As Remote Work Persists, Mob Moves in on Home Organizing

WELLESLEY HILLS, Mass.  Mindy Kavanaugh is a housewife who supplements her husband’s outsize income as a bond trader by working as a “home organizer,” but she’s been pleasantly surprised at how well her little business has done over the past twenty-four months.  “I’ll actually  make six figures this year,” she says modestly as she looks at the bottom line in the bookkeeping software on her computer screen.  “Of course, two of those are to the right of a decimal point, but they still count, don’t they?”

Kavanaugh’s business has been propelled to profitability by COVID-driven lockdowns, which have forced many professionals to work from home, producing chaos in formerly-orderly dens and dining rooms.  “I feel sorry for the hundreds of thousands of people who have died,” she says sorrowfully, “but my Lexus was coming to the end of its lease so this has been good timing for me.”

As with any upturn in a particular corner of the economy, success has brought competition to the quiet suburb where the Kavanaughs and other upper-middle-class families live.  “Chloe Fernald had business cards printed up saying she’s in the business now, and that’s fine,” Kavanaugh says.  “She’s a great gal, very nice, I know her from the Country Club.”  Her visage darkens and her brow furrows as this reporter asks her if there are any other new local members of her profession, which is still unregulated in this state.  “I’d rather not talk about it,” she says cryptically.  “You may be wearing a wire.”

Kavanaugh is alluding to the sudden if explicable entrance of organized crime into the home organizing business, exemplified in the New England region by the Scalzo Crime Family.  “With gambling and marijuana legalized, the Mafia has seen two of its biggest moneymakers disappear,” says retired U.S. Attorney Gerry Moevens, who sent a dozen career criminals to jail for loan sharking, money laundering and extortion over his 24-year career.  “Home organizing is a fragmented local industry so Fortune 500 companies aren’t interested, and it’s a cash business, so it fits the Mafia model,” he says as he looks at a spreadsheet showing sales of desks and chairs at local office supply superstores.  “There was no way the honeymoon was going to last for these stay-at-home moms trying to squeeze out a few extra bucks to blow at Talbot’s.”

At Moevens’ suggestion, I join him and one of his former colleagues on a “stakeout” of a modest but tasteful residence on Oakridge Road here, where electronic surveillance has indicated a possible attempt tonight by the Mob to “muscle in” on Ed Beltran, a client of Kavanaugh’s who has signed up for a $500 home office “makeover.”

“Excuse me,” Tony “Pockets” Scalzo says as Beltran answers his front door.

“Yes?”

“We wuz wonderin’ if you’re finding your den a little messier than it used to be now that you got to work from home.”

“Yes, and I’ve already hired a friend to help me out, thank you.”

“Would that ‘friend’–be Mindy Kavanaugh?”

Taken aback by the mobster’s intimate knowledge of his private communications, Beltran stumbles over his words.  “Well, yes.  I mean, I play golf with her husband, and my wife’s in bridge club with . . .”

“Not sayin’ that’s a problem, although it could be.”

“What kind of . . . problem?”

“Lotta folks complainin’ about back pain from the cheap desk chairs she picks out of the ‘take it or leave it’ section of the Town Dump.”

“Really?”

“Not to mention the bugs in the padded seat cushions.”

“I hadn’t heard about that.”

“Would you be interested in a complimentary analysis of your home office needs?”

“Who are you talking to?” Beltran’s wife calls out to him from the kitchen, where she is preparing a dinner of stuffed peppers and quinoa.

“Uh, a fellow from . . . who did you say you were with?”

“The Scalzo Crime Family.  Over fifty years in business, with convenient locations throughout New England, including Seekonk and Swansea, Mass. and Misquamicut, Rhode Island.”

“Well, I’m about to put dinner on the table,” his wife says.

“This won’t take long,” Scalzo says as he steps into the foyer and peeks into the Beltran’s den, which is furnished with a mixture of Scandinavian pine furniture and standard-issue file cabinets and bookshelves.

“That’s a nice armoire you got there,” Scalzo says.  “Be a shame if anything was to happen to it.”

 

Me and My Parrot Walk Into a Bar

Lewis Rosensteil, head of Schenley Distillers, once had 5,000 parrots trained to say “Drink Old Quaker” bourbon, then gave them to bartenders.

The Wall Street Journal, review of “Empire: The Past and Future of America’s Whiskey” by Reid Mitenbuler

I believe it was Montaigne who first said, more or less, that no man is a hero to his valet, but the Frenchman never met my parrot “Poll.”  He’s named after the bird in the TV ads of my youth whose Poll Parrott Shoes, it was said, would enable me to run faster and jump higher.  Since I was slow of foot and once injured myself by hitting the crossbar high-jumping, bringing a stanchion down on my head, I longed for those shoes but could never convince my mother to buy them for me.  After my tragic high-jumping accident Karen Smirtka’s mother drove me home while Karen sat in the front seat looking at me with a mixture of disgust and disgust.  “It looks like you have an egg growing out of your head,” she said.  Karen pulled wings off flies for her science project.

Image result for paul parrotI got Poll for a song, even though he’s not much of a songbird.  He was laid off by Schenley Distillers after a failed marketing move in which he and 4,999 other parrots were taught to say “Drink Old Quaker,” a second-rate bourbon whiskey.  I guess nobody ever told the executives at Schenley that when you get the urge to have a shot of bourbon, the first religious group you think of is not Quakers.

Image result for stanchion high jumpPoll’s getting up there in years, like me, but he’s the restless sort while I’m slipping into senescence sensibly, slowing down, assiduously pursuing my new hobby of collecting sibilants.

“Are we going to do something tonight, or are you going to sit around listening to the Greatest Hits of the Thirties again?” he asked, and rather sharply I might add.

Image result for old quaker bourbon
Old Quaker bourbon: Try it with oatmeal!

“Is it my fault you’ve never shed the impulsiveness of youth, unlike the feathers you molt around the house every year?”

“You never want to go out, you just sit there looking stuff up in books.”

“You might feel differently if you had prehensile ability and could turn pages.”

“I want to go to a bar,” he snapped.

“It’s cheaper to drink at home.”

“That’s not the point.  You drink to be social, to meet other members of your species.”

“Sorry, I’ve already met enough of ’em.”

“Well I haven’t–let’s go to the Coach & Four.”  He was referring to the faux-Colonial watering hole where the elite of our little exurban town likes to meet and mate.  On any given night you may meet a local zoning attorney, perhaps a selectmen or an insurance broker on the make, wooing a no-longer-young divorcee from a neighboring town to the west who’s trying to climb her way into our acre-and-a-half zoning paradise.

Image result for women at bar
“Don’t even think about sitting next to us unless you’re a millionaire!”

“All right, but don’t blame me if you come up empty-handed.  You’re not exactly a spring chicken anymore.”

“Look who’s talking,” Poll said, giving me the gimlet eye of disdain.  “A guy who’s literally counting the days until he qualifies for the Senior Citizens Discount at Applebee’s.”

We hopped in my car, which elicited another critical remark from the bird in my hand.  “You know, the Olympics is every two years, presidential election is every four, census is every ten.”

“What’s your point?”

“Do you think you could wash this accident-waiting-to-happen once before it dies?”

Image result for pollen on car

“I’m waiting for spring pollen season to end,” I said as I squirted wiper juice on my windshield to clean off the sickly-green coating that greets me every morning.

We drove over to the bar and took one of the high tables off to one side, at Poll’s suggestion.  “This way you can scan the whole scene, and you’re not tied to the women on either of side of you.”

“Sort of like being a linebacker instead of a defensive lineman in a three-point stance?”

“I wouldn’t know–try to catch the waitress’s eye, would you?  You’re bigger than me.”

I raised a finger and attracted the attention of Dottie, a veteran of “The Coach” (as locals refer to the place) who has, in her twenty years on the sawdust-coated floors, seen it all.

“What’ll you boys have tonight?” she asked with her genuine smile as she wiped the table.

“I’ll have a Michelob Ultra and he’ll have the suet and a shot glass of water,” I said.

“Coming right up.”

“A Michelob Ultra–whadda you, training for the Marathon?”

“What’s wrong with that?”

“We’ll do a blind taste test and see if you can tell the difference between that ‘beer’ and my water.”

“I didn’t know you were such a connoisseur.”

Dottie brought placemats and Poll hopped on his, eager to get at his suet.

“Pace yourself,” I said cautiously.  “Eating that stuff will make you drink faster and you won’t be able to perform if you get lucky.”

He gave me that querulous eye parrots are known for.  He started to speak–seemed to hesitate–then plunged ahead.  “You’re not actually trying to give me advice in the romance department–are you?”

“I’m a married man, just passing on–gratis–wisdom I’ve acquired at great expense.”

“If you think I need your help,” he said with a voice that was pregnant with machismo, “just hide and watch.”

With that he flew haltingly–I warned him about the suet–over to the bar and landed between two bottle-blonde–is “bimbos” too strong a word for the internet?  My guess is they’re either real estate brokers looking for listings or secretaries looking to quit their jobs and become kept women.

“What a cute little bird!” one says as she offers Poll a pizza-flavored goldfish.  He sniffs at it but doesn’t bite, clears his throat and, despite all the bravado he displayed when he was just hopping around on my table, he seems to–freeze in the face of the waves of peroxide that hang from the heads of the harpies of the bar.

Image result for pizza-flavored goldfish
Pizza-flavored goldfish: Yum.

“What’s your name?” the other asks.

I wait, on tenterhooks, to hear his response, but nothing comes.  The tenterhooks are starting to dig into my Dockers “No Wrinkle Zone” chinos, with signature “Iron Free Straight Fit”–and try saying that five times fast.  I could hardly bear to see the little guy suffer, but since he was so insufferable just a few minutes before, I found the inner strength–somehow–to endure it.

He opened his little beak and, as I’ve done so many times in my own life, haltingly began to stumble over his words.

“Drink . . . Old Quaker!” he finally spat out–and the two women began to laugh hysterically!

“You’re so cute–I’m going to take you home with me!” the more buxom of the two said, as she tucked him into her cleavage and stood up to go.

Image result for woman parrot cleavage
“Don’t mean to suggest you’re a bird brain, but is that a parrot on your head?”

I could only look on in envy as the three settled the tab and got up to go.  Poll looked rather snug tucked into the décolletage that bounced by on their way out.  “Poll didn’t want a cracker,” he says as he passes by, “so you can have my goldfish.”

Celine Dion, Ph. D.

Céline Dion blinked away the first of many tears in Quebec City Thursday when she was presented with an honorary doctorate from Université Laval that adds the title “Dr. Dion” to her resumé.

                                     The Canadian Press

Mes cher amis–

It is a great honor today to accept from thees fellow with thee funny hat the honorary doctorate degree.  For too long, how you say, “smart aleck” American rock critics have made fun of me because I have 3,000 pairs of shoes or somesing like that.  Well, to them I say–“Phooey.”  What do they have, a worthless English degree from a cow college in one of America’s square states, or one that begins with an “M” such as Missourissippie or something.  Fat lot of good that will do you when you apply for the job of mutli-talented singer with her own theatre in Las Vegas!


Alanis Morrissette:  “Anybody got any Static Guard?”

I see you back there, Monsieur and Mademoiselle Protestor!  You say University Laval has lowered its standards by giving me an honorary degree.  What do you know, you who have spent five or six years sucking down American cola drinks in the student union to stay up for your crummy calculus mid-term, while I was winning the hearts of millions?  Let me tell you what you know–zero for nothing!  Who do you think should get the honorary degree–maybe Alanis Morrissette, who is only beginning to be somewhat good-looking after years of stringy, fly-away hair.


“Excusez-moi if I look a little–how you say–smug?”

You cannot know how long my lack of a high school degree has haunted me, like a hidden scar on my body that you would die to have–if you are une femme–or to touch if you are un homme!  Now, I skip over the awful high school years–and college too!  I am Celine Dion, Ph. D, like Brenda Starr, Reporter, or Nancy Drew, Girl Detective!


Trois Celines–no waiting!

How many plus often times after a wonderful performance would I attend a reception with powerful people, and my lack of education would hinder me.  “Celine,” someone would say after introductions and pleasantries, “I know you are beautiful and have a voice that would blanch an almond, but what are the principal exports of the Benelux Countries, and when did they dig the Suez Canal?”  To these questions, I could only respond with that determined-petite-jeune-fille look I get when I play air guitar, and sing “My Heart Will Go On” to change the subject.


L’guitar d’air, a la francais.

But no more.  Now, when someone asks me “Dr. Dion, who wrote Voltaire’s ‘Candide’?” I simply say–“I cannot answer that now.  Come see me during office hours between 10 and 11 p.m. on the fifth Tuesday of each month.”

As School Year Ends, Some Ask if 6th Grade is Worth It

COLUMBIA, Missouri. Timmy Salmon has enjoyed his big brother Tom’s four years at the University of Missouri, visiting the Sigma Nu fraternity house on football game days and being fawned over by visiting sorority girls. “The Tri-Delts are pretty,” he says with the discerning eye of a budding ladies’ man, “but the Kappa Alpha Theta girls are yucky.”


C’mon, Timmy–cut ’em some slack.

Still, he’s not sure he wants to follow in the footsteps of an English major who so far has received only one job offer, a temporary minimum wage position reviewing mortgage documents for typos and punctuation errors that could undermine a bank’s rights. “They’re paying him $7.35 an hour,” Timmy says with apparent disgust. “I can make that much mowing lawns.”

So Timmy and his friend Scott Rouchka are taking a long, hard look at whether it makes more sense for them to cut their losses now before they invest precious time and effort in sixth grade, which has historically been viewed as the gateway to seventh grade and eventually a college degree.

“Sixth grade math is a BIG jump,” says Rouchka, who was fifth-grade arm-wrestling champion. “There’s fractions and decimals, which computers already know how to do.”

The two boys’ skepticism represents a worrisome sign for college admissions officers, who already struggle to keep male-female ratios in balance in order to avoid the “loathsome cad” effect; women now make up 57% of college students, and male students are emboldened to treat their distaff counterparts badly as the imbalance between their range of possible dating and mating prospects widens over those of coeds.

“I blame college dropout billionaires like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Larry Ellison, Michael Dell,” says Dean Claus Ornstein of Glendon College in Normal, Illinois before this reporter interrupts him. “I could go on,” he says, but agrees to cut his list of examples short due to editorial restrictions.


Pigs in a blanket: The choice is clear.

A bachelor’s degree is still viewed as an essential credential for most white-collar jobs by many adults, but Timmy Salmon says times have changed. “When I told the President of the Tri Delts I made enough money to buy a bike last summer her eyes got REAL wide and she said ‘Wow!’” he recalls. “I’m pretty sure I could have kissed her but they had those pigs-in-a-blanket mini-hot dogs that I love and I didn’t want to leave the buffet.”

Big brother Tom says he thinks Timmy is wrong and that there is value to be gained by exposure to the humanities early in life. “When I smoked pot in high school I was totally clueless,” he recalls. “Now our drug-addled bullshit sessions are really deep.”

Your Maternal Buttinsky Advisor

Have a mom who criticizes your cake-decorating skills?  Wondering why she always praises your brother’s water-skiing and not yours?  Ask Your Maternal Buttinsky Advisor, she’s full of vindictive ideas!

Dear Maternal Buttinsky Advisor:

I am dating this boy “Randy,” that’s his real name but he likes the “look” of quotation marks, he uses them on all his notebooks and his locker label.

My mom is a widow, our dad died of late-onset Osgood Schlatter’s Disease two years ago.  She met “Randy’s” dad at a PTO meeting, he is a widower, his wife died when her hand tragically got caught in ball return at the West Broadway Bowl-a-Way.  The two hit it off and now they say they’re going to get married, which will make me and “Randy” step-brother-and-sister, right?  As far as I know, that means we can’t legally get married–which we fully intended to do before my mom butted in.

Also, even if we elope, won’t our kids turn out to be low-I.Q.?

Please use the self-addressed stamped envelope I have enclosed that says “Your subscription to American Girl is about to expire!” on the outside to throw my mom off the scent.

LuAnn Meinik, Valparaiso, Indiana

 

Dear LuAnn–

I have good news for you!  Even though you and “Randy” will be related by marriage, statutory prohibitions on incest apply only to blood relatives, so you will be able to marry as soon as your reach legal age.

As for the low I.Q. part, I think you have that covered.


PTO:  A great place to meet your next significant other!

 

Dear Maternal Buttinsky Advisor:

Last night our house burned to the ground when the kids forgot to unplug their Creepy Crawler maker after a day of creative fun.  I had to scooch across the floor to keep from dying of smoke inhalation, and when we got out I took the kids to my mother’s house, my dingbat husband was off at his fantasy PGA Golf Tour draft night.

When we got to my mother’s she took one look at me and said “I can’t believe you left the house without throwing on some make-up.”  Then she saw my blouse, which was dirty and wrinkled as you might expect, and she said “Honey, don’t you own an ironing board anymore?”

She says this is her way of showing her love for me, but I think she could cut me some slack under the circumstances.  I forgot to mention, she is Presbyterian.  Any suggestions?

Veronica Thwait, Croton-on-Hudson, New York

Dear Veronica–

I’m afraid I’m going to have to side with your mother on this one.  The Creepy Crawler toy has been subject of a series of recalls by the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which as you may know is staffed by zealous advocates fighting for our rights who leave work every day at 3 p.m., I should be so lucky.

When thing have calmed down a bit, I suggest that you and she arrange a marshmallow roast with the kids over the smoldering embers of the house they set on fire!

Dear Ms. Buttinsky or whatever–

I am writing you as a “pre-emptive” measure before my daughter Debbie gets to you first.  She came home from spring semester at the University of Missouri with her jeans torn to shreds like they’d gone through a wood chipper.  Being the thoughtful mother that I am, I got busy on my sewing machine and patched up all the holes, then presented the “finished product” to her when she woke up, which I might add was just in time for lunch.

Debbie starts shrieking and says “Mother, what have you done!”–just like that, without even a “Good morning.”  I said I have sewed up all the holes, you must have fallen down the rock pile in the end zone of the football stadium, they were so torn up.  She breaks into tears and says “take them all out, those were a $188 pair of jeans!” and I said, like the farmer the first time he saw a giraffe, there is no such animal.

Then she showed me the sales slip from someplace called “Lulu’s” and I guess I am wrong, there are people in this world stupid enough to pay nearly $200 for a pair of “dungarees.”  I firmly believe I did the right thing even though some might say I was being a buttinsky.  I was only thinking of Debbie’s health, she could have caught bronchitis or allergies through the holes and have to drop out of school and die.

(Mrs.) Verna Lee Hutchinson, Smithton MO


Groovy!

Dear Mrs. Hutchinson–

I believe you have stepped in a steaming pile of “buttinsky” doo-doo with this one.  While the Greek philosopher Aristotle said the family was the basic unit of society, he did not say that a mother has a right alter her college-age daughter’s clothing except in the case “hot pants” or plunging neckline cowl sweaters that give boys a spelunker’s view of deep chasms of mammary glands.

To “patch things up” with Debbie, I suggest you buy some “hip” iron-on patches in popular styles such as unicorns, rainbows and peace signs, and use them to repair the damage you have done to those designer jeans and your relationship with your daughter.


Ron/Rhonda

 

Dear Ms. Maternal Buttinsky–

My boyfriend Ron decided out of the blue last Christmas that he was going to “transition” to female, and broke up with me.  He is now nearly six months into his treatment and is working as “Rhonda” at the Piggly-Wiggly Super Market.  He isn’t fooling anybody–he’s got an Adam’s apple as big as a cue ball–but I must say his complexion looks better with the foundation makeup and blusher he is using.

Anyway, my problem is, the Piggly-Wiggly is the only place to shop in town and I was going through the “express” line the other day with 12 items, including cucumbers and tomatoes, I was going to try making a salad for once.  Who do we get as cashier but “Rhonda,” so I was polite as could be but my buttinsky mother took the vegetables off the conveyor belt and set them to one side.

I asked “Momma, why did you do that?” she says in a voice that could be heard two lanes over “Don’t you know transsexuals transmit diseases, you don’t want to buy anything from them that isn’t in a can or at least wrapped in cellophane?”

Well, I turned beet red, and “Rhonda” gave me the hairy eyeball.  I was beside myself, as I am trying to stay on her/his good side in case he changes his mind.  My marriage prospects in this godforsaken one-horse town are slim and none, none being Ray Edmonds whose daddy owns the Chevrolet-GMC-Hyundai dealership and it would take the Jaws of Life to pry Cindy Sumack off of him.

Will wait for your reply before doing anything drastic, I am not yet ready to go lesbian.

Wanda Furlong, Otterville MO 65348

 

Oh, Wanda–

I feel for you so!  Many girls are losing their men to the “gender-bending” fad that is sweeping the nation, and your mother should definitely have let nature take its course as many formerly “out-and-proud” types who go the full nine yards with earrings and make-up eventually return to their “home team.”

If I were you, I would leave “momma” home next time you go shopping.  I know she probably likes to get out of the house but there is a time and place for everything, and remind her that “Days of Our Lives” is only on the TV once a day.

Is That Your Cat, or Are We Having Guacamole?

          An image that Google correctly categorized as a tabby cat was, with only a few pixels changed, subsequently identified by the same algorithm as guacamole.

The Boston Globe

We’re heading into summer, which means that my cats are even lazier than usual.  They stay indoors most of the day, venturing outside only in the cool of the evening to chill their ever-widening bellies on our bluestone patio, before rushing off into the dark to wreak havoc on chipmunks and squirrels.


Rocco left, Okie right.

“I’m getting concerned about your lifestyles,” I say to them as they take the two Adirondack chairs for a change of pace.

“Says the guy who drank a bottle of Malbec by himself last night,” Rocco says out of the side of his mouth.

“I’m serious,” I say, trying to re-take the moral high ground.  “You lie around all day, then you’re out all night.  You’re not twenty-one in cat years anymore.”

“How do you do the math in your head so fast?” Okie asks.  He’s the handsome grey tabby who’s gotten by on his looks, not his wits, his entire life.

“Don’t you remember anything?” Rocco snaps.  “He’s the former Boy Scout/Altar Boy who does fractions in his head when he’s swimming laps.”


“Seven and 15/16 laps.”

“Fractions–ugh!” Okie groans.  He’s lived the life of the beta male ever since his younger brother Rocco arrived on the scene.  For some reason whenever the cat food is divided in half, he only gets 40%.

“I’m only saying this because we love you guys,” I say.  I found this rhetorical turn to be very helpful when dealing with our sons as they grew up.  In essence, it boils down to “Don’t break your mother’s heart, you sullen teenager, you.”

“We have to live our own lives,” Rocco says as he gets up to follow the path of a chipmunk, who disappears under the wooden fence we put up around the air conditioning units.

“Do you remember a few summers ago, when Okie disappeared for weeks?” I say in an imploring tone of voice.  “How are we not supposed to be worried when something like that happens?”  When I want to, I can really implore.


“One for you, two for me.  One for you, three for me.”

“That was then, this is now,” Rocco says as he sits back down.  “If you want to be able to find us, just give us Google chip implants.”

“Yeah, sort of like the Italian dad down the street who put a GPS device in his daughter’s car so he could break the legs of any boy who tried to slide into home with her,” Okie adds.  He apparently listens when we talk at the dinner table.

I give them a look of pitiless contempt.  “You guys think you’re so smart–you’ve been watching too many cute cat food commercials that glorify the feline brain.”

“It’s true,” Rocco says.  “I read it on the internet.”

“Well, maybe you should pick up a newspaper some time.”

“What’s a newspaper?” Okie asks.

“It’s that stuff he puts in our litter boxes,” Rocco advises him.


“What’s a four-letter word for ‘excrement’?”

“It has other uses.”

“Right,” Rocco says.  “You can also line parakeet cages with it.”

“While that is generally true of The Boston Globe, every now and then you come across something useful in it besides the comics.”

“I like Garfield!” Okie says–figures.

“No, I mean stories like this,” I say, and point them to an article about an Artificial Intelligence conference where the shortcomings of the technology were demonstrated.  “Change just a few pixels, and Google thinks you two are guacamole.”


“You’re not going to put me on a nacho chip, are you?”

They are both silent for a moment, as they walk over the Business section.  “Gosh–I had no idea,” Rocco says, for once sounding . . . almost humble.

“So let that be a lesson to you, okay?” I say as I give them both a scritch on the head.

“What’s the lesson?” Okie asks, as usual missing the self-evident.

“Simple,” Rocco says, stepping in like teacher’s pet to explain.  “The difference between your brain and guacamole is, like, one avocado.”

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

For Sisters of Roller Derby, the Jam is Always On

SAN FRANCISCO.  In an alley off Market Street here the rays of the sunrise to the east are an unwelcome intruder as several men sleeping off hangovers from cheap “bum wine” shield their eyes from the glare.  “I don’t know why they can’t start with soft-white bulbs,” says a man who goes by “Mickey” as he pulls a heavy grey moving blanket over his eyes.  “It certainly ruins the ambiance, which is in short supply to begin with.”

Image result for bums san francisco

But bright light isn’t the only wake-up call for Mickey and three other men huddled beneath a loading dock.  From the end of the alley one hears the whir of rubber wheels, announcing a mission of mercy by the Sisters of Roller Derby, the only Catholic religious order to carry out its mission on skates.

“Up and at ’em, you mooks,” barks Sister Mary Joseph McCarthy, the 5′ 10″ Mother Superior at the local convent.  “Stop feeling sorry for yourselves and let’s get something on your badly-abused stomachs.”


“You self-pitying bunch of losers!”

 

The men sit up slowly, rub the crud from their eyes, then line up for a breakfast of cold cereal in Kellogg’s “Snack Packs” into which Sister Carmelo Anthony, a novice of the order, pours 1% milk.  “Thank you,” says a man who goes by the moniker “Red Dog,” an outdated football term for rushing the quarterback that reveals his age–70–and the cause of the post-concussion syndrome that bring him nightmares.  “Repeated blunt trauma to the head never hurt anybody,” says “Sister Joe” with scorn.  “It’s that damn Mad Dog you guzzle down every night,” she adds, referring to Mogen David wine, known on the streets as  “MD 20/20” for its high alcohol content.

The Sisters of Roller Derby were founded in 1972 as a reaction to the more-lenient ministerial styles of other religious orders.  “The Roller Derby Sisters adopted Joanie Weston as their model because the goody-goody nuns didn’t seem to be getting results,” says church historian Father Francis K. Loff, referring to the most famous personality in roller derby history.  “Weston was known for the vicious elbows to the chops she threw.  The sisters incorporated that into the Christian philosophy of turning the other cheek and hit you on both sides of the mouth to make sure you get the message.”


“Take THAT, sucker!”

Roller derby is a contact sport in which a skater known as a “jammer” scores points for her team by lapping members of the opponent.  “Blockers” try to prevent the opposing “jammer” from scoring by “blocking” her, and while blocking with elbows is prohibited, players frequently use this joint to inflict injury on opponents to render them less effective.  “It’s a very honest sport,” says Max Carmacki of Roller Derby Today.  “In basketball you’d get called for a foul for doing that, but in ‘derby’ everybody agrees it’s just good, clean, dirty fun.”

Efforts to have Weston canonized as a saint have faltered in the past due to the high level of violence involved in roller derby, but her acolytes in the order think they have found an ally in Pope Francis I, an enthusiastic devotee of the sport.  “Francis ‘gets it,” says “Sister Joe.”  “Do you really think you can save souls with a bunch of nuns who just play ping-pong in church basements?”

 

 

 

 

Paige Turner, Girl Novelist

When you’re a failed novelist such as I, you look for every sign, however slight, that your children will achieve the goal you fell short of.  So I remember my excitement when the nurse moved the little mouse thingy over my wife’s jellified belly in the OB/GYN’s office and we saw our little girl, still five months away from being born, already acting like a seasoned novelist hard at work!

There were unmistakable signs: She seemed to be sucking her thumb, searching for le mot juste.  Her hand went to her head, as if to slap it, just like I used to do when I’d have to kill one of my most darling phrases.  I half expected to see a little glass of malbec on the ultrasound screen, she seemed such une petite romancier!

 

ultra
“Look–she’s shifting her point of view to the first person!”

 

She slid out of the womb as if flying down a waterslide.  The way had been cleared for her by her two brothers, the first of whom weighed in at eleven pounds, the second at eight even though he was born a month premature,  It was as if she’d been a halfback behind a wall of linemen in one of the University of Missouri football team’s famous “student body sweeps” of the 1960s.

We named her “Paige” as a marketing tool.  We figured the books of an author named “Paige Turner” would fly off the shelves with the subliminal advertising provided by her nomme de plume. 

And we did our best to raise her right; we kept her away from short stories, that ticket to poverty among professional fictioneers.  There’s a guy two towns over from us whose short story collection received a favorable review in The New York Times Book Review!–and he’s basically living in poverty.  He wheels a grocery cart with unsold copies of his books down to the Town Green on minor holidays when townspeople gather there, like Veteran’s Day and Arbor Day, Opening Day for Little League.  He’s a pathetic sight: tattered flannel shirt, skinny black jeans he’s patched to cover the pre-fabricated holes he paid extra for when they were new so he can survive on the street in the winter.  I shake my head and think back to the days when I longed to be the male Flannery O’Connor and think–there but for the grace of a six-audiotape course on Marketing Yourself as a Writer go I!

 

oates
Oates:  “If you don’t like my tweets, stop following me!”

 

Tape #1 had told the tale: Whatever you do–don’t become a short story writer.  That way lies penury, madness and rejection.  Worst of all, you’ll be showered with the obloquy of all right-thinking literary critics at the end of your career, who’ll sniff “A capable practitioner of the short form, he never developed the literary cojones necessary to pull off a full-length novel.”

So we dropped waterproof copies of “Little Women” and “Jane Eyre” into the tub at bath time, and hooked a mobile hung with Jane Austen characters from the headboard of her crib.  No daughter of mine was going to grow up to get a $100 check from Cricket Magazine when she could earn the big bucks selling movie rights to 300-page potboilers!

But the day will eventually come in the life of every father of a little girl:  “Dad,” Paige said as she hesitantly approached my easy chair one night.  I was just lighting my pipe and finishing off the last hit of my Falstaff beer, just as my dad had done four decades earlier.

“Yes, sweetie?”

“Can I talk to you about . . .”

“Of course you can–you can talk to me about anything.”

“Before you say that, you should probably hear me out,” she said, her eyes downcast with shame.  I began to grow concerned.

“Did you finish your required reading for Bodice Rippers 101?”

“Yes, dad.”

“And did you tweet out some dingbat political pablum on your Twitter account, like Joyce Carol Oates?”

“I’m totally up to date supporting student movements that don’t believe in the First Amendment.”

“Okay, well–so what is it?” I asked.

“I’ve been reading some Southern Women’s Literature,” she said, biting her lower lip.  “I want to write short stories.”

 

eudora
Eudora Welty

 

My gorge began to rise; I was just glad there were no white-water rafters traveling down my esophagus, they would have been completely and utterly swamped!  “But honey–why can’t you be satisfied with Gone With the Wind?

Her eyes darted around the room, avoiding my plangent gaze.  “I . . . I think it’s”–here she hesitated, as if to summon up the courage to challenge her parents and all the time, money and effort they’d put into her upbringing–“it’s overwritten, and overwrought.”

“Well of course it is!”

She looked at me as if I were daft.  Her parents didn’t raise any dummies, even though she could have inherited some dummy DNA from one of them.  “You–don’t have a problem with that?”

I lifted her up and dandled her on my knee.  She’d always loved being dandled when she was a little girl, even though neither she nor I knew exactly what the word meant.  “Look,” I said in my best avuncular tone, even though I was her father, not her uncle.  “That kind of stuff sells.  Wouldn’t you like to make a lot of money?”

“I don’t know.  As long as I have enough to live on . . .”  Her voice trailed off.  It was time for an intervention, a sharply-focused act that would bring her to her senses.

 

GWTW
“Ooo–you make me so MAD!”

 

“Wait here,” I said, and I left the room to change into my Scarlett O’Hara costume.  When I returned, she knew I meant business from the dirt I’d spread all over my face, and the disheveled wig on my head.

“Who are you supposed to be?” she asked.

“I’m Scarlett O’Hara, as portrayed by my high school Speech & Debate partner Cathy, who went on to a successful career in one of the Armed Forces, I don’t know precisely which.”

“And . . . why are you dressed up like that?”

“To teach you a valuable lesson,” I said, as I got down on my hands and knees.  “You can write great short stories, like Why I Live at the P.O. by Eudora Welty, or The Jockey by Carson McCullers, or Good Country People by Flannery O’Connor, and you’ll get maybe . . . maybe . . . a check in the mid-three figures.”

 

carson
Carson McCullers

 

“That’s a lot of money,” she said.  Ah, youth!  So innocent–so naïve.

“Not when you have to pay for braces, and bicycles, and college, and weddings.  It’s nothing.”  She was suitably chastened, so I continued.  “But Gone With the Wind is the second most-popular book in American history.”

“What’s number one?”

“The Bible.”

“I didn’t finish that,” she said.

“You could rent the movie,” I said.  “Anyway, she made a fortune, which you’re never going to make writing short stories–okay?”

I heard her try to stifle a sniffle.  Perhaps I had been a little hard on her, but if I didn’t teach her–who would?  Certainly not her “creative writing” instructor, who’s always foisting off literary fads on her, like flash fiction–the cigarettes of literature: they’re short and stunt your growth.

That seemed to mollify her, but we still needed a reckoning, a catharsis, a personal breakthrough that would divert her from the error of her youthful ways, before it was too late.  “Make a fist,” I said.

“Why?”

“Just do as I say,” I said.  “Now repeat after me.”

“Okay.”

“As God is my witness . . .”

“As God is my witness . . .”

“They’re not going to beat me.”

“They’re not going to beat me.”

“I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.”

“I’m going to live through this and when it’s all over, I’ll never be hungry again.”

gwtw1

 

“I’m going to write a honking big novel . . .”

“I’m going to write a honking big novel . . .”

“Like GWTW, or The Thorn Birds . . .”

“Like GWTW, or The Thorn Birds . . .”

“If I have to perpetuate every stereotype, and use every shopworn cliché in the book . . .”

“If I have to perpetuate every stereotype, and use every shopworn cliché in the book . . .”

“To make enough money to have a mansion of my own, like Tara . . .”

“To make enough money to have a mansion of my own, like Tara . . .”

“As God is my witness, I’ll never be a hungry short story writer again!”

My Dark Horse Run for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award

It’s hard out there–to coin a phrase–for a guy who’d like to quit his day job and write.  You look for any advantage you can get.  A few weeks ago I read about a guy two towns over from me whose first collection of short stories received a glowing, full-page review in The New York Times Book Review.  He’s now wheeling his second collection around in a grocery cart, selling them at Little League weenie roasts and Elks Lodge shad bakes.  He’ll read you a sample page in the hope that you’ll buy a copy.

And so it was that I fastened upon the Literary Review’s Bad Sex in Fiction Award as a possible promotional tool.  I’d written a novel with bad sex in it–why not me? I asked myself.

The award was established by Carol Koenig, a literary critic, and Auberon Waugh, then editor of the Review, in 1993.  The prize,  a “semi-abstract trophy representing sex in the 1950s,” is given to the author who has written the worst description of a sex scene in a novel.  Spoiler alert:  my second novel, CannaCorn, includes sex between a baseball player and a cheerleader that involves the use of–and here I hesitate, for fear of bringing a blush to the cheeks of maiden readers–actual, unretouched cheers from my high school days.  I know–society’s going to hell in a handbasket, and I’m not helping.


Auberon Waugh

 

But I needed some juice, dammit!  So I called up my agent and asked her what she thought.

“It’s not an award for bad sex,” she said.  “It’s for bad writing about sex.  Surely you don’t want to have your name associated with such a prize–do you?”

“What did Samuel Johnson say?”

“Never give a sucker an even break?”

“No that was W.C. Fields, although they look alike.  He said ‘Fame is a shuttlecock.  To keep it up, it must be struck at both ends.’”


Johnson:  “This is hot stuff!”

 

“Suit yourself,” she said, “but you’re going to have to work at it.  They’re not going to just drop it in your lap.”

“The book’s written–it is what it is.”

“Don’t go all Belichick on me.  What I mean is, Tom Wolfe won it, Norman Mailer won it posthumously, and John Updike received a Lifetime Achievement award, but those guys had big reputations to start.  You’re a nobody, a dark horse.  You need to campaign.”


“Hi–I’m running for the Bad Sex in Fiction Award, and I’d appreciate your vote.”

 

I was mildly taken aback.  “That sounds . . . unseemly.  Shouldn’t I wait for the judges to make their decision based on the merits–or demerits–of my bad sex scene?”

“No, you’ve got to build ‘buzz,’” she said, and I could feel the breeze from the little finger quotes she made in the air several hundred miles away.  “What did Tip O’Neill say?”

I was ready for that one:  “If you want people to vote for you, you’ve got to ask them,” I said.  “Okay, I understand.  So what’s the game plan?”


A young Tip O’Neill

 

“I say let’s start bright and early tomorrow morning,” she said.  “We’ll hit the gates at factories when the first shift shows up, then the strip malls at noon when the moms are out shopping, then maybe a social event at night.”

It seemed like a lot of work to me.  In truth, the whole process had been a slog from the get-go, to mix British and American slang.  I’d had a hard time writing about bad sex because, well, sex has been okay for me.  Oh sure, there was Mimi, the tri-athlete who suggested we jog, play tennis, then squash, swim and finish things off with bowling before sex in her apartment without air conditioning, but she was the exception, an outlier.  For the most part, I’ve enjoyed sex, either alone or with another.

“What should I wear?” I asked.

“Always overdress,” she said.

“Well, I wasn’t going naked.”

“No, I mean you should always dress at least one level of formality above the people you’re meeting.”

“But won’t that make me look . . . stiff?”

“Perhaps.”

“And won’t people assume from my clothes that means I . . . don’t know much about sex.”

“Actually,” she said, “if that’s your concern I don’t think your clothes will have anything to do with it.”