightmare, it’s something upsetting, and on more than one occasion it has brought me out of my sleep.  Although the specifics are never the same, the dreams always involve feeling unprepared for some type of academic test or class presentation.

The anxiety I feel is nearly unbearable.  Invariably I am of my present age; but some how find myself back at Union College (or some place at university level) or sometimes back at Hamden Hall (or some other secondary school), confronted with a room full of students who probably knew why they were there, even if I didn’t know why I was there. 

Also in common in these dreams, is my sense that I could bluff, or luck my way thru whatever the assignment or test involved… even though I knew that I was woefully lacking in preparation.

There are certain twists to these “school boy” excursions… like forgetting my mail box combination at Union, or not remembering football plays at Hamden Hall.  I can assure you that these latter failings were not a problem at the time… although of being unprepared for academic assignments… I can say it happened.  All too frequently.

Maybe these quasi-nightmares are a payback?  That’s it.

I am paying my debt back for drawing a bowling pin on my exam for Mr. Osborn’s Geometry final.  What did that have to do with Geometry?  Absolutely nothing!  Still I got a solid “B” for the course (actually I think it was an “A”; but pride won’t allow me to admit to that).

As bad as these dis-jointed visitations to my past are, the actual memories are just as bad… maybe more so.  Particularly at Hamden Hall.

Major exams were twice a year.  January and June.  Canvas covered Taylor Gymnasium’s floor, where the whole of the Upper School took its exams, desks were placed far enough apart to make cheating from your neighbor impossible without the use of hand signals.  There was a sense of drama… unusual quiet for that many students… several teachers monitoring their classes… several classes taking their exams at the same time.

I hated it.

Our work was done in those ubiquitous “blue books.”  I hated those blue books… so innocent on the outside, so barren on the inside… so devoid of any character or sense of imagination.  The bowling pin I drew for Mr. Osborn may have been the best thing that was put in a blue book.

But nothing at Hamden Hall would prepare me for the worst blue book experience of my life.  It happened at Union… Erik Hansen’s 20th Century European History class (which he began with the Franco-Prussian War in 1870).  Our Final Exam (1/3 of the course grade) was one question: “Trace Movements of the Left or Right in Europe in the Twentieth Century.”  We were given unlimited time on the exam… and unlimited number of blue books.  My two papers for the course were “A” and “B”; but I caught a “hook” for the Final.

It was one of three times that I can remember ever complaining about a grade.  Once with Miss Stewart in 11th Grade English, once with Arnie Bittelman (the converted butcher) in Graphics Art my Sophomore year at Union… and with Erik Hansen.

To me there was a serious injustice.  “Professor Hansen, we have just spent the Semester on this topic… I have read nearly 5,000 pages of subject material written by some of the best historians of our time {not to mention what I read for my papers}… how could I possibly cover it in an exam, regardless of the time you allowed or the number of blue books you provided?”

To which he replied, “James, the test was in your ability to take the material and distill it into its essence.”

Q.E.D.  Maybe that’s why I am haunted by these damn dreams?  I am not particularly good at “distilling.”  I enjoy too much the leisurely stroll thru the woods… happy to be distracted by… by?  By nearly anything.  And in word written, or spoken, I am prone to ramble.

I don’t think I will ever be good at blue book stuff.  I just wish the hell my mind wouldn’t keep bringing it to my attention all the time… I am declaring my dreams off limits for blue book issues (let’s see if that works).

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Bert and Ernie

By and large I keep to myself when I go to the gym.  Although I no longer have the running regimen I once had, I still put myself on the treadmill in solitary activity… oblivious to those around me.

My post work-out sauna is the one time when I will engage in brief conversation with fellow regulars.  But in truth, even there I would prefer to sweat in solitude.

One of my favorite regulars is Joe Debone.  He’s retired, drives a pick-up, has a big Harley for weekend cruising, is an avid hunter… and his hobby of many years is taxidermy.  According to Steve, another regular, who has visited his digs in Norwalk… his home is a combination of the Museum of Natural History and the hunting lodge of Sven of the Fjords.  He stuffs and mounts for other folks, too (his wait list is 6 months long); but everything on display in his “trophy room” he has bagged.  I have not asked if that includes road kill on the Merritt Parkway.

I guess you could call Joe a “sportsman”.  I guess that goes hand-in-hand with being an outdoors man… motorcycles and all… hunting… and maybe a bit of fly fishing and camping, too.

My family is no stranger to the outdoor life.  I can recall one of my tee shots at Race Brook’s par three second hole coming perilously to the swan peacefully swimming in the pond fronting the green.   Or joining  my Dad on the patio of the Bagshot House in Barbados… our mission was to acquire a healthy tan.

I could also mention sitting on the 50 yard line for the Yale-Princeton Game in a chilling rain… but that seems a stretch.

Sure… sneer if you will.  But our family did possess a true sportsman.  Or should I say sportsperson?

I don’t think that my Mother would be fussy about the label.  She needed no outside acknowledgement of her quest to rid Long Island Sound of its weak fish population, nor confirmation for what that quest represented.  I’ll be honest… I think she was looking for a diversion as she pursued her true passion… acquiring a healthy tan.  That, and schmoozing with her fishing partner, Bunty Cohen.

Still, there was the day when I stood at the shore of Erich’s Day Camp in Branford and saw my Mother and Bunty in Bunty’s “fishing yacht” (a ten foot row boat with a kick motor) hoisting their recent catch for me to see of some two dozen weak fish between them. I guess my Mother knew how to fish.

It was some years after, Mom got her own yacht and still took it down the Mamauguin River to where it empties into the Sound… and she still sought to reduce the amount of fish in that body of water.  Speak to Joe Dubone, or my Mother for that matter… and there is this strange respect for that which they hunt.  And maybe for the finest specimens there is a need to honor their nature by preserving them.

And what compelled Joe to fill his home with the former lives of animal, birds and fish that he had “experienced”, moved my Mother to do the same.  Two of her weak fish she took to the staff of Yale’s Peabody Museum to be mounted (she didn’t know of Joe Dubone at the time, and neither did I).

The mounted fish were put on display in the breakfast room of my family’s house on Alston Avenue.  There was nothing else in that home that would give even the slightest indication of the outdoor tradition of our family.  So… to an outsider it might seem out of place.  But that’s OK… to an insider it was out of place, too.

And I think of it today… and say, “Mom, you did a helluva job.”

I wonder if she named those two fish?  The breakfast room (the “trophy” room) is where she and Mommie Soph would light the Sabbath candles.  A simple and beautiful ritual that has been performed by women for thousands of years.  Cover the head, circle the candle flame and bring the spirit to your heart, cover the eyes, say the blessing.  So, maybe on a Friday Mom would go into the room, prepared to light the candles; but before doing so she says, “hello Bert and Ernie…”  addressing the fish, that is.  Or, “hello Abbot and Costello…” or “Shabbat shalom Rogers and Hammerstein.”

I don’t know if she named the fish.  But if it were my Sister Lynn, those fish would certainly have been given names.

And this more a story about my Sister than it is about my Mother.

Lynn has a gift.  She can identify the spirit of something and give it an appropriate title… a name that somehow embodies that object’s essence.  Stuffed toys, cars, pets, plants… you name it and Lynn can find the handle.  It sounds simple; but it’s not.  And somehow a lifeless object or a pet becomes infused with a personality and an attitude. And more importantly, our attitude towards the object becomes more respectful.  There is a harmonious balance between the object and oursleves.

Identifying what is important in something, what is emblematic, is a process.  And I got to witness this process at close quarters.  I had just purchased a new car, a Saturn.  Although it was my car… it was destined for Suzy’s use.  And I think it was Suzy who felt the car needed a name… and knowing that this was an area of Lynn’s expertise, she was enlisted in choosing an appropriate name.

But before deciding the name, Lynn needed to know more about the nature of the car.  For example, it could me maternal… Lynn suggested Mrs. LaPuffsky.  Or maybe some what flighty or flirtatious… Lynn suggests Mitzie.  There was a give and take.  Names suggested to Suzy and responses back.  Finally a name that seems to fit the character of the car, and blend with the attitude of Suzy: Carmella.  Or, how it is really pronounced… Car-Mella.  Which, in turn, became abbreviated to Carmie.

And Carmie it is.

My Sister is a treasure.  It’s like having a shaman in your family.

It’s not naming of this stuffed toy, car or pet… that’s not really that hard.  It’s understanding the toy, the car or pet… and our interaction.  And it is the understanding that sets Lynn apart from most other folks.  There is an intuition. 

An intuition that speaks of her appreciation of life.  And it is her appreciation of life, that I love the most.  And while I might not have guessed it right… I think that Bert and Ernie would suit Mom’s weak fish just fine.  How Lynn sees it… well, that just might be another story.

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I have been advised…

How do you know if you have them?  And even if you have them, you have to rely on others to give you an idea as to their quality.  And the folks who do the reporting always seem to have an agenda… some sort of complaint that probably colours their appreciation of a good snore

You may think it is easy to get a good snore.  I am here to tell you that a good snore is not easy to come by.  You have to know where to look for them.  Growing up in New Haven, we had access to a wonderful produce market on Whalley Avenue: Margie’s.   It is the only market I know of, that a person wasn’t allowed to pick out their own fruits and vegetables.  Margie would take each patron thru their needs selecting the proper plum or ear of corn that she thought was worthy.  End of story.  When Mommie Soph or my Mom would go there, I would have to remain close at heel lest I get to close to the produce display… and maybe touch something.

Mom would pay close attention to what looked good… and sometimes Margie would point to a basket over by the root vegetables… perhaps she had just received in some fresh snores… and Mom couldn’t resist… she would pick up a dozen or so for my Dad.  Then on Sundays Dad would always take a couple with him to enjoy on the couch while trying to watch some golf or an inning or two of a baseball ball game.  My Dad was also a notorious kitchen raider… and late at night when he would hit the fridge for a snack… he would always grab a handful of snores to take back up to bed.

Sadly… Margie’s market is no more.  Sure there are a few mail-order places that feature snores… usually the same places that sell rhino horn powder and dried snail slime.  There are some “pre-packaged” frozen snores that you can get at Costco… but they have had chemicals added as a preservative.  Some “specialty markets” get small amounts of imported snores; but they are priced to “Mars” and are usually weak and lack character.

I have had to make do.  But… more than one person has advised me that I do “just fine” with what I have been able to secure.  A few “engines at idle”, a couple of “hums of a spring day”, several “blast-offs”, a “flupper riffle” here and there, and even an occasional “ripper with a drool” (if I can find them).

But I don’t like leaving these things to chance.  You know… why go running around at the last minute looking for something to add necessary commentary to a dream.  And where would we be without our dreams?  Those extraordianry flights to the impossible and the disjointed?  Opportunities to visit again with folks who have moved to the other side of the river… Dreams are important and so are the accompanying snoring punctuation marks.  You see… I know this, even if you don’t.  Forgive me for sounding braggy; but I think my snores are great. 

On the other hand.  Some folks are lacking in the snoring arts.  Their snores fall short in the grace and elegance department… unlike those of us who were lucky enough to acquire “Margie quality” snores in their youth.  It’s true… you can’t get good snores in Brooklyn, ‘ferinstance.  *tsk, tsk*.  Brooklyn snores have volume… and little else.  Sorry.

Sandy and I have gone over this at considerable length.  And we have agreed to no longer leave this up to chance.  We have just pulled up the soy beans we planted last year (I can’t stand tofu and can’t understand why I let Sandy talk me into it in the first place) and we have just put in a small grove of snore trees. The trees are cuttings from the famous Darbing Forest in Srilanka and take very well to a variety of soil types.  We have also purchased 60 acres in the Litchfield Hills that offer key southern exposure for the limousin clones that we will plant for the winter crop.  This will give us year ’round access to snores and will make us independent of market availablity.

We are also planning on building a great house there so that we can offer gracious entertainments on the grounds of our plantation… and folks will be able to purchase snores… then stroll thru the groves, find a cozy hammock, a chaise lounge or just put out a blanket on the lawn and sample fresh, native, natural snores.  Nothing finer!

Fair warning… I have also been advised that I tend to be a bit greedy when it comes to snores.  I like to hoard them and not share… well they are so satisfying.  So… the next time you drop by, and if I am so engaged… I suggest that you take what you can get.  Don’t worry… I’ll understand.

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The Four Dwarfs and Passover

I couldn’t wait to get into bed on the nights after my Mom had changed the linen.  Nothing is better than fresh sheets.  I cherished it as much as the nights that my Dad would brush my hair after my night time bath.  If my Mom pulled bathing chores, she would have a business-like approach to the brushing of my hair.  My Dad?  He would take his time, slowly brushing my hair with a gentleness and care…perhaps unsure what a girl would think was important.  He would blow dry small portions, always checking the dryness.

When he was satisfied that my hair was well dry, I’d rush to my room, put on a fresh nightgown and dive in.  I couldn’t wait to enter those cold clean sheets. And that is what it was like.  Just like diving into a pool on an early June day.  Something that tingled and made your body come alive.

I would bury myself in.  Kicking my feet.  I am sure that it would look like I was treading water.  No.  I was merely trying to create warmth in the nether reaches of my nest.  I would stretch my nightgown down, twisting and turning… scratching and pawing at the sheets willing that they surrender their comfort.

Settled, I would reach for a book to occupy me ‘til Dad would come in.  I would look at something that would in no way interfere with what we would “read” together.

It would always be the same.  I would hear a knock…

“Are you ready for me, Bird?” he would ask.

And I would giggle, kick my feet in the covers and scrunch up with my pillow, “yes, I’m ready.”

Dad would come in, four or five books under arm, “Well… let’s see.  What would you like to hear tonight?”

I would kick my feet, not sure whether I had knocked all the cold from the bed, and bring the covers up to my nose… and I would giggle, “I don’t know… you choose!”  And I would giggle and kick my feet again… my hair is beautiful, I’m wearing my favorite nightgown with lavender flowers, Mom has made a fresh bed.

“Well, then… let’s see here.”  And he would search thru his books on hand, “I think a good story for tonight might be The Four Dwarfs and Passover.”

I would bicycle my feet, re-position my nightgown, re-draw my covers up to my nose… and then inch them down so I could say, “I thought there were seven dwarfs.

“Well Bird… you are just going to have to listen to the story.”

I loved my Dad’s voice.  It was soothing. It was reassuring.  It was warm and safe.  As warm as my blankets, as safe as a castle keep.  And to hear his words was enveloping… something that secured me.  I would be lulled, like music to a savage beast.   Oh, sure… I spent my day at school or in play running about… and I guess I could have fallen asleep no matter how you slice the pie. 

There are actors who have that “talent”… the ability to project strength and compassion thru their voice alone – Morgan Freeman comes to mind… But for me, hearing Dad’s voice was like a sedative… it put me to ease.  I could listen to my Dad giving a weather report.  And for sure at the end of a busy day of study and play I welcomed that sound as any that I have heard.

Oh, to listen to his voice.

I would cycle my legs once or twice, turn on to my right side and bring the covers to my chin.

Dad would turn off the main light in my room.  Sit at the base of my bed, with only the lamp from my desk for light.  He would open to a page.

Never mind that the four dwarfs turned into the Hiryu, the Soryu, the Kaga and the Akagi… the four aircraft carriers that we sunk at the Battle of Midway.

Never mind that he never really read from the book.

And never mind that The Fat Cheese and the French Fry turned into the Battle of Agincourt, or that The Feast of Alice turned into the Congress of Vienna, or that The Tower of Jell-O and Pirate King turned into the defeat of Chinese Gordon at Khartoum and that The Day the Honey Bear Lost His Pants became the Japanese Battle Fleet crossing the Russian Fleet’s “T” at Tushima Strait.

My Dad would simply open a book and begin with a description of the pitching sea, the sky and the smell of the sea breeze… and I would be taken for a journey on his soothing voice… to places I could only dream about.

He could take the wind beating against the window pane in my room to describe the sound of the arrow flight the English long-bowmen sent into the ranks of the terrified French soldiers of King Charles VI.

He would always find a way to include me in his story.  I would be seated next to Prince Metternich as we had dinner with Talleyrand, Wellington and Nesselrode as we tried to bring order to war ravaged Europe.  “You would have been dressed in your finest,” he would have said to me, and I would have been carried off to my dreams on thoughts of thick tables, and chandeliered rooms with grand paintings & tapestries.

When my eyes became heavy I would just hear the melody of his words & phrases… and I would be taken to my day’s rest and tucked in for the night.  Dad would close his book, kiss me on the forehead and say, “Dream of an exciting world, Bird… it lays before your feet.”

He would turn off my desk lamp… and he would be gone.

It is Spring now and I am preparing to take my 11th Grade Modern European History Class to the Pacific.  Even though it’s a lecture I have given year after year, I still like to review my notes.  Six months after the Japanese sank our Battleship Fleet at Pearl, a numerically inferior American Task Force met and decisively defeated the Japanese Carrier Fleet at Midway.  It was a Battle of critical importance, maybe the most important of the War.  It stopped the Japanese in their tracks and permitted Roosevelt to pursue his policy of Germany first.

I glance at the title of my lecture and smile…  Four Dwarfs and Passover.

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From the Complaint Desk of Philo Kvetch

Thanks for nothing Milton Bradley (or whoever you are)!!!  OK, here’s a quiz question — What doesn’t belong: St. Charles, Pacific, Baltic and Wacker Drive. Or here’s another — what doesn’t belong: Ventnor, Oriental, Rodeo Drive and Illinois.

If you score less than 100% it can only mean that you have never played Monopoly.  And if you have never played Monopoly then it can only mean that you are not an American or maybe you are a sweet potato disguised as a human.

Don’t get me wrong… I have nothing against the game of Monopoly.  I have truly enjoyed the game.  I had my favorite properties: the Railroads and the Orange Block — St. James, Tennessee & New York.  The latter represented great value, affordable buying price and great return on quickly developed housing.

I enjoyed playing the game as a kid, when I was in college, after college and then with my kids.  It’s that type of game… you can play it, and play it, and play it.  Young or old… wasn’t that a selling point?  Scrabble was a good game, too… but was dependent on evolving vocabulary skills.

I loved Monopoly’s “house rules”… whether you put money as a reward for landing on Free Parking, or if you picked up and extra “C” note for landing on Go, was it permissible to hide your money, were player to player loans allowed… the essentials of the game remained the same; but there were little quirky differences depending on whose home you played in… it was all good.

But lets face it… it was a game built on acquisition, greed and sending your opposition into the poor house.  Great American values!!

Then why should we be surprised when the Company that produced the game (or the Company that acquired the Company that produced the game, etc., etc.) should exhibit a similar degree of greed, avarice and exploitation?

No longer do we only feature the addresses of Atlantic City, NJ… we now have a “Chicago” version and a “Los Angeles” version.  And because the abstract of game is so simple, we can have a “Star Wars” version, or a “Shakespeare” Version… or a “Muncie, Indiana” version forGodsakes!!

And then if that was not enough… we can make a game box fashioned from the cedars of Lebanon, cast game pieces from recycled minie ball lead recovered from the Antietam Battlefield, laminate the deed cards in gilt, use handcrafted ivory dice made by the Queen’s Own Gamemaster… and then charge $1000 for the game.

So… we take a good game… we devalue it by coming up with mock versions to satisfy the gift giving need of folks from any city with a population over 50,000.  And because we have rendered the most significant board game of the 20th Century to “Egg McMuffin” status, we have to artificially create a “special edition” version by making its least important ingredients, important.

Is it really a more special game because the deed for Marvin Gardens is gilt edged?

I don’t think so.

But then again, who am I?

Just a simple citizen who likes to hide his $500 bills under the board.

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From Caesar’s Diary

Ides of March

Dear Diary:

I don’t feel like going to the Senate today.  I think I am going to get a haircut instead.  Besides… it’s always the same guys… Cassius, Brutus and that new guy Russell Crowe.  Big deal.  A bunch of losers.  Hey!  I’m the Emperor… I can do what I want!  Fuck the Republic and the Senate, too.  I don’t need them!  Hah!  I’ll send their sorry asses to the Russian Front!  That’s what I can do.  No wine and no women for them… they can go freeze their kishkes off outside the gates of Moskva.  Yeah!  That will put an end to their whispers!  They think I don’t know what’s going on!  I’m Emperor… I know what’s going on!  Telling lies about me… making up stories.  Twenty below zero (and we’re talking farenheit baby) and no underwear will put a stop to that.  Oh, I can’t wait… the hell with a haircut, I am going to march right up to the Senate and put on my best shit-eating grin, “Brutus!  Pack your bags! You have just won an expense paid trip to Siberia!  See you in 25 years, pal!”  Being Emperor ain’t so bad…

Yeah, the Senate… what a bunch of shit heads!

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National Symbols

Wild TurkeyWho gets to decide this stuff? Was there a “blue ribbon” panel formed to come up with the lion for England? Sometimes opinion is divided. Two examples come to mind. Our Revolutionary “forefathers” settled on the Bald Eagle for our young Nation. But Ben Franklin argued that the Hohenzollerns, the Hapsburgs, the Romanoffs and the Grand Duchy of Fenwick all used the Eagle as a symbol and he cast his vote for the Wild Turkey. I concur. Brilliant recommendation, Ben.

The young Nation State of Israel faced a similar difficulty. It settled for the six pointed star: the “Star of David”. A symbol that went back to the Middle Ages. It was a hexagram of the first and final letters of King David of Ancient Israel.

But there were other voices that wanted the symbol to be the “Pearl of Esther”. Queen Esther, a Persian Jewish woman who married King Ashasuerus. She interceded on the behalf of her people to secure their safety. She is remembered as a woman of great faith and courage. Ashasuerus deeply loved her and showered her with jewels and treasures. Shown here wearing the famous “Pearls of Persia”.

Immigrants making their way thru Ellis Island would be asked to sign documents. Illiterate gentiles would make an “x” and have it witnessed. Jews, would not make an “x”, thinking that it represented the sign of a cross… rather they made a sign of the “Pearl of Esther”… a circle… The symbol was also referred to as a “kikel”… Yiddish for “circle”… and the origin for the epithet “kike”.

Ultimately it was decided that the Star of David would be easier for school children to draw than the Pearl of Esther.

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The Origin of Phrases

Certain phrases have crept into our common usage… we use them every day… yet their origins are often shrouded in obscurity… and in some cases their original meaning are very different from current meaning.  I enclose herein a few of my favorites.

Come out smelling like a rose.  This phrase goes back to Elizabethan England.  The Rose was a London playhouse of high regard.  Commoners (known as “groundlings”) would stand packed in the forestage to watch the performances.  This was in the day when it was thought that excessive bathing was the cause of the plague.  And it was rare for those of low estate to bathe more than once a year.  Actor/playwright Wm. Shakespeare would observe, “you could cut that stench with a knife.”  That magnified odor was thought to be emblematic of the playhouse in general, and the Rose in particular.  Shakespeare said that he could pick out someone who had been to the Rose in a crowd of 100.  Hence the phrase, “come out smelling like a Rose” was not very complimentary.

Cheek to jowl. This little piece of nastiness traces back to the 11th Century.  The “cheek” refers to the buttocks and the “jowl” to the face.  Telling a Saxon to put “cheek to jowl” in those days, was the way to say “kiss my ass.”  As unpleasant an invitation in those days as it is today.

Happy as a Lark.  Wellington Lark was a civil servant in the time of Benjamin Disraeli. He was posted to India as an Assistant Clerk to the Bombay Trading Company.  His ship, the H.M.S. Valiant foundered while rounding the Cape of Good Hope.  Clutching to a tally desk, he remained at sea a remarkable 83 days living off of droppings from sea birds that repeatedly confused him with a small atoll.  He finally reached a small island in the Malay archipelago where local tribesmen welcomed him as their great God: Derma.  To celebrate his arrival, 10 virgins were immediately sacrificed to placate him, the Tribal Chief presented him with three of his daughters to care for his every need, he was given a spacious cottage with an ocean view, a fancy canoe & unlimited use of the Royal latrine.  The man never had a sad day for the rest of his life.  When a shore party of the H.M.S. Steadfast came upon him decades later, they found a happy, happy man.

Up to snuff.  In Victorian times bands of theatricals, troubadours, magicians and vaudevillians would criss cross the English countryside bringing their entertainment to town and village.  One troop, the Henskilling Poetry and Circus Company boasted a man of unheard height… one Reginald Snuff who measured seven foot three inches in his stocking feet.  More than one mother of the day was heard telling a troublesome child that an extra portion of pudding could be had if they measured up to Snuff.

Minks ‘n’ pinks.  The Minxarpicks (jobbes costeria) is a member of the marmot family that populated the forests of Siberia.  Since the dawn of man, the Minxarpicks was hunted for their fur which has been described as a cross between cashmere and the undercoat of the baby ibex.  Their breast meat was also a delicacy that was prepared with a mixture of field grass, birch twigs and bear fat.  English soldiers serving in Siberia during the Russian Civil War raved about the local dish which they referred to as “minks ‘n’ pinks”.  When they returned to England they substituted any small animal for the minxarpicks of Siberia to make the dish.  This “comfort food” was a known favorite of the Duke of Windsor, and writing from his French Exile, he would say that “Wally (Wallace Simpson) could turn out a fine minks ‘n’ pinks.”

Bean Feast.  In the countries of Europe beans were valued for their medicinal value.  During the time of the great plague there were a variety of folk preventatives that surfaced.  It was commonly believed that toxins and poisons in the body had to be purged.  In addition to the practice of bleeding and the application of leeches, it was also thought that foods that produced a “gassy condition” would be beneficial in ridding the body of ill humours.  Meals were prepared around beans to promote farting.  There are exquisite tapestries that depict banquet tables brimming with a variety bean dishes and casseroles.  Henry VIII composed a famous ditty… beans, beans the musical fruit, the more you eat the more you’ll toot, the more you toot, the better you’ll feel, eat beans with every meal… Of recent, the town of Del Rio, Texas has a “baked bean eating contest” on August 15th.  One unlucky year it rained on the 15th and the contest had to be moved in doors to Grange Hall.  Shortly there after, after some pointed complaints, the Town Fathers decided to tear the building down.

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New Discovery From Lascaux

Lascaux In September of 1940 four teenagers discovered the Caves of Lascaux. The famous frescoes inside have been the subject of much interpretation and speculation. The paintings date back 17,000 years are thought to be incredible representations of life in the upper Paleolithic period. The caves have been divided into rooms: The Great Hall of Bulls, the Lateral Passage, the Shaft of the Dead Man, the Chamber of Engravings, the Painted Gallery and the Chamber of Felines.

Some archeologists have guessed that the caves themselves were not used as a dwelling but rather as a place for ceremonial gatherings and the inhabitants lived near the caves in huts.

A new theory has been advanced that the Caves actually represent the first known example of formalized education and that the site was actually an Art Institute. Examples of similar styles of art work range all over western and central Europe and it is highly likely that Cro-Magnons from as far away as present day Turkey would travel to Lascaux to study art with the masters of the day. And that the rooms in the caves are nothing more than “classrooms” where different art forms were studied and perfected. The walls being nothing more than “sketch pads.”

This thesis is supported by the recent discovery of a chamber off the Lateral Passage. The use of this chamber is now clear… it was used by the art students for their toilet needs. The painting shown above was taken from wall of the “lavatory” and is history’s first recorded example of graffiti. The bird in the foreground is a Giant Hoopoe (now extinct) and was said to represent a “dunce”. The figure of the man screaming in agony is an unpopular art professor who is about to be attacked and have his genitalia ripped by an aurochs.

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Breakfast at the Caesars

{March 6, 44BCE at the home of Gaius Julius Caesar & his wife Calpurnia… it’s morning, in the breakfast room}

CAESAR: What’s this?

CALPURNIA: What does it it look like, Caesar?

CAESAR:  French Toast!  Again it’s French Toast!  I can’t run an Empire on French Toast!  Do you think that Alexander the Great ran his Empire on French Toast?  I don’t think so!!  He had eggs, rashers of bacon, link sausages, home fries, pancakes and French Toast… and lotsa wine!  Lots and lotsa wine! Barrels full!  That’s how you run an Empire!

CALPURNIA: Sure Caesar, eat like an elephant and you’ll look like one.  I can’t keep letting out your togas!  They are starting to look like bed sheets!  Besides, Alexander kept in better shape than you do… he had the Olympic Games…

CAESAR:  Oooh boy, you’re asking for it Calpurnia… One day it’s going to be: bang, boom, & to the moon!  Remember one thing, Calpurnia!  ONE THING!! In this house I am Emperor!  In fact, in every house I am Emperor!  You got that Calpurnia?!  The Emperor!!!

CALPURNIA:  Well… the Emperor better watch what’s going on in the Empire.

CAESAR: What’s that supposed to mean?

CALPURNIA:  The word is that there is this new soothsayer in town and he’s not talking about Gaul or Judea…  there are all sorts of sooths about Rome.

CAESAR:  Soothsayer?  Soothsayer?  You listen to that garbage?  It’s all stupid riddles and verse.  Sure!  sometimes they get it lucky… like a weatherman.  Which reminds me… take a memo, “For the Senate Committee on Domestic Morale: the next time the weatherman is wrong he will be put to death.” No… make that, “put to death in a painful and hideous manner.”  And then we’ll see about these sayers of sooths.  Mark my words Calpurnia!  They’re next!  And do you know why?!  Do you know why, Calpurnia?  Because I am the Emperor, that’s why!!

CALPURNIA: OK Mr. Emperor… remember my Mother is coming to visit in nine days…

CAESAR: Your Mother?  That battle axe!  Oh no she’s not! 

CALPURNIA:  Oh yes she is Caesar, and you’d better get used to it!

CAESAR: No she’s not!

CALPURNIA:  Every year it’s the same argument.  You know it’s Mother’s Birthday!  And every year you throw a tantrum kicking and screaming.  Well, this year it’s not going to work Caesar!  Mother is coming and that’s final!  And we are going to have a proper party for her!

CAESAR: That woman is a battle axe.  That’s what she is , Calpurnia!  A LOUD MOUTH battle axe.  Everytime she comes here she snipes at me.  Whatever I do is never good enough!  Do you want a soothsayer Calpurnia?  Here, I’ll give you a sooth: bang, boom & to the moon!  And besides in nine days it’s the Ides of March and I’m busy.

CALPURNIA: Busy?  Busy doing what?

CAESAR: Calpurnia you know that every Ides I go to the Lodge.

CALPURNIA: The Lodge?  Oh, yes… I know about the Lodge!  You and Brutus and Cassius and the rest of your buddies… playing cards all night, telling dirty jokes, smoking smelly cigars, drinking too much and behaving like teenagers on their first night out! You are just going to have to tell your pals that for one night they will have to conduct their escapades without you!

CAESAR:  Oh no I’m not!  And do you know why Calpurnia??  I’ll tell you why!  Because I’m the Emperor that’s why!!  And you can tell Miss LOUD MOUTH that I’m the Emperor, too!  Go ahead Calpurnia!  Plan your party… balloons and party hats, whoop dee-doo!  But on the Ides of March the Emperor is going to the Lodge to be with his friends!

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Crime & Punishment

Earliest man had methods to punish behaviors that were outside the group norm.  Over thousands of year these methods have been refined and perfected.

Match the punishment with the appropriate person & submit your answers to the Summer of Jim web site.  The winner(s) will receive a “no homework tonight” pass and a sugar free cookie.

1. Stoning.  Going back to biblical times, this was a punishment that was meted out for blasphemy, apostasy, prostitution, adultery, murder and jaywalking. 

In Deuteronomy (13:9-10) You must certainly put him to death, and then the hands of all the people.  You shall stone him to death, because he tried to turn you from the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt out of the land of slavery.

By the Middle Ages Stonings were often staged during Jousts and Tournaments.  The Church would have little children fill up wagons with rocks and bring them to the stoning pitch… people would buy a bucket full of rocks and take aim at the offending party who would be tied to a wagon wheel.  Wagering over hitting specific parts of the anatomy would take place over two or three days, or until the person died.  

2. Staking.  The Aztec Empire was one of the most advanced societies of the world.  Their leaders were held responsible for the well being of their nation & if they erred they would be judged and in some cases would have the extreme punishment of staking.

Offending officials would be stripped of their garments and brought to a clearing, their bodies would be coated in honey, they would then be tied to stakes in the ground near a fire ant colony.  If they cried out in agony another layer of honey would be applied.  If the sun didn’t come out the punishment would be repeated on the next day.

3. Silent Treatment.  This is one of the oldest punishments going back to Neolithic cave dwellersThe frescoes of the Lascaux Caves accurately depict persons who are being ignored, and in other ways being excluded from a social circle.  Punishment typically lasted a month (a lunar cycle); but sometimes would extend for months, particularly if the punishment occurred during a lunar eclipse.  Occasionally there were some negative side effects that would be experienced… during a lengthy silent treatment, the dwellers would have forgotten how to talk.

4. Holding it in.  In the 18th Century The Royal Navy had the heavy responsibility of protecting Mother England and its far flung Empire.  And a ship’s captain could not risk a breech in discipline.  There were many punishments that were part and parcel of life aboard one of His Majesty’s ships.  Flogging, keel-hauling were horrible; but the punishment that was feared above all else was the dreaded holding it in.  Sailors would not be permitted to “eliminate body wastes.” Before exacting punishment, the sailor would be given a double tot of rum & then the sergeant at arms would be assigned what was called the “piss watch”… The sailor was not permitted to relieve himself until the triple watch had passed (12 hours).

6. Time out.  This unusual punishment was devised by the great Genghis Khan.  Keeping control of his Army was of paramount importance.  Questioning his authority was ruthlessly dealt with.  The slightest of offenses would call for a variety of corporal punishments.  Fingers, hands, tongues would be severed in a blink.  Most feared was the time out.  The guilty party would have to face the ultimate disgrace of being sent from the communal fire and would have to stand with his back turned to his fellow members of the Horde, couldn’t join in on any of the songs and would have to endure the embarrassment of catcalls, “zhuib, zhuib, zhuib,” which translates roughly as, shame, shame, shame!  Many of the offending persons would be found dead the next morning having taken their own lives over the dishonor.

7. The Beaupre.  This was a most unusual punishment invented by a school master in the 20th Century who was denied access to corporal forms of punishment.  It involved dragging a student seated in his desk into the adjacent boys restroom.  “This is what happens when you giggle in class mister!”  Some students still bear the mental scaring of this cruel punishment and as adults they have been known to drive thru muddle puddles at great speed to spray vulnerable old ladies waiting to cross the street.

8. Taping.  The “Rice Diet” was developed at Duke University in the 1930s as a method to treat obesity.  The eating regimen was severe… limited to exacting portions of rice, fruit, vegetables, non-fat dairy, and also included extensive walking regimen for low impact exercising.  The food intake was closely supervised and blood was taken daily to verify that no “food cheating” had taken place.  Patients who enroll in the program have to sign a form pledging “not to cheat.”

There was an unusual punishment for cheaters.  Blindfolded they were brought into a small room, seated in an uncomfortable chair… their legs would be taped to the legs of the chair, their hands would be taped behind their backs, their mouths would be taped closed… then a table would be placed before them heaped with crème filled donuts, warm brownies & Black Forest cake.

They would be left in the room to think about what they had done.

9. La Liberace.  This was a unique form of punishment designed in the Salon of ‘Coco’ Chanel. Renown for her exquisite taste and sharp fashion eye, if one of her workers were found dressed in an inappropriate manner, they would be forced to undress and put on a hideous costume (called la Liberace), made from the ends of the cutting room floor and covered in sequins and lace.  More than one employee would run from the room crying, never to be seen or heard from again rather than suffer the derisive stares of co-workers.  Coco was known to sneer, “Qu’il s’habillent de la merde.”

10. Clean-up. It is not surprising that so many punishments trace they origins to the military.  When Hannibal moved his Armies from Carthage to Spain, then thru France, across the Alps into Italy he brought herds of elephants with him to form the “armored brigades” of the day.  The trouble was they made a God-awful mess.  The simple folk of Spain began to complain about the heaps of dung that littered the roads after Hannibal passed thru.  Sick of hearing the griping, Hannibal ordered a team of soldiers selected from the ranks of the punished be assigned the task of cleaning up after the elephants.  This form of punishment continues to this day.  The next time you are asked to clean up your room, you can thank Hannibal… he was the one that started it.

11. Ducking stool. The aim of this form of 17th Century punishment was public humiliation.  It was directed to women who gossiped, acted vindictively to their neighbors, had children out of wedlock or who flirted excessively.  The offending lady would be strapped into a chair, which was suspended from a pole fixed on a rolling platform… first she would be paraded thru the village to the jeers of her neighbors, and then she would be brought to the edge of a river or pond, and given a dunk or two into the “drink”.  The amount of time you were forced to remain under the water depended on the severity of your crime.  On one occasion a woman in Leicestershire was eaten by a river sturgeon.

 

A. Barry Bonds

B. George W. Bush

C. Dick Cheney

D. Gary Moss

E. Wayne Newton

F. Rosie O’Donnell

G. Don Rumsfeld

H. Al Sharpton

I. Howard Stern

J. Martha Stewart

K. Donald Trump

Posted in The Ash Creek Bourbon & Conversation Corner | Leave a comment

Annie With the Pretty Smile

I turned the corner, and there she was… sitting in a leaf pile at the end of her drive on McKinley Ave.

Mollie and I were out for some exercise… Mollie being our Keeshond.  Sandy had given strict instructions to Mollie to take me for a walk… “keep him out for 30 minutes Mollie and then bring him back home.”

“Can I pee on any tree of my choosing?” I ask.  I had a Grandmother, Mother, Sister, Wife & 2 Daughters… oh yes, and let’s not forget Mollie.  And the way I figure it, the only advantage I have on the women is that I can pee anywhere I want.

Well… Mollie pretty much goes where she wants to, too.  I think that’s why we like taking walks together.

Mollie saw her sitting in the leaf pile, too.  And she immediately began to wag her tail in excitement… “oh! someone my size! at ground level”… is probably what Mollie had on her mind.  And she pulled me over for a sniff, a wag and maybe a lick and a hop & a spin or two.

I had seen Annie in the neighborhood before; but this was going to be our first formal meeting.

She was wearing a navy fleece fuzzy vest over a lilac coloured sweater, she had a deep hunter green beret that covered most of her shoulder length auburn hair.

When we approached, she looked up and her dark eyes lit… she smiled, there was a slight gap in her two front teeth… (when she gets older that slight gap will drive guys nuts.)

Mollie sees the smile and immediately launches into a major wag… not merely the tail; but the whole hind quarter swings into action, a quick spin in the leaves, a hop and a quick bark.  Annie laughs, and then Mollie gives her cheek a lick, and another.

Dogs love tears.  Not the reason for the tears… just the tears themselves.  I suspect that Annie had just had a bit of cry.  It wasn’t cold enough for her eyes to simply tear.  No, Mollie was drawn to a tear of sadness and hurt.

Now Annie is giggling under Mollie’s affectionate assault.  I try to settle my Keeshond down; but she spins and hops… happy for the leaves and new friend.  A couple more barks to emphasize her general good spirit… Annie tumbles back into the leaf pile, and Mollie pursues with more kisses, which of course brings on more giggles.

Mollie spins and hops in the pile, barks and throws a couple of back kicks in for good measure.

“Settle down Martha! I don’t think anyone is going to appreciate your efforts to scatter the pile of leaves into the street!”

“Martha?  Is that her name?” Annie asks.

“Well… we call her Mollie; but when she misbehaves then it’s Miss Martha.”

“My name is Annie; and when I misbehave it’s ‘Miss Anne of Green Gables’.  You have such a great dog!  And look!  It looks like she is wearing glasses!”

“Why, yes… her markings make it look she’s wearing specs.”

“What kind of dog is she?”

“A Keeshond.  It’s a Dutch breed.  They were used as companion dogs on canal barges.”

“She certainly has a fluffy coat.”

“She loves the cold weather… and she loves to play in the snow.  Don’t you Lady Grey?”

“Lady Grey?”

“When she is acting like a ‘Princess’ I like to call her The Lady Grey.”

This brought out a new smile from Annie who called Mollie to her.  “She looks like a grey bear! A smiling grey bear!”  Mollie needed no extra encouragement… there was a steady wag to her tail with her front feet doing a dance in the leaves… more licks and kisses which in turned produced some giggles.  “She sure likes to kiss alot!”

“Mollie is a happy dog… and Annie, it’s the strangest thing when I’m sad she seems to know it.  I maybe sitting in my chair, thinking about things… thinking about something I may have said or did that may have hurt someone’s feelings… and it makes me sad.  Maybe someone said or did something to hurt my feelings, and of course that makes me sad, too… Well, sure enough… there will be Mollie at my side, putting her nose under my hand to get my attention… she’ll give me a wag and quick kiss.  It’s her way of saying ‘it’s alright… things will work out.'”

Mollie had settled some… pehaps distracted by a smell, she had a sniff around the pile…

“And I’ll tell you something Annie… Mollie is always right… things just seem to work out.  And it’s impossible for me to be sad for long when I’ve had a wag and kiss from Mollie.”

“Well, Annie… it’s a pleasure making your acquaintance.  I hope that Mollie and I get to see you soon… we live just over on Alston and we pass by here every now and then.  Sometimes it’s over to Forrest… it’s Mollie’s call, I’m just along for the exercise.”

I waved goodbye.  I decided not to tell her that I am also out to take a whiz on the Cameron’s maxi Rhododendron.  I call back to her, “that’s a great looking beret Annie!  You wear it well.”

She waved back, smiled her pretty smile…. and in an instant it was gone.  She assembled her leaf blanket around her, and cast her eyes downward… perhaps to return to her sadness.

She remained still… a compostion in vulnerability and delicacy.  Then she rebounded, perhaps a hurdle crossed, and she looked up an flashed that great gapped tooth smile and waved again.

“You have a very pretty smile, Annie!  Don’t forget where you put it…”

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Not Quite Extinct

With the extinction of the dinosaurs the world moved into the Age of Mammals.  The diversification of animal life was stunning in the Miocene Epoch, readying the stage for the appearance of Homo habilis in the Pliocene and continuing thru to the Pleistocene with the flourishing of megafauna.

Huge beavers, magnificent elk, unearthly flightless birds, over sized bears, camels, mammoths, rhinos & carnivores… all roamed the land.  The lagest land mammal on earth was the Indricotherium (Matzoris major).  Fossil remains first discovered in Baluchistan put the size of this gigantic herbivore at 16 feet tall, with a length of 27 feet and an estimated weight of 15 tons.

Compared to the Indricotherium, our present day elephant would look like a mere pup.  How would you like to have to feed it?  Or clean up after it?  These are the type of questions my Grandmother would have raised.  And she was no Natural Historian.

Mommie Soph, my Grandmother for those that are not in the know, was a practical woman.  If an animal wasn’t a pet, then it was how many does it serve?  I reckon that an average sized Indricotherium could feed a good sized condo complex.

My Grandmother was a crafty person.  How many female butchers do you know?  Kosher butchers at that!  I could see her now, the wholesaler delivering the front end of the Indricotherium (the hind end would have been trayf — non-kosher), and she would roll up her sleeves preparing to section off 200lbs of flank steak, 500lbs of brisket… and that would just be the beginning.

Indricotheriums are well and good; but I think she would have had a greater interest in the smaller and more manageable “cousin” of this herbivore: Matzoris minor.  Coming in the Holocene Epoch, the Indricotherium had evolved into a smaller more nimble beast.

At their peak, herds of Matzoris covered Europe from the Russian Steppe, thru the Hungarian Plain all the way to Central France.  Thses peaceful grazers were plentiful, slow and dumb and they fell victim to carnivores and early man.  There is evidence that suggests that Sabertooth Cats killed them for sport and not for hunger need.

Early humans could not afford to be so friviolous… Each Matzoris was a prize for a family or clan.  Evidence found in the Caves of Lascaux and detailed in the famous Cave Frescoes show elaborate hunting parties engaged in killing the beasts.  There were scenes depicting its uses after slaughter, and even noted a few basic recipes.

There is much to learn from Cro-Magnon’s interaction with nature and the natural world.  The fur of the Matzoris would be used for cloaks or as decorative throws.  The hollowed skull would be used to bathe infants, the unique nine rib rib-cage would be converted into a quasi light fixture burning small amounts of Matzoris oil for fuel.

The most cherished part of the slaughtered Matzoris was the male’s testicles.  Its use in ceremonial meals is well documented.  It symbolized male strength and virility, and only a select few could partake in the heady broth that would be prepared. 

The shaman would invoke sacred blessings and would beseech the Gods to continue the line of the clan.  Then the leader of the hunt (called the Matzoris Maven) would be honored with a generous portion.  A circle of the clan would then be formed, dance with hands joined and held high, and the greatness of the Matzoris would be proclaimed.

After… the parents of the honoree would have to clean up.

Sadly, the Matzoris are nearly extinct.  The Przewalski Forest in Poland holds the last remaining Matzoris in the wild.  Unfortunately, the local population is notorious for hunting down the bucks seeking their testicles.  The testicles are dried, crushed to powder and added to Mott’s apple sauce, or, in some extreme cases, infused in solidified chicken fat and applied to a bridegroom’s male “member” on his wedding night.

Although not as effective the synthesized version of this delicacy is readily available… it appears in countless establishment and homes where it is made into a ceremonial soup following the recipe found in Lascaux… you know this dish as Matzoh Ball Soup.

Tasty.  Not quite extinct.  Enjoy.

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I’m Going to Disney World!

Well… isn’t that’s what you’re supposed to do when you win the Super Bowl?  Sometimes you get to go to the White House, too.  And have a local parade.

I’ll pass on the parade… and going to the White House would be an honor… it’s just that the current occupant is not a person I care to see…

But… I’m always up for Disney World.  It’s like the “holo-deck” in Star Trek come to life… the ultimate trip to a wonderfully artificial environment.

Actually… I’ll let Peyton Manning take the trip without me.

Still it was supemely satisfying to see my Colts take the “big prize” this year.  You may ask, “why the Colts?”  How did I become a fan?  And what about them leaving Baltimore for Indianapolis?

It’s not like I’m from Baltimore, or Indianapolis for that matter.  I grew up in New Haven… and the closest team in those days were the New York Giants (they were actually called the New York football Giants to distinguish them for the New York Giants baseball team).  But it’s not uncommon for a kid to take a shine to a team from beyond his home region.  Witness the number of Cowboy fans throughout this country, ferinstance.  The team is usually a good one… with a star player, or players… and then they gotta have a cool uniform.

In 1958 the Baltimore Colts were a good team.  They had a star player in Johnny Unitas.  And their deep blue and white uniforms, helmets with a riveted horseshoe… real cool looking.

In my case, pledging my allegiance to the Colts was made easier by my Dad or Paul having no specific attachment to New York Giants.  Or, if they liked the Giants it was far less clear than their liking of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

I guess it was a matter of luck to come of “fan age” (circa age eight) when the Colts played in the historic overtime Championship game against the Giants… a game that would go on to define the NFL.  Our family listened to that game on our car radio when we went to Stowe, VT for a skiing vaction.

Johnny Unitas, Lenny Moore, Alan (The Horse) Ameche, Raymond Berry, Gino Marchetti, Gene (Big Daddy) Lipscomb, Art Donovan… I could name that entire team.

This was in the day before the AFL… before the Super Bowl.  When the NFL Championship was for all the beans.

The Colts would remain a good football team for better than a decade.

But they would suffer the ultimate disgrace… they were the first team to take it on the chin from the upstart AFL in Super Bowl III.  This was like an elementary school team beating your middle school team in softball.

The New York Jets and Joe Namath beat my Colts in 1968.  From that day on I have hated the Jets… and when the Jets had a 1-15 record several years ago… I was not quite happy enough.  I don’t know who I hate more… Joe Namath, the Grand Inquisitor, or that jerk who wears the green fire helmet and leads the Jets cheer at home games.

Two years later the Colts had a measure of redemption in winning Super Bowl V against the Cowboys (another team I don’t care for… although without the same malice I have reserved for the Jets).  It was a sloppy game filled with turnovers, and I think it is regarded as one of the worst played Super Bowls.

It’s OK, I’ll take the “w”.

I don’t think there was a Disney World in 1970 for the victors… maybe there was.

I was still in college then… still didn’t think too much about parades.  And I wouldn’t have wanted to go to the White House then either.  Although I find it hard to believe that I would ever find myself thinking that there could possibly be a more wretched President than Richard Nixon.  Thank you George W. Bush… you are like finding a team that I hate worse than the New York Jets.

Well… it’s been a long time between “drinks of water.”  The Colts finally win another Super Bowl in another sloppy turnover filled game.

It’s OK, I’ll take the “w”.

The Colts have moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis.  But it wasn’t like I have a connection to the city itself.  They are still the Colts… same neat uniforms, same history.  I have the luxury of continuing to be a fan without suffering the sense of desertion that folks from Baltimore would feel.

The Colts had a considerable stretch of time when they were awful… but they have returned to playing good ball again… they have gotten close to the big dance over the past four years.  They have a terrific Head Coach in Tony Dungy.  A person who I greatly admire for the way he carries himself.  A great Quarterback in Peyton Manning who calls his own plays… the way that Johnny Unitas did.

This was their year.

Who knows?  They might even do it again next year.  Me?  I’ll think about how much fun it will be to take another mental trip to Disney World.  But, I’m not greedy.  I hope they continue to play well… and I’ll be OK… as long as those son-of-bitch Jets don’t win. 

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National Groundhog’s Day

Look at our calendar.  It’s filled with “holidays” that are flawed in one way or another… and I think it is sapping our National strength.

First… let’s define a holiday.  A “proper” holiday is a day when banks are closed, National, State & Local Government agencies are closed, the financial markets are closed, schools are closed… and (this is important) people over 21 have the day off

Second… there are not enough proper holidays in the calendar.  And, as noted above, too many of our holidays are built on fundamentally weak frameworks.

All those holidays based on religion are at root horrible.  The sweep of history is filled with violence carried out in the name of religious beliefs.  And so we declare a day a joyous occasion… we decorate, we toast, we cheer, we celebrate, exchange gifts perhaps, we say thanks… and for those who don’t follow our precepts we will burn at the stake.

Then we have holidays based on war and its aftermath.

Or “holidays” that are product of the very powerful FTD Florist/Hallmark Card/Godiva Chocolate lobby, turning beautiful sentiment into a contrived exercise.

Even a neutral holiday like “Labor Day” has its problems.  Once a signal to the end of Summer & Summer vacation, it is now in most parts of the country an interuption in the regular school calendar.  Its connection to “labor” is largely lost… and when the rest of the European connected world celebrates labor on May Day, we let our paranoia for socialism show below our hem and run for cover.

And let’s take a closer look at Thanksgiving… an American holiday… our holiday.  Don’t forget that the celebration is built on a Puritan background.  You remember the Puritans and the Pilgrims?  Hey… you get caught looking up a dress and you were punished… severely punished.  No stern talking to, or a slap in the face… you were put into stocks or a ducking stool.  No wonder we were a supressed people. 

Then the Native Americans teach us how to eat lobster with sweet corn and make a clam bake… and how do we say thank you? How do we repay them?  We give them small pox.

And then we buy Manhattan for $26 (after rejecting New Jersey for $4.38… as it was written, “we were offer’d the lands & rivers of The Jersee; but it smelled of swine & foul oil).

So let’s raise a glass, stuff ourselves on turkeys that have been raised in cruelty and give thanks… and pray that the Detroit Lions produce a competitive football team for a change.

400 years after the fact, the Mashantucket Pequots are saying thanks… from their casinos.

A tad hypocritical, no?

I think it is clear that we need some quality holidays… celebrations not based in death & discrimination. Holidays without political attachment.  Holidays that do not promote over-indulgence.  A day that has no “sales days”.  A day where there is no need for cards, flowers or candy.

I know what you’re thinking… “that doesn’t leave alot.”

Well my friends… I am here to tell you that there is a day at hand… ripe for the picking.

The origin of Groundhog’s Day goes back to the Celts of Germany and France circa fifth century.  It was beleived that animals had supernatural powers that came into play on certain days or times of the year.  On the cross-quarter day (the day that is half way between the Winter Solstice and the Vernal Equinox), marmots and bears emerging from their winter dens would beat a hasty retreat if they saw their shadow… and there would be six more weeks of winter.  Cross-quarter day: February 2nd.

Early Christians called this Candlemas Day, or Hedgehog Day.

Earliest reference to this day in America can be found in the diary Berks County, PA storekeeper James Morris… his entry for February 4, 1841: “Last Tuesday, the 2nd was Candlemas day, the day on which, according to the Germans, the Groundhog {a large member of the marmot family} peeps out of his winter quarters and if he sees his shadow he pops back for another six weeks nap, but if the day be cloudy he remains out, as the weather is to be moderate.”

Well… there you are.  Simple enough.  It’s a grand day! Totally fun!  We don’t kill the little beast and eat him… we just watch him!  How good is this?

No songs.  No baked goods.  No cards. No post-holiday blues!  The perfect Holiday!

Well… almost a perfect Holiday.  We just have to elevate the day to National Status.  To take it beyond the borders of Punxsutawney, PA (home to the famous Groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil). 

We have to close government offices, close the banks, close the schools, close the financial markets… and then most important… a day off for everyone over 21.

I can see the fibre of this Country being restored already.

And now that we have that settled… we can move on to New National Holiday #2: “The Monday After Super Bowl Holiday.”

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Laughing with my Dad

I love music.  It’s ironic…  now that I have a car with a good radio, I have decided to drive in silence during my 55 minute journey from Woodbury to Norwalk and back.

My day is filled with sound of one type or another.  Yes, music; but mostly it’s the spoken word.  Incessant sound.  So my drive in quiet solitude has become a cherished part of my daily routine.  Thoughts come and go, ideas drift in… old stories, old conversations.  Or they can be new… looking for a better way to describe a young Chianti I had just tried.  I think of things that make me sad… and I think of things that make me happy.

And last night I thought of something that made me laugh… laugh hysterically… which is perfectly OK.  Laughing out loud in an outrageous fashion, when driving alone… is like singing out loud alone (off key).  Who cares?  Not that I have ever worried too much about laughing out loud outrageously in public (which will be in evidence later in this story).

This is how it starts…

In February of 1962 my Father took my Mother on a trip around-the-world.  Their journey began in Hawaii, proceeded to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Manila, Thailand, India, Israel, Greece, Spain… and maybe London & Paris, too.  Official photography for the trip was a shared responsibility.  The “simple camera” was relatively new and the entire trip was shot in slides (favorite shots would be turned into photos later).

My Father also brought a new camera along… perhaps as back-up.  The instamatic may have been shared; but this one was his.  It was a Minolta or Minox… I forget which; but the key here was its small size.  It was smaller than a six inch ruler & no wider than a stout cigar.  At the time it was the smallest commercial camera by miles.  It looked like something 007 would use.  The camera had a small tan leather case and a “watch chain” that you could clip to a belt loop and slip the camera into your pants’ pocket.

Dad was proud of that camera.  Although he never impressed me as being a “shutter bug.” 

If the camera was small… the film size was ridiculously small.  Micro film really.  But he wasn’t shooting secret files purloined from the Kremlin… he was photographing the Taj Mahal.  And since a slide is nothing more than a positive image of a negative… the size of Dad’s slides looked like a computer chip.  So when his film was developed, we had to get a special projector, which had this magnifying attachment so that you could see an image from a decent distance away.

Mom’s slides had no such difficulty… and I guess I must have seen her slides a half dozen times before we had the right equipment for Dad’s…

We finally get to view Dad’s slides.  I’m looking at shot after shot… Dad explaining this or that.  And then we get to a staged photo of Mom and Dad standing before a Thai Temple in Bangkok.  Dad must have asked a passer-by to take the shot… Mom is in a light coloured sleeveless top and a skirt.  She is standing at an angle facing Dad.  Her feet are positioned in that classic pose… one foot slightly in front of the other, and pointed slightly out.  She has a beautiful smile.

My Father is wearing an English lisle polo shirt, a silk foulard tied around his neck, light grey tropical worsted slacks and cordovan penny loafers.  He is facing slightly toward my Mother, and the empty leather camera case (having given the camera to the passer-by for the shot), attached by the strap to his belt loop, was hanging about crotch level.

My Dad takes a look at the slide and lets out a serious chuckle, “Jesus, it’s looks like I have my pecker on a leash.”

Then I crack out a laugh at this comment.  My trouble is… I can’t stop laughing.  And then of course Dad picks up his laughter pace, too.   And there the two of us were unable to call a halt to the laughing.  Mom left the room saying if she stayed she was going to pee in her pants.

That’s the way it was with me and my Dad.  Boy could we laugh… and poor Mom would have to scurry from the room lest she pee in her pants.

I thought about this story a couple of years ago… don’t ask me exactly how I arrived at the recollection.  We were in Taos for Fan and Chipp’s Wedding… after the service we were gathered on the patio of this wonderful place trading stories… enjoying a drink, taking in the view… And I am sure that Paul and I got to talking and it was probably mentioned that it would have been great for Mom and Dad to have been there, too…

I guess that’s how I connected to the “pecker on a leash”.  And geeze, if I laughed hard with my Dad… I laughed harder with Paul.  Because I had a much better understanding of the improbability.  And the more I thought about it… the harder I laughed.  The clear image of that photograph came back in highest detail… Mom and Dad, although casually dressed, dressed impeccably… standing in front of a magnificent Holy Shrine… and it looked like my father’s penis is hanging out of his fly, and it was on a wire tether.  This wasn’t like some smart assed teenager giving the finger in a sneaky way or something.  This was my Father!!  How improbable is this? 

Eventually all my laughing gets the attention of others on the patio.  And I mean I am laughing! Pictures were taken.  It looks like I might be in pain, or maybe just threw up.  Paul’s expression is one of bemused toleration.  If anybody asks me about the shot, I’m going to tell them that Paul had just farted (or peed in his pants) and I was creating a ruckus to cover his embarrassment.  Yeah, I think that’s a good bluff.

Last night, the silence of my drive was broken… like I had hit a pocket of turbulence on Route 136.  The picture of my Father and Mother standing in front of that Temple in Thailand came back to me… And I laughed once again… harder and harder.  This time it was about the caption.  I mean sure, it’s a funny shot; but maybe only funny if you knew what to look for.  And even if you knew what to look for, the hysterical part was the “caption”… the name Dad had coined off-the-cuff… pecker on a leash. 

My Father was a master at the Title.

So… I had a good laugh with my Dad last night.  Pecker on a Leash?  Isn’t that a Pub in London?

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Vegetables thru the Ages

We have all heard it. “You’re staying at the table ’til you finish your veggies!”  Or, “I see that brussel sprout behind the mashed potato, young lady!” Or, if you were lucky you were subjected to greater artifice and creativity… “Look, why don’t you pretend that the broccoli is a tree from the Triassic, and that you are a Brontosaurus eating 100lbs of nourishing greens to get strength to beat Tyrannosaurus Rex.”

“Apatosaurus.”

“What?”

“Apatosaurus, Mom.  They changed the name of Brontosaurus to Apatosaurus.  Othniel Marsh put the wrong head on the mounted fossil skeleton in the Yale Peabody Museum and when they finally discovered the mistake they had to change the name.  And it’s the Jurassic and not the Triassic… and Tyrannosaurs didn’t arrive ’til the Cretaceous.  And besides, nobody beat Rex.”

“Go to your room.”

So much for demonstrating superior knowledge at the dinner table.

Enjoying vegetables is unnatural… we all know it.  It’s something we learn to do as adults, like driving cars, filling out tax forms & suppressing a fart in an elevator.

Look at our ancestors.  Vegetables on their diet?  I don’t think so.  We killed our food… and before it was food, it walked, flew or swam.  We rounded out a meal with nuts and fruit.  That’s it.  And that’s the way it stayed until we invented wine 7000 years ago.  Our chemical make-up was meant to process meat and not greens!  Vegetables?  The animals we killed ate the vegetables!  That’s how we got our vegetables!  We let them eat it first!!

When Louis and Mary Leakey made their discovery of earliest human life in Olduvai Gorge, fossil evidence showed that Homo Erectus dined on mammoth 2 million years ago.  No evidence of vegetables… but at the same level in the walls of the gorge — tangerine seeds, apple cores & peach pit remains have been found.  A cap from a G.I. issue canteen, also found, has been discounted as a historical anomaly.

But let’s not kid ourselves.  Vegetables have been around a long time, too.  And they are here to stay… even for us “hunter-gatherers” (by the by, I do my hunting and gathering at Costco). Culinary vegetables can come from any of the major plant parts: root, stem, leaf, flower, fruit or seed. Here is a short list of the other food.

Tomato.  Originally domesticated by the Maori of New Zealand.  The great war leader Pomare was succeeded by the “peace chief” Heke, who burned all weapons of war, turning spears into tomato staves.  From then on, aggressive behavior was confined to throwing tomatoes at each other.  This worked for hundreds of years, until the competing Titore tribe found the way to extract the highly toxic blood of the blister beetle, which would then be spread on a tomato.  A hit from a tomato meant sure death.  The Maoris were virtually wiped out.  It is why today, no one from New Zealand would even think of looking at a tomato, let alone eating one.

Jicama.  Central American Natives would take this taproot and mash it up and ferment it to create a highly intoxicating hallucinogenic pudding.  It would be consumed on festival days, the celebrations sometimes lasting a week or more.  When hardened, the pudding becomes a very reliable building paste.

Eggplant.  Known as “aubergine” in much of the world, it was produced solely for the attractive colour, feminine form and beauty.  Princess Eugenie of France loved to look at decorative arrangements of eggplants and made sure there were eggplants in every room of the Palace in Versailles.  Royal Dye-masters were put to the task of replicating the unique colouring for the Empress’ cashmere shawls and flocked wallpapering.

Asparagus, Carrots, Celery & Pickled Cucumbers.  These vegetables were put on a restricted list in Victorian England.  Markets throughout the Empire had an “adults only” section that was curtained off from the central display area.  The above mentioned vegetables (referred to, in polite society, as “unmentionables”), along with hot dogs, bananas, crullers and baguettes were discreetly kept out of view and only sold in private… And would never be consumed in public… in polite society.

Radicchio.  Pliny the Elder wrote extensively of radicchio’s medicinal properties in his Naturalos Historia.  Radicchio was good for treating heart ailments, swollen joints, hearing loss, insomnia, erectile dysfunction & athletes foot.  Some of the side effects could be hair loss, sustained headaches, uncontrolled sweating, painful gas & permanent loose bowel movement.

West Indian Gherkin. This small relation to the cucumber was appreciated by the Caribe Tribe for its fertility properties.  When ripe the gherkin was first peeled, then cut in vertical strips, dipped in the urine of the sacred goat, grilled on a stick, and then while still hot placed on the forehead of newlywed brides on their wedding evening.

Gefilte Fish.  Long associated with Jewish people, who would take great satisfaction in knowing that there was in fact no fish called a gefilte fish.  The word “gefilte” is derived from a German word that meant “stuffed”.  Some assume that this “delicacy” is a combination of three different fish: pike, white and carp… chopped and formed into a large irregularly shaped “fish meatball.”  This is not the case.  The origin of this dish goes back to France circa 1000 AD, where it was known as faux poisson. It was in fact a combination of chopped parsnip, rutabaga and horseradish.  Crusaders traveling from France brought this dish with them as they made their way across Europe to rescue Jerusalem from the Infidel.  In Central and Eastern Europe the name evolved into gefilte.  The fact that this is a vegetable dish has been an culinary insider’s  joke for centuries.

Strawberry Twizzlers (re-classification from USDA pending).  Finally!  A vegetable that us hunter-gatherers can finally enjoy with gusto!  And you nay-sayers who raise an eyebrow because the maker of Twizzlers is a wholly owned subsidiary of Haliburton with ties to the present Administration… well, T for tough!  I’ll have another helping of Twizzlers please.

Posted in Ministry of Humor | Leave a comment

He Played the Game

Although it was the Etruscans who first introduced gladiatorial games to the civilized world, it would be the Romans who would give greatest expression to this form of entertainment.

The first record of gladiator combat took place in 264 BCE.  It was staged by Decimus Junius Brutus Scaeva to honor the death of his father.

For the next 450 years gladiators would occupy the central stage of Roman cultrual entertainment.  The contestants were recruited from the ranks of slaves, criminals, conquered peoples and Legionnaires… the warriors of Rome.  They were pitted against each other in pairs, in combinations and against animals.  While injury and death were part and parcel of this activity, it was not the design to kill off prized property.

That is what gladiators were… property.  Property of wealthy free citizens of Rome.  Gladiators would learn their craft in carefully organized and funded schools… learning their skills from retired gladiators.  They would be pampered… well fed, groomed… treated to wine and women. 

And on the day they entered the dusty ground of the Coliseum they would do so to a chorus of cheers.  Admired for their physical form, admired for their bravery… shouts and cheers to feed the Roman lust for violence.

Death was sometimes the end… and even to the survivors they would retreat to receive the best medical attention of the day, to prepare for future contests.

The staged combat in present day arenas and coliseums in the form of football bears striking similarities to gladiatorial combat of legend and lore.

Hard plastic and pad have replaced metal shield and helmet… and while death is ultimately rare, injury is not.  And for 16 Sundays in the year, we gather as the Free Citizens of Rome did, to cheer and become rabid in our lust for violence.

Perhaps we should expect the behavior of the contestants to mirror that of the citizenry.  Here is a Free Citizen, fueled by copious amounts of beer, stripped to the waist in 25 degree weather, body painted half in red and half in blue, a clown wig in electric colours as well, shouting profanities & if necessary, to punctuate his opinion, hurling a container of his brew in the direction of an official of the game, or at an opposing player…

So no surprise when a player carries on in a similar vein.  Mini demonstrations staged to satisfy the lust of the Free Citizens.

But this is not Rome.  Or so I tell my self.  And the excesses of behavior, on and off the field, are just that… excesses.  And if you are going to show something on television, and then replay it… and then replay it again.  What are you going to choose?  Randy Moss scoring a TD and then standing in the endzone, pretending to drop his pants to moon the Greenbay hometown crowd?  Or perhaps we’ll replay Tiki Barber scoring a TD, picking himself off the turf and handing the ball to the Official?  What makes better entertainment?

How many times on ESPN do you think they replayed Moss’ moon?  How many times do you think they replayed Barber giving the ball back to the Official?

Maybe that’s why Tiki Barber’s retirement from the game of football will warrant little more than a blink from an audience that applauds glitz and glitter… an audience that puts showmanship above sportsmanship.

For those who don’t know me… I am a Colts fan of old… stretching back to the “Johnny U” days in Baltimore.  But I have enjoyed following the good Giants teams under Parcells.  Harry Carson and John Mendenhall were my favorites… and who could deny Lawrence Taylor’s excellence?

But there are few players who I have enjoyed watching today more than Tiki Barber. Against my Colts he “touched” the ball 23 times: 18 times rushing the ball for 110 yds (a fat 6.1 average) and 5 receptions for another 61 yards.  He finished fourth in the league in rushing.  This year’s rushing champion and this year’s MVP, LaDainian Tomlinson (being hailed as a combination Michael Jordan/Wayne Gretsky/Tiger Woods) is an outstanding back but his numbers this year weren’t as good as Tiki Barber’s last year.

I am really sorry to see Tiki retire.  He is such a good back.  I loved watching him play.  I loved his expression… he loved to compete… he was proud to compete.  And if he took a good lick, he was quick to praise his adversary with a pat on the helmet.  He played the sport pure.  No chippiness.  He respected the sport, he respected his teammates, he respected his adversaries… he gave his all on every down.

He played the game the way it was meant to be played. 

The Giants came up short against the Eagles in their bid to advance further in the play-offs.  On Tiki’s way back to the locker room for the last time, helmet in hand, baseball cap on his clean shaven head, Brian Dawkins, All-Pro Defensive Back for the Eagles sought him out, shook his hand and paid him the ultimate acknowledgement of honor and respect, “You were a warrior.”

 

 

 

 

HE PLAYED THE GAME

 

Although it was the Etruscans who first introduced gladiatorial games to the civilized world, it would be the Romans who would give greatest expression to this form of entertainment.

 

The first record of gladiator combat took place in 264 BCE.  It was staged by Decimus Junius Brutus Scaeva to honor the death of his father.

 

For the next 450 years gladiators would occupy the central stage of Roman cultrual entertainment.  The contestants were recruited from the ranks of slaves, criminals, conquered peoples and Legionnaires… the warriors of Rome.  They were pitted against each other in pairs, in combinations and against animals.  While injury and death were part and parcel of this activity, it was not the design to kill off prized property.

 

That is what gladiators were… property.  Property of wealthy free citizens of Rome.  Gladiators would learn their craft in carefully organized and funded schools… learning their skills from retired gladiators.  They would be pampered… well fed, groomed… treated to wine and women. 

 

And on the day they entered the dusty ground of the Coliseum they would do so to a chorus of cheers.  Admired for their physical form, admired for their bravery… shouts and cheers to feed the Roman lust for violence.

 

Death was sometimes the end… and even to the survivors they would retreat to receive the best medical attention of the day, to prepare for future contests.

 

The staged combat in present day arenas and coliseums in the form of football bears striking similarities to gladiatorial combat of legend and lore.

 

Hard plastic and pad have replaced metal shield and helmet… and while death is ultimately rare, injury is not.  And for 16 Sundays in the year, we gather as the Free Citizens of Rome did, to cheer and become rabid in our lust for violence.

 

Perhaps we should expect the behavior of the contestants to mirror that of the citizenry.  Here is a Free Citizen, fueled by copious amounts of beer, stripped to the waist in 25 degree weather, body painted half in red and half in blue, a clown wig in electric colours as well, shouting profanities & if necessary, to punctuate his opinion, hurling a container of his brew in the direction of an official of the game, or at an opposing player…

 

So no surprise when a player carries on in a similar vein.  Mini demonstrations staged to satisfy the lust of the Free Citizens.

 

But this is not Rome.  Or so I tell my self.  And the excesses of behavior, on and off the field, are just that… excesses.  And if you are going to show something on television, and then replay it… and then replay it again.  What are you going to choose?  Randy Moss scoring a TD and then standing in the endzone, pretending to drop his pants to moon the Greenbay hometown crowd?  Or perhaps we’ll replay Tiki Barber scoring a TD, picking himself off the turf and handing the ball to the Official?  What makes better entertainment?

 

How many times on ESPN do you think they replayed Moss’ moon?  How many times do you think they replayed Barber giving the ball back to the Official?

 

Maybe that’s why Tiki Barber’s retirement from the game of football will warrant little more than a blink from an audience that applauds glitz and glitter… an audience that puts showmanship above sportsmanship.

 

For those who know me… I am a Colts fan of old… stretching back to the “Johnny U” days in Baltimore.  But I have enjoyed following the good Giants teams under Parcells.  Harry Carson and John Mendenhall were my favorites… and who could deny Lawrence Taylor’s excellence?

 

But there are few players who I have enjoyed watching today more than Tiki Barber. Against my Colts he “touched” the ball 23 times: 18 times rushing the ball for 110 yds (a fat 6.1 average) and 5 receptions for another 61 yards.  He finished fourth in the league in rushing.  This year’s rushing champion and this year’s MVP, LaDainian Tomlinson (being hailed as a combination Michael Jordan/Wayne Gretsky/Tiger Woods) is an outstanding back but his numbers this year weren’t as good as Tiki Barber’s last year.

 

I am really sorry to see Tiki retire.  He is such a good back.  I loved watching him play.  I loved his expression… he loved to compete… he was proud to compete.  And if he took a good lick, he was quick to praise his adversary with a pat on the helmet.  He played the sport pure.  No chippiness.  He respected the sport, he respected his teammates, he respected his adversaries… he gave his all on every down.

 

He played the game the way it was meant to be played. 

 

The Giants came up short against the Eagles in their bid to advance further in the play-offs.  On Tiki’s way back to the locker room for the last time, helmet in hand, baseball cap on his clean shaven head, Brian Dawkins, All-Pro Defensive Back for the Eagles sought him out, shook his hand and paid him the ultimate acknowledgement of honor and respect, “You were a warrior.”

Posted in Life | Leave a comment

A Stare For Rachel

“Pass”

“Pass”

“Pass”

A few seconds waiting for a bid in Bridge can turn into an eternity.  Sherman (that was my Dad) asked, “Well?”

No answer.  Sherman waits for another few seconds while Rachel re-arranges her hand for the third time since the bidding opened.  “Rachel?  Are you going to bid this evening?”

Rachel re-arranges the cards one more time.  This time putting spades on the far left of her hand.  “Can I have a review of the bidding?”

Sherman puts his cards down. “I passed.  Jake passed.  Estelle passed.  And now it’s to you.”

“Don’t rush me Sherman.  You’re rushing me.  You probably have bad cards and you’re rushing me.”  Rachel shifts her spades to the far right of hand.  “OK.  Let’s see.  I bid a small spade…”

Sherman folds his hand.  “Rachel, you can’t do that.  That’s cheating.  You can’t say a ‘small spade’.  You can say a spadejust a spade… or two spades if you want to, or you can pass.  But you can’t say a small spade… because you have just told Jake that you only have four spades, or that you have a weak point count.  That’s cheating.”

Rachel’s expression showed hurt.  The accusation stung.  Almost as much as if someone said that they didn’t like her soup.

Sherman recognized that his comment pinched.  “OK… look, this is going no where… let’s just finish the bidding.  I pass.”  He was reconciled to having bad cards for the fifth hand in a row.

And that’s pretty much how it went when my Aunt Rachel and Uncle Jake came over our house to play bridge.  Thursday night was bridge night.  They would set up in our small breakfast room that was adjacent to the kitchen and begin play at 8:00PM… you could set your clock to when the first cards were dealt.

They would stop at 9:15PM for coffee and… The “and” was usually a Russian coffee cake, or a bundt cake, or occasionally a pie.  Aunt Rachel always brought the “and” I would have been long to bed before the break in the card game. I would only have discovered the precise flavour of the “and” the next morning.  Whatever was left from the night before would be put in my school lunch, and if I was lucky there would be a slice or two remaining when I got home in the afternoon. 

Even if my Aunt Rachel was slow to bid, or did so in an underhanded way (I would learn more about her technique when I picked up Bridge during my undergraduate days)… even if half the time playing cards were spent in argument… or in discussion as my Father would say… discussing about the wrong card that Rachel would play or some such… all that not withstanding, Rachel was one helluva baker & one helluva cook.

My interest in their card play or their sometime heated discussions, was a sidebar to what really mattered.  It was Rachel’s “and” that she baked with care & love.  {And of additional note… Rachel’s chicken soup was considered a marvel in our extended family.}

Rachel and Jake would leave sometime after 10:00PM.  The actual time would depend on whether their spirited discussion put a damper on further play after “coffee and service.  Regardless, it would never be a real late night, Rachel would have to get up early the next day to drive to Bridgeport… so my Aunt and Uncle would return to their Woodbridge home well before the “witching hour.”

Uncle Jake was a Certified Public Accountant in New Haven.  And according to my Father, a good one.  Aunt Rachel taught 8th Grade Science in Bridgeport.

When I was a kid I didn’t particularly like teachers… my dislike wasn’t directed against teachers as people; but rather against what they did and where they worked.  You see, I just didn’t like school.  Other than gym, school was a horrid and wretched experience for me.

Having a teacher in your family was almost like having an undertaker in your family.  Both useful professions… but do you really want them around in your personal life? 

I loved my Aunt Rachel; but when I was in the 8th grade she made me nervous.  It wasn’t like she taught in my school or anything; but I lived in constant anxiety that she might ask me what photosynthesis was.

I can’t say when I grew out of my discomfort with Rachel being a teacher.  I would like to say that it was when I entered the 9th grade.  But I am sure that it was a few years later.  Let me assure you that at no time did my discomfort intrude on my appreciation of her Russian coffee cake, or her insanely divine chicken soup.

Years later… well after Uncle Jake passed on, I would truly begin to understand her considerable force.  On one visit to her condo in Boca, we got to talking about the “old days.”

“Rachel… you had any number of opportunities to take positions in other school districts… to teach kids that would be moving on to high school, college and beyond.  You could have taught in Woodbridge or Greenwich forGodsakes!  And been better paid for it to boot!!  Why the hell did you remain in that cesspool of a city, Bridgeport?  You could have done so much more for kids who cared!”

Rachel stirred her tea.  Something she still called a “glassela tea” even though it was served in Spode china.  She cut a slice of her famous Russian coffee cake for me.  She asked after my kids, and without skipping a beat, launched into a mini-dance around the kitchen to her rendition of “Suzie Q” at the mention of my daughter Suzy… she hopped and skipped, hummed and strutted… and swept crumbs from the table in smooth motions that defied choreography.

I shook my head in amazement, “Rachel… I don’t know how you do it!”

I could only imagine her “putting on the Ritz” in her class room, or down the school halls… a “Mick Jagger” who knew about photosynthesis.

“Rachel… your talents were wasted in Bridgeport.  You could have been teaching in a school where the kids mattered.”

That stopped Rachel mid-dance.

“Jimmy.  My kids mattered.  They counted.  They were important.  The system may have sucked.  The parents may have sucked and not cared.  But the kids?  The kids?  We have to try the best for the kids.  We owe it to the kids.  All the kids.  The fancy shmancy kids in New Canaan have tons of people to do the best by them.  But who is going to go to bat for the kids in the barrio?  No.  Knock me down in the street. It’s OK, I can take it.  I’ll stand up, dust myself off… I was going to try and make a difference.  And to succeed once?  Yes, it would have been enough.”

The phone rang.  Rachel went into the den to take the call.  I put my tea cup and plate in the sink and stopped by the fridge to look at the pictures that coated the door.  Grandkids galore… Max, Zoey, Lucas & Joshua… each photo noted with date and location.  And there tucked in a nook of the “gallery” was a piece of lined stationary with neatly and carefully lettered poem.  A poem for Rachel.

A Stare

A stare has a lot of significance

A stare is from feeling at that instant

A stare comes from love while you admire something

A stare comes from joy and happiness like a sting

 

A stare means a lot, at least for me it does

A stare is special, it’s that extra little shove

A stare is like praise in my eyes

A stare is like longing to let go of all the lies

 

A stare is wishing I had your beautiful eyes

A stare comes from wishing my eyes could reflect the skies

A stare comes from wishing I had your comical and loving smile

A stare comes from wishing I wasn’t afraid to lose myself

Even if it meant that I would not be in style

 

A stare comes from wishing I could make people laugh the way you do

A stare comes from wishing my smile had the beauty to help people through

A stare comes from bewilderment because I smile every time you do

A stare comes from embarrassment because I truly do love you

 

A stare comes from the fact that every time you’re happy so am I

A stare comes from the fact that I know that in you I could always confide

A stare comes from the fact that I know I always have a friend to come to at school

A stare comes from the fact that you don’t let me act a fool

 

You wanted to know why I stare at you so much

And, it’s because I admire you and such

You’re like a friend I have known for years

I guess staring at you is what takes away my fears

— Thank you, Francis

The paper had corners that were turned and wrinkled.  This poem, written years before, had been transferred from fridge to fridge… and to my Aunt Rachel I could see that it was worth more than a chest full of gold.

I don’t think I could have loved Rachel more.  When she returned to the kitchen, I had a catch in my throat.  Sure.  What could I say?

“So… Rachel.  That day… did you really bid a small spade?”

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Beaky Turns the Page

It surprised the rest of us that Beaky even got in to see The Queeg. The Queeg just happens to be the most important Pigeon in our District (and that covered all of Norwalk, most of Westport, some of New Canaan & a little bit of Darien — not that they liked us there)… and Beaky? Well, let’s be honest… Beaky didn’t have as high standing in our community he once did.

After his accident Beaky just became flat annoying. We’d be sitting on one of the lampposts projecting over the Connector on Route 7… really peaceful, like. Squnched down against the wind… six pigeons minding our own business, and then he’d plop down… him and his shnuffled breathing… well, then we’d all have to move down a couple of feet to give him wide berth. I mean, you listen to Beaky breathe for more than 30 seconds and it would drive you nuts.

It happened this way… Beaky was into fancy flying. He was trying to make a point that pigeons are great flyers, and that he, Beaky (although before the accident we just called him Ray) was an ace flyer. Anyway, he got to doing some loops and dives… darting this way and that (“Just showing off”… that’s what Manny said)… all the time Beaky was saying, “A crow can’t do this…” or “a crow can’t do that…” or “don’t give me any of that ‘as the crow flies’ bullshit… those dumb black birds know nothing about flying.”

So there he is cruising up and down the Route 7 corridor, “did they use crows to carry messages during the Great War? No. Why? Because they are stupid, they’re fucking stupid. That’s why! They are miserable flyers and they have one of the worst calls! That screeching sound they make! It makes me barf. I ask you… do you think the Allies were going to trust birds that would make you barf just to listen to them?”

We knew not to get Beaky started on the subject of crows. He just flew thru the airspace like he owned it, below the underpasses challenging oncoming trucks… made no matter to Beaky… then a tight turn to the construction site over at Merritt 7… the future home for Diaggeo… concrete, steel beam and plate glass… And there is Beaky, showing off flying in and out of the building when,BLAM… he slammed into an oversized window… one of the few that had been put up.

Beaky dropped to the earth as if he had just been hit by anti-aircraft fire. He staggered a bit… shook his head, refolded his wings, scratched his feet, did a couple of head bobs, blinked a couple of times… preened a few feathers as if to say, “I meant to do that.”

He said that he was fine. But on closer inspection we could see that his beak had swelled up to the size of a grape. He had taken the impact square on the snoot.

We didn’t see Beaky for the next few days. I guess he wanted to recover in private. I swung over to the Hospital one day to see if he had taken shelter in the garage. No.  No Beaky there.

Then one day I spotted him over on the basketball court by Jefferson Elementary School.  From the looks of things, it appeared that he had his sights set on a handsome pigeon of the female persuasion.  So I dropped down for a closer look.

Sure as hell Beaky was “working his stuff”.  Two or three head bobs, four steps to the left, pivot back to the right, a bow, a second bow, another head bob, expand the throat and then a shake of the tail… and usually by this time the pursued pigeon is helpless… she takes flight for a short distance.  Beaky would say, “that’s the ‘no’ for the record… no pretty pigeon wants to be taken for easy.”

And that’s when Beaky would move in to “close the deal.”  He would strut, not fly, to her new location.  On the way he would be sure to throw a few head bobs, a quick pivot & bow… and by the time he’d throw a second shake of the tail, our Miss Pigeon would have “thrown back the sheets.”

Ask anyone in the District.  No one had better stuff than Beaky.

So here’s Beaky… at the School Yard… doing his thing… and getting no where!  I approach him.  Then I hear that his “coo” is off, and so’s his “Brrrrr”.  I mean really off!  He sounded like an idiot!

“So… what’s the moosh, Ray?”  I asked.

Then I catch a gander at his beak.  It had a good bend in it (Manny would say later, “big and to the left.”).  “Cripes!  It looks like you took a shot from a crow!”

He glared.  Tried to say something… and then it hit me.  His crushed shnoz effected his call… he had a “lisp”… funny breathing, too.  It even threw off his throat fluffing.  No wonder Miss Pigeon wasn’t interested!  She probably thought, “this guy with the fat beak is a twerp”, and she used my presence to take wing without so much as a “look me up later, sailor.”

“Thanks Thid!” was all he said to me.  And he was off, too.

Well… the word got around that Ray (now known as Beaky) was a hurting camper and we don’t see much of him.  Manny would say, “We gotta help Beaky out… Geeze, he’s not even interested in beating up crows.”  That’s when someone offered that maybe The Queeg could set him straight.

But the trouble is that not everyone gets to see The Queeg, let alone talk to him.  Particularly this Queeg.  Hell, he had been The Queeg of Central Park, and then The Queeg of Battery Park and Liberty Island… he turned down the post at South Street Seaport (too many tourists) to take on our District.  Central Park and the Battery… that’s quite the resume.

As I say… word did get around about the tough go Beaky was having… and it was just a matter of time before The Queeg caught wind of the trouble… And for reasons unknown, he took an interest in the case.

So one day Beaky is sitting off by himself on the Route 7 lamp post near Diaggeo (Manny referred to it as the “scene of the crime”) when Sweet Grey drops down for a schmooze.  Sweet, as everyone knows, is The Queeg’s Second… has been with him since Battery Park.

“Beaky, is it?”

“Hello Thweet.”

“Bad run of luck, huh?”

“You might thay I caught a bad break.”

“Yeah, shame.  The Queeg hates to see a good pigeon, a quality pigeon, playing against a tough hand.  Particularly when the quality pigeon hates crows as much as he does.”

The birds took in the sight below.  Traffic moving at a good pace on the Connector, I-95 to the South looked backed-up (nothing new there), and the Sound lay beyond…

“Whatdaya say Beaky… fine morning like today… you and me can take a fly over to Sprite Island and have a poke around.”

Their path took them by Ash Creek’s Parking lot where they dropped a “dirt load” on a couple of shiny BMWs and then thru Sea Gull and Canadian Geese Territory at Calf Pasture Beach.  When they got to the protected south side of Sprite they landed near the strip of sand.  No gulls… that was a surprise.  And there was The Queeg taking in some sun.

Sweet Grey walked away to leave the two pigeons alone.  After a period of silence… The Queeg looked at Beaky bobbed his stately head twice and said, “Here, pay attention & learn…”

And with this, The Queeg launched into a display the likes of which few birds have ever seen…

A bow, a stutter step to the left, a quick tail shake, back up two steps, pivots to the right, a bob, a throat fluff, circle right, back step, bow, circle left, pick up right leg kick to the side, two steps back, bow, bob, pick up left leg kick to the side, back step, three head bobs, tail shake… throat flutter, circle right, circle left, deep bow, hold pose, a throat puff & step in place.

“Important.  Take your time.  Forget the coo and the brrr. Remember, the kick… keep low, keep your bearing & hold the deep bow…”

Beaky took his turn.  The Queeg kept close watch, fine tuning his moves and it wasn’t long before Beaky had his kick combination down cold… and he even put in a hop and kick.  And The Queeg shook his head and laughed.

“Good job Beaky.  You’ll be fine.  Keep your motion.  Take your time.  Remember… you don’t have to thpeak… give them a thmile and a wink and let your thtuff do the talking.  Now go an knock the shit out of a crow.”

And that’s pretty much the way it happened. 

Beaky cut back on the fancy flying.  Oh… he was still good for taking a good run at the crows; but he turned the page on the nonsense dare-devil stuff.  We would just watch in marvel as he worked a playground… and it was pointed out that he never left a playground alone.

And Manny would say, “hey… do you think I should fly into a closed window?”

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One Day Among Many

Let me begin by saying that Big Mike always looked up to Lou, or “One Eyed Louie” as he was better known in our parts. And Mike looked up to him in more ways than one… first off, Big Mike wasn’t all that big. My Dad used to tell me you can’t measure someone’s size just by their size. You have to understand that my Dad would say alotta confusing things. It was his way. It would take me years to understand it. But I am here to tell you that in heart and spirit, none come bigger than Big Mike… even One Eyed Louie would tell you that.

You can call me “Fast Jimmie”. When I was a little guy I got kidded about how fast I could take a whiz. What can I say? The name just stuck. When I came “of age”, questions of speed can take on a different colour. I was always quick to point out that my speed didn’t apply to all things, particularly when it came to the ladies.

Me, Mike & Lou, we go back aways… to when we was mere “pups”… there was a group of us back then, Mean Mitzie, The Lump and the Honey Tramp… just a bunch of guys hanging out when we didn’t have to be some place else.

And my story is just from a day… a day when nothing much was going on. I guess I got to “the Farm” (that be Taylor’s Farm to you who don’t know), shortly after One Eyed.

I reckon Taylor’s is no more that fifteen acres… and that’s not counting the woods or the small pond. Fifteen good acres where a fellah can stretch his legs, enjoy the outdoors, chase a frisbee, maybe on a windy day citizens could fly a kite, and maybe, just maybe if a fellah got lucky, there would be an opportunity to “pitch a little woo.”

As I say… I knew that Lou was already there. No one takes a dump like Lou. One sniff, and it didn’t have to be a good sniff, and you knew it was him. Not that I would be one to kid One Eyed about the size or smell of his pile. But I have to smile. I loved watching others come upon that deuce and turn and walk the other way. Big Mike would say, “Kee-rist, Louie what d’yu eat?”

Lou would do a quick look around, “they must’ve let an elephant on the Farm”.

“An elephant? Pleeeeeeeze. We know it was you. And besides… an elephant’s heap would be smaller.” Lou didn’t appreciate that.

But we knew Lou for what he was: just a big lovable lug of a Newfoundland with a patch of white over one eye, which is precisely how he come on the moniker “one eyed.” But we all looked up to Lou, even that ugly Dane, Morty (who all us dogs despised) looked up to Lou.

I suppose you could look at Lou and think, “He’s big. He’s scary. He’s mean.” Or, “He’s big, slow and dumb!” Well… dumb he ain’t. There’s a day he got loose, tracked down his kids’ school bus, strolled down the hall of the school looking for their classrooms. The kids had to send him back home… on the bus no less. So much for dumb.

Most dogs who find that dump don’t think “dumb” either. They think, “big, scary and mean.”

And that just cuts up Big Mike. Mike is a Cairn. Or more correctly a “Cairn cross“. Mike would say, “So my Ma fooled around.” And then he would quickly add, “D’yu want to make something of it?”

Lou would just laugh. He had nothing to prove. Big Mike? Every day he had to stand up for himself… which bothered him none. He stood up for others, too. And that he loved. It was like his “calling.” It gave him swagger. His attitude. And it was why even Lou gave Mike his “props”.

So there we were on this day… even the Honey Tramp. Just enjoying an afternoon… taking in some air, lifting a leg here and there, looking for some ladies… Mike would say, “I hear that what’s-her-name the black Standard Poodle is coming into heat…”

Lou would laugh, “Yeah, too bad Mike… I left my step ladder at the house!” We all cracked up.

Mike? He winked, “Nah, when she sees me, she’ll just crouch low.”

“I believe it…” That was from the Honey Tramp. Folks, Honey Tramp is a good sort; but he is as dumb as a persimmon. But on this, I have to agree. Mike just has a way with the ladies. It’s his nature, the attitude.

On this day, Beauty (that was the name of the Black Standard) was not at the Farm… and no other ladies of interest either. Just us… us and our kids.

Our kids. Fun, but a pain in the tail. You know how it is. Always getting into trouble. And Lou’s kids have to be the worst. Trouble just finds them. Now Lou is very good about taking care of them (after all, he went looking for them at school)… but maybe he was dropping a second load… but he wasn’t there when that snot Richie pushed down Lou’s Jennifer.

Well, Mike saw this… and he was not going to take any of it.

He took one look at Richie’s ankle and made a bee line. No “excuse me, do you mind…” he launched himself at exposed skin.

Mike would always say, “make noise and look for skin.”

A good bite on the ankle and he caught some calf, too… and he sent Richie running and crying to his Mommy. It was over in an instant.

When the “dust settled” Lou returned from his business… he approached Jennifer, gave her a big reassuring wag, a smile and several licks on her scraped knee. And then One Eyed lumbered over to Mike… to give him a smile and a sniff… Big Mike. Mike who didn’t understand size; but Mike who had spirit, Mike who had heart. Mike who knew what to do and when to do it.

We all felt pretty good about things. We all went over to the tall reeds by the pond and lifted our legs. Even the Honey Tramp.

There would be times that Lou would chide Mike about over reacting… taking things too far.

But on that day, just one of many… that big Newfoundland looked up to Big Mike, just like the rest of us did.

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Something for Under the Tree

When Christer Fuglesang of Sweden joined the Mission Crew of Shuttle STS-116, he was armed with his “Christmas List”. It was a list that was the result of careful thought and planning. Christer has been involved in Space Programs since 1992 when he and fellow Swede, Thomas Reiter were selected for the Euromir 95 Mission… Reiter on the primary team and Fuglesang on the backup crew.

It was a mission that lasted 179 days and Fuglesang acted as the Prime Crew Interface Co-ordinator.

On the current Mission, Fuglesang will be remaining in space for six months. Six months that will stretch over the Christmas Holiday. And based on Kreiter’s previous experience in Euromir 95, he put together a list of somethings he would like to find “under the tree” at the Space Station Mir.

1. 10,000 piece Big Ben puzzle

2. Case of Akvavit

3. Large order of Moo Shu Pork (extra pancakes)

4. Playboys (lots and lots of Playboys)

5. Decent toilet paper

6. Ant farm

7. Another case of Akvavit

8. Playboy CD-ROM version

9. DVD Snow White Does the Dwarves (Collector’s Edition w/the 2 disc special interactive features)

10. Box of Crayolas. 64 Colours w/the sharpener in the back

and if there’s room?… another case of Akvavit and some Heineken and a blow-up doll named Inga

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Bodegas Magnanos

I love wine. In descending order: Red Bordeaux, White Burgundy, Brunello di Montalcino. But to truly love wine is to appreciate the greatness of wines from other countries, from other regions… And as mush as I love wine from France and Italy, it is the wines from Spain that I find the most intriguing.

For those who don’t know… there are more acres under vine in Spain than in any country in the world. And the region in Spain that I find the most intriguing is the Priorat. Unlike Rioja or Ribera del Duero where the Tempranillo grape is “king”, the Priorat features other grape varietals: Cabernet, Grenache, Mourvedre to name but a few.

This tiny region is noted for its steep hillsides… vineyards that have to be terraced into the slopes, and terraced into miserable rocky soil that the Spanish call pedazos. Soil that is fit for no other form of agriculture other than cultivation of vine. Grape vines that get “challenged” by circumstances — high altitude, miserable ground — this stresses root systems that now have to struggle to “earn” their nutrients. This is one of the key ingredients for quality. “Stressed” vines are a basis for lower grape yields, which in turn produces a higher concentration of fruit flavour… and makes for better wine.

This is textbook Priorat. Northern Spain, overlooking the sleepy Mediterranean Sea. And the vineyards of Bodegas Magnanos are cut into the steepest hillsides in Europe. Planted to Cabernet, Syrah, Grenache and small amount of Tempranillo… the vineyards are totally tended by hand.

From one generation to the next, caring hands have worked the Estate of Magnanos in Europe’s highest altitude vineyards… easily considered the most difficult terrain in all of Europe. It is a rare day when a worker doesn’t lose his footing on the declive resvaloso and tumbles to injury, or worse… to death.

Even in harvest the workers are unable to bring collection baskets to the vines… they must negotiate the treacherous inclines to harvest the vintage with only their meagre garb on their shoulders. A distinctive hat, the sombrero de jeton gallego, and specially designed trousers, pantalones flojos, that are equipped with unique pockets, bolsa de huevos, which the workers use for grape storage.

Workers climb up and down the slopes (an incline that has been compared to the north face of the Matterhorn)… lucky to make the trip three times in a ten hour day. It takes a worker four days to harvest enough grapes to produce a single bottle of wine.

From the base of the slopes, the bolsa de huevos are emptied of their treasured supply of Grenache etc., etc. and put into leather satchels which then get loaded on to a team of donkeys, burros borrachos, who make their way down hairpin trails to the five hundred year old winery.

“Greeting” the harvest is the combined wine making team of Michel Rolland of Bordeaux, Franco Bernabei of Tuscany and Susanah Balbo of Mendoza… the ultimate “dream team” of wine makers… hard to imagine a finer assemblage of talent.

Their efforts are pro bono. They provide their work without a fee… theirs is a “labor of love”, the opportunity to work on the most exclusive wine on the planet. Only 30 to 40 cases are made… in their most recent vintage, 2001… only 34 cases were produced. Each bottle was hand numbered and signed by each of the wine makers.

Aged in Limousin oak for 30 months in barriques made by the renown Belgian cooper DeLesseps, the wine has been served at every Court in Europe over a five hundred year period. Magnanos was the coronation wine for Queen Victoria, the marriage wine for Tsar Nicholas II and Alexandra and served at the country estate of the Duke of Windsor and Wallis Simpson.

After each vintage a small portion of the vineyard is burned in preparation for re-planting. Slaughtered goats are roasted over the aged vines and young wine is blended with leche fermentada de chiva to create an intoxicating beverage to salute the success of the harvest. Tradition.

Think of the great wines of the world… the rare wines. Wines that stand beyond the hype. Wines that are not reviewed, wines that don’t appear in the press. Wines that can’t be “googled”. Wines for the cognoscenti. You can count those wines on your left hand… and Bodegas Magnanos will be there.

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Coming Out Even

She arranged the lunch on her doily. “I have a thermos bottle with cream of tomato soup, ” she said. “And a lobster-salad sandwich on thin slices of white bread. I have celery, carrot sticks and black olives, and a little cardboard shaker of salt for the celery. And two plums and a tiny basket of cherries. And vanilla pudding with chocolate sprinkles and a spoon to eat it with.”

“That’s a good lunch,” said Albert…

And she made the lobster-salad sandwich, the celery, and the carrots and the olives come out even.

He glanced over to her. It was rare for her to fall asleep before the end of a story; but her eyes had closed, her long eye lashes drawn like a shade on her soft cheeks.

There would be no scritches, rubs and pats to complete their nightly ritual… sleep had been too powerful to overcome.

She had said that it was his turn to pick out a story… and without hesitation he had chosen Bread and Jam for Frances. He loved all of the Frances stories by Russell Hoban… and he loved the accompanying drawings by Lillian Hoban, done in soft charcoal, tinted with colour. The stories of the little badger, her sister Gloria… and her friends, just put him in a good mood. After a long day at work, it was hard to tell who needed the comfort of good story more…

In telling the story, he would sometimes linger on a page if a drawing had a special allure. He would say that Frances’ expression reminded him of their Keeshond.

And then there would be a day when they got a new Keeshond and they would name her Gloria after Frances’ little sister. And all agreed that a puppy Keeshond did have a badger quality. And in particular, a Gloria quality.

These thoughts passed thru his mind one winters’ morning. Thoughts from long, long ago. The sun had struck clear, and there would have been a time that he would have found some reason to be outside to enjoy the cold crisp air of a Sunday morn… but now he preferred to remain inside…

The placement of his favorite chair had been carefully planned to take advantage of the sun that would come bursting thru the den’s southeast facing windows.

She would place the knitted afghan to cover his lap and legs once strong, now gone frail… and she smiled. A smile he returned. His mind carried him to the stair landing of his boyhood home… to a place that he would seek out for its sun… a perfect place for a morning nap. A place that he would share with the dogs… a perfect spot for a little boy and his two dogs to re-charge their batteries.

There was no dog by his side now. Instinctively he pivoted his head slightly so he could feel the sun flush on his face. If he could have stopped the sun’s path from traveling further to the west, and to another part of the room, he would have done so. He so wanted the sun to remain exactly where it was.

She had been busy all morning with her fledglings. You know how it is. Getting breakfast ready for small ones. Grabbing some coffee. Throwing a load of wash in. Answering some emails & after lunch she would be taking the kids to the pond to ice skate… lunch being somewhat of a challenge for her fussy eaters.

But before lunch she had a treat to share… as she herded the small ones into the den… and gathered by his chair, they listened as she read her story…

“What do you have today?” said Frances.

“I have a cream cheese-cucumber-and-tomato sandwich on rye bread,” said Albert. “And a pickle to go with it. And a hard-boiled egg and a little cardboard shaker of salt to go with that. And a thermos bottle of milk. And a bunch of grapes and a tangerine. And a cup custard and a spoon to eat it with”… Albert made the sandwich, the pickle, the egg, and the milk come out even.

And before she completed the story, she noticed that his eyes had closed. And while sleep did not draw him away, the sweetness of memory did.

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