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.


“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.”


“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.”


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 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!


“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:  “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 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.


“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 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.


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


“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.”



“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!”

Syphilis: The Key to Musical Genius

As I prepare for my descent into the soft landing of retirement and review the things I want to do with the last (if I’m lucky) two decades of my life, conventional goals such as golf, fishing, sports cars, and bimbo mistresses all fade when compared to my long and truest love–music.

            Ludwig van Beethoven


I have only rudimentary instrumental skills, but I’m working on that.  After years of assiduously neglecting practice with the disdain of Allen Iverson–who responded to a reporter’s suggestion that he missed too many practices with a classic (and justified rant)–I have firmly resolved with the help of God’s grace (as the Catholic Act of Contrition goes) to practice more and to avoid the near occasions of sin.  That get in the way of practice.

I took a year of music theory in college and got straight As, but I’ve never done anything with it.  Every now and then I come up with a melody that I get down on paper, but I’m regularly haunted by the feeling that what I’ve written is . . . shallow.  Vapid.  Jejune.  I’d go on to say “meretricious” but I think you get my point without my having to dip into the well-worn copy of “30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary” that I inherited from my dad.

No, when I listen to even the lightest air by Beethoven, or a simple rag by Scott Joplin, what I produce seems pale by comparison; not even good Tin Pan Alley, more like “Hey, Hey, We’re the Monkees” or a similar mass-production work whose only raison d’etre is its commercial appeal.  I’ve realized that if I’m ever going to wrestle with the Gods, as the music of those two composers does, I’m going to have to get serious–and contract syphilis.

             Scott Joplin

You may laugh–or cringe–but it’s apparently true.  After noticing that both Beethoven and Joplin were afflicted with syphilis, I decided to see if there were other composers who suffered/benefitted from the ravages of Treponema pallidumI discovered, to my surprise, that the list of notable composers with the disease reads like the Murderer’s Row lineup of the 1927 New York Yankees.

There was Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Ravel, and Paganini.  There’s Hugo Wolf, who I’ve never heard of, but maybe you have.  There’s Benjamin Britten, although Jonathan Noble, a fellow of the British Royal College of Surgeons, has come to his defense, saying his heart-valve problem was not related to syphilis.  Leading one to ask, if Britten didn’t have syphilis, should we think less of his music?

Benjamin Britten:  “Me–syphilis?  You’d better believe it!”


The audience for classical music has been shrinking for years, and one only has to sample the works of thoroughly modern composers to know why.  While it is uniformly complex, little of it is beautiful; beauty, it seems, is now considered beside the point in works written for highbrow audiences.  A friend of mine who is a successful modern composer (which is a bit like being the tallest building in Manhattan, Kansas) every now and then turns out a pretty melody.  I once complimented him on one that I recalled from a concert years before in the hope that he’d stop with the off-like-a-scalded cat introductions, fingernails-on-the-blackboard harmonies, and the slam-the-door conclusions.  “Oh, that little thing?” he said.  “I’m surprised you even remembered it.”  I remembered it because it was memorable, in the way that much of his other work is not.

The decline of classical music has followed a path parallel to the decline of syphilis.  In the days before antibiotics, syphilis was common; the number of those with the disease had dropped to under 1% in most populations before 1960, while it was estimated to infect approximately 8% of both sexes in the 18th century, and continued to be common in the 19th century.  Beethoven was born in 1770 and died in 1827.  Joplin was born in 1868 and died in 1917.  ‘Nuff said.

Medical illustration of syphilis, 1498.


For the budding composer, the current scarcity of syphilis is a problem.  Assuming that one can avoid moral busybodies who make syphilis so hard to contract by rigorous enforcement of anti-prostitution laws, there is the embarrassment factor.  You can imagine how inquiries into the subject would not be welcome at your local upscale watering hole:

Suburban dad #1:  Sorry to hear that you and Meg are getting divorced.

Suburban dad #2:  Yeah, the kids are grown, so we just decided to go in different directions.

SD#1:  Maybe it’s for the best then.

SD#2:  We’ll see.  It’s amicable so far.  We’re going to try and stay friends.

SD#1:  That’s great.  Say, do you know my sister, Chloe?

“What the hell kind of question is that?”


SD#2:  Sure, I met her at your Christmas party last year.  Great gal.

SD#1:  Thanks.  Don’t know if you heard, but she lost her husband a few months ago.

SD#2:  Oh, my God!  How?

SD#1:  Heart attack.

SD#2:  That’s so sad.

SD#1:  Completely out of the blue.  Guy was in great shape–marathoner.

SD#2:  I am so sorry.

SD#1:  Anyway, whenever you’re, uh, ready to get back in the market . . .

SD#2:  Sure, sure.

SD#1:  Let me give you her number.

SD#2:  Great, thanks.  Oh–one question.

SD#1:  Yes?

SD#2: Does she have syphilis?

As Customers Return to Restaurants, Feedbags Make a Comeback

BROOKLINE, Mass.  It’s been almost a year since Lisa Pepperidge went out to dinner, and the pent-up energy to “put on nice clothes and get out of the kitchen,” as she put it, broke last night.   “Restaurants aren’t limited to take-out anymore,” she says.  “I told my husband Ed we could eat out, or he could sleep on the couch.”

With that ultimatum the distaff half of the couple drew a line in the sand that her spouse dared not cross, and the two ended up at the Flowers, an intimate cafe that seats forty in a fading arcade that was once a prime  collection of shops before malls attracted upscale customers to the suburbs.

Image result for INTIMATE RESTAurant
“I’m going to try the hay and clover salad–how about you?”

The only problem, maitre d’ Gaston Bechalard tells the Pepperidges, is that the restaurant isn’t big enough to fully comply with Massachusetts “social distancing” requirements in the second phase of the state’s plan to allow retailers to open in a responsible manner.  “I have a quiet little table for two over in the corner if you’re willing to accept . . . special accommodations,” he says, leaving it up to them.

“What does that mean?” Lisa asks.

“You will eat in the same level of luxury as, how you say, your Triple Crown winners,” the French immigrant tells them.

Image result for secretariat

“Well, if it’s good enough for Secretariat,” her husband says, “it’s good enough for me.”

The couple is escorted to the table by a hostess and, after their water glasses are filled and drink orders recorded, a server brings a tray bearing fabric bags to their table.

“Tonight we are offering alfalfa, sweet clover and tufted vetch,” he says as he displays the evening’s selection of pasture legumes.

Image result for bread waiter

The couple exchange glances then, with a “when in Rome” shrug of the shoulders, tie on feedbags and munch on prime vegetation that would be to die for, if only they were cows.

“It was one of the more amusing amuse-bouches (literally, “mouth entertainments”) we’ve ever experienced,” Lisa says as she dabs at her lips.  “Maybe I’ve lowered my standards after having been in lockdown since March, but that lespedeza”–a common forage crop–“really hit the spot.”

Image result for grazing cows
“I’ll have what she’s having.”

Feedbags–once found only in agricultural regions of the country–are making inroads at finer dining establishments in urban areas as restaurateurs seek creative ways to maintain their revenues in the face of stringent limits on seating capacity.  “They say if we can’t enforce space requirements between tables, we can only use 25% of our seats,” says Mike Tweinz, who owns a prime steakhouse along Route 128, which rings the city of Boston.  “When I checked the regulations it said you don’t have to social distance if you wear a mask, so the proverbial light bulb went on over my head–although it was tasteful, indirect lighting, so it went with the relaxed ambiance we try to create.”

Image result for horse with feedbag

A “feedbag” is a bag that holds feed and is strapped around the neck of a horse or other animal that lacks opposable thumbs, and thus has limited prehensile abilities.   “It’s convenient, I don’t know why humans haven’t tried it in the past,” says Feeling Lucky, a two-year-old mare who hopes to run in next spring’s Kentucky Derby.  “Once you experience how convenient it is, you’ll never go back to knife and fork.”

Image result for taco bell feed bag

Home feedbags are more common, as the social embarrassment of eating like a horse is reduced when one’s only table-mate is a family member.  “Ed  doesn’t like to hear me vent about my day anyway,” says Norma Kaukonen, a retired schoolteacher, as she watches her husband tuck into a bag filled with American chop suey.  “And I sure as hell don’t want to listen to his one-man sports talk radio station.”

The Night My Wife Got Oil Can Boyd’s Autograph

I’ll never forget, ‘til I slip into the void,
The night my wife got an autograph from Oil Can Boyd.
We were dining in a restaurant in nearby Newton,
where people take yoga, and sleep on futons.

Image result for oil can boyd wikipedia

The former Red Sox pitcher was sitting at the bar,
making cracks about women, both near and far.
“Who’s that annoying fellow in the baseball cap?”
He was drinking a beer, but it wasn’t on tap.

I told her that he was a man named Dennis,
who’d excelled at baseball, but I don’t think tennis.
At some point in his life a fellow man
had tagged him with the nickname “Oil Can.”

“What does that mean?” she asked and I told her,
it referred to his drink, in the can that was colder.
“Down South booze is sometimes called ‘ignorant oil,’
because your cognitive faculties it tends to spoil.”

He was holding forth, so that all could hear,
a breach of decorum, that reached our ears.
Normally she would have harrumphed,
and that would have been that,
but some impulse over reserve did triumph,
and she shot out of her chair like a scalded cat.

Image result for oil can boyd wikipedia

“Excuse me,” she said to the nutty right-hander,
“I was wondering if I could get your autograph?”
She’s normally not capable of such forthright candor,
but Can didn’t know that, didn’t count it a gaffe.

“Who’s it for?” he said with an upraised eyebrow.
He seemed . . . skeptical, and dubious somehow.
Was she playing the role of a distaff John Alden
while I—mortified—was the shy Myles Standish?
When a guy wants an autograph he does his own callin’–
instead of burying his head in his barbecue sandwich.

“It’s for my friend . . . David!” she said with a smile.
“Who’s David?” he asked, then supplied his own answer:
“I suppose he’s a kid who’s dying of cancer.”
I’d never seen her pull off such duplicitous guile.

Image result for blond yuppie woman autograph

Can eyed her up, then also down,
saw her wedding ring, made a little frown.
Cocked his head, made a little moue,
then signed a napkin, as ballplayers do.

She thanked him, and he watched as she walked away.
He didn’t seem to mind her, but down to this day–
I don’t know what happened, what turned her around,
to make her a late-in-life autograph hound.
She’d always been shy, and also retiring,
A mistress of etiquette, really quite inspiring.

She didn’t know Can from a hole-in-the-wall,
had no idea he’d begun his fall
in the ’86 Series, against the New York Mets,
that we’d watched together at a party one night.
He was the Game 7 starter, and he was all set,
to end Bambino’s Curse, the Red Sox fans’ plight.

But a rain delay allowed the Sox skipper
to start another hurler–Bruce Hurst.
Can didn’t like it, and not feeling chipper,
went to the clubhouse, and bad turned to worse.

He drank ignorant oil from twelve-ounce cans,
removing himself from relief pitching plans.
Except for one season, he was never the same;
with the Expos, in ’90, when he won ten games.

Image result for happy couples restaurant newton mass

So the next time you see a former major leaguer,
in a bar having drinks, and you’re wife’s feeling eager
to get him to add his forlorn scribble
to an ephemeral item, stop her, don’t quibble.

The man’s entitled to his peace and quiet,
and he might need a drink–go ahead and buy it.

The Last Days of Johnny Hodges

On April 25, 1970, the Duke Ellington band performed a partial version of New Orleans Suite at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, where it was well-received.  Promoter George Wein was moved; “It gave me a chill,” he said.  “That was Duke at his greatest.”  The performance included only five movements; four others–including a star turn for Johnny Hodges on soprano sax, “Portrait of Sidney Bechet”were still being written, and Ellington began in earnest to complete them.

                 Johnny Hodges

Three decades had passed since Hodges had last played the soprano, his first musical love, on a recording date; the tune was “That’s the Blues Old Man,” a number he composed.  Hodges had stopped playing soprano, according to Rex Stewart, when he had asked Duke for extra pay to play a second instrument.  Hodges was within his rights to do so, as the By-Laws of the New York musicians union provided that (with few exceptions) a musician who played two instruments was entitled to double pay.  As Stewart put it, “request denied, and that golden tone exited from Ellington’s band forever.”

Hodges kept the soprano sax Bechet had given him long before, but he used it so little he would say he was “about ready to make a lamp out of it.”  Every now and then he would idly suggest that he was going to take up the instrument again, but he would always renege.  Harry Carney interpreted this demurral to mean that “Johnny wouldn’t have any trouble playing it, but . . . he isn’t going to play it in public unless he can play up to the level he sets himself.”  Ellington had been thinking about how he might “persuade [Hodges] to get his soprano out once more” for the Bechet portrait; he asked his son Mercer to talk to Hodges to see if he would relent, and Hodges replied “It will cost him.”  When Mercer relayed Hodges’ response to his father, Duke said “Pay him what he wants.”

              Sidney Bechet

Hodges had not been in good health; he came down with swollen glands on the band’s September, 1968, tour of South America, missing several performances, and in April, 1969, he suffered a heart seizure and had to leave the band for two months.  A British jazz writer, interviewing Hodges during a European tour in November of that year, noted that he had opted out of ensemble playing and confined himself to solos.  He began to skip dates that didn’t appeal to him, such as a sacred music concert scheduled for December in Detroit, just one night after flying back from England.  “The band’s playing at a church next Monday,” Hodges said, “but I ain’t going.”

He had been, by his own account, lucky all his life and his good fortune had carried over to the natural shocks the flesh is heir to.  According to Mercer Ellington, Hodges had three times happened “to be near the best possible hospital” when he had heart attacks. In the case of the April, 1969 incident, he was stricken on a flight following a three-night stand at the Atkinson Hotel in Indianapolis while sitting next to an oxygen tank; there was a doctor on board, and he was rushed to a hospital as soon as the plane landed.  Norris Turney and Gregory Herbert subbed for him on alto during a period of almost two months.

On May 11, 1970, however, his luck ran out.  At the end of a long stretch of touring, both domestic and international, his strength may have been at an ebb. He was in his dentist’s office in Manhattan, got up from the chair to go to the bathroom partway through a procedure, took a few steps—and collapsed.  He did not recover, and was pronounced dead at Harlem Hospital at 4:30 p.m. that day.  “I sent him to the dentist,” his widow said, “and the Lord brought him back.”

His Certificate of Death gave his name simply (and incorrectly) as “John Hodges” (the name on his birth certificate was “Cornelius,” “Johnny” was a nickname.) The cause of death listed was hypertensive cardiovascular disease—elevated blood pressure resulting in heart failure—due to cardiac hypertrophy, a thickening of the heart muscle that decreases the size of the chambers of the heart.  That organ, which we consider the seat of the emotions, had toughened on the outside just as Hodges himself had maintained his steely exterior throughout his career, while at the same time a warm core burned within it—and him.  He had poured his heart into song for four decades with Ellington, and it had finally given out on him.

Funeral arrangements were made by Russell Procope, Hodges’ colleague in the reed section.  Ellington avoided funerals, as he did any intimation of mortality, but he attended Hodges’ ceremony and comforted Hodges’ mother, the “Good Queen Bess” referred to in his genial song, who kissed her son for the last time as he lay in his casket.  “He was a good son to me,” she said to Stanley Dance, who reported that she “then turned away, upright, composed, dry-eyed.”  The death of her only son must have affected her more deeply than she revealed at the time; she survived him by only a few months.  “She got sick and lost the desire to live,” her granddaughter Lorna Hodges Mafata said.

The ceremony was arranged by Procope at the Harlem Masonic temple of which both men were members, thereby avoiding affected religious sentiment that Hodges would have scoffed at.  Ellington eulogized Hodges thusly:

Edith “Cue” Hodges, Johnny’s widow, at his funeral with Russell Procope.


Never the world’s most highly animated showman or greatest stage personality, but a tone so beautiful it sometimes brought tears to the eyes–this was Johnny Hodges. This is Johnny Hodges.

Because of this great loss, our band will never sound the same.

            From “Rabbit’s Blues: The Life and Music of Johnny Hodges,” Oxford University Press, by Con Chapman.

One Socially Awkward Singer Tries “Asperger’s Jazz”

BEVERLY, Mass. Todd Schrafnel has always had trouble relating to people, a problem his parents chalked up to overexposure to board games as a child. “We’d play Monopoly and Clue and Candyland all weekend long,” his mother Shirley says. “I thought it was something he’d get over once he discovered girls.”

“You sure look stupid in that hat!”


But Todd’s personality became more understandable when he was diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome, the now-abandoned name for a disorder characterized by an inability to engage in normal social interaction that sometimes manifests itself in indiscreet appraisals of others’ appearance. “Where a normal person might lie and say ‘You’re looking great!’ to someone they haven’t seen for awhile, an Asperger victim could say something like ‘There’s a hair growing out of the wart on your chin,’” says Dr. Harris Kolb, who has written extensively on the subject.

Animaniacs: Seriously, that’s where I heard it first.


With a monomaniacal tendency to focus on others’ physical shortcomings Todd had a hard time formulating career plans until a chance comment on the cartoon series “Animaniacs” caused him to see things in a new light. “They quoted the saying ‘What is too stupid to be said is sung,’” he recalls, referring to the epigram of Pierre de Beaumarchais that is typically misattributed to Voltaire. “I knew then I could conceal my handicap by becoming a singer.”

“I see your face through a mist–is that a sebaceous cyst?”


And so Todd is taking the stage tonight here at Lenny’s by the Sea, a jazz club with a house band that will back him in swing-era arrangements of songs he’s composed out of remarks he’s made–or almost made–to friends, acquaintances and total strangers. “It’s unique, I’ll say that,” notes Lenny DiStefano, owner of the establishment. “Usually it’s the audience who insults the performers.”

The occasion is the CD release party of Todd’s “Asperger’s Jazz,” a toe-tapping introduction to his unique way of seeing the world that some are calling the “next big thing” after flarf poetry, Lady Gaga and KFC’s Popcorn Chicken. “Jazz could use a goosing up,” says DiStefano. “Or course the way Todd gooses people that might be a problem.”

“Dressing in the dark–once again, you’ve been–dressing in the dark.”


Todd bounds onto the stage with a burst of energy and launches into “What is the Deal With Your Hair?” a comment he made to a woman on a first date that ensured that there would never be a second one.

“What is the deal with your hair?” he sings.
“It’s over here and over there–
It’s piled on top–looks like a mop.
I hope you didn’t tip your stylist.”

Like many people with Asperger’s, Todd’s interests are repetitive and abnormally focused, and his songs show it as they return again and again to the theme of his lover’s appearance from the neck up. “Thank you,” he says as he receives a polite round of applause after his opening number. “Now here’s a little something I call ‘What is That Thing on Your Head?’”

“What is that thing on your head,” he intones after an eight-bar vamp.
“It could be alive, it could be dead–
Some kind of pest–has made a nest–
Up on your head it takes a rest.”

Not everyone is sympathetic or amused by Todd’s efforts, however, and the male half of one couple sitting down front begins to boo, saying he doesn’t want to hear his least flattering features turned into a lyric. “I’m starting a new organization–AAA,” he says in a heckler-level voice. What, this reporter asks, does that stand for?

“I may be ugly, but when I wake up in the morning, I’ll still be . . . never mind.”


“Aspergers Are A__holes,” he says, using a crude epithet for a bodily orifice that can’t be spelled out on a family website. “If I want that kind of abuse, I’d go back to my ex-wife.”