Salad Lovers Fret as Crouton Shortage Looms

GREEN RIDGE, Mo.  Sam Jones has been a grain buyer in this small town for nearly four decades, but he wears an expression of concern as he watches farmers arrive at the local grain elevator to sell their crops.  “If I had the money right now, which I don’t,” he says with a knowing look, “I’d be buying up all the croutons I could find.”

Croutons–sauteed or rebaked bread that is seasoned, cut into cubes and added to salads to provide texture and flavor–are a reliable cash crop in the Midwest, where school children have historically been excused from class during spring planting and fall harvest times.  “It’s a way of life,” says Marilee Dunham, whose husband Darrell puts their five sons and two daughters to work in early June “de-tasselling” crouton plants to enhance fertilization.  “It teaches the kids about the rhythms of nature and the seasons, and the role of the Caesar salad in the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.”


Harvest time

But some fear the salad days of croutons are ending, with demand for biodiesel fuels eating up available acreage.  “It’s sad,” says Wayne Durrell, Mayor of Green Ridge, whose seven year-old daughter Kylie was selected as Little Miss Crouton during the town’s annual Crouton Festival last summer.  “To see a way of life wither away and die all because a bunch of goo-goo liberals want to feel good about what they put in the gas tanks of their hybrids.”


World’s Largest Crouton, Missouri State Fair, Sedalia, Mo.

As with all changes in economic trends, this one produces both winners and losers.  While biodiesel producers benefit from government-sponsored tax breaks, small towns such as Green Ridge find their traditions threatened by agribusiness giants that buy up land at distressed prices and convert them to open-air factories, where a former independent farmer often finds himself tilling a field he once owned for a distant–-and faceless–-corporate crouton enterprise.


Bumper crop from 2012

“I’ll do what I have to in order to feed my family,” says Wendell Baker, Jr., whose family has raised croutons for three generations but who is now a contract employee for a commodities producer headquartered in Chicago.  “But the pride we used to feel when we walked by the salad bar at Wendy’s is gone.”

Walk for Congenital Smart-Alecks Finds Many Feet in Mouths

NATICK, Mass.  The start time for one of the Boston area’s many charitable walks is fast approaching, but while other fund-raisers are stretching and filling water bottles, one couple remains in their car, the distaff side with her head in her hands.

“Why did you have to say that to my mother–of all people!” Lynn Herrikus is saying to her husband Jason.

“She left herself wide open,” he replies, explaining, but not justifying his crack “So you like the feel of a wild beast between your legs?” to his 83-year-old mother-in-law after she said she’d like to try horseback riding.


“Nice cankles!”

 

Herrikus has CSAS, an acronym that stands for Congenital Smart-Aleck Syndrome, an affliction that walk sponsors say affects two million Americans.  “I was diagnosed at a very early age, long before the American Psychiatric Association listed it,” he says ruefully, but not entirely so.  “I figure as long as I suffer from my ailment, everyone else should too.”

CSAS victims are overwhelmingly male, and their symptoms grow worse as they hit middle-age and realize they will not achieve youthful ambitions.  “As they grow older their smart-aleckiness can take a darker turn,” says Dr. Oliver Maslan, a psychiatrist at the Massachusetts State Home for the Criminally Sarcastic, the largest public facility of its kind in New England.  “I don’t know why they’re so bitter.  Look where I ended up in life, instead of some cushy private practice in the suburbs.”

A “smart-aleck” is an obnoxiously conceited and self-assertive person with pretensions to cleverness, according to the current edition of the Physician’s Desk Reference.  Symptoms include a tendency to crack wise in inappropriate circumstances, although those outside the profession say no setting can ever justify a cutting remark since if you can’t say something nice, you shouldn’t say anything at all.


“We didn’t say anything smart-alecky the whole way!”

 

Proceeds of the walk will fund the cost of research at the Lauren B. Holcomb Institute for the Study of Cynical Expression, but Jason Herrikus says he has his doubts as to the prospects for a cure.  “Research–hah!” he exclaims as he strides a few steps behind his still-steaming wife.  “By ‘research’ they mean ‘new BMWs for all the lard-ass doctors on the staff.'”

Last Call at the Impaired Aesthetic Judgment Bar & Grille

As I stuff a load of glasses into the dishwasher I try to make enough noise so that people begin to get the message; they don’t have to go home, but they can’t stay here. It’s last call, and I don’t need the City of Boston Licensing Board coming down on me because somebody wants one more absinthe to fuel their aesthetic dreams.


“You’re sure about that Truman Capote?”

 

I started tending bar right after I got my “TIPS”—Training for Intervention ProcedureS—certification, but soon as I made enough money from tips of the lower-case kind I started working on my AJIBA—Aesthetic Judgment Impaired By Alcohol—certification. It was grueling, lemme tell you. We’d get these Master of Fine Arts girls who were looking to supplement their poverty-level adjunct professor wages with some test subject cash, and we’d have to draw some pretty fine distinctions between stuff that’s borderline chick lit and enduring art.

“I’ll have another shardonnay,” one of ‘em would fake-slur, and I’d look her straight in the eye while I bought some time.

“What do you think of Anne Sexton’s latest?” I’d say, seeing if my tester could remember whether she was alive or dead.


Sexton:  “Please don’t hate my poetry because I’m beautiful.”

 

“She’s the top.”

“The Eiffel Tower?”

“Whatever.”

“How about Adrienne Rich?” I’d ask as I pretended to have trouble unscrewing the cork.

“What’s up with her hair?” the woman might respond, comparing the two on the basis of the shimmering surfaces and not the substance beneath, and I’d have to cut her off. “Sorry,” I’d say, although I wasn’t. “You’ve got to look beyond the pretty picture on the back cover of the book,” and send her on her way.

But that’s what AJIBA training does for your poor harried publican—gives him the tools he needs to tell when a customer is no longer capable of forming a sound critical judgment and is about to slide off a barstool into maudlin sentimentality or a preference for the second rate.


J-K Huysmans

I work Saturday nights at À Rebours, named after the Joris-Karl Huymans novel with the hyper-aesthete protagonist, Jean des Esseintes. The tips are good, but they’d better be, because the crowd is tough. You get some hard cases; the James Gould Cozzens crowd who taunt the fans of his rival by repeating his crack “I can’t read ten pages of Steinbeck without throwing up.” I have to step in and play the peacemaker. “Guys, please, stop it!” I shout. “They’re both overrated!”

It doesn’t help that this is a college town, so we get a fair number of English professors in their cups; guys who can’t keep up with their female students anymore but haven’t given up trying. One of them lifts a finger attached to a hand at the end of his upstretched arm, like a too-earnest freshman about to ask “Is this going to be on the final?”

I make my way down to him, sensing as I come that he’s an illegal immigrant across the border between sober and blotto.

“You ready for your tab?” I ask innocently, hoping for the best.

“We’ll have another, barkeep,” he says, as he casts a leer at his companion. She’s so young I doubt she can find Vietnam on a map, while the guy is old enough to remember when it had both a North and a South, like Dakota and Carolina.


“Gak!”

 

I mark time by pretending to dry an Old Fashioned glass–there’s nothing old-fashioned about it, it’s used for Old Fashioneds. “Say,” I say. “Whadda ya think of Herman Melville’s claim that Ralph Waldo Emerson had ‘a defect in the region of the heart’?”

“Melville? That writer of boy’s tales and fish stories? What a tedious . . .”

“That’s it pal—you’re shut off.”

A Night Ride With the Conservative Poetry Enforcers

          There are maybe five conservative American poets, not one of whom can safely show his face at a writing conference for fear of being angrily doused with herbal tea.

                     David Orr, Beautiful & Pointless

It’s Wednesday night and the sky is cloudless and moonless. I’m cruising the streets of White River Junction, Vermont, with my posse; T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost, e.e. cummings and Wallace Stevens. We’ve got our gang colors on–tweed sport coats–because we’re out for retribution. Eliot was making a posthumous appearance at the Bread Stone Writer’s Conference the night before, hovering like a brooding omnipresence over a panel discussion on De-Privileging the Dead White Male, when the head of the low-residency poetry program at the University of Vermont-Quechee campus tossed some green tea and honey on his ghostly apparition. Forget what you’ve heard about the incorporeality of the afterlife; T-Dawg, as he is known fondly among us, has first degree burns on his hands to show for the gross incivility he was subjected to.


“You pointin’ that green tea at me, maggot?”

 

“Can we stop at Dairy Queen?” Stevens says from the seat beside me–typical for the Emperor of Ice Cream.

“Yes if you’re going to get something to drink,” I say. “No if you want a sundae. You know they give you the runs.”

“how come stevens always gets to ride shotgun?” cummings asks from the back seat.

“Because his reputation is the highest at this point,” I reply, trying to broker a peace. “It’s not my call–talk to the critics.”


Stevens: “I could really go for a Heath Bar Blizzard sundae right now.”

 

cummings rolls down his window and flips his cigarette out–a minor act of rebellion against the excesses of the environmental movement.

“You jerk,” Frost says. “Just because you’re a registered Republican doesn’t mean you can be a pig.”

“I live in Cambridge, Mass.,” Cummings says, momentarily drawing himself up from his normal lower-case orthographic state. “Littering is an inalienable right when you live in the city.”


e.e. cummings: “excuse me for smoking.”

 

I pull my car over to the side of the road outside the Writer’s Center, and we sit in silence as we wait for the poet who will be our random victim to walk out.

“Did everyone bring a beverage to toss?” I ask. Great poets tend to be world-class wool-gatherers, forgetting even the most important details of a night time terror ride.

“I brought a bottle of cider that I made myself,” Frost says. Good old Bob–marginalized as a conservative during his life, famously saying a liberal is someone so broad-minded he won’t take his own side in a quarrel.  He soldiered on until he got his day in the sun at the inauguration of John F. Kennedy, that tax-cutting imperialist who accused Richard Nixon of being weak on defense!

“I brought my martini shaker,” Eliot says. “Can I have a sip?”

“It’s up to you,” I say. “I’d think you’d want to keep your martini dry until you saw the whites of a liberal poet’s eyes.”

“You didn’t stop at Dairy Queen,” Stevens says with a dream-like voice. “No root beer float.”

“Give him a Gatorade, would you?” I say to the guys in the back, and Frost reaches into my red and white Coleman cooler, the one I’ve been using since I was introduced to Schlitz Malt Liquor on the night shift at an ice plant when I was fifteen.

Frost hands one forward to his poetic rival, and Stevens jumps a bit when the chilled plastic bottle is placed in his hands. “A frosty cold one from Frost,” he says with a thin little smile after he’s recovered. I note that he doesn’t say thank you; that’s Stevens for you, an imperial sense of entitlement.

We had argued over when and how we would retaliate for the indignity that Eliot suffered at the hands of his poetic inferior. We debated whether we should respond in kind with a searing hot beverage, but decided we would take the high road. Liberal poets may scar their competitors with coffee and tea, but we would repay them with an olive branch; cold drinks at worst, lukewarm liquids preferred. We don’t have to throw stuff to make a point; we use our words, as our mothers told us to long ago.

cummings–as he is wont to do–is the only one to push the envelope. he’s brought along two four-packs of single serving wine bottles, one white and one red, and from the malevolent look on his face my guess is he’s going to twist the cap on the cabernet first in order to inflict the maximum amount of damage to some poor poetaster’s affected Mexican peasant shirt.

“Why do they hate us?” Stevens asks no one in particular.

“Because you’re better than them,” I say, “and because you undermine their belief that a poem must conform to a rigid view of the way the world ought to be, instead of the way it is.”

“Jonathan Livingston Seagull crap,” Stevens says, again as if he’s talking in his sleep.

“On the nosey,” I say.

cummings shushes me as he sees a man in a Greek fisherman’s cap stumble down the stairs and then out onto the lawn. Frost clears his throat, and I can feel a poem coming on.

He’s in his cups as he descends
the stairs that lead to the conference
where within I have no friends
and that has made all the difference.

The three poets in the back slip quietly out the street-side door and take their places underneath some overgrown rhododendrons, the kind Virginia Woolf compared to overfed suburban stockbrokers.


Woolf: “I loaned my Black & Decker hedgetrimmer to Marianne Moore, and now she won’t give it back.”

 

The poet is humming to himself as he comes down the drive; I believe I detect the strains of Deep Purple’s “Smoke on the Water,” which would make him just about my age if he’s recalling the monster guitar hits of his youth–SOTW is ranked #12 on Q magazine’s list of 100 Greatest Guitar Tracks.

“Smoke–on the wa-ter/Fire in the skies,” the guy sings, and not too well. I see Frost, Cummings and Eliot exchange glances, then pounce on him.


Fuckin’ poetry, man.

 

“What the . . .” I hear the guy say before Eliot succeeds in stuffing some Lilly Pulitzer cocktail napkins in his mouth.


Tres festive!

 

The trio of nefarious verse-slingers drags the guy to the car where they stuff him in the back seat between Frost and Eliot–the “bitch” seat. Cummings starts to get in the front, but Stevens stops him.

“I have not relinquished my shotgun rights!” he says in a prissy tone.

“come on, wally!” cummings exclaims. We’re all getting a bit exasperated at the old man’s hyper-formalism.

Stevens ignores him, gets out and waits for cummings to “ride the stick.” Thankfully, my car has an automatic tranny on the column, so it’s not so bad.

“Where are you taking me?” the poet–and I used the word advisedly, since I recognize him–asks. It is Bendall Plourde, a refugee from a Master of Fine Arts program who claimed “printer’s error” when his amateurish attempt at a sonnet in a student newspaper drew derisive letters to the editor. Since I was the outside union typesetter for the paper I threatened to take out a full-page advertisement showing his original copy, with its mistakes of grammar, spelling, usage, syntax, mixed metaphors and pathetic fallacies–not to pile on or anything. I was prevailed upon not to place the ad for a sum in the high three figures–counting the decimal point, of course. Printer’s error my ass.

We drive for awhile and once we’re out in the country again Eliot removes the napkins from Plourde’s mouth and, without missing a beat, throws a martini in his face.

“What’d you do that for?”

“I might ask you and your bien pensant colleagues the same thing, since I was doused with hot green tea at last night’s session.”

“Well you deserved it, you who said that liberalism was ‘a worm eating itself into the traditions of our society.’”

“You dispute that?”

“Sure. All good poets are liberals–right?”

It’s cummings’ turn to chime in. “good lord, man–wherever did you get that idea?”

“From David Orr.”

“who’s that?”

“Just the poetry critic of the New York Times.”

“He doesn’t know his ass from his elbow,” Frost says dismissively as he looks out the window at a field lying fallow, trying to wring a poem out of it. The guy never stops working!

“Orr is to Lionel Trilling as a snow cone is to the Matterhorn,” Stevens intones with a voice of authority.

“Who’s Lionel Trilling?” Plourde asks, genuinely mystified.

“The ur-liberal literary critic of the twentieth century,” I say. “Author of The Liberal Imagination, who famously said ‘liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition’ of our time.”

“So–that just supports what I said,” Plourde says. “Ouch,” he cries as Frost administers “Indian sunburn” to his right arm.


“Oh no–not Indian sunburn!”

 

“Au contraire,” Eliot says. “Over and over again Trilling found that the poets he admired the most, the writers he thought would endure, including Proust, Joyce, Lawrence, Eliot, Yeats . . .”

“Yeats?” Plourde says with a note of betrayal in his voice–you can tell that one stung.

“Yes, Yeats,” Eliot continues, “Mann, Kafka, Rilke, Gide, Hemingway, Coleridge, Kipling, Faulkner and my esteemed colleagues in this car–to all of them ‘liberal ideology has been at best a matter of indifference,’ if they weren’t suspicious or even overtly hostile to it.”

We didn’t need any napkins to shut the guy up after that Honor Roll of Scribblers.

“Say it . . . say it ain’t so!” he says finally, tears welling up in his eyes.

“I’d like to–for your sake–but I can’t,” Eliot continues. “Trilling thought you needed to be a part of the traditions of the west in order to effectively perceive and express the social distinctions we lump together under the rubric . . .”

“What’s a rubric?”


1978 AMC Rubric

 

“A subcompact manufactured by American Motors in the sixties,” Frost says. I’m pretty sure he’s kidding.

” . . . of class,” Eliot says. He gives Plourde a Cheshire-cat smile, and at this point everybody chucks their drinks at the guy. Justice prevails.

“Still,” Plourde says as he tries to wipe the cheap cabernet off his favorite shirt, “Orr’s right about one thing.”

“What?” Frost asks.

“He said there weren’t five conservative poets, and there’s only four of you.”

“How about our driver?” Eliot asks. I am so flattered!

“Him?” Plourde asks, snorting with contempt to think that the former printer’s devil who took him down so many years ago in Worcester, Mass. would ever rise so high.

“Are you saying he’s not a conservative?” Frost asks.

“He voted against Reagan–twice,” Plourde says with scorn, making a great show of his umbrage. “And he’s also a lousy poet.”

 

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

Freedonian Nights Ring With Songs of Bitchiness

GLZORP, Freedonia.  By day, Ksiusha Milda is a housewife with a one year-old daughter.  By night, she is something completely different; a blues singer of sorts, a practitioner of this country’s traditional folk song, kalek.

Lithuanian woman - Julia
Ksiusha Milda:  “It is not enough that you change her diaper–you nimrod, you also must see that you wipe her.”

 

“It is my release,” she says as she wraps a brightly-colored platok, or scarf, around her head.  “I need something to take me away from the diapers and my lazy husband.”


“I deeply regret I accept your proposal–You are such a klutz you can’t fix my disposal!”

 

And so Ksiusha comes to a basement nightclub on the edge of the downtown area here to sing the kalek, traditional plaints of Freedonian women about life’s hardships and their troubles with men.


Kalek singers, warming up.

“The term ‘kalek’ literally means ‘bitch,’” says Kantatas Jonas, a professor of ethnomusicology at the University of Freedonia-Zlngdork, who says the genre’s fans expect nothing less than a full-bore attack on the man in a singer’s life.  “The audience knows what they want and they’ll let a performer hear it if she doesn’t deliver,” Jonas says.  “A singer can be booed off the stage if she pulls her punches.”


“You are such a schmuck for buying a truck, we need SUV for our growing family.”

 

Sales of kalek records peaked in the 1950’s, when Zemaite, the “Queen of Kalek,” created what came to be known as the “Jo-Town Sound” after Jonava, the city of her birth.  “Everybody was dancin’ in the streets back in the day,” says Zilvytis Barnardas, a 60-year old who fondly recalls the abuse he took from his girlfriend Rasa.  “She would sing ‘You are so bad at fondling my breasts, I prefer to study for my chemistry test.’”


Rasa:  “You are so clumsy at kissing, I find new boyfriend to show what I missing!”

 

Today’s kalek artists say they draw on that tradition, but they also want to make their own mark in the country’s musical history books.  “I am a part of that past, but I must sing of my own life,”  says Ksiusha Milda before launching into the opening bars of ‘I’d Rather Drive a Tractor on Several Farms (Than Be Stuck in Our Apartment Staring At Your Hairy Arms),” a track that has a pounding back beat and catchy lyrics that the crowd echoes with each chorus.  “It is not enough that I suffer,” she explains between sets.  “It is also necessary that I complain where others can hear me.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Hail Freedonia.”

High School Debaters to Argue Yoko Ono v. Linda Eastman

RIPON, Wisconsin. The National Forensic League, the organization that regulates high school debate in the U.S., has selected a musical topic for this year’s tournaments, catching coaches and participants by surprise.


Ready to rumble!

“Generally, the subject is either international affairs or U.S. social policy,” said Dan Curtin, speech and debate coach at Smith-Cotton High School in Sedalia, Missouri. “The kids will have to do a lot of original research on this one.”


Linda?

The NFL’s chosen topic is “Yoko Ono vs. Linda Eastman: Who was more destructive of her former Beatle boyfriend’s musical career?” Teams will alternate arguing the two sides during the course of a tournament, so that no school is disadvantaged by the relative merits of the question.


. . . or Yoko?

Lennon has been dead for over 30 years but still outsells his former Beatles bandmate, who must continue to play one-night gigs at low-paying venues such as the White House in order to make ends meet following a record-setting divorce from his third wife, Heather Mills. “He’d do even better if he’d get out and play state fairs during the summer,” according to Armand Schuster, a pop music reporter for Billboard Magazine. “So many of these guys get a big head once they become a star and just want to blow coke and noodle around in their basement studios.”


“You say you want a revolution, well . . .”

High school debate topics are carefully chosen so that teams can make arguments in support of either side of the question and thus be judged solely on their rhetorical skills. “We try to strike a balance,” said Lyman Goodridge, executive director of the NFL. “‘Power to the People!’ by The Plastic Ono Band is certainly inspiring but it’s awful. ‘Band on the Run,’ on the other hand, is even worse.”


I have to go fwow up now.

Last year’s topic, “Resolved: That the United States Congress is a bunch of stupid doody-heads,” was criticized by debate coaches as being too one-sided. “Our kids tried,” says Lowell Cain, coach of the Grain Valley, Nebraska, high school squad, “but they could never refute that proposition.”

The First Apartment: A Rite of Passage

Today, with the signing of a lease and payment of first and last month’s rent, security deposit, key charges, broker’s commission and the short-term national debt of Finland, my younger son became a man. For there is no step that so clearly marks the crossing of the threshold from childhood to adulthood as that which confers upon you an interest–however temporary–in real estate. As Scarlett O’Hara’s father said to her about Tara, the family plantation, in Gone With the Wind: “Land, Scarlett, land. It’s the only thing worth living for, worth fighting for, worth dying for–not all of your crinoline dresses and gew-gaws and frippery.”


Scarlett O’Hara and father: ” . . . and remember to put a Post-It Note that says ‘Scarlett’s Soda!’ on your Diet Cokes in the refrigerator.”

 

As such, the move out of a college dorm and into an apartment comes freighted with heavy responsibilities, which it is a father’s duty to discuss with his son. “Say,” I said, although that part always goes without saying, “we should have a little ‘chat’ about the apartment.”

He rolled his eyes, as he always does when I put quotation marks around the word “chat.” He knows what’s coming.

“This apartment you’re moving into–it’s a big step.”

“I know, dad.”


Folk dancing: For some reason, they’re always short of men.

 

“It can be a wonderful thing. No more goofy flyers in the hall of your dorm urging you to join the Young Socialist League, or that more male dancers are needed for Friday night folk dancing. On the other hand, it’s a place where you’ll form friendships–and enemyships–that can last a lifetime.”

He sat there glumly, suffering in silence. I guess he figured if he didn’t speak it would be over sooner.

“An apartment comes with major responsibilities,” I said. “You’re not in a dorm anymore, so if your refrigerator breaks down–you’re on your own.”

That caught his attention. “We are?”

“Sure–if you want to keep your beer cold and your hot dogs from rotting, you’ve got to go to a used appliance store and pick up a cheap one. Your college isn’t in loco parentis any more.”

“What does loco parentis mean?”

“That your mother and I are crazy to be paying for this.”

“So–we have to haul a refrigerator up three flights of steps?”

“Um-hmm.”

“And what do we do with the old one?”

I looked at him with a disappointed surmise. “What in the hell are they teaching you kids in college these days?”

“I’m a double major–I don’t get to take many electives.”

“Still–I thought every red-blooded American boy would know what to do with a dead refrigerator in a third-floor apartment.”

“What?”

I laughed a mirthless, condescending laugh–perhaps I was a member of the smartest generation in history, as Time magazine told me back in the 60s.

“Listen up, and listen good,” I said, getting right up in his face to show him I meant it. “You throw the refrigerator off the back porch!”

He was stunned, silent, as he is always is when I reveal one of the elegant solutions of my misspent youth. It’s true what they say–mathematicians, poets and madmen do their best work in their 20′s.

“You threw a refrigerator off a porch?” he asked, incredulous. Maybe the old man wasn’t such a dummy after all.

“Of course I did. Remember, I had a summer job installing appliances. I wasn’t about to move a refrigerator down three flights of stairs for nothing!”

He was silent for a moment. “Did . . . you ever have any regrets about it?”

I sat down next to him and tousled his hair. “Of course I did, kiddo. Everybody else in my gang remembered to wear a Halloween costume when we did it. It never even occurred to me that a colorful mask–Bozo the Clown, Chewbacca–would lend an air of antic gaiety to the proceedings, as well as disguise my identity.”

“Did you get caught?”

“Throwing refrigerators off apartment porches is really a victimless crime–unless you hit somebody,” I said, drawing on the reservoirs of knowledge I’ve built up after 35 years, two weeks and five days of my legal career, not that I’m counting or anything. “The cops in our student ghetto had their hands full with recreational drugs.”

He seemed to be “getting” it. “What else?” he asked.

I put my arm around him, the better to convey that while the advice I was about to give him was harsh, it was the product of paternal love. “I know you’ll be tempted to get involved in . . . illicit activities now that you won’t be under the watchful eye of your dweeby graduate student dorm monitor.”

“That guy is such a turd!”

“I know–they all are. Anyway, the thing I want you to understand is that if you’re going to bring in black lights and grow marijuana in the pantry, be sure you have shades on the windows.”

“Why?”

I shook my head from side to side–kids! What do they know?

“Because that purple glow out the window is like putting a sign on the side of your apartment building that says ‘Arrest me!’”

 


Indoor pot farm (not mine).

 

“Oh,” he said. He sounded embarrassed that I had exposed his ignorance in this very vital area of apartment living. “So you . . . grew marijuana in your apartment?”

“Of course not. No one ever grows marijuana in their apartment. When the cops come, you say it was left there from the guys who rented the place the year before.”


“The TV’s busted. Should we throw it off the front porch or the back porch?”

 

“What if the cops came the year before?”

“Those plants were there from time immemorial. For all you know, Moses sneaked them out of Egypt through the Red Sea.”

He seemed to understand. “Did you take the marijuana with you when you left?”

“No, I was pretty much done with pot by then. I’d smoked enough so that the THC in my system was making me paranoid. It happened to Stevie Wonder, too.”

“Who’s Stevie Wonder?”

“Just the guy who created some of the greatest pot-smoking music of all time. Anyway, your lease says you have to leave the apartment ‘broom clean’–it’s a legal term. I was the last one to leave, so I had to move about forty crates of dark, rich soil out of the place.”

“How did you do it?”

“I may have smoked a lot of pot, but it looks like my short-term memory is better than yours,” I said smugly.

“What do you mean?”

I threw it off a porch!” I screamed. I didn’t mean to, but I was growing exasperated.

“Oh, right–sorry,” he said.

“Maybe you should be taking notes,” I said, and I wasn’t kidding.

He took a pad of paper out of his backpack, and started to write: “Throw . . . pot . . . plants . . . off . . . back . . . porch.”

“Gimme that,” I snapped as I grabbed the pad and pen from him. I drew a thick line through the word ‘back’ and wrote ‘front’ over it.”

“You throw the pot off the front porch?” he asked.

“Sure–you already threw the refrigerator off the back porch. People will start to complain.”

“Like who?”

“Like the old lady who lives on the floor beneath you, with the divorced daughter who comes over every Sunday with her annoying kids.”


Look out below!

 

“Why does she complain?”

“Because she was sitting on her front porch, and I hit her with the dirt when I threw it off our front porch.”

“Oh,” he said as I handed the pad back to him. “Makes sense.”

“One last thing,” I said, as I held out our copy of the short-form apartment lease. “Signing this document carries a great many legal responsibilities with it. This is your introduction to the real world–for the first time, you’re on the hook, understand?”

“I guess.”

“I don’t think so. The landlord’s got the security deposit–if you mess the place up, he can keep it.”

“What if I disagree, or I didn’t do it?” he asked. I had to admire his spunk, but at the same time I had to give him a practical lesson in the slow workings of the American legal system too.

“The landlord’s got you over a barrel–he’s got your money, and it will take you at least two years to get into court to get it back. By that time, you and your roommates will be scattered across the country. You won’t want to come back for a lousy $300 each.”

“So what do we do?”

“You do like my friends Rick and Carl. Rick went on to a third-rate medical school in the Caribbean when none of the U.S. schools would have him, and Carl turned into a sadistic U.S. Marshall. Two very savvy guys.”

“What was their solution?”

“They got a couple of packs of Jimmy Dean’s Pure Pork Sausage, and stuffed it into every nook and cranny in the apartment before they left.”

 

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

The Gertrude Stein Look-Alike Contest

We’re getting up in years, we few forthright men who revealed to each other that we wanted to write back in our youth.  It takes a lot for a guy to open himself up that way to another man.

 


Is it Ed, or Gertrude?

 

There’s the odor of the effete about sitting down, waiting for inspiration, then scribbling your purple prose out on the blank page.  And there’s the sin of ambition.  You’re not content to become an accountant or an actuary–you want to become famous, huh?  You think you’re better than everybody else?

But we stuck with it with varying degrees of failure, and now find ourselves looking back on what we haven’t accomplished.  It’s about this time of year we get together for some wistful bonhomie as we slyly check out each other’s bald spots and paunches.


Faulkner:  Gave up a promising career as a postmaster and took the easy way out to become a Nobel Prize-winning novelist.

 

There’s Ed, the guy who was smitten with William Faulkner as an undergraduate and almost allowed his infatuation with the Mississippi Master’s stream-of-consciousness style to ruin his career as an air traffic controller.  There’s Rob, the Hemingway fan who had cosmetic surgery performed on his cat to add a toe to each paw.  And there’s me, the Fitzgerald nut with my inflatable Zelda love doll.

Regardless of whom we modeled himself after, we had to admit that four decades later we’d been worn down to the same nub.  When we hit our fifties, we all started to look not like our Lost Generation heroes, but like . . . Gertrude Stein. Stoop-shouldered, thick about the middle, not much hair.

 

“It was *sniff* cruel what he did to us!”

 

At first we joked about it in a nervous manner; keeping the horrible consequences at bay.  But after a few years of channeling the woman known for her sophisticated baby talk, we embraced our inner Gertrudes.  We turned competitive–as men are wont to do–and began to hold annual Gertrude Stein Look-Alike Contests.

When word got out there was the obligatory human interest story in the local paper, which got picked up by a wire service.  The next year we were overwhelmed, like Yasgur’s Farm by Woodstock.  Our little burg of twenty-some-thousand was transformed in a day to a mid-sized city five times that size by 80,000 grumpy, stocky, cross-dressing guys with close-cropped hair wandering around in baggy skirts muttering stuff like “I like this town but I don’t like that I’m in this town.”


“Contestants–if your last name begins with the letters A through M–line up on the left.  Everybody else, on the right.”

You had to work to get it just right.  Some of the younger squads would come into town with fancy matching embroidered loden coats–”Milwaukee Gertrude Brood”–and then crap out when it came time to complete the phrase “a house in the country . . . “

“Is not the same as a country house!” I’d fairly shout at the laggards from the provinces who thought all you had to do was skim “Tender Buttons” the night before “Stein Time.”  Fat chance.  As the Great Lady herself said, “Do you know because I tell you so, or do you know, do you know?”

You’d hear guys at the cash bar complaining about the judges as they hitched up their loose-fitting dirndl skirts.  “Gimme a break,” I said to one loudmouth, and it wasn’t the absinthe talking.  “What did Gertrude say–’The deepest thing in any one is the conviction of bad luck that follows boasting.’”  That shut him up.


Best buds!

 

We went into the men’s room to relieve ourselves before we went on, and I caucused with Ed and Rob at the urinal.  “You’ve got to remember,” I said as I cleared a path through the knee-length scarf I’d added to my outfit that morning, “be paradoxical, obscure and repetitive.”

“What was the last one again?” Ed asked as he shook himself.

“Repetitive,” I replied.  “Like ‘I who am not patient am patient.’”

“Can I write crib notes on my sleeve?” Rob asked.

“NO!” I snapped, then lowered my voice when heads turned.  “The essence of a good gertrudesteinism is errant, antic circularity.”

“Okay,” Ed said over the roar of the hand dryer.

“You guys ready?” I asked.

“I guess,” Rob said.

“You guess?” I straightened him up with a stiffarm to the shoulder.  “‘It is funny that one who prepares is not ready.’  Got it?”


“I just don’t ‘get’ this Gertrude gal!”

 

A look of enlightenment came over him, as if he finally understood calculus, or Avogadro’s number, or the appeal of Kathie Lee Gifford.

“Got it,” he said.  “The one who ‘gets’ something is the one who is gotten.”

“Attaboy,” I said with a grin.  “Let’s go–in a direction we don’t want to go.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dead Writers Make More Money.”

Our Hypoallergenic Night Out

End of summer means it’s a lot easier to get a reservation in a hot new restaurant in the Boston area, so last night found us with our friends Ted and Sally at Nourriture, which is French for “food.”  Tres simple! as we used to say in Madame Clooney’s 10th grade classe de Francais when we wanted to show off our knowledge of cognates.

After we were seated the water boy came by and asked if we wanted still or sparkling, then a comely young woman named Claire stopped tableside to say she’d be taking care of us tonight.  If only, I thought to myself as I shot a glance at Ted.

“First I must ask if anyone has any allergies,” she asked with a hint of chagrin, sprinkled with cumin and cardamom.  “It is, you know, ‘the law,'” she said, making little air quotes.

That’s what makes the Commonwealth (not a state–please!) of Massachusetts such a great place to live.  Founded by nay-saying Puritan divines, we’ve got laws for everything, and some for nothing at all.

Claire surveyed our faces and with that semi-apologetic air that comes over Presbyterians whenever they cause the least inconvenience, my wife spoke first.

“I’m allergic to some of my husband’s jazz,” she said, almost sheepishly.

“Okay,” Claire said.  “Any particular kind?”

“It’s strange,” my wife said, “but I have a particularly strong reaction to jazz violin–which he loves.”  I patted her hand to re-assure her that, despite our differences, my love for her was unlimited.  Up to a point.

“But you like classical violin, don’t you?” Sally said, and she was right.  Check her Pandora settings and you’ll find “Violin, classical, heavy on the schmaltz.”

“I do, but jazz violin–it’s so hectic and scritchy-scratchy.  It drives me nuts.”

“Even Stephane Grappelli,” I said, shaking my head.  “And don’t get her started about Stuff Smith.”

Stuff Smith 3
Stuff Smith:  “Why me?”

 

“Oh God,” my wife groaned.  “Just the mention of his name makes me want to cover my ears.”

Claire made a little moue with her mouth–what other facial feature was she going to make it with?  “That’s too bad,” she said as she jotted something on her little pad.  “And you madame?” she asked, turning to Sally.

“I’m allergic to guys yammering about football as if everyone cared,” she said.  I looked around quickly and saw there was only one television in the place, and it was over the bar in a spot where Sally couldn’t see it without turning around.  So we were probably in the clear on that one.

“Is it . . . just on TV, or do live human beings have the same effect on you?” Claire asked in a deadpan, just-the-facts-ma’am tone, like Sgt. Joe Friday’s sidekick Harry Morgan in Dragnet.


“I think the team that scores the most points is gonna win!”

 

“Both,” Sally said.  “Although the ones on television seem to have no necks, while the ones around here”–she turned to look at her husband, then me, then around the room generally–“they all seem to have body parts that connect their heads to their torsos.  Why is that?”


“Do you have the same reaction to pre-season games?”

 

“It’s because the ones you see on TV played football too long, and they have no necks left from ramming their heads into each other,” Ted said.  “Guys like us got out while the getting was good,” he added, and I nodded in agreement.  As I often say, the three happiest days of my life were my wedding day, the day I got out of the University of Chicago, and the day I quit high school football.

“Duly noted,” Claire said.  “Gentlemen?”

“You first,” I said to Ted.

“I’m very allergic to decorating magazines,” he said, and I could tell by the look that passed over his face–like the shadow of a storm cloud on a sunny day–that his pain was real.

“Ted,” Sally said with genuine concern in her voice.  “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“It was only recently that I hit my saturation level,” he said.

“Like the point where Stevie Wonder and I had both smoked so much pot that the THC in our systems turned us paranoid?” I asked.

“Maybe,” Ted said.  “I mean, we get Southern Living and New England Home.”

“That’s why we fought the Civil War,” I said to Sally.  “To preserve this great nation of ours.”

“We get House Beautiful and Beautiful Home,” Ted said.

“Almost a decorating palindrome,” I said.

“What’s an arena for bicycle racing have to do with interior decorating?” my wife asked.

“You’re thinking of a velodrome,” Ted said.  “A palindrome is a combination of words that reads the same forwards and backwards, like ‘A man, a plan, a canal–Panama!'”

“Oh,” my wife said.  She’s the math major, I’m the word guy.

“But yesterday,” Ted said, then paused for a moment as if the difficulty of what he was about to say took the air out of his lungs.  “I saw a copy of Vestibule magazine on the coffee table.”

“It’s free,” Sally said.  “I didn’t buy it–it comes with . . .”

“It doesn’t matter, it was the tipping point for me,” Ted said, color rushing into his cheeks.  “What’s next–Den Magazine?  Foyer Magazine?  Sears Tool Shed Magazine.”

Claire waited a second for that storm to pass.  “Et vous?” she asked, turning to me.

I swallowed, and hard.  When one suffers from a crippling disability, it isn’t easy to admit it publicly.  “I,” I began, but stopped, all choked up.

Lady Di
We really have one.

 

“Yes?” my wife said, her eyes little pools of sympathy.

“I’m allergic to Anglophiles.”

You could have heard a breadstick hit the richly-carpeted floor of the little boit de nuite (literally: “box of night”).

“Sweetie,” my wife said, her face a map of anguish.  “Why didn’t you say something?”

“Because,” and here I was gasping for breath, “I know how much the little princess in you loves British royalty.  I’ve overcome my deep aversion to landed gentry and upper-class British twits and learned to live with you and your Lady Di-Prince Charles fruitcake tin, but . . . it’s hard.”

“Isn’t there something you can take for it?” Sally asked.  She’s a doctor, and thinks that Western medicine has a cure for everything.

“There’s no drug strong enough to counter-act the pervasive Anglophilia around here,” I said.  I tried not to be curt, but people have no idea what I go through every day.  “Channel 2″–our award-winning public TV station–“would have nothing but dead air to broadcast if it weren’t for tepid British dramas.”

“They never show any sports, that’s for sure,” Ted said.

“And if they did, it would be cricket,” I said.  There was a lump in my throat, and you could hear it in my voice.  “We fought a freaking war to rid ourselves of the dead hand of Albion . . .”

“Who’s Albion?” Sally asked.

“A poetic name for England, much used by William Blake.”

“I thought he was one of your jazz violists,” my wife said.

“You’re thinking of Al Biondi–different guy.”

“O-kay,” Claire said.  “Is that it?”

“That’s it for me,” I said as I dabbed at my eyes with my napkin.

“Excellent,” Claire said.  “Excusez-moi for a moment, I must speak to the owner.”  With that she turned and headed towards the maitre’d’s station, and returned with our host, a suave-looking man in a dinner jacket, tuxedo shirt and fake bow tie.

“Bon soir,” the man said.  “My name is Emile.  I am the proprietor.”

“Nice to meet you,” I said, not sensing any trouble.

“I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to leave,” he said.  I’d say I was speechless, but I found my tongue and palate and asked him “Why?”

“Because, my friend, you are all so–how you say–allergic, there is nothing on the menu we can serve you.”

 

For One Young Director, Film Noir’s as Dark as Crankcase Oil

SOMERVILLE, Mass. When Evan Winslow earned his bachelor’s degree in film from New York University last spring he had visions of being the next John Huston, or at least Peter Bogdanovich. “You spend four years in college exposed to nothing but works of genius,” he recalls a bit ruefully. “I must have missed the class about earning a living.”


Bogdanovich: “You have to start at the bottom, like I did, manning the popcorn machine.”

After receiving either form rejections or no response at all to some seven hundred resumes he sent out, he had exactly zero job offers in the film industry and his share of the rent coming due for the three-bedroom apartment he shared with his girlfriend Mindy Heinz, a budding actress, and two graduate students. “I’m not proud,” he recalls, “but I think filming weddings and bar mitzvahs would be a poor use of my cinematic training.”


“Un Chien Andalou is good–also Weekend at Bernie’s.”

Determined to put his artistic skills to use, he started his own video production company, borrowing money from his parents and maxing out several credit cards he’d received upon graduation. He found work almost immediately, but the subject matter was something of a comedown from the lofty themes of love and despair he found so compelling in the films of La Nouvelle Vague, the “new wave” French directors of the 1950’s and 60’s.


“At Mike’s Collision Repair, your car comes out smooth with no unsightly dents like Moose the auto body guy has in his head.”

 

“Basically, Somerville is the re-built engine capital of New England,” he notes with visible disdain. “Owners of auto body repair shops like to feature wives or girlfriends in their commercials, gracefully waving their arms like auto show girls.”


Dream scene: “I am floating in either used 10W40 oil, or the bad coffee in the customer waiting area.”

 

Evan tries to persuade his clients to “push the envelope” aesthetically, and to use Mindy in the commercials he makes for them, but he finds them resistant to change. “My girlfriend Debbie is better-looking and less depressing,” objects Tony DeMarino, owner of a towing business. “She also has bigger tits, but I suppose I’m not allowed to say that in an interview.”


Mindy, at a casting call.

 

So Evan and Mindy do what they can to enhance the film noir aspects of their 30-second spots, panning up from a running oil spill under a service bay to a graphic depiction of the grimy underbody of a Ford Taurus station wagon up on a rack, or enlivening a head shot of a used car dealer with a fleeting image of a wan and naked Mindy running along the back wall of a garage, beneath a rack of hanging fan belts.


Fan belts: Rarely used in the films of Jean-Luc Godard, despite his proletarian sympathies.

 

“I got that idea from Los Olvidados,” the Luis Bunuel classic, says Winslow. “I wanted to use the eye-slitting scene from Un Chien Andalou, but I decided to save that in case I move up to opticians.”

 

Available in print and Kindle formats on amazon.com as part of the collection “Boston Baroques.”

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