Children of Triple Crown Winners Say They Lead Lonely Lives

ELMONT, New York.  They live, they say, in a no-man’s-land between two very different worlds, and are comfortable in neither.  In an age that increasingly rejects traditional concepts of gender, they feel they were born too soon, and must work hard to earn grudging social acceptance that is granted more readily to others.  “We were really pioneers,” says Ellen Messerling, a 43-year old who was born the year after Secretariat won the “Triple Crown” of horse-racing events in 1978, finishing first in the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, which is run at nearby Belmont Park.  “You’d think that would count for something, but no.”


Ellen Messerling:  “What are you looking at?”

 

Messerling is the illegitimate daughter of Secretariat and 65-year-old Myra Messerling, who as a little girl absorbed horsey girls’ books such as National Velvet, Black Beauty and My Friend Flicka.  As she grew older, she turned into a horse “groupie,” traveling from one track to another, wagering her allowance through proxies who would place bets that would have been illegal for her as a minor.  “It was a vicarious way of expressing my allegiance to my favorites, and I don’t regret it for a minute,” she says, then corrects herself.  “Sometimes I end up eating cat food at the end of the month until my next Social Security check arrives, and I wonder if I’m chewing a descendant of one of my teen crushes.”

The technical term for the mixed-species offspring of a horse and a human is “satyr” if a male, and “satyress” if a female.  “You shoulda see the barn rockin’ here two years ago,” says Jocko Canavan, a trainer who has worked at Belmont Park for the last four Triple Crown winners; Secretariat in 1973, Seattle Slew in 1977, Affirmed in 1978 and American Pharoah in 2015.  “They’re like NBA All-Stars when they win it all, they can have their pick of breeding partners, horse or human.”


You’d better keep an eye on that girl.

 

The children of Triple Crown Winners are viewed as aristocrats among satyrs, a lofty status that is incompatible with America’s professed–if sometimes disappointed–notions of equality.  “I don’t fit in with the humanoid crowd,” says Todd Lumpe, the 39-year old love child of Donna Lumpe and Seattle Slew.  “On the other hand, if you think I like hanging around with horse-like beings who have no future other than the glue factory, you’re naïve.”


“All the good horse-men are taken!”

 

This inability to socialize with either branch of satyrs’ family trees has lead some mental health professionals to call for a ban on horsey books for pre-teen girls so a nascent affection for the noble animals doesn’t turn into something more serious.  “We have developed a psychological test that can detect the early warning signs of inappropriate horse-obsession,” says Dr. Milton Mainwaring, who counsels horse-human couples at the race track in Hialeah, Florida.  “The first and most important question is, ‘Do you like the feel of a wild beast between your legs?'”

 

Ballet Twister

“You’re not going to try and stay up late with us, are you?” my wife said apropos of a little soiree we were having for her ballet friends Saturday night.  “You need your rest for the work week,” she said, her face a veritable picture postcard of concern.


“Dear God, please don’t let him stay up and make stupid ballet jokes!”

 

“Actually, I think I’ll take a long nap in the afternoon so I can keep up with your fast crowd,” I said, but she was having none of it.

“I worry about your health, sweetie,” she said.  What she meant, of course, was that if something were to happen to me, I wouldn’t be able to keep working like some kind of dumb animal for another ten years.

“No, seriously,” I said, “I’ll take a nap in the morning after I swim to warm up for my afternoon nap.  That way I won’t pull a muscle when I yawn.”

“No, you’re so much older than the rest of us,” she said, as if that mattered.  I’d be the only one out on the roads biking at six the next morning, but the thought of riding with a hangover gave me pause, and caused me to agree with her for reasons of my own.

“Maybe you’re right,” I said.  “I’ll excuse myself around 11 . . .”

“Why not 10:30?” she interrupted me to ask.

“What’s the rush?”

To the extent that she’s capable of embarrassment, she appeared to be embarrassed.  “Well–it’s just that . . .”

“Yes?”

“We have so much more fun when you’re not around.”

 


Wolfman Washington, left, Joseph Conrad, right: Have never previously appeared in same sentence before.

 

I think she regretted the words as soon as they were out of her mouth.  I know I’m not everyone’s cup of tea, what with my highbrow tastes in literature like Joseph Conrad and my lowbrow tastes in music like Walter “Wolfman” Washington.  Still, it wasn’t a nice thing to say.

“Fine,” I snapped, and I made sure she knew how I felt.  “I’ll just toddle off to bed like a good little boy who’s been allowed to come downstairs to recite ‘The Wreck of the Hesperus’ for a dish of ice cream.”


The Wreck of the Hesperus: Use the mast as a flotation device!

 

“It’s really for the best,” she said.  She leaned in to kiss me just like the female CEO told her to, but I jerked my head back like Muhammad Ali avoiding a roundhouse right.

“I won’t overstay my welcome,” I said and I left her to wrap asparagus in filo dough.

The guests arrived fashionably late because they do everything fashionably.  They’re married but you wouldn’t know it if you looked at their driver’s licenses. She’s Pierina Ivanovna Plietskayanovaulanmarkovachessinka, a woman whose name is so long after you add the patronymic that when she steps outside for a smoke it extends into our neighbor’s screened-in porch, a source of much friction over the years.

He, by contrast, has only one name, Georg, pronounced in the European manner, “GAY-org,” which makes him sound like a non-profit web domain.  I guess they figured since her name takes up half the phonebook in our little suburb, he should cut back on his to reduce their nomenclature footprint.

Pierina is hard to take, but Georg is truly unbearable.  He never goes anywhere without a scarf, even to the bathroom.  I guess he uses it as a handtowel.

We greet our guests at the door, exchange air kisses, and then get the party started.  Pierina isn’t sure she can eat a whole stalk of asparagus, so she just masticates a piece until it looks like something you’d scrape off a lawnmower blade, then removes it daintily from her mouth with a napkin–a cloth napkin, I might add.

After dessert my wife starts to make rather conspicuous throat-clearing noises, a signal that I’m supposed to say I’m really beat after a long week at work, and for everybody to carry on without me.  Which I do.

“Oh, now don’t go to spoil the funs we are have so much of already!” Pierina says.  English is her first language, but she studied Broken English at a Berlitz school so she’d sound Russian when she interviewed for open ballerina jobs.

“No, really, I’m tired.  I’ll just clear these dishes and let you–young folks–get on with the serious business of BOLL-ay talk.”  Note how I hung that Mikhail Baryshnikov pronunciation of the term on them, so they’d know I’m no slouch in the dance department.

As I brushed my teeth I reflected bitterly on my fate: If we’d had my friends over, it would have been . . .   Wait a minute: like a lot of busy guys, I don’t have friends anymore; all our friends are carefully selected by my wife to ensure that she enjoys talking to the distaff half of the couple, and if I don’t like the husband, that’s my tough yupkas.

I went to bed and thankfully the dance crowd was quiet enough for me to fall asleep, but I was awakened–as is typical of men my age–by the need to relieve myself.  I propped myself up on one elbow, looked at the clock–3:30 in the morning–then turned to my wife’s side of the bed, and saw that she wasn’t there!  I listened and heard the sound of laughter floating up the stairs, and resolved that, Terpsichore or no Terpsichore, it was time to put my foot down.  In a non-dance way, of course.


Terpsichore, Muse of Dance:  The original wardrobe malfunction.

 

I tiptoed to the top of the stairs, determined to learn what exactly these aesthetes do with my wife until all hours of the night when we have them over.  One look tells me all I need to know: it’s a veritable orgy in progress down there, with limbs flailing away around bodies packed together like a scrum on the floor.

“So this is how you repay my hospitality!” I say with as much outraged umbrage–or is it umbraged outrage?–as I can muster.

The looks of surprise on the three faces reveals their guilt.  So there has been some sort of sick menage a trois going on all these years!  I grope for the words of contempt I’m looking for in French, the universal language of ballet.  Merdre?  Sacre bleu?  Des saucisses sans doubte?

“Honey, it’s not what you think!” my wife exclaims as she runs towards me.  I stiff arm her like a Heisman Trophy, however.  “It’s too late for apologies!”

“I wasn’t going to apologize–I was going to invite you to play Ballet Twister with us!”

“Yes, please–do join us!” Georg says, all smarmy superciliousness.

“You’re–really playing Twister?” I ask hesitantly.

“Yes,” Georg replies.  “It’s the game that ties you up in knots!”

“Produced by the Milton Bradley Company,” Pierina begins in her stilted tone of voice, “Twister is a game of physical skill played on . . .”

“I know what Twister is, Pierina,” I say, cutting her off.  “I was playing Twister before you tied on your first pair of toe shoes.  There is no such thing as Ballet Twister.”

“But there is now–we made it up!” my wife exclaims.

I decide to give her the benefit of the doubt.  “What makes it different from ordinary Twister?”

“It is simple!” Pierina says.  “Instead of four rows of colored dots, we have one row of famous ballets, one row of choreographers, one row of prima ballerinas assoluta, and one row of famous ballerinos.”

“What’s a ballerino?” I ask.

“It’s the male of the species,” Georg says.  He’s actually using a civil tone, so I’m somewhat mollified.

“Well, I’m up now–how does it work?” I say.

“Same as regular Twister.  We twirl the spinner, and it tells us where to put our hands and feet!” Pierina says.  She’s currently spraddled across her husband in a contortion that looks like something out of Cirque de Soleil.

“Go on, honey–give it a try!” my wife says.

“Well, all right,” I say.  “But I am not putting on a tutu.”

“You don’t have to!” Georg says, and with that my wife spins.  When the needle stops, she announced “Right hand–Balanchine!”

“I don’t see his name,” I say, but Georg breaks out laughing.

“It is underneath Pierina!” he says.

Okay, fair enough.  I decide to play along and slink like a lizard beneath the two of them.

It’s Georg’s turn, and my wife spins him a tough one: left foot, Coppelia.


Coppelia

 

“Oh, man!” Georg says, and for once his voice is drained of its normal preciosity.  Maybe he’s actually having . . . fun.

The guy is lithe, I’ve got to say that for him.  He wends his leg through a little arc formed by his wife’s right arm, and . . . with just inches to spare . . . busts a move that may clinch the game for him.

“I dast you to beat that, sweetie,” he says, using the substandard present tense singular and plural of dare. Frankly, I didn’t know he had it in him.

“Okay,” Pierina says.  “How do you say–‘Let ‘er rip!’”

The dial is spun and–Good Lord!–it is the most difficult move on the mat: a right foot Cynthia Gregory!


Cynthia Gregory

 

Pierina has trained for this moment all her life, however; it is her turn in the spotlight, and as she considers her options, her face takes on a look of fearless calculation.  It is the look of a puma about to leap on the neck of some stupid crunchy-granola hiker who’s ignored the warning signs placed on the trail by the Sierra Club that say CAUTION: THERE’S A PUMA BEHIND YOU.

“I tinks,” she says, “I see an opening,” and with that she spins her torso so she’s facing the floor, thrusts her leg just beneath my abdomen and . . . nails it!  We are now sticking together like a clot of day-old spaghetti left in a collander overnight.  I can’t see how any of us will ever be able to move again.

“Just a minute,” Georg says.  “You committed the fatal error that is the undoing of so many Twister divas.

“What is that?” his wife asks, exposing for the first time a rift between the two love-boids.

“Your knee touched the floor in violation of official Twister Rules!”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Dance Fever–Catch It!”

Homage to Delmore Schwartz

In the summer of 2013 I began to make the rounds, in an electronic fashion, of literary magazines to remind them of the upcoming centenary of the birth of Delmore Schwartz, the man who was hailed in the 1930s as the “American Auden.” Schwartz was responsible, in the words of Allen Tate, the second poet laureate of the United States, for “the first real innovation” [in poetry] that we’ve had since Eliot and Pound”—surely the anniversary merited recognition.

As an admirer of Schwartz since my undergraduate days four decades before, I would suggest to print and net publications that I was the ideal candidate to write an appreciation of the man whose first book of poems and short stories, In Dreams Begin Responsibilities, had been praised by the likes of T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound—when Schwartz was just 24.

The response I got at each successive literary doorstep on which I stopped was umbrage along the lines of “Well of course we’re going to do a retrospective on Schwartz, we have someone working on it already!” The offended dignity was voiced in each case by someone whom you suspected, from their excessive protest, wouldn’t know Delmore Schwartz from Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

December 8, 2013 came and went and in each publication I’d solicited I found no word of the man who has been honored by poets as distinguished as Robert Lowell and John Berryman, Nobel Prize-winning novelist Saul Bellow, even punk rocker Lou Reed (sixteen years after Schwartz’s death). A search of the internet shortly before sitting down to write this article confirmed the sad truth. The 100th anniversary of Schwartz’s birth, usually the occasion for a celebration of a great artist’s life, had passed unnoticed. Once praised by Wallace Stevens as having written the “most invigorating review” of the latter’s work he had ever read, Schwartz had disappeared from the current conversation on poetry the way his 30’s contemporary Judge Joseph Crater vanished forever after a night on the town in New York.

 

Art is long, life is short, goes the aphorism, but in Schwartz’s case the life was short (he died at 52, in 1966), and the art—for reasons hard to fathom—didn’t outlive him by much. The publication in the 1970’s of Humboldt’s Gift, Bellow’s roman a clef starring Schwartz, and a biography by James Atlas produced a temporary uptick in Schwartz’s reputation, but that brief burst, like the last fireworks of the summer, seemed to confirm the end of the bright display of his powers once the publicity and sales fizzled out.

Schwartz was a victim of drink like Dylan Thomas, his contemporary and fellow habitué of The White Horse Tavern in Greenwich Village, but the life of the latter ended on a victory lap of the United States, while Schwartz’s body lay unidentified for two days in a morgue after he died. Schwartz left his unpublished papers, which could have provided the perennially impecunious poet with some savings, behind him when he abandoned Manhattan for a teaching post at Syracuse University in 1962. The moving man hired by the landlord to clean out Schwartz’s apartment knew the poet from evenings at the White Horse and, recognizing his manuscripts, stored them at his own expense rather than throw them out. Years later, having a drink with the son of Dwight Macdonald, Schwartz’s literary executor, the moving man asked whether Macdonald would be interested in them. Those papers, once bound for the dump, are now in Yale’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library.

Schwartz was the son of a garrulous and melodramatic mother and a philandering father, a successful real estate man. The two clashed often; in what would prove to be a fulcrum in the young poet’s life his mother spotted his father’s car parked outside a Long Island café and dragged Delmore inside to confront his father and his mistress when Delmore was just seven years old. The parents eventually divorced, with Delmore spending summers with his father in Chicago living in luxury—there was a $10 bill at his place at the breakfast table every morning—until his father lost most of his fortune in the crash of October, 1929. He died the following June when Delmore was sixteen, and the son would spend a great deal of time and energy over the rest of his life trying to salvage what he could from his father’s estate. He had once expected an inheritance of $100,000 (approximately $1.5 million in today’s dollars), but would live mainly on a meager income as poet, editor and teacher for the rest of his life.

The sense of a lost paradise of youth haunted Schwartz, who feared that the high praise with which his work was met in his twenties would similarly disappear. “All these fine reviews” he received made him “terrified. It can’t last, I can’t be being praised for the right reasons by so many people, it is much too soon,” he wrote to one of his publishers. This premonition turned out to be true, as the young man who had once corresponded in a familiar tone with Ezra Pound and believed that Ernest Hemingway might provide him with a blurb for the jacket of his first book fell out of fashion. He would win the Bollingen Prize in the 1959 at a younger age than any poet before him, but he descended into alcoholism and mental illness and never fulfilled the promise of his youth.

Schwartz is the author of a one-liner that is oft-repeated but rarely credited to him—“Even paranoids have real enemies”—and the premature eclipse of his career can plausibly if not convincingly be laid at the feet of his natural predators—fellow poets. Schwartz was Jewish, and I think it is fair to say the first great Jewish-American poet. He was nonetheless a bit of a snob, looking down his nose at the gaucheries of his lower-class co-religionists, the denizens of the tenements, the refugees whom Emma Lazarus celebrated, at the same time that he looked up to T.S. Eliot, the ur-WASP poet, like a poor boy with his face pressed up against the window of the store where the rich kids got their toys. He was thus betwixt and between the world of his fathers, and the Anglophile poets of the American canon, but his poems were too philosophical to fit the fashion of those high priests. Archibald MacLeish, two decades older, had decreed that poems should be, not mean, but Schwartz’s poems were full of meaning of the deepest sort. He was widely read in philosophy, and did graduate work in that discipline at Harvard without earning a degree.

But he deserves to be better remembered and read. In Dreams Begin Responsibilities (the line is taken from Yeats) is a technical breakthrough for the short story in America, and his poems are the sort that recall William Blake’s disparagement of the “high finishers” of “paltry Rhymes,” the poets who specialize in verbal decoration without inspiration. As Lady Caroline Lamb said of Byron, Schwartz was mad, bad, and dangerous to know, but like Coleridge, he had drunk the milk of Paradise.

This article first appeared in Easy Street.

The Curse of the Uncool

Take the hippest restaurant,
where everyone wants to go
where you can’t get a table for several years
unless you are in the know.

The place is so cool it’s frigid,
but the minute I walk inside
people complain that it’s stuffy
if they don’t actually run and hide.

“What happened to the cutting-edge atmosphere?”
asks a tattooed millennial tool.
“It’s simple,” I’d say,
if he’d look my way,
“You’ve been invaded by The Uncool.”

Or consider the stark haberdashery
where overpriced clothing is sold.
Even the mannequins have attitudes,
worse than the sales help I’m told.

The inventory comes in twelve shades of black
to adorn your torso from front to back
but I cause all present to turn and stare
when I ask “Is this sweater wash ‘n wear?”

The hipster holding a thirty-dollar t-shirt
that he thought at first quite a jewel
is suddenly overcome with a sense of dread–
he loathes to be near The Uncool.

I have this effect on people, I fear,
I don’t know how I first acquired it.
I’d be happy to pass it along to young folks
but none of them seem to admire it.

Une petit boit de nuit
as the French would say
isn’t safe from my death-ray.
I can unmake a day
that you thought complete
whether you’re low or very effete
by just being myself, in my own special way,
in a manner that many might even think cruel
and exposing you to The Curse of the Uncool.

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 Friday 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 350th 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, 2009.”

“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 seventh 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 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 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?”

“Good question.  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.”

For Victims of Hip Restaurant Aphasia, Meals Are Gone With the Wine

BOSTON.  At the July meeting of the Young Women’s Professional Circle, a group of high-powered, up-and-coming female business leaders that holds monthly lunches where members network and share stories of success and struggles, Cindy Pelham is making small talk with her tablemates when an appararently innocent question causes her to panic.

“We don’t get into town much anymore,” says Julia Alston, a forty-something banker who moved to the suburbs when she had her first child.  “What are some of the hip, new restaurants people are going to these days?”


“We used to be called Monaco, but we changed our name to Macaca.”

 

“Excuse me,” Cindy replies, obviously flustered.  “I need to go to the ladies room to . . . pluck my eyebrows.”

Across town, Cindy’s twin brother Dan is chatting with a partner at the accounting firm where he works, and a query of the same sort causes a similar reaction.  “What are you guys doing this weekend?” asks Bob Sciortino.


“We went out for dinner–don’t ask me where, okay?”

“We’re going to meet the Ferbers at, uh . . . ” Dan begins before freezing up and changing the subject.  “Say, what do you think of the new accounting standard on accelerated depreciation of weasel pelts?” he asks, drawing a blank look from Sciortino.


“Where are we again?”

The Pelham twins are victims of Hip Restaurant Aphasia, a disorder that prevents a person from remembering the unconventional names that fashionable restauranteurs adopt to project an au courant image.  Public health officials say the disease is spreading rapidly as baby boomers enter the Alzheimer years, a tough economy increases the number of restaurant failures, and hot chefs adopt ever-stranger names to distinguish themselves.

“It used to be that a French restaurant had a French name, like ‘La Putain’, and an Italian restaurant had an Italian name,” says food service industry analyst Martin Scholes.  “Then things sort of got blended together in an Esperanto Cuisinart, and now the names are all over the parking lot.”


Grill 23:  Due to inflation, will soon be Grill 24

 

The Pelhams are working with a neurologist to develop mnemonic devices they can use to recall restaurant names in stressful social situations, using a series of simple categories to divide dineries up into easily identifiable groups.  “There are the ‘number’ restaurants, like Grill 23, Bin 47 and No. 9 Park,” says Dr. Philip Weinstein of the Massachusetts General Hospital, a stone’s throw away from many trendy eateries on Boston’s Beacon Hill.  “Then there are the nonce words–Truc, Bano, Urk and Grunk.  They’re so hip nobody knows what the hell they mean.”

Cindy Pelham hopes future medical breakthroughs will bring relief to her and Dan, but until then she’s taking no chances as she flips through a phone book at the maitre d’s station and scribbles restaurant names on her cuff.  “I’ve always been close to my brother,” she says as patrons stare at her curiously.  ”Why can’t we just eat at ‘Mom’s?’”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “I Hear America Whining.”

Lizard Boy

The carnival was in town for the State Fair, and the boy Brad had gone out to the fairgrounds trying to find his first job, at the age of 12.

Every place he’d asked he’d been turned down; he didn’t understand, he’d see other boys and girls about his age wiping down the counters and helping at little soda pop and hot dog stands–why wouldn’t anybody hire him? He didn’t understand that those were family affairs; the mother and father were on the premises working too, otherwise the children wouldn’t have been.

carnival3

He tried picking up deposit bottles for a while, walking between the tents, but there was always a black boy who’d beat him to it when he spotted one. After a while he realized that all the kids working in the stands were white like him but he couldn’t get a job there, and all the kids scrounging for bottles were black but faster and tougher than him.

He made his way down to the midway from the last beer garden that he tried and started to walk the circuit from the big entrance down to Club Ebony, the black show at the end, beyond the tent with the loudspeaker that blared “Live models, in the nude, definitely not for Junior,” around the bend to the Snake Woman, who “walked and talked and wriggled on her belly like a reptile.”

He stopped to watch the workers putting up the Cage of Death for the motorcycles, and a man came out of the Snake Woman tent and stood behind him.

“Your folks with the carnival?” the man asked after eyeing the boy.

“No sir. We live here all year round.”

The man looked at the boy’s arms and neck. “What’s wrong with your skin there?” he asked, pointing to dark purplish patches

“I have Darier’s Disease.”

carnival1

“Is it contagious?”

“No. It’s hereditary. I got it from my dad’s side of the family.”

The man looked at him like he was some kid’s 4-H animal being sold at auction.

“Do you think he’d mind you working in my tent?” the man asked.

“Doing what?”

“In the show. I need somebody for the intro to the Snake Woman. Part of the bally-hoo.”

“The what?”

“The build-up. You can’t charge people three dollars to see one thing and tell them to go home. They’ve got to think they got their money’s worth.”

The boy thought silently about this for a moment. “What would I have to do?”

“You’d be Lizard Boy,” the man said. “You get to wear a mask like the Creature From the Black Lagoon. Can you swim?”

“Yes.”

“Well, you put on that mask and some flippers and a wet suit. You swim around in a tank for awhile while I talk you up. I say we captured you in the Amazon River in a titanic death struggle.” The boy smiled at the absurdity of the pitch, and the man got down on his haunches as he continued.

“See, we create an air of mystery, then we bring you out of the tank. We tell folks you’re the spawn of a beautiful botanist who disappeared on an expedition and never came back. For a long time they thought she was dead, but now we know better, because we took your blood sample—and it’s the same as hers!”

carnival2

“Is anybody gonna believe that?”

“Sure they are—they’re all rubes. They pay a buck to see the two-peckered billy goat in formaldehyde across the way, you’ll beat that any day!”

“But I’m not a lizard.”

“Don’t matter—I’ve worked this before. You got that skin there. It ain’t icthyosis but it’ll do. When you get out of the tank we wrap you in a cape and I talk some more.”

“About what?”

“I say we’re taking up a collection for your education. We’re gonna get you the finest schooling to be had in these here United States because your learnin’ has been neglected in the jungle. Then we pass the hat and we give people a little card with a drawing of a creature who’s half-human, half-lizard.”

“Then would I be done?”

“Naw, we’re just getting to the climax. We tell people you greatly appreciate their contributions. You nod and act like you’ve got something to say to me. I lean over and you make like you’re whispering in my ear. Then I announce that you’re about to shed your outer skin, like a salamander. You face the audience and peel off the wet suit real slow, then you turn around, I whip off the cape and people see your disease.”

It sounded wonderfully exciting to the boy. He could imagine himself on stage, striking poses for the audience. If he wore a mask no one would know it was him, so he could go back to school in the fall without embarrassment. It might even enhance his reputation at school; where before he’d been ashamed to undress for gym class, now he’d be an entertainer, and a professional one at that.

“How much is the pay?” the boy asked.

carnival

The man cocked his head to one side and narrowed his eyelids, as if making a complicated mathematical computation in his head. “Let’s see, the fair runs ten days, probably five shows a day. I could give you . . . $125 plus half of the collection.”

The boy was astounded. He’d never heard of anyone making that kind of money at the fair. “I’ll take it!”

“That’s great, you’ll be real good, I can tell. Now, how old are you?”

“I’m twelve.”

“Okay, well, in that case I’m gonna need one of your parents to sign something.”

The man went back into his tent and came back with a form that said “Parent Consent for Minor” across the top. “Get your mom or dad to sign right down here,” the man said pointing to the right corner of the paper. “You sign over here,” he said, pointing to the left.

“Okay,” the boy said. “I’ll be right back.”

He took off running towards the chain link fence that surrounded the fairgrounds; there was a gully where the fence didn’t reach all the way to the ground that he and the other kids in his neighborhood knew about. He’d been caught sneaking in once by a highway patrolman on a horse, but nobody would stop you from sneaking out.

Once he was under the fence he walked through the culvert into the new subdivision where he lived and ran the two blocks to his house; past the barber’s house that faced the highway, past the dentist’s house further along, then up the driveway to his house.

Carnival4

He went through the garage into the kitchen, where he found his mother.

“Mom—I got a job!”

She turned around from the sink. “That’s great sweetie,” she said. “Doing what?”

“I’m going to be in a show, with a snake lady. I need you to sign this.”

“What is it?”

“I don’t know. Permission I think.”

His mother took the form and scanned its text, then looked down at her son. “What do they want you to do?”

“I’ll be the Lizard Boy. I get to wear a mask, and swim around in a tank, then show people my disease.”

His mother groaned a little and her brow became furrowed. She put her hand on his shoulder and said “I can’t let you do this.”

“Why not?”

“Sit down,” she said and led him to the table where they ate. “This is a freak show—people would be gawking at you all day long.”

“It’s a lot of money—at least $125 plus half what they get from a collection for me.”

“Honey, there is nothing wrong with you except you have a disease. Only tacky people stare at you.”

“Tacky?”

“People with bad manners who don’t know any better.”

He was quiet for a moment. “I don’t care—I want the money.”

“You don’t need the money that badly. I can give you money for one day at the fair—that’s enough.”

“But I’d have enough money to buy stuff. I wouldn’t need an allowance.”

“They want you to work all day, all ten days of the fair. School starts the Monday after it’s over. You’d be so worn out you wouldn’t be able to study.”

carnival5

He didn’t see why that mattered. Nothing important happened the first week of school anyway.

“Why don’t you go up to your room and take a nap. You’re hot and tired.”

“The man’s waiting for me to bring that paper back.”

“You’re not going back—do you understand?”

“But mom . . .”

“No buts. No child of mine is going to be in a freak show.”

He knew that meant the end of the discussion, so he went up to his room and flopped on his bed in disgust. He put his arm over his eyes and listened to himself breathe heavily. He wasn’t going to cry, but he was winded from running up the stars, and upset at his mother.

He imagined he could have been a good lizard boy, a scary one.