The Confession Fixer

Like many citizens of the over-regulated nation that America has become, I didn’t even realize I was a criminal until after I’d read the law. My third grade teacher gave everybody a little pamphlet entitled “An Examination of Conscience,” and it was only after scanning down to the explanatory text following the Sixth Commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery,” that I understood it encompassed a number of lesser offenses such as thinking impure thoughts.

“But,” I said to Tommy Hogan, “I think impure thoughts all the time.”

“About who?” Tommy was like that; he didn’t give a rat’s ass about the proper use of “who” and “whom.”

“Susan van de Kamp.”

He looked at me with disgust, now that the depths of my depravity had been laid bare before him. “You are sick,” he said, and I could tell that an image had been formed in his mind of the somewhat chubby girl who would wear a Dutch costume–complete with wooden shoes–to Show and Tell whenever it was her turn.

“It’s that song,” I said by way of explanation, if not excuse.

“What song?”

I am a little Dutch girl,
my home is far way,
I fell in love with a hot-cha-cha
way down in U-S-A


Sultry . . . AND she sticks her fingers in dikes.

 

“Gross,” Tommy said. “When you were thinking these thoughts did you . . . touch yourself?”

“You mean . . . pocket pool?”

“Yes.”

“Sure. What did you expect?”

He shook his head sadly from side to side. “And where were you when you . . . did it?”

I gulped. “In church,” I said. Confession was comforting, in a weird way. I knew that, however long I lived, I’d never be more embarrassed than I was right then.

“Man, are you in trouble,” was all Tommy could say.

“So what are we talkin’ here,” I said in the clipped tones of a character in a George V. Higgins novel.

“You ain’t gettin’ off with no three Hail Mary’s, one Our Father and an Act of Contrition. Minimum? Three to five rosaries,” Tommy said.

“And the max?”

He looked off into the distance, at the playground where the other kids were playing four-square and kickball–happy, laughing, not a care in the world. What did they know about the torment I was going through?

He snorted, as if he could hardly conceive of the punishment that would be meted out to me if I caught the wrong priest in the wrong confessional on a bad day. “Maximum? I’d say something like . . .”

“What?”

“A novena.”

“Nine days of prayer?” I asked, incredulous.

“You got it pal,” he said without an ounce of compassion in his voice. He didn’t care if I burned in purgatory until the end of time. His older brother was a priest; that meant he had a get-into-heaven-free card–no matter what he did with his miserable little life.


“Yer not gettin’ off with no three Hail Mary’s and one Our Father, pal.”

 

I must have had a stunned look on my face, because I was stunned. Tommy looked at me the way you’d look at the victim of a car accident you passed on the highway–sad, but part of life, and not your concern.

“I can’t do that kind of hard time,” I said. “My mom’s Protestant.”

“So?”

“So it’s not like your house, where there’s a family Rosary every Sunday night you can count towards your penance.”

“Not much you can do about it,” he said, and I noticed he didn’t give me a pat on the back or nothin’. “Unless you want to talk to Albert.”

“Who’s Albert?” I asked, and maybe I let a semblance of hope seep through my desperation.

“You don’t remember Albert from second grade?” he asked.

“No, I was busy studying for the spelling bee–remember?”

“Oh yeah, you was right up there, weren’t you?”


“Mook–m, o, o, k–mook.”

 

“Right up there.”  That’s what really frosts my ass about elementary school. Here I carry the colors of the Sacred Heart Gremlins to the freaking finals of the Pettis County Spelling Bee–and get a perfect score for the second year in a row–and all’s Tommy remembers is I was ‘right up there.’ Screw him.

“Yeah,” I said, and I couldn’t keep the bitterness out of my voice. “I did okay. So anyway, who’s Albert?”

“You wouldn’t remember him. He only lasted about a week. He knocked one of the nun’s habits off and they sent him to the Home for Wayward Boys.”

Jeez–I had no idea there were such hard-core types right in our little classroom of 54 kids. “So what can he do for me?”

“He figures he’s damned to hell anyway you cut it. So he’ll confess to your sins for you.”

“He will?” That would be a load offa my back for sure. Worse than the penance was having to actually say out loud what I’d done to the priest–me, who was a lock to be captain of the sixth grade crossing guards if I kept my nose clean.

“Sure he will–for a price,” Tommy said, and I understood it was gonna be all business.

“Like what?” I asked nervously.

“You gotta work that out with him,” Tommy said. “He likes secret decoder rings. They’re readily marketable so he can sell ‘em if he has to, or hold ‘em if he thinks they’re gonna go up in value.”

I inhaled sharply. I had ten secret decoder rings, an expenditure that my mother had criticized as improvident when I made it, but my research had turned out to be solid; they had outperformed the S&P 500 and the NASDAQ over the twenty-three months I’d owned them, and I expected them to continue to appreciate.


Ovaltine Secret Decoder Ring: Chicks go nuts for ‘em.

 

“What else?”

“Baseball cards,” Tommy said, and he said it like we were in the middle of a high-stakes game of Old Maid. Like he coulda been bluffin’, or he just knew my weak spot. I had the best-organized collection of baseball cards in the whole school–two shoe boxes full of ‘em. I had them in order according to the numbers on the back, with “special” cards–team photos, “Southpaw Sluggers,” etc., up front. In the second box I had my doubles–cards that were duplicates of the ones in the first box, ones that were “dispensable”–an ugly term, but true nonetheless.

“What’s he gonna want?” I asked nervously.


Eddie Matthews

 

“For reasons I don’t understand, he’s into the Milwaukee Braves.”

I felt almost . . . relieved. I hated the Braves and how they always seemed to kill my Cardinals. Eddie Matthews, Lew Burdette. I felt a grudging admiration for Warren Spahn, the homely left-hander who cranked out 20-win seasons like an assembly line, but other than that, I felt nothing for them. Whatever Braves I had in my #1 box, I was willing to give up if it meant I didn’t have to go into the confessional and admit that I had a thing for an overweight, goody-goody Dutch girl, and that I’d defiled the sanctity of the sacristy–or maybe it was the other way around–thinking about her underpants while I touched myself.

“So where’s Albert these days?” I asked hesitantly.

“I can set somethin’ up for you,” Tommy said.

“Where?”

“The alley behind the rectory.”

“Isn’t that kind of dangerous?”

“Albert don’t care about priests,” Tommy said with obvious admiration for a genuine bad-ass whose balls dragged the ground. “He figures he’s damned to hell anyway you look at it, what’s one more mortal sin?”

……………………………………………..

It was two days later that I was to meet Albert behind the backstop of the playground, in the alley that cut through the block where the rectory and the parish church itself were located. I had a stash of Braves cards in my back pocket, ready to deal. I also had the secret decoder rings and–a little lagniappe–a glow-in-the-dark Chinese back-scratcher from the Will Rogers Turnpike in Oklahoma, which we traveled to each summer to take my sisters to the allergy clinic. If I couldn’t cut a deal with that kind of swag, I might as well take my chances at Saturday confession.


Will Rogers Turnpike: Glow-in-the-dark Chinese back-scratchers still available.

 

I paced nervously back and forth, hoping neither the pastor of the parish nor his merciless, nefarious henchman Father Kaliff would appear on the side porch to see me.

I looked down the alley and saw a boy with an olive complexion and oily hair approaching.

“You Albert?” I said, trying to sound confident, which I wasn’t.

“Who wants to know?” he asked. Right back at ‘cha.

I told him who I was. “So Tommy sent you, right?”

“That’s right. Whadda ya got?”

I told him what I was facing in the way of charges, venial and mortal sins.

“Jeez,” Albert said as he looked me up and down. “How’d a nice kid like you get involved in something as sordid as that?”

“It doesn’t matter at this point, does it?” I asked, and I hoped that would be the end of it.

“Not really, just curious,” Albert said.

“So . . . will you confess ‘em for me?” I asked nervously.

“Depends,” he replied. “Don’t make no difference to me–I’m going to hell anyway. But I’m a businessman, y’know? I don’t do nothin’ ‘less somebody makes it worth my while.”


Warren Spahn

 

I took out two of the secret decoder rings, and he eyed them with guarded appreciation. “Those are nice,” he said. “What else?”

I took out the Chinese back-scratcher–it was a good one, no question, but it was nothing I couldn’t live without.

“You sure it glows in the dark?” he asked skeptically.

“If it doesn’t, I’ll give you a full refund,” I said. Customers appreciate that kind of commitment to quality.

“Okay, so the back-scratcher, two rings–that will do for the thought and the scratching. Now how you gonna cover the fact that you did it in church?”

I hesitated, then tried to bluff him. “I got a Lew Burdette card and an Eddie Matthews All-Star card.”

He took the cards I held out in his hand and examined the corners to make sure they weren’t bent. “Not exactly mint condition,” he said, “but I’d say ‘very fine.’ What else?”

I felt my throat constrict, and my neck turn red. “Isn’t that enough?”

“You did it in church,” he said, his voice as flat and colorless as the blacktop playground.

We stared at each other, boyo-a-boyo, neither backing down–at first.

I pulled the Warren Spahn card out of my shirt pocket–this was before plastic card-holders, so there was a risk that it had been damaged in my twelve-block walk to school.

A smile crept slowly over Albert’s face. “That’s good–that’s real good,” he said. “That’s what I needed to see.”

I handed it over to him slowly, and held it for one last second before letting go. “So–you’re taking the fall for all three offenses?”

“You got it. I take the penance, and if I don’t do it, I burn in purgatory or hell, depending on what the sentencing guidelines are at the time I die.”

I exhaled involuntarily. As much as I hated to give up that card, it seemed a fair price to pay to have somebody else saddled with a week and two days’ worth of prayer and sacrifice, or an eternity in hell if he didn’t follow through.

I released my grip, and Albert put the card in his shirt pocket. “Pleasure doin’ business with you,” he said as he turned to walk off.

“You’ll take care of it right away?” I asked.

“Whadda you care?” he replied.

“If I get run over by a car, or bit by a rabid dog, I don’t want to burn in a lake of fire forever because you didn’t follow through.”

“It’ll be a pleasure,” he said with a malicious smile. “Father Kaliff will cream in his jeans when I confess to this one.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Fun With Nuns.”

On the Waterfront, Fuzzy Animal Version

The president of an Ohio steelworkers union stole hundreds of thousands of dollars from his local, which he used in part to buy tickets to Disney on Ice and Sesame Street Live shows.

Organized Labor’s Lawbreakers, The Wall Street Journal

We was hangin’ around the union hall early in the morning, our collars turned up against the cold wind off Lake Erie.

“Y’know what I heard?” said Petey Byrnes.

“No, what?” I said, hopin’ he’d have some dope on ice show tickets.

“I heard they’re gonna have three, maybe four tickets to Aladdin on Ice.”

“So what,” said Mikey Furchgott.  “Even if they do, you ain’t gonna get none.  Whadda you think, Bobby,” he said, turning to me.  “You think any of us mooks got a chance to see a show like that?”

I don’t know why we still use diminutives of our names–Petey and Mikey and Bobby–like we’re overgrown sixth graders or somethin’.  Maybe we’re overgrown sixth graders.  “I dunno,” I said, non-committal like.  “Ya never know, y’know?”

It was hard for me to join in the speculative badinage of my union brothers, cause I’m “compromised.”  My brother Gerald the lawyer represents the union bosses, that’s how he makes a livin’, sittin’ at a desk all day.  Heaviest liftin’ he ever does is pick up his phone to say “Miss Havisham, can youse come in here with your steno pad, I want to dictate a letter.”

Not me.  I didn’t pay attention in school, so I’m just another workin’ stiff, standin’ next to a blast furnace in a steel mill all day makin’ union wages, hopin’ for a chance to bust out of the joint someday and see an ice skating show, or even just my favorite Sesame Street characters doing the “skip and wave” routine across a stage.  Is that too much to ask?


“Not my night?  Whadda ya mean it’s not my night?”

 

We stood there shufflin’ our feets in silence, disgruntled with very little chance of getting gruntled in the near future, waitin’ for the fatcats to come down to the union hall.

“Here they come,” Petey said, and we all turned towards the gate in the chain link fence.  We saw the union bosses turn into the hardscrabble parking lot in their big black Lincoln.  The glare off their pinky rings was so bright you had to shield your eyes, like it was some kind of solar eclipse, maybe even a lunar one.

Everybody crowded around, like we was starving denizens of some third-world shithole fighting over a pallet of crappy surplus food dropped by a U.S. relief helicopter.

“Okay, everybody, no need to push,” a barrel-chested man said as he got out of the SUV.  It was “Big Dan” Garbelowski, President of Local 302, International Brotherhood of Steelworkers, along with two of his labor henchmen, followed by my brother Gerald, holding a briefcase with that day’s ration of tickets.

“How about it, Dan,” Mikey said, breaking form and begging like some stupid teen girl who’s dyin’ of cancer and wants to see Taylor Swift before she croaks.  “My little Chrissie, she ain’t never seen Elmo live and in person before.”


“They hit him with a Tickle Me Elmo!”

 

Big Dan scowled at him with a mixture of scorn and contempt, along with a pinch of marjoram.  “You know what we say up in our nice, cozy warm union hall, don’t ya?” he sneered.

“No–what?” Mikey said.  I could tell he was gettin’ set up for a downfall.

“If you ask–you don’t get!”  The henchmen laughed a mirthless laugh.  Gerald, bein’ a lawyer and all, he knew that demeanor is testimony, and kept his stony-faced silence.

“Beat it!” henchman no. 1 yelled at Mikey.

“Yeah, scram, you stupid stunod!” henchman no. 2 said as he took a swing at Mikey, who high-tailed it over to the coffee wagon to lick his wounds.

“Let’s see what we got here,” Big Dan said, and he opened the briefcase to reveal the ill-gotten gains of union leadership that the rank-and-file could only dream about.  There they were–tickets to Sesame Street Live, Disney on Ice, Barney, Bananas in Pyjamas and other assorted family-friendly live entertainment.

The sight of the rare and precious ducats touched off a scrum of desperate men, guys who’d worked their whole lives and had never seen the inside of a convention center where human beings in fuzzy animal outfits could give shape and form to their unspoken dreams.

“Me!” one guy shouted, grabbing for a pair of Teletubbies tix.

“No, me!” another cried out, hoping to see Arthur the Aardvark on stage.

“Pipe down, all of youse!” Big Dan said.  The crowd settled into a sullen but hopeful silence, fearful that if they didn’t they’d have to go home and tell their wives and kids that they’d screwed up the only chance they’d ever get to see Curious George in person.

“I’m gonna do this democratically, see?” Big Dan said.  “The guys I like the most, and who have done the best job of kissin’ my ass, them is the ones I’m gonna take care of.”  He stopped to riffle through the tix.  “Bobby Malloy,” he said, calling my name.  I looked up sheepishly–I wish he hadn’t a picked me first.  All of my hard-workin’ union buddies would think the fix was in because of my brother the lawyer.

“Yeah?” I said, tryin’ to maintain my steely exterior, like it was no big deal to me whether I got to go to “Disney on Ice–Frozen Edition” or not.

“I got two loge box seats for you and a companion to go see”–here he drawled out his announcement, like a game show host about to pull back the curtain on a stackable washer-dryer combination–“Smurfs on Ice.”

I heard a low whistle issue from Petey’s lips.  “Thanks,” I said to Big Dan with a smile that I tried to make big enough to please the boss, but not so big that the other members of the local would think I thought I was better than them.

I heard a few grumblings behind me.  “I’ll give these to my saintly wife and my little daughter Trixie,” I said


“Whadda ya mean you don’t like The Smurfs.  EVERYBODY likes The Smurfs!”

 

“That’s good, you’re a good boy,” Dan said as he patted me on the shoulder.  Little did he know I was gonna scalp ’em, and maybe take my girlfriend out for a night of Boilermakers and dancin’.

I pushed back through the crowd, makin’ my way into the industrial hellhole that was the steelworks.  Inside, there was flaming pots of molten iron and carbon and other stuff that goes into the hard, strong, gray or bluish-gray alloy used extensively as a structural and fabricating material.  Outside, a half a mile away as the crow flies–in case you miss the cross-town bus and have to fly with a crow–was the Dennis J. Kucinich Memorial Skating Rink, the pride of Ohio’s indoor event facilities.  I was just about to bolt over there to unload my precious prize on some loser from the suburbs when I felt a hand on my shoulder.  I turned and who should I see but–my brother Gerald.

“Hand ’em over,” he said.

“What?”

“You know how crazy Irene is over the Smurfs.  And besides, you owe me–big time.”

“For what?”

“For gettin’ you the lousy job that makes your life miserable, but at least puts bread on your table and tons of money in the union’s coffers.  Hand ’em over–it’s not your night, it’s my night.”

I looked down at his grubby mitt and it was all I could do to keep from spittin’ in it.  “Not my night?  So I hand over The Smurfs tickets to you, and I get a one-way ticket to Palooka-ville?”

“That about sums it up.”

“You’s my brother, Gerald.  You should took care of me, so’s I don’t have to go home and watch Clifford the Big Red Dog on PBS.”

“It’s actually better on TV, you don’t have people shufflin’ in front of you with popcorn and souvenirs, you got an unobstructed view and . . .”

“You don’t understand, Gerald.  If I saw it in person, I’d have class. I’d be a contender. I’d be somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am, let’s face it.”

Gerald turned silent, and a look of uncharacteristic remorse scudded across his face, like a low-hanging storm cloud racing across a wheat field–not that I’d know what that looks like, it’s an image that the author likes to throw into his pseudo-Faulkner short stories.

“Okay, I’ll tell you what.” Gerald said finally.

“What?”

“If you give me the tickets, I’ll give you my Dora the Explorer footie pajamas.”

 

 

 

 

All’s Fair in Love and Ping Pong

To her surprise, the room opened out to a porch with cushioned chairs in place and a ping-pong table.  There was another ping-pong table on the newly laid turf beyond.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Brimmer reminded me a little of Superman when he takes off his spectacles.  I thought he was as attractive as men can be who don’t really care about women as such.  We played a round robin game of ping-pong and he handled his bat well.

………………………………………………………………………..

“I must go along now,” said Brimmer.  “I’ve got to meet some people.”

“No, stay,” said Stahr.  “I never have said what I wanted.  We’ll play ping-pong and have another drink and then we’ll tear into each other.”

…………………………………………………………………………..

The ping-pong balls lay around in the grass like a constellation of stars.

                    The Love of the Last Tycoon, Scott Fitzgerald


“See how he puts topspin on his return?”

 

We got into Pamplona late in the afternoon and the bus stopped in front of the Hotel Montoya.  Out in the plaza they were stringing electric-light wires to light the plaza for the ping-pong festival.  A few kids came up when the bus stopped, and a customs officer for the town made all the people getting down from the bus open their bundles on the sidewalk to see if they had brought illegal paddles.   We went into the hotel and on the stairs I met Montoya. He shook hands with us, smiling in his embarrassed way.

“Your friends are here,” he said.

“Mr. Campbell?”

“Yes. Mr. Cohn and Mr. Campbell and Lady Ashley.”

“Where are my friends now?”

“I think they went to the rec room.”

“And how about ping-pong?”

Montoya smiled. “To-night,” he said. “To-night at seven o’clock they bring out the table. Will you all play?”

“Oh, yes. They are eager for a pingpongnada.”

Montoya put his hand on my shoulder.

“I’ll see you there.”

He smiled again. He always smiled as though ping-pong were a very special secret between the two of us; a rather shocking but really very deep secret that we knew about. He always smiled as though there were something lewd about the secret to outsiders, but that it was something that we understood. It would not do to expose it to people who would not understand.

“Your friend, is he aficionado, too?” Montoya smiled at Bill.

“Yes. He came all the way from New York to see the Killer Spin Table Tennis Tournament.”

“Yes?” Montoya politely disbelieved. “But he’s not aficionado like you.”

He put his hand on my shoulder again embarrassedly.

“Yes,” I said. “He’s a real aficionado.”

“But he’s not aficionado like you are.”

Aficion means passion. An aficionado is one who is passionate about ping-pong. All the good players stayed at Montoya’s hotel; that is, those with aficion stayed there.  In Montoya’s room were their photographs. The photographs were dedicated to Juanito Montoya or to his sister, who was a top women’s player.  The photographs of ping-pong players Montoya had really believed in were framed. Photographs of those who had been without aficion Montoya kept in a drawer of his desk. They often had the most flattering inscriptions. But they did not mean anything. One day Montoya took them all out and dropped them in the waste-basket. He did not want them around.

We often talked about the ping and the pong and the players of ping-pong. I had stopped at the Montoya for several years. We never talked for very long at a time. It was simply the pleasure of discovering what we each felt. Men would come in from distant towns and before they left Pamplona stop and talk for a few minutes with Montoya about ping-pong. These men were aficionados. Those who were aficionados could always get rooms even when the hotel was full.  Montoya introduced me to some of them, who were stacked one on top of each other like cord wood to fit them in when the hotel was full.

They were always very polite at first, and it amused them very much that I should be an American. Somehow it was taken for granted that an American could not have aficion for ping-pong.  He might simulate it or confuse it with excitement, but he could not really have it.   There was no password, no set questions that could bring it out, rather it was a sort of oral spiritual examination with the questions always a little on the defensive and never apparent.

“Your American friend,” they would say to Montoya.  “Is he aficionado?”

Montoya would glare at them, but without malice.  His eyes would narrow to grim little slits, and then he would say “Clearly.”

“Porque?”

“He has learned la tenis de mesa as a nino in the basement of Sacred Heart Grade School.”

And then there was this same embarrassed putting the hand on the shoulder, an actual touching.  It seemed as though they wanted to touch you to make it certain.

One of them rose now and crossed the room, the look on his face half smile, half chagrin.  He extended his hand to my shoulder and clapped it down there in a gentle but manly way.  Then he looked in my eyes with both respect and regret for having doubted me and said simply . . .

“Buen hombre.”

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

Patriots Fans Turn to Cargo Cult as AFC Championship Doesn’t Return

BOSTON.  It is an eerie scene tonight along runway 32, the least-used landing strip of the ten runways at Logan International Airport.  “Don’t disturb them,” says state trooper Jim Hampy to this reporter, referring to crowds of people wearing New England Patriots-themed apparel standing outside in cold temperatures.  “They’re a primitive people.”

Despite that admonition, the crowd is loud enough to be heard on the tarmac a hundred yards away.  “Gron-kow-ski, Gron-kow-ski,” they chant, like Africans along the Belgian Congo in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.  “What does it mean?” asks Sarah Levinson, a graduate student in anthropology from Brandeis University.

“The AFC Championship–it is gone,” Hampy replies, his face a mask of indifference as he finishes the dregs of his Dunkin’ Donuts “lahge regular.”


“If we can’t have Gronkowski, can you return Wes Welker to us?”

 

What Levinson and other local scholars are witnessing is the first cargo cult in New England since the Boston Red Sox broke an 86-year curse by winning the 2004 World Series.  A “cargo cult” is a primitive belief system whose adherents use superstitious rituals to bring back an idealized past in which they enjoyed modern luxuries, including American Football Conference championships.   Typical artifacts constructed by cargo cults to recall past glory include airplanes and landing strips, such as the one used by the Patriots when they returned victorious from Kansas City last year before going on to win Super Bowl LII, or 52 in the Arabic numerals used by other major professional sports leagues.

The Patriots had participated in the last eight AFC championship games, winning five, but this year were defeated by the Tennessee Titans in a “wild-card” game in which deuces and one-eyed jacks could be used to challenge penalties.  That loss set off a region-wide fit of weeping and wailing that included gnashing of teeth and a return to fundamental religion, such as that practiced by natives of Melanesia, where cargo cults originated.

The AFC will be represented by the Kansas City Chiefs in this year’s Super Bowl, causing New England fans to seek meaning in wacko religious dogma.  “It is sad when civilized people turn to primitive rituals,” said the Rev. Asa Ephraim of the Westland Congregational Church, a minister  of the Protestant denomination that was once the established religion of Massachusetts.  “We have so much to offer people if they would only come to church on Sundays instead of watching football: coffee, crumb cake, boring conversation after services, and a recently-resurfaced parking lot that is the envy of every other church in town.”

The Greenfather

Italian authorities seized $1.9 billion in “green” investments made by La Cosa Nostra to launder money.

Reuters

I’ve been recycling since a college roommate first introduced me to the activity that has become a secular religion for me. Whenever my wife throws away a plastic ketchup bottle, for example, I retrieve it from the trash, rinse it out and recycle it. I seem to recall similar compulsive tendencies having to do with the mystical numbers 3 and 7 when I was a prize-winning Catechism student in Catholic grade school.


Garage recycling center.

 

So what if I’m a little nutty about recycling, stooping to pick up aluminum cans in the street on the off chance that it might somehow save a baby whale from extinction.

Every night when I get home I haul cardboard, newspapers, cans and plastic from our two internal “transfer station” bins to my garage recycling center; it’s my pride and joy, my “fancy” as the cat ladies in England say about their tabbies.

It’s usually an uneventful trip; one time I tripped over a garden hose after I’d had a few beers, and one time I surprised an opposum–or more correctly, he surprised me–who’d stuck his nose in a discarded box of Trader Joe’s hors d’oeuvres. Probably having a party back at possum hollow.


“This guy’s got separate plastic bins for glass, cardboard–the works!”

 

So I jumped when I saw Tony “The Ice Pick” Gravano and Gaetano “Joey Pockets” da Silva sitting on my Rubbermaid plastic garbage cans last night. “Excuse me,” The Ice Pick said. “We’d like to talk to you.”

“Is something wrong?” I asked nervously. I knew I’d mistakenly dumped a container of plastics down the cardboard chute at the Town Dump last week, but it was my first trip since we’d returned from vacation. Anybody can make that kind of mistake if they’re out of practice.


Recycler di tutti recyclers

 

“No, nuthin’ wrong,” Joey Pockets replied. He was pleasant enough, but I detected an undercurrent of menace in his voice. “You got a nice place here, we was just admiring it.”

I knew what was coming next.

“I’d hate to see anything happen to it,” The Ice Pick said in a business-like tone as he examined his well-kept fingernails, which still shone from the clear nail polish applied at his last manicure. I don’t know what it is about The Mob; I guess if you spend your days garroting bookies who won’t pay up, you want your hands to look nice.

“Gee, I wouldn’t either.”

“Then perhaps you would be interested in discussing a–shall we say–investment in your little operation.”

I knew the mob liked cash businesses–laundromats, vending machines, bars–to launder the proceeds of their illegal activities, but the most I get is a nickel deposit on cans and bottles. Why would they want to muscle in on me?

“‘Little’ would be an understatement,” I said with genuine humility. “I know we do better about recycling in the suburbs than they do in Boston, but still it’s just a bunch of lousy–”

I was cut off by the sound of deposit bottles and cans skittering across the cement floor. The Ice Pick had kicked my ez-carry bottle bin–hard–sending its contents flying. These guys meant business, but I wasn’t about to fold like a card table at my mom’s bridge club.

“Don’t try to scare me,” I said with a sneerl through a snaar. I mean a snarl through a sneer. “You want somethin’ a mine, you got to pay for it.”

The two mobsters looked at each, a little surprised that I’d fought back.

“There are lots of benefits of joining La Cosa Nostra,” said Joey Pockets. “Much better than our competitor, Ndrangheta in Southern Calabria.”

“Like what?”

“We got full medical and dental, with minimal or no co-pay. ‘Ndrangheta ain’t got that,” the Ice Pick said.

“We got a code of silence–omerta–so youse don’t never have to worry ’bout nobody rattin’ you out,” Joey Pockets added.

I thought about it for a moment. “How about nicknames,” I asked. “Do I get a cool nickname like you guys?”

“Sure, unless it’s already taken,” the Ice Pick said. “You couldn’t have two ‘Ice Picks’ for example. It would screw up the computers in human resources.”

“How about ‘The Ice Man,’” I said. “I was an ice man for three years when I was young.”

“That’s kinda close,” the Ice Pick said. “You may want to pick an alternate.”

“Okay–how about ‘The Gerbil.’”

“I’m pretty sure that’s available,” Joey Pockets said with a contemptuous snort. “So you in?”

“I don’t know,” I replied, playing out the string. “I’m thinking maybe . . .”

“Well think about this, you mook,” the Ice Pick said as he slammed me up against the wall, where I hit my head on a rake that was hanging from one of those tool organizers.

“We know where your cats are–right now. Capisce?”

“A seafood dish made from fresh raw fish marinated in citrus juices?”

“No, you goombah–that’s ceviche. I’m saying ‘You understand?’”

I understood. The last thing I wanted was for one of my cats to get hurt.

“All right, you win.”

A look of smug satisfaction spread across their faces. “Welcome to our crime family,” Joey Pockets said. “We are tough, but cruel.”

“Really? You’ve got to meet my crime family.”

The two exchanged looks of concern. “Who is this?” The Ice Pick asked cautiously.

“My in-laws. They never recycle anything.”

For One Family, Pledge Never to Forget is Hard to Remember

BOSTON.  The Wyznorksi family has always been close-knit, but since the death of second-born son Todd last year, they’ve taken their commitment to each other to an even higher level.

“When Todd drew the number one in the lottery for the clinical trial for OsSchlat,” an experimental drug cocktail to treat the minor pain of Osgood-Schlatter’s Disease, “we were overjoyed,” says his mother Debbie, fighting back tears.  “When he succumbed–sucame?–to an allergic reaction, we sort of wished somebody else’s boy had gone first.”

Out of grief came a commitment to do something, even if it would have only an attenuated, indirect and miniscule effect on the ailment, which primarily strikes young boys and prevents them from playing vigorous games for periods as long as twenty-four hours.  “I kinda regretted I gave Todd so many noogies,” says his older brother Mike.  “With only twelve years on earth and the disease and what-not, it’s too bad I tormented him so much.”

And so today finds the Wyznorskis on the Boston Common where they have organized the first-ever “Never Forget Todd!” 6-kilometer walk-run.  “It’ll be cold,” says Todd’s father Jim, “but we’ll have a lot of hot chocolate for everybody.”

“I didn’t buy any hot chocolate,” says Debbie, looking at Jim with surprise.  “Did you?”


“What’s the kid’s name again?”

 

“I thought you were going to pick some up on the way in this morning,” Jim says with a look of embarrassment.  “Maybe we can buy some at a convenience store.”

“It’s too late now,” Debbie says.  “The people are already starting to arrive.”

An elderly couple, Bob and Maria Malinkrodt, approaches the starter’s table with an anguished look on their face.  “When we heard about what you two went through, and what you were doing, we knew we had to pitch in,” Maria says.  “How much is it?”

“It usually $65 or whatever you can give, but for senior citizens we only ask $50,” Jim says pleasantly.

“It’s a very worthy cause,” says Bob, who had the disease when he was a boy, as he pulls out his checkbook.  “Do you have a pen?”

Jim looks at Debbie with a shrug of his shoulders, who in turn looks at their son Mike.  “Do you have a pen?” she asks him.

“I don’t need pens,” Mike says as he looks at his phone.  “I text everybody I know.”


The siren smell of cheese pizza.

 

“Well, uh, I can give you some cash,” Bob says as he fishes in his wallet and pulls out a twenty-dollar bill.

“Thanks, that’s great, really sorry about that,” Debbie says.  “So two seniors, Mike, give them their free t-shirts.”

Mike looks at his mother with confusion.  “T-shirts?  Nobody told me anything about t-shirts.”

“Yes I did,” his mother says, slightly perturbed.  “I said you had to go by the screen printer last night and load them up in your car.”

“Screen printer?”

“Yes–in Watertown.”

“Oh, right, right.   Huh.  I . . . uh . . . there’s that pizza place in the square, I stopped there and some friends of mine came by, and it sort of slipped my mind.”


“I don’t see my name on this list.”

 

The Wyznorskis look sheepishly at the Malinkrodts and, after an awkward moment, Jim apologizes.  “Say, I’m really sorry, I guess we don’t have any of those souvenir t-shirts that charity run-walkers treasure so much,” he says.

“Maybe we’ll do something for people afterwards,” Debbie adds pleasantly.

“Oh, that’s fine,” Maria Malinkrodt says.  “My closet’s stuffed anyway!”

“Excuse me folks,” a policeman says as he gently interrupts the group.

“Yes?” Mike Wyznorski asks.

“I’m gonna have to ask you to move your car.  We got a charity thing comin’ through today.”

“Oh, we know,” Debbie Wyznorski says.  “That’s us.”

“You’re the . . .” the officer begins before checking a clipboard, “March to Save the Komodo Dragon?”

The Wyznorskis exchange looks that turn from puzzlement to chagrin.  “Did you get the parade permit?” Mike asks Debbie.

“I thought you were going to,” she responds.

“What group are you with?” the policeman interjects, hoping to end the byplay and get a cup of coffee before the event he’s been assigned to begin.

“We’re the ‘Never Forget Todd Run-Walk.'”

The policeman scratches his head and one eyebrow rises involuntary as he looks the three Wyznorskis over with a skeptical gaze he reserves for foreigners and suburbanites venturing into the city on weekends.  “Look, everybody’s got a story why they need a parking space,” he says.  “What did Todd die of–hereditary amnesia?”

A Day in the Life of a Hip-Hop Grants Administrator

The chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts said he would be open to funding rap artists. 

                                                             The Wall Street Journal

I was sitting at my desk, tapping out rejection letters to the poets, community theatre groups and local symphony orchestras whose pending applications sat on my desk like stacks of flapjacks to be consumed in one of those epic pancake-eating battles of the 60’s between Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb and Ernie “Big Cat” Ladd.

hiphop
Eugene “Big Daddy” Lipscomb: He can outeat you.

 

It wasn’t easy to tell the Water Tower Players of Tipton, Missouri, that the $1,500 grant they had requested for lighting and props was being denied.  It choked me up to write to Jim McKeskie, the leading mime in the Quad Cities region of Iowa, that he would not be getting the $500 he needed to replenish his whiteface supply.  It’s a tough job being a grants administrator for the National Endowment for the Arts, but somebody’s got to do it.

Then I spotted a familiar letterhead–that of plangent voices, the little poetry journal edited by my former lover, elena gotchko.


elena:  “don’t do it!”

 

elena and I had broken up nearly a decade ago after she had asked me which side I liked better, the long or the short, as she was in the middle of her monthly self-administered haircut.

“Uh, the long one,” I had said, naively.

Now you tell me,” she said, so angry she forgot to downshift to a lower case letter to start her sentence.


“We all cut our own hair.  Blondie here uses a hammer and chisel.”

 

“Well, now you asked me,” I replied, quite reasonably I thought.  But there’s no reasoning with a woman who self-aestheticizes–if that’s a word–in the hope that it will make her stand out in the crowded field of disturbed young poetesses.  What elena didn’t realize–because she was so self-absorbed–is that all of her competitors had been cutting their own hair since they got their My Little Poetess Home Beauty Kits as girls.

So it was a distinct pleasure to tell elena that she wouldn’t be getting the $1,250 for “community outreach” she had asked for.  Community outreach my foot; if I knew elena and her staff, they would have blown it all on lattes as they sat around shooting the breeze in the espresso joint downstairs from their shabby offices.


“Has anybody out there got the version of Adobe Reader that is supported by Grants.gov?”

 

The reason for this wholesale bloodletting was the directive handed down by the new boss, who had decreed, after descending from his own private Mt. Sinai with the President, that he would be funding rap artists in an effort to “keep it real.”

So out with The American Jazz Repertory Orchestra.  Eighty-six on the Toledo Ballet.  Ix-nay on the illiams-Way useum-May of odern-May ulpture-Scay.  From now on, rap ruled.

I had prepared for the new regime by acquiring a rap nickname of my own–Two Spinner–using a free, on-line rap star name generator.  I had bookmarked a rap-to-English translation engine on my computer so I could separate the gangstas from the wankstas who applied for federal funding.  Your tax dollars at work!

I heard gunfire, and looked up to see two young men whom I recognized from the mean streets of the ‘hood around the NEA’s headquarters at 1100 Pennsylvania Avenue; Sound E-Fex, an up-and-coming rapper, and his rap sidekick, BackWurdz.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“Your door was open, so we couldn’t knock,” Sound said.

“My door’s always open–that’s our new policy,” I said cheerfully.  “Come right in.”

“Thanks,” Wurdz said.

“Have a seat,” I said, indicating the two chairs in front of my desk.  “What can I do for you?”

“We’d like to apply for a federal grant,” Sound said.

“Well, you’ve come to the right place!” I said.  “In fact, this is the only place to be if you’re looking for federal money to support your artistic endeavors.”  I reached in my desk drawer and pulled out Application for Federal Assistance SF 424.

“Will you be applying individually, or as a ‘crew’?” I asked.

They looked at each other, and I sensed tension between the two.

“Which way do we get mo’ money?” Wurdz asked.

“Well, our policy in the recent past has been to fund artistic groups since Karen Finley got an NEA grant for smearing chocolate all over herself,” I said.


Karen Finley:  Uh, actually I prefer strawberry.

 

“So–together?” Sound asked.

“Well, we’re changing,” I said, making a little church-and-steeple with my finger tips and looking off into the distance.  “We’re thinking of funding individual artists again.”

“Okay,” Wurdz said.  “I’m fillin’ out my own.”

I handed them each a form and a no. 2 lead pencil and they got to work.

“The boxes are too small,” Sound said.  “I can’t fit ‘izzle’ on the end of any words.”

“Use an asterisk,” I suggested.  That seemed to mollify him–no mean feat, as the posse of a rap rival had once tried to mollify him in the tough Anacostia district and had died tryin’.

“I don’t have an asterisk,” Wurdz complained.

“I ain’t got no asterisk,” I corrected him, as I reached in my desk drawer and pulled out a box of the punctuation marks from Staples.


Large economy box of asterisks on sale this week at Staples!

 

“Thanks, dawg,” he said and got back to work.  The questions on the form are tough–the U.S. government isn’t going to hand out money to just any old rapper hanging out on a corner.  We want fresh ‘n nasty stuff, the kind that tells it like it is on the streets of our nation, where wankstas cross at the green, and gangstas in between.

I helped them as best as I could without tilting the pinball machine too much in their favor.  I’m not just a bureaucrat–I’m an advocate, damn it!–and I want to see kids today going into hip-hop because it’s an industry with a future, unlike banking and automobiles, two sick dogs that the federal government had to save from themselves.

The two artists finished their paperwork and handed it back to me.

“How long we got to wait?” Wurdz asked.

“Well, this is the federal government,” I replied with just a hint of sarcasm in my voice.

“So what’s that mean?” Sound asked.

“You should be hearing from us sometime within the next six months, but you can check your application on-line at any time through Grants.gov by using your username and password . . .”

“I don’t want to do dat shit,” Wurdz snapped at me.  “I want my money now!”


da Benjamin

“Chill dawg,” Sound said.  He seemed to be having second thoughts.  “If we take da Benjamins from you,” he asked, “we be like . . . bureaucrats–right?”

“That’s right–I think you’d be slotted at a GS-7 pay scale.”

“And there ain’t never been no government ever funded any art dat’s worth a shit, right?”

He had me there.  I thought of the tons of dreck that is stored in warehouses in The Netherlands, the unintended harvest of that nation’s program of grants to, shall we say, marginal artists.  You get what you subsidize.

Wurdz was starting to get the message.  “So if we take this money, people gonna think we wankstas?”

“Yeah,” Sound replied.  “We won’t be fo’ real anymore.”

They looked at each other, then at me.  “You can keep yo money,” Sound said.  “Our fershizzlin’ artistic integrity ain’t fo sale.”

Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Our Friends, the Rappers!”