An Awkward Moment With My Former Spinning Instructor

Fridays are the day when I take a break from cardio and work with weights.  You need to vary your routine if you want to get the most out of your workouts.  I know, I read it on the internet, so it must be true.

After I showered and dressed, I headed to the elevator and pushed the button for the first floor.  The doors were about to close when I heard a woman’s voice from down the hall say “Hold the door!”  I stuck my hand out and who should come racing around the corner but Chloie, my former spinning instructor.

There was an awkward silence as we recognized each other.

“Hi,” I said after a moment.

“Hi,” she said as the color drained from her perennially cheerful face.  “First floor, please.”

We stood in silence as the elevator began to descend, then were jolted when it stopped between floors.

“What happened?” she asked, her eyes as wide as a kid’s in one of those sickeningly sweet paintings.

“I think we’re stuck,” I said as I pushed the red alarm button.  The disembodied voice of a man came on.  “Building maintenance.”  Without even seeing the guy, I could tell that his butt crack was showing.

“Uh, we’re stuck between the fourth and fifth floors.”

“Okay, I’ll get to it in a minute,” he said.  “Don’t go anywhere.”  Funny how America’s best and brightest are not going into building maintenance.

I had known Chloie since she first got her certificate as a spinning instructor and started teaching at my club.  She’d gone through a probationary period during which she’d had cosmetic surgery to add an “i” to her first name so she could dot it with a smiley face, and read the complete works of the Marquis de Sade so that she wouldn’t back down when members started to whine that she was killing them.

Marquis de Sade:  Funny how he turned out to be a sadist.

We both stared at our feet, then up at the ceiling.  “So,” I said after a while.  “How have you been?”

“Fine, fine,” she said coldly.  “Keeping busy?”

“Yeah,” I said.  “Busy, busy, busy.”  Again, we lapsed into a silence that lasted half a minute.  She cleared her throat and spoke.

“So . . . are you . . . still spinning?” she asked.  I could tell from the tone of her voice that she was hurt . . . bitter . . . resentful.

“Yeah, every now and then,” I said, trying to maintain a placid exterior.  “Today I was on the GluteKicker and the Ab Blaster though because I, uh, got a twinge in my knee and . . .”

“I saw you in Jenni’s class, you drip!” she shouted at me.  “Why did you leave me for her?”  She was angry and teary-eyed at the same time.  The Code of Ethics of the National Association of Spinning Instructors prohibited her from beating her little fists against my chest, but I could tell that she wanted to.

“It wasn’t you, it was . . .”

“Oh, don’t use that ‘It’s not you, it’s me’ line.  That’s straight outta Seinfeld!”

“Actually,” I said, speaking slowly in the hope of calming her down, “I was going to say . . . it’s your music.”

She looked stunned, as if she were a truck that’s just run into a low overhanging bridge on Storrow Drive.

“My music?  What kind of lame excuse is that?” she asked.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I get in your class and I start having disco flashbacks.”

She turned away from me and stared straight ahead.  What can I say–the truth hurts.

She took a tissue from her bag to wipe her tears, and to blow her nose.  For a woman who’s so skinny she has to pass a place twice to make a shadow, she produced a honk loud enough to clear out Boston harbor quicker than an LNG tanker.

You might want to get out of the way.

“You shouldn’t take it personally,” I said finally.

“How can I not take it personally?”

“You didn’t make the music . . .”

“But I picked it out–it’s part of me!”

As I thought of all the men, women and dogs that have been Madonna’s sex partners, I recoiled from the image of her pointy sieve-like bra poking holes in Chloie’s spleen, liver and pancreas.


“I’m sorry–I didn’t mean to offend you, but you play so much bad 80s rock–I couldn’t take it anymore.”

She tried to snifle a stiffle–I mean stifle a sniffle.  “You don’t understand,” she said through her tears.  “That’s da music of my yout.”

I began to comprehend.  She was sneaking up on 50, and her life wasn’t turning out like Flashdance.

“You know,” I said, “Just because you like the 80′s doesn’t mean you have to listen to Van Halen, and Whitesnake, and Def Leppard and Guns N’ Roses.”

She seemed to regain her composure.  “When you spell Guns N’ Roses,” she said meekly–almost like a little girl–”how come you put the apostrophe on the other side of the ‘N’?”

“That’s the way the band spells it,” I said with resignation.  “I don’t know where they came up with it.”  I chucked her under the chin and raised her eyes to mine.

“There’s a lot of obscure R&B from the 80′s you could play that might . . . might make me come back.”

She turned her head away sharply.  “I ain’t beggin’ nobody to come back to my class.”

You wouldn’t be begging–I’d be begging you to save me a space!”

She turned back to me and gave me a look that slowly turned into a smile.  “Okay.  Let me hear ‘em.”

“Well, there’s ‘She’s a Bad Mamma Jamma,’ a George Clinton song by The Gap Band.”

“What exactly is a . . . ‘mamma jamma’?” she asked.

“I have no idea–that’s what makes the song so mysterious . . . and beautiful.”

I’m not sure she bought that line, but she didn’t entirely dismiss it.  “Okay–what else?”

“Anything by James ‘D Train’ Williams.”

“Who’s he?”

I guess I let my mouth fall open in shock.  “Only a guy who had a #79 hit on the Billboard Hot 100–’Something’s On Your Mind’–that was covered by Miles Davis.”

“Who’s Miles Davis?” she asked.

There’s only so much time I can spend on elementary education.  “He was a goalie for the Vancouver Canucks.”

“I don’t watch basketball.  Is that it?”

“No.  I saved the best for last.  Ever heard of The Temptations?”

“I guess.”

“Well, Dennis Edwards, who replaced David Ruffin as lead singer of the group, later went out on his own and recorded the best R&B song you’ve never heard of–’Don’t Look Any Further.’”

“We didn’t have that in spinning instructor class,” she said, a bit embarrassed.

“But surely you’ve heard its unforgettable chorus.”

“No–what is it?”

I took a deep breath, then, after closing my eyes, I began to mouth the incantatory words that were engraved in my soul:  “Ooma-day-o, ooma-day-o, mombajee ai-o!  Well–don’t look any further.”

She hummed along with me as I repeated the catchphrase that entered my subconscious in 1984 and never left.

“It’s . . . okay,” she said, batting her eyelashes at me like a flutter-by–I mean a butterfly.  “Maybe I’ll add it to one of my tapes.”

“That would be great,” I said.  “No more Twisted Sister?”

“No more,” she said, and it sounded like a promise.

Just then a voice came over the intercom.  It was building maintenance.

“You two still in there?” the guy asked.  Duh.

“Yes.  What’s taking so long?”

“I had to go out and get a bigger pair of jeans,” he said.  “Somebody told me my butt crack was showing.”

The Sportin’ Club

There had been a whore house at the spot for a century,
since the cowboys drove cattle up the Chisolm Trail to
town, to be loaded onto boxcars bound for the Chicago
stockyards. Scott Joplin probably played ragtime that
some of them heard, sitting in the parlor, while he dreamed
of more learned and genteel audiences for his operas.

A hundred years later the only music in the sporting house
was on a jukebox, whose lights shone red and blue, and
whose records exposed many a man—the club-footed,
hare-lipped farmers, men who could get a woman no other way
—to B.B. King and Bobby “Blue” Bland, James Brown.
The young kids and the high rollers knew those sounds.

There’d be dice in the room off the bar, with cries of “Fade me!” when
somebody thought he was getting hot. The girls would lounge around,
not much different than their great-great-great grandmothers did.
Every now and then a white kid would come in,
looking a little lost, trying to appear blasé, as if he’d seen it all
before. If he was smart he’d keep his mouth shut. That way he

wouldn’t pick up a social disease, or get knifed. If one of the black
kids asked for a loan, you knew you’d never see that money again;
it was the price of admission to this nether world, far removed from
the shining sinks and order of home. Sometimes there’d be posturing,
young bucks and old bulls. Zack, the owner, knew what was good
for business. “Keep it cool, everybody,” he’d say. “Don’t nobody

want no trouble. You need to get outside in the night air and chill out,
you hear?” He’d usher one–jawing over his shoulder at the other— out the door.
One night it was Zack himself who got into it with one of the Patton
boys, Lester, the younger of two. The one with the quick smile, who’d
been All-Conference in football. He’d hung around town to take courses
at the junior college, trying to get himself a scholarship to a football school.

Lester was out for a little fun and was fooling around with one of the girls.
Zack told him to cut it out, but Lester knew the girl from way back. “She
can take it,” Lester said. “I said cut it out,” Zack said, and Lester said “I heard ya.”
He figured since he could bench press a man Zack’s size,
he could handle him. “Then cut it out or git the hell out of my place,” Zack said.
“I’ll go when I’m damn good and ready,” Lester said, and

Zack had a knife out before the breath was off his lips. “You feel froggy,
just leap,” Zack said. “Ain’t no fence around my ass.” “You’re an
old fool,” Lester said, laughing. “I may be an old fool, but I can handle a
damn fool like you any day of the week. Git outta here.”
Lester said “I’m goin’, don’t worry,” and put his hands up in the air,
as if to show he was submitting to
the older man’s will, but as he passed, he grabbed for the knife. There was a

scuffle, and the knife flashed light against brown skin, and red blood flowed.
Lester went down, still struggling, while players headed for the door, as if the place
was on fire. The girls came out in various states of undress and ran to their homes.
One needed the money so bad, she propositioned a boy in an ice truck headed across
the tracks to the poultry processing plant. Zack knew they’d find him, so he didn’t
run. He sat down at the bar and ordered blackberry brandy and a beer, his usual.

Zack got himself a lawyer, who tried to argue that Lester started the fight,
that it was his knife. The hare-lipped farmer testified; the jury had
trouble understanding him, but they believed him. He’d seen the
whole thing, sitting in a chair with a girl on his lap. He didn’t want to testify,
but the county prosecutor knew where to find him
too, and knew he was a regular. He knew he’d probably been there that night.
After Zack was convicted, the farmer cried, saying “Where am I gonna get laid now?”

From “Town Folk & Country People”

Greeks Demand Return of Classical Hedge Fund Names

NEW YORK.  As his plane touched down at LaGuardia Airport here, Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis looked out his window and couldn’t help but laugh.  “It is as your distinguished Vice President Biden says,” he says by way of excuse to this reporter.  “It is a third-world airport, and I almost said fourth-world.”

LaGuardia Airport circa 1940. (Courtesy Boston Public Library / Flickr ...
LaGuardia:  “C’mon, man–we’re at least second world!”


That touch of scorn may reflect Varoufakis’s insecurity in the face of the task that looms before him: tough, one-on-one meetings with managers of so-called “hedge funds” here and in Greenwich, Connecticut, in which he will demand the return of names lifted from Greek myths, or else the payment of royalties for their use.

“These men, they think they are gods,” Varoufakis says as he waits for his suitcase to emerge onto the luggage carousel.  “But we Greeks had many gods where you monotheists could only afford one.”

Cerberus:  “You want your money back?  Bwa-ha-ha!”


Varoufakis is referring to the practice among hedge fund managers of using names from Greek mythology such as Cerberus, Kynikos, Ikos and Argonaut to rub a patina of high culture on their rapacious enterprises, as well as attract investments from graduates of expensive private colleges who are more comfortable thinking about subjects from their liberal arts educations than big numbers.  “You take a guy who majored in the humanities,” says Edward “Ted” Rensmore of Apollo Capital Advisors Fund II, L.P.  “He knows who Damon and Pythias are, but he hasn’t balanced his checkbook since Jerry Garcia died.”

Hedge funds are investment vehicles that attract money from rich people who can afford to lose it if the risky strategies they pursue don’t pan out.  The managers of such funds are paid ginormous amounts of money whether or not investors receive their hoped-for gains, so everything’s cool.

“Don’t you dare name your highly-leveraged baseball card fund Aphrodite–that’s my mother’s name!”


Hedge fund managers say they are only following the three rules of capitalism in making their highly-leveraged bets that sometimes rattle markets in asset classes as different as small-cap stocks, emerging market equities and baseball cards.  When asked to elucidate those principles, Rensmore says “Take somebody else’s money, invest it and make a profit, and keep both.”

The Last Great Furniture-in-Mouth Blues Singers

But the group couldn’t transfer that energy from Club Matinee to the recording studio. It is, after all, difficult to capture the sound of a man dancing with a table in his mouth.

The Chitlin’ Circuit and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Preston Lauterbach

As the bus slows to a halt at the flag stop just outside Itta Benna, Mississippi, I rub my eyes, startled awake by the sun breaking over the horizon.  It strikes me that it’s universal–like the blues!–how it rises in the east here, just as it does back in the city where I come from.

I’ve made the journey to the Mississippi Delta with my reel-to-reel tape recorder to try and capture for posterity the sound of America’s native musical gift to the world.  The sound that gave birth to rock ‘n’ roll–and unlike a lot of ethnomusicologists I don’t stint on the apostrophes when I use that term.  Why use one when two will do?

What sound is that, you ask?  Yes you did–I heard you out there on the other side of the computer screen.  The sound–so difficult to capture in the sterile atmosphere of a recording studio!–of the real, down home furniture-in-mouth blues singers.

They’re a dying breed.  When I was in college I saw some of the greats–Johnny “Side Table” Dawkins; Bobby “Tilt-top” Barnes; Leonard “Footstool” Davis–but that was in an auditorium, not in a juke joint where the patrons are there to hear the real heavy-lifting, furniture-based blues.  No, it’s not the same when you’re surrounded by fellow liberal arts majors eyeing each other, looking to find suitable upper-middle-class mating prospects.

Tilt-top table blues.

I head into town and reach the railroad tracks that separate the black from the white district and decide to make a few inquiries of the idlers I find sitting behind a feed and grain store, sipping from Nehi Orange Soda bottles.

“You guys know where I can find some old-school home furnishing blues around here?” I ask tentatively.

Three men look me over cautiously.  They’re wary of outsiders, having been used as local color in too many roots revival magazine articles, too much creative writing submitted to Southern literary journals.  I can’t blame them; how would you like to be trapped in a free verse poem about moanin’ blues like a lonesome freight train whistle or a hound dog howlin’ at the moon risin’ or a woman cryin’ ’cause somebody done dropped a “g” on her foot?

“Well, I might know where you could hear some,” one old man says as he eyes me up and down.  “Then again, I might not.”

I know the game.  You’ve got to pay the piper if you want to do good field research.  I reach in my wallet and pull out a five dollar bill and a complimentary Starbucks drink card my wife has earned for her daily tall iced latte.

“Here you go,” I say as I give the currency to the man.  One of his friends pulls the Starbucks card out of his hand to get a better look at it.

“What’s this?” he asks.

“It’s good for a grande latte,” I say, showing off my bilingual skills with a little Starbucks Esperanto.

“Man–this ain’t Mexico!” the man says.

“Naw–thass Starbucks talk,” the third says.  “This town ain’t big enough to have one,” he says to me.

I nod, and I can feel a little smile of smug satisfaction creep over my mouth, like one of those canker worms that drop out of trees on silk threads like Army Rangers descending a cliff–to use a double-bankshot simile.  I know I’m way back in the country now if I got here before Starbucks.

“You want to go to Nate Newbill’s Sportin’ Club,” one of the men says.  “That’s where you’ll hear the nicer interior decorating music.”

I get directions, thank the men and find a cab to take me to the outskirts of town where, as the old blues song goes, you won’t find no iceman hangin’ around.  It’s early in the day, but time stands still when a furniture-in-mouth blues singer gets going.  I enter a darkened, ramshackle building and note a dice game going on in a back room behind beaded curtains.

“Hello, baby,” the club’s hostess says by way of greeting.  “We’re having a sale on floor models today,” she says with a suggestive wink.  “Sectionals, couches–whatever you want.”

I’m tempted, but I’ve got a wife at home.  She could never forgive me if I came back with an STD–a sofa-transmitted disease.

“No thanks,” I say politely.  “I’m here for the music.”

“Suit yo’self,” she says dismissively as her interest in me flees with the prospect of a sales commission.

I order a Jax Beer and ask the bartender if there’s any entertainment.

“Swags and Jabot is takin’ a break,” he says.

I can hardly believe my ears.  Arthur “Swags” Patman and Willis “Jabot” Sumlin are two of the greatest blues-home furnishing musicians alive.  They had a couple of regional hits in the fifties–”Take Down Yo Curtain Mama, I Want to See the View” reached #4 on the Billboard Race Music chart–but they never made it out of the south the way Louis Jordan and Roy Brown did.

Swags ‘n’ Jabots

“That is, unlest they too drunk to go on,” the bartender says, raising an eyebrow to indicate that punctuality and sobriety aren’t the duo’s strong suit.

“Thanks,” I say.  “Do you mind if I set up my tape recorder on the bar?”

“Naw, go right ahead,” he says wearily.  “One mo ethnomusicographer making his academic bones offa the down-home sounds of my humble little juke joint don’t bother me.  Next year this time, you be sittin’ in a faculty lounge, showin’ off yo Ph.D., and I still be here pullin’ beers and servin’ shots and . . .”

I get the message and take another fin out of my wallet and lay it on the bar.  “Thass mighty nice of you, Professor,” he says.  “Lemme go see what Swags and Jabot is up to.”

He disappears out the back door and I take in the surroundings as I sip my beer.  Man, this is the real thing.  Slabs of ribs on an open barbecue pit, chitterlings, grits, collard greens–the vegetable that tastes like your front lawn.  There’s a juke box playing “I Can’t Sit Down (You Got Too Many Throw Pillows on That Damn Couch),” the R&B organ number that opened up the Stan’s Record Room Hour of Funk on radio station KAAY when I was growing up.

This arrangement always gives me the blues.

The back door opens and the bartender enters followed by Swags and Jabot, who look like they’ve just spent a double shift hauling refrigerators up third-floor walk-up apartment house stairs.

“This young man was axin’ about you,” the bartender says.

It’s all I can do to stop myself from gushing like a bobby-soxer autograph hound.  “I am so excited to meet you guys,” I say.

“Same here,” Swags says.  He extends a huge hand to shake mine, which is lost inside his giant paw.  “Oops,” he says as he hands it back to me.  “That happens all the time with you skinny white doctoral candidates.”

Jabot is the more business-like of the two.  “You know, we only gets paid to play from night to morning.  If we gonna do a special request so you can take our music back home for a bunch of white punks on dope to cover and make millions a dollars off of, we gonna need some . . . compensation, you dig?”

I’m feeling like a walking ATM machine, but these guys deserve it.  They laid the foundation for crappy Chicago rock bands like The Shadows of Knight and The Buckinghams to make a lot of bad imitations of black music.

“Here,” I say, pulling out a twenty for each of them.  They break into sneaky big grins, like cats who see a human walk out the door after forgetting to close the door to the canary’s cage.

“Well, allright then!” Swags says as he picks up a foam-covered bar stool and puts it in his mouth.  He nods to Jabot, who counts off the beat–”one, two, three, four”–blows a few notes on his harmonica, and Swags begins to sing:

“Amph yur Hoothie Koothie mang, everybodyth knowth ah am!”

Trump Advises Girl Scouts “Always Get a Pre-Nup”

NASHUA, New Hampshire.  Seeking to soften his image after revelations from his divorce papers hurt his image among female voters, presidential candidate Donald Trump today visited the second-largest city in this state where a first-in-the-nation primary outweighs its small size and population.

“What does S.O.B. stand for Mr. Trump?”

“I have always been for women, especially bodacious women,” Trump tells reporters as he exits his black livery vehicle and enters Robert Frost Consolidated Elementary School, where Girl Scout Troop 10947 is gathered to hear a new, focus-group-tested version of his standard stump speech designed to reverse the free-fall in his polling numbers among women.

“Hey everybody!” Trump said as he descends the steps into the school’s basement, where the girls have been meeting on a weekly basis during the summer months to keep their scouting skills sharp before they leave for Camp Winnipesaukee next Saturday.

“Good morning Mr. Trump,” the girls announce chorus-style, having been trained by Scout Mistress Evelyn Deneen to be polite to all guest speakers, even former reality TV-show hosts.

“What are you all working on?” Trump asks with apparently sincere interest as he gathers around the worktables where the girls are learning boating safety, knot-tying, and boy-ignoring skills.

“Whadda ya want?  A merit badge, or a chest to pin it on?”

“I’m building a log cabin,” says Emily Switzerlin, showing the real estate developer and hotel magnate her handiwork.

Trump sizes up the humble structure, then gives the little girl the sort of hard-nosed business advice that he normally dispenses only upon payment of $1,495 for one of his seminars.

“You need to build in a lot of penthouses and corner units,” he says, looking at the square, boxy design.  “People will pay through the nose for luxury.”

“It’s just a mommy and a baby and a daddy,” the little girl says, but the mogul who uses Chapter 11 to stiff his creditors is having none of it.

“You don’t want to rent to families.  They ruin the carpets, make a lotta noise in the hall and cram the elevators with their stupid strollers,” he says before excusing himself to deliver his prepared remarks.

“Now that’s more like it!”

“Girls,” Scout Mistress Dineen says, and the chatter that had filled the low-ceilinged room just a moment before ends as the girls form a circle at her feet.  “Today we have a very special guest speaker, Mr. Donald Trump, who has come here all the way from the Mexican border where he was busy creating an international incident.”

Emmy Carroll, the daughter of a local insurance agent, raises her hand.

“Yes Emmy?” Dineen asks.

“Why didn’t you go to the Canadian border to offend people?  It’s closer,” she asks.

“Excellent question,” Trump replies.  “I went to the Mexican border because the Canadian people are our friends.  They don’t come to America and open Canadian restaurants that give us gas like the Mexicans.”

The girls giggle at Trump’s campfire humor, but the Scout Mistress restores order.  “Girls, Mr. Trump is a very busy man, so let’s let him give his speech so he can get back in his limousine and get to his next meeting with the ordinary Americans who love him so much.”

“Thank you, Scout Mistress Dineen, and thank you girls, for allowing me to spend some time with you today.”

A hush falls over the room as the girls settle down, prepared to give the man with the coif that has inspired millions their undivided attention.

“You know, when I was a boy, America was a great nation.  And America was great because it was big, and tough, and didn’t take any . . .”–here Trump struggles to find a suitable word to replace the vulgarity he had in mind–“guff from anybody.”

“Thanks Mr. Trump.  That talk was a bargain at only $1,495!”

“What’s guff?” an olive-eyed girl with dark hair asks quietly.

“It’s–backtalk.  None of you gets ‘flip’ or ‘smart’ with your parents, do you?”

The girls giggle, and some hide their faces in embarrassment.

“What I’m saying is–America can’t let other countries push us around.  So I’m going to give you Trump’s Rules, the three principles I live by, the ones that should guide us as a nation even though they’re not in the constitution.”

“Are they in the Declaration of Independence?” a red-headed girl with pigtails asks.

“Nope, they’re in the course materials for my seminars, which people like your parents and grandparents max out their 401k’s and spend their life savings on.  But I’m going to give them to you girls for free, just because you’re so freaking cute!”

“Did I tell you to waste your time on some stupid knot-tying merit badge?”

The girls squeal with delight, and Trump launches into the peroration that has brought crowds of middle-managers and independent contractors to their feet across the country when he delivers it as the last five minutes of a three-day seminar at which attendees were promised his personal attention.

“Rule No. 1–always go first class.”

“Like how?” the pig-tailed girl asks.

“Like your Thin Mint Cookies.  They’re the best cookies in the world.  Whadda you think about somebody who’d try to save a buck buying Keebler Grasshopper Fudge Mint Cookies?”

A chorus of “boo!” goes up from the audience, and Trump resumes.

“Rule No. 2,” he continues in a slow, serious tone.  “If somebody bleeps you, you bleep them back.  Hard!”

The girls look confused, and Emmy Carroll raises her hand.  “What does ‘bleep’ mean, Mr. Trump?”

“Ask your big brother, he’s probably watching adult movies on his laptop right now.  Finally, and most importantly . . .”  Here Trump pauses for effect.

“Yes?” the girls say when it becomes clear that Trump is deliberately delaying his final words to build suspense.

“Always get a pre-nup!  Thanks–you’ve been a great audience, be sure and check out my audiotapes at the sales table when you leave!”

Walk for Self-Pity Falls Short of Its Goals

BOSTON.  Lyman Sturgis is standing at the finish line of the Walk for the Cure for Self-Pity, looking down at a clipboard, and from his expression you can tell that something isn’t right.  “It’s funny,” he says as the last straggler completes the 5-mile course.  “We had 532 people sign up, but only 286 finished.”

“I know I’m not going to make it.”

A short walk down Commonwealth Avenue is all it takes to get to the bottom of the mystery, however, as one encounters walkers of all stripes who gave up not far from the finish line, convinced that the obstacles ahead of them were insurmountable.

“These shoes suck,” says Kris Mufano, an actuarial accountant who was encouraged to participate by his wife Leanne.

“They’re just as good as everybody else’s,” she says as she drains the last of the water from the commemorative bottle she received for participating.

“Not everybody else’s,” her husband says bitterly as he sees an elderly man in soft leather sneakers that appear from a distance to be the ultimate in pedestrian comfort.

Built for comfort.


Self-pity is defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Whiney Disorders as a state of mind in which an individual perceives generally applicable conditions as affecting him or her to a greater degree than others.  People who suffer from the ailment consequently believe they are deserving of sympathy and are a gigantic pain in the keister.

For Normand Oliver III, a fifth-generation Bostonian who has never traveled south of New York City, the affliction manifests itself in the form of a excessive sensitivity to heat.  “Global warming is killing me!” he says as he takes a seat on a bench next to a statue of the ur-WASP historian Samuel Eliot Morison on the Commonwealth Mall.

Morison:  “Get off your duff and get moving!”


“It’s the same temperature for everybody,” says his father, who traveled the South to oversee the family’s investments in cotton mills before he retired.  “Down in Atlanta they’d consider this cold weather,” he adds, referring to the pleasantly-cool seventy-degree temperature.

“I don’t care, I say it’s hot and I’m not walking another step,” says his son as he folds his arms across his chest like a stubborn toddler twenty years younger.

Back at the finish line Sturgis says the failure of so many walkers to complete the course may cause his organization, the New England Self-Pity Foundation, to miss its fund-raising goal.  “You sign up pledges, and if you don’t follow-through with your commitment they may back out,” he says ruefully.  “That can happen to any charity, but still I ask myself–why me?”

The Vegetable Man

He would come, pushing his cart before him,
up the street from his home across from the doctor’s office,
more than a half-mile away. His cart,
loaded down with vegetables he’d grown himself,
was as ramshackle as that house; the boards of both
were weathered and rough, like his face.

Image result for vegetable cart

When he’d stop on our street, we the children
would look at him through screen doors with curiosity.
When we ventured out to take in the spectacle of
the man and his wagon, a grocery store on wheels,
we knew his life was different from ours inside,
air-conditioned, televisioned, mothered and at night, fathered.

Mom would open the door and we’d approach him gingerly.
He’d hug us against our wishes when we tried to get a better
look at his cart, his odor a mix of sweet and sour and stink
from sweat. He was dirty–we weren’t allowed to be.
She’d buy tomatoes, okra, sweet corn, and we’d go back inside.
At least he did something for his job, instead of sitting at a desk.

Some days we’d stay inside if mom didn’t need anything,
and the tedium of our summer days would be heavier for the lack
of him, even though we came to understand that he was odd.
“Why does he live in that old shack?” we asked.
“His children don’t take care of him,” mom said.
“His wife died, he’s all alone.”

And then one day, after mom told him through the screen
that she was fine for now, thanks, we went back to our
coloring books and dolls, only to hear the country girl,
minutes later, say “Ma’am, that Mr. Whitesell’s on the
front porch, relieving himself over the rail.”
Doors were slammed shut and locked around the house

and when dad got home that night, the horrible tale was told.
“I guess a man like him, walking the streets all day, he’s
gotta go somewhere.”
“But not on my . . .”
“I wasn’t finished. I agree.”
“So you’ll call him?”
“I don’t suppose he’s got a phone.
I’ll have to find him home or catch up to him
sometime on the street.”

Dad stopped down to the old man’s house
the next day, before going to work. He
found him in the back, weeding and hoeing.
“Mr. Whitesell . . .”
“Be careful where you step. That’s manure . . .”
“Mr. Whitesell, I spoke to my wife and we’d . . .”

“Them’s mighty nice kids you’ve got. That boy’s
the spit ‘n image of you.”
“Thank you. As I was saying . . .”
“ . . . and those girls are just as cute as peahens.”
“Mr. Whitesell, my wife has signed up for our
groceries to be delivered. We won’t need you anymore.”

“You can’t get good okra like I got at the supermarket,”
he said, “and I come by your way every day anyway
‘cause I call on the other houses.”
“Thanks, but we’d appreciate it if you wouldn’t stop
at our place anymore.”

There was silence, and the old man looked down
at the dirt he had tilled by hand. “You sure you won’t reconsider?
I hate to lose a good customer.”
“Thanks, but we’re all set for the foreseeable future.
Dad started to walk back to the car, and Whitesell called
after him: “I’ve got sweet corn comin’ in soon. Nice white
corn . . . none better. I’ll just stop by when it’s ready.”

Dad turned and walked up close again, so the neighbors and the
people walking into the doctor’s office wouldn’t hear.
“You don’t seem to understand. You’re not welcome on my
property anymore. No man who takes a piss off my porch would be.
If you so much as stop your damn cart at my curb again,
I’ll call the police and have you arrested.”

With that he turned and got in the red and white Oldsmobile
with the turquoise seat cushions we’d put in the back,
and drove off, grim-faced and annoyed, to the shoe plant.
The old man stood there and watched him go, then turned back
to the corn, which had been knee-high on the Fourth of July,
and now had light-yellow tassels, about to turn brown.

From “Town Folk & Country People.”

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