A Day in the Life of a Spritzer Girl Organizer

          The National Labor Relations Board ruled that a small group of cosmetics and fragrance workers at a Macy’s store in Saugus, Mass. can be organized separately from other employees.

The Wall Street Journal

cosmetics

It’s never been easy bein’ a labor organizer, but right now it’s never been harder.

Private sector union membership has dropped through the roof, or maybe I mean the floor.  It was 16.8% in 1983, it’s 6.7% now.  That’s why we gotta go after the minnows, because there ain’t no big fish to fry no more.

Which is why I’m standin’ outside Macy’s, bein’ as surreptitious as possible.  I’m trying to organize the girls at the in-store Beauty Bar into the International Sisterhood of Cosmetics and Fragrance Workers.  Yeah, go ahead and laugh, but I want to be the guy going toe-to-toe with Big Perfume fightin’ for the rights of spritzer girls!

What I gotta do is catch ‘em as they come out the door and tell ‘em how the big department store where they work is gettin’ the gold, while they get the shaft.  An employer can exclude me from organizin’ on the premises, so go ahead, exclude me out, I can still get all the signatures I need as long as I got the right, shall we say, “incentive.”

cosmetics1
“You’ve got some kind of goober between your teeth.”

 

That’s why I loaded up on every woman’s dream: handy, convenient small appliances!  Just the thing to turn a working girl’s few hours away from the sweatshop atmosphere of the cosmetics counter into a miracle of efficiency.  I’ve got a dishwasher-safe countertop donut maker, a Salad Shooter, a Dust-Buster–I should be all set.   Ooh–here comes a poor, oppressed spritzer girl now.  It’s Jeenie, who works the noon to 2/5 to 7 split shift.

cosmetics2
“Absolutely–nose hair highlighting is VERY popular these days.”

 

Hey, Jeenie.  Al DiBartolo of the ISCFW.  What’s that?  Only the best friend a working girl slavin’ away on her feet all day at a cosmetics counter ever had, that’s what–the International Sisterhood of Cosmetics and Fragrance Workers.  Say, how would you like to better your wages and working conditions, huh?  Sure you would–EVERYBODY would!  Well, that means you gotta join together with your sisters at the . . . what’s that?  They ain’t your sisters?  They ain’t even your friends?  If you had a chance you’d scratch Mimi LaFrance’s eyeballs out?  Whoa–that’s no way to level the playing field with the overwhelming bargaining power of greedy bosses to get what’s coming to you.  You gotta band together–sisterhood is powerful!  Listen, I got this nice Dustbuster here for ya–9.6 volt cordless model, it really sucks . . .

Whadda ya mean I really suck?  I’m just tryin’ to help ya girlie.  Oh yeah?  Sez who?  Same to you!  Yer gonna be sorry when we get this place organized.  Don’t come crawlin’ around, begging me ta make ya shop steward.  Blow it out your panty hose!

dustbuster
Dustbuster:  Didn’t seal the deal.

 

Jeez, what a bitch.  Guess I’ll have to catch the next . . . okay, I got a live one here.  Tina Del Guidici–generally regarded as Queen of Mascara, Eyeliner and Blusher.  She’s a triple threat!  Hey, Tina, great job you did on that lady with the oily T-Zone.  It was like the Exxon Valdez there, you was terrific.  Say, we’re having an organizational meeting tonight, it would be great if you could come, we’re trying to get some dignity for you cosmetic and spritzer gals.  Better wages ‘n hours ‘n stuff.  I got a little somethin’ for youse, it’s a gen-you-wine Salad Shooter by Presto, this thing is like the Harley-Davidson of hand-held electric shredders and slicers.  It slices, dices, chops and . . . what’s that?  You don’t like to cook?  You want rich guys to take you out to dinner?

salad shooter
Slice the big ones!

 

Well, jeez, if you’re gonna throw your lot in with the 1% instead of your comrades storming the barricades of exfoliants and lip gloss, that’s your business, but I’d think it’d be nice to make your guy a home-cooked meal every now and . . .

Say what?  I’ll have you know I may be a prick but I’m not a little one.  I should do what to your yeast-infected . . . do you kiss your mother with that mouth?

Well, all I can do is try.  I never met a labor force so unwilling to do what’s necessary to improve their lot a lot.  You’d almost think they think they’re . . . better than their sisters in misses and juniors and their brothers in snow tires and men’s outerwear.  I can’t imagine why, just because they spend 16 hours a day lookin’ at themselves in the mirror.

doughnut

Hey, here comes a prospect.  Lu Ann Bemish-Slaughter.  Hasn’t made enough money to change back to her maiden name since she dumped her no-count loser boyfriend.  She’s low-hanging fruitcake!

Hey Lu Ann, how ya doin’.  Al DiBartolo of the International Sisterhood of Cosmetics and Fragrance Workers.  We’re trying to organize to get you “gals” a pay raise and benefits so we’re offering one-time come-ons like this beautiful Sunbeam Donut Maker, regularly $28.99 at Target but it’s yours free if you’ll sign this card sayin’ you want . . . wait, what?

You don’t need no donuts?  Well, how was I to know you was in Weight Watchers?  I mean, except for your thunder thighs there you’re lookin’ pretty . . .

Hey, officer–arrest that woman for . . . anti-union violence!

Boring Our Children to Safety

They’re at it again,” my wife said with concern.

I looked up and saw flames rising from a pile of dead branches off in the  distance. Another night, another bonfire in the woods beyond the stone wall that  separates our property from conservation land.

“They’re just kids being drunken, destructive, nihilistic kids,” I said as I  knocked back the spit hit at the bottom of my bottle of Bud Light Lime and  returned to Paradise Lost, the special 347th anniversary edition that  comes with the free t-shirt of John Milton.


Milton: Preferred his bonfires on the  beach.

 

“We should do something to stop them,” my wife said, growing alarmed as the  flames climbed higher.

“I cleaned out the brush at the back of the lot,” I said. Maybe it was the Milton, but I seemed to speaking in blank verse.


Bud Light Lime: Cleanses the pallet for late  night blank verse slams.

 

“No, I’m thinking someone will get hurt,” she said. “One of the boys will get  drunk and fall in it, or maybe one of the girls will get too close and her scarf  will catch on fire.”

“Well, what do you suggest I do?” I asked.

“You could go out there and bore them away. You’re pretty good at that.”

I stood up and squinted, the better to see what was going on. “I don’t know,”  I said. “It’s been a long time since I took on a crowd that big.”

“When was that?”

“The American Society of Chiropodists convention, 1999.”

“Please, do something,” my wife said. “If anybody gets hurt we might be  blamed–for doing nothing.”

She was right about that. In today’s litigious society, because of obnoxious  lawyers like me you can’t be too careful.  Still I hesitated, but then I reflected that I’m in the sixth decade of my life; I’m somewhat concerned about my legacy as a bore, my place in the history of boredom.  When I die, I’d like to be remembered as one of the greats, like William Haley.  The sentimental, interminable versifier, a patron of William Blake, not the Father of White Rock ‘n Roll.

Bill Haley
Not that Bill Haley.

 

“Okay,” I said grimly. Like Gary Cooper in High Noon, I was too  proud to run.

I hacked my way through the tall grass and came to a clearing where the kids  were seated around the fire. I recognized a few of them; Derek, the scrappy,  pass-first point guard from my U-12 CYO basketball team; Chris, the pot-smoking  son of pot-smoking aging hippie parents; Meghan, the nimble vegan vixen who  introduced my elder son to the joys of . . . uh . . . BK Veggie Burgers in the  front seat of our 2004 Toyota Highlander.

“Hi kids,” I said affably as I ducked under a pine tree branch. “How’s it  going?”

The gang looked up at me with surprise. They thought they were beyond the  prying eyes and censorious looks of old farts like me.

“Hi, Coach,” Derek said. There was silence; I think they expected me to be  judgmental, to tell them to put the fire out and go home, but that’s not how I  operate. I accept teenagers as they are, in the fullness of their adolescent  stupidity. It’s why we get along so well.

“What’s up?” I asked, my voice a model of equanimity.

“Uh, we came out here because we got bored of playing video games,” Chris  said.


Tennessee Tuxedo and Chumley

 

“I don’t blame you,” I said. “You know, when I was a kid . . .”–I hesitated  for just a moment to see if I had their eyes rolling yet–”we didn’t have video  games, but we had great cartoons.” I waited for someone to say “Really?” or “No  kidding?” Hearing nothing, I continued.

“Tennessee Tuxedo, Top Cat, Underdog.”

Again, silence. Finally, the vegan girl spoke. “I think I saw Underdog in the  Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade once.”

“That’s him!” I said with enthusiasm. I was glad I was getting through to  them. “Those cartoon shows had great theme songs,” I said, as one of the boys  stood up, tried to conceal a quart bottle of malt liquor under his shirt and  shuffled off.  “Come on and see, see, see–Tennesee Tuxedo!” I sang.

They were good listeners, those kids. They sat there and seemed to hang on my  every word.

“The Top Cat theme went like this: ‘Mmmmmmmm–Top Cat! The indisputable  leader of the gang! He’s the boss, he’s the king, but above everything, he’s  the most tip-top–Top Cat!’

“I’m not really into cartoons,” one of the kids said when I was done.

“That’s okay,” I said. “There’s plenty of things we can talk about. How  about–life insurance?”

To say that the kids were stunned by this segue would have been a  gigantic understatement. I truly don’t think they’d even  considered life insurance before.

“You know, there are basically two different kinds of life insurance,” I said  quickly, before I lost their attention.

A kid whom I’d heard the others call “Dragon” on the soccer field spoke up.  “What difference does it make if you’re dead?”

“Well, there’s whole life, which has an investment component, and there’s  term life, which is just a basic death benefit,” I said, passing on the wisdom  of the ages. “Pretty soon, one of your classmates will become a life insurance  saleman, and he’ll start hounding you to buy whole life.  Don’t let him do  it!”  I said this with a stern tone of admonishment.  I didn’t want these  kids to go down the wrong path in life.  “Buy cheap term life, and put the  difference between the premiums into an S&P 500 index fund!”

“You really seem to know a lot,” said a Goth girl in a black S&M restraint-style bodice. “I’m going to go home and write this all down before I forget it.”

“Good idea,” I said cheerfully as she walked off with three others. I noticed  that the fire was dying out, but some of the hard-core kids were holding on,  hoping for something to break the dreary monotony of the sheltered lives they live in our upscale zip code.


Paul Goodman, sticking burning leaves in his  mouth out of alienation.

 

I looked into their eyes and saw a great void–a blank where their  imaginations should have been. “Do you guys have summer jobs?” I asked  after a while. As Paul Goodman wrote in Growing Up Absurd: Problems of Youth  in the Organized Society, one of the reasons adolescents rebel is the lack  of meaningful work available to them.

“I’m working at the snack bar at the country club,” one of them said after a  while.

“You know,” I began, “that reminds me of the summer I spent driving an ice  cream truck. That damn jingle–‘Ding, ding, ding–da DING ding  ding’–drove me crazy!”

I turned to face them with an avuncular smile–and they were gone!

Just another day at the office, for a full-bore bore.

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Kids: They’re Cute When They’re Young.”

Norm Bladdon, Private G.I.

I screwed the top back on the bottle of J.T.S. Brown bourbon I kept in my desk drawer at Mass. Gastrointestinal Hospital, or “Mass Gas” as it is more commonly known, and stared out the window at the thin sliver of the Charles River I could see from my decidedly unprestigious office.

I’d had a long, hard fall from the pinnacle of the profession, which I occupied to the exclusion of any other practitioner a paltry three years ago. It was then that I made the mistake of accepting a mouse pad, a coffee mug and a fleece pullover with the logo of Upchux, an experimental anti-reflux drug, on the left breast, right where you’d get heartburn.

The next thing you know an anonymous tipper had turned me into the State Board of Medicine for accepting an illegal gratuity, and my license was suspended for two years. Sure, I was able to make some money on the side, selling Tums to fans stupid enough to eat the Italian sausage, peppers and onions on sale outside Fenway Park, but I had to sell my house and my BMW. After a while they let me come back and look at X-rays–whoop-de-freaking doo–and every day my stomach would churn when I saw Mr. Anonymous Himself–George Heinz-Ward–stroll into my old office with its stunning river view. He insisted that people pronounce his first name European-style: “GAY-org,” not “Jorge.” If that wouldn’t drive you to drink, I don’t know what would.

I was tired. It was time to knock off for the day and head to Bill’s Pub, voted Boston’s Most Depressing Bar for the fourth consecutive year, and try to turn the broken shards of my medical dreams into beach glass with wave after wave of Bill’s long-neck Budweisers.

I had turned off the fluorescent overhead light, leaving just the muted downward glare of my desk lamp to see by, when I felt the presence of something warm and humid at my door.

“Excuse me–Dr. Bladdon?” If kittens could talk, their purrs would sound like hers.

“That’s me,” I said, turning around slowly. I didn’t want to startle whatever feline presence had come to visit.

“My name is Margaret Stamfield. I’ve . . . heard you are an expert in the diagnosis and treatment of–digestive diseases.”

I didn’t know what her game was, but I sure wanted to find out. If it was “Operation,” I hoped she’d make my buzzer sound.

“That’s a subject on which there is a difference of opinion,” I said in a flat tone. I was a bitter man, but from what I’ve heard women like guys who are positive, cheerful, upbeat. I can’t fake emotions, but I can hide them.

“Which side are you on?” she said with a sultry, coquettish air and one eyebrow arched skyward in a look that said–”Come hither.”

“I’m on my side, sweetheart,” I said as I reached in my desk drawer for the J.T.S. Brown and some sample medicines. Pepto-Bismol, Zantac and my favorite–Tagamet. “Whose side are you on?” I asked as I poured us both two fingers of booze into Old Fashioned glasses and plopped a pill in each.

“I . . . I don’t know,” she said, taking her glass and knocking back half the contents in a single gulp. It took her a second to recover. “I was seeing Dr. Heinz-Ward, but . . .”

“But what?”

“He . . . importuned me.”

I pulled my College Edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language down from my bookshelf. “This is a helluva time for obfuscation,” I said with irritation.

“I’m sorry,” she said, and she was sniffling now. “I just can’t bring myself to use clear, straightforward language. It’s too painful.”

“Here it is,” I said after flipping through the first eight letters of the alphabet and part of the ninth. “‘To trouble with requests or demands; urge or entreat persistently or repeatedly.’ Have I hit it yet?”

“Keep going.”

“‘[Rare] to ask for urgently; demand. [Obs.] to trouble; annoy.’”

“That’s it.”

“But that’s an obsolete usage,” I said, a little skeptical.

“I’m an old-fashioned girl,” she said, and then, finally and completely, she broke down, her calculated facade of reserve cracking into a million little pieces.

“There, there,” I said as I moved to comfort her.

“Where, where?”

“That’s an expression. It just means I’m going to try and make it better.”

“Oh, will you?”

She gazed up into my eyes with a crazy, mad look that said she was mine. So I smothered her with kisses, like a Salisbury steak that’s suffocating under the weight of plump, juicy mushrooms and gravy in the Swanson TV dinner that would spend the rest of this night in my freezer.

* * * * *

After an hour of poking and probing her esophagus, I thought I’d found the root of the problem. “It’s your sphincter,” I said with clinical finality.

“But you haven’t been looking at that end of me, have you?” she said, all flustered modesty.

“You’ve got another sphincter, sweetheart,” I said. “And it’s suffering from peptidergic innervation. You’ve got Hirschsprung’s Disease.”

Her face took on a deathly pallor. “Is that bad?”

“Well, it sure ain’t good,” I said, echoing the Duke Ellington-Paul Francis Webster standard.

“You shouldn’t say ‘ain’t’,” she said. I figured she was upset and taking it out on me.

“You’d be surprised,” I said, yielding no ground on a question of usage I get worked up about. “Middle-class characters in Jane Austen novels use it–why can’t I?”


“Ain’t that amazin’!”

“I’m sorry,” she said, slumping against me with exhaustion after sixty minutes of being poked at like a baked potato. “Is there anything you can do for me?” I knew what I wanted to do, and I think she wanted me to do it, too. “Do you want to . . . “ Her voice trailed off.

“Do what?”

“Do do that voodoo that you do so well?”

“So . . . you’ve heard about me?” I asked.

“I’m out of your network–I had to get a referral.”

“Oh. In that case . . .”

She moved her hand to her bodice and began to unbutton her fabulously unstylish Mary Astor-style dress. “Let’s finish what we started,” she said. I could feel my stomach churning with gastric acids. It felt so right, but it was so . . .

“Hello, Bladdon.” It was Heinz-Ward, looking like the cat that just ate the first robin of spring.

“Hello, GAY-org,” I said with a sneer.

“Don’t let me stop you,” he said. “I’m sure the Board of Registration in Medicine will want a full report on your unauthorized practice of medicine–and extend your suspension!”

“Oh, Gay-org,” Margaret said, and she threw himself at the little twerp, dwarfing him with the pendulous, heaving breasts that lay beneath the frilly lace ruffle at her neck. “It’s not what you think!”

“It’s not? Did he accept a fee for medical services?”

It was my turn to get emotional. “Maybe in your twisted little mind it was, but not in mine,” I said. “It was love–something you’ll never understand, because all you care about is publishing boring articles in leading medical journals that no one will ever read, and which you don’t even write.”

“He doesn’t?” Margaret asked, incredulous.

“Are you kidding?” I replied with a sneer. “This guy couldn’t write a grocery list. He shoves all the grunt work off on me.”

“You’re . . . a writer?” Margaret asked. Whatever she thought of me before, she thought more of me now.

“That stuff I was telling you before?” I began.

“About ‘ain’t’ and Duke Ellington and Jane Austen?”

“No–about peptidergic innervation of the internal anal sphincter in Hirschsprung’s Disease. That’s mine–I wrote it!”

“The article that appeared in the Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery? Volume 11, no. 3?” she asked, her eyes glimmering like reflections of stars on a moonlit night in a kid’s wading pool.

“The same.”

She turned to Heinz-Ward with cold, repressed fury. “You . . . you fraud. You . . . little . . .”

“Wait,” he said. “Don’t get mad at me!”

“Why the hell shouldn’t I?” she asked.

“Because I just came back from a golf outing sponsored by Procter and Gamble and they gave me this free, pink Pepto-Bismol make-up kit. It’s all yours!”

Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Everyday Noir.”

Pscooter and Pskipper Get Psychedelic in Pseattle

The kids are getting older–they’re in high school now–and with summer jobs and college campus visits, every year it’s harder to squeeze in the special family time of aggravation and bickering we used to experience during summer vacations.

“We need to get away and just do it,” my wife said.  “Someplace far, like the west coast.”


Wax Jimi Hendrix:  Do not place near burning guitar.

“Well, we’ve both got friends in Seattle,” I said, “and they lost their NBA franchise, so there will be fewer tattooed millionaires crowding the nicer restaurants.”


Seattle Supersonics commemorative dish towel

To our mutual surprise, we quickly agreed for once and made plans that came to fruition this week when we touched down at Seattle’s internationally-renowned “Sea-Tac,” which sounds like something you take for seasickness but is actually an airport.

The kids had already done their on-line research and wanted to go to the Fun Forest Amusement Park for go-kart rides and the all-sugar luncheon special, but I was insistent that we sample the area’s educational and cultural attractions first.


Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame and Stuff

“You kids need to learn some history while we’re out here,” I said sternly.

“Aw, dad!” Scooter, our seventeen-year-old, groaned.

“Don’t start, young man,” I added firmly.

“History sucks!” Skipper, the fifteen-year-old said with a disgusted look on his face.

“Kids, I agree that nothing takes the irrational exuberance out of a family vacation like the dead hand of the past,”  I said, trying to calm everyone down a bit, “but irrational exuberance is a bad thing, and history can be fun!”


“Please, everybody–calm down!”

“No way!” Scooter said.

“Oh yeah?” I countered.  “Have you ever been to a history museum that looked like a car wreck?”

They were silent now–I had their attention.


Designed by Frank Gehry, before the acid wore off

“I didn’t think so,” I said as I set the GPS for “museum paid for by a Microsoft billionaire that looks like the architect was on drugs.”

“Do you want,” came the disembodied voice over the instrument, “Paul Allen’s Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame?”

“YES,” I said loudly and clearly.

The computer directed us through a series of turns until we reached the weird-looking structure designed by noted architect Frank Gehry that resembles nothing so much as the stucco walls along the stairway of my boyhood home during one particularly bad acid trip.  “Here we are, kids!”

“Neat!” Skipper exclaimed.

I could have said “I told you so”–but I didn’t.  To me, it’s more important to see the wonder in kids’ eyes as they learn American History in a safe, controlled environment, with no risk of a “bad trip” or an Iron Butterfly interlude, than score intra-family “points” for being right about the importance of Our Nation’s Psychedelic Era.


Iron Butterfly:  Do NOT put this album on while tripping.

We let the kids wander around for awhile, taking in the amazing sights and sounds, reading the explanatory text next to the exhibits.  “Did you ever drop acid?” Scooter asked after he’d learned a little about the importance of hallucinogenic drugs to the crappy art, literature and music of the sixties.

“Scoots,” I said as my wife discreetly absented herself from a conversation she wanted no part of, “I took LSD ten times–but I didn’t inhale.”

“Oh,” he said thoughtfully.  “So that makes it okay–like President Clinton?”


“I did not have sex  . . . with that drug.”

“That’s right.  I maintained my deeply-held skepticism throughout the experience.  So I became experienced, but the experience didn’t become me.”

That last bit of psychedelic babble threw them for a loop, and the potentially-embarrassing questions stopped.  “Listen, kids,” I said after a moment.  “This museum is all about the ‘experience’ of drugs, and I want you to be inoculated by the sensory impulses without running the risk of adverse pharmacological consequences.  So why don’t we take a ride on Jimi’s Wild Trip!”

“Yay!” Skipper nearly shouted.  He’s the one member of the family who really enjoys scary amusement park rides.

We headed over to the ticket counter, passed muster next to the “You Must be THIS Tall to Ride THIS Ride” stripe painted on the wall, and got in one of the four-seater gondolas.

“Everybody strapped in?” the grungey carney said as he locked the safety bar.

“All set,” I said, and we embarked on a tour through a tunnel with a mind-blowing barrage of lights and sounds that left the kids’ ears ringing and their previously static views of reality challenged.

“See, kids,” I said as we got off.  “Everyday reality can be a downer, so sometimes it’s good to go outside through the Doors of Perception.”

“I’m hungry,” Skipper said.

“How can you be hungry?” my wife asked.  “I’m nauseous from that ride.”

“He’s a teenaged boy,” I said.  “Let’s stop into the Munchie Zone.”

We got some food and grabbed a table, where our shared experience led to the kind of intimate conversation that great family vacations inspire.

“I notice your band plays a little Hendrix,” I said to Skipper–he’s a drummer.

“Yeah, he’s cool,” Skipper said.  “He died young, so he’s not around anymore to turn groaty and hit on girls four decades younger than him like Nick Jagger.”

“It’s Mick,” I corrected him, but his mistake was telling.  For a group that humbly refers to itself as The World’s Greatest Rock Band, The Rolling Stones don’t seem to be inspiring many imitators among the younger generation of rock musicians.

“Did you ever burn your guitar, dad?” Scooter asked with wide-eyed ingenuousness and an expression that revealed his admiration for his father’s amateur musical skills.

“No, sweetie, it just sounds that way when he plays in the basement,” my wife said.

Scooter started to laugh and milk came gushing out his nose, which brought back happy memories of family meals past.

“Don’t do that,” his mother said with furrows of concern ploughed across her forehead.  “You’ll choke.”

“It’s okay,” a busboy interjected.  “Every employee of ‘The Experience’ is Heimlich-trained to prevent patrons from choking on their vomit, like Jimi did.”

As we left the museum we stopped to pick up souvenir tie-dyed flower-power t-shirts, personalized with the kids’ names spelled “Pscooter” and “Pskipper.”

“So–the ‘p’ is silent?” Scooter asked.

“Right,” I said.  “As in ‘pseudointellectual’.”

“What’s that?” Skipper asked.

“Someone like your father,” my wife answered helpfully.

“So I can take a ‘p’ and add it onto a word that begins with an ‘s’ and it’s okay and nobody will know?” Skipper asked.

“That’s right, sweetie,” my wife answered.

Skipper turned to his older brother with a malevolent look and yelled “You’re a pshithead!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Kids: They’re Cute When They’re Young.”

My Lunch With a Nobel Prize-Winning Author

It isn’t every day I get to have lunch with a Nobel Prize-winning author. More frequently than I see Haley’s Comet, which last came through my neighborhood in 1986, and isn’t expected back for another 50 years, but still, it’s a big deal.


Haley’s Comet: “Stop by any time you’re in the neighborhood!”

 

So I’ll never forget the day in 1970 when I walked into the faculty club at the University of Chicago and saw Saul Bellow, author of The Adventures of Augie March, with its famous opening line: “I am an American, Chicago born–Chicago, that somber city–and go at things as I have taught myself, free-style.” Do not, I reminded myself, spill the soup.


Bellow: “Actually, I’m not hungry.”

 

I didn’t actually have lunch with Bellow. I had lunch beforehand, in the kitchen with the rest of the help. I’ll admit it–I was just a waiter, not a member of Bellow’s inner circle of friends. I wasn’t even a member of his circle of enemies, which may have been a slightly larger group, if one reads his works as romans a clef.

So I didn’t eat with Bellow, but I was at a lunch that he attended, which was as close as I’d ever been to literary fame at the time. And probably ever will be.


Joseph Conrad: “Bellow? Never heard of him, but then I’m already dead.”

 

I hadn’t, at that point in my life, actually read anything by Bellow. He wasn’t on the first-year reading list, and maybe he will never displace Faulkner, or Joseph Conrad, or Scott Fitzgerald. But he was a living, breathing novelist with an international reputation, who would go on to win the Nobel Prize six years later. It was all I could do not to rush up to him like some stupid Hollywood autograph hound and say “Mr. Bellow, you’re one of my biggest fans!”


“Why is that waiter staring at me?”

 

But I respected his privacy and stuck to my role, bringing out the food, filling water glasses, sneaking a peek at the two greatest hits underneath the blouse of the Barbra Streisand look-alike on my shift.


“Has anybody got any mint waxed floss?”

 

But I watched his every move, because I wanted to see how a famous novelist looked and acted in real life. Would he be ferocious, skewering the chalky professors at his table? Would he be captivating, regaling his listeners with stories of his years in Europe? How exactly is a minor living legend supposed to behave, I asked. Just in case I ever needed to know.


Dog-and-pony show

 

The answer? Bored. Bellow sat down at an empty table, crossed his legs, folded his hands in his lap, and looked around the room with an expression that said he’d rather be dead in a ditch than where he was just then. My guess is the luncheon was a dog-and-pony show for potential donors–just the way a guy who probably had to fend off high-brow literary women with a stick would want to spend his day.

Being a big-name author in academia isn’t a bad gig. You give a graduate seminar every semester, boff a couple of coeds–it’s in the contract, right after the “Whereas” clauses–get your picture on the cover of the alumni magazine. But you’re also there for some contact with actual human beings, like say a wealthy alumnus/alumna who’s written a first novel. You can just imagine how that would go:

BELLOW: Hello?

ALUM: Mr. Bellow, it’s Ed Fahrquar.

BELLOW: I have enough life insurance, thanks.

ALUM: No, from the UofC? The development office said I should feel free to call you.

BELLOW: I was taking a nap.

ALUM: Terrific. Say, I’ve just written my first novel, a coming of age story about a boy and his dog and their picaresque adventures hitch-hiking across America.

BELLOW: That’s . . . nice.

ALUM: You wouldn’t mind taking a look at it and telling me what you think, would you?

BELLOW: (To self: I could use some scrap paper for grocery lists.) Sure–send it over.

Bellow’s aspect was distant, reserved, and everyone who passed by knew he was–famous. So no one joined him at first, which he appeared to prefer. He stared around the room, then took his butter knife, stood the pat of butter on his bread plate up on edge, and put his knife down again. After a while a few people sat down at his table, introduced themselves, and he broke into a slight smile, which did nothing to dispel his air of ill-suppressed discomfort. I was distracted for a moment by someone at another table and when I turned around, he was gone. The only evidence of his brief presence that remained was that pat of butter on its edge, as Bellow must have been the whole time he was there.

 


Butter Stonehenge

From this close encounter with fame, I took a lesson that has come in handy over the years. If you want to appear superior to everyone around you at a social gathering, look bored–and play with the stuff on your table! Here are a few of the techniques I’ve perfected that lend me an aura of literary snootiness at gala dinners, business lunches and power breakfasts:

Balance two forks on a toothpick: Snap a toothpick at its mid-point and stick one end in a salt shaker. (Of course you can use a pepper shaker, but you’ll have a hard time finding one because high-class joints all have those pepper mills that are the size of a bazooka.) Join the forks at the tines, and suspend on one end of the toothpick. Where are you going to find a toothpick in a faculty club of a major university, you ask? Just ask the Assistant Professor of Long-Haul Trucking sitting next to you.


Assistant Professor of Long-Haul Trucking, Harvard University

 

Balance your fork on your finger: If you can’t do the above-described trick, try this one, you klutz. Lay your fork right side up across your index finger at a right angle, and allow it to teeter-totter back and forth until it reaches equilibrium. Knives do not have a concave surface, and spoons are too light for this trick.

winecork
One out of three ain’t bad.

 

Drop a wine cork so that it stands up on an end. This trick is easier than it sounds. Hold the cork horizontally, so that it is parallel to the surface of the table, from a height of approximately two inches. My preferred grip is between the outstretched second and fourth fingers, although this leaves the middle finger pointing across at your tablemates, which may lead to misunderstandings. Hold the cork gently, then release both fingers at the same time. At first, if you succeed in making the cork pop back up on its end just one time in ten you’re doing fine. With practice, you should be able to do it in three tries or less, causing ingenue poetesses to look on you as a God of Belle Lettres.


“Do the wine cork trick again–it drives me wild!”

 

Matchbook field goals. You can’t smoke in most fancy restaurants and clubs anymore, but you can get a book of matches–what you’re supposed to use them for is not exactly clear. Stand the matchbook on its edge and flick across the table at finger goal-posts set up by a table-mate.

The cooperation of another bored person in your party is essential, but a Nobel Prize in Literature is optional.

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Chicago: Not Just for Toddlin’ Anymore.”

A Session With My Poetry Coach

It was the form letter that sent me over the edge.  “Thank you for submitting your poem to plangent voices,” it began.  “Please excuse the form letter, but due to the volume of god-awful submissions that we receive, we do not have the time to crush the spirit of each writer personally.”


elena gotchko:  Had her capital letters surgically removed in 2009.

 

Signed–elena gotchko, editor-in-chief, the lower-case poetess who I’d help to catch on with the little rag in the first place!  I thought to myself, if I couldn’t call in a personal favor from someone like elena, who I knew back when she was cutting her own hair to show the world how disaffected she was, I might as well hang it up as a poet.


Self-haircut:  “Which side do you like better–the short or the long?”

 

But that would mean giving up on the art form that I’ve been enamored of ever since I noticed, as a mere lad of twelve, the couplet so beloved by young boys on the wall of a bathroom stall.  You know the one:  

Here I sit all broken-hearted
Paid a nickel to shit and only farted.

The fierce beauty of those lines, their startling honesty, the possibilities they opened up to me–how could I forsake that epiphany!  Dammit–I wasn’t going to give up that easily!  My kid has a hitting coach, my wife has a fitness coach–I was going to get myself a poetry coach!

I opened up the Yellow Pages and flipped to the “p’s”.  Poetry, Anthologies.  Poetry, Brokers.  Ah, here we go–Poetry, Coaches.  There were three, but only one in my area code.  Buy local, I figured, and gave the guy a call.

“You have reached the office of Elliot Wurzel, Poetry Coach, turning poetasters into masters for over a decade.  If you have a question regarding assonance or consonance, press 1.  For issues regarding meter, press 2.  For problems with your account, press 3.  For all other matters, please stay on the line or press zero.”


Valerii Yakovlevich Briusov, Neo-Acmeist poet and housecleaning fanatic

 

I held while Valerii Yakovlevich Briusov, Russian Neo-Acmeist and the only poet with four i’s in his name, read from his justifiably-obscure oeuvre.  Finally, a sonorous voice came on the line and introduced himself in blunt fashion–”Wurzel here.”


“You call yourself a poet?  Drop down and give me ten Alcaic stanzas–NOW!”

 

“Uh, Mr. Wurzel, I’m looking for a poetry coach.”

“Umm.  What seems to be the problem?”

“Well, I can’t seem to get out of the slush pile.  Can’t even win Second Runner-Up in those contests with prizes in the high two figures.”

“Poetry is like maypole dancing,” he said cryptically.

“How so?”

“It’s one of those art forms that has far more practitioners than spectators.  You’re up against very long odds.”

“I know–that’s why I’m calling you.”

“And it is well that you did,” he said.

“Don’t you mean ‘good’?” I asked.


John Milton, Undisputed Heavyweight Champion of Blank Verse

 

“Never use a nickel word when a dime word will do,” he counseled me.  “That’s the last free advice you’re getting, by the way.”

We haggled a bit over rates–I didn’t want to sign up for a long-term membership like at a health club and then have him commit suicide, the occupational hazard–if not the occupation–of versifiers.

“Okay,” he said.  “Let’s get started.  Read me the first poem you ever wrote.”

I cleared my throat and launched into “Thoughts on Waking After Spending the Night at a Kosher Vegetarian Commune”:

This is kosher, this is trayfe–
One unclean, the other safe.
All day long we work and slayfe
Keeping kosher from the trayfe.


Actual Kosher vegetarian commune

 

“Hmm,” he hmmed, as he considered my complex a-a-a-a rhyme scheme.  “Not altogether bad–but you need to accessorize.”


Heidi Klum, accessorizing.

 

“Isn’t that what women do when they want to complete and complement an otherwise humdrum, pedestrian outfit?”

“You seem to know a lot about fashion,” he said.

“My dad was in women’s clothing.  Don’t duck the question–what’s that got to do with poetry?”

“Think of your poem as it hits an editor’s desk.  It’s like a woman standing in line outside an exclusive night club.  It’s got a lot of competition.  You’ve got to tart it up a little if you want to get past the doorman.”


“Sorry sweetheart.  Come back when you’ve fixed that godawful spondee in the third verse.”

 

I was starting to appreciate my coach’s wealth of experience.  “Like how?”

“First of all–dedicate it to someone.”

“Like who?”

“It helps if it’s a foreign name, somebody obscure, somebody the reader will be ashamed to admit he doesn’t know.”

“Gimme a for instance.”

“That’s an add-on,” he said,  “Five bucks for access to my exclusive database of hitherto-un-dedicated-to names.”


Zsa Zsa Gabor, with Porfirio Rubirosa

 

I grudgingly agreed–what choice did I have?–and listened as he flipped through some papers.  “I’ve got just the thing,” he said with satisfaction.  “Porfirio Rubirosa!”

“Who’s he?” I asked.

“See–proved my point.  Sounds foreign and romantic, but you can’t quite put your finger on him, can you?”

“Shortstop for the Minnesota Twins?”

“You’re thinking of Zoilo Versalles, who’s also good–don’t get me wrong.  He’s just not right for your poem.”

I felt gratified that I was getting personalized attention.  “So who’s Porfiri–”

“Rubirosa was an international playboy, polo player and race car driver, legendary for his prowess with women.”


Kowa-bunga!

 

“Okay–sounds good.”

“During his heyday, large pepper grinders were sometimes referred to as ‘rubirosas’ among the fast-living international set.”

He’d lost me.  “Because?”

“Because of the voluptuous shape of the grinder, the sensuous . . .”

“Okay, I got your point.  So what else needs fixing?”

“You need to strike a more outraged political tone.”

“But–it’s a little comic poem, just a pun that I . . .”

“Listen–do you want my help or not?” he fairly shouted at me.

“Well, I guess you are the coach.  But what if I’m . . . not outraged.”

“If you’re not outraged–what are you?”

“More like–amused.  The Human Comedy.  As Mencken said when asked why he lived in America if he found so much unworthy of reverence here, ‘Why do men go to zoos?’”


H.L. Mencken

 

“That’s not going to help your career,” he said.

“What if I take a bi-partisan approach–criticize both sides?”

He considered this for a moment.  “Might work–what did you have in mind?”

“Well, I’d go after both Dick Cheney and Joe Biden–Democratic and Republican vice presidents–in one stanza.”

“Okay,” he said with a skeptical sigh of impatience.  “Hit me.”

Here comes the fat man, emerged from hiding place–
“Gee, I’m awful sorry if I shot you in the face!”

“That’s a start,” he said grudgingly.  “Now wrap it up.”

Old Joe Biden, squeaks like a door hinge,
Schooled at Syracuse, whose mascot’s an orange.

There was a silence at his end of the line.  “Un-freaking–believable.”

“Thanks,” I said, a bit surprised that I’d broken through his reserve.

“This is a major upheaval in poetry!” he exclaimed.

“What–what’d I do?”

“You’ve solved a problem that has bedeviled poets for centuries.  You’ve discovered a rhyme for ‘orange’!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”

Let Slip the Cats of War!

My cats are big Shakespeare fans; in the case of Rocco, who’s been letting himself go a bit, a huge fan of the Bard–fifteen pounds at his last checkup.  We have assembled on the patio for a reading from Julius Caesar.  Titus Andronicus was checked out of our local library, and my wife, the family Shakespeare hater, is out of town.


“This foul deed shall smell above the earth/with carrion chipmunks, groaning for burial.”

I’ve told them the best way to read Shakespeare is that taught to me by Merlin Bowen, my freshman humanities teacher; once through quickly without even checking the footnotes; the second time more slowly, and thoughtfully, looking up the buskins and petards as you go.  Easy for him to say since he didn’t have chemistry and social studies and phys ed and French and drugs to take at the same time.


“I didn’t finish the reading assignment–okay?”

Rocco is a quick study, as I was when a youngster, while Okie is a stolid, phlegmatic type, like Jim Bob Mergen, the farm boy who was compared unfavorably–I think–to me in the second grade.  The nun said I picked things up easily and valued them less as a result, while Jim Bob struggled to learn things, and consequently treasured the correct spelling of “cat” more highly than I for the rest of his life.


“Did you put the cats down in the basement?  Because I’m going to bed.”

It may seem strange to you to read from Shakespeare with your pets, but this is an advantage I want my cats to have.  I first read about such a thing in a short story by Cynthia Ozick when I was in my twenties, too late for me.  Apparently, some high-toned families engage in such pursuits while clans like mine were watching “Leave it to Beaver” and “The Fugitive.”  Children from families of the former type showed up on the first day of freshman English class to mention in a blase, off-hand way, that they were starting work on their second novel while I–I had taken the road more traveled by and had a cool collection of record albums.


“Let me have cats about me that are fat; yond Okie has a lean and hungry look.”

We don’t use the folio version of the play, it would take too long.  Instead, I picked up two copies of Iams Lite Shakespeare for Less-Active Cats at Pet World this morning.  It contains all the essential quotes a growing cat needs, with 10% less fat and archaic English!


Get Troilus and Cressida in the familiar turquoise bag!

The problem with mixing cats and Shakespeare, as with most students, is their short attention span.  We customarily hold our reading on the back patio, and in the conservation land to the west there is a constant flow of fauna; deer, chipmunks, wild turkeys, even coyotes.  Okie caught a rabbit and a snake last week alone.  It’s hard to keep the guys on the text, but I try.  They’re prone to improvise.

“Your line,” I say to Rocco.

“Where were we?”

“‘Another general shout!’”

“Oh, right.  Uh, ‘Why cat, he doth bestride the narrow world like that stupid Doberman down the street; and we petty cats walk under his huge legs, and peep about.’”

“Over to you,” I say to the Oakmeister.

“Uh, ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are cats.’”

It’s Roc’s turn, but when I give him his cue I see him gazing across the back yard, to the edge of the grass, where a rabbit has poked his head out from under a rhododendron, those ungainly plants that Virginia Woolf compared to suburban stockbrokers.  The rabbit’s munching on clover; the stockbroker lives across the street.

“Roc–you paying attention?”

“Uh, sorry,” he says and looks back down at his script.  We proceed in this halting fashion through Acts I and II; a field mouse sees the weighty atmosphere of high culture, and can hardly believe his good fortune.  The cats are playing a tragedy, and it’s comedy to him.


“Nyah nyah, nyah NYAH nyah.”

Okie detects the mouse’s insolence, and makes a false start towards him, scaring the bejeezus out of the poor rodent.  “Cowards die many times before their deaths,” he says in a voice that projects to the cheap seats over by the daisies.  “The valiant never taste of death but once.”


“I’m gonna GIT you sucker!”

“Roc–over to you,” I say.  He hasn’t been paying attention, but he picks up where Marc Anthony returns to view Caesar’s lifeless corpse.  I’ve used that phrase before, and for the first time I’m forced to ask myself–what other kind of corpse is there?

“O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,” he begins, but in a flat, lifeless tone.

“C’mon–put some feeling into it.  You’re Marc Antony, and your best friend’s just been killed.”

He looks at me, then out at the lawn, where the joint is jumpin’, so to speak.  Critters here, varmints there, unprotected species everywhere.

“That I am meek and gentle,” he continues then pauses to watch a wild turkey hen with two chicks tiptoeing as if on eggshells over our acre and a half of fresh, native New England rocks.  As former president of my high school National Forensic League, a triple threat in debate, extemporaneous speaking and dramatic interpretation, I can’t take it anymore.

“Here,” I say, ripping the script from his paws.  “Let me show you how a real actor plays this scene.”

He shrugs his furry shoulders and turns his attention back to the yard as I begin:  “Blood and destruction shall be so in use at our house, and dreadful objects so familiar on our front and back porches, that mothers shall but smile when they behold their infant chipmunks, squirrels and robins quarter’d with the hands of war.”

I see their backs turn and their butts wiggle.  Now they’re concentrating.

“All pity chok’d with custom of fell deeds, And Caesar’s spirit, ranging for revenge . . .”

A rabbit, stricken with a fatal flash of inspired confidence, makes a dash across the lawn.

“Shall in these cofines with a monarch’s voice/Cry ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the cats of war!”

I’ve barely got the words out of mouth when I see them bolt from our bluestone stage and make for the rabbit, who suddenly the wiser, reverses course and heads for the woods.

“Hey, aren’t we gonna finish?” I yell after the cats.

“I’m taking an incomplete,” Rocco says, to which Okie echoes “I’m dropping this course.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Cats Say the Darndest Things.”

Me and Dionysus

The wife is out of town this weekend, an opportunity for me to catch up with an old friend whose idea of a good time is, to put it mildly, not shared by the distaff half of my joint tax return. He goes by a lot of names; the ancient Egyptians called him Osiris, the Greeks referred to him as Orgia, Panegyres and Dionysus, the Romans called him Bacchus. In the American vernacular, he is perhaps best-known by that all-purpose monicker “Mad Dog.”


Dionysus: “Hit me again, bro!”

 

The Dog and I go way back, as far as the ancient Greeks. I first came to know him as an undergraduate through Friedrich Nietzsche’s “The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music,” or for those of you keeping score at home, Die Geburt der Tragödie aus dem Geiste der Musik. I looked up from that book when I finished with the wild surmise that Keats said was seen on the faces of Cortez’s men in his poem On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer. There in front of me stood his latter-day incarnation, carrying a six-pack of Miller Lite.


Nietzsche: I warned him–never mix, never worry.

 

We came, we saw, we partied, and ever since that fateful night, I’ve tried to stay in touch through Christmas cards and occasional bachelor nights out together. I pull up outside the Dog’s triple-decker apartment, and he bounds out with a boyish enthusiasm that belies his years, if that’s not waxing too poetic.


How gauche!

 

“Hey,” he says as he starts to get in the front seat. “What’s shakin’?” He’s wearing his usual Happy Hour casual get-up–half toga, garland of grape leaves in his long flowing hair–which I don’t have a problem with. It’s his ensign, perched upon a long pole, bearing an image of his genitalis that causes me to look askance at him. “Uh, if it’s all the same to you, I wish you’d leave that here,” I say.

“Why?” he asks, ingenuous as only a God of Party Fun can be.

“If we’re just going out for a quiet drink, I think that will draw unwanted attention.”

He shrugs, as if he’ll never understand me. “Fine,” he says and takes it back up to porch where he slips it into a metal bracket on a post. Letting his freak flag fly, indeed.

At my insistence he puts on his seatbelt, and we’re off.

“I made you a new party tape,” he says. Yes, my car is so old it still has a cassette player.

“Oh yeah? What kinda stuff?”


All right, keep your shirt on.

 

“Listen,” he says. After a few boomping beats, I hear the opening bars of Pink’s “Get The Party Started,” a song which, as much as I hate to admit it, I actually sort of like.

“Not bad, but I’m not changing my position on white girl singers,” I say.

“That there hasn’t been a good one since Dusty Springfield?” he asks.

“Right. If you’re going to listen to black music, why listen to white women sing it?”

“You and your anti-minstrelsy zealotry!” he says as he fires up a cigar. “You’ve gotta lighten up, dude. Get into diversity.”

“I think you’re talking reversity–not diversity.”

“Why don’t you like white people?”

“That’s not true. Some of the people I admire most–like myself–are white. It’s their–our–music I’m not so crazy about.”


Zoot Sims

 

“You’re intolerant.”

“No I’m not. I’ve got a lot of Gerry Mulligan, and Chet Baker and Zoot Sims in my collection.”

That shuts him up–for the moment. He blows out a puff of cigar smoke and says “The weekend begins!”

“It’s Thursday,” I say. “I thought the weekend began on Friday.”

“Daylight Savings Party Time,” he says, with a sly smile.

I consider this for a moment. “But with Daylight Savings Time, it’s ‘Spring forward, fall back,’ so for Daylight Savings Party Time in the summer, you’d actually start on Fri–”

“DUDE!” he yells at me, exasperated. “We’re tapping into the irrational tonight. Eighty-six on your hidebound, linear rational way of thinking. Not everything has to make sense!”


William James: Party on, dude!

 

It’s a point he’s made to me many times before. The whole point of getting drunk is, as William James so aptly put it, “to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature, usually crushed to earth by the cold facts and dry criticisms of the sober hour.”

I always put up with a fair amount of abuse from The Dog because whenever he was around, the women followed. “Remember that time down in Austin, Texas?” I ask, growing nostalgic.

“At the Freddie King concert?”


Albert and Freddie King, #1 and #2 on my All-Time-Blues-Guitarists-Named-King list.

 

“Yeah, that was something.”

I remember how The Dog just started dancing, and a bunch of women joined in–our own private Bacchantae, so to speak.

“You know, you really should have joined in,” he says.

“Well, I . . . uh . . . was listening to Freddie. You know, he’s number 2 on my All-Time-Blues-Guitarists-Named-King list.”

“After B.B.?”

Before B.B.–after Albert.”

“Oh, I see. Anyway–why didn’t you, you know, get out on the floor and dance with us?”

“I was always a little self-conscious back then–a wallflower. Did I ever tell you about the time I got mimed?”

“Mimed?”

“Yeah–I was at a Roomful of Blues dance in Rhode Island when a mime came up and started imitating me. I was leaning up against a wall, he leaned up against an imaginary wall. I looked shy, he made big ‘I’m so shy’ eyes. It was mortifying.”

“Hmm. So you’ve missed out on the fun before.”

I gave him a skeptical look. Maybe I’m just a stupid human, but sometimes deities can be somewhat lacking in self-awareness too.

“You don’t remember what happened that night in Austin, do you?”

“I guess not. I had a few Lone Star Beers as I recall.”

” . . . and some tequila. And some Dos Equis.”

“Well, yeah, probably.”

“So you have no recollection that those women you were dancing with, they tore you to pieces and ate you?”

He looked at me as if I was crazy. “They did?”

“Yep. It’s a pagan precursor of the Christian Eucharist.”

He was speechless for a moment. Finally, he said “Jesus.”

“On the nosey,” I said, to finish the historical link.

“So how did I get . . . here . . . now?”

“You’re reincarnated throughout history, in different forms and in different cultures.”

“I am?”

“You betcha, as a certain non-running presidential contender with a PTO-President hairdo likes to say.”

“So . . . I drink . . . I die . . . and I come back again?”

“That’s the routine,” I said.

He looked out the window, then turned to me as a smile formed slowly on his lips. He reached in his pocket and pulled out a half-pint of Tvarschki’s Lime Vodka, the first liquor I ever got drunk on, and spoke.

“Then we have some serious partying to do tonight, my friend!”

Me and My Code Talker Go to a Cocktail Party

It’s Saturday morning, which means the tension is starting to build for our weekly out-of-home social interaction. Regardless of whether we get together with people in a higher income bracket or a lower, my wife faults me for doing, saying, wearing, implying or inferring something I shouldn’t have.


“We tried a Choctaw for awhile, but we went back to Navajos.”

 

To give you a few examples: “You’re not going to wear that, are you?” are the words she usually says when she first sees the clothes I’ve put on. “Don’t mention anything about what I told you Lisa said about Jack, okay?”–whatever she said had been promptly forgotten by me as soon as I heard it.

But I live in a different world from her; tapping at my computer all day, yelling or being yelled at on the telephone, sending out bills, filling out timesheets. I rarely if ever come into actual contact with humans, and by that I mean to include some of my highly-educated knowledge industry colleagues. As a result, my social skills are admittedly . . . atrophied.


“Tell her she has on a lovely dress, but DON’T look at her knockers.”

 

“The problem is you never give me any guidance–any context–until we’re on the other couple’s doorstep,” I say.

“Your problem is you’re not good at understanding code,” she says, and not with a great deal of sympathy. “You take things literally that aren’t meant seriously, and vice versa.”

“What do you mean ‘code’?”

“There are certain things you don’t say, certain things you don’t do–and they change depending on whose house we’re at. Like tonight you have to get dressed up, but next Saturday is a ‘nice’ blue jean’ night–okay?”

I was, if anything, more confused than before. “Can you buy flash cards or a crib sheet on this stuff?”

“I don’t think so,” my wife said. “Part of the attraction of conventions is you can use them to weed out others, so all the better social sets keep them a secret.”


“He says he’s ‘Doing great’? Must have lost his job.”

 

I didn’t see anyway out of my predicament. “Well, I don’t want to just stick by your side all night wherever we go.”

“I don’t want you to either,” she said, staring out at the middle distance, plainly frustrated. “Maybe we should get you a code talker.”

“What’s a code talker?”

“They’re members of Indian . . .”

“You mean Native American . . .”

“Whatever–tribes that have really complex languages, so they can talk in code and they can deciper codes.”

My wife is not generally known for graduate-level inquiries into questions of the nature of language, so I was suspicious. “Where’d you learn that?”


“C’mon Jim–insider trading is fun!”

 

“It was on Martha Stewart Living, right after a segment on stenciling your children.”

I considered her suggestion for a second; if some Native American could serve as my guide through the wilds of the metrowest suburbs of Boston and help me avoid a long uncomfortable silence on the road home from a stylish–but casual!–party, it would be money well spent.

“Okay–I’ll give it a try,” I said, “but where am I going to find a code talker in two days?”

“Try that rental place down by the falls–they have everything.”

I dropped by the You-Rentz-It franchise after I dropped off the trash at the dump and asked the guy at the counter if they rented code talkers.

“What kind ya lookin’ for?” he asked, as if it was the most routine request in the world.


“Her kid is going to Penn? Tell her how sorry you are to hear it.”

 

“I don’t know–what do you have?”

“We’ve got Navajos, Choctaws, Comanches. I’ve got a Basque that’s gonna be returned tonight.”

“What kind’s the best?”

“Navajos are the top of the line.”

“Which is cheapest?”

“Comanches. What kind of shindig is it?”

“Cocktail party.”

“How many people?”

“Probably . . . at least twenty.”

“I dunno,” he said scratching his head, Will Rogers-style. “I don’t think you want to pinch pennies on an affair like that. You’ll end up paying for it in the long run.”

I seemed to recall from my childhood watching westerns that Comanches were fierce warriors. Probably best not to stint.

“I’ll go with a Navajo for Saturday night.”

“I’ll need a credit card for the deposit. You can pick him up at 5.”

“Is there an instruction manual so I know what to do with him?”

“Don’t worry. He’ll know what to do.”

I paid and went home to tell my wife. She was watching an episode of Grey’s Anatomy she’d taped, and so she was in defcon alert posture, poised to block out all extraneous stimuli such as her husband.

“We’re all set with the code talker,” I said.

“Um-hmm,” she replied, not wanting to waste precious energy she might need for sobbing later.

When the time came, I picked up Chester Joe Leader and his kit of code-cracking equipment.

“What kind of grub are they serving tonight?” was his first question after we were in the car.

“Finger food,” I said. “Asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, mini-quiche, stuff like that.”

“No little ham sandwiches?”

“People usually don’t do that until the holidays,” I said. “So, how exactly do we do this?”

“I get you wired up, and I set up outside,” he said with all the emotion of Sergeant Joe Friday on Dragnet.

“Okay.”

“I can hear what people are saying, but they can’t hear me. Only you can, through your earpiece.”

He held up what looked to be an old-style hearing aid, the kind my mom used to wear that gave off more feedback than Jimi Hendrix. “Okay.”

“I listen to what people say and decipher it for you.”

“You spent much time in the western suburbs?”

“It’s pretty plain vanilla. The North Shore’s tougher, summer colonies in Maine are impossible.” The guy apparently knew his stuff.

When I got home my wife was ready for once because she’d agreed to bring an hors d’oeuvre and we had to arrive early to warm it up.


“Are the Patriots jinxed by Gisele Bundchen? Heck yeah!”

 

“Sweetie, I’d like you to meet Chester Joe Leader, my code talker.”

How-do-you-dos were exchanged, and we got in the car after I grabbed the obligatory bottle of white wine we’d been trading back-and-forth with our hosts for the past two years. It’s a fruity Burgundy that we’re both afraid to try.

“Do these people have shrubbery?” Chester asked.

“HUGE rhododendrons,” I said. “The kind Virginia Woolf compared to suburban stockbrokers, which is what our host is.”

“Good. They give you lots of cover without being prickly.”


Woolf: “Please do me a favor and leave me out of your stupid posts.”

 

We dropped Chester off the length of a football field from our destination, and he made his way by stealth up the lawn and into the bushes.

“Let’s hope this works,” I said.

“It better,” my wife said with an expression that wouldn’t have looked out of place on the face of the gas chamber attendant at a maximum security prison.

Our hostess greeted us and we were ushered into the party, which was in full swing. There was a bartender so the usual struggle to get a drink wasn’t a problem, and we began to circulate.

“Danger dead ahead,” my wife said.

“What?”

“That’s Missy and Mark Wainwright.”

“What’s the problem?”

“Her parents gave him $200,000 to buy some stupid franchise, and it’s draining money like the Hoover Dam.”

“Okay, I’ll watch myself,” I said. “Chester–you copy that?”

“I’m right here for you,” he said. “Proceed.”

We ambled up casually and, after the usual over-the-top faux surprise greeting, settled in to chew the fat, figuratively speaking.

“How’s everything at your shop?” Mark asked.

“Say fine and change the subject,” Chester said.

“Gotcha,” I said.

“What?” Mark asked.

“Sorry–I uh, felt a sneeze coming on. We’re doing fine thanks–considering the economy!”

“Tell me about it!” he exclaimed with a little-boy-lost look on his face. “We’re . . .”

“Now!” Chester snapped.


Ryan Mallett: Potential bad influence–on Snoop Dogg?

 

“Hey–what do you think of the Patriots’ second-string quarterback? The kid from Arkansas who slipped to the third round because of his taste for recreational drugs?”

“Uh . . . well, I guess Brady’s gotta retire sometime.”

I felt like a fencer who’d just parried a deadly thrust. We two men exchanged idiotic speculation on somebody we knew next to nothing about for five minutes, then the Wainwrights departed for a youth baseball game.

“Everything okay?” my wife asked dubiously.

“Just dodged a bullet there. Anybody else you want to warn me about?”

“Here come the Andersons,” my wife said, turning towards me like a pitcher in a jam on the mound so the other side couldn’t read her lips. “She doesn’t know it, but Susan saw Sam coming out of a restaurant with his secretary while Cindy was off for a girls’ weekend at an Arizona spa.”

“That could be awkward,” I said, and just in time as the Andersons bore down on us like a sailboat running downwind into a marina. “You there Chester?”

“I’m on it,” the code talker replied with a calm, even tone. I felt–reassured. “Do not ask about vacations–got it?” he said.

“Will do,” I said just as the cuckoldette reached our personal space.

“Hey you two!” Cindy said to us–big hug and party kiss from her, a handshake from the cheatin’ side of the family.

“Hello there, strangers!” my wife said. “Haven’t seen you since you got back. Was it fun?”

“I came back so relaxed!” Cindy said. “All that was gone in about a day!”

“Welcome back to the rat race!” my wife said. What’s she talking about, I wondered: the yoga, the pilates, or the spinning class?

Sam seemed to be suffering from a bout of mauvais foi, which is not a form of pate. It’s the gnawing guilty conscience over the lie you’re living. He was at a loss for words, and I didn’t want to fill up his tank.

“Don’t ask him what he did while the wife was away,” I heard Chester say in my earpiece. “Don’t ask him what he did last weekend.”

“I’m waiting for some positive suggestions,” I muttered into my hand as I pretended to cough.

“Ask him . . . what he thinks of the election.”

“Are you crazy?” I said, pulling myself away as I pretended to be fascinated by a bowl of mixed nuts. “I never bring up politics at parties!”

“You’ll have to trust me on this one,” Chester said.

I gulped, almost involuntarily; Chet was the expert, however, so I turned to meet my counterpart with a quiche-eating grin on my face.

“So . . . shaping up as a pretty interesting presidential race, isn’t it?”

“It is,” Sam said thoughtfully, and a few heads turned at my obvious social faux pas. Our little suburb was reliably Republican fifteen years ago, but now it’s become fashionable to pretend you care about the poor beyond the value of the charitable deductions they so generously provide us. “But you know who I really, really like this election?”

“Who’s that?” I asked.

“Hillary Clinton,” Sam said. “She always forgave Bill when he . . . uh . . . strayed.”

 

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Blurbs From the Burbs.”

Me and the Portable William Blake

It had been an impulse buy, as so many of my books are when they’re purchased on a Saturday after I’ve had a few glasses of wine and we’re wandering around a bookstore.  But it was an acquisition I’d been planning for a long time; I have a home William Blake in the den, the Seven Centuries of English Verse anthology I bought 45 years ago for my freshman college Humanities 101 course, so I’d decided that the next William Blake I bought would be the portable kind.

“Let’s go get ice cream!” it said as I carried it past the security scanners and out the front door of Barnes & Noble.

“I’m not hungry,” I said and I wasn’t lying.  I was stuffed from a dinner of turbot in a mushroom sauce with some of those sprouts on top that look like . . . short and curlies.

“I didn’t ask if you were hungry,” said the guy who, as Alfred Kazin says in his intro, makes such fierce demands on the human imagination.

blake
The Portable William Blake: Batteries not included.

 

“My wife doesn’t want any either, so you’re outvoted.”

“What kind of wimp cares what his wife thinks?” said the man who was a libertine in his own mind, but who proposed to his wife the first time they met when he told her another woman had dumped him.  And she said she pitied him.

“Sorry, I bought you, you’re gonna live by my rules.”  As soon as the words were out of my mouth I regretted them, because I knew what was coming next; an anti-commerce diatribe.

“When nations grow old, the Arts grow cold,” he intoned, “and Commerce settles on every tree.”  One of his favorite gags.

“Bill,” I began, trying to strike a reasonable note, “Just because you’re crazy doesn’t mean you can say stupid stuff.”

“It’s not stupid, it’s true,” he snapped, more than a little defensive.

“To you and maybe a few other demented types, mainly college professors.”

“Hey–if it wasn’t for a college professor you probably wouldn’t know me.”

“Not true.  I read you senior year in high school, in college prep English.”

“Did you have Mrs. Reisgang?”

I held him up to eye level.  “How do you know her?” I asked skeptically, wondering where he could have heard about the Mrs. Robinson-like figure who lured me into the writerly life when she singled out my lame, post-nuclear tale of betrayal as the best short story of the Class of ’69.

graduate
“That was a tough assignment.  ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ gave me a stiffie!”

 

“If the doors of perception were cleansed,” he said in a deep, portentous voice, “everything would appear to man as it is: infinite.”

O-kay.  Guess I’d better watch what I say.  “You know,” I said, trying to sound a more amiable note, “it really is amazing that they teach you to high school students, not to mention Samuel Taylor Coleridge.”

“That drughead!” he said with contempt.  “I’m Bernie Carbo to his Bill Lee.”

“How so?”

“I’m naturally crazy, I didn’t need to work at it.”

carbo
Carbo: “If I got traded to Cleveland, could I get out of this post?”

 

The old innocence/experience dichotomy–nobody rings the changes in that bell tower better than Blake.

“Seriously, it’s a wonder the right wing hasn’t copped to the subversive influence you have on impressionable young kooks.”

“Like you?” he asked, arching an eyebrow skyward.

“Well, yeah.”

“Don’t fence me in–the left wing won’t have anything to do with me either.”

“Why not?  You’re Mr. Anything Goes.”

“But I’m also obsessed with God.  It’s a wonder anybody can get ‘Little Lamb, who made thee?’ and ‘Tyger, Tyger’ in a public schoolhouse door.”

blake1
*sniff*  Do I smell popcorn?

 

“So if you’re not of the right, and not of the left–what are you?”

“Apparently your reading comprehension hasn’t improved since you bombed the Iowa Test of Basic Skills.  Read the intro, would ya?”

I took off my glasses–I only need them for distance–and began to flip the pages.  “Holy crap,” I said to myself.

“What’s the matter?” my wife asked, her forehead plowed into a little soybean field of concern.

soybeans
Like this

“It says here that William Blake was a libertarian.”

“Are those the people who come to the door on Saturdays?”

“No, those are Seventh Day Adventists.  Look,” I said to the book in my hand.  “You’ve got to be careful about following unorthodox philosophies in Massachusetts.”

“Why?”

“We burn witches here, remember?  People will think you’re crazy.”

The picture on the back cover gave me a look that could have chilled a beer mug to a fine, frosty finish.  “You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

“Just be careful what you say, okay?  I’m already a pariah in just about every social circle my wife wants to join–and some she doesn’t.”

“Perhaps,” Blake said slily, “it’s because you’re too much like me.”

I gulped the gulp that follows the shock of recognition.  “Ya think?”

“Don’t go all Valley Girl on me, you’ve already noticed it here, in this blog post.”

He had me dead to rights, so I started flipping through the biographical sketch in my new book.  Loner–yep.  Printing industry–yes.  Self-published books, the mark of the literary crank–on the nosey.  Anti-clerical–again, yes.  Hates to travel–that’s a oui. 

“Recall that at one point I didn’t leave my house for two years except to go out for beer,” Blake said.  “What did you do last weekend?”

“I . . . uh, stayed home and wrote.  Then I went out to get some beer.”

“And you say I’m whacked.  I used to spontaneously burst into song, adding melodies to my poems.  You?”

“Uh, guilty as charged.  Say, this is getting kind of uncomfortable.  Can we talk about something else?”

“Sure–how about our mutually respective unsuccessful writing careers.  How’s yours going.”

“Oh, you know.  Dribs and drabs.”

A noise like the riffling of pages escaped from the spine.  I guess that’s how books snort with contempt.  “Didn’t your motto used to be . . .”

“Yes?”

“Another day closer to posthumous fame?”

Once again, he knew me too well.  “So–I’m just resigned to my fate as a ballad monger . . .”

“I would have said Rhime trader, but that’s just me.  I think you’ve been reading my catalogue entry on ‘The Penance of Jane Shore in St. Paul’s Church’–hmm?”

“Which part?”

“Where I say ‘If a man is not employed by those who pretend to encourage art, he will employ himself, and laugh in secret.'”

 

Blog at WordPress.com.
The Esquire Theme.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,433 other followers