At the Painful Memory Erasure Lab

          Scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology replaced negative memories of electric shocks in mice with the pleasurable one of mingling with mice of the opposite sex.

The Boston Globe

After working as an experimental subject for six months–half my lifespan–I was ready to relax a bit.  No more running round in mazes, responding to stimuli all day for me; these were supposed to be my golden months fer Christ sake, a time to reflect on what I’d accomplished on behalf of the institution of higher leaning I’d served so well.

But my plan to glide to a soft landing in the eternal quiet of the grave was hit by crosswinds, a downdraft and a stupid seagull in my right engine, so to speak.  I’d been shocked so many times that the slightest sound–a fellow test subject chomping on Charles River Rat Pellets, the Grey Poupon of mouse lab cuisine, for example–would send me up the wall and out of my cage.  That sort of behavior–as you might imagine–is frowned upon by underpaid adjunct lab assistants.


“I don’t care if you got an audition with the Boston Pops–pipe down!”

 

So out of the kindness of the humans’ hearts–I’ll continue when you stop laughing–they came up with cutting edge genetic tools to try to alter the emotional context of painful memories.  The hope is that someday they’ll be able to use them to erase the painful recollections that torture humans like Jerry, my personal human lab rat.  I see them come over his face whenever somebody brings a Diet Coke into the lunch room here at the Otto and Ruth B. Tucker Memorial Science Building; he recalls his senior high school prom, the pinnacle of his adolescent dating experience, when he spilled a cup of the brown beverage all over the white gown worn by his date, the zaftig Clydia Jean Wingo.

I want to help the poor sap, so I volunteered, hoping both he and I might find  surcease of our respective sources of pain.

And so here I am sniffing xenon gas, hoping that I won’t be so jumpy when I hear loud noises from now on.  This better be the decaf version.

Hmm–colorless and odorless, sort of like vodka.  Swirl it around the old nostrils, then with one big gulp like a swimmer getting a mouthful of air on the breath stroke, I swallow it down.

Not bad–not bad at all.  Now, to see if this stuff works.

They start flashing images designed to recall the pain of electric shock; an electric chair, a toaster oven, an annoying solo by a “shred” guitar player.  Okay, I can handle this.  Is that all ya got?  C’mon, show me a live 220 volt wire or something.

They keep ‘em coming, but all I can think of is–mingling with mice of the opposite sex.  How . . . pleasant.

So this is what my new life will be like; all the pain and suffering I’ve been through before to earn my daily bread–gone!  And in its place images of Veronica, the cute little Peromyscus leucopus over in the hamster wheel division.  Gosh, she’d be so nice to come home to, as the old Cole Porter song put it.

What?  What’s that?  Her image seems to be speaking to me, as in a dream: Please put the lettuce away in the fridge, you don’t like it room temperature?  Don’t take a nap with my head on the throw pillows?  Could I at least send my mother-in-law a birthday card for once?  Would it kill me not to roll my eyes when Grey’s Anatomy is on?

Call the FDA–the cure is worse than the disease.

9 Months on the Picket Line

It has been more nearly four decades since I returned to work from a noon union meeting to find myself, along with about twenty others, locked out of the printing plant where we worked. Thus began a labor dispute that began in confusion, descended into torpor and ended in disarray.

The difference between labor and management at the time the dispute started was miniscule; less than twenty-five cents an hour. When a union rejects an employer’s last and final offer the employer is entitled to prevent employees from returning to work–hence the term “lock out,” which is now familiar to millions of Americans because Americans making millions–pro football and basketball players–have both been locked out in the past few years.

When we learned we’d been locked out, we organized a picket line, as was our right. For five weekday shifts of three hours a day each union member would receive $100. Not a big weekly wage, even in the mid-70′s, but if you found a part-time job or one with night hours, you could do all right.


Fred Allen

 

Our picket line was set up not on a city street but on Route 20 in central Massachusetts; to steal a formula from radio comedian Fred Allen, a nice place to visit–if you’re a truck. There are no sidewalks along that highway, which was originally the Boston Post Road, the first mail route between Boston and New York, and which subsequently developed into a major trucking route. With no foot traffic, our picket line was visible only to cars and trucks speeding by, and we must have struck passers-by as pathetic, or even ridiculous. The scenery rarely changed except for the weather and the flora; in the winter the field beside us was covered in snow, and in the summer a few blue cornflowers bloomed. I recall once or twice people stopping their cars–at significant personal risk–to give us donuts. More frequent were uplifted middle fingers–the state bird of Massachusetts.

In the United States picketing is legal as long as workers do not intimidate others or obstruct a public way; hence, the need to keep moving, so as not to block other’s passage. As is the case with most employers, the owner of the printing company hired an off-duty policeman to make sure we complied with that requirement, but given that the only object likely to cross our picket line was a truck, we eventually worked out a compromise. As long as we didn’t throw nails in the driveway, the cop wouldn’t force us to keep moving.


Marlon Brando in “On the Waterfront”

 

In another, less isolated location, our picket line might have attracted students, politicians or even an entertainer or two; the young and idealistic, and those who live by publicity and like to make a show of solidarity with the working man. A forlorn stretch of highway an hour’s drive from Boston is, as you can imagine, an inconvenient forum for grandstanding by elected officials and actors.

If you are planning on picking a fight with an employer, my recommendation is that you consider not merely location, but also the season. Picket lines are manned (and womanned) by human beings, whose enthusiasm for concerted action may be expected to cool along with the temperature. We chose the month of November to take a stand, which meant that we were soon walking in a New England winter.

You learn a lot about a person when you’re assigned to walk with them in the cold and they skip out on you; to paraphrase an old country song, when nobody shows up, I’ll know it’s you. For the most part, such absences passed without comment. Our shop steward, who received and handed out the strike pay, might give someone a look of disapproval as she handed over his weekly check, but she had kids, and couldn’t spend her off hours taking attendance, and we weren’t going to turn each other in; it would have made what was a boring task into an unpleasant one.

As one considers the various players in the drama that a picket line affords, the difference in economic status begins to grate. The plant owner, who ultimately decided to sell his business, made out all right. The union bosses drove nicer cars and had nicer clothes than we did. The lawyers for the two sides, we were told, were paid hundreds of dollars an hour–a sum beyond our wildest dreams of avarice–and yet nothing of consequence ever seemed to happen as a result of their efforts.

Ultimately, running a union is a business, and the men who controlled our union weren’t going to pay us to picket forever. Just as we had been locked out of the plant, we were eventually told that we would receive no more strike pay. We could continue to walk the picket line, but there’d be no money in it.

At about that time the National Labor Relations Board handed down its decision; the owner was within his rights to lock us out, and our claims of unfair labor practices were denied. We could go back to work at the hourly wages that had been in effect when the dispute started, but none of us would receive back pay–except for one man, Hector, who had not yet become a member of the union when the dispute started, nine months before. The boss’s actions were deemed unfair in his case.

I got nine months’ worth of strike pay for my time on the picket line, plus the material for a play that has been performed twice in New York but never in Boston or Worcester, a prophet being without honor in his own country, I supposed. It’s ironic that each time the cast was composed entirely of non-union actors. I paid them only what I could, not union scale, and still lost money.

I also gained a few lessons which have proved useful over the years. First, taking a stand on principle can be costly, and you can’t eat principle. A good thing to know when you feel the urge to sacrifice yourself for a noble cause, or the theory of an armchair radical. (That knowledge notwithstanding, I’ve taken the plunge a few times since in support of the cause of inner-city education.)

And second, if you pick cornflowers for your girlfriend, by the time you get to her apartment they will have lost their blue color and turned a mottled, grayish white.

The bloom fades from some bright ideas more quickly than others.

Ask Mr. Furniture

Refinishing furniture can be a fun–and profitable!–hobby for those who have a creative side and enjoy inhaling toxic fumes.  Mr. Furniture answers your questions and helps you turn “gunk” to “glow” and “crap” to “crapola.”

Dear Mr. Furniture–

I have a bone to pick with you.  I have been after my husband for years to refinish the chifferobe in our bedroom.  I inherited it from my mother, just barely gettting it out of her house before my sister-in-law had a chance to grab it.

Well, “Floyd” (not his real name in case his sister is reading this) finally agreed to start on it Labor Day weekend but he is not very “handy” so he asked me what he should do.  I read Chapter 3 of your book “From Junk to Jewels!” where it says it takes about a quart of alcohol to remove the finish from an average-sized chifferobe.  I told “Floyd” and went to the regional meeting of the Daughters of Ruth at our church, figuring I was entitled to some time off after hectoring that man for the better part of a week.

Well, when I come back he was asleep on the couch, passed out with a fifth of Old Crow in his hand.  I shook him until he woke up and I said “This is how you repay me for having sex with you once a week, regular as clockwork, for 29 years?”  It was a rhetorical question, I wasn’t expecting any real answer.

He blinks and says “Sorry, honey.  Burton’s Liquors didn’t have the quart bottle, so I had to make do with a fifth.”  This is all because of you Mr. Furniture, and I am going to complain to your newspaper syndicate.

(Mrs.) Opal Lee Vacca
Camdenton Mo.

Dear Ms. Vacca–

I must plead “innocent” to the charges.   I said use “wood alcohol,” not bourbon whiskey.  Had you followed my directions closely, your husband would be dead and this argument could have been avoided.

 

Dear Mr. Furniture:

I bought an old commode–I suppose there is no other kind with indoor plumbing being nearly universal now–which I would like to refinish and turn into a decorative conversation piece for my front parlor.

I considered a sewing table, then a buffet, then a coffee table, but it really is not suitable for any of these uses.  I have decided to make it into a baby grand piano and was wondering what color stain you think would go best.

Eve-Elise Brisker-Norton, Shrewsbury, Mass.

Dear Eve-Elise–

What a great idea–you certainly have an imagination!

I would use a darker stain, such as mahogany, English chestnut or Minwax #2718, “Espresso.”  Be sure to add plenty of white and black keys and your little project will be a “hit” the next time you have your artistic friends over.

 

Dear Mr. Furniture–

My husband Evan and I are practicing vegans, and strictly abstain from the use of animal products, even those that may have dinosaurs in them, such as motor oil.  I read the column in which you said “shellac–the traditional finish of the old cabinet-makers–is still the most widely used by the home refinisher.”  You said nothing about any animal products being used in its manufacture, did you?

Well, when we had our fellow vegan friends Tim and Lisa over for dinner of lentil soup, lentil bread, lentil loaf and and macrame pudding, I told them I had used shellac on an end table I found on the curb where a student had discarded it, and they were horrified.  “Don’t you know shellac starts out as a resinous substance deposited by the female lac bug on the trunks of trees in India?” Tim said.  He has been on Jeopardy! and won over a thousand dollars, and so is very smart.


Female lac bug, making a resinous deposit.

 

Well, of course word got out–Lisa is like that–and now we are no longer invited to the “nicer” vegan affairs and our children are shunned by other vegan children on the playground.

I have a hard time being sarcastic because I am a nice person, but any suggestions, Mr. Furniture?

Miriam Konitz, Evanston, Ill.

 

Dear Miriam–

Don’t get your animal-friendly underpants in an uproar!  No lac bugs are killed in the making of shellac, and they survive the process quite well unless you paint the stuff over them–which I’m sure you wouldn’t do.  In order to get back in the good graces of your vegan friends, why don’t you go through Tim and Lisa’s garbage and see if you can find a Burger King Whopper wrapper!


“Haven’t you got something a little more damaged?”

 

Dear Mr. Furniture–

This question may be more legal than refinishing, but here goes.  I import new furniture from my native Sweden and other Scandinavian countries, and sell it at a mark-up as antique.  There has been an anonymous posting on my store’s website making the absurd claim that this is unfair and deceptive–I suspect a disgruntled law student who tried to return a coffee table kit because he couldn’t figure out how to put it together.  “Mycket svar!” I told him, because it was more than 30 days after purchase and he did not have the sales receipt.

I am now afraid that he may take legal action.  Is there something I can do to bring myself in compliance with your annoying U.S. “consumer protection” laws?

Sven Bjorklund, Croton-on-Hudson, New York

 

Sven–

Welcome to our country, where commercial chicanery is now somehow suspect after two hundred years of robust economic growth under the motto “Caveat emptor.”

In order to satisfy the Fair Trade in Antique Furniture Act of 1994, you should follow this “safe harbor” procedure: Take all new furniture as soon as it is uncrated, and fire a shotgun at it.  Attach by a log chain to the back of a vehicle and drag around an asphalt parking lot for fifteen (15) minutes.  Drop down a basement stairway, then place in an open pickup truck bed and drive through a carwash.

Your “new” furniture will look as “good as old” when you get through, so don’t forget to mark it up another ten percent!

 

 

Tractor Pull Finds New Fans on Urban Streets

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.  First it was Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, an inexpensive lager favored by poor rustic whites and immortalized in the country song “Red Neck, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer,” then adopted by hipsters.  Then it was the music of Johnny Cash, whose rural noir look and tough guy attitude caught on with a generation of urban twenty-somethings more familiar with country clubs than country music.

pbr

Now another institution originally associated only with the sticks has come to the big city: tractor pulls, a motorsport in which self-described “po’ white trash” drag a heavy metal sled along a dirt track until they can go no further.  The competition has come to urban centers with a twist, however; instead of snarling, turbo-charged farm vehicles, city “power pullers” are limited to hybrids such as the Toyota Prius in deference to the green prejudices of highly-educated post-adolescent types who live in zip codes where the only cash crop is marijuana.

tractor

“There’s no way I could keep my girlfriend Lilith if I drove one of those gas-guzzling carbon-spewing monstrosities,” says Evan Wilentz, a barista at the Central Square Starbucks who’s thinking of going back to school to get a masters degree in phenomeno-phrenology, the study of what the study of philosophy does to your head.  “When she takes a cab she asks the driver not to idle at stoplights,” he recounts with an air of chagrin.
hybrid
273.6 volts of snarling environmental sensitivity!

 

Tractor-pulling season typically reaches its peak in late August around the country as the event is a staple at county and state fairs, and so the organizers of the first Green Power Pull in Cambridge history have followed suit to stage their event in unseasonably cool summer weather on Massachusetts Avenue, the busiest street in the town where brains are more highly valued than brawn.  “We need our students to get in touch with the rest of America,” says Eliot Shawn, a retired dean at the University of Southern New England, a “Gold” sponsor of the event.  “They’ll be bossing them around in a few years, so it’s important they learn how to relate.”

The finals pit Wilentz against Tynan Bigbee, a bartender at Paul’s Pub in Porter Square, whose Honda Accord Plug-In model has been modified, just like the midwestern tractor jockeys he sort of emulates.  “I added a lot of cool stuff,” he notes with pride.  “There’s a sun-roof, and a 6-CD changer and Blue Tooth.”

The two take their places at the starting line and, with the drop of a flag they are off, each dragging a sledge behind him onto which denizens of the Athens of America climb as their respective wussmobiles make their way down the street.

“I’m on!” squeals Melinda Pickets, a jewelry-maker who crafts earrings out of discarded bottle caps and road kill she finds in the street.  “It serves a dual purpose,” she tells this reporter.  “It gets ugly trash off the street and onto the earlobes of my customers.”


“Earrings out of a dead pigeon?  Awesome!”

 

“So am I!” shouts her friend Amy Fenster-Bender, a buyer at a used record store across the steet.

The two women are joined by others until the hybrid vehicles begin to slow, sputter and then peter out as they approach the Cambridge City Hall, famous for its outdoor musical chimes that annoy nearby residents at taxpayer expense.

“I’m gonna beat you!” Wilentz shouts at Bigbee over their engines’ whine, and it is indeed the Prius that triumphs over the Plug-In Accord by a nose.

But, like angry NASCAR drivers who have “swapped paint” down the straightaway at Talledega Superspeedway, the two are at each other’s throats as soon as the winner is declared, with Bigbee playing the part of the aggressor.

“You bastard!” he shouts and lunges at the Prius owner, grabbing him around the neck before an official from NEHTPA–the New England Hybrid Tractor Pull Association–separates them.

“What is your problem, man?” Wilentz counters, genuinely mystified as to the source of his rival’s anger.

“I woulda won if . . .”

“If what?”

“If I’d had a longer extension cord.”

The Ferris Wheel

“There’s nothing lonelier than a ferris wheel at night from a ways off,” he said.“You aren’t at the fair, and you want to be.  You hear the girls screaming from the rides, and you figure everybody’s havin’ a good time, and you’re not.  You want to get goin’ before the carnival closes for the night, but you know by the time you get there it’ll all be over—all the fun will be gone.”


He said this as we were cleaning up his truck.  The last kid had come up for ice cream a good half hour ago, and we had shut down the grill before that.  We were right next to the fairgrounds, but we were separated from it by the RV lot—surrounded by vans and pick-up trucks with camper compartments in the bed and over the cab.

“I’ve been workin’ this truck for exactly fifteen years now,” he said.

“Did your dad used to do it?”

“Yep, till he got too old.  Me and Charlie would help out as soon as we were old enough.  The truck body plant shuts down the last two weeks of August, so it’s a chance to make a little extra money.”

I was waiting to see if my girlfriend would show up.  She and her friend Pam had gone over to the midway to walk around one last time.  I hoped they hadn’t met anybody.  Candy was like that—a flirt.  The reason I liked her was the reason every other guy did.

“Is your girlfriend gonna swing by here or do you want a ride home?”

“She said she’d come back.”

“Waiting for a woman—get used to it, kid.”

He laughed softly.  “You can’t live with ‘em, you can’t live without ‘em, but either way, you’ll spend a good part of your life just sitting around waiting for ‘em.”

I nodded to show I kinda knew what he meant.  He acted as if waiting was boring, but it wasn’t for me.  It made me nervous, because I never knew if Candy would come back with a bunch of other kids, which I didn’t want.  I wanted to be alone with her.

“I’ll stay here for awhile longer if you want.  Why don’t you go take a shower down at the latrine?  You’ll feel better, and she’ll appreciate it.”

“It’s too late already.  If she comes by while I’m down there, she’ll just go home without me.”

“Well, I’ll make her stay.”

“Thanks.  I’d rather not take the chance.”

I dragged the trash bags over to his car and threw them in the trunk.When I came back he had closed up and was sitting on the steps that the little kids stood on to reach the ice cream window.  I sat down next to him.

“I know what you’re going through,” he said as he tapped a cigarette on the pack and lit it.  “I can remember when I was in eighth grade, first time I held a girl’s hand at a dance I was about ready to explode, and I don’t mean from gas.”

I laughed at that.  He was a good guy to work for.  “Was that who you married?”

“No, that was just puppy love.  By the time I was a sophomore I thought I’d found the real thing—hell, I knew I’d found the real thing.  I was getting’ it, fer Christ sake.”

I didn’t understand him.“What did you get?”

He looked at me like I was crazy.  “Poontang, what do you think?”

“Oh, right,” I said as if I’d understood all along.

“She was hot.  She talked me into it.  I wanted true love.”

“And that’s your wife?”

“No, she was gone by the beginning of the next school year.  But you figure—if we lived in the old days we woulda gotten married, had kids—that woulda been it.  But her dad was in the Air Force and got transferred way the hell up to New York.”

“Oh.”

“They lived right over there,” he said as he pointed to a lot where there used to be a trailer park, just across the highway, with the utility poles and the gravel streets the only sign there had ever been anything there.

“The Air Force’d move people in and out on short notice, so at any one time there might be five or six trailers empty.  The kids who lived there—the Air Force brats—knew where each one was as soon as a family’d leave.  You could have parties in there and no one would ever know about it.”

“Really?”

“Yeah.  They’d leave the beds behind, even the mattresses.It was government housing, all you owned was what you brought with you.  One time I told my mom I was staying over at a friend’s house and my girl and I spent the night in one of them empty trailers.”  He snorted a little laugh.  “We moved a stereo in there and listened to one album, over and over.  Then we fell asleep with our clothes on.We didn’t have sex that night.”

He was being so open with me, I asked him a question.  “Why not?”

“Neither one of us was ready for it.  We knew we weren’t.  Anyway, we were just lyin’ there when the sun came up, not wantin’ to face the day yet, getting our first exposure to the . . . uh . . . more everyday part of sleeping with someone, when one of the caretakers comes bustin’ through the door.”

“Holy cow—what did you do?”

“Nothin’.  When he said we had to leave, we left.  And he said don’t ever do it again.But we didn’t obey that part.”

“What did you do after that?”

“What came naturally.  We had gotten close that night, but the next time we went into the trailer park’s laundromat.  It closed up at eleven, but nobody checked on it.”

I tried to sound thoughtful, but I could barely contain myself.  I wanted to know how they did it.

“So what happened?”

“She picked me up from work with her girlfriend.  They had been working on a pint of rum.”

“Where’d they get it?”

“Floyd Williams, Sr., down at the ice plant.  They’d give him money and follow him over to the Sportsman’s Club.  He’d get them a bottle and keep the change.”

“I see.”

“Anyway, her girlfriend was in the front seat with her boyfriend, and she was all over me in the back seat. Everybody was pretty liquored up.”

“And you had a party in the laundromat?”

“Not a party. We turned out the lights and just drank for a while, pouring rum into cans of coke. Then her girlfriend left in the car and we were there alone. In the dark. Half drunk.”

“Uh huh.”

“One thing led to another.”

“Right.”

He was quiet for awhile, and took a drag on his cigarette.

“She was hot to trot, and . . . uh . . .mentally at least, I was not. “

“Why not?”

“Well, I’d just gotten offa workin’ eight hours in a barbecue restaurant and I smelled like a slab of ribs and was about as greasy.”

“What did you do?”

“Buddy, sometimes your body will do things your mind doesn’t want to.”

I was quiet for a moment.  “So that was your first time?”

“Sort of.  Since she’d been drinking, and I’d just got off work, neither one of us thought to bring a rubber.”

I was getting confused.  “So you didn’t do it?”

“No, we did.  Somehow with all the moanin’ and groanin’ we agreed I’d pull out.”

“Oh.”

“Which, when you’re sixteen and have never done it before isn’t as easy as it sounds.”

“Oh.”  I waited for him to start talking again, and when he didn’t I asked “So what happened?”

He dropped his cigarette in the dirt, and stepped on it.  “I pulled out, but I was scared shitless.  I figured she was pregnant for sure, and I got all upset.  I took off my undershirt and wanted her to, you know, like do something with it to catch the sperm.”  He snorted.“What the hell did I know—my biology teacher was a taxidermist.”

We both laughed.

“Then I walked her to her trailer and kissed her goodnight.  And we hugged each other and were both cryin’.  A hell of a way to lose your virginity, isn’t it.”

“I guess.”

We looked up towards the carnival when we heard a boom.  The fireworks had started, and we saw the first one explode high over the grandstand.  That meant that the fairgrounds would be closing up soon.

“Then I just started running,” he began.  “I ran across the highway, and into this field here.  It was a good mile and a half to my house, but if I cut through the fairgrounds I could shave a half mile offa that.  And as I was runnin’ through this field I threw the undershirt away.  Then I climbed over the gate at the fairgrounds and kept on running ‘til I got to the fence behind my house. And I crawled under and walked into the house like it was just another night.”

“Did your parents see you?”

“Yeah, my mom came downstairs.  My heart was pounding from running, and ‘cause I was upset, but I acted like it was just another night after work, we just had to stay later because—I don’t know, I made something up, dishwasher broke.  Have to say, I shoulda won an Oscar for my cool, calm performance.”

We sat there in silence.  There was one last question I was bustin’ to ask him, but couldn’t right away.  Then it just came out, the way sometimes you just jump in the water after standing there cold and scared.  “Did—did the undershirt thing work?”

He broke out laughing hard now.  “That’s a good one.I’m sure it didn’t, but she didn’t get pregnant.  I’ll tell you though, if you ever want to see time move in slow motion, that’s the way to do it.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re waiting to find out if your girl’s pregnant, and she’s countin’ the days, and tellin’ you how late she is.  You know what I’m talking about, right?”

“Yeah,” I said.“Sorta.”

“If she gets her period, she’s not pregnant.  If she doesn’t, she is.  So you’re waiting—“

He looked at me like a math teacher, expecting me to sum things up in my head.

“For her to get her period,” I said after a few seconds.

“That’s right.  She did, nothing happened, she moved away, and I moved on.”

I stared straight ahead, listening to the katydids.  After awhile I heard some voices talking low, approaching us.  It was Pam and Candy, done with the carnival for the night.

“Is this your girlfriend?” he asked.

“Yep.”

“Which one?”

“The one with the brown hair.”  I wanted to sound as if I’d been around, and was as experienced as he’d been at my age.“  I dated Pam—she’s the blonde—for awhile but decided I liked Candy better.”

“Man about town, huh?”

“You missed a great band,” Candy said as they walked up.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.  The Lavender Hill Mob.”

“I’ve heard of ‘em.”

“I’m Billy’s girlfriend Candy, and this is my friend Pam,” she said to Roy as she stuck her hand out.

“Nice to meet you both,” Roy said.  I could tell he liked Candy right away.  “I’ve heard a lot about you,” he said, looking at Candy.

“Did lover boy kiss and tell?” Pam asked with a smart aleck tone.  That was one of the reasons I broke up with her.

“Nope, just a man-to-man, heart-to-heart talk.”

“I thought men didn’t have those kind of talks,” Candy said.

“We do, when we run out of things to say about football,” Roy said.

“We’ve got to get home,” Pam said.  She wasn’t getting anything out of this.

“We’re closed and Billy’s done,” Roy said.  “He’s all yours.”

“Well, it was nice to meet you,” Candy said.  “I hope you survive the fair.”

“I hope I do too,” Roy said.  “Nice to meet you, Pam.”

“Same here,” she said.  She couldn’t care less.

We started to walk towards the highway and I turned around to say goodbye to Roy, and saw him looking at me.

“Take care of that girl, okay?” he said.

“I will.”

End of Summer Markdowns Trigger Preppy Doofus Stampede

NANTUCKET, Mass.  A blue-ribbon panel appointed to investigate a late August stampede on this tony vacation island has concluded that drastic end-of-summer markdowns on madras shorts, whale-motif ties and other “preppy” clothing triggered a crush of cheap WASP shoppers that left several people injured, one seriously.


Don’t go shopping without a tasteful shopping bag!

 

“It was a sales clerk’s worst nightmare,” said Endicott Wollaston, a retired Selectmen who chaired the committee.  “Hordes of trust fund beneficiaries rushing towards the sale table, with nothing to stop them but a maxxed-out credit card.”

 


“Funny, I bought a similar outfit.”

 

WASPs, or white, Anglo-Saxon Protestants, are an American ethnographic group that prefers expensive-looking clothing, but refuses to pay full price.  “I’d say they throw nickels around like they’re manhole covers,” says Willard Normandin, a long-time employee at Brooks Brothers in Boston, “but that applies more properly to pennies.”

prep
Preppin’ out for steppin’ out!

 

The market disruption was the result of a chilly summer, the coldest on record in the U.S., which kept vacationers off the island, according to retail industry experts.  “You had a build-up of unsold inventory, and a bunch of cheapskate buyers waiting until the last minute to save the most money,” noted Women’s Wear Daily New England regional editor Cynthia Smithson.  “We’re just fortunate that there were no endangered species standing in front of the madras Bermuda shorts.”

This One’s for Blanton

In an old joke a woman complains to her psychiatrist that her husband is uncommunicative.

“He never talks to me!” she exclaims.

“Take him to a jazz club,” the shrink says.

“What good will that do?” the woman asks.

“Everybody talks during the bass solo.”

And so it goes for the guys who provide the bottom, the foundation from which jazz is built upwards.  They labor in obscurity, less heard then felt unless and until everybody else takes a break, which the audience takes as a sign that nothing important’s going on.

In many cases this is true; there are journeymen of the instrument who are mere timekeepers–literally; they also serve who merely stand and pluck, as Milton might have said if he’d lived into the jazz age.  And until 1939 that was true generally, until Duke Ellington heard a young man named Jimmy Blanton playing with Fate Marable’s band aboard a riverboat in St. Louis.


Marable’s Cotton Pickers.

Ellington’s ear for prospective sidemen was keen; Blanton was unknown, and Ellington already had one, and sometimes two bassists in his ensemble.  Blanton was different, however; he was classically trained, or at least as much as a black man could be classically trained in 1939, and he could solo in a pizzicato fashion that had never been heard before.

Duke asked if he could sit in, and Marable–an old friend–said sure.  Without saying a word to Blanton, Ellington began to improvise and modulate through different keys.  Blanton didn’t miss a note, and when the two were done Marable–who had served as musical father to Louis Armstrong, among other jazz notables–said “How do you like my bass player?”  To which Ellington replied “He’s my bass player now.”

Ellington’s spontaneous offer of employment was accepted, the Duke paying royal family wages thanks to his broader media reach, and there began a burst of inspired creativity on the part of Ellington’s band that Blanton–a bassist, of all thing!–is generally credited with touching off.


Blanton and Johnny Hodges on alto

Blanton, unlike the run-of-the-mill bassist, created solos that people sat silent to listen to and which Ellington, as was his style, wove into the fabric of his compositions instead of leaving them at the fringe.  Blanton’s work on Ko Ko, Jack the Bear and, most memorably to these ears, Pitter Panther Patter, was both useful and ornamental; it laid down the rhythm, but it was never satisfied with that utilitarian function.   He created melodies of his own, in some cases inspiring the Duke to go chasing after him, like two kids at play.

Blanton was a frail, other-worldly creature; thin and scholarly in appearance, he would put down the receiver when women called his hotel room on the road, saying “Just a minute, I’ve got to finish what I’m doing.”  Then he’d return to his practice and forget that there was a woman waiting for him if he’d only pick up the phone.  As it turned out, Blanton’s fey disposition had a physical cause; he suffered from congenital tuberculosis, and was forced to leave the Ellington band only two years after joining it.

Ellington and bassist Ray Brown recorded a fine tribue to Blanton in 1973, This One’s for Blanton, which was reissued by the Musical Heritage Society in 1992.  It’s good, and Ray Brown had few equals among bassists of his generation, but he wasn’t Jimmy Blanton.

Blanton died in 1942, leaving a legacy you can hear in every bass solo played today–if everyone would just be quiet and listen.

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